08 Gurrelieder DVDSchoenberg – Gurrelieder
Soloists; chorus of the Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte DVD OA 1227 (also on Blu-ray)

This is a video of an attempt to stage Schoenberg’s extraordinary cantata based on poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen. It is not an opera and actions on the stage do not always match the libretto. The text is dreamy and melancholic, a Tristanesque tale of impossible love. I confess that over many years of listening, although totally absorbed, I have not mentally pictured or “seen” the events described by the singers and the orchestra. The score does its job and the goings on, the thoughts, events and emotions are unmistakable, but remain abstractions.

The great room of Gurre Castle is director Pierre Audi’s set for this production with various props to define a scene… a large bed, screens, panels, etc. The prominent curved metal staircase adds a vertical dimension and supports some of the action. A huge, rather formidable fish, perhaps representing a fantastic eel, passively enters into the room in Part Three during Klaus Narr’s pantomime-like scene that follows the rousing, exhilarating Wild Hunt.

King Waldemar is sung by tenor Burkhard Fritz, who is scheduled to sing Siegmund in Leipzig’s Ring Cycle early next year. Tove, his beloved, is soprano Emily Magee and the Wood Dove is contralto Anna Larsson. Bass-baritone Markus Marquardt is the Peasant and tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is Klaus Narr, the court jester. Actress Sunnyi Melles is the narrator who introduces the evening, settling the audience down for what’s to follow. She moves as an observer through the scenes, sometimes commenting and finally breaking into an unusually impassioned delivery of the sprechgesang exultation of the sun. Internationally renowned for her interpretations of Mahler, Larsson’s Wood Dove is outstanding and genuinely tragic as it should be, delivering the news of Tove’s murder and closing Part One. Incidentally, because she is acting it out, Larsson is completely caught up in the role as she was not in the very fine recent version conducted by Edward Gardner reviewed in March. The chorus is better than outstanding. Under Marc Albrecht, the orchestral balances, so brilliantly recorded, are dynamic and expansive, letting the brass sing out, most importantly in the awe-inspiring choral finale as the sun rises and the nocturnal fantasies are banished.

On first viewing, not knowing what to expect, the staging was something of a letdown. By the third playing, no longer expecting anything different, I was enrolled, appreciating this most unusual experience immensely. As noted above, the surround sound is awesome. All in all, quite an experience.

09 Floyd SusannahCarlisle Floyd – Susannah
Susan Hellman Spatafora; St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Mark Sforzini
Naxos 2.110381

In an interview included in this DVD, Carlisle Floyd describes the two major influences on the creation of his most-performed opera. As a young university professor in Florida, he witnessed what he calls “the destruction of innocence” by false accusations during the 1950s McCarthy era. The son of a Methodist minister in South Carolina, he had also experienced the mob hysteria of small-town revival meetings. “I personally found it very terrifying as a child to go to these meetings,” he says. “What offended me most was mass coercion – and it still does!”

Floyd’s self-written libretto transfers the Apocrypha tale of Susannah and the Elders to “New Hope,” a small town in Appalachian Tennessee. Susannah’s folk-flavoured, often quite beautiful score amplifies a powerful drama – the innocent Susannah victimized both by the townspeople who believe her “pretty face must hide some evil” and the evangelical preacher, Olin Blitch, captivated by that same face.

Susannah has been performed hundreds of times since its 1955 premiere, but this is its first, very welcome, commercial DVD release. The St. Petersburg (Florida) Opera’s 2014 production is low budget yet highly effective, the single set doubling as Susannah’s house and the New Hope Church. Soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora is a feisty, radiant Susannah, baritone Todd Donovan a sturdy voiced Blitch, the revival-scene chorus truly “very terrifying,” while conductor Mark Sforzini revels in the music’s beauty and passion.

If you don’t already know this opera, you should – it’s unforgettable!

10 Gordon GettyGordon Getty – The Canterville Ghost
Oper Leipzig; Gewandhausorchester; Matthias Foremny
Pentatone PTC 5186 541

“Stage and page have different needs,” writes composer Getty, son of billionaire Jean Paul, explaining in the CD’s booklet the alterations in his libretto when adapting Oscar Wilde’s novella. Wilde’s whimsical tale remains essentially intact, however, with the Otis family moving into an English manor haunted by the 300-year-old ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville, unable to find release in death.

Instead of being frightened, Mr. Otis offers the Ghost oil to lubricate his chains, Mrs. Otis gives him a tonic to quell his moaning, and the young Otis twins throw pillows at him, push a cream pie in his face and douse him with water.

Only 15-year-old Virginia hasn’t offended him. In the longest scene of the hour-long opera, the Ghost tells her, “You must weep with me for my sins… pray with me for my soul… and then… the Angel of Death will have mercy on me.” His skeleton is discovered the next day. The final scene takes place five years later at Sir Simon’s graveside, where Virginia, now married, sings a lovely duet with her husband, “Stay with me, beautiful,” the opera’s lyrical highlight.

The Canterville Ghost was premiered in Leipzig in 2015 by the performers on this disc. Bass-baritone Matthew Treviño is the forceful but sympathetic Ghost, soprano Alexandra Hutton is all sweetness as Virginia, and Getty’s bright, witty score strongly supports the action.

This is a very stage-worthy and entertaining addition to the repertoire of one-act, English-language operas.

Monteverdi – Vespro Della Beata Vergine
Various Soloists; Monteverdi Choir; London Oratory Junior Choir; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv Produktion 479 7176

The Beauty of Monteverdi
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7193

01a Monteverdi VespersJohn Eliot Gardiner first heard the Monteverdi Vespers when still a schoolboy: over the radio in a performance from York Minster conducted by Walter Goehr. When Gardiner was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he himself conducted the work, in 1964, in the great Gothic chapel of King’s College. It must have seemed to him that here was a great work comparable in scope to Bach’s B Minor Mass, yet totally different. Gardiner was also concerned with moving away from what he saw as the bland English choral tradition which sacrificed dramatic vitality to blend and purity of sound. His first recording of the work came in 1974 and is still available. It uses singers like Jill Gomez and Philip Langridge who were in no way connected with the emerging Early Music Movement. Gardiner’s second recording, now under review, followed in 1989. The third recording, available as a DVD only, was released in 2016. It was recorded in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. (I reviewed it in the April 2016 issue of The WholeNote.)

The 1989 recording, now reissued both as CDs and a DVD, was recorded in the spectacular space provided by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The DVD fully explores the basilica’s architecture, its mosaics and its sculpture. There is no clear record that the music was originally performed there or anywhere else in Monteverdi’s lifetime. There is now a critical consensus that its first publication (in 1610) does not represent a proposal for an actual liturgical performance but instead constitutes material on which Monteverdi wished to be judged. It may well be on the strength of the 1610 publication that Monteverdi was offered the prestigious post of Maestro di Cappella at St. Mark’s three years later.

The performance is spectacular with rhythmic vitality and precision and with great dramatic emphases. The singers include soprano Ann Monoyios (who has given us so much pleasure in the past in Toronto), tenor Nigel Rogers and, surprisingly, a very young bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. For vitality it will be hard to beat this reissue, but there are now a number of fine recordings. If you prize what has been called “lyric intimacy” over dramatic vitality, you might explore the versions conducted by Savall or Christie, Parrott or Alessandrini.

01b Monteverdi BeautyThe other CDs reviewed here constitute an anthology of parts of Vespers, several of the operas and a selection of the Madrigals, the Scherzi musicali and the Selva morale e spirituale compiled to honour the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth. Much of the singing is very fine, and the solos by Anne Sofie von Otter and Magdalena Kožená alone are worth the price of admission. This kind of anthology clearly offers limitations, and I would hope that hearing these would spur a listener to explore the works from which they are taken.

07 Room 29Room 29
Jarvis Cocker; Chilly Gonzales
Deutsche Grammophon 28947970101

In this age of streaming, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, randomized playlists and self-publishing, do we still need record labels? All these electronic access modes are merely measures of popularity, not quality. Sure, an occasional gem will have 10 million views on YouTube, but so will a cat dancing to a laser pointer. The role of record labels is to “curate” (goodness help me for using this word) the listener’s experience.

Enter Room 29, a collaboration that would have been drowned out by the latest Kardashian selfies. Deutsche Grammophon championed this unlikely coming together of two very different musicians. Jarvis Cocker is the former frontman of Pulp, the very definition of Britpop of the 1990s. Gifted with an Elvis Costello-like voice and sensibilities, nowadays, he is an actor, director and radio personality who draws comparisons to Jools Holland and John Peel. Chilly Gonzales, a Jewish Hungarian-Canadian, despite having worked with Feist, Drake and Daft Punk, became truly known for Solo Piano, an album of original music that made some critics compare him to Erik Satie. Here, Cocker and Gonzales team up to sing and play about Room 29 in the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont (where Billy Wilder met his inspiration for Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard fame). If all this sounds contrived, consider that the inspiration for Room 29 was none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto – known among other things as a composer for film. The biggest surprise, it works very well! Gonzales is a phenomenal pianist, Cocker an engaging balladeer and the album bears a third and fourth listening. Will wonders never cease!!

02 Verdi BalloVerdi – Un Ballo in Maschera
Soloists; Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 739408 

Munich has been at the cutting edge of bringing opera into the 21st century with highly original productions by the best directors and designers as well as streaming them live through the internet and onto your TV screen, worldwide and free of charge. A few of these have been released on DVD such as this Ballo from 2016, Johannes Erath’s “musically super-sensitive” gorgeous, highly acclaimed production many people travelled to Munich for.

Verdi’s opera of illicit love, betrayal, conspiracy, revenge and murder has been a special favourite of mine, with its heavenly music throbbing with emotion and ecstasy, reminding me of Tristan. Erath created a dreamlike, surrealistic show in dominant blue and black with projections of shadows and in semi-darkness, suggesting the ever-present power of black magic and the subconscious. There is a single set throughout, a bedroom that with effective light changes can transform in one’s imagination into many different settings.

The Staatsoper selected a dream cast as this opera requires the highest order of singers. Young Polish tenor Piotr Beczała, in love with his best friend’s wife but also guilt-ridden, is vocally and visually radiant in the role of Governor Riccardo. Amelia, the wife, tormented and in a conflict that threatens to tear her apart, is German soprano Anja Harteros, her dark-hued voice full of intensity. The wronged husband Renato, one of Verdi’s most inspired creations, is George Petean who perhaps lacks the expected aristocratic bearing but his strong, heroic and heart-rending baritone completes this exemplary trio of principals. Even the lesser roles: Sofia Fomina (Oscar) and Okka von der Damerau (Ulrica) store wonderful surprises and, to top it all, Zubin Mehta’s masterly handling of the score makes this production truly memorable.

03 Elina GarancaRevive
Elīna Garanča; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Roberto Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5937

Elīna Garanča from Latvia is unquestionably the greatest mezzo of our time, already a legend. The mention of her name fills up opera houses and concert halls instantly worldwide. Her debut at the Met in Carmen was a world sensation, redefining the role and making us forget any Carmen heard before or ever after. Wherever she goes, she conquers. This is her fifth solo disc for DG, the previous four all award-winning runaway bestsellers and each showing different sides of her talent and development towards more and more complex roles.

“Strong women in moments of weakness” is how she defines this new release, and that means conflicting strong emotions but also a breakaway from her earlier bel canto repertoire into French and Italian verismo and, of course, Verdi. The point of departure is the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (her next project) with the gut-wrenching aria Voi lo sapete, o Mamma of human misery and despair, with Garanča rising to the occasion in a voice of tremendous range of vocal colour, intensity, passion and, above all, power.

Challenging and beautiful arias by Cilea, Massenet, Thomas and Saint-Saëns and more each give us a tantalizing glimpse into mezzo territory. And then comes Verdi: one huge role, Eboli in Don Carlo, which she hasn’t done yet and which everyone is waiting for. If this thrilling showstopper, Song of the Veil with its fiery Spanish rhythms and exuberance, is any indication, it will be another triumph. Roberto Abbado’s intense and passionate conducting adds to the success of this remarkable collection.

05 LucyJohn Glover – Lucy
Andrew Wilkowske; Christopher Zemliauskas; REDSHIFT Ensemble
New Focus Recordings FCR 183 (newfocusrecordings.com)

In 1964, Maurice and Jane Temerlin “adopted” the just-born Lucy as part of a series of cross-fostering experiments in which chimpanzees were raised as if they were human, with mostly tragic outcomes for the chimps. Lucy lived with them until 1977, when they could no longer deal with her. She was finally set free in The Gambia, where her mutilated body was found in 1987.

Kelley Rourke’s libretto (included in the booklet) imagines Maurice Temerlin learning of Lucy’s death and recalling episodes from their years together, drawn from his memoir, Lucy: Growing Up Human. John Glover’s hour-long opera (2014) features baritone Andrew Wilkowske (Temerlin), speaker Sarah Sokolovic (Researcher), pianist Christopher Zemliauskas and the four-member REDSHIFT Ensemble, with Glover conducting.

The hearty-voiced Wilkowske sings with energy and expression, but his music is less engrossing than his words, recounting many humorous, sometimes frightening, scenes of his “daughter” Lucy running around with unrolled toilet paper, getting drunk, carrying a kitten on her back, learning American Sign Language, dialling a telephone, attacking and biting a visitor. Most of Lucy’s musical pleasures are provided by the varied colours and bubbling rhythms of the instrumental accompaniment.

Bonus tracks include comments by Glover, Rourke, Wilkowske, stage director Erik Pearson and, most eloquently, Robert Ingersoll, who worked on the cross-fostering project but now advocates for chimps to be treated as chimps. “We stole their lives from them,” he laments. Lucy helps explain Ingersoll’s anguish.

06 Jane EyreJohn Joubert – Jane Eyre
April Fredrick; David Stout; Gwion Thomas; Mark Milhofer; English Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Woods
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 263-2

British composer John Joubert and his librettist (and former student) Kenneth Birkin worked on his opera Jane Eyre from 1987 through 1997. Incorporating cuts made for the world-premiere concert performance in October 2016 in Birmingham, this live recording is a tribute for the composer’s 90th birthday and an exceptional permanent record of a great work.

Charlotte Brontë’s novel surprisingly suits this operatic venture. As Joubert explains in the detailed liner notes, the two acts of three scenes each are not an exact retelling of the lengthy story, but a selective take on Jane’s adult life. The libretto captures all the important storyline components while the composition is amazing. The music is so original, with touches of such influences as Wagner and Strauss surfacing throughout. The vocal music captures the story but it really is the brilliant orchestration that rules – it almost sounds like equal duets between the vocals and instruments. The Act One argument between Jane and Brocklehurst is driven by rhythmic orchestral shots, low-pitched mysterious crescendos and countermelodies in the strings. The closing joy in Jane and Rochester’s reunion is reinforced by the sweet string lines.

The soloists perform with passion and expertise. The orchestra members play with astounding musical force, driving the operatic score to out of this world artistic heights. There is so much musical detail here that only repeated listening can illuminate. Though at times musically too melodramatic, this is an opera that should stand the test of time.

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