Puccini – Turandot
Khudoley; Massi; Yu; Ryssov; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani
C major 731408

Puccini – Turandot
Dessi; Malagnini; Canzian; Chikviladze; La Guardia; Teatro Carlo Felice; Donato Renzetti
Dynamic 33764

Puccini’s last, unfinished opera is arguably his greatest, certainly the most innovative, harmonically adventurous and a score of genius. It is also a grand opera well suited for lavish, extravagant productions. Fortunately, two marvellous video recordings have just arrived and both fulfill their promise. I state categorically that both are excellent in their own way and I do not prefer one to the other.

03a Puccini Turandot CmajorThe newest is from the Bregenz Festival, July 2015 (bregenzerfestspiele.com). Not many may have heard of Bregenz, a sleepy old town at the Western end of Austria on the shores of Lake Constance (Bodensee), but their festival rivals Salzburg with the highest artistic standards. The giant open-air amphitheatre includes an incredible stage set (designed by M.A. Marelli) right in the lake with something like the Great Wall of China towering 100 feet forming the backdrop to a circular stage, a revolving cylinder accessed by ramps snaking around it like a Chinese dragon. Over this is a huge circular disc equipped with myriad LED crystals forming computer generated multi-coloured images to suit the mood of the moment. It really has to be seen to be believed and I must say it’s a lot more comfortable to see it on DVD in home comfort than being there freezing in the rain. (I’ve been in Vorarlberg and even in summer the weather is unpredictable.) The orchestra cannot be seen and nor can the conductor, the dynamic Paolo Carignani who gave Toronto a thrilling Tosca some time ago. The overall, somewhat modernized show is a sound and light extravaganza with dancers, pantomimes and circus acts to dazzle the eye, but the opera comes through musically superb with spacious acoustics and some top singing artists plus two choruses, not to mention the Wiener Symphoniker giving it orchestral support. Young Italian tenor Riccardo Massi (Prince Kalaf) copes well with the power and the high notes; he is best in show. Young, up-and-coming Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu gives a heartrending performance as Liu, the little servant girl who sacrifices herself for love. For the pinnacle role of the Ice Princess expectations are high and Callas or Sutherland both being gone, Mlada Khudoley, Russian dramatic soprano from the Mariinsky struggles heroically, suitably hateful most of the time, but relaxes beautifully to a glorious finale, an outburst of joy seldom witnessed in opera theatres.


03b Puccini Turandot DynamicWe now enter Puccini territory, because the next production is from Genoa, the heart of Liguria, the region where Puccini and most of the cast comes from. The Opera House in Genoa is a grandiose affair and the stage is very large and very high in order to accommodate the monumental set, a multi-level Chinese palace with staircases on either side. Ingeniously the set can easily adapt, alternately being grandiose or intimate, using lighting effects giving it different moods and gorgeous colours. Yet it remains entirely traditional, just as Puccini envisaged it. Being an Italian production, it is done with the emphasis on the music and the quality of the singers, which is superb. The leading lady Daniela Dessi, one of the top sopranos in Italy today, is a sensitive, even anguished and entirely believable Turandot. The primo tenore Mario Malagnini, a compassionate and tender Kalaf with tremendous vocal power even in the high tessitura, makes a strong impression. The young Roberta Canzian steals some of Signora Dessi’s glory with her brave and impassioned, beautiful performance as Liu. Right down to the lowliest choristers the singing is first class, but the three Chinese ministers deserve a special mention for their amusing, colourful and superbly choreographed trios that comment on the action with a rather cruel, even sadistic humour. And the one who controls it all is Donato Renzetti, an old hand in Italian opera who, with oriental rhythms and shimmering textures, makes everything come alive and throb with excitement.


05 Verdi AidaVerdi – Aida
Lewis; Sartori; Rachvelishvili; Gagnidze; Salminen; Colombara; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala; Zubin Mehta
C major 732208

To revive Aida in 2015 at that holy temple of Italian opera, La Scala of Milan, puts much at stake. Times are difficult economically yet expectations are high, the audience sceptical, often giving great artists a rough time, (Carlos Kleiber once was booed in the pit!), but success for a young singer in La Scala could make a career. That dream came true for young American soprano Kristin Lewis, who simply enchanted the audience in a heartbreaking, gloriously sung performance as Aida. She even burst into tears in the midst of final applause. The other young lady, the lead mezzo (Amneris), Anita Rachvelishvili (see The WholeNote November 2015 for my review of the Tsar’s Bride from Berlin), perhaps stole the show with “the authority of her performance and warm, burnished tone and sheer vocal power” (Kenneth Chalmers) and made a big impression. Fabio Satori’s Radamès was somewhat less convincing as a glorious hero and lover than in his subsequent misfortune, but he surely hit those high notes! George Gagnidze was an energetic, rather youthful Amonasro and Matti Salminen’s Ramfis, the high priest, a stately figure. But the great basso, nearly 70, was having serious difficulties with his voice. Conductor Zubin Mehta, quite dapper and almost 80, conducted without a score according to Italian tradition, with minimal movements, and gave a sensitive, solid, well-detailed reading to impressive sonic effect, his trademark.

The top credit however is for German director Peter Stein, who contrary to the usual grand-opera bombast, sees the opera more intimately, as a set of confrontations between a few individuals in unique settings, turning every stage set into a stunning work of art with glorious colours and strong geometry accentuated by backlighting and silhouettes. The designers Ferdinand Wögerbauer (sets), Nanà Cecchi (costumes) and Joachim Barth (lighting) created a thoroughly integrated, visually beautiful experience worthy of Verdi’s masterpiece.

07 HvorostovskyShostakovich – Suite on Poems by Michelangelo; Liszt – Petrarch Sonnets
Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Ivari Ilja
Ondine ODE 1277-2

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a pure artist and a natural-born talent. Born and educated in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, a place not renowned for being a fertile cultural ground (despite having also been the birthplace of the French novelist Andreï Makine), Hvorostovsky shot to international stardom after defeating Bryn Terfel in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989. This success came on the heels of triumphs at the Toulouse Singing Competition in 1988 and the Glinka Competition in 1987. Since then, he has been present on all major opera and concert stages in the world – predominately in Verdi roles. He created an unforgettable portrayal of the Marquis de Posa in Don Carlo, but was equally acclaimed for Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera and La Traviata. When he appeared for the first time in Tchaikovsky operas – The Queen of Spades, and especially, Eugene Onegin – critics proclaimed that he was born to sing those roles.

This album shows a different side to Hvorostovsky – that of a lieder singer. When Shostakovich set the poems of Michelangelo (in translation by Abram Efros) to music in 1974, he knew he was a dying man. A year earlier, in addition to a serious heart condition that he had lived with for most of his life, he was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. The music he composed is full of anger and resentment, expressing a battle he ultimately lost a year later. Chillingly, Hvorostovsky had himself been diagnosed with a brain tumour early in 2015, but has since returned to the stage. As you listen to the stark, ominous music on this disc, spare a kind thought for this great Russian baritone, whose struggle may be ongoing.

08 Weinberg PassengerWeinberg – The Passenger
Breedt; Saccà; Kelessidi; Rucinski; Doneva; Wiener Symphoniker; Teodor Currentzis
ArtHaus Musik 109179

This DVD’s booklet contains a lengthy encomium by Weinberg’s friend and muse, Shostakovich, calling The Passenger “a masterpiece, both in shape and style.” Unsurprising, as Shostakovich’s own “shape and style” pervade Weinberg’s compositions, including this one.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish Jew who fled to the USSR in 1939, completed The Passenger in 1968. His memorial to Holocaust victims, among them his parents and sister, was never staged until 2010 at Austria’s Bregenz Festival, the production preserved here. It has since been performed many times in other countries.

The set is on two levels: above, a ship deck in 1960, where Lisa and her husband Walter are bound for Brazil; below, wartime Auschwitz, where Lisa had been an SS guard. On board, Lisa thinks she recognizes Martha, supposedly killed in Auschwitz. Shaken, she reveals her Nazi past to Walter – and to us, the audience, in the Auschwitz scenes where most of the opera unfolds. Here, extended passages of poignant lyricism are punctuated by brutal orchestral outbursts and the onstage brutality of the guards.

Did Martha really survive, or is the veiled, silent passenger an apparition of Lisa’s haunted conscience? In the opera’s epilogue, alone on stage, an unveiled Martha sings
“… never forgive … never forget …”

If not quite “a masterpiece,” with its well-sung, effective music and potent drama, The Passenger will surely wrench guts and jerk tears. A bonus documentary provides details about Weinberg and this unforgettable production.

05 Ho Legend of Da JiAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Lesson of Da Ji
Toronto Masque Theatre; Larry Beckwith
CMCCD 22115

In her music theatre work The Lesson of Da Ji, Hong Kong-born Toronto composer Alice Ping Yee Ho has struck a fine, if not always easy, cultural balance between features of classical Beijing (Peking) opera and the European masque tradition, as interpreted in 21st-century Canada.

It is no mean feat to present eight Canadian voices supported by the string tonalities of the Chinese zhongruan, erhu, pipa and zheng. It is even more complex when all that is seamlessly meshed with the sonority of the European baroque lute, harpsichord, viola da gamba, violin and recorders, plus a percussion battery. Ho does just that admirably, presenting along the way a bracing new hybrid soundscape to enjoy.

Her skillfully orchestrated score hangs directly on Canadian playwright Marjorie Chan’s libretto. It tells the chilling tale of the famous concubine Da Ji of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 to 1046 BCE), honing in on her illicit love affair with a musician and the bloody revenge enacted by the jealous King Zhou. It’s the sort of court drama common to both Chinese and Eurocentric opera traditions.

The composer once noted that “colours and tonality are two attractive resources to me: they form certain mental images that connect to audiences in a very basic way.” The Lesson of Da Ji follows that dictum, and her approach works to convey character, place, mood and imagery, even via the audio CD medium. My guess is that a video presentation – or better yet, a live production where the multiple visual and choreographic elements are at work – would make for an even more involving evening of theatre.

Commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2012 The Lesson of Da Ji immediately won critical acclaim as well as the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Original Opera. The release of the recording of this hour-long opera in two acts within just a couple of years of its premiere reflects the work’s enthusiastic initial reception. It may well also mark the beginning of its acceptance by a wider public in Canada, as well as in the composer’s country of birth.

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