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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 15 APRIL 2009

Elīna Garanča: Bel Canto

Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Filarmonica del Teatro Communale di Bologna
Roberto Abbado (conductor)

Deutsche Grammophon 477 7460 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Elīna Garanča's latest album is commendable for its exploration of lesser-known material from bel canto operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, but the velvet vocalism, however beautiful, does not always result in drama as these arias succeed one another. What is the point of singing Orsini's Brindisi (Lucrezia Borgia) if the second verse is undecorated, or not conveying the bitchiness of Donizetti's Elisabetta (Maria Stuarda)? At the same time, what a pleasure to become (re)acquainted with L'assedio di Calais or Adelson e Salvini (where Nelly's aria was later used for Giulietta's solo in Capuleti) and even Sara's plaintive aria from Roberto Devereux. What's missing is the butch quality for Romeo's aria, the capacity to make the listener aware of the different context of each of these solos. No expense has been spared, with contributions from Ekaterina Siurina, Matthew Polenzani and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and the orchestra and Chorus of Bologna's Teatro Communale, placed under the sympathetic baton of Roberto Abbado.

Liping Zhang: Arias

Liping Zhang (soprano)
Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Giordano Bellincampi (conductor)

EMI 50999 2 37250 2 7 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Liping Zhang is slowly building her international career, in part thanks to her assumption of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Her rendition of "the" aria from that opera is one of the few selections on this disc that comes to life and sounds like more than just a concert performance. Her attributes are many, from snazzy coloratura to whistle-stop high e flats, but Leonora's 4th act aria from Trovatore shows her inability to float pianissimo high notes. Medora's aria from Verdi's Corsaro lacks the delicacy that is its hallmark. It is also odd that the aria from Norma lacks its cabaletta, but then the chorus sorely missing from the aria becomes even more essential. At only 52 minutes, the disc is interesting as a calling card for a soprano whose name is not universally known, but she needs still to work on phrasing - breaths at odd moments - and emotional involvement.

Thomas Quasthoff: Haydn Italian Arias

Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)

Freiburger Barockorchester
Gottfried von der Goltz (conductor)

Deutsche Grammophon 477 7469 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

While Haydn's operas are not quite the unfamiliar realm of his trios for baryton, they nonetheless are not especially current. With the exception of L'anima del filosofo (aka Orfeo ed Euridice), the arias on this disc are buffo, truculent and not particularly individual, except for an aria from L'infedeltà delusa. Thomas Quasthoff presents the music in its best light, and both he and the Freiburger Barockorchester are in good form so that we can appreciate Haydn in his still too unknown capacity as operatic composer.

Rolando Villazón: Handel

Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Gabrieli Players
Paul McCreesh (conductor)

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8057 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

What moves Rolando Villazón in his selection of material for recording? He acknowledges Cecilia Bartoli's Vivaldi recording and his work with Emanuelle Haïm on Monteverdi as crucial influences, but the manner in which conductor Paul McCreesh, presumably with the singer's acquiescence, denigrates Handel's tenor arias makes one wonder. For a start, what about Sesto's arias from Giulio Cesare which the composer rewrote for tenor? Is it truly necessary that half the disc be given over to arias written for castrati? The conductor finds that Handel's tenor music is often low-lying, but the same could be said for many of the castrato arias in their original keys. The fluency with which the tenor dispatches some of the showcase numbers from Ariodante or Serse is perhaps unexpected, but where is the irony of Serse's ode to his plane tree. Villazón as usual makes a little too much of the drama in not letting the music speak for itself, though his performance of Bajazet's death scene almost makes the CD an essential acquisition.

Mozart: Donna

Diana Damrau (soprano)
Le Cercle de l'Harmonie
Jérémie Rohrer (conductor)

VIRGIN 5099921202322 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Diana Damrau's many fans will appreciate her newest recording, devoted exclusively to Mozart. The virtues of the new CD are many, but what are we to make of the increasingly awkward sounds coming from Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, or the excessively rapid-fire tempi set by conductor Jérémie Rohrer? There is little doubt that the soprano has no difficulty keeping up with the conductor but, however exciting, is it truly musical? Damrau has chosen some of Mozart's most difficult arias - some of them technically challenging, others expressively challenging - and she generally makes a good showing though the sensuous quality we might want in Susanna's "Deh vieni non tardar" or the Countess's "Dove sono" is absent. We are given the full version of "Marten aller Arten", but those recently recovered extra measures amply demonstrate the composer's wisdom in cutting them.

Monteverdi: Teatro d'Amore

Nuria Rial (soprano)
Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor)
Christina Pluhar (direction)

VIRGIN 5099923614000 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

A fascinating experience, with lively performances of Monteverdi madrigals, operatic excerpts, but bizarre in that only the central portion of the triptych known as "Lamento della Ninfa" is presented, so that Monteverdi's instructions included with the text becomes totally meaningless, while only half of "Hor che'l ciel e la terra" is included, making poetic nonsense of Petrarch's sonnet. Christina Pluhar defends her choice of a certain "swing" approach - which has a certain charm - in the accompanying notes. The listener can only be charmed, though we might question some of the artistic choices.

Britten: Folksong Arrangements

Steve Davislim (tenor)
Simone Young (piano)

MELBA MR 301120 (texts in English only)

While Britten's folksong arrangements are considered by many to be a secondary part of his composing career, the truth is far different. We must not forgot that Britten was also an exceptional pianist and accompanist, with Peter Pears as major inspiration, and these arrangements were made for concert use by the pair. And the piano parts are often far more complex rhythmically and harmonically then would be the case for folksongs in their native habitat. And though older listeners will recall the older pair, Steve Davislim and Simone Young make a convincing case for listening to these not so simple songs with the same attention given to a lied or mélodie.

Handel: Ezio

Anne Hallenberg (Ezio); Karina Gauvin (Fulvia); Marianne Andersen (Onoria); Sonia Prina (Valentiniano); Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Massimo); Vito Prianti (Varo)
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis (conductor)

ARCHIV Produktion / Deutsche Grammophon 477 8073 (3 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Alan Curtis continues his traversal of Handel's operas, interspersing lesser-known works with such masterpieces as Rodelinda. Ezio comes late in the composer's output, but the presence of such outstanding singers as Senesino, Anna Strada del Pò, Montagnana, not to mention a first-class tenor, Giovanni Battista Pinacci, inspired the composer despite a libretto that made even less sense dramatically than others he set to music. Anne Hallenberg in the title role once again displays her mastery of the Handelian idiom, the voice capable of a wide range of emotion, with a slightly subdued Karina Gauvin who nonetheless rises to the heights in her aria "Misera, dove son", also set as a concert aria by Mozart. Sonia Prina's characteristic sound suits her travesty role of Valentiniano. Marianne Andersen's plain mezzo does little to give Onoria much presence. Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani demonstrates that given a singer of character, Handel could rise to the occasion, once again giving a tenor a major role, while the presence of a star bass elevated the role of Varo to true principal status. Curtis and his orchestra maintain the standard set in earlier recordings in the series, so Handelians may once more rejoice.

Bellini: La straniera

Patrizia Ciofi (Alaide); Enkelejda Shkosa (Isoletta); Dario Schmunck (Arturo); Mark Stone (Valdeburgo); Graeme Broadbent (Prior); Roland Wood (Montolino); Aled Hall (Osburgo)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry (conductor)

OPERA RARA (2 CDs, texts and translatioins in English and Italian)

La Straniera has never achieved the popularity of other Bellini operas, but is that a result of lack of familiarity, or perhaps the fact that the composer is striving for a concision that he later abandoned? Straniera follows Pirata in the canon and shows a desire to constantly advance the opera by rarely stopping for a full-blown aria. Bellini even goes so far as to deprive the tenor of an aria. But it is especially in ensembles that the characters react, and that they must because the story is extremely complicated, derived from a French gothic novel. we encounter singers who moved from seconda donna to prima donna as their fame grew. In the title role, Patrizia Ciofi is her customary expressive self, though we might ideally want a voice of greater weight. But the soprano knows her limitations and never pushes the voice beyond its capacities, which does not mean that she is bland. Dario Schmunck may not have the requisite elegance but he does have the thrust that is an essential aspect of his role. Enkelejda Shkosa's full-blooded mezzo seizes every opportunity offered by the role of Isoletta. Mark Stone's light baritone does not always meet the requirements of his role, but the promise is there; for high-note fanciers, he delivers a stunning high a flat at the end of his aria. David Parry once more demonstrates his versatility, the London Philharmonic Orchestra its virtuosity, so that Bellini's score is brought to life.

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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