February 13, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Decca Sound: The Acoustic Years (Various)

This release is a sequel to the earlier Decca Sound box set. It covers the years of Decca’s analogue “Full Frequency Range Recording”, starting with the company’s earliest stereo recordings from 1954 –Ansermet conducting the Suisse Romande Orchestra in music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Balakirev and Liadov – and finishing in 1980 just prior to the advent of digital recording, with Dutoit conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in tone poems by Saint-Saëns. The bonus CD gives us the Ansermet Russian program in its original mono, for comparative purposes. Unlike the earlier box, this is not presented as a best performance collection; rather, it is designed to showcase the peak of Decca’s sound quality over those analogue decades. And indeed it does: the sound of Fistoulari’s highlights from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake holds up stunningly (recorded with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961), not to mention Solti’s visceral Mahler Resurrection Symphony with Heather Harper, Helen Watts and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus from 1966.  Sometimes the sound is of its time. When Decca producers recorded opera in the late 1950s and early 1960s they preferred a cavernous space with the voices set back  – an opera house acoustic – yet the clarity and presence…

February 6, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Parsifal (Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie/Haenchen)

How to make a spectacle out of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal? There’s the rub. Belgian company La Monnaie called on Italian avant-garde theatre director Romeo Castelluci to lend his vision to this four-hour production. The result is a Kundry dressed in white anorak and gumboots, lashings of nudity and bondage and an albino python, said by Castelluci to represent Wagner’s music, and whose ‘venom’ might be a cure. (Herpetologist’s note: Pythons are not venomous). There’s also a German shepherd dog which occasionally makes an appearance like Inspector Rex on a case. Also in the mix are 300 extras and explicit scenes in the second act where Klingsor’s castle is a cross between an S&M parlour and a gynaecologist’s consulting room. It all looks like a Pilates class gone horribly wrong. Castellucci is known for shocking audiences with violence, nudity and, on occasions, steaming piles of excrement. This was his first operatic venture. It’s difficult to imagine how he would follow this up if invited. The cast, orchestra and chorus are all solid if not exceptional. But then it can’t be easy competing with 300 extras, a dog, a snake and topless dancers with white beehive wigs. The liner notes say…

February 3, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera review: La Bohème (Opera New England)

Without inviting accusations of Sydney snobbery, I think I can safely state that opera performances are not exactly a frequent occurrence in Armidale, a rural town of some 24,473 inhabitants in northern NSW. This makes the sophomore production by local company Opera New England something of a big deal – and not just for the town’s inhabitants, but for all those who believe opera can, and should, flourish outside Australia’s state capitals. Puccini’s La Bohème was the ambitious choice of opera (following on a well-received debut with Figaro last year), and it demonstrated that even a grand Romantic blockbuster can be staged in a small theatre on a small budget. All you need is an engaged community, a dash of talent and plenty of hard yakka. The cast of this production was comprised of hopeful young singers from around Australia, and I’m guessing it took little effort for them to step into the roles of passionate young artists living on the smell of an oily canvas. Many of the voices were still works-in-progress, but all the singers were able to meet the challenges of the score, some brilliantly so. As the consumptive seamstress Mimì, recent Sydney Con graduate Sarah Toth gave an assured performance,…

January 30, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky, Gergiev)

Strauss and Hoffmansthal’s fantastic fairytale has a reputation as a brute to stage and while expensive, requiring a heavy-duty cast of singers to do it justice its heavy symbolism and Jungian archetypes, it’s a gift to directors who can give free rein to their imagination. Sadly, most try too hard to spell out the bafflingly symbolic as seems to be the case in Jonathan Kent’s literal production which serves the human aspects well but is rather ho-hum when it comes to the other-worldly; Barak and his wife live in a squalid Laundromat while the inhabitants of the Spirit-World gad about in a colourful Russo-Oriental pastiche.  The Mariinsky singers have the necessary heft but also a great deal of Slavic wobble. Best of the bunch were the Olgas Sergeeva and Savova as the Dyer’s wife and Nurse; both threw themselves into the maelstrom and their dramatic intensity made up for the occasional ugly sound.  Gergiev’s conducting, while wildly exciting, lacks the sweeping Echt-Straussian line and while the strings make some glorious sounds the orchestra comes across as relentlessly loud and crude. An essential purchase for Gergiev fans, perhaps, but I would veer towards the Sawallisch/Munich production with its clever Kabuki-style and musical…

January 23, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner & Dietsch: The Flying Dutchman

Here’s a curiosity. It seems that the Paris Opera didn’t entirely turn down the young Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in 1840. Instead they bought the subject from the ever strapped-for-cash composer for 500 francs and gave it to a chum of the director, a former double bass player- cum-composer, Pierre-Louis Dietsch. For the Wagner birthday celebrations, Marc Minkowski came up with the ingeneous idea to perform both the rare original ‘Paris’ version of Wagner’s opera as well as Dietch’s jauntier bel canto confection, Le Vaisseau Fantôme (the Ghost Ship). The Wagner receives a fine performance with excellent soloists. Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin makes a spirited Holländer with plenty of textual nuance and lashings of angst, if lighter in tonal weight than is sometimes the case. He is well matched by his Senta, Ingela Brimberg, occasionally under pressure but often exciting and always committed. The period instruments feel a little thin at times (Wagner was perhaps already demanding more of the orchestras of the day) and Minkowski doesn’t always allow enough breathing space for the drama to land, but when it does, it’s an exciting enough affair. For the explorer, though, it’s the curiosity of the Dietsch that will draw them…

January 16, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Glyndebourne Festival Opera)

For the past year the music, life and character of Richard Wagner have been put under the microscope, assessed and reassessed, but no bicentenary survey would be complete without a superlative recording of Tristan und Isolde. Four years ago, Glyndebourne staged it with a predominantly German cast – Torsten Kerl and Anja Kampe as the doomed lovers and baritone Andrzej Dobber as Kurwenal and bass Georg Zeppenfeld as King Mark. Now Glyndebourne Music has released the live performance in a hard cover booklet set and it’s been worth the waiting for. With the London Philharmonic as your house orchestra and the exciting Vladimir Jurowski at the helm you know you are going to be in for a treat and this recording produced, engineered, mixed and edited by Sebastian Chonion will sweep you away. Jurowski’s attention to balance is spot-on and the magnificent sound of the LPO – a band with no discernible weak spots – ensures that the soloists are heard to their full advantage. Kerl’s tenor has a lighter, slightly nasal quality at times but that doesn’t detract at all and the vocal chemistry with the Italian- German Kampe is outstanding. The pair performed Tristan coming off a triumphant season in Fidelio. There…

November 28, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Requiem (La Scala)

Verdi's monument to a fellow hero of the Risorgimento and his fraught relationship with the Church must strike a chord with Daniel Banreboim drawing parallels with his friendship with Edward Said and interest in Israeli-Palestinian politics. Twety years ago he set down an exciting dramatic account in Chciago but thsoe optimistic days are past; this new recording is a lment for our troubled times – the tone is darker, almost opressively so. Mustival values are better served in chciago whereas spiritual matters are to the fore in Milan; the idfferent characters of the forces are the key – symphonic versus operatic. Despite the presence of Domingo in Chicago the new bunch of soloiosts are superior. Harteros' vibrant voice can turn pure and gleaming when required and Garanča sounds marvellously rich and idiomatic. Pape is suitably imposing, intelligently singing "on the words". Kaufmann might sound too teutonic for some ears (not mine) and his vocal production is so worryingly tight that one hopes it doesn't all go p ear-shaped with overwork. Barenboim's grasp of long term structure makes this performance work. Whiel there are some tremendous hell-raising moment eh eschews sensationalist effects in favour of a compassioante vision. Whilst not a…

November 28, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Cosí fan tutte (Persson, Brower, Plachetka, Villazon)

DG’s new series of Mozart operas helmed by the label’s latest “das Wunder” Yannick Nézet- Séguin, kicked off last year with a superb Don Giovanni. Rolando Villazon is making a low-key comeback after his various vocal crises and has given a different slant to the tenor roles so-far. His Don Ottavio was a refreshingly muscular and Italianate change from the usual polite Mozartian tenors but here his Ferrando is not quite so successful with the more lyrical writing exposing his slightly nasal delivery; the tone now more tight and dry. Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi, a known quantity from an excellent Glyndebourne DVD, is technically immaculate and Angela Brower’s Dorabella is superb with ideal colour and weight of voice. Platchetka’s is an ideal Gugliemo and Corbelli puts in another fine not-too-buffo Don Alfonso however I remain immune to the charms of Mojca Erdmann, DG’s house soubrette. Her Despina is irritatingly arch with all the old clichéd off-key vocal disguises – tediously unfunny! Nézet-Séguin’s direction is superb, more weighted towards period style than before. The recitatives are wonderfully fleet and conversational, tempi are ideal, the finales thrilling with precise articulation. It may seem churlish to complain that this set is not at the…

November 14, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Farinelli: Rivals (Hansen)

The first thing you notice are the asterisks all over the liner notes. They’re on every track bar the opener to denote world premiere recordings of these sometimes outrageously virtuosic Neapolitan arias for the famous castrati. David Hansen’s voice, too, is something of a modern world first.   On his debut solo album he soars across three octaves, so that listeners are left to marvel at his stamina and dexterity in the 13-minute tour de force Son Qual Nave (by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi) as he flips between octaves – showing off the equally impressive lows – and embellishes impossibly long passages leading to a thrilling da capo high D. Hansen’s interpretation is as close to Farinelli’s as possible, in the version the castrato annotated with his own ornaments. That D is Hansen’s fullest and richest high on the album; at other moments it can get cold up there – occasionally drifting a little sharp despite his care and precision – but it’s a remarkable feat you certainly won’t hear anywhere else.   It was perhaps inevitable that the refined playing of the orchestra Academia Montias Regalis would be outshone by the soloist, but in Leo’s Freme Orgogliosa L’Onda (with…

November 7, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Provenzale: La Stellidaura Vendicante (Academia Montis Regalis)

Obscure baroque operas are fairly common nowadays, but this first ever recording of Provenzale’s tragicomedy La Stellidaura vendicante, still wins points for novelty. Premiered in 1674 in Naples, it’s an opera in the Venetian style – lovers of Cavalli will instantly recognise the musical language – but also peppered with Neapolitan folk music and dances.   The plot is typical: a hopelessly tangled knot of misdirected letters and wayward hearts, multiple near-deaths and a knife-wielding heroine. As that heroine, the titular Stellidaura, mezzo Jennifer Rivera sings with limpid clarity; she easily sustains the long lines of her aria Ferma, arresta, and is unfazed by the frills of Dormi, o perfido tiranno. Carlo Allemano’s dark, heavyish tenor takes time to warm up but is a good fit for the ruthless Prince Orismondo, and he’s well contrasted with the higher-lying, slightly reedy voice of Adrian Strooper as his rival, Stellidaura’s true love Armidoro.    Countertenor Hagen Matzeit is in fine voice as the page Armillo, and bass Enzo Capuano, as the servant Giampetro, has more fun than anyone, rollicking his way through the role’s phony Caprese dialect and catchy ditties straight from the streets of Naples. Provenzale’s score is a touch uneven, but de Marchi’s inventive realisation, with authentic Neapolitan instruments, ensures a theatrical performance.

October 31, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: The Gambler (Mariinsky Opera)

This early Prokofiev opera isn’t performed all that often. Although it is a fine, well-written work, it’s devoid of big tunes appealing primarily to those who are interested in sung drama rather than more conventional opera. Of course, we all know that the composer could write fabulous tunes, as the ballet scores and his Third Piano Concerto attest, but he was then in his revolutionary period as a young firebrand. In 2007 when I saw this production in St Petersburg I was impressed by the ‘sung play’ aspect of it all. It was very effective and at two hours, didn’t outstay its welcome. In this story, virtually everybody gambles in some way, not just the foolish Alexei, and the plot, set in a German spa, is an intricate ensemble of desperate or failing people. It’s more akin to Strauss’ Arabella than say, La Traviata, both regarded as top conversation operas, and with this well-oiled ensemble, it’s a delight. The direction is sensible and, happily for those of us watching it on screen, the acting is first class, with none of those close ups of singers glancing nervously at the conductor which mar so many video productions. The singing is marvellous,…

October 24, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Arias (Anna Netrebko)

When Anna Netrebko released her first solo disc, she was the poster child for a supposedly new breed of opera star: glamorous young singers who photographed at least as fabulously as they sang and whose publicity machines whirred at hyperspeed. Like any sudden sensation, she was greeted by both acclaim and skepticism: was she precisely the new blood opera needed, or an omen of Hollywoodification? Did she really have the voice and stage instincts to back up her superstardom – and how long would it all last? Ten years later, Netrebko has not only fulfilled her early promise, but moved well beyond it. If she’s a poster child now, it’s for singers with staying power, and this new disc of Verdi arias, although timed to celebrate the composer’s bicentenary, is also a milestone for the soprano herself, now slowly but surely moving into heavier repertoire. Never a timid performer, Netrebko opens her program at full throttle, with twenty minutes of Lady Macbeth, before moving into heroine mode with arias from Giovanna d’Arco, I Vespri Siciliani, Don Carlo and Il Trovatore. The Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino under Gianandrea Noseda (who also conducted the soprano’s debut album) are sympathetic partners throughout, but…

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