May 31, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

Among the more daring projects underway for the Wagner centenary is Dutch-based PentaTone’s plan to record Wagner’s ten later operas on SACD, all from concert performances and all conducted by seasoned Wagnerian Marek Janowski. Following a superb sonic rendition of The Flying Dutchman last year, here we have Die Meistersinger, to be followed rapidly by Parsifal next month. Wagner’s comic masterpiece can be a hard act to pull off, requiring dramatic singers with stamina who can act with a lightness of touch when required. Quite a feat, and one that nearly comes off here, if not quite. First, the pluses. The sonic engineering is superb – not quite as orchestrally revelatory as the Dutchman but you’ll be hard pressed to find a better sounding opera recording. Albert Dohmen as Hans Sachs is also mightily impressive, firm of tone and offering great textual insight into this multifaceted character. Edith Haller’s Eva is charming and Dietrich Henschel makes Beckmesser a formidable rival, if pushed at the very top of the voice. The sense of ensemble is also excellent with fine chorus work and a great sense of occasion, all moving forward swimmingly in Janowski’s pacey reading. It’s the two tenors who let…

May 17, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL, MESSIAEN, DUTILLEUX: Poemes (Renee Fleming)

For a singer so attuned to the undulating tones of the French language, Renée Fleming has recorded relatively little Gallic repertoire apart from the Massenet operas. This album redresses the balance in a tour de force of 20th-century orchestral songs. In Ravel’s Shéhérazade, the American soprano’s rich, finely matured instrument floats above the opulent orchestration and serpentine flute. Her operatic sense of storytelling embodies Scheherazade herself, who tantalises her king and captor with one tale after another in 1,001 Arabian Nights. In some declamatory passages, however, her voice loses the lustre and carefully placed diction heard elsewhere. Messiaen’s erotic yet deeply spiritual Poèmes for Mi, settings of his own text dedicated to his first wife, were written almost 40 years after Shéhérazade. Fleming exerts a siren-like thrall when she is left exposed in the orchestra’s pregnant pauses. She caresses the ear with impeccable intonation, luxuriating in the long, melismatic “Alleluia”. Later in the cycle, she unveils the satisfying warmth of her lower range, and exploits her keen dramatic instinct in the deranged laughter and visceral imagery of Terror. Alan Gilbert and the Orchestre Philharmonique give these challenging pieces their all in a kaleidoscope of colours, textures and nuances, shimmering strings…

May 8, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Helden (Klaus Florian Vogt, Deutsche Oper Berlin/Schneider)

“Klaus Florian Vogt is Bayreuth’s leading tenor – he has a unique voice, perfect technique and last but not least the perfect look for a leading man in the works of Wagner.” Thus the marketing hype for the Sony debut of the latest heldentenor held up as the great white hope. Having enjoyed his performance as the Prince on a recent Rusalka DVD, I wish I could respond more positively to what is on offer here. Vogt kicks off with an aria from Der Freischütz – not a bad choice.  The voice is light but well suited to Weber (if occasionally phrases droop below the note). Mozart and Lortzing also sit comfortably in his clean, high, lyrical voice although here, as elsewhere, a shortage of engagement with the texts bedevil the performance.  The major problems lie with Wagner. His Lohengrin has been praised in some quarters, but the “detached quality” of the Grail-knight, that some have described as other-worldly, feels to me simply a “detached quality”. His Winterstürme is similarly passionless, while his prize song comes across as a pretty enough lied but it doesn’t really sound like the reward is worth the winning. The orchestral support from the Berlin Opera…

April 26, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: The Best of Salvatore Licitra

Salvatore Licitra’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident last year hit the opera world hard. The tenor was one of his generation’s brightest stars, and at just 43 should have had a long and distinguished career ahead of him. Now Sony – with whom Licitra recorded a number of operas and solo albums – has released this 2-CD compilation in his honour. It’s a thrilling, poignant celebration of an artist in his prime, his voice bright, muscular and brimming with emotion. Most of the great Italian tenor repertoire is represented here – Verdi and Puccini dominate, along with various verismo favourites. From the bracing bravado of Di quella pira to a lovely Addio, fiorito asil, Licitra is in magnificent form. It’s repertoire he was born to sing: Cavaradossi, Canio, Manrico and all their brethren fit him ideally. The second disc shows Licitra’s lighter side, with selections from the album Duetto (with tenor Marcelo Álvarez) and previously unreleased recordings of Italian songs. Clearly aimed at the crossover market, the duets are on the syrupy side, but the quality of the singing is exceptional. Better yet are Licitra’s charming renditions of songs like Funiculi funiculà and O sole mio, sung with unmistakably…

April 12, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Romances (Dmitri Hvorostovsky)

Hot on the heels of his Pushkin Romances and Tchaikovsky Romances, both released on the Delos label, Dmitri Hvorostovsky makes his Ondine début by continuing the series, this time with a recital of Rachmaninov. His muscular baritone is broodingly at ease in these songs, which deal predominantly with themes of bitterness, regret and ill-fated love, all of it couched in rich and picturesque verse. Here and there, one might wish for a lighter touch or a silkier tone – Hvorostovsky’s singing is more forceful than beautiful, but his musicality is rock solid, and his dramatic sense as compelling on disc as it is on stage. Indeed, his delivery is so robust, and his voice so sonorous, that many of the songs seem to morph into miniature arias. Such an approach might be the undoing of German or French art songs, but Rachmaninov’s romances, whose poetry and illustrative piano parts (deftly dispatched here by Hvorostovsky’s frequent recital partner Ivari Ilja) are already quite operatic in scope, seem almost to demand it. The desperate agony of It is time!, the desolation of Yesterday We Met, and the pleas of Oh no, I beg you, do not leave! are all brought to compelling…

February 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL: Streams of Pleasure (Karina Gauvin; Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Il Complesso Barocco/Curtis)

They played enemies in Alan Curtis’s recording of Ariodante, but French-Canadian Baroque specialists Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux make a happier pair in this collaboration, a selection of arias and duets from Handel’s English oratorios.  Handel ceased composing opera in 1741 and turned his hand instead to sacred vocal music. There’s a transcendent quality to these later works, befitting their pious status, but Handel was a man of the theatre, and never lost his knack for drama. Gauvin and Lemieux are well placed to strike that balance, bringing ravishing beauty and drama to these excerpts.  In duet, Gauvin’s pearly soprano contrasts ecstatically with Lemieux’s billowing contralto: the voices blend gorgeously without being subsumed within one another. Welcome as the dawn of day, a sensual love duet between Solomon and his Queen, is an especial delight. Lemieux can stray towards bluster in a militant role, as in Cyrus’s Destructive war from Belshazzar, but to calmer music – As with rosy steps the morn, for instance – she brings a tremulous and earthy beauty.  Gauvin is even better, singing with luscious tone, silken phrasing and keen emotional instincts. Her solo arias are some of the disc’s finest moments: My father! Ah! Methinks I…

February 9, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL: Agrippina (Akadamie fur Alte Musik Berlin/Jacobs)

Agrippina, third wife of the Emperor Claudius, placed her son Nero on the throne after poisoning her husband with mushrooms. Her ungrateful offspring then had her hacked to death after she survived a rigged boating accident. So, not exactly Comedy Tonight from Handel then? Wrong. This 1709 work written for Venice is one of the funniest “parody” operas around.  The plot concerns the scheming matriarch’s attempts to have her son declared Claudius’s successor over the virtuous Ottone. Nerone, however, is focused solely on his passion for Poppea. She, of course, is in love with Ottone while pursued by the randy but foolish Emperor. A sort of Carry On Claudius thus ensues. A Handel opera from René Jacobs is always an event and this recording is a veritable cracker. Alexandrina Pendatchanska is a knockout as the wicked Empress, sometimes a railing harpy full of vocal fireworks, other times a wheedling manipulator of her doltish husband. Jennifer Rivera has a ball as the petulant Nerone, while Sunhae Im is a charming Poppea. Countertenor Bejun Mehta gives us a beautifully sung Ottone, raising this secondary role to something like the hero of the piece. Marcos Fink does a resonant turn as the bumbling…

January 25, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: SAINT-SAENS: Elan – Ballet Music from Operas

This exceedingly rare anthology presents ballet music from four seldom-performed operas by the French late-Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. This disc may be the only way most people will ever experience these delightful works. We know the operatic Saint-Saëns for the most part only through Samson and Delilah and its famous aria Softly Awakes My Heart. His other operas have languished, but here we have excerpts from his Henry VIII, Ascanio, Étienne Marcel and Les Barbares – all mostly consigned to the music history books.  Orchestra Victoria under Guillaume Tourniaire makes a persuasive case for ending this neglect. If the rest of the operas are as graceful and beautiful as the ballet music suggests, then their resurrection is well overdue. The music is elegant, and surprisingly modern touches are couched in musical language wittily evoking a more Classical era.    Tourniaire weaves an orchestral tapestry of the most delicate beauty and fluidity. The orchestral sound is never excessive – this refined music is always on its best behaviour. Orchestra Victoria’s playing has a silky sheen and is layered as if translucent. Their level of professionalism makes it extraordinary that our federal and state governments and even The Australia Council are not willing to give this body…

January 25, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: ARRIVEDERCI (Vittorio Grigolo t; Orch del Teatro Regio di Parma/Morandi)

It’s a brave man who steps into the shoes recently vacated by “Big Lucy” and certainly no one could accuse Vittorio Grigolo of timidity. For his second Sony album, the former Sistine Chapel choirboy with the matinee idol looks has nailed his colours firmly to the mast with a selection of popular arias and Italian song. In his sleeve note Grigolo cites Gigli’s influence but also, tellingly, popular tenor Claudio Villa. So how does it stack up? First off, the opera: Grigolo certainly has all the notes. He also has a fast, but not intrusive vibrato. My two quibbles concern a tendency to be below the note at medium volume and another to scoop up to notes in the upper part of his voice. Listen to his La Donna E Mobile for an example of what I mean. This is a pity as he is a good vocal actor and he tops it off with a terrific bravura high B. Elsewhere he offers us a most sensitive Lamento Di Federico from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, proving that with a little control he can manage any vocal waywardness. Where this CD really takes off, though, is with the “popular” songs. Here Grigolo has…

January 9, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: HAYDN: L’Anima del filosofo, Orpheus and Eurydice (Pinchgut Opera)

Haydn’s much-feted sojourn in London in 1791 was the occasion for the writing of his final opera, based on Ovid’s treatment of the Orpheus myth. Alas, operatic politics at the Haymarket meant that the first staging had to wait until 1951 with no less a leading lady than Maria Callas. Since then, revivals have been patchy so we must thank Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera for this live recording. Antony Walker and the excellent Orchestra of the Antipodes give the best reading of the score since Doráti. Dramatic pacing is spot on with sprightly tempi and fine instrumental contributions to Haydn’s ambitious orchestration, while Cantillation offer characterful singing. Elena Xanthoudakis has a light, pretty voice, able to cope with the flashy coloratura in both her roles – the Sybil’s showcase aria rightly brings the house down. It’s a pity that in her lower register she falls short of her recorded rival, Bartoli. Derek Welton offers fine support as her father, Creonte; his vengeance aria is particularly effective. Only the fluttery tenor of Andrew Goodwin lets the side down, struggling with coloratura and lacking power low in the voice. The CD also misses a certain depth, perhaps a consequence of the live recording. Nevertheless,…

January 9, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Gioia! (soprano: Aleksandra Kurzak; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Wellber)

Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is the real and dazzling deal. Her choice of repertoire for Gioia! may be on the conventional side, but if she invites comparison with the greats, she well and truly lives up to it, with performances whose technical brilliance is matched by stylish, sensitive artistry. The arias here represent some of the mainstays of Kurzak’s career – Violetta, Lucia, Susanna and so on – and her mastery of them is thrillingly apparent. Flawless coloratura and silvery top notes are underpinned by a timbre of surprising warmth and depth, and by a vivid and versatile vocal presence. She’s remarkably good at teenagers and coquettes, but a full-blooded and ferociously well-sung rendition of Violetta’s Act I aria proves they’re far from the limit of her talents, and as Musetta and Lauretta, she manages Puccini’s lyrical legatos as perfectly as any of the fireworks. Having aced all these repertoire favourites, Kurzak concludes with a rare treat from her native land: an aria from Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor, sung with radiant beauty. Omer Meir Wellber’s leadership of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana is strong and dramatically astute, but the laurels here belong overwhelmingly to Kurzak. A sensational début.  

November 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI: Prima Donna Arias (Nathalie Stutzmann; Orfeo 55)

What is the opera singer Nathalie Stutzmann doing on the cover of her new album with a baton in her hand? She may be a Prima Donna, but she’s certainly wearing the pants for this recording, in which she sings with and conducts her own period ensemble, Orfeo 55, even wielding a tambourine on the final track. The French contralto is undoubtedly a musicians’ singer, and her insights into this repertoire, as a frequent star of Naïve’s Vivaldi opera edition, are invaluable. Prima Donna emphatically reclaims these arias from the castrati, acknowledging Vivaldi’s own preference for the warmth of the female contralto voice. He would have loved Stutzmann’s – smooth and velvety across all registers and precise in coloratura despite a rich vibrato. Her focus, however, seems to be sculpting a fine melodic line rather than building the kind of dramatic intensity needed in Juditha’s Agitata infido flatu. She is at her most persuasive, then, luxuriating in the slower tempi of Cor mio che prigion sei and Transit aetas. But some high-energy moments impress: lively recitative in Gemo in un punto e fremo, a peppy L’innocenza sfortunata (this version is the most fun I’ve heard on disc) and Con la face…

November 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HOMAGE TO MARIA CALLAS: Angela Gheorghiu; Royal Philharmonic Orch/Armiliato

Angela Gheorghiu pays tribute to Maria Callas in this collection of verismo arias closely associated with La Divina. Gheorghiu is no more the “Next Callas” than any other soprano, but in terms of repertoire and prima donna glamour, she’s arguably the best qualified for a venture such as this. Gheorghiu is in strong form, if not quite as versatile as her illustrious predecessor. She’s a resplendently flighty Nedda, revels in the lachrymose possibilities of Le Cid and Medea, and is of course marvellous as Violetta, a role which is as much hers as Callas’s these days. The breathy girlishness of Marguerite’s Jewel Song and Mimì’s Donde lieta is less appealing, however, while Delilah needs a smokier, more seductive timbre than she can muster. Comparisons aside, though, this stands alone as a solid representation of Gheorghiu’s artistry – sometimes mannered, sometimes compelling and very pretty – with Armiliato mostly following her lead. There’s just one oddity on this album: a digitally manipulated “duet” between Gheorghiu and, yes, Callas, singing Carmen’s Habanera. It’s a strange idea and frankly unnecessary, but it’s not quite as kitschy as it could have been, and shouldn’t deter those keen to hear Gheorghiu in the rest of the…

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