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CD Review: New Recital Albums and a Fresh Look at Schwarzkopf and the "Champagne Operettas"

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 28 September 2001

Airs d'opéras français
Roberto Alagna (tenor)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden;
Bertrand de Billy (conductor)
EMI 7243 8 26381 2 4 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Roberto Alagna: Airs d'opéras français

Arias by Bazin (Maître Pathelin), Massenet (Le Cid), Cherubini (Les Abencérages), Gounod (Mireille), Grétry (L'Amant jaloux), Halévy (La Juive), Thomas (Mignon), Meyerbeer (L'Africaine), Berlioz (La Damnation de Faust), Gluck (Iphigénie en Tauride), Bizet (Les Pecheurs de Perles), Lalo (Le Roi d'Ys), Méhul (Joseph), Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Bruneau (L'Attaque du moulin)

Roberto Alagna once again demonstrates that when he sings the French repertoire he is incomparable, the language naturally posing no problems so that we are spared discordant vowel sounds. One might question his approach to Gluck or Cherubini which is perhaps insufficiently classical, or the lack of inherent charm essential to Grétry or Bazin. In the big pieces, however, Alagna is the best we have today, not constantly hammering us with high notes, his long-lined phrasing always a pleasure to hear. And yes, he has his flaws-a tendency to go sharp on the high notes, a peculiar fashion of pronouncing the letter r-but these are insignificant in light of the overall achievement. The repertoire is not hackneyed: it is a pleasure to hear something by Alfred Bruneau, however derivative, and the tenor does not disappoint. Yes, one can find individual performances of the arias by other singers in the past that might be preferable, but taken as an entity, this is a highly recommended disc. Bertrand de Billy's accompaniments would have benefitted from a more comfortable balance with the tenor who dominates in an unrealistic fashion.

Nelly Miricioiu: Bel Canto Portrait
Nelly Miricioiu (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
London Philharmonic Orchestra (Belisario)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
David Parry, conductor
OPERA RARA ORR 217 (texts and translations in English and Italian)

Scenes and arias by Mercadante (Emma d'Antiochia), Costa (L'Assedio di Corinto); Donizetti (Belisario, Parisina)

Nelly Miricioiu

Brava Nelly Miricioiu, Brava Opera Rara. Once again we have a recording full of interest by a performer who knows how to make 19th century Italian opera come to life. Donizetti is at his best in the final scene from Belisario, where Antonina (the anti-heroine) expresses her remorse, while the cavatina from Parisina allows the singer to give full vent to expressivity. The aria by Sir Michael Costa was written for Giulia Grisi to interpolate in a London production of Rossini's opera and makes sure that the singer is constantly being placed on show. The excerpt from Mercadante's Emma is the finale to the work, encompassing an unusually structured duet with the second soprano (Mary Plazas) leading to the customary "rondo" for the heroine. In all of this, Nelly Miricioiu demonstrates her affinity with the period, unafraid to make the occasional unpleasant sound when called for by the dramatic moment. David Parry is the sympathetic collaborator.

Verdi Opera Arias
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Richard Armstrong (conductor)
EMI 7243 5 57113 2 8 (texts and translation in English, French and German)

Arias from Macbeth, Ernani, I due Foscari, Il Corsaro, Le Trouvère, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, I Masnadieri, Stiffelio, La Traviata, Giovanna d'Arco

Thomas Hampson : Verdi Opera Arias

There is nothing like a controversial release. One can hear all the mavens croaking over the chutzpah of Thomas Hampson singing Verdi arias. True, he does not possess what we conventionally refer to as a "Verdi baritone", but then neither did others who sang these roles, including the creators. Nor should we forget that one of the more recent interpreters of note was none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was also pilloried in many circles even though his Rigoletto, Rodrigue or Falstaff are considered by many to be supreme creations. We must not forget that the "Verdi baritone" is a recent invention, certainly not present during the early years of the composer's career. Nor should we forget that one of the composer's major criteria in judging a performer was verbal intelligence. Hampson's verbal response is here on a high level, with respect for the music unlike a Robert Merrill or Ettore Bastianini or Cornell MacNeil who had little going for them other than an impressive quantity and quality of sound. Hampson's voice is equally as beautiful as those of his "Verdi baritone" predecessors, but is utilised to far greater artistic end in a program that is far from hackneyed, for how often can we hear an aria from Vêpres Siciliennes (and not Vespri Siciliani), or excerpts from such unfamiliar works as Foscari, Corsaro, Masnadieri, etc. High marks to Richard Armstrong and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for their contribution.

Schwarzkopf and the "champagne operettas"
Lehar: Der Land des Lächelns
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Lisa); Emmy Loose (Mi); Nicolai Gedda (Sou-Chong); Erich Kunz (Gustl); Otakar Kraus (Tschang)

Lehar: Das lustige Witwe
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Hanna); Emmy Loose (Valencienne); Nicolai Gedda (Camille); Erich Kunz (Danilo)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; Otto Ackermann (conductor)
EMI Références 7243 5 67529 2 4 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English and German; notes also in French)

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lehar, Das lustige Witwe

Strauss: Der Zigeunerbaron
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Saffi); Erika Köth (Arsena); Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster (Czipra); Monica Sinclair (Mirabella); Nicolai Gedda (Barinkay); Hermann Prey (Homonay); Erich Kunz (Zsupán)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; Otto Ackermann (conductor)
EMI Références 7243 5 67535 2 5 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English and German; notes also in French)

Strauss: Der Zigeunerbaron

Strauss: Eine Nacht in Venedig
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Annina); Emmy Loose (Ciboletta); Nicolai Gedda (Duke); Erich Kunz (Caramello); Karl Dönch (Delacqua)

Strauss: Wiener Blut
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Gabriele); Erika Köth (Franzi); Emmy Loose (Pepi); Nicolai Gedda (Graf Zedlau); Erich Kunz (Josef); Karl Dönch (Premierminister); Alois Pernerstorfer (Kagler)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; Otto Ackermann (conductor)
EMI Références 7243 5 67532 2 8 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English and German; notes also in French)

Strauss: Wiener Blut

One of the major successes of the resuscitated Angel label in the 1950s was the series of "Champagne Operettas", featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Erich Kunz, with frequent appearances by Emmy Loose, Erika Köth and Karl Dönch, all under the superlative leadership of Otto Ackermann. While not always musicologically the last word because of cuts to fit the original LP format or transpositions, the style and spirit remain unequalled after all these years. The no-longer unsung hero of these recordings is of course Walter Legge, who put together the casts and supervised the sessions. The young Nicolai Gedda (not yet 30) is charm personified, while Mrs Legge is her customary sophisticated self, the singing free of the later mannerisms. Erich Kunz does well in his buffo roles, but does not have the necessary charm for Danilo, nor the voice. The true joys for me are Zigeunerbaron, which has never had a perfect recording though this one comes close, and Das Land des Lächelns, Lehar's bittersweet element coming to the fore as the lovers separate at the end for reasons of cultural inadaptation. The two other Strauss works are flawed, Ein Nacht in Venedig reworked by many hands and this performance in a revision by Erich Korngold, Wiener Blut put together by disciples of the composer using pre-existing music, some of it quite cleverly used. It is good to be reminded that two such singers as Köth and Loose, never major international stars, nevertheless had the wherewithal to stand up in such company. Alongside last year's reissue of Die Fledermaus with many of the same singers but conducted by Herbert von Karajan, these are essential recordings for anyone seeking to penetrate the world of Viennese operetta. One minor quibble is the lack of text or translation for the dialogues, as if we were expected to follow the sometimes impenetrable Viennese accent.

Related Articles: An Interview with Roberto Alagna

An Interview with Thomas Hampson

A Guide to Verdi Operas on CD

.Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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