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Opera and Vocal CD Review

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 5 October 2004

Handel - Operatic Duets
Patrizia Ciofi (soprano); Joyce Di Donato (mezzo)
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis, conductor
Virgin 545628 2 2 (notes in English, French and German; texts and translations in Italian and English)


Contradicting received opinion that Handel wrote few ensembles in his operas, Alan Curtis gives us a disc with nothing but duets from several operas, arranged to tell a story of love, betrayal and love refound (in fact, the disc is entitled Amor e Gelosia). Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce Di Donato are a well-matched pair for this enterprise, their voices blending where required, but nonetheless sufficiently individual to be recognized. Repeats of the A sections are decorated discreetly, the small orchestra (one instrument to a part) fulfilling their task admirably, while Alan Curtis directs from the harpsichord with his usual authority. Thirteen operas are represented, Poro the only one with more than one selection: two duets, two arias and an orchestral moment. In the second duet, the characters repeat the arias of the other personnage to recall their vows. Handel's variety amazes us throughout.

Bartók - Bluebeard's Castle
Ildikó Komlósi (Judith); László Polgár (Bluebeard)
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer, conductor
Philips 470 633-2 (notes in English, French and German; text in Hungarian and English)

One might have thought that the all-Hungarian forces would have produced a near-definitive version of Bartók's unique opera, but the lack of a shimmering orchestral quality is not compensated by the force demonstrated at other moments. László Polgár is one of today's foremost interpreters of Bluebeard, perhaps heard to better advantage in the recording with Boulez on DGG recorded ten years earlier. Ildikó Komlósi once again shows that being a native speaker of Hungarian is an advantage in bringing out the colors of the score. But the impassive leadership of Iván Fischer rules this version out of court.

Berlioz - Les nuits d'été
David Daniels (countertenor)
Ensemble Orchestra de Paris
John Nelson, conductor
Virgin 545646 2 8 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Berlioz - Les nuits d'été

Totally unexpected is the appearance of a counter-tenor in Berlioz's Nuits d'été, and if there is any singer of that type who might convince the listener that the choice is viable it is certainly David Daniels. Listeners have been conditioned to hearing a woman in these songs when sung as a cycle, even though Berlioz had different voice types in mind for each of the songs. Daniels has no problem with the notes and possesses one of the surest techniques, but the palette remains limited. Little help is offered by the exceptionally close microphone placement so that the orchestra takes a back seat, an unfortunate occurrence as John Nelson is one of today's leading Berliozians. Daniels also gives us Ravel's 5 Mélodies populaires grecques and three songs by Fauré as arranged by Gil Shohat, even though "Clair de lune" was orchestrated by the composer and "En sourdine" by Florent Schmitt. Again, once the shock has passed of hearing a countertenor, the Ravel is well done, though the Fauré does not work for me. Fillers show off some of the orchestra's soloists, clarinettist Richard Vieille in the Andromache pantomime from Les Troyens, hornist Daniel Catalanotti in Pavane pour une infante défunte and cellist Guillaume Paoletti in Fauré's Elégie.

Lidarte - Ester
Anne Lise Sollied (Ester); Ulrike Hetzel (Israelite Woman); Donald Litaker (Ahasueros); Mario Zefiri (Mordecai); Laurent Naouri (Haman)
Latvian Radio Chorus
Orchestre National de Montpellier
Friedemann Layer, conductor

Accord 476 1255 (2 cds; notes in English, French, German and Hebrew; texts and translations in English, French and Hebrew)

Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarte, an Italian born and educated in Vienna, but whose adult life was based in Italy, was a minor composer of the second half of the 18th century (1730-1793?), whose oratorio was only discovered in 1998, the manuscript dated 1794. Lidarte is known as the composer of various works for the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, but this seems to be his only large-scale piece. Written in Hebrew, there is no trace of a performance. The libretto takes some leads from that used by Handel in his oratorio of the same name, but the music lacks the drama that Handel could generate even when not in top form. The work is most valuable for its curiosity status, as lassitude sets in after the first act, though the singers do their considerable best in bringing to life this pre-Mozartean drama, with special praise for Anne Lise Sollied in the title role and Laurent Naouri as the villain.

Martín y Soler - La capricciosa corretta
Marguerite Krull (Ciprigna); Rafaella Milanesi (Cilia); Katia Velletaz (Isabella); Yves Saelens (Lelio); Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Valerio); Josep Miquel Ramon (Fiuta); Enrique Baquerizo (Bonario); Carlos Marin (Gon Giglio)
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset, condcutor
Naïve E 8887 (2 cds; texts and translations in English and French)

Martín y Soler - La capricciosa corretta

Christophe Rousset's enthusiasm for Mozart's contemporaries gives us the second recording of an opera by Vicente Martín y Soler (following Jordi Savall's Una cosa rara). I reported on this production of La capricciosa corretta when I saw it in Lausanne almost two years ago and reacquaintance allows us to once again take pleasure in this discovery. La capricciosa corretta is not a long-lost chef d'oeuvre, but displays an expert craftsmanship, while benefiting from a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Reports that the work is based on The Taming of the Shrew are exaggerated, but there is no denying that Ciprigna is perhaps a distant relation of Kate, just as she belongs to the same family as the heroines of Don Pasquale or The Silent Woman. Arias are mainly short and not as developed as in the works of major composers; each character is well-served, but it is Ciprigna with four solos who is the major figure. Marguerite Krull's well-schooled soprano encompasses the difficulties thrown her way, but is not sufficiently distinctive a character for such a role. Rafaella Milanesi's maid, Cilia, possesses more of the requisite vocal qualities. The tenor of Yves Saelens (Lelio, lover of the step-daughter Isabella, false suitor to Ciprigna) lacks body as well as the ease and elegance for his arias, arguably reminiscent of those for Don Ottavio. Josep Miquel Ramon's Fiuta, the resourceful servant, Enrique Baquerizo's Bonario, the battered husband, and Carlos Marin's Don Giglio, the cavalier servente, all display serviceable baritone voices, but are not sufficiently differentiated. Katia Velletaz and Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Isabella and Valerio, Bonario's children) are the least distinctive characters, but are present in the many ensembles with which the work is punctuated. Christophe Rousset's enthusiasm permeates the performance, the winds especially called upon in this excellent formation.

Mercadante - Emma d'Antiochia
Nelly Miricioiu (Emma); Maria Costanza Nocentini (Adelia); Rebecca von Lipinski (Odetta); Bruce Ford (Ruggiero); Roberto Servile (Corrado); Colin Lee (Aladino)
Geoffrey Mitchell Chorus
London Phil Orchestra
David Parry, conductor
Opera Rara ORC 25 (3 cds; notes in English; text and translation in Italian and English)

Mercadante - Emma d'Antiochia

If we are ever to appreciate the work of Saverio Mercadante, it will be thanks to the smaller labels: Opera Rara now offers us its second complete opera by the composer. Our appetite for Emma d'Antiochia had been whet by the long extract on a Nelly Miricioiu recital album: the final aria and cabaletta capped by a duet for the two sopranos and a rapid dénouement. The work has the advantage of a libretto by Felice Romani, whose elegant language does not always make up for the follies of the tale, but as Jeremy Commons tells us in his habitually excellent notes, we are dealing with the present events, not those which led to the situations on display. Briefly, Emma loved Ruggiero but was separated from him. He has become engaged to Adelia, the daughter of Corrado who has in the meantime married Emma and brought her home. When she and Ruggiero catch sight of one another, trouble is a-brewing with Emma and her servant committing suicide and Ruggiero banished. To all of this, the composer applies his customary skill and craftsmanship. Nelly Miricioiu in the title role gives the kind of performance for which she is noted, committed from start to finish, embellishing where necessary and making us believe in the drama. The music written for the first Emma, Giuditta Pasta, is tailor-made for the talents of the Romanian soprano and we are not disappointed, as she has the most to sing. The role of Adelia is almost secondary, with no arias, a short duet with Ruggiero and participation in the three finales. Maria Costanza Nocentini's brighter voice contrasts with that of her rival, even when she takes the lower line in the final duet. Ruggiero is well-treated, even if he disappears in the middle of the last act, and Bruce Ford's clear tenor is just what is wanted for the role of the indecisive figure. Only Roberto Servile's over-strenuous baritone lacks the elegance required by Mercadante in 1834. David Parry and the London Philharmonic Orchestra supply the backbone without which the project would not come alive.

Respighi - La Campana sommersa
Laura Aikin (Rautendelein); Alessandra Rezza (Magda); Ewa Wolak (Witch); Guylaine Girard (1st Elf); Louise Callinan (2nd Elf); Anastasia Souporovskaja (3rd Elf); John Daszak (Enrico); Kevin Connors (Faun); David Alegret (Barber); Roderick Earle (Ondino); Peter Klaveness (Pastor); Paul Kong (Schoolmaster)
Orchestre National de Montpellier
Choeur Opéra Junior
Friedemann Layer, conductor
Accord 476 1884 (2 cds; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Respighi - La Campana sommersa

I reported enthusiastically about the concert performance of which this is the aural record, and repeated acquaintance with Respighi's colorful score does not diminish my enthusiasm. Yes, the German expressionist story is hard to swallow (but true of so many other operas as well), the music is sometimes over the top, but the fashion in which the spirit of Hauptmann has been captured remains a marvel. Laura Aikin is a wonder in the fiendish extremes of her role, with John Daszak more than credible as a heroic tenor, capable of modulating his voice when required. And full praise goes to Friedemann Layer whose capacity to imbue life into such a wide variety of works remains impressive..

Rossini - Zelmira
Elizabeth Futral (Zelmira); Manuela Custer (Emma); Bruce Ford (Antenore); Antonino Siragusa (Ilo); Mirco Palazzi (Leucippo); Marco Vinco (Polidoro); Ashley Catling (Eacide); Mathias Hausmann (High Priest)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus
Maurizio Benini, conductor
Opera Rara ORC 27 (3 cds; notes in English only; text and translation in Italian and English)

Rossini - Zelmira

It is clear that the serious Rossini is coming into his own when multiple versions begin to appear of works only recently exhumed. Zelmira has benefited from a 1965 pirate that has little to offer beyond Virginia Zeani in the title role, the tenors having little idea of the requisite style. An Erato recording of 1989 benefited from the research of conductor Claudio Scimone and a cast that was familiar with the composer's demands. Opera Rara now offers a tape of a concert performance from the 2003 Edinburgh Festival that is in a difficult competitive position: a third disc is required as the performance is almost 30 minutes longer than Scimone's for Erato, with a few additional recitatives, some applause, and marginally slower tempi that in fact are beneficial musically. Zelmira was the last of Rossini's operas written for Naples, for a Colbran who was in vocal difficulty, two exceptional tenors. Knowing that the production was moving on to Vienna, Rossini took greater care than usual in his orchestration, knowing that Viennese audiences were perhaps more exigent than those in Italy. The story was subject to ridicule even in 1822, but we have long come to accept operatic improbability. Perhaps because this is a live performance, here are fewer unwritten high notes, no giddy high E flat for Ilo, but the cast is in almost every way equal to that of the earlier performance. Bruce Ford's authority and poise in the Fiordiligi-like leaps and boundless coloratura is well-matched by the tangy voice of Antonino Siragusa, cleaner in fioritura than William Matteuzzi. And it is encouraging to note that the bleating quality encountered on earlier recordings seems largely to have been brought under control. Manuela Custer's Emma is vocally no match for that of Bernarda Fink, but the basses are far more accurate, with more pleasant tones. In the title role, neither Elizabeth Futral or Cecilia Gasdia is ideal, lacking the rich middle range that the part would seem to require. Futral often sounds like Beverly Sills in some of her utterances, but is fearless when it comes to the vocal challenges, but then so is Gasdia. Maurizio Benini seems more aware of the work's light and shade than Scimone, allowing everyone to breathe as necessary, while the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gives its all, the strings especially called upon throughout. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus sounds undernourished.

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

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