January 31, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (Opera Australia CD)

This memorable live recording of Strauss’ bittersweet masterpiece was taken from live performances at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 and shows the company at maximum strength with an outstanding trio of female voices, some superbly idiomatic conducting and a fine supporting cast. Cheryl Barker is Strauss’ Die Marschallin, a married woman trying to come to terms with the march of time who proves wise enough to let her younger lover move on to girl of his own age. The role sits well for her and plays to her natural strengths for vocal characterisation and attention to text. The odd shrill note aside, this is a deeply felt performance, possibly her finest on record. Emma Pearson is a delicious Sophie (the aforementioned younger woman), her pure voice managing the exposed high notes with greater ease than many a starrier name. Catherine Carby is equally distinguished as Octavian, ardent and youthful sounding, vocally able to compliment both Barker and Pearson. The various love duets are ravishing and the famous trio a genuine highlight. The young Austrian bass Manfred Hemm makes a ripe and resonant Ochs with bags of character and genuine Viennese accent.  If his top is a little pushed, his…

January 31, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vinci: Artaserse

The short life of the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Vinci reads like an opera plot, full of triumphs and intrigues and culminating in death via a cup of poisoned chocolate. Yet the “Lully of Italy” blazed brightly, renowned in his day for his melodic style and natural expression. Artaserse, presented in Rome in 1730 a mere three months before the composer’s sticky end (pardon the pun), was his crowning glory, typical of his gift for vivacity unburdened by weighty matters of musical structure. The libretto, by the great Pietro Metastasio, is a tale of murder, betrayal, love and honour at the Persian court and is representative of his lofty yet accessible approach. As this was the age of the castrati and women were forbidden on the Roman stage, all six of the characters, including the two female roles, were played by men. Cue this historical reenactment with five of the best countertenors around ready to do battle with Vinci’s challenging tessituras and florid vocal lines. I’m happy to report that there isn’t a duff singer to be found on this recording. The two star names, Philippe Jaroussky as King Artaserse and Max Emanuel Cencic as his sister Mandane, are class acts,…

January 30, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Metropolitan Opera DVD)

Staging Wagner’s epic four-part Der Ring Des Nibelungen is the greatest challenge that an opera house can face. The Met’s latest effort, staged by Canadian director Robert Lepage, has been taken out of the opera house and into cinemas all over the world, and is now available in an 8-DVD set. The live performances have taken a bit of a critical battering so how does the small-screen release stack up? First of all, the positives: this is the best looking, best sounding and generally one of the best sung Ring Cycles that you will find.  The high-definition picture is breathtaking in its clarity, while the sound is beautifully engineered to give a wide, natural perspective. The singers have clearly all been miked and every word comes over loud and clear, regardless of stage position or volume of orchestra. The conducting is of a high level, too, with James Levine’s 40 years of experience paying dividends in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, while Fabio Luisi is a solid substitute in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Lepage’s brief was to produce something traditional enough to satisfy the Met’s conservative support base while utilising his reputation for visual wizardry to realise Wagner’s dream for the…

January 30, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Drama Queens (Joyce DiDonato)

The queen of classical concept albums continues her reign with this collection of Baroque arias, all written for royal women in various states of turmoil and distress. DiDonato’s last Baroque disc, Furore, was all about Handel, but this time the focus is on less familiar composers, whose show-stopping scenas, inspired by the great divas of their era, have DiDonato’s name written all over them. Her warm, down-to-earth persona may not immediately suggest the imperiousness of royalty, but these arias catch queens at their most fragile and human – not to mention their most virtuosic – and DiDonato’s patented blend of vulnerability, visceral energy and sheer agility is precisely what they need. The opening track, Orlandini’s stormy Da torbida procella, finds her in whirlwind mode; but it is the following aria, Porta’s Madre diletta, with its plaintive melismas and gossamer pianissimi, which really sets the seal on this album’s success. As thrilling as DiDonato undoubtedly is at high speed, in this case the disc’s gentler moments are some of its most arresting: Keiser’s simple, radiant Lasciami piangere is a hushed gem, almost eclipsing Cleopatra’s much more familiar lament, Piangerò. Giacomelli’s Sposa son disprezzata – commonly but erroneously credited to Vivaldi, who…

January 14, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre (La Fura Dels Baus DVD)

It’s been a long time coming but at last Ligeti’s 1978 “anti-anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre arrives on DVD in a revolutionary staging by Barcelona’s innovative urban theatre troupe, La Fura Dels Baus. Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre of the title, arrives in Breugheland (inspired by the Dutch painter Pieter Breughel’s nightmarish visions), and announces the end of the world.  In the face of a population entirely absorbed with sex, alcohol and petty politics, however, his apocalypse fails to materialise and life goes on as before.  Very much an opera for today, I would argue. This visually compelling production was a highlight of the 2010 Adelaide Festival and has been a hit wherever it has played. We begin with a giant video image of a woman watching TV, surrounded by cigarette ends and gorging on a burger.  A sudden seizure and she falls to the floor, her atrophied body metamorphosing into a giant three-dimensional set. This massive corpse is peopled by Ligeti’s grotesque cast of characters who crawl over her flanks, make love in her eye-sockets and enter her various orifices (even at one point from out of her giant vagina). Most remarkably though, the body is used as a giant projection…

November 2, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: STEFANI: Mission (Cecilia Bartoli, Barrochist/Fasolis)

Nobody does special projects quite like Cecilia Bartoli – each one with at least a few premiere recordings, and each seemingly more elaborate than the last. Mission is no exception, having been preceded by a whimsical YouTube video series and even inspiring a new book by American detective novelist Donna Leon. The centre of all this activity? Agostino Steffani: composer, priest, diplomat and possible spy, whose name has fallen into obscurity but who, according to Bartoli and company, might just be the “missing link” between Monteverdi and Vivaldi in the development of Italian opera. It’s hard to argue with their evidence. This double disc not only showcases Bartoli at her intense and virtuosic best; it’s an immersive musical experience, whose interest lies not merely in the novelty and rarity of the repertoire, but in its genuine brilliance. Gorgeous melodies, tireless musical invention, and a deft sense of theatre leap out at every turn (it’s hardly surprising to discover how heavily Handel was influenced by Steffani, even incorporating some of the latter’s compositions into his own works) and while the program is long, there’s little chance of fatigue. Bartoli’s expressive palette is as colourful as Steffani’s own, and this music –…

July 17, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Tragediennes 3: Various arias (soprano: Veronique Gens; Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset)

While her colleagues scramble to devise a novel concept for every disc they release, French soprano Véronique Gens has been steadily developing a project she began six years ago with a disc exploring the French Baroque tragédie lyrique from Lully to Rameau. This release, the third in her series focusing on the tragic heroines of 18th- and 19th-century French opera, skips ahead a century. And judging by the musical riches she’s still unearthing, she may well stretch it to a fourth. Some of the repertoire here will be familiar to aficionados of grand opera: Gluck’s Iphigénie (1779), Berlioz’s Dido (1858) and Verdi’s Elisabeth (in her French incarnation) jostle with the heroines of the forgotten Auguste Mermet’s Roland à Ronceveaux and Kreutzer’s Astyanax. Most of these women sing in the face of massive personal and/or political crises, and Gens’s distinctive ability to sound both utterly refined and completely unhinged at the same time ensure that each character, however obscure, comes to life with equal vigour. Many of the arias here were originally written for singers who would today be classified as mezzo-sopranos but their low, meaty tessitura holds no perils for Gens, whose lissome soprano has always been on the dark…

June 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: PUCCINI: La Boheme (Opera Australia, Takesha Meshe Kizart, Ji-Min Park)

Gale Edwards’s provocative staging of La Bohème, set amid the glamour and decadence of 1930s Berlin, was a visual feast. Anyone in want of a souvenir will thus probably prefer the DVD incarnation of this performance, but Opera Australia has covered all its bases just the same, and released it on CD as well. Recorded live in the acoustically frustrating Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House, this Bohème won’t delight audiophiles – the orchestra in particular sounds much more distant and tinny than it deserves – but the energy of live performance has been well captured, applause and all. As Mimì, Takesha Meshé Kizart sings with opulent voice and tremulous emotion. Her delivery is at times too mannered and grandiose, but all in all she taps effectively into the character’s sweet, passionate nature. Ji-Min Park brings ardent, youthful energy to Rodolfo, but his slender voice tends to sound pressurised, especially in moments of high volume or tessitura. The rest of the cast consists of familiar ensemble faces, with José Carbó’s Marcello as always a thing of vivid and idiomatic beauty. Taryn Fiebig is less convincing as the coquettish Musetta, however, and while Shane Lowrencev and David Parkin are solid…

June 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL: Il Pastor Fido (Lucy Crowe, La Nuova Musica)

Looking back, an intimate pastoral was an unlikely follow-up to the splashy Rinaldo, Handel’s first London triumph, with its trumpets, crusaders and flying sorceress. First performed at the Queen’s Theatre in 1712, Il Pastor Fido managed only seven performances, one eyewitness complaining in his diary, “The Scene represented only ye Country of Arcadia. Ye Habits were old – ye Opera Short.” Listening to this fresh and tuneful work today, however, it’s a mystery why we’ve had to wait until now for a recording. This is the Harmonia Mundi debut of London-based La Nuova Musica, led by David Bates, and it’s an auspicious start. Handel’s delicate orchestration involves a mere 18 players: just strings and three woodwind, but the magical effects he achieves are impressively diverse. Bates lovingly shapes every phrase with imagination and exemplary attention to detail – just listen to the exquisite pizzicato violins and flute in the sleep sequence in Act Two. His line-up of young singers is equally impressive. Anna Dennis as the shepherd Mirtillo is a singer of great daring and considerable facility, characterising her arias with passionate flair and offering some bravura top notes. Lucy Crowe’s beautiful soprano is brought into play most affectingly as…

June 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: KORNGOLD’S ‘Die Stumme Serenade’ (The Silent Serenade) with the Young opera Company

This double CD is a treat for operetta fans. The Silent Serenade was designed to pave the way for Erich Korngold’s return to Germany after the war. Having given up writing for films in Hollywood and getting back to what he considered his main business, he began work on the piece in 1944. The story revolves around mysterious lovers, bomb conspiracies and mistaken identities; the usual plot devices so beloved of the genre. However, Korngold fell into that old trap which bedevils much of central European operetta – that of a poor libretto. A shame, because the music is witty, bright and melodious. It also failed, both in the US and Germany, because it had missed its time, as the excellent notes tell us. Had the work been staged in the 1930s it might have been a hit. On Broadway, the famous producer, Jacob J Shubert, wanted to make too many changes for the composer’s taste and by the time it was sorted, Rodgers and Hammerstein had revolutionised the form of musicals. Meanwhile, “Viennese” operettas had become passé. My advice: simply ignore the book and listen to the delightful score. The small orchestral ensemble, based around two pianos, is most…

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…

Processing...
Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Sign Up To Our Newsletter
ErrorHere