April 17, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Arias (Rutherford, Bergen Philharmonic/Litton)

If you are not all Wagnered out by the blitzkrieg of bicentennial CDs, DVDs and live performances, you might find room on your shelf for one more addition featuring British baritone James Rutherford. He has already sung Sachs (at Bayreuth no less), the Dutchman, Wolfram, Kurwenal and Wotan in Die Walküre, next up is Amfortas. This album is by way of his portfolio. He is joined here by the excellent Bergen Philharmonic under their American principal conductor Andrew Litton who gives the band a good workout in the Overture to The Flying Dutchman and the Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger. Indeed, Litton proves himself to be something of an inspired Wagnerian here, constantly generating electricity. Rutherford has a generous vibrato which hopefully won’t develop into an uncontrolled mannerism, but he is alert to the textual nuances and there is dramatic depth aplenty. He clearly shows in the closing track, Wotan’s Abscheid, that he can handle the heavy-duty roles. Recorded last year at the Grieg Hall,in Bergen, the production quality is outstanding as you would expect from Swedish label BIS. Highlights include a lovely O du mein holder Abendstern and two lashings of Hans Sachs where his attention to text really…

April 10, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Che Puro Ciel (Mehta, Akademie für Alto Musik Berlin/Jacobs)

Following up his last collaboration with René Jacobs, a fine Handel recital, Bejun Mehta here presents an intelligent survey of early classical arias. While the great reformer Gluck inevitably opens the programme with the delicious Che purio ciel! from Orfeo ed Euridice, his neglected rival Traetta at last gets his moment in the sun; a scene from his Ifigenia in Tauride in which a slumbering Oreste is tormented by a chorus of Furies is the high point of the recital. Another delight is Se il fulmine sospendi from Gluck’s Ezio and the album fittingly concludes with an aria from that early glimpse of Mozart’s operatic genius Mitridate. Mehta’s voice might not have the beauty of Scholl (in his prime), nor the brilliance of Jaroussky, nor the flash of Hansen but he trumps them in his intensity of dramatic projection, incisive attack and vivid colouring of text. Mention is made in the booklet of the realistic acting innovations of David Garrick as taken up by the castrato Guadagni; the spirit of whom Bejun Mehta seems to be channelling here. Maybe it’s a consequence of the artificiality of the falsetto technique but with so many counter-tenors currently on the scene there is…

April 3, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Concert Arias for Tenor (Villazon, LSO/Pappano)

  After just two instalments in his projected seven-opera Mozart cycle, Rolando Villazón has taken a premature diversion a collection of obscure Mozart concert arias that he found in a Munich music shop. As he’s demonstrated already in Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni, Villazón is a persuasive Mozart advocate, but he needs all that skill and enthusiasm to make this grab-bag of juvenilia, rejects and odd-jobs hold together. The opening of the aria Aura che intorno spiri must be one of the greatest opening phrases in all Mozart, but the sublimity is intermittent. Many arias hint at genius and then faff about in a stop-start demonstration of genius almost at work. The most intriguing are Con ossequio, con rispetto and La spoco deluso, where one could speculate that Rossini built his career out of Mozart’s reject bin. The earliest aria, Va, dal furor portata, is gob-smacking when judged by the standards of 9-year-old composers, but compared with the Mozart of 20 years later, it’s scarcely must-have. Just how far Mozart progressed during the intervening period is demonstrated in the only German language inclusion, Musst ich auch durch taussend Drachen, sounding so much more mature and dramatic in intent, and…

March 26, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: La Traviata, Aida, Macbeth (Various)

Three of Verdi’s finest for around $40 is good value by most people’s reckoning and this BelAir set would make a welcome inclusion in any opera fan’s library. French soprano Mireille Delunsch is incandescent as the dying Violetta in Peter Mussbach’s noir 2003 Aix Festival La Traviata. Everyone is dressed in black while the blonde heroine palpitates in sequined white like Marilyn Monroe (or is it Catherine Deneuve?). Matthew Polenzani is impressive as Alfredo, sweet toned and secure in the big moments.   Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2009 Macbeth at L’Opera National de Paris is the standout of this collection. The treatment is simply breathtaking, with a clever use of sets. The cast is top-notch: Greek baritone Dmitris Tilakos is totally convincing and Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana sings powerfully and beautifully, descending into bloody madness looking like a deranged Dawn French. The chorus are superb and the great scene in the fourth act where the displaced Scots are shattered by war evokes chilling footage of refugees. Nicolas Joel’s 2007 Zurich Opera production of Aida, on the other hand, evokes the flag-waving of empire. Nina Stemme makes a compelling Aida. Salvatore Licitra, whose death from a brain haemorrhage in 2011 cut short a…

March 19, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Opera and Concert Arias (Matthews, TSO/Letonja)

For the last twenty years soprano Emma Matthews has been an invaluable asset to Opera Australia, her miraculously reliable vocal abilities elevating many potentially mundane evenings into memorable occasions. With a captivating, vivacious stage presence whether playing sweet ingénue, saucy minx, ditzy maid or femme fatale (her Lulu was an unexpected tour-de-force) one felt secure knowing the musical values would always get their full due.   Her virtues of beautiful silvery tone with tight but attractive vibrato and her impeccable technique allied with rock solid intonation are showcased here with this collection of Mozart arias. Opening with Lieve sono al par del vento one hears the artist’s virtues in a nutshell; beauty and virtuosity in abundance but never for the sake of empty display. Ruhe sanft, mein holdes leben is radiantly sung with the ends of phrases hanging in the air like silk on a breeze and Ach, ich fühls is sung with chaste purity and refreshing simplicity.   She certainly has the pipes to deal with the concert arias; four of which are offered here and are the highlights of the recital. These are notoriously tricky works with many stratospheric passages; the coloratura demands are ramped up due to their function…

March 7, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten: The Turn Of The Screw (LSO/Farnes)

Sixty years on and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw, based on Henry James’s “eerie and scary” ghost novella, is still as taut and dramatically intriguing as ever. The ambiguities and questions still remain for many: Does the Governess actually witness the spirits of sexual predator Peter Quint and his equally possessive offsider Miss Jessel working their evil on her two young charges Miles and Flora or is it all her own deranged fantasy? Whatever you decide – or even if you want to decide – the plot is as powerful as ever, aided by Britten’s sparse and evocative orchestration and Myfanwy Piper’s concise, erotically charged libretto. The use of 16 variations on a theme, which with its rising and falling tonal patterns resembles a threaded screw is a master-stroke. It drives the action along without pause through the prologue and two acts and you don’t need to watch this ever-tightening drama to be snared, as the London Symphony Orchestra’s new two-disc set on its LSO Live label eloquently attests. Recorded at the Barbican last year, conductor Richard Farnes, his 17 musicians and an exceptional cast never let the tension lag throughout the two hours. English tenor Andrew Kennedy…

March 2, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Bel Canto (Kermes, Concerto Köln/Mueller)

Listeners needn’t worry, the publicity assures us: Baroque specialist Simone Kermes might be singing bel canto but she hasn’t changed voice type. Nor would she need to. There’s no reason why Kermes’ high flying soprano shouldn’t negotiate the trills and roulades of Bellini and Rossini just as skilfully as those of Handel. In terms of clarity and accuracy, she’s in excellent form here, and those who’ve seen her wacky live performances on YouTube will be either relieved or disappointed (according to taste) to discover her in more straight-laced mode.  Curiously she sings these arias utterly without vibrato. This might be effective in short doses but applied across the board, it drains much of the life from this spirited music. Make no mistake, Kermes makes a beautiful sound; it just doesn’t ring true to the repertoire, and while she succeeds to an extent in illustrating the stylistic links between Baroque and bel canto, singing Rossini’s Giusto ciel like a piece of lost Pergolesi doesn’t really prove anything. Still, there’s some spectacular vocal showmanship here, including an electrifying Mercadante rarity and two icily precise Queen of the Night arias, and when Monteverdi finally arrives, so does an audible sense of homecoming.  Concerto…

February 27, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Das Rheingold (Mariinsky Orchestra/Gergiev)

For reasons best known to themselves (perhaps to capitalise on an A-list cast) the Mariinsky launched its series of live Ring Cycle recordings with the second opera of the tetralogy, an acclaimed Die Walküre. Now they’ve backtracked to Das Rheingold, Wagner’s “Vorabend” (“preliminary evening) and if the names in the frame aren’t all as familiar as Walküre’s, fear not: this is a top shelf cast in a musically and dramatically involving performance.  René Pape brings serious star wattage as Wotan, of course, and he’s a majestic but lyrical god, singing with meltingly beautiful timbre and a Lieder-like intensity whose relative lack of thunder only heightens our nervous anticipation of the storms ahead. A supersized, sonorous wife would be at odds with his suave Wotan, so Ekaterina Gubanova is a well-chosen Fricka, singing on a similarly elegant scale and with a beguiling hint of soprano-ish silver.  Of their offspring, it’s Alexey Markov whose clarion Donner makes the most vivid impression, though there’s little to fault in either Viktoria Yastrebova’s Freia or Sergei Semishkur’s Froh. Stephan Rügamer’s slender, high-lying tenor (the kind one half expects to break into Britten at any moment) brings unctuous relish and pointed detail to Loge, while Andrei Popov’s Mime takes…

February 19, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Serse (Early Opera Company/Curnyn)

Handel’s Serse of 1738 with its buffo elements and fast moving structure baffled the critics of the day who singularly failed to recognise Handel’s dramaturgical innovations; it was dismissed by some as a mere “ballad”opera and Charles Burney took him to task for reinstating the tragicomedic that had been banished from opera seria. Relying less on the static three-part da capo aria in favour of short snappy one-movement numbers it suits the light, nimble touch of Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company whose excellence in this field is a known quantity and the cast is ideal. Anna Stéphany is superb in the title pants-role, caressing the ear in moments of contemplation yet with sufficient metal in the voice to suggest the warrior king without going over the top and turning the character into a basket-case – her Se Bramante d’amar is a lesson in dramatic projection. Rosemary Joshua’s Romilda is her father’s child with nobility in the voice yet also a vulnerable femininity while her beau David Daniels is as strapping and heroic as a counter-tenor can manage. Thankfully the more comic characters are played relatively straight; Brindley Sherratt avoids conventional bluster as the soldier prince Ariodate, Hilary Summers…

February 19, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Monteverdi: Heaven and Earth (The King’s Consort/King)

  Monteverdi is celebrated for bringing opera to birth, but his extraordinary creativity also saw the gradual dissolving of the stylistic boundaries between sacred and secular music. Here we have a pleasantly varied sample of Monteverdi’s secular music, drawn from the later books of madrigals and some well known operatic items. Two of the items, the arresting Toccata from Orfeo and the vivacious Chiome d’oro from the Seventh Book of Madrigals, were ‘recycled’ as sacred pieces. One of the themes running through this selection is, as the booklet note puts it, “the sweet pains of love”. The most intense expressions of painful love are found in three laments. Lasciatemi morire, the only surviving music from the opera Arianna, was reworked as a five-part madrigal in which Arianna’s pain is intensified by some wonderful dissonances. A Dio, Roma from The Coronation of Poppea is movingly sung by Sarah Connolly while Lamento della Ninfa (one of the first laments over a descending bass) moves and impresses by gaining maximum impact from so little material. Charles Daniels sings Possente spirito, the famous tour de force from Orfeo with great agility and empathy, expertly accompanied by a phalanx of cornetts. The prologue from Orfeo…

February 13, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Eötvös: Love and Other Demons (Glyndebourne Opera/Jurowski)

Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös has plenty of operatic experience having produced versions of Angels in America and Chekov’s Three Sisters. His 2008 setting of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, then, might seem to promise more, but despite this excellent Glyndebourne cast recording giving it every opportunity to land, it remains peculiarly elusive and, for all it’s South American colour, a slightly drab affair. The story concerns the increasingly obsessive love of a priest for a 12-year-old girl suspected of contracting rabies after being bitten by a dog. Oddly, her age appears not to be an issue here, and sung by the capable Allison Bell, she simply comes across as a young woman – albeit one given to a good old scream now and again. There’s a greater tension between the world of the local ‘natives’, accused by the Catholic hierarchy of superstition, and the harsh attempts by the Bishop and Abbess to exorcise Sierva’s ‘demon’. Perhaps the problem is that the short story is just that – short. The characters lack background and relationships are sketchy. The libretto is skillfully adapted, but too often the score seems to drift along when it should seize the dramatic possibilities. Many…

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