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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 16 October 2006

Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Patrizia Ciofi (Giulietta); Clara Polito (Romeo); Danilo Formaggia (Tebaldo); Nicola Amodio (Lorenzo); Federico Sacchi (Capellio)
Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia
Bratislava Chamber Chorus
Luciano Acocella, conductor
Denis Krief, director
Dynamic 33504 (1 DVD; note in English, French, Italian and German; subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian) 


"First recording of the 1830 La Scala version"—a formulation that will always appeal to me. So, what have we here. When Bellini’s version of the saga of Romeo and Juliet was scheduled for La Scala, Giuditta Grisi repeated her triumphal Romeo, but Giulietta was sung by Amalia Schütz-Oldosi who was more of a mezzo than a lyric soprano. Most of the sections in which Giulietta is involved were revised, frequently transposed down so that the singer would be more comfortable. There is also a short passage in her second-act aria which has until now only been available on the EMI recording with Beverly Sills and Janet Baker. Lorenzo is a tenor rather than a bass, which is of little importance as the role is insignificant. However, it is unclear from this recording whether the role of Romeo was pulled upwards, or is that because Clara Politi is a full-blown soprano whose roles include the Queen of the Night. We are deprived of all those excursions into the lower register that are so distinctive in the writing. The performance is dominated by Patrizia Ciofi, who once again demonstrates that she has few rivals today in this repertoire with her uncanny ability to infuse her singing with emotion. Politi is probably more comfortable in the modern costume than tights, and it would be interesting to hear her in a role appropriate to her voice. Danilio Formaggia is not the smoothest of tenors, but comes across well in the filming. Denis Krief’s contemporary option as set and costume designer takes on a camorristi appearance, but works well in the limited space of the courtyard of the Ducal Palace at Martina Franca. But why has Lorenzo become a priest when the source of the libretto is not Shakespeare but Bandello’s novella where he is an apothecary. Conductor Luciano Acocella holds his forces together and knows how to give the singers the requisite support.

Marchetti: Romeo e Giulietta
Serena Daolio (Giulietta); Tiziana Portoghese (Marta); Roberto Iuliano (Romeo); Giovanni Coletta (Tebaldo); Mario Cassi (Cappellio); Dario Solari (Paride); Emil Zhelev (Frate Lorenzo); Andrea Mastroni (Baldassarre); Eugen Gáal (Servant/Old Man); Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia
Bratislava Chamber Choir
Andriy Yurkevych, conductor
Dynamic CDS 502/1-2 (2 CDs; notes in English, French and German; text in English and Italian)


Martina Franca’s Festival della Valle d’Itria must be fascinating to attend. Surely they hold a record for the number of resuscitations of 19th century operas. During their 2005 edition they presented two versions of the Romeo and Juliet story, both of which were recorded: those of Bellini (see above) and the hitherto unrecorded Filippo Marchetti, better known in the music history books for a setting of Ruy Blas. Romeo e Giulietta is more or less contemporary with Boito’s Mefistofele, with its final revisions contemporaneous with Ponchielli’s Gioconda. While it is always instructive to hear what other composers were writing during the heyday of Giuseppe Verdi, it is sad to report that—despite a number of interesting aspects—Marchetti lacks a distinctiveness that is found in Verdi’s earlier "rivals" such as Mercadante and Pacini, and does not come close to the mastery of Ponchielli or even the much-derided Boito. The libretto by Marco Marcelliano Marcello is of its time, with the major baritone role devolving upon Paride and Lorenzo sustaining the bass register. The lovers are more or less interchangeable with any other couple of the period, though Marchetti does supply them with the occasional memorable moment: Giulietta’s poison-drinking air with a cabaletta that breaks down as she succumbs to the potion’s effects, or Romeo’s aria in the Tomb Scene. Serena Daolio and Rioberto Iuliano are effective, sometimes even touching, while the vocal writing holds few terrors. Dario Solari’s Paride tries his best not to be embarrassed by his lament over Giulietta, unashamedly cribbed from Traviata’s most boring aria. Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych knows how to impart the requisite grandeur to the big concerted moments, but the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia is not always on the same wave length.

Massenet: Chérubin
Michelle Breedt (Chérubin); Patrizia Ciofi (L’Ensoleillad); Carmela Remigio (Nina); Giorgio Surjan (Le Philosophe); Teresa di Bari (La Comtesse); Alessandra Palomba (La Baronne); Nicola Ebau (Le Comte); Bruno Lazzaretti (Le Duc); Riccardo Novaro (Le Baron); Emanuele Giannino (Le Capitain Riccardo); George Mosley (L(Aubergiste); Alessandro Perucca (Un Officier)
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Lirico di Cagliari
Emmanuel Villaume, conductor
Dynamic CDS 508/1-2 (2 CD; notes in English, French and German; text in English and French)

Massenet’s Chérubin has not been entirely neglected as some of the composer’s other late works, but it is not encountered all that often. A 15-year-old recording with Frederica von Stade, June Anderson Dawn Upshaw and Samuel Ramey has until now been the sole opportunity for listeners to become acquainted with one of Massenet’s slighter works, but one that is nonetheless a delight, for the evident mastery abounds throughout, in orchestration, vocal writing, the use of mélodrame, characterization. The live performance was recorded in Cagliari, a venue that has become familiar for the number of rare works seen in recent years, several of which have already been brought before the public by the enterprising Italian label, Dynamic. The performance may not be perfect, but it is alive, with Emmanuel Villaume imbuing the proceedings with gallic sophistication. Though not everyone has a perfect accent in French, no one grates on the ear. One might question the casting of Michelle Breedt in the title role (a South African mezzo who was this year’s Fricka at Bayreuth), her voice no longer sufficiently light in tone, and while we understand casting the role with a mezzo in order to have a contrasting vocal color, Massenet did specify a soprano which would more easily capture the boyish quality. Patrizia Ciofi is a pleasant surprise in a brief role of moderate coloratura difficulty and Carmela Remigio touches us at the end as she succumbs to the charms of Chérubin under the jaundiced eye of Le Philosophe, Giorgio Surjan totally uncomprehending of his protégé’s hormonal surges. The Cagliari forces once again show that they can rise well above competence when inspired.

Cilea: L’Arlesiana
Marianne Cornetti (Rosa Mamai); Angela Maria Blasi (Vivetta); Gaëlle Le Roi (L’Innocente); Giuseppe Gipali (Federico); Stefano Antonucci (Baldassarre); Michael Chioldi (Metifio); Enrico Iori (Marco)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Montpellier
Friedemann Layer, conductor
Accord 476 7644 (2 CDs; notes and texts in English, French, Italian and German)

It is unfortunate that Cilea’s reputation rests on a single work, Adriana Lecouvreur, which is little more than a potboiler, though its leading roles attract all-star casts. L’Arlesiana manifests a much higher degree of craftsmanship and offers a dream role for a mature mezzo soprano, with little interference from an ingénue soprano. The tenor role is as central as that of the mezzo, with one of those "favorite" arias, here delivered in an acceptable fashion. Giuseppe Gipali does even more than is expected from him, with taste though lacking distinctive qualities. Strangely, his voice seems to be in another aural perspective, lacking the presence of the remainder of the cast, but that was also my impression at the concert when these tapes were made. Marianne Cornetti has much to offer, though one dreams of a Simionato or Gorr as Rosa. Cornetti does not shirk the many melodramatic moments but offers sufficient introspectiveness in her aria. Angela Maria Blasi does all that is possible to enliven the role of Vivetta, but it is a losing battle. Gaëlle Le Roi in another little boy role is again all she should be, while Stefano Antonucci would be an even more sympathetic Baldassarre if he sang softly more often. Friedemann Layer and the Montpellier forces once again show their affinity for turn of the century Italian opera.

Beata Vergine: Italian Motets dedicated to the Virgin Mary, 17th century
Philippe Jaroussky (contertenor), with Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto)
Ensemble Artaserse 
Virgin 00946 344711 2 1 (texts and notes in French, German and English)


Is Philippe Jaroussky yet another scholar performer? The selection of items on this recital required a certain amount of digging, I would imagine. Much of what I said in reviewing his Vivaldi CD applies here as well. Not only can the young man sing up a storm, the voice is exceptional in its naturalness, not always the case with countertenors. In two duets with Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux the blend is amazing, but Lemieux has impressed since her first CD devoted solely to Brahms. Two instrumental selections show off the Ensemble Artaserse, now grown to six, but it is Jaroussky the interpreter who leaves us breathless.

Véronique Gens, soprano
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset, conductor
Virgin 00946 346762 2 9 (texts and translations in English, French and German


Véronique Gens returns to the recording studio after a short hiatus, during which she has expanded her repertoire to include Mélisande and soon the Merry Widow (in French). The current CD is a return to her roots, with music going from Lully to Gluck (a selection from Armide common to both), passing by Campra, Rameau, Mondonville, Leclair. The voice has taken on body so that the evenness from top to bottom enables the soprano to declaim the texts within the confines of musical notation, something she does as few others today. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques have several opportunities to show off in chaconnes, passacaglias and preludes, and they make clear that we are dealing with different musical personalities, while at the same time we are aware of the common roots. Bravo.

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