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Opera & Vocal CD review - 20 March 2000

By Joel Kasow

Angela & Roberto, Cecilia & Bryn, José et les autres

Puccini: La Bohème
Angela Gheorghiu (Mimi); Elisabetta Scano (Musetta); Roberto Alagna (Rodolfo); Simon Keenlyside (Marcello); Roberto di Candia (Schaunard); Ildebrando d'Arcangelo (Colline)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan
Riccardo Chailly, conductor
Decca 466 070-2 (2 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Massenet: Werther
Angela Gheorghiu (Charlotte); Patricia Petibon (Sophie); Roberto Alagna (Werther); Thomas Hampson (Albert); Jean-Philippe Courtis (Le Bailli); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Schmidt); Jean-Marie Frémeau (Johann)
London Symphony Orchestra
Antonio Pappano, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56820 2 4 (2 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Massenet: Werther
Vesselina Kasarova (Charlotte); Dawn Kotoski (Sophie); Ramón Vargas (Werther); Christopher Schaldenbrand (Albert); Umberto Chiummo (Le Bailli); Christoph Genz (Schmidt); Roman Trekiel (Johann)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
RCA 74321-58224-2 (2 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Verismo: JoséCura
Philharmonia Orchestra
José Cura, tenor and conductor
Erato 3984-27317-2
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Cecilia & Bryn:Duets
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo); Bryn Terfel (baritone)
Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Myung-Whun Chung, conductor
Decca 458 928-2
Comentary in English, French and German; no texts

puccini la boheme

massenet werther

jose cura

cecilia bartoli bryn terfel

When the hype mills are not stuffing the likes of Andrea Bocelli or Charlotte Church down our throats but turn to higher art, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna are often among the chosen subjects, along with several other of the performers covered in this review. Roberto Alagna's career is just over ten years old, a lyric tenor in that early period and now branching out into the spinto repertoire-whether or not wisely is another topic of discussion. In those early days, he sang often with Leontina Vaduva with whom he formed an ideal stage partnership, the two striking sparks off one another. Since his encounter with Angela Gheorghiu after her sensational Traviata at Covent Garden and their decision to be an on as well as offstage couple, the results have too often been disappointing for audiences as their performing styles do not truly mesh: he is impulsive and she carefully studied, whether in the comedy of Elisir d'Amore or the drama of Traviata.

Alagna's second recording of La Bohème (the first was made for EMI with Vaduva) finishes off Gheorghiu's contract with Decca so that both artists can now record for EMI, evidently in a repertoire of their choice. Puccini's drama is here very much conductor Riccardo Chailly's show, rivalling Toscanini for rapidity but at the same time sufficiently expansive where required. It is difficult to hear most of the Degrada revision of the score (largely minor corrections in the orchestra), but the conductor's interpretative options have their basis in a 1954 publication by Luigi Ricci on Puccini's performance practices. The cast is with Chailly all the way, Gheorghiu perhaps too tragic, but Alagna all ardour. The remaining Bohemians are ideal, but whose idea was it to cast Elisabetta Scana as the least sensual Musetta in recorded history.

It was inevitable for Alagna to record Werther, and it is to EMI's credit that the subsidiary roles have all been well-cast, from the tortured Albert of Thomas Hampson to the perky Sophie of Patricia Petibon. Alagna captures the tortured quality of the character, more overt than Alfredo Kraus or Ramón Vargas, and with more voice to his credit than the two rivals. One might question the casting of Gheorghiu as Charlotte, a role she has not (yet) sung on stage and which is almost exclusively taken by mezzo sopranos. Mme Alagna's smoky tones occasionally mask her difficulties at the bottom of her range, while the absence of tension at the other extreme makes it all sound too easy, thereby at cross-purposes with the composer's intentions. Antonio Pappano's conducting is traditional, correct, but if you want a sense of discovery you will have to listen to Vladimir Jurowski on the new RCA recording. The young Russian conductor brings an unbridled passion to the score that some may feel a bit excessive, but it is a reading that deserves to be heard. Ramón Vargas in the title role benefits from his stage appearances, but it is all a bit careful if beautifully executed. The same is true for Vesselina Kasarova's Charlotte, both readings at odds with the conductor. Alas, the remainder of the cast includes not a single Francophone, with Dawn Kotoski as an over-bright imitation of a soubrette.

José Cura's new recital album in which he not only sings but conducts is devoted to verismo opera, with a great deal of unfamiliar music: excerpts from Franchetti's Germania, Catalani's Lorely, Giordano's Marcella, Mascagni's Lodoletta and Guglielmo Ratcliff, alongside Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Prologue and "Vesti la giubba") and La Bohème, Andrea Chenier, Fedora, Adriana Lecouvreur, Arlesiana and Cavalleria Rusticana. The voice is exciting, but the conductor's occasional penchant for slow tempi encourages the singer to exaggeration. Nonetheless, one can be grateful to Cura for his exploration of a repertoire that has been neglected for much of the 20th century whatever reservations we may entertain as to its ultimate stature.

Cecilia & Bryn combines two of today's most communicative singers in a selection that shows them both off to advantage, with one minor exception. Both are experienced Mozartians, and to hear them as Figaro or the Count & Susanna, Giovanni & Zerlina, Guglielmo & Dorabella or Papageno & Papagena is a treat, while in the duet of Dulcamara and Adina from Elisir d'Amore Bartoli shows more slyness than does Angela Gheorghiu in the complete recording. Terfel dispatches the patter of his role with ease, as he does in the duet from Rossini's Italiana in Algeria, coming momentarily to grief when he tries to cope with Figaro's coloratura in his duet with Rosina. Some of this material can also be seen these days on television and presumably soon on DVD in Cecilia & Bryn at Glyndebourne. In both the recording and the concert, Myung-Whun Chung displays cameleon skills in the agile support he offers.

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