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Haas: Šarlatán

Šarlatán is yet another entry into Decca's extraordinary series devoted to Entartete Musik, virtually all of which have been world premiere recordings. The recording is self-recommending for anyone who has been following the series, and will be of interest to other listeners besides. It is easy to detect traces of Janácek's influence on his pupil in the motoric rhythms that permeate the work, here used by Haas to give a sense of life to the crowd scenes, the composer also makes the most of the quiet moments such as the long scene for Pustrpalk at the start of Act 2. Most immediately appealing is the pseudo-folksong near the end of the opera sung by the Doctor and his cronies in which Haas's instrumentation rings the changes on what is a simple melody. The story is simplicity itself, a quack who travels from town to town and is finally caught in his own trap with a wife who disappears rapidly from the scene leaving the field to the girlfriend, Amaranta. There is a multitude of small roles which makes this an ideal work for an ensemble opera company. Israel Yinon's love for the music never deteriorates into schmaltz, always finding the right tone for the kaleidoscopic changes of mood.

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Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila

Sir Colin's affinity with French music has long been known, and it is a pleasure to hear him on form with a score that too often can lapse into vulgarity. Curiosity will of course focus on the protagonists, and it is good news that Olga Borodina's Dalila makes us forget the excerpts she has given us on her recital album or duet album with Dmitri Hvorostovsky (both on Philips). One might reproach her for an overbearing sensuality to the detriment of other aspects of Dalila's character, but the voice exercises its charms. José Cura is more troublesome, ringing out in the more expansive moments, but resorting to an unsupported crooning when he should be aiming for a pianissimo effect. Jean-Philippe Lafont's High Priest surprises in that one expects impeccable French from a French singer, but his idiosyncratic fashion with that peculiar French vowel, the mute e, is hard on the ear. Other roles are incidental and well taken, but it is for Davis and Borodina that the set should be acquired.

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We must count on the smaller labels to fill the nooks and crannies that the major record companies stalwartly ignore, and once again Dynamic and Opera Rara come to the rescue with several first recordings (all but Maria de Rudenz), however flawed in some instances, that add incomparably to our knowledge of a particular period or a particular composer.

The Dynamic recordings all come from the Festival della Valle d'Itria at Martina Franca, which has been making a specialty of offering recordings of rarely heard versions of familiar works, such as the original version of Verdi's Macbeth or the Parisian reworking by the composer of Lucia di Lammermoor (and still to come is Verdi's revision for Paris of Trovatore). Opera Rara pursues its explorations of the Italian romantic era, with an exhumation of Pacini's Maria Regina d'Inghilterra that makes for fascinating listening alongside the much earlier L'Ultimo Giorno di Pompei, while the new version of Maria de Rudenz makes a much stronger case for the work than the earlier, intermittently available version with Katia Ricciarelli, Alberto Cupido and Leo Nucci.

Cimarosa's Goldoniesque comedy, Armida Immaginaria, with large chunks in Neapolitan dialect, shows a different side to the composer than the customarily encountered Matrimonio Segreto. An earlier encounter with a heavy-handed, much-trafficked version in French at the Festival de Radio France et de Montpellier would not have led us to believe that in fact Armida Immaginaria is a delicate work. The entire situation, the Marchesa Tisbea convinced she is Tasso's Armida and the machinations of several admirers who want to gain access to her purse, is perforce farcical, but conductor Eric Hull's sense of proportion, combined with his evident love of the music, allows the various elements to attain their proper value. A predominantly young cast allows Alla Simonischvili to shine as the Marchesa, while Simon Edwards as one of her suitors who ultimately settles for her gardener displays a pleasant tenor voice. The comic figures make the most of the Neapolitan dialect, of which the primary characteristic would appear to be an extreme sibilance.

We were especially curious about the alternative versions to Macbeth and Lucia; while bad luck struck the Festival in that a major performer was seriously ill on both occasions, the rewards are nonetheless enormous. The Macbeth scenes were once available as an extra side of the LP version of the opera conducted by Riccardo Muti with Fiorenza Cossotto and Sherill Milnes, but that did not take into account some of the alterations in the non-solo sequences. Hearing the work through from start to finish we can appreciate how much Verdi got right the first time around, and while there is no denying the effectiveness of Lady Macbeth's "Trionfai", its replacement is a far superior achievement, just as the new Scottish chorus is far more subtle than the patriotic original. In the title role, Evgenij Demerdjiev only shows signs of illness towards the end, but that might even be considered a form of characterization. Iano Tamar, a favorite at Martina Franca, has no difficulty coping with her fiendish music, one's only reproach being that she is not as ugly a singer as Verdi specified. Conductor Marco Guidarini tempers his enthusiasm with an awareness of Verdi's musical forebears.

Donizetti's reworked Lucie de Lammermoor shows how a composer was forced to adapt his piece to prevailing French notions: the illogicalities in the story line are removed and we are given a new character, Gilbert, who replaces both Alisa and Normanno and is the villain. Lucie is now a light-voiced French coloratura, her dramatic first aria replaced by a no less technically demanding aria from Rosmonda d'Inghilterra. Raimund's interventions are reduced to a bare minimum, so that only three principal singers are required. Once again, illness struck, but once again, the music(ologic)al rewards are too important so that we can overlook, albeit with some difficulty, a tenor whose problems are all too apparent. Fortunately, no excuses need be made for Patrizia Ciofi in the title role or Nicolas Rivenq as her brother, both of whom possess the additional virtue of singing in excellent French. Maurizio Benini displays suppleness where required but also sufficient tautness. Many surprises await the listener, even though one might consider this version as much a deformation of the original as is La Favorita to anyone familiar with its original version, La Favorite.

Maria de Rudenz has suffered from a universally bad press, a fact belied by the frequency with which it was given in the 19th century and now a second recording. Despite its unusually bloodthirsty story, the work seems more viable today than was once the case. Three larger-than-life characters have many opportunities to display their emotions: Nelly Miricioiu in the title role gives the sort of committed performance that can only help us to accept the work, embodying every Donizettian quality as she lives her role, while Bruce Ford's continued efforts to break out of the Rossinian mold show a determination that is being rewarded. Robert McFarland's over-sturdy Corrado lacks the requisite Donizettian suavity but that is where conductor David Parry comes in, fully in control of the emotion, pathos, energy required at various times by the composer.

Giovanni Pacini is one of the missing links in Italian opera of the first part of the 19th century. Like Mercadante, the other significant missing link, he is a contemporary of Rossini who continued composing well into the years of Verdi's middle period. Pacini is far more influenced by the Rossinian model than Mercadante, especially when we listen to an early work, L'Ultimo Giorno di Pompei. Once again, Iano Tamar shows her dramatic instincts while maintaining control over a role that exploits all possible technical demands. Raul Gimenez in the high-flying tenor role of Appio may be short on power, but that is not a problem in a role written for Giovanni Davide. His command of the high notes is as always impressive. Even more impressive is Nicolas Rivenq as Sallustio, his baritone occasionally hard-pressed at the lower extreme but eloquent as the bewildered magistrate obliged to condemn his innocent wife while Pompei is being destroyed in a volcanic eruption. Giuliano Carella's enthusiasm succeeds once again in convincing us that there is much to enjoy outside the accepted canons.

Maria Regina d'Inghilterra is a work of Pacini's maturity, with two significant soprano roles so that we are treated to two duets that recall similar situations in Norma or Anna Bolena, alongside dramatic utterances for Maria. The plot is in some ways similar to Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, with the Queen in love with the tenor who dies on the scaffold at the end. Into this familiar outline, Pacini weaves music that is elegant, eloquent and occasionally forceful, though his reliance on triple meters - however varied - wears out its welcome. Once again, Opera Rara has assembled a strong cast, with Nelly Miricioiu in the title role offering a performance to rival her portrayals of Donizetti's Queens. Mary Plazas as her rival is excellent casting, giving an idea of what Norma would be like if the role of Adalgisa were cast with a lighter voice than the singer of the title role. Bruce Ford's customary elegance is tempered with the occasional outburst, making it difficult to imagine a tenor better equipped today to deal with this music. José Fardilha's baritone recalls Rolando Panerai with its rapid vibrato to which the microphone does not do justice, while Alastair Miles in the lesser role of Gualtiero Churchill makes the most of his occasional opportunity. David Parry's empathetic understanding for this "lesser" music remains without parallel.

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