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CD & DVD REVIEW

FOR THOSE WHO ARE AWAITING LA BEFANA

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 4 JANUARY 2008- If you have not yet observed the gift-giving tradition and are waiting for La Befana's arrival on Epiphany, there are some magnificent CDs and DVDs that merit attention. Opera Rara once again fills an enormous gap in the catalogue, with its 2-CD set, Entre Nous - Celebrating Offenbach, in which 14 singers present excerpts from such little-known works as Le Voyage dans la lune, Geneviève de Brabant, La jolie parfumeuse, Les Braconniers and a further 19 operettas. From the elegiac to the effervescent, with the emphasis of course on the latter, there is not a dull moment to be found in the 41 selections.

Natalie Dessay has been reproached by certain critics because her new recital album gives us nothing out of the ordinary, but such criticism is totally unwarranted, when we consider the exploration, not to mention excavation, that characterizes her two previous recitals. Here we can take note of the voice that has filled out and gained in warmth in the lower registers, while the high notes remain in place if not always with quite the insouciance to which we were accustomed. The least familiar aria is that from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda , and we can imagine the singer's desire to sing the role though we might wonder how she would summon the force for the confrontation scene. It is unfortunate that we only have Violetta's first-act scene, dispatched with consummate ease, though we can imagine that Dessay will one day soon offer a total portrayal that will knock us dead. The novelty in Lucia's Mad Scene is the use of the glass harmonica, which increases the eeriness, while the cadenza, without flute, is even more effective than usual. Evelino Pidó and the Concerto Köln offer a warm accompaniment.

Max Emanuel Cencic is no newcomer to the operatic arena, though the larger public is only gradually becoming cognizant that this ex-Vienna Choir Boy is now a countertenor of amazing range, as we are only too aware in his Rossini recital. He tackles arias that we have hitherto heard sung by the likes of Marilyn Horne or Eva Podles or Lucia Valentini Terrani, and emerges unscathed from any comparison. Though his low notes may not be as "butch" as those of the contraltos, his facility remains impressive from top to bottom over more than two octaves. It is unfortunate that one third of the cd is given over to performances of three overtures, as we would clearly have liked to hear more of Cencic, especially when Malcolm's second aria from La Donna del lago is shorn of its fiendish cabaletta.

Colin Davis tackles Berlioz's Enfance du Christ for the third time on record, showing us that his affection for the composer has not diminished over time, the Herod scene always harrowing, while the second and third scenes devoted to Mary and Joseph are as tender as always. Matthew Rose is not as commanding a Herod as others we have heard, but Karen Cargill and William Dazeley as the holy parents are exemplary. Yann Beuron, the sole Francophone, nonetheless lacks the suaveness of, say, Léopold Simoneau or Cesare Valletti as the Narrator. A total surprise is Jean-Féry Rebel's sole opera, Ulysse, which dates from 1703. In standard form, Prologue and five acts, the action focuses on Circé (Guillemette Laurens), Pénélope (Stéphanie Révidat) and Ulysse (Bertrand Chuberre), with the customary interludes for numerous secondary characters, though there is less dancing than in other works of the period. Hugo Reyne and La Symphonie et Choeur du Marais are the equal of their competitors in this ever-expanding field.

When we get to DVDs, it is those from the past that are more rewarding than the newest items. See elsewhere my reviews of Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler sung by a young Thomas Hampson or Beethoven's Fidelio, to which we can add Berlioz's Troyens from the Metropolitan Opera with Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos and Placido Domingo conducted by an inspired James Levine. It may not be as impressive visually as later recordings of the work, but the singing is sumptuous.

Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini is perfect trash, but Renata Scotto succeeds in transforming the work into something almost worthwhile, with the help of Domingo and Levine and the Met forces. Two performances from Zürich are almost sabotaged by insufferable productions, though Britten's Peter Grimes is sufficiently strong that it can withstand a great deal. Director David Pountney has clearly worked on characterization, with Christopher Ventris in the title role clearly in the Vickers mold, so that we are aware of the personal relations involved, but where is the sea that is so strongly felt in the music? Franz Welser-Möst seems slightly more comfortable with Schubert's Fierrabras, but Claus Guth's kitsch approach dooms the piece from the start, with the addition of a character representing the composer who is a "motivating" on-stage force, while the Biedermeier sets and costumes are more picturesque than anything else.

Finally, Volume 2 of the Callas Conversations, this time in French, is exceptional for the singer's objectivity and obsessiveness about her career, the fact that she could barely tolerate colleagues who were not as involved as she in the search for perfection (obviously, Giuseppe di Stefano was an exception). The participation of Elvira di Hidalgo and Luchino Visconti are priceless, and we are today shocked, perhaps, at the number of cigarettes that are consumed during the program.

Entre Nous - Celebrating Offenbach
Jennifer Larmore, Alastair Miles, Yvonne Kenny, Mark Stone, Diana Montague, Laura Claycomb, Elizabeth Vidal, Colin Lee, Loïc Félix, Mark Wilde, Cassandre Berthon, Mark le Brocq, Alesancra Sherman, André Cognet, London Philharmonic Orchestra, David Parry (conductor)
OPERA RARA ORR 243 (2 cds; texts in French and English; extensive notes in English)

Natalie Dessay: Italian Opera Arias
Concerto Köln, Evelino Pidó, conductor
VIRGIN 50999 5129602 5 (texts in French only)

Max Emanuel Cencic: Rossini Opera Airs and Overtures
Orchestre de Chambre de Genève
Michael Hofstetter, conductor
VIRGIN 0094638578826 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Berlioz: L'Enfance du Christ
Karen Cargill, Yann Beuron, William Dazeley, Matthew Rose, Peter Rose
Tenebrae Choir
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
LSO LIVE LSO 0606 (2 cds; texts and translations in French and English)

Rebel: Ulysse
Stéphanie Révidat, Guillemette Laurens, Bertrand Chuberre, Bernard Deletré, Celine Ricci, Eugénie Warnier, Vincent Lièvre-Picard, Thomas van Essen
Le Choeur et La Simphonie du Marais
Hugo Reyne, conductor
MUSIQUES A LA CHABOTTERIE 605003 (texts and translations in French and English)

Berlioz: Les Troyens
Jessye Norman (Cassandre); Tatiana Troyanos (Didon); Placido Domingo (Enée); Allan Monk (Chorèbe)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
James Levine, conductor
DGG 00440 073 4310 (2 dvds)

Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini
Renata Scotto (Francesca); Placido Domingo (Paolo); William Lewis (Malatestino); Cornell MacNeil (Gianciotto)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
James Levine, conductor
DGG 00440 073 4313

Britten: Peter Grimes
Emily Magee (Ellen Orford); Liliana Kikiteanu (Auntie); Cornelia Kallisch (Mrs. Sedley); Christopher Ventris (Grimes); Alfred Muff (Balstrode); Richard Angas (Swallow)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
EMI 50999 5 00971 9 7 (2 dvds)

Schubert: Fierrabras
Julianne Banse (Emma); Twyla Robinson (Florinda); Irène Friedli (Mragond); Jonas Kaufmann (Fierrabras); László Polgár (König Karl); Michael Volle (Roland); Christoph Strehl (Eginhard); Cünther Groissböck (Boland)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
EMI 50999 5 00969 9 2 (2 dvds)

Maria Callas: The Callas Conversations, Volume II
EMI 0946 3 88457 9 9

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.com



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