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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 13 JULY 2009

Saint-Saëns: Hélène; Nuit Persane
Rosamund Illing (Hélène); Steve Davislim (Pâris; tenor); Leanne Kenneally (Vénus); Zan McKendree-Wright (Pallas; contralto); Amanda Mouellic (narrator)
Orchestra Victoria
Belle Époque Chorus
Guillaume Tourniaire (conductor)
Melba MR 301114-2 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English and French)

Camille Saint-Saëns has few champions today, but it would be well to remember that his 86-year span took him from Liszt to Debussy and beyond. His pianistic virtuosity is celebrated in his piano concerti that receive scant attention today, his orchestral virtuosity is recalled basically by his Third Symphony with organ, his vocal mastery by Samson et Dalila. But he wrote many other operas that occasionally are revived, and here we have a world premiere recording of Hélène, written for Nellie Melba in 1904 in durchkomoniert mode, which illustrates the composer's fluency but also his care in delineating the characters. Rosamond Illing and Steve Davislim as the lovers are persuasive, despite the over-close recording that deprives them of the extra resonance they might acquire in the concert hall.

Nuit Persane is based on an earlier cycle for singer and piano, Mélodies persanes (early 1870s), but adapted and orchestrated with interludes for orchestra and narrator (La voix du rêve - the voice of the dream) and choral interpolations. And once again Saint-Saëns demonstrates with agility the capacity to transform customary orientalisms into personal utterance. But all credit to Melba Records and conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, last encountered some years ago conducting a rollicking performance of Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery in Geneva. Tourniaire's belief in the music is conveyed to all the performers so that anyone not suffering from "masterpiece only" syndrome will find this a CD worth hearing.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Egmont (excerpts), Opferlied
Kent Nagano (conductor); Adrienne Pieczonka (soprano); Maximilian Schell (narrator)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
OSM Chorus
RCA 886977400842 (2 CDs; text in English)

You may be wondering what all those extra people are doing in a recording of Beethoven's Fifth, but hold your hats. Paul Griffiths took an idea from Kent Nagano as they both considered tacking on a narrator to recount Egmont was not a good idea; they came up with The General , based on the experiences of Roméo Dallaire when he was head of the UN peace-keeping mission in Rwanda in the 1990s. The incidental music from Egmont as well as some from König Stephan fills in the gaps between Griffiths's text. Unfortunately, this hybrid genre in which speaker, orchestra, singers mingle is rarely satisfactory and The General is not an exception to the rule. Adrienne Pieczonka's two songs are given in translation as is the final Opferlied, though both are repeated on the second CD containing the symphony in the original German. Was her voice spliced in as the timings of both versions are identical. In addition to the intellectual claptrap, Nagano offers an unexceptional reading of the symphony.

Schubert: Die Winterreise
Steve Davislim (tenor); Anthony Romaniuk (piano)
Melba MR 301119 (texts in English, French and German; lieder in English and German)

This utterly amazing reading of Schubert's Winterreise took me completely by surprise. It may be one of the slowest performances (just short of 80 minutes) of the work, with extremely free rubato and rallentando, but it works without calling attention to the performers but forcing us to focus on the work itself. Davislim's clear tenor is an option we hear with greater frequency today than 30 or 40 years ago when few were the tenors who ventured into this repertoire. And it is an option that works throughout the wide-ranging vocal and emotional demands. Anthony Romaniuk follows the singer without hesitation in what is clearly a joint interpretation. From the lighter, early songs to a devastating conclusion with Der Leiermann, this is an interpretation that will stay the course.

Cherry Ripe: Vocal treasures of the 18th and 19th Centuries
Deborah Riedel (soprano)
Arcadia Lane Orchestra
Richard Bonynge (conductor)
Melba MR 301118 (texts in English only; non-English selections also translated)

Richard Bonynge is one of our favorite explorers of musical byways, and this compilation of songs and arias in English, Italian and even French may not reveal any undiscovered masterpieces, but the whole is charming, perhaps a bit too charming as the cd is best dealt with in several sittings. The late Deborah Riedel has little trouble dealing with the occasional fioritura, but as in the Saint-Saëns recording above, the vocal presence is deprived of air which would certainly have enhanced our listening pleasure. One of the first selections, in English, is none other than "Nel cor piu non mi sento" by Paisiello, while we also hear works by Stephen Storace (brother of Mozart's first Susanna), J.C. Bach, Hasse, Mayr, Cimarosa and Grétry, among a great many others. The voyage is fascinating

Mercadante: Virginia
Susan Patterson (Virginia); Katherine Manley (Tullia); Paul Charles Clarke (Appio); Charles Castronovo (Icilio); Stefano Antonucci (Virginio); Andrew Foster-Williams (Marco); Mark Le Brocq (Valerio)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Maurizio Benini (conductor)
OPERA RARA ORC 39 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English and Italian)

Virginia, though completed in 1851, was not premiered until 1866 because the Neapolitan censor would not approve the libretto. The plebians Virginia and Icilio are betrothed, but the noble Appio wants Virginia for himself. After much machination, Virginio stabs his daughter after Appio has had Icilio murdered, so that Appio will not have his way. Confrontations are many, including a duet for the tenors Appio and Icilio, not to mention the Act One trio-finale for the two men and Virginia. Mercadante's long-lined melodies are still a significant feature of his work, as well as the cabalettas which vary in effectiveness. The concertati of the other two finales are as imposing as any written by the composer, with an introductory stanza by one of the principals followed by a grand ensemble. Once again, it is the soprano who seems to be from another age when vocal extravagance was important, but the same is true of Verdi's operas of that period where his heroines must also carry out amazing feats of derring-do.

Maurizio Benini and the London Philharmonic are in superb form, instrumental obbligati eliciting sterling performances. Susan Patterson, a newcomer to the Opera Rara ranks, in the title role shows off a voice capable of all the composer's demands, from sheer virtuosity to loving fiancée to tragic figure. I was far less happy with the Appio of Paul Charles Clarke whose tendency to break the vocal line with overly-emphatic vowels often had me cringing. Charles Castronovo's Icilio is quite different, the voice not as rich but making his dramatic points while remaining musical. The microphone is not always kind to his rapid vibrato. Stefano Antonucci's Virginio may not offer the tonal clarity or richness of some other baritones, but his command of line is never in doubt so that the dilemma with which he is confronted is clearly rendered. Andrew Foster-Williams's few utterances show off a nicely contrasted bass voice.

D'Albert: Tiefland
Petra Maria Schnitzer (Marta); Eva Liebau (Nuri); Peter Seiffert (Pedro); Matthias Goerne (Sebastiano); László Polgár (Tommaso); Valeriy Murga (Moruccio); Rudolf Schaschnig (Nando)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)
EMI DVD 5099923448292 (2 DVDs)

If you would like to know why I rarely go to live performances these days, this DVD offers ample proof. Taking a simple story of shepherd duped into marrying the mistress of a mill owner, stage director Matthias Hartmann has imposed a super-sophisticated veneer. It would appear that the Prologue takes place in a science-fiction laboratory, with several human specimens in glass showcases, one of whom is Pedro whose image is projected on a large screen with mountain scenery. László Polgár is a mad scientist, who plugs Sebastiano into a device so that he is suddenly in communication with Pedro on the large screen. The three peasant girls in the mill become a sort of Andrews Sisters trio, and on and on. The opera itself deserves better; it will never be a repertory item, but is worth trotting out from time to time so that we are reminded that other composers besides Richard Strauss were active in the early 20th century. Petra Maria Schnitzer and Peter Seiffert as the doomed lovers reach heights of eloquence despite the ridiculous staging, and it is difficult to imagine a better advocate than Franz Welser-Möst to defend the work.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.com. Please click here to access his archive of CD and DVD reviews.

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