04_rossini_otelloRossini - Otello
Michael Spyres; Jessica Pratt; Filippo Adami; Gerogio Trucco; Ugo Guagliardo; Geraldine Chauvet; Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660275-76

Justifiably overshadowed by Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece, Rossini’s Otello has suffered terribly in the last 150 years. This beautiful opera, first performed in Naples in 1816 and very popular soon thereafter, was nearly ignored after the composer’s death and in the 20th century. Rossini wrote it for Naples at age 24 about the same time as his ever popular Barbiere and La cenerentola. However, anyone seriously interested in the Othello of Shakespeare will be severely disappointed. Except for the 3rd act, the libretto by the Marchese Berio di Salsa took extreme liberties with the play, changed the plot, the location; no love duet, no Cassio…, no Cyprus…, no handkerchief. Everything takes place in Venice and the chief competitor for Desdemona’s hand is Rodrigo, a minor character in Shakespeare.

But the opera! A wonderful collection of arias, trios and ensembles here immaculately performed by a group of young artists at the Rossini festival in Wildbad, Germany. Antonino Fogliani, young Italian conductor vigorously conducts with great flair and sensitivity in the great Rossinian style. His success is much helped by the Czech orchestra with their legendary wind players.

There are 3 major tenor roles in the opera (Otello, Rodrigo & Jago) perhaps because the original theatre group in Naples had an overabundance of tenors. Each of these are murderously difficult, especially Rodrigo who is a high tenor, and Filippo Adami is sensational with the Rossini fioraturas. Powerful American tenor Michael Spyres is in lower tessitura and sings Otello characterfully and flawlessly. English soprano Jessica Pratt, is strong and heartfelt in the role of Desdemona. All supporting roles are equally fine.

Before ending I’d like to commend Naxos for undertaking the huge task of recording all of Rossini’s operas and if I may add, their uncompromising excellence overshadows many earlier recordings of other famous recording companies. Bravo Naxos!

05_tenor_ariasTenor Arias
Marc Hervieux; Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2618

After years of writing CD reviews for this magazine, it’s time to come out of the closet: I am a big, loud, unabashed snob. I believe that cross-over artists are sell-outs and that Il Divo, Andrea Boccelli and Charlotte Church cheapen, not popularize, classical music. A personal opinion, to be sure, but one augmented by many years of education, listening to music and developing some discernment. The battle lines drawn, I can now review the latest disc from the quintessential cross-over artist, Marc Hervieux. The Quebec singer did not read music until his mid-twenties, sang in a rock band and still cannot pass over an opportunity to sing for kings, presidents or with Patsy Gallant (don’t ask!). Except for the fact that Hervieux has a great, undeniable talent with a capital T. His voice, a spinto tenor in full Italian style, invites positive comparisons with young Pavarotti. This truly wonderful recording spans all the classics – from Verdi, Mascagni, Cilea, and Leoncavallo to a good dose of Puccini. Moreover, it allows the music, deftly handled by Nézet-Séguin (whose own meteoric rise takes him onto podiums of the greatest opera houses in the world) breathe in unison with the voice. At the end, you are left with a feeling of peaceful contemplation – not at all a feeling I expected from a “cross-over” artist. So as long as Monsieur Hervieux continues to record discs as beautiful as this one, I will keep on listening to them, my snobbery be damned!

EXTENDED PLAY – Recent Opera DVDs from Britain

01_rossinii_barbieriSomething unusual happened even before the curtain came up on this performance of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia at Covent Garden last July - the conductor himself, Antonio Pappano, came out on stage. He told the audience that the evening’s Rosina, Joyce DiDonato, had broken her leg during the previous performance. She would sing – but in a wheelchair. The directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, had already left town, their work apparently done. So it was up to the cast to figure out how to accommodate a wheelchair-bound heroine restricted to a ramp across the front of the stage. The results on this DVD (Virgin Classics 9 694581 9) are so fresh, invigorating and thoroughly enjoyable that it’s easy to overlook the unflattering costumes and drab, claustrophobic sets. The splendid DiDonato, in a role she has made her own, is such a feisty and alluring heroine that the wheelchair proves to be just another aspect of who this Rosina is. The mellifluous Pietro Spagnoli creates an unconventionally soulful Barber. But, inevitably, it’s Juan Diego Flórez as the Count who stops the show with his ravishing Cessa di più resistere.

02_maw_sophiesSophie’s Choice, composed by British composer Nicholas Maw to his own massive libretto, made a lengthy drawn-out evening when it was premiered at Covent Garden in 2002. But now that it has finally been released on DVD (OpusArte OA 1024 D) it’s possible to see what conductor Simon Rattle meant when he called it “an instant classic” in a bonus interview here. There’s much to appreciate in Maw’s moving work, with its tender melodies, atmospheric harmonies and searing orchestrations. I can’t imagine a more impassioned, convincing cast, especially with Canadian tenor Gordon Gietz as the impressionable young writer, Dale Duesing as his older self, who narrates this tragic tale, Rod Gilfry as the charming and dangerous Nathan, and above all, Angelika Kirschschlager in a fearless, unforgettable performance as the doomed Holocaust survivor Sophie. Director Trevor Nunn shapes the too-frequent scene-changes and flashbacks into a compelling narrative, which gains resonance with each viewing. By the time narrator sings the final lines, “At Auchwitz, tell me, where was God? The response: where was Man?", the incalculable cost of the Holocaust for all of humanity is inescapable.

03_verdi_falstaffBoito based his libretto for Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, on Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Director Richard Jones’ delightfully boisterous and witty production, recorded last summer at Glyndebourne (OpusArte OA 1021 D), is set in a post-World War II middle-class suburb where the houses are mock-Tudor, the furniture covered in chintz, and the gardens are planted in obsessively neat rows of cabbages. The terrific cast and orchestra attack Verdi’s final work with alacrity, especially in the ensembles. Christopher Purves gleefully exploits the foibles of Verdi’s puffed-up safari-suited knight, but still gives him some dignity. The vocally nuanced Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, in a brilliant piece of acting, plays Mistress Quickly as a cunning martinet. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, leading the London Philharmonic, supports the remarkable teamwork on stage even to the extent of downing a pint with the cast while they do full justice to the magnificent closing fugue, Tutto nel mondo è burla – life is a joke.

04_handel_acis_galateaAlthough Acis and Galatea was Handel’s most popular stage work during his lifetime, this production with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from last year marks the first at Covent Garden in almost a century. Especially noteworthy is how the director-choreographer, Wayne McGregor, has teamed up both of Covent Garden’s resident companies, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. By pairing each singer with a dancer, McGregor works choreography into every element of the score. Just how moving this can be is apparent in the enchanting final scene when soprano Danielle de Niese - a trained dancer – as Galatea performs a captivating pas de deux with Acis’s ethereal double, Edward Watson. But the semi-divine enchantments of this work, based on classical mythology, are undermined by Hildegard Bechtler’s bizarre costumes, which dampen both the comedy and the pathos. Bass Matthew Rose as the giant Polyphemus sings with plenty of bravado, but he looks like a thug with his bare chest covered in scars. Di Niese’s voice is expressive, but her shapeless coat, ratty scarf, and bleached-blond braided wig turn this lovely-looking singer – surely a director’s dream – into a frump. At least tenor Paul Agnew’s costume as the shepherd Damon works, since his ardent, stylish Consider fair shepherd provides the vocal highlight of the DVD (OpusArte OA 1025 D).

Concert Notes: Gordon Gietz sings with the Toronto Summer Music Festival Ensemble in a program including Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the world premiere of Song of the Earth by Glenn Buhr on Saturday, August 7 in the MacMillan Theatre. Opera Atelier is mounting a new production of Acis and Galatea, directed by Marshal Pynkoski and choreographed by Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg, at the Elgin Theatre from Oct. 30 – Nov. 7. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

05_musica_intimaInto Light
Musica Intima
ATMA ACD2 2613

The outstanding vocal ensemble Musica Intima is based in Vancouver, a city with a rich tradition of exploration in choral music. Musica Intima’s innovations are many. It is a youthful chorus of 12 outstanding professional musicians who perform without a conductor; instead, members have developed their own signals for musical intercommunication. They sing with pure, vibrato-less tone, and “Into Light” demonstrates their ability to sound effortless in the most difficult music.

There is much talk today of “spirituality in music” but do we know what we are talking about? For me, spirituality lies as much as anything in the way things happen musically, the processes in the work and how we experience them. At least, “Into Light” is to me a spiritual collection both in texts, religious or otherwise, and in musical settings by familiar and lesser-known Canadian composers. There is the sense of discovery, of seeing-beyond, in Three Hymns from R. Murray Schafer’s The Fall Into Light. And in the mystery of deep, dark, complex textures in Jocelyn Morlock’s Exaudi. Claude Vivier’s pleading, dissonant Jesus erbarme dich seems to come from a startlingly-evoked wilderness, while Imant Raminsh’s tonal, harmonically-subtle Ave Verum Corpus keeps settling in an uncanny way on the “right” added-note chords, inversions, and spacings as it builds to an ecstatic climax.

“Into Light” was recorded beautifully by the team of producer Liz Hamel, engineer Don Harder, and digital editor Jonathan Quick. A must-buy for fans of choral music and of all-around musical excellence.

04_wachnerJulian Wachner -
Complete Choral Music Vol.1
Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.559607

Not quite a household name, American composer/conductor Julian Wachner is now in his early 40s and has built himself a stylistic reputation for eclecticism. This recording by the Elora Festival Singers is an example of just how broad Wachner’s stylistic embrace can be. It is also another example of the artistically tenacious style that has become the hallmark of the EFS.

Because we most often associate a composer with an identifiable vocabulary or language, it’s a bit odd to find someone so stylistically diverse yet so secure in his writing. Wachner’s command of choral techniques and effects is solid and polished. The EFS’s ability to meet the exacting demands of this music makes this recording altogether remarkable.
Wachner describes his choral writing as “text-driven”. How important and effective this is becomes evident as one plays through the 19 tracks of sacred and secular works. Poetic texts by E.E. Cummings and Rilke deliver fanciful, sensitive and experimental moments always linked to a detectably romantic undercurrent.

Wachner’s sacred music, by contrast, may appeal more to the structured expectations of its audience but is no less inventive than his art song. Perhaps the most colourful work on this recording is his Missa Brevis. Each of its four sections is clearly cast in a unique form with considerable variation in ensemble colour and tempo. Most importantly, Wachner never loses touch with the “other-worldliness” that needs to be at the heart of all sacred music.

Naxos has produced a fine recording with the EFS, which bodes well for their projected “complete choral music” series. ATMA plans a release in the fall of more Wachner music – for organ and orchestra.
Alex Baran

03_orff_antigoneCarl Orff - Antigonae
Martha Mödl; Marianne Radev;
William Dooley; Carlos Alexander;
Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch
Profil PH09066

There’s a lot more to the Bavarian composer Carl Orff than the Gothic chorus of ‘O Fortuna’ that launched this refractory composer’s career in Nazi Germany in 1937 and has since reduced his reputation to a 15 second pop culture icon. The rowdy monks and easy virtues of Carmina Burana pale in comparison to Orff’s later, more demanding works which find their voice in the pre-Christian era.

Following his compromised war years Orff began a trilogy of tragedies with this setting of Sophocles’ Antigonae in the German translation by the Romantic poet Friederich Hölderlin. Much of the vocal writing is highly declamatory and unaccompanied, evoking the austere dramatic practice of ancient Greece. The drama is scored for a strikingly exotic ensemble of six each of trumpets, oboes, flutes and double basses, four harps, six pianos played by a dozen pianists and a panoply of percussion. Orff keeps these forces in reserve much of the time but when they weigh in the results are spectacular. In hindsight, the ritualistic character of this 1949 work presages the music theatre of contemporary minimalism.

The present recording features the commanding presence of contralto Martha Mödl as Antigonae and a stellar cast of male voices led by the great Wolfgang Sawallisch in a Bavarian Radio live broadcast from 1958. The early stereo tape, only recently obtained from the Mödl estate, is astoundingly well preserved and vivid and the performance, closely supervised by the composer, is consistently riveting. Sadly, no libretto is provided and the synopsis is quite useless.

02_meyerbeer_crocaitoMeyerbeer - Il crociato in Egitto
Teatro La Fenice; Emmanuel Villaume
Naxos 8.660245-47

A great deal of what is known as “French Grand Opera” has Italian (Verdi’s “Don Carlos”) or German roots. Case in point for the latter – the output of Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jakob Beer near Berlin). Known to today’s opera goers from a handful of showcase arias (“Shadow Song” from Dinorah, “O Paradis” from L’Africaine), Meyerbeer was in mid-nineteenth century the king of the genre. A direct musical descendant of Rossini, an inspiration to Bellini and Verdi, Meyerbeer’s operas were extraordinary triumphs.

Much of the credit for the present-day obscurity of his work goes to the relentless campaign waged against him by Wagner. Motivated in equal parts by professional jealousy and anti-Semitism, Wagner derided and undermined Meyerbeer at every turn. It is then great to see the Master’s operas produced again. “The Crusader in Egypt” previous to its 2007 production at la Fenice was not staged for over 100 years. That alone would make this disc set worth owning, but then there are the performances. Even though Patricia Ciofi is a darling of the Venetian crowd, having heard her live in La Traviata, I have to admit I am not a fan. Her wobbly and frequently shrill soprano does warm up as the opera progresses, but the true revelation in this recording is Michael Maniaci. The role of Armano, once sung by the legendary Giuditta Pasta, offers him a great opportunity to showcase his unusual, beautiful voice. With a solid cast and great choral scenes, this disc set is highly recommended.

01_pollySamuel Arnold - Polly
Aradia; Kevin Mallon
Naxos 8.660241

This is a thorough and charming recording of the 50 rather slight musical numbers written and arranged for the little-known sequel to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The newly-published edition of the score is a labour of love by Robert Hoskins, a musicologist on faculty at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. The opera follows Polly Peachum to the West Indies as she seeks out MacHeath and the score follows a similar “ballad opera” blueprint, offering famous tunes of the day paired with literal and sometimes clumsy lyrics describing the characters’ predicaments.

Polly is boldly subtitled “an Opera”, written by a learned English composer/scholar who was known for his mastery of providing incidental music for plays in the latter half of the 18th century. In the end, what makes opera interesting and compelling is thematic development and poetic imagery, both in text and music, and both are missing in this piece to a great degree.

In the latest addition to its extensive Naxos discography, the Toronto-based Aradia Ensemble, directed by Irish violinist Kevin Mallon, sounds warm and tidy in their accompaniments of the short songs, while in the instrumental numbers – the overture and dance suites of Pirates and Indians – they are given a little more opportunity to shine. The local singers turn in spirited and lyrical performances, notably soprano Eve Rachel McLeod, mezzo Marion Newman, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and baritone Jason Nedecky, all of whose diction paves the way to a greater understanding of the story.

05_norgard_wolfliPer Nørgård – Der gottliche Tivoli
Stadttheater Bern; Dorian Keilhack
Dacapo 6.220572-73

Composer Per Nørgård wrote in February 2007 how his visit to an exhibition with works of Adolf Wölfli marked a turning point in his own compositional sensibilities “...I experienced the encounter of Wölfli’s chaotic art as a mental dive into a different, dark world – eerie, unpredictable, but fascinating and above all highly specific”. The opera Der gottliche Tivoli (The Divine Circus) is best described in this same manner – the operatic rendition of Wölfli’s life is mind-boggling in its musicality.

This is not easy listening – there are no clear cut operatic arias where the singers can showcase their virtuosity. In fact, the real operatic diva here is the percussion-heavy orchestration. The opening prelude (performed brilliantly by Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen) is identical to the fourth movement of Nørgård’s solo percussion work, “I Ching”. Throughout the opera, the six percussionists in the orchestral ensemble are key players. There are atonal melodies to support Nørgård’s libretto (which is based on Wölfli’s own writings) but the rhythms best describe Wölfli’s schizophrenic descent and the calmer artistic periods of his life. Touching is Nørgård’s choral arrangement of Wölfli’s own folksong melody at the end of opera.

The vocal soloists, under the direction of conductor Dorian Keilhack, are superb in this high quality live 2008 performance from Stadttheater Bern. Der gottliche Tivoli is a difficult yet intriguing adventure in the life of a troubled artist and the curious composer who was moved by his artistry.

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