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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 22 DECEMBER 2011 — Opera Rara, the British company specializing in bel canto discoveries, once again puts us deeply in their debt with their two most recent releases. We can marvel at the insufficiently appreciated qualities of two of Gaetano Donizetti’s late works, written for Vienna. Linda di Chamounix (ORC 43) was for long regarded as a coloratura vehicle because of one aria ("O luce di quest anima") even though the title role should in fact be sung by a heavier voice that can cope with the expressive demands of the second act, now even more challenging with the restoration of a mad scene. The distinctive sound of Eglise Gutierrez lends an extra dimension to the role of Linda, while Stephen Costello as her lover offers ardent tone. Ludovic Tézier’s father is yet another performance of note, with Alessandro Corbelli’s "comic" Marchese never overdone and Balint Szabó’s Prefetto perhaps a bit lightweight. Mark Elder leads the Covent Garden forces in a performance that gives this reading precedence over all previous recordings (despite individual performances worth listening to in some of those earlier releases).

Maria di Rohan (ORC 44) is an extraordinary work in its original Viennese form, with its short trajectory to a tragic finale, offering fabulous roles for soprano, tenor and baritone. Krassimira Stoyanova in the title role has the requisite heft but also the necessary agility to cope with all aspects of the part. Tenor José Bros is not always phonogenic but he does understand the idiom. Christopher Purves as the not-quite-betrayed husband seems to have graduated from the bassier parts to pure baritone and he is indeed impressive. Various appendices allow us to hear some of the composer’s additions for performances in Paris, so that Enkelejda Shkosa can shine in the two arias written when the role of Gondì was recast as a contralto. Once again, Mark Elder, this time leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, demonstrates his commitment to the Donizettian cause. Nor should we forget the contributions of Jeremy Commons, whose introductory articles allow us to deepen our appreciation of the composer and the challenges he constantly faced.

If you are looking for music of an earlier age, Virgin comes to the rescue with Vivaldi’s Farnace (Virgin 50999 0709142 1), led by Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti. The ever-astounding Max Emanuel Cencic takes the title role, joined by other specialists: Ruxandra Donose, Mary Ellen Nesi, Ann Hallenberg, Karina Gauvin, Daniel Behle and Emiliano Gonzales Toro. Each brings authority to his role so that characters are nicely differentiated, with characterful coloratura. If your giftee already possesses the Naïve recording of this opera, you need not fear as this version (also from the composer’s hand) is considerably different.

Gluck’s Ezio (Virgin 50999 0709292 3) allows us to hear what the composer was up to before he became a reformer with his Orfeo ed Euridice. Alan Curtis, who already had recorded Handel’s opera to the same libretto, now shows us what Gluck could do with the same text, and our curiosity is amply rewarded. Once again, Max Emanuel Cencic’s individual countertenor timbre draws our attention, but he is matched by the equally individual timbre of contralto Sonia Prina in the title role, not to mention the versatile Anne Hallenberg and Topi Lehtippu. Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco make us regret the various cuts, presumably not to expand onto a third CD.

Véronique Gens’s third Tragédiennes album (50999 0709270205), always accompanied by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, stretches even further afield than the first two in the series, advancing beyond Berlioz to Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Verdi. Gens is certainly stretched by the Verdi – nothing less than Elizabeth’s aria from the last act – but nonetheless acquits herself with dignity. An aria from Henri VIII by Saint-Saëns makes us want to hear the opera in its entirety. The soprano also offers two items normally sung by mezzos, but she easily encompasses them even when lacking the requisite heft, whether the dignity of Fidès "Ah mon fils" or the pleading anxiety of Hérodiade. Gens in her maturity is alas neglected in her own country, but fortunate are those who are privileged to attend one of her performances.

On a lighter, non-operatic note, I can heartily recommend Elan, a CD of ballet music from several operas of Saint-Saëns that comes from the enterprising Australian firm Melba (MR301130). Guillaume Tourniaire leads the Orchestra Victoria in complete ballets from Ascanio and Etienne Marcel, and extracts from Henri VIII and Les Barbares. The generous offering gives us a wider view of one of the 19th century’s most prolific and active composer-pianists, whether in medieval or Renaissance mood, or simply tragic. And Tourniaire once again demonstrates that, in addition to a commendable curiosity, he is a considerable advocate for neglected aspects of French 19th century music, whether Saint-Saëns  once more (http://www.culturekiosque.com/opera/reviews/opera_cds384.html) or Ernest Chausson and Louis Vierne (MR30101123).

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

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