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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 7 April 2006

Handel: Radamisto
Joyce DiDonato (Radamisto); Patrizia Ciofi (Polissena); Maite Beaumont (Zenobia); Dominique Labelle (Fraarte); Laura Cherici (Tigrane); Zachary Stains (Tiridate); Carlo Lepore (Farasmane)
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis, conductor
Virgin 7243 5 45673 2 2  (3 CDs; notes in English, French and German; texts and translations in Italian and English)

Alan Curtis continues his way through the Handel canon, this time offering the first version of Radamisto (1720) – an earlier recording on Harmonia Mundi gave us the revised version dating from the end of 1720. The two are considerably different, Handel adding several new arias and a quartet, but the first version is itself replete with effective music so that the two are worth exploration. Three exceptional singers in the leading roles add to our considerable pleasure. Joyce DiDonato in the title role deploys her voice, sailing through the coloratura, but at the same time bringing out all the emotion in the deceptively simple lament near the end of the opera. Patrizia Ciofi (Polissena) as the rejected wife is constantly involved in the drama and a Catalan newcomer, Maite Beaumont, nearly steals the show as Zenobia. Her distinctive mezzo, impeccable control in the showpiece arias immediately earn our applause. Tenor Zachary Stains is too often hard put in both recitative and aria, rarely going beyond the dutiful. Dominique Labelle and Laura Cherici are serviceable in their roles while Carlo Lepore leaves a more positive impression after his single aria. Curtis may be decried in some circles, but we like his way with the music, never forcing but constantly aware of the drama.


Strauss: Daphne
Renée Fleming (Daphne); Anna Larsson (Gaea); Michael Schade (Leukippos); Johan Botha (Apollo); Kwanchul Youn (Peneios); and Julia Kleiter, Twyla Robinson, Eike Wilm Schulte, Cosmin Ifrim, Gregory Reinhart, Carsten Wittmoser
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Men of the WDR Rundfunkchors
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Decca  475 6926 (2 CDs; notes in English, French and German; texts and translations in English and German)

Daphne, a late Strauss opera handicapped by a libretto that the composer had difficulty coming to terms with, may finally be coming into its own, with two new recordings of which the above was submitted for review, benefiting from the Universal promotion of Renée Fleming who is in sumptuous form here, with none of the scooping that has marred some of her recent recordings, and with little of the blues register she sometimes favors. Semyon Bychkov and his Cologne Radio forces have achieved symbiosis, so that they are now totally attuned to one another. Michael Schade and Johan Botha are well-contrasted in the two tenor roles, while the remaining roles are all cast from strength. Unfortunately, a live recording from Vienna in 1964 (DGG) – the first commercial release of the work – has achieved mythic status, with the dedicatee, Karl Böhm, conducting with far greater urgency than Bychkov, Fritz Wünderlich and James King unsurpassable as Leukippos and Apollo, and the luxury of Rita Streich as the First Maid. Hilde Gueden in the title role may lack the velvet plush of Fleming, but her understanding and ability to convey the composer’s intentions remain astounding. Böhm sanctions two tiny cuts to lighten the role of Daphne but that is forgiveable in light of the results. In short, both recordings are essential as the new version of course offers incomparable sound, though the earlier is more than acceptable.


Lully: Isis
Françoise Masset (Isis); Isabelle Desrochers (La Renommée, Iris, Hébé, 1ère Parque); Valérie Gabail (Calliope, Mycène, Sryinx); Guillemette Laurens (Junon, 2ème Parque); Robert Getchell (Apollon, Pirante, 1er Berger); Howard Crook (Mercure, 2ème Berger, 1er Conducteur des Chalybes); Bertrand Chuberre (Hierax, Pan); Bernard Deletré (Jupiter); Renaud Delaigue (Neptune, Argus, 2ème Conducteur des Chalybes)
La Symphonie du Marais
Hugo Reyne, conductor
Accord 476 8048 (3 CDs; texts and translations in English and French)

This is the first in a series of recordings of Lully’s music under the direction of Hugo Reyne to come my way, and what immediately strikes the listener is the vivacity communicated by the participants, recorded during a concert. As we know, the title characters in Lully’s operas are equal participants with the other performers, the divertissements given equal time, so that evenness of casting is essential. The presence of Françoise Masset, Guillemette Laurens, Howard Crook and Bernard Deletré, participants since the 1980s in many a Baroque production, is a useful link to the recent past, their example followed by the younger participants. It is amazing how clear is the diction, almost entirely comprehensible without following the libretto. But it is Reyne who clearly inspires his forces to function at 150 %, to the benefit of this music that can sometimes seem dry in a too dutiful approach.


Notturno… Music for the night—Il Salotto, Vol. 8
Patrizia Biccirè (soprano); Jennifer Larmore (mezzo); Bruce Ford, Paul Austin Kelly (tenors); Alastair Miles (bass); Antoine Palloc (piano)
Opera Rara ORR 235 (texts and translations in Italian and English)

Opera Rara has lost its co-founder Patric Schmid who died late in 2005 (Don White died a few years earlier), but we are grateful that the work is continuing, with a full schedule for 2006, perhaps the best memorial to someone who had an idea some twenty years ago and made it work. We have had first performances of several operas by Donizetti, investigations of such neglected composers as Pacini, Mercadante, Mayr and the Italian works of Meyerbeer, not to mention the albums of 19th century salon music that have shown us that music – as in the German-speaking countries – was also performed in private homes for domestic consumption. George Loomis’s excellent notes point out that the term "notturno" should not be given its Chopinian connotation but a late 18th century meaning as chamber music for the late evening, in this case for singers and piano. Six duets by Donizetti form the nucleus, taken from the set Nuits d’Eté à Pausilippe/Notte d’estate a Posillipo. Antoine Palloc is a worthy replacement for David Harper on this occasion, but he has been Jennifer Larmore’s collaborator for several years and is thus familiar with some of this repertory. Bruce Ford and Paul Austin Kelly are other Opera Rara stalwarts who can do no wrong here, Kelly’s lyricism and Ford’s drama offering strong contrasts, while Alastair Miles provides a rumbling bass in four numbers. Patrizia Biccirè sounds in better voice here than as a comprimario in the recent Pia de Tolomei, but it is Larmore who has the lion’s share which she carries off with her usual panache. A trio by Manuel Garcia for Larmore and the two tenors is a marvel, using the first bit of "La ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni as its theme which is then embroidered in intricate patterns as the three voices are interwoven. Two of the Donizetti items make use of material from Pia, "L’amante Spagnuolo" showing how reworking or adapting a piece of music can result in an exhilarating solo, but I somehow have the feeling that there is another source that I have not yet identified. Rossini’s Amants de Séville has been a favorite for many years, since I first acquired a Nonesuch album of the composer’s piano and vocal music sometime in the 1960s. But even the minor composers come off well, while Verdi’s trio with flute obbligato or Bellini’s Ricordanza maintain the high musical standards.


Meyerbeer: L’esule di Granata (excerpts)
Laura Claycomb (Azema); Manuela Custer (Almanzor); Paul Austin Kelly (Alamar); Mirco Palazzi (Sulemano); Ashley Catling (Omar); Brindley Sherratt (Ali)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Giuliano Carella, conductor
Opera Rara ORR 234  (texts and translations in Italian and English)

Essential Opera Rara is a collection of Highlights recordings of works that one will otherwise never encounter, though in the present instance a duet was recorded for the third volume of A Century of Italian Opera 1820-1830, later reissued in Meyerbeer in Italy (ORR 222). The cd is most exhilarating as our low expectations – conditioned by years of disparagement – are constantly confounded. Meyerbeer reveled in spatial effects, whether offstage voices or even brass bands, while his way of using vocal conventions regularly surprises us. Taking a standard plot of the time (ousted king returns home to find his daughter about to marry the usurper, plot to kill said usurper discovered, final pardon so that all ends happily with magnificent rondo finale for the contralto hero), Meyerbeer weaves his personal brand of magic to which this listener is highly susceptible. Manuela Custer as the hero, Almanzor, may not have the aplomb of a Horne or Valentini-Terrani, but all the notes are there even though the voice is several shades too light. Laura Claycomb’s light soprano shines through the filigree. Mirco Palazzi may not have the elegance of Alastair Miles in the extract mentioned above but his voice has a distinct presence. Paul Austin Kelly as the villain has less to do, as is usual for tenors who are not lovers, but makes the most of his interjections. But it is the composer who is once again shown to be more than just a purveyor of effects, whether the solo harp for the soprano’s aria, two solo cellos in the introduction to her second aria, not to mention other unusual instrumental solos or combinations. Once again, Opera Rara’s accompanying text features a lengthy essay by George Loomis and the text of the entire opera so that we can easily place the highlights in context.


Paventa Insano – Arias and Ensembles: Pacini and Mercadante
Majella Cullagh (soprano); Annick Massis (soprano); Laura Polverelli (mezzo); Bruce Ford (tenor); Kenneth Tarver (tenor); Alan Opie (baritone); Roland Wood (bass); Henry Waddington (bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
David Parry, conductor
Opera Rara 236 (texts and translations in English and Italian)

It is no longer necessary to introduce Giovanni Pacini or Saverio Mercadante to fans of 19th century Italian opera. Opera Rara have largely contributed to our ever-increasing knowledge and acquaintance with these two composers whose careers overlapped those of Rossini and Verdi, by whom their reputations have been eclipsed. The selections chosen for this cd range from 1821 for both composers to 1848 for Pacini and 1866 for Mercadante, allowing us to appreciate their distinctive qualities while not dissimulating the occasional moment of pure convention, something as easily found in the works of those composers – Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, even Verdi – whose reputations have survived since their operas were composed. Once again, Jeremy Commons provides a fund of information in the accompanying material.  Mercadante seems more willing to provide the occasional quiet moment in the midst of a large finale, whether duet (Andronico) or trio (I Normanni), that compels the listener to pay attention, but he can also knock you over with a rousing trio finale to a first act (Virginia). An all male quartet from Leonora is worthy of Verdi, with its suffocating baritone line, lyric tenor and two muttering basses. At the same time, in an alternative aria for Elena da Feltre he can dazzle the singer and audience with fireworks during a cabaletta. Pacini can also astonish us with pre-echoes of Verdi in a work common to both composers, Il corsaro, or a trio with an amazing slow section with accompaniment largely limited to harp and clarinet from Stella di Napoli, or extensive use of the banda in Il contestabile di Chester. A trio from Cesare in Egitto is in fact a soprano solo with two tenors providing the underpinning while Cleopatra performs vocal variations on a theme. The aria finale of Alan Cameron is interesting for its use of chorus, aria and slow cabaletta, an idea borrowed from Donizetti. The Opera Rara house singers are all in excellent form to defend the colors of Mercadante and Pacini. Most of the selections devoted to the latter feature the lighter soprano of Annick Massis, while Majella Cullagh has the heft required by Mercadante. Laura Polverelli has been a personal favorite since her Armida Abandonnata (recently reissued), with her full-bodied mezzo. Bruce Ford occasionally emits a strange vowel sound, but there are few tenors today who can bring as much conviction to this music, while Kenneth Tarver’s rapid vibrato needs a bit of taming for the microphone. Alan Opie may not be the most elegant of singers, but he is an improvement over some of the Italian baritones who have been featured in recent Opera Rara releases. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir respond with quicksilver accuracy to David Parry, making this one of the most enjoyable CDs to have come my way this year.


Rolando Villazón: Opera Recital
RolandoVillazón, tenor
Münchner Rundfunkorchester
Michel Plasson, conductor
Virgin 344701 2 4 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Rolando Villazón’s third operatic recital is a potpourri, showing off the tenor’s command of four languages during the course of an hour. His proficiency in Italian and French has long been taken for granted, with the usual comment on his not-quite perfect French, though much better than that of some of his seniors. His German (arias from Flotow’s Martha and Alessandro Stradella) is surprisingly fluent, though the Russian of Lensky’s aria does not sound entirely convincing. What remains striking is the brightness of the sound at any dynamic level, the enthusiasm and at the same time an occasional reluctance to sing pianissimo high notes when called for (Carmen, Ernesto’s Serenade from Don Pasquale). There are some clear cases of over-miking to give the voice more heft (the Ivanoff interpolated aria from Ernani, Hoffmann) but generally the balance seems right, under the sure-handed control of Michel Plasson and the Munich Radio Orchestra. Curiously, an aria from La Favorite is sung in the now-discredited Italian translation rather than the original French, but the high notes nonetheless ring out securely. Selections from Tosca, Fedora, Cavalleria Rusticana and Ballo in Maschera suggest future paths for the singer, while the tenor aria from Rosenkavalier offers much entertainment value.


Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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