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Daugherty: Jackie O

This manifestation of pop culture, with a libretto by Wayne Koestenbaum, responsible for the self-indulgent treatise The Queen's Throat, bears the subtitle: An Opera in Two Acts (in which the events are based on history, but are largely imaginary or metaphorical). With a bit of advice from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, this could have been an immensely successful Broadway musical rather than an opera geared to appeal to a wide audience, which means no audience. Daugherty borrows a bit from all over, the minimalists, but not too minimal, the serialists, but not too serial, etc. and we are left with not very much into which we can sink our teeth. The composer acknowledges his debt to Las Vegas for Ari's music, blues for Liz Taylor and Doris Day for Grace Kelly. This is one undigested mess, treating the characters as if they inhabited a comic strip rather than being among the more tragic figures of our time. Don't waste your time.

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Wagner: Die Walküre
Veselina Kasarova
Thomas Quasthoff
Kathleen Battle
Love's Sweet Surrender

Two years after the mixed welcome accorded to the Dohnányi-Cleveland Rheingold, Decca has at last issued the Walküre that has been slumbering in their vaults since 1992. As a partisan of Dohnányi's approach, it is fascinating to see how he gives the work a certain weight, but at the same time keeps the textures clean and light, the very opposite of a Furtwängler. Despite their lack of familiarity with the work, the Cleveland Orchestra offers a luxurious performance. It is the choice of soloists that may be questioned, though it cannot be denied that for a change there is no one in the cast who would not be capable of sustaining his or her role in a live performance. Perhaps it is this capacity which accounts for the conductor's use of Gabriele Schnaut: she possesses most of the notes but a limited range of color and certainly knows the ins and outs of her role; what is lacking is the individuality which would enable her to imbue the role with her own personality. Robert Hale's Wotan is today one of the few alternatives to James Morris, and he is here in better voice than on the Rheingold. His attention to the words should be remarked. Both Alessandra Marc and Poul Elming offer more luxuriant voices, though the soprano's (bad) habit of approaching higher notes from below does not wear well on the ears. Elming's stage experience is evident, and the role of Siegmund lies well for him. Alfred Muff's Hunding lacks the profundo quality of List or Talvela, and he is perhaps insufficiently menacing. Anja Silja's qualities have never been favored by the recording process, but she does get her points across. This may sound like a negative account, but I did enjoy the recording for its positive elements which far outweigh the negative. The conductor is in total mastery, the orchestral playing is magnificent, the singers all give more than acceptable accounts and do not sound as if they were sight reading. A word of commendation to Decca for an intelligent approach to dividing the work over four discs - Acts 1 and 3 have a disc to themselves, while Act 2 is unevenly divided. Of course, total timing would have allowed the work to fit on three discs, with uncomfortable side breaks, something most potential purchasers would perhaps have more readily appreciated.

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Beethoven: Leonore

With an approaching bicentenary in eight years, and given John Eliot Gardiner's insatiable curiosity, it was inevitable that we would one day hear the ur-Fidelio, the 1805 Leonore. Beethoven's attempts to wrestle his sole opera into a stageworthy vehicle need not be repeated here, but it is interesting to encounter the work from the viewpoint of a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. There is no attempt whatsoever to emulate the monumental approach that most conductors take in performances of Fidelio, everything remaining light and airy, even at the dramatic peaks. Part of the blame may be placed with the casting of the title role, Hillevi Martinpelto lacking the requisite vocal presence, and the lack of contrast between her voice and that of Christiane Oelze's Marzelline renders some of the ensembles indistinct. Oelze is a delight, singing with a freshness that recalls the young Helen Donath on the competitive version. Kim Begley's impressive Florestan shows great vocal control, while Franz Hawlata's Rocco is another excellent portrayal. Unfortunately Matthew Best's Pizarro lacks the bite, the presence, the power that one should feel. Gardiner's mix-and-match approach is explained in detail in the accompanying booklet, but it is curious that someone who feels so strongly that the 1805 Leonore is a viable proposition nonetheless inserts material not only from the 1806 Leonore but also the 1814 Fidelio, something quite different. At least we are not left totally at sea as to the provenance of the various bits and pieces as in the Chatelet Don Carlos which was a concoction of the sort that the composer combatted all his life. And in both instances, it is almost invariable that the later versions are preferable, the musical structures far less regular and more musically inevitable. It is not clear to this listener if Christoph Banzer's narration is more welcome than the spoken dialogue it replaces, both being unnecessary for home listening.

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Richard Strauss: Der Bürger als Edelmann; Ariadne auf Naxos

A long-standing gap in the catalogue is filled at last, and most handsomely at that. Ariadne auf Naxos is on its way to becoming a repertory opera in the revised version, to the detriment of the first version which has its own charms, occasionally long-winded. When the work was presented in May 1994 at the Opéra de Lyon, Der Bürger aus Edelmann was given in adapted form, with Ernst Theo Richter flapping around like a beached whale in the role of M. Jourdain; fortunately he is here limited to linking speeches which are easily programmed out or zapped away, leaving us with Strauss's incidental music. This is all incidental to the heart of things, hearing Ariadne I, which has a number of surprises for the unknowing listener, notably a much longer and higher version or Zerbinetta's aria - the composer transposed the last half down a full tone! Sumi Jo makes easy going of it all and at the same time gives us the wit and drollery of the character. She also gets another major stint just before the final duet and it is she who brings down the curtain, along with M. Jourdain. Margaret Price's Ariadne is glorious until she has to go above A flat, fortunately for us not too often. Gösta Winbergh is one of the better Bacchuses on disc, but then the competition isn't that stiff. Lesser roles are well taken, while Kent Nagano once again demonstrates his mastery of out of the way repertory, and once again gives us a work in a version with which we are not likely to be familiar, as with Salomé, Contes d'Hoffman, Love for Three Oranges and the forthcoming Billy Budd and Doktor Faust. Not to be missed.

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