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Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire

André Previn's first opera was variously received at its world premiere in September 1998, when this recording was made. Including it in their new series devoted to contemporary music (Boulez, Kagel, Berio, Takemitsu), DGG at once makes it clear that they will not be sectarian in their choices, for Previn is not really in the vanguard of today's music. This is a contemporary opera that already occupies a privilieged spot, for I would like to hear it again and also see in on stage. Nonetheless, the question arises whether the music inherent in Tennessee Williams's text lends itself to musical setting.

Despite the extraordinary arias for Blanche and occasional lyric outbursts for the others, there seems to be a lot of word setting and orchestral painting but no overall grasp of the play. This may be the fault of the Williams estate for insisting that as much of the playwright's text as possible be used. Previn's writing for the voice is rewarding, and his orchestral interlude during the rape is reasonably graphic.

Renée Fleming's Blanche is stunning, the voice luscious and revelling in the many opportunities Previn has given her. Elizabeth Futral's Stella has one applause-catching solo and several duet opportunities to show off her lighter soprano. Rodney Gilfry's muscular approach pays off, but his accent tends to sound like a cross between Marlon Brando and Porgy. The accents of the others are variable, sliding in and out. Anthony Dean Griffey's Mitch is the fourth principal, but as in the play has fewer opportunities to make his presence felt. Under the composer's direction, we must assume that this is the definitive performance.

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Heavily Handel

This curious collection of recordings offers the usual number of hits and misses, with two outstanding discs. Paul McCreesh's version of Solomon offers nicely sprung rhythms, exciting choruses - but this is an oratorio in which the composer has outdone himself in that area. Despite the fact that some of the women lack individuality, with a wishy-washy tenor to boot, this performance is self-recommending as it is the first on disc that is textually complete, allowing us to hear how Handel wished the work to end, gently winding down rather than with the exuberant and exultant penultimate chorus. McCreesh vindicates his and our faith in the composer as there is no anticlimactic feeling. Andreas Scholl in the title role demonstrates that he is one of at least a triumvirate of countertenors who surpass the stereotype that has for too long disfigured some otherwise excellent recordings.

Brian Asawa is the second countertenor in the group and his participation in Serse is more than welcome as he outsings virtually all the other members of the cast. The recording is based on staged performances at the Handel Festival in Göttingen, but there are some curious bits of casting, starting with Judith Malafronte in the title role whose anonymous timbre is disconcerting. Susan Bickley, here singing Amastre, has been a far more convincing exponent of the title role in concert performances. Jennifer Smith may be a bit long in the tooth for the heroine, but her command of the style can still offer compensation. Lisa Milne as the scheming sister might just as easily have been cast as the good sister, matching Smith every step of the way. Dean Ely's solid bass-baritone could serve as an object lesson to his counterpart in the Solomon recording, not afraid to show his authority. David Thomas has a made-to-measure role as the comic servant, while Brian Asawa remains the star in his second lead. His technical command and expressivity are never in doubt.

At the same time, his recording entitled Vocalises, which we talked about when I interviewed him, (read interview of Brian Asawa), is little more than a self-indulgent curiosity, his strengths in the baroque repertoire remaining totally alien to the late Romantic style of Fauré, Medtner, Villa-Lobos and Rachmaninoff, further disfigured by the soupy arrangements for orchestra by Jonathan Tunick. The gimmick is one wordless vocalise by each of the composers (for Fauré, the Pavane) and some songs, but to little artistic purpose.

The third countertenor, David Daniels, has come up with an absolute winner in his disc of Handel arias, rivalling Asawa's performance in Serse for stylistic and technical authority. Listen to the way he can toss off the virtuoso coloratura of arias written for the leading castrati, and also sustain the cantabile line of "Cara sposa" from Rinaldo or "Scherza infida" from Ariodante. The disc of Scarlatti Cantatas (I have not heard Volume I) is equally impressive if not entirely as memorable, perhaps because Daniels does not quite succeed in finding the individual mood of each of these pieces.

A fourth countertenor, of a slightly earlier generation, Gérard Lesne, is heard to advantage in a disc of French cantatas that are more or less contemporary with Handel's production in that genre. Lesne is stylistically convincing though the works are far less overtly dramatic than the three Handel pieces chosen by Véronique Gens for her latest disc. While Gens may not evoke the visceral reaction of a Janet Baker, she is nonetheless at home in this repertoire, though it is clear that a live audience inspires her far more than the recording studio if the performance she gave of "Lucrezia" in concert two years ago is any indication. It is nonetheless a welcome addition to the library as "Agrippina" has been recorded only once previously.

William Christie's third Charpentier disc is the least successful of the three, perhaps because there is only one substantial work and lots of short pieces that do not hang together. In total disrespect of performers and listeners, there is no indication in the accompanying booklet of who sings what, which is unfortunate as the singers are all enthusiastic and committed.

Unfortunately, the Naxos recording of Athalia misses fire, with a four-square beat that reduces the work to a sluggish monotony. Aside from the always exceptional Barbara Schlick, the English of the other singers is heavily accented, with a bleating tenor as Mathan and a hooting alto as Joad to boot. The semi-staccato approach taken by the chorus may facilitate comprehension of the text but does not really work musically.

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