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Britten: Billy Budd

Once again it is Kent Nagano and Erato to the rescue, this time offering the first commercial recording of the original four-act version of Britten's all-male opera - the recently released discs of the 1951 premiere lack some measures of the score at various places, even though Theodore Uppmann's portrayal of the title role lives up to the encomiums heaped upon him. The major loss in the later two-act version was the finale of Act One, about which feelings are mixed, while the few excisions that were made in the Vere-Claggart dialogue are hardly noticeable. We must thank the Britten Estate and the publishers who have permitted this recording, as the score will not be republished - the parts will, however, be available for anyone wishing to perform this alternate version. Nagano confirms his status as a convincing interpreter of Britten, and at the same time his cleverness in choosing to exploit a repertoire where few dare to venture, exhibiting undeniable control and peerless musicality, and this in a work where the available documentation is of the highest standard. Thomas Hampson in the title role demonstrates his ability to master almost any idiom he attempts. I have seen comments reproaching him for his lack of simplicity in Billy's final solo, but I think the same remarks would also have been directed at Fischer-Dieskau had he ventured into this territory. Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Vere comes up against the aural memories of Peter Pears, but he emerges unscathed from the comparison. Eric Halfvarson's Claggart has an easier time of it, in his portrayal of evil in its purest state, while the supporting cast offers cameo opportunities to some of England's crop of young singers. The Hallé Orchestra plays this music as if it were second nature and shows that it is still a force to be reckoned with.

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Handel: Ariodante

Recorded live at a performance in the Parisian suburb of Poissy, it is easy to see why this performance of Ariodante earned rave reviews at the time, and also the following week in Amsterdam. Close listening is initially an uneasy experience because of the often reckless tempi adopted by the conductor, giving a total of 178 minutes versus 193 for the McGegan version and 201 for the Leppard, and this is despite Minkowski's extremely drawn-out tempi for some of the slow arias. Once adjusted to the basic pulse, we can only marvel at Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role, encompassing the extremely virtuoso writing and at the same time the no less difficult simplicity of a literally breathtaking performance of the aria "Scherza infida". And then there is Ewa Podles as Polinesso, for once a voice capable of conveying the requisite villainy rather than the namby-pamby countertenor or female equivalent thereof usually cast in the role. And Podles is no slouch either when it comes to fireworks, as her last aria makes clear. Read Operanet's interview of Ewa Podles. Lynne Dawson's Ginevra more easily captures the plaintive aspect of her character than the exultant, and her high notes are not always perfectly pitched even at the low tuning of 415. Veronica Cangemi as Dalinda is here galvanized in a fashion that must have surprised her, easily matching the manly Lurcanio of Richard Croft. Denis Sedov is the surprise of this package, a hitherto unknown manly bass able to sing Handel's coloratura yet also possessing ringing low notes. The fashion in which the recitatives are brought to life is also noteworthy, In short, one of the best recordings of a Handel opera to date, ranking with René Jacobs's version of Giulio Cesare, John Eliot Gardiner's Agrippina, Sutherland's Alcina, just to cite some of the composer's most important works in this domain.

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Lehmann: Songs

Volume 4 of The English Song Series once again provokes reconsideration of a composer too often relegated to a mold that she too easily breaks. Liza Lehmann wrote "There are fairies at the bottom of my garden" (not on this disc) - a song that put the composer's son through university as we are told by Bedford, who is in fact the composer's grandson - but that is not entirely typical of her best work. Yes, there are one or two slightly mawkish items on the disc, partly a result of the poets chosen, but the strengths are such that we easily forgive the occasional lapse. "Magdalen at Michael's Gate" and "Endymion" should be heard far more often, and the Belloc settings, "Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral", are easily on a par with Poulenc's Nohain settings.

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Literes: Los Elementos

Recorded in the wake of performances at last year's Beaune Festival, this "Opera armonica al estilo ytaliano" is sheer delight. This early 18th century precursor of the zarzuela is sufficiently baroque so that prospective audiences should be wide. Any one familiar with Volumes 1-3 of DHM's series Barroco Español need not hesitate about adding this disc to his library. Once again, López Banzo and Al Ayre Español have come up with a winner. If you have any doubts, listen to tracks 17 and 18, sung by Ayre and Agua, to sample the composer's breadth. One tiny reservation concerns the baritone, whose voice lacks the sharp focus of his colleagues, and one might ask if that role should also have been sung by a woman, the accompanying notes not being especially clear on that point.

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Rossini: L'Italiana in Algeri

L'Italiana in Algeri is an opera that has not fared well on disc, each recording having at least one major flaw - never the heroine as she is the focal point, but usually the Mustafà, with the exception of Samuel Ramey on the Erato set with Marilyn Horne. This version is no exception, with John del Carlo bumping his way through the role and moreover lacking the outsize personality that is part of the character. Otherwise, Giménez is just right as Lindoro, the high-lying role holding no terrors, and Corbelli is no surprise as a perfect Taddeo. López Cobos gives us a balanced reading, as was the case with his Il barbiere di Siviglia a few years back, but it is the role of Isabella on which this opera stands or falls. Jennifer Larmore [read Operanet's interview of Jennifer Larmore] is up to the competition, Simionato, Valentini Terrani, Horne, Berganza, each a winner in her own way, but the exponent of "Sourthern belle canto" also leaves her mark. You might prefer Horne and Ramey as well-matched antagonists or Abbado for his reading of the score (but then you have to endure Baltsa and Raimondi), but you could do worse than this latest version. A bonus track contains a third tenor aria written to replace Lindoro's Act 2 effusion, and Giménez gives us the suavest of readings.

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Rossini: Il Turco in Italia

The fourth commercial recording of Rossini's pre-Pirandellian opera finally hits the mark, even though individual elements of earlier performances are still to be cherished. Riccardo Chailly's return to Turco is welcome, his crisp approach always welcome. Curiosity centers on the Fiorilla of Cecilia Bartoli, yet another jump into soprano territory, but one that is easily mastered. Despite occasional lapses into a sort of "little girl" voice, presumably as a dramatic artifice, her vocalism remains stupefying. (And to show that she is also capable of generating the same intensity in front of an audience, see the Operanet Diary entry for 10 May.) Michele Pertusi is the latest in the Ramey succession and while his voice may not "speak" as does that of Ramey, his ability to navigate in rough waters while maintaining his poise should be the envy of his colleagues. Corbelli's Geronio and de Candia's Poet are easily matched for excellence with Laura Polverelli's Zulma. The graininess of Vargas's tenor will not be to everyone's taste, with Piccoli's comprimario voice not up to the rigors of his little aria. While the "Callas" version (EMI) remains unique not only for the soprano's successful assumption of a comic role, the corrupt text is insufficient to give us an idea of the work itself. Later recordings allow us to hear a Caballé sight reading to a glorious Ramey (Sony) or a soubrettish Sumi Jo to a truculent Simone Alaimo under the spirited leadership of Marriner, but it is the restoration of Fiorilla to a voice with more body so that the Fiorilla-Turco opposition is given the greatest credibility that makes this latest version the one to have.

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Schubert: Lieder

Anne Sofie von Otter's systematic attack on the lieder repertoire now devolves upon Schubert, in which she has foraged widely to come up with a selection ranging from chestnuts as "Heidenröslein" or "Ave Maria" to such unfamiliar works as "Erntelied", "Waldesnacht" or the 13-minute "Viola". Once again we can admire the singer's total commitment to her art as she whispers "Dass sie hier gewesen" or exults in "Erntelied", a harvest reaping song, or growls through the rolled r sounds in "Totengräbers Heimweh". With her customary pianist, Bengt Forsberg, they almost manage to turn "Viola" into a unified work, not an easy task with one of Schubert's more rambling ballads, and this all addressed to a flower. Von Otter is to be commended for the mixture of old and new favorites, rather than relying on a standard Schubert program, for there are still a lot of discoveries to be made in this vast field.

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Verdi: Otello

A surprise in many respects. Not afraid of braving some tough competition, Alain Lombard offers a solid reading, with an orchestra that is clearly pleased to be able to show its paces. While Giuseppe Giacomini in the title role may not be the trumpeting tenor considered the norm for the role, he is aware of the dramatic content. Margaret Price is her normal self, except that the high notes are not quite as easily produced as at the time of her recording with Solti. Manuguerra's Iago is also of the old school, so that prospective purchasers may want to take a chance on this outsider. At full price, however, it would seem doomed to remain marginal except for those courageous few whose curiosity will lead them to listen to a tenor who never had the career he merited.

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Vocalises Selections by Rachmaninov, Alabiev, Saint-Saëns, Délibes, Ravel, Granados, Proch, Dell'Acqua, Glière, Johann Strauss

This unlikely collection from the thinking man's coloratura is an absolute winner, despite the misleading title, for the inclusion of texts indicates that some of the selections go beyond a simple vocalise. The selections are rarely recorded these days, so that anyone wanting a taste of these coloratura bonbons will perforce have to buy this disc, but at the same time they will not be disappointed. Though one may have individual preferences for certain selections, the compilation as a whole is a vast success, ranging from the wordless Rachmaninov, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Glière items, the last-named receiving its once-in-a-generation recording, to such chestnuts as the nightingale songs of Alabiev and Granados, or Délibes's tribute to the girls of Cadix. Nor should we forget the naughty tribute to Lucia di Lammermoor in the cadenza to Proch's "Air and Variations". This is an homage to an old tradition, one in which the singer is pleased to participate. Even though little of the music is in the masterpiece category, that should not deter listeners from the joy emanating from Strauss's "Voices of Spring" in its original vocal setting. For the take of an earlier generation in many of the same selections, you might try DGG's reissue of Rita Streich in the Originals series entitled Walzer & Arien (457 729-2), for Streich too exudes a totally communicative pleasure from start to finish.

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My Native Land: A Collection of American Songs

Songs by Aborn, Abramson, Barber, Copland, Duke, Heggie, Hoiby, Hundley, Ives, Naginski and Niles

American song and song writers have long flourished and been productive, if not always welcomed with open arms by audiences, especially on the non-American continents. Jennifer Larmore's tribute to her country is doubly welcome for its homage to earlier generations (Ives, Barber, Copland) and also its introduction of such new names as Jake Heggie and Richard Hundley. Some of the music has its roots in folk elements while certain selections are as "sophisticated" as anything produced contemporaneously in Europe. Larmore's warm mezzo pairs well with Antoine Palloc's supportive keyboard presence in this fascinating panorama. One quibble is the artsy fartsy presentation of the accompanying booklet, and the inclusion of only a few of the song texts.

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Christa Ludwig: A 70th birthday tribute

Excerpts from Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Iphigénie in Aulide, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Götterdämmerung
RCA has compiled two LPs from the mid-1960s to form this birthday tribute to a beloved artist, losing only one 12-minute selection from the duet album with Walter Berry, the close of Act 2 of Rosenkavalier which belongs more to the baritone than the mezzo. I remember when the original discs were issued, and people marvelled at the audacity with which Ludwig sailed through "Una voce poce fa" (sung in German) and at the same time gave us a resplendent reading of Ariadne's monologue, complete with attendant nymphs and then the Immolation Scene. The two-minute Gluck selection (also in German) was accepted as a memento of an interpretation seen in the theater, but it was the other items on that stunning Eurodisc album that subjugated us. The two Strauss duets included here offered a foretaste of an opera that was to be seen in the first season at the new Met, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and we can appreciate that Berry was a great Barak, even measured alongside the accomplishments of his then wife in the role of the Dyer's Wife. We can also appreciate the wisdom of Ludwig's refusal to take on the dramatic soprano repertoire, magnificent as she is in these excerpts, because we also feel the price being paid, for then the 50-year career would have been considerably abridged. The only negative comment concerns the acoustic in which the Rossini aria was recorded, as if the singer was receding from the mike or turning away at certain points, a defect noticeable even on the LP.

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