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By Joel Kasow


Donizetti: Pia de’ Tolomei
Majella Cullagh (Pia); Manuela Custer (Rodrigo); Patrizia Biccirè (Bice); Bruce Ford (Ghino); Roberto Servile (Nello); Mirco Palazzi (Piero); Marco Vinco (Lamberto); Mark Wilde (Ubaldo); Christopher Turner (Guard)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Phil Orchestra
David Parry, conductor
Opera Rara ORC 30  (3 CDs; notes in English, texts and translations in Italian and English)

Donizetti: Pia de’ Tolomei
Patrizia Ciofi (Pia); Laura Polverelli (Rodrigo); Clara Polito (Bice); Dario Schmunck (Ghino); Andrew Schroeder (Nello); Daniel Borowski (Piero); Carlo Cigni (Lamberto); Francesco Meli (Ubaldo); Luca Favaron (Guard)
Orchestra & Chorus of the Teatro la Fenice di Venezia
Paolo Arrivabeni, conductor
Dynamic 488/1-2  (2 CDs; notes in English, French, German and Italian; texts and translations in Italian and English)
Dynamic 33488 (2 High Definition DVDs 

An earlier review of Pia de’ Tolomei discussed the DVD listed in the headnote. Opera Rara has now issued a variorum edition so that we can follow Donizetti’s revisions, also extensively explained in the customary exhaustive notes by Jeremy Commons. The story is a variant on the patient Griselda theme, with various aspects present in the different versions. The first-act finale puzzled audiences and the composer almost immediately recast the final section. Other revisions followed, including a happy ending which meant a last-minute reprieve for the doomed heroine and a singularly jaunty cabaletta. Opera Rara gives us the original Venice version on two CDs, with a third containing Donizetti’s revisions. We thus hear the Pia-Rodrigo duet not only as written, but one time as it may have been embellished in 1837.

The work is magnificent in its (relative) concision, in many instances reminding us of early Verdi and once again making clear how much Verdi learned from his predecessors. Majella Cullagh in the title role is effective as the doomed heroine, coloratura in place, coloring her words, so that we are sympathetic to her plight. Bruce Ford as the villain makes the most of his lesser role, his expressivity always in play with fewer technical demands than in some of his other outings on the label. His death scene once again reminds us how Donizetti could make something extraordinary out of the shortest passages. Roberto Servile’s hectoring baritone too often sounds like he has a mouthful of mashed potatoes, almost constantly pushing for volume in music that benefits from a degree of restraint. Manuela Custer’s flamboyant personality makes up for the lack of distinctive vocal material, so that Rodrigo’s interventions make their full effect. David Parry and the London Philharmonic Orchestra once again demonstrate their affinity with Donizetti, orchestral solos elegantly played.

The Dynamic recording was made during performances at La Fenice in April 2005, also using the new edition but with one significant editorial choice, the Neapolitan Act One Finale. This performance has much to offer, from an affecting Patrizia Ciofi in the title role whose distinctive timbre easily encompasses the demands placed on the creator of the part, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, who was also the first Lucia. Laura Polverelli’s warm mezzo is always balm to the ear. Dario Schmunck, a name new to me, is yet another South American tenor whose forthright tones ring true, his death scene quite moving. Andrew Schroeder’s solid baritone goes from hectoring bully to remorseful husband with no strain. Paolo Arrivabeni and the Venice forces are another positive element, even with the occasional roughness that besets any live recording. The DVD immortalizes the rudimentary staging of Christian Gagneron in Thierry Leproust’s rather basic sets that are offset by Claude Masson’s luxurious costumes for the women.

If forced to choose, Opera Rara would probably have my vote as their archaeological approach offers fascinating insights into the composer’s workshop, but to experience Patrizia Ciofi is something memorable despite the facial contortions that we see on the DVD.


Massenet: Le Roi de Lahore
Ana Maria Sánchez (Sitâ); Cristina Sogmaister (Kaled); Giuseppe Gipali (Alim); Vladimir Stoyanov (Scindia); Federico Sacchi (Indra); Riccardo Zanellato (Timour); Carlo Agostini (Chief)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro de la Fenice di Venezia
Marcello Viotti, conductor
Dynamic 487/1-2 (2 cds; notes in English, French, German and Italian; texts and translations in English and Italian)

Massenet’s early opera (his third), Le Roi de Lahore, has never been considered top-flight in the long list of the composer’s works, but it is nonetheless highly effective when seen or heard. The alarums and excursions music that punctuate the score serve almost as a leitmotif, reminding us that conflict is omnipresent. A previous recording featuring Joan Sutherland has had the market to itself for over twenty-five years but its flaws became increasingly irritating: playing around with the score (Sutherland raising phrases an octave, Bonynge shuffling between versions, a lack of French style in a polyglot cast). The current recording, live from the Fenice, remedies some of those failings, but the absence of singers comfortable singing in French provides little balm for the ears, particularly the soprano whose charmless tone is sometimes short of the mark at the top while her unwieldy voice develops a wide vibrato at those moments. Giuseppe Gipali’s tenor voice sounds pleasant and more controlled, but a tighter artistic hand would have been welcome. Vladimir Stoyanov also has problems at the top of his range, while we will not mention the remainder of the cast. This is probably the last recording of the late Marcello Viotti and it is a shame that he was not able to weld this international cast into a unity capable of doing justice to what is in essence one of the last of a dying breed, French grand opera.


Gluck: Paride ed Elena
Magdalena Kožená (Paride); Susan Gritton (Elena); Carolyn Sampson (Amore); Gillian Webster (Pallade/Trojano)
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh, conductor
Archiv 00289 477 5415 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French, German and Italian)

Paride ed Elena has always been in the consciousness of apprentice singers for the aria "O del mio dolce ardor" that was once one of the classics in just about every album of "classic" Italian arias. Recordings until now have either been stodgy or miscast (a tenor as Paride, for example), but Paul McCreesh is a staunch believer in the score, something he communicates to performers and listeners, so that we would be interested in seeing how what is in fact a rather static opera would in fact work on stage. Magdalena Kožená has already recorded two of the arias most successfully, so that her presence, in every sense of the word, is essential in bringing the work to life. Susan Gritton fleshes out the role of Elena, capturing her doubt and final capitulation to fate. Carolyn Sampson’s Amore and the stern Pallade of Gillian Webster round out the cast of one of this year’s more important releases.


Offenbach: La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein
Felicity Lott (Grande-Duchesse); Sandrine Piau (Wanda); Yann Beuron (Fritz); Eric Huchet (Prince Paul); Franck Leguérinel (Puck); François Le Roux (Boum); et Maryline Fallot, Blandine Staskiewicz, Jennifer Tani, Aurélia Legay, Boris Grappe, Alain Gabriel, Christophe Grapperon; Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre
Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble
Marc Minkowski, conductor
Virgin 7243 5 45734 2 2 (2 CDs; notes in English, French and German; texts and translations in French and English)
Virgin 310239 9 (2 DVDs; staged by Laurent Pelly)

La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is the third Offenbach operetta (after Orphée aux enfers and La belle Hélène) to be enshrined in a Laurent Pelly production conducted by Marc Minkowski. There has also been a production of La Périchole that was not as well treated, perhaps because the title role would be totally unsuitable for Dame Felicity Lott. Unfortunately, some of us who have seen not only the stagings mentioned above but also Pelly’s attack on Chabrier’s Roi malgré lui have begun to remark that the director’s ideas are limited, with too much of a sameness in all the "lighter" works he touches (his Contes d’Hoffmann was far more successful). There is a hyper-kinetic touch during the finales that wears thin, Dame Felicity mugs her way through the title role like a Martha Raye which many find amusing, while at the same time not having the requisite voice type. And the director for the DVD was singularly cruel in the close-ups so that the Grande-Duchesse is almost grand-maternal. Minkowski once again has the work sparkling throughout, and the restored sections give greater balance to the work. Yann Beuron is an ideal Fritz, while the remainder of the cast do their best to overcome the caricatural make-up, gestures and costumes with which they are saddled – Pelly is also his own costume designer and once again favors shmatas for the women (except in the ballroom scene).


Saariaho: L’Amour de loin
Dawn Upshaw (Clémence); Monica Groop (Le Pélérin); Gerald Finley (Jaufré)
Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Peter Sellars, stage director
DGG 00440 073 4026 (1 DVD)

Kaija Saariaho’s first opera had the benefit of a Salzburg world premiere that was co-produced and co-commisioned by the Théâtre du Chatelêt in Paris where I saw it in November 2001. My negative impression on that occasion is mitigated by the dvd, where one is able to rest between acts that are clearly distinguished in the score, while the close-ups of the camera provide a sense of motion that was lacking when I experienced the work in the theater. As Esa-Pekka Salonen points out in a bonus interview, the composer relies more on instrumental color than rhythmic effect to provide dynamic variety, but the possibility of seeing and hearing the work in smaller doses allows us to appreciate the craftsmanship. Dawn Upshaw, Monica Groop and Gerald Finley are all extremely photo and phonogenic performers with long experience of their roles, while Salonen’s long acquaintance with the composer and her music makes him one of her most persuasive defenders.


Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Nina Stemme (Isolde); Mihoko Fujimara (Brangäne); Placido Domingo (Tristan); Olaf Bär (Kurwenal); René Pape (Marke); Jared Holt (Melot); Ian Bostridge (Shepherd); Matthew Rose (Steuermann); Roland Villazón (Young Sailor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden
Antonio Pappano (conductor)
EMI 7243 5 58006 2 6 (3 CDs and 1 DVD; texts and translations in English, French and German)

What is being touted as the last major studio recording of a complete opera features Placido Domingo’s first (and presumably only) performance of the role of Tristan. He sings it a great deal better than many of those who have sung the role – I’m thinking of several unfortunate Finns – and his German is quite acceptable, nowhere near as exotic as his appalling French. But is that enough? Nina Stemme’s Isolde is clearly in the works, but she promises to be exceptional in the part if not in the Nilsson mold. René Pape’s few minutes of glory allow us to appreciate one of today’s velvet bass voices. Mihoko Fujimara’s Brangäne at times has an almost soprano tint, something the composer evidently preferred, while Olaf Bär’s Kurwenal is one of the gruffest I have encountered. Casting Rolando Villazón and Ian Bostridge in minor roles is a typical ploy of recording firms to highlight some of the younger lights under contract, but not truly necessary. In addition to the title roles, performances of Tristan und Isolde depend on the conductor and it is here that we are disappointed as Antonio Pappano goes from moment to moment but there does not seem to be the underlying surge as in such very different performances as those of Furtwängler, Böhm or Carlos Kleiber. The accompanying DVD contains all of the music and a libretto to be followed on the screen of your television or computer, if equipped with surround sound. Neither my computer nor TV could read the DVD, so I cannot report on the sound, which on the normal CDs is quite good and features excellent playing by the Covent Garden orchestra.


Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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