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CD Review: Monstres sacrés - Past, Present and, Perhaps, Future

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 19 November 2002

Bellini - La Sonnambula
Maria Callas (Amina); Eugenia Ratti (Lisa); Gabriela Carturan (Teresa); Cesare Valletti (Elvino); Giuseppe Modesti (Rodolfo); Pierluigi Latinuci (Alessio); Giuseppe Nessi (Notary);
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Leonard Bernstein, conductor

EMI 7243 5 67906 2 9 (2 cds; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Bellini - La Sonnambula

Cherubini (revised Lachner) - Medea
Maria Callas (Medea); Maria Luisa Nache (Glauce); Angela Vercelli (1st Servant); Maria Amadini (2nd Servant); Fedora Barbieri (Neris); Gino Penno (Giasone); Giuseppe Modesti (Creonte); Enrico Campi (Captain of the Guard)
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Leonard Bernstein, conductor

EMI 7243 5 67909 2 6 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Cherubini : Media

Giordano - Andrea Chenier
Maria Callas (Maddalena); Silvana Zanolli (Bersi); Maria Amadini (Contessa di Coigny); Lucia Danieli (Madelon); Mario del Monaco (Chenier); Aldo Protti (Gérard): Enrico Campi (Roucher); Enzo Sordello (Fléville); Vittorio Tatozzi (Foucquier-Tinville); Mariano Caruso (L'Incredibile); Mario Carlin (L'Abbate); Carlo Forti (Maestro di casa); Eraldo Coda (Schmidt); Giuseppe Morresi (Dumas)
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Antonino Votto, conductor

EMI 7243 5 67913 2 9 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Andrea Chenier

Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas, EMI has complemented its stock of her recordings with a number of operas that have until now only circulated in the parallet market, as well as a number of her recitals. The sound is execrable, but in the three recordings above we have not one but two monstres sacrés, Callas joined by Leonard Bernstein for Bellini and Cherubini and Mario del Monaco for Andrea Chenier. All three recordings are of live performances, and we wonder where the microphone was placed as the prompter is often just as audible as the singers. But in the two Bernstein-led operas we are so totally swept away by the synergy between the soprano and the conductor that we quickly forget the sound, where choral interventions become musically indistinct, the chorus occasionally unable to keep up with Bernstein's pace in La Sonnambula, and even the acid tones of Eugenia Ratti. With Cesare Valletti, a great improvement over Nicola Monti on the "official" recording of La Sonnambula, and Bernstein leading a far more complete performance, we surely would have joined the exuberant audience in their bravos.

Bernstein has often been taken to task for the nips and tucks he instituted in Medea, but it is important that we realize that what we are hearing is far from what Cherubini wrote: Médée was written to a French libretto and had spoken dialogues rather than recitatives, the latter supplied in mid-19th century by Franz Lachner who also trimmed the score (a recording of the original version is available on Nuova Era and is instructive despite its shortcomings). The tension generated by soprano and conductor once more is palpable (in fact, it was the first time they worked together and the first opera Bernstein ever conducted), with Gino Penno a worthy partner and Giuseppe Modesti a noble king. Fedora Barbieri is competent, but the Glauce is not worthy of her surroundings. As none of the available complete recordings generates the requisite tension, we recommend that you listen to this version to understand why this opera is as significant as it is claimed to be.

Andrea Chenier was an opera that Maria Callas only sang once, for a short run at La Scala, learning the role in less than a week. We have never understood why sopranos find it so attractive as Maddalena has little to do compared to the tenor, other than her famous aria and two big duets, but Callas once again offers a lesson: respect the music and your dignity remains intact. Faced with Mario del Monaco in the title role and even Aldo Protti (where is his like today?) as Gérard, Callas need not be ashamed. Despite Antonino Votto in the pit, the evening was clearly charged with electricity, even if the voltage was not as high as in the Bernstein performances.

Britten - The Turn of the Screw
Joan Rodgers (Governess); Vivian Tierney (Miss Jessel); Jane Henschel (Mrs. Grose); Caroline Wise (Flora); Julian Leang (Miles); Ian Bostridge (Prologue/Peter Quint)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Daniel Harding, conductor

Virgin 7243 5 45521 2 0 (2 CDs; texts in English, French and German; libretto in English and French)

Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Britten - The Canticles; Folksong arrangements
Ian Bostridge (tenor); David Daniels (countertenor); Christopher Maltman (baritone); Julius Drake (piano); Timothy Brown (horn); Aline Brewer (harp)

Virgin 7243 5 45525 2 6 (texts in English, French and German; libretto in English and French)

Britten - The Canticles

Ian Bostridge assumes more and more of the repertoire of Peter Pears, clearly the only one today able to follow in the footsteps of a unique interpreter, not imitating but manifesting a distinctive timbre and a distinctive way with the music. The Canticles occupied Britten over a lengthy period, not a unified work but five separate pieces, each worthy of attention. The best known is perhaps the first, which can also be interpreted as a declaration of love. The second, written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier takes on another color when the contralto sound is replaced by a countertenor, but David Daniels does his best to efface memories of his predecessor. Each of the singers gets to sing two (three for Maltman) folksongs at the end so that we can appreciate him individually.

The Turn of the Screw has benefitted from five recordings; as with the other operas, however, one always returns to the composer's own interpretation, this time with the singers who created the work in question. Daniel Harding conducted two well-received productions of the work, at the Festival of Aix-en-Provence and at Covent Garden, and it is with the cast of the latter that the work was recorded. Despite individual attractions in some of the other recordings (Felicity Lott, Colin Davis to name but two), only Harding comes close to providing the same nervous tension that distinguishes Britten's own interpretation, and that was set down almost fifty years ago. Harding also captures the stifling atmosphere, Bostridge is totally insidious and Joan Rodgers close to Jennifer Vyvyan for tonal beauty and comprehension. My only doubt is to casting Flora as a child rather than a young adult, changing the color of the role so that it is sometimes difficult to hear the difference between her and Miles. But for conductor and soloists in up-to-date sound, this recording is highly recommended, though that of the composer can still hold its own today.

Handel - Oratorio Arias
David Daniels, countertenor
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
John Nelson, conductor

Arias from: Belshazzar, Semele, Theodora, Saul, Jephtha, Messiah

Virgin 7243 5 45497 2 4 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

After two successful CDs devoted to Handel's operatic arias, the second also including arias by Mozart and Gluck, David Daniels shows his mettle in Handel's English-language oratorios, with a wide-ranging program. Alternating between slow and fast arias helps the listener to sustain interest, for Handel was not always at his most inspired in writing for the countertenor voice. Daniels does his best, with an excellent technique almost convincing us that he has a substantial lower register. His well-developed upper register remains a glory, far more reliable than that of some of his colleagues. And this is certainly the repertoire that he should be singing. The arias from Theodora are particularly welcome, invested with something extra, perhaps a result of his experience with the role of Didymus onstage. The only questionable item is "He was despised" from Messiah, disappointing because we have heard so many memorable performances which make this one sound lightweight.

Schubert - Die schöne Müllerin
Mathias Goerne, baritone
Erich Schneider, piano

Decca 470 025-2 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

Eyebrows will rise at the thought of Die schöne Müllerin exceeding 70 minutes, as most interpretations fall in the 62-64 minute range, while this one lasts 71:49, perhaps a record. It is only a few of the songs that are responsible for this stretching of time, as most are at tempi familiar from other readings. The important thing is that Goerne makes it work, even the last three songs that take over 20 minutes. Goerne is blessed with an exceptional voice, an ability to communicate and a pianist that is his equal, Erich Schneider. This is not a Müllerin for every day, but for those days when time is not an issue.

Verdi - Il Trovatore
Angela Gheorghiu (Leonora); Larissa Diadkova (Azucena); Federica Proietti (Ines); Roberto Alagna (Manrico); Thomas Hampson (di Luna); Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Ferrando); Enrico Facini (Ruiz); Riccardo Simonetti (Gypsy); Andrew Busher (Messenger)
London Voices
London Symphony Orchestra
Antonio Pappano, conductor

Arias by Porpora, Hasse, Broschi, Giacomelli

EMI 7243 5 57360 2 4 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Verdi - Il Trovatore

Verdi's Troubadour is regaining favor, with at least three new recordings on the market in the last year or two; Pappano easily bests the competition (Muti for Sony, David Parry for Chandos's Opera in English series), but we are nonetheless at a bit of a loss with the absence of voices that can really do justice to the music. EMI opts for a lyric cast, which means that the baritone lacks the necessary vehemence for much of his role, the soprano is not able to soar through much of the cantilena that is her lot. With these limitations, this is an interesting reading, forcing us to reconsider our own attitudes towards the composer. Angela Gheorghiu may not possess the sheer splendor of a Leontyne Price or Zinka Milanov, but she is far better able to do justice to the convoluted writing of her role. Roberto Alagna is a more than acceptable Manrico, attentive to dynamics although he tends to go a bit sharp at the top of his range. Larissa Diadkova offers a subdued Azucena, resolved from the start to her fate. Thomas Hampson sings his aria with great flexibility, but the snarlier aspects of the role are beyond him so that he is obliged to force, especially on the top notes. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is one of the best Ferrandos on disc. My only complaint, one I have frequently voiced, is the close miking of the voices, creating a totally artificial balance with the orchestra, something one would never hear in a live performance.

Wagner - Arias
Bryn Terfel, baritone
Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado, conductor

Arias from: Der fliegende Holländer, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Die Walküre

DGG 471 348-2 (texts and translations in English, French and German

Bryn Terfel - Wagner arias

Many have long wanted Bryn Terfel to sing the Wagnerian operas, from the time of his first aria recording with James Levine, a disc (released in 1995) that included excerpts from Tannhäuser and Walküre also to be heard on the new disc recorded six or seven years later. In the intervening period, Terfel has sung Wolfram on stage, the most lyrical role in the Wagnerian canon and one that suits him perfectly. In comparing the two performances, it is in the earlier ones that the voice appears more substantial while the later performances give us a voice that has toned down many of its bass qualities in order to sing roles like Falstaff, but it is precisely those qualities that are needed for Wotan or the Dutchman or Hans Sachs. As well as these excerpts are sung, it is difficult to envision Terfel tackling a complete Wotan or Hans Sachs, something the singer may also realise as he has cancelled performances of the latter role scheduled for summer 2003 in Australia. On a purely recording note, these performances are successful, with the additional benefit of Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, but I would be surprised if it were to lead anywhere. The voice is too light in color, however much volume Terfel produces, for color is equally important when it comes to tackling the Wagnerian repertory.

Related: Maria Callas: The 10 Best

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

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