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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 4 December 2006

Donizetti: Il diluvio universale
Majella Cullagh (Sela); Manuela Custer (Ada); Irina Lungu (Tesbite); Ivana Dimitrijevic (Asfene); Anne Marie Gibbons (Abra); Mirco Palazzi (Noè); Colin Lee (Cadmo);Simon Bailey (Jafet); Mark Wilde (Sem); Dean Robinson (Cam); Roland Wood (Artoo)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Georffrey Mitchell Choir
Giuliano Carella, conductor
Opera Rara  ORC 31 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English and Italian)

Il diluvio universale has long been an intriguing title in the extensive list of Donizetti operas. In order to circumvent the restrictions on staged opera during Lent, the story of Noah and the Ark is called an "azione tragico-sacra", but it is a full-fledged opera. Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto is clearly a model. In addition to Noah, the cast includes his three sons and their wives who function as a mini-chorus, Cadmo (the tenor) who is the satrap of the city of Senáár, and his wife Sela (the prima donna role) and her confidante Ada (mezzo). Il diluvio was written and performed in Naples in 1830, the first night not particularly successful as the stage machinery broke down for the deluge (as had happened several years earlier when the Red Sea did not part for Moses). The work was revised four years later when the tenor’s role was reduced but that of the mezzo given greater importance. It is the revised version that we hear on these CDs. As often in works written at this stage of the composer’s career, there is a mixture of the conventional along with a striving for dramatic truth. Sela dies before the second verse of her cabaletta-finale. Noè’s prayer that concludes the second act is properly majestic. At the same time, Noè’s first act invocation begins in a stately fashion but then a long section is set to particularly jaunty music that is more familiar to us as Marie’s "Chacun le sait" from La Fille du Régiment. Ada’s aria is a conventional showpiece. None of this detracts from Donizetti’s achievement. Mirco Palazzi’s Noè is authoritative when singing alone but lacks the distinctiveness that would make his utterances during the ensembles intelligible. Majella Cullagh as the woman torn between her religious beliefs and love for husband and child is properly distraught while singing with eloquence. Colin Lee’s first venture into a leading role for Opera Rara is promising, though his tight vibrato can occasionally sound like a bleat, something that the microphone has always found difficult to deal with. Manuela Custer’s Ada makes the most of her increased opportunities in this version, her technical skills not entirely masking the lack of a distinctive timbre. Giuliano Carella knows how to make this music flow, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra offers solid underpinning for the singers, while taking advantage of the occasional opportunities offered by the composer.

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
Marquita Lister (Bess); Nicole Cabell (Clara); Monique McDonald (Serena); Alvy Powell (Porgy); Robert Mack (Sporting Life); Lester Lynch (Crown); Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
John Mauceri, conductor
Decca 475 7877 (2 CDs; notes in English, French and German; text in English only)

We are spoiled with recordings of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the first complete recording from the 1950s, excerpts featuring the original cast members, and two recordings of the "complete" score, i.e. as published by the composer prior to the world premiere for which numerous cuts were made (the work was over three hours long, unusual for a work to be performed on Broadway), some of them to enable the cast to sustain the heavy performance schedule, some as general tightening. John Mauceri convincingly explains why he chose to do this first version. There is also the original band music sending everyone off to the picnic and the "occupational humoresque" that introduces the last scene. The Nashville forces are totally comfortable, whether in the musical comedy sections or the more symphonic aspects of the score. The performers do not always succeed in toning down their operatic quality, but Alvy Powell is nonetheless a touching Porgy, though Marquita Lister’s Bess sometimes sounds as if she would be more comfortable singing Aida. Nicole Cabell’s Clara sings a much faster "Summertime", one of the results of Mauceri’s research into the original performing materials. Robert Mack enjoys himself as Sporting Life, a sine qua non for our listening pleasure. He does, however, lack the sinister undertone brought to the role by its originator, Avon Long. This shorter version should be useful in making the work more accessible to opera companies.

Humperdinck: Köngiskinder
Ofelia Sala (Goose Girl); Nora Gubisch (Witch); Jonas Kaufmann (Prince); Detlef Roth (Fiddler); Fabrizio Mantegna (Broom-maker); Jaco Huijpen (Woodcutter); Henk Neven (Innkeeper)
Orchestre National de Montpellier
Latvian Radio Chorus
Armin Jordan, conductor
Accord 476 9151 (3 CDs; notes and translations in English, French and German)


A new recording of Humperdinck’s rarely heard Königskinder allows us to say farewell to Armin Jordan, the Swiss conductor who recently died. I was present at the concert in July 2005 of which this is the aural souvenir, and it is as magical just listening at home as it was in the concert hall. It is difficult to imagine the work on stage, particularly the first act in which the geese participate, but there is too much wonderful music to let this opera just fade away. Ofelia Sala’s Goose Girl and Jonas Kaufmann’s Prince are touching lovers, singing in honeyed tones, the microphones allowing us to hear some extra vibrato on her high notes that was not noticeable in the hall, while he is clearly on his way towards the lighter Wagnerian heroes. Detlef Roth may not possess the magnetism of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on an earlier recording, but he comes close; unfortunately, both on the recording and in the hall one wished the voice was one size larger. Nora Gubisch makes a blowsy-sounding Witch, but she is not heard after the first act. Armin Jordan’s love for the score comes across constantly, and he elicits playing from the Montpellier Orchestra far above their usual standard.

Paer: Sofonisba (excerpts)
Rebecca Evans (Massinissa); Jennifer Larmore (Sofonisba); Lucy Crowe (Osmida); Paul Nilon (Siface); Mirco Palazzi (Scipione); Colin Lee (Lelio)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra
Marco Guidarini, conductor
Opera Rara ORR 237  (texts and translations in English and Italian)

Ferdinando Paer is a curious figure among Italian composers, his career spanning many years and many countries: Venice, Vienna in 1797, Dresden five years later and ultimately Paris five years later again. This latest release in the series Essential Opera Rara once again offers matter for reflection on the whys and wherefores of musical oblivion. Paer is clearly not a "major" composer, but in Sofonisba of 1805 he offers us one of the many links between late 18th century Italian opera, the Viennese school (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven) and Rossini. While most noted for his operas of the semi-seria school, he also set the occasional classic, of which Sofonisba is an example, with a happy ending replacing the otherwise tragic dénouement. Paer’s work precedes the later formulaic concept of aria and cabaletta, and his extended scenes for the singers show an amazing variety of ideas. Curiously, the title role is sung by a mezzo, her husband by a tenor and the husband’s rival not by a castrato as we might expect but a soprano. This readjusted balance is unsettling for a bit, but we get used to the male lover taking a higher line than his inamorata in the ensembles. Jennifer Larmore in the title role invests her portrayal with femininity but is not afraid to trumpet when the music requires. Her coloratura is put to the test, as usual, but she emerges unscathed, but she also moves us with her ability to color the vocal line in slower passages. Rebecca Evans as the former lover also gets through some treacherous music, and blends well with Larmore when they sing together, frequently in thirds and sixths. Paul Nilon in his first leading role in an Opera Rara recording demonstrates that he is more than capable of singing this demanding music. Mirco Palazzi’s contribution is limited, but his presence is always welcome. Marco Guidarini and the Philharmonia Orchestra enjoy the many opportunities offered the musicians, with extensive wind obbligati reminding this listener often of Mozart.

Rossini: Bianca e Falliero
Maria Bayo (Bianca); Daniela Barcellona (Falliero); Ornella Bonomelli (Costanza); Francesco Meli (Contareno); Carlo Lepore (Cappellio); Dario Benini (Priuli); Jiri Prudic (Loredano); Karel Pajer (Officer); Stefan Cifolelli (Chancellor)
Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia
Prague Chamber Choir
Renato Palumbo, conductor
Dynamic DVD 33501 (2 DVDs; notes in English, French and German; subtitles in English,French, German, Spanish and Italian

It is great cause for rejoicing that the productions of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro will be recorded by Dynamic, some on DVD as well as CD. Rossini’s Bianca e Falliero has not been as badly neglected as some, with a live recording from Pesaro in the late 1980s starring Ricciarelli, Horne, Merrit and Ramey and a more recent offering from Opera Rara with Jennifer Larmore. The current DVD is from the 2005 Festival, where it was staged by Jean-Louis Martinoty in his now usual mirrored sets designed by Hans Schavernoch. Opting for a traditional approach, Martinoty then chose to have doubles for the lovers appear at various moments, to little avail. We might question the spotlighting of Bianca at the end, when it is her (re)union with Falliero that is being celebrated. Of course, one of the most important aspects when it comes to Rossini is the musical performance, and while this may not be entirely satisfactory when the visual element is removed, we are willing to overlook certain problems that are not important with respect to the overall picture. Yes; Maria Bayo runs out of steam at the end, but she has been extremely touching until then, the role lying easily for her (see an interview with the soprano). Daniela Barcellona is now accustomed to playing Rossini heroes, her height—she towers over the rest of the cast—an enormous advantage. She has all the many notes of her role and is becoming a more confident actor. Francesco Meli is a wonderful surprise, yet another tenor for whom the Rossinian roulades are easily negotiated, while Carlo Lepore is a properly magnanimous Capellio. Renato Palumbo knows how to pace Rossini’s lengthy dramas (three hours of music) and the Spanish orchestra and Czech chorus are perfectly at home.

Rossini: Matilde di Shabran
Annick Massis (Matilde); Hadar Halevy (Edoardo); Chiara Chialli (Contessa d’Arco); Juan Diego Flórez (Corradino); Carlo Lepore (Ginardo); Marco Vinco (Aliprando); Bruno de Simone (Isidoro); Bruno Taddia (Raimondo Lopez); Gregory Bonfatti (Egoldo) ; Lubomir Moravec (Rodrigo)
Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia
Prague Chamber Choir
Riccardo Frizza, conductor
Decca 475 7688 (3 CDs; notes and texts in English, French and German)


Once again we are treated to a release from the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, this time under the Decca label as it stars Juan Diego Flórez  who is under exclusive contract. Unknown until a previous revival in 1996 in which the tenor rose to instant stardom, we can rejoice that Matilde de Shabran is restored to currency. It is clear from the music that this is a work to be treated as parody and not realistically, but at the same time should not be given an all-out heavy-handed approach that would destroy the balance. Fortunately, we can leave all that to the imagination as we have only the audio proceedings, and impressive they are. Flórez once again demonstrates his mastery of all the Rossinian artifices, blustering on occasion when the situation requires it, but always musically. Neither he nor Annick Massis in the title role is given an introductory cavatina, though the soprano does take the obligatory rondo-finale, dispatched with ease. Marco Vinco as Corradino’s personal physician and Carlo Lepore as his towerkeeper are no slouches when it comes to threading their way through the intricacies of the writing, though Bruno de Simone’s poet Isidoro relies a bit too often on a sort of Sprechstimme, and in Neapolitan dialect no less. The occluded tones of Hadar Halevy’s Edoardo, a trouser role, are not always easy on the ear, while it is conceivable that the role—entirely extraneous to the basic plot—may have been written to feature the original singer. Rossini’s invention is stupendous, the orchestral writing delicious, the orchestra up to the challenges, while conductor Riccardo Frizza maintains firm control over the forces, only occasional losing the continuity in a slow section.

Strauss: Elektra
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Mignon Dunn (Klytemnestra); Robert Nagy (Aegisthus); Donald McIntyre (Orest)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera
James Levine, conductor
DGG DVD 00440 073 4111 (notes in English, French and German; subtitles in English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese)

What an extraordinary performance we are allowed to witness here. It is 1980 and Birgit Nilsson returns to the Met after several years away and knocks everyone out with her performance in the title role of Elektra, one of the all-time killer roles for dramatic soprano. She dominates the role much as she had done for 15 years. Her performance when the production was knew in the first season at the new house was already triumphal, allying the familiar  vocal attributes to a sure dramatic sense, culminating in a mad dance at the end in which we could see her disintegrating. Some of this is captured in Brian Large’s camera work, but greater distance would perhaps have been more effective. But he has chosen to film the work largely in close up, revealing that none of the singers has any of the facial tics that we have seen on other singers in more recent DVDs. But this DVD is not for Nilsson alone, for we have Leonie Rysanek for whom Chrysothemis was a role she sang through most of her career—the camera does not quite do her justice, but then we are told she was singing the performance with a high fever, which might have diminished her customary intensity. Enough, however, comes through so that we are aware that this is an exceptional performance, justifying the very long standing ovation at the end (more than a quarter of an hour—will we ever again see a performance inspiring such a reaction?). In the absence of Regina Resnik, the role of Klytemnestra falls to Mignon Dunn who is more than capable but lacks the qualities that made performances of the Nilsson/Rysanek/Resnik triumvirate so special. It is James Levine at the helm who galvanizes the performance, enabling each of the singers to function at the height of their powers. And what a relief to have a production that does not interpose itself between us and the work, so that we are not obliged to decipher the intentions of a stage director while immersed in such a titanic performance. Bonuses include Nilsson’s contributions to the Met’s centennial gala and the gala for Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com

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