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Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Bellini's version of Romeo and Juliette has not fared that well on disc, only the Gruberova-Baltsa-Muti recording (now on EMI mid-price) attracting sufficient praise to be considered a recommendable version. RCA's German wing once again has called on the now-familiar team of Eva Mei, Vesselina Kasarova and Roberto Abbado to see what they can do, and to make sure they retain the advantage have added a third disc at no extra price (in Europe, at least) with the Vaccai finale still printed in the Ricordi score of the opera as well as Rossini's ornamentations for Romeo's aria. And that is the major point of interest here, because Abbado lacks the finesse of Muti and this is very much a conductor's opera despite appearances. Kasarova's tendency to inflate her voice so that it sounds more imposing than nature intended occasionally goes too far, while Mei's narrow-bore voice may not be to everyone's taste.

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Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust

Three widely-spaced recording sessions could not have helped conductor Chung to maintain tension, for this is a polished but far too sedate performance of a work that cries out for excess. Bryn Terfel is the most interesting figure as he expands his recorded repertoire, but a few additional performances before an audience might have been useful in focalizing his character. Anne Sofie von Otter is still capable of a world of nuance while Keith Lewis cannot be faulted any more than the competition, though he is much happier once past the high c sharps.

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Cavalli: La Didone

Our understanding of Cavalli's operas has come a long way since Raymond Leppard's successful adaptations for Glyndebourne, the introduction for many of us to a superb musical dramatist. Even though it is Dido who lends her name to the title of this opera, the first act shows us the fall of Troy. Yvonne Kenny's assumption of the double roles of Cassandra and Didone may be slightly less difficult than taking on a similar task in Berlioz, but the conviction she brings to her work is a model to be emulated. Laurence Dale's Enea lacks vocal suavity but his declamation cannot be faulted, and that is clearly the element favored by conductor Thomas Hengelbrock. Lesser roles are all competently taken, but we must question the performance of Hillary Summers as Ecuba. Although she is considered a contralto in some quarters, her timbre sounds to my ears like a countertenor, with moreover a lack of energy in her production so that it is all quite flat. Curiously, in Christophe Rousset's production of the work for the Académie de Musique Baroque that is allied with the Festival d'Ambronay, the role of Ecuba was taken by a countertenor, while Iarba was taken by a baritone. Hengelbrock may also shock listeners with his peremptory exclusion of the almost obligatory happy ending for Dido and Iarbas, so that literary tradition is not offended. Despite a shorter version than Rousset offered, there is much to admire in Hengelbrock's reading, nor should we neglect opportunities to appreciate Cavalli's considerable talents.

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Delibes: Lakmé

Natalie Dessay's performances of Lakmé were surely the starting point of this recording project, and extremely successful it is too. Uniting such elements as José van Dam and Michel Plasson as supporting pillars is one way of assuring authenticity in a repertoire which lacks suitable points of reference. Dessay not only sails through the Bell Song with ease, but she brings a sense of poetry to the other (less spectacular) solos and also the love duets. José van Dam's bass-baritone is beginning to show some of the ravages of time, but the authority he brings to the role of the bigot is impressive. Gregory Kunde is the only foreign element in the cast, but his affinity for the French repertoire is one of the better-guarded secrets among casting directors. The voice may not be intrinsically beautiful, but the sense of artistic purpose more than compensates. The excellent supporting cast, the Toulouse Orchestra and Chorus and Michel Plasson ensure that this is currently the best of all recorded versions.

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Dvorák: Rusalka

Who would have thought that a largely non-native cast could offer a superlative performance of that most Czech of Czech operas, Rusalka. Mackerras has long been noted as an exponent of Czech music, since his student days in Prague just after World War II, while the creamy tones of Renée Fleming fuse in total symbiosis with the character of the water nymph. Ben Heppner's Prince and Dolora Zajick's Jesibaba are familiar to American audiences, but they too profit from the Prague atmosphere. Franz Hawlata faces tough competition as the Water Goblin but manages to hold his own, while the local forces have all probably stepped down a role to give us luxury casting. If you are unfamiliar with this corner of the repertory, you should give the work a chance. Rusalka's Hymn to the Moon is perhaps the best-known section, but there is more to it than that, from the Wagnerian aspect to the trios of the water nymphs to the resignation that colors Rusalka's fate.

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Lully: Acis et Galatée

Yes, there are other works besides that of Handel on the same subject. In typical French style, the action is fleshed out with several other nymphs and shepherds, and while those used to Handel may miss the great choruses, there is enough music here to charm and delight us. The indispensable Véronique Gens and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt in the title roles once again demonstrate that there are few other singers today who can render this music with such elegance. Howard Crook in several roles is another guarantee of excellence, while Laurent Naouri's blustering giant never forgets that he is singing Lully. Mireille Delunsch offers a series of supporting roles that whet our appetite for the new recording of Gluck's Armide in which she sings the title role. This may not be major Lully but it is nonetheless a useful recording in that it increases our understanding of the composer's range.

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Mahler: Das klagende Lied

Mahler was an inveterate tinkerer with his scores, particularly his early Klagende Lied. Originally in three parts, Mahler dropped the first part, incessantly inflicting alterations on Parts 2 and 3, leaving a veritable rat's nest for scholars. Back in the 1930s, one of Mahler's descendants gave the first performance in this century of Part 1, which by the 50s and 60s was often paired with the remainder of the work in a hybrid version using the later Parts 2 and 3. This recording uses the new edition prepared by Reinhold Kubik as part of the Complete Critical Edition of Mahler's works, based on the 1880 text. All this would be of only marginal interest if the performance were not on the same level, but, fortunately, Kent Nagano's lucky star is at hand as he demonstrates fingertip control over a complicated score with massive orchestra as well as soloists and chorus. Mahlerites should not hesitate to get hold of this disc and listen comparatively next to some of the recent hybrid editions to understand why the later versions offer a distorted vision of the young Mahler's effusions.

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Monteverdi: Complete Duets

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Lamenti:Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Purcell, Bertali, Legrenzi

Monteverdi in all his states once again proves the Venetian's mastery over a variety of musical forms. William Christie's reading of the Vespro della Beata Vergine may make too much of a virtue of a velvet touch, but there is no denying the conviction he brings to music which can adapt to myriad approaches. The spacious acoustic also benefits the devotional aspect that the conductor emphasizes, while the singers remain intent on producing beautiful sounds at all costs.

A very different approach is taken by Alan Curtis, using many of the singers already familiar to listeners from recordings by Rinaldo Alessandrini or Antonio Florio and the Cappella de'Turchini. Curtis has taken all the duets from the later books of madrigals, fleshed out with a number of madrigals to give us two well-filled cds, and has found personalities capable of bringing this music to life, particularly the two tenors, Luca Dordolo and Gian Paolo Fagotto, who bear the brunt of the work. Roberta Invernizzi, Gloria Banditelli, Daniela Del Monaco, Antonio Abete, Furio Zanasi and Roberto Abbondanza are among the other singers who contribute to a successful venture, assisted by a virtuoso group of instrumentalists.

Anne Sofie Von Otter's new album with Musica Antiqua Köln, Lamenti, is another winner for the Swedish mezzo. Her performance of Monteverdi's "Lamento d'Arianna" - accompanied solely by theorbo - haunts almost as much as the virtually unknown Bertali's "Lamento della Regina d'Inghilterra", while the fire and fury brought to Vivaldi's "Cessate, omai cessate" rival the prowess brought by Cecilia Bartoli to this repertory.

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Puccini: Turandot

Whose idea it was to record a second-rate performance of Turandot live in Beijing when there are so many first-class performances available will probably remain a mystery. Is someone trying to cash in on a lot of hype. For starters, one has to put up with the squally singing of Giovanna Casolla in the title role, deprived of her final solo to boot. Sergei Larin and Barbara Frittoli are more in the picture, but both with voices a size too small for their respective tasks, while Carlo Colombara's utterances sound as if they are being given sepulchral gravity with some help from his friends the engineers. Zubin Mehta's credentials for this music are well-known, but he is let down by his cast, while the orchestra and chorus offer solid backing. Stick with one of the Nilsson versions, the high-price Mehta with Sutherland and Caballé or, if adventurous, the bargain Borkh-Tebaldi-del Monaco, to remain only among the commercially available performances.

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Rossini: The Cantatas, Vol. 1: La morte di Didone; Cantata in onore del Sommo Pontefice Pio Nono

Riccardo Chailly places us in his debt with his new project of recording the complete cantatas of Rossini, hitherto the province of little-known record labels with lesser-known singers. Mariella Devia is a singer who has not had the recording career she merits, and it is she who is the focal point of this disc. La morte di Didone is an early work, and the soprano tosses it off with the greatest of ease, and artistry. Her contribution to the Cantata in Honor of Pope Pius is another highlight as she sails into the stratosphere. Michele Pertusi's positive contribution is limited while Paul Austin Kelly's attempt to fill the shoes of Kraus and Blake is not entirely convincing. While Didone is an original work, the later Cantata is a pastiche put together by the master recycling material from his lesser-known works, but always with artistry. It is Chailly, however, who is the moving force, his Rossini now exemplary, tempi always right, while the Scala orchestra and chorus are once again a formidable group of musicians.

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Marcelo Alvarez: Bel canto

Marcelo Alvarez's young career has been carefully organized until now, with appearances restricted to certain roles within his (considerable) limits, but clearly poised for take off. The current disc offers an accurate reflection of the tenor's strengths, which include elegance in music that calls out for just that attribute, alongside good high notes and an attractive timbre. Unfortunately, conductor Carlo Rizzi storms his way through the fast sections, allowing the singer little room to expand. Ying Huang - perhaps still known to audiences as the heroine of the Butterfly film - offers support in a lengthy extract from Puritani, but why were we denied the remainder of Edgardo's tomb scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, so eloquently sung by the tenor last October in Toulouse. Why, moreover, is the authorship of "Angelo casto e bel" from Il Duca d'Alba still attributed to Donizetti when it has long been known to be the work of a student of his, one Matteo Salvi?

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Ileana Cotrubas: Liederabend: Schubert, Britten, Fauré, Brahms

It is good to have this reminder, however flawed, of a charming artist who rarely exceeded her limits and knew when to get out. Almost every one of Ileana Cotrubas's operatic appearances was noteworthy, for the style, spirit and musicality she brought with her. This 1978 Salzburg lieder recital is perhaps more for the nostalgically minded listener, but even those more objective can find much to delight in. It is Britten's "On this island" that immediately strikes us, the singer always finding the right tone if not necessarily sung in perfect English. The Fauré too has its points, while it is good to have such a little-known Schubert song as "Delphine" once more available. When the soprano lets loose in Lia's Aria from Debussy's Enfant Prodigue, however, we know where her heart really lies.

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Many of these selections are available at CDNOW and Music Boulevard.

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