June 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Puccini: Turandot DVD (Opera Australia)

Graeme Murphy’s handsome production of Puccini’s grandest opera was first recorded back 
in 1991, so why have Opera Australia chosen to revisit it? First of all, it’s an opportunity for a technological upgrade, and in this respect the DVD is a singular success. Picture quality is crystal clear, with clever use of overlays to enhance the visuals. The sound, too, is very good, every detail of Andrea Licata’s highly effective, dramatic reading of the score brought vividly to life. First honours go to American soprano Susan Foster in the title role, commanding the stage with ringing tone, immaculate diction and an insightful dramatic identification with the character. It’s a wild performance, and some might find the vibrato a trifle wayward, but she easily sails over the chorus and her emotional transformation is riveting. The other star of the show is the Australian Opera chorus who, despite Murphy’s production occasionally veering into Kismet territory, sing with unflagging power and commitment. Unfortunately, Rosario La Spina proves a fly in the ointment. His foursquare musical approach and unimaginative use of text lacks finesse and, although the top notes are all there, his hollow tone is dull. Add to this some dubious Italian vowels…

June 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Alleluia (Julia Lezhneva)

There are two ways of looking at the 18th-century solo motet. One is as a vehicle for expression of religious thought (and a cheap means to fill out your service if you were on a budget). The other is a way of slipping a virtuoso operatic showpiece or two into a sacred service – indeed, if you were Handel, Vivaldi or Porpora, this form of recycling was common 
practice. For her solo Decca
 debut recording, the Russian
 coloratura Julia Lezhneva has
 opted to explore this fruitful
 musical genre with motets 
from four of the most distinctive
 composers of the Baroque and 
Classical periods. Neatly, each motet 
ends with an Alleluia movement, giving the disc its title. Still only 23, Lezhneva is possessed of an exceptionally pure instrument. The danger with a “clean” voice like hers is the risk of
 a certain sameness over the course of an hour’s solo program, but do not despair:
 this young soprano has two tricks up her sleeve. Recognising the operatic dimension within these works, she hurls herself into the opening of Vivaldi’s In Furore with more bite even than Sandrine Piau on the rival Naïve recording (which is saying something!). Her technique is rock…

May 30, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Die Walkure (Gergiev)

Anyone passionate about Wagner’s Ring Cycle knows that every generation has its own prospective dream team. Cruel twists of fate, aging and contracts have frequently meant that key players never came together on one recording and/or in good voice. Given the paucity of new opera recordings around nowadays, it seems even more remarkable, therefore, that our current generation’s dream team should have coincided on this new Die Walküre from Mariinsky Opera. Valery Gergiev is solid in Wagner – his 2010 Parsifal proved that he has an ear for Wagner’s orchestral sonorities and is
able to sensitively support a vocal line. Given his reputation for being driven, what is surprising here is his breadth of pacing throughout. What he occasionally lacks in climactic payoffs he makes up for with revelatory touches of instrumental colour and meaningfully shaped instrumental phrases. It’s generally very well recorded too, on SACD, with plenty of air around the sound and singers well caught. His cast, as mentioned, is exemplary. Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Kampe are the Wälsung twins, drawing you inexorably into the drama from the word go. Vocally Kaufmann is unmatched on record, a heroically dark tenor with ringing top notes. Kampe gives him a run…

May 23, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Complete Works

Forget the Complete Wagner with its paltry 43 CDs – this monolith, weighing in at a gargantuan 75 discs, beats all comers this year – that is if you can manage to struggle home with it from the shop! From 1840 to 1860, Giuseppe Verdi produced a new opera nearly every year. A slowpoke compared with some of his contemporaries (the likes of Donizetti and Pacini could
whack out three or four operas
a year) but considering that
Verdi’s output included works
like Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto,
La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Un
Ballo In Maschera, that’s pretty good
going by anyone’s standards. He slowed down over the following 30 years, with only five more works seeing the light of day – but what masterworks they were! Decca and Deutsche Grammophon have made so many recordings over the years that it comes as no surprise that Universal Music are able to curate a “complete works” of the depth of quality that we have here. The classic sets include Kleiber’s La Traviata with Cotrubas and Domingo, Abbado’s Macbeth, Giulini’s Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, Domingo’s finest Otello and Karajan’s earlier Aida. We also get both versions of La Forza del Destino (St Petersburg and Milan) and both French and Italian…

May 16, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vaughan Williams: A Cotswold Romance

This CD is a treat for lovers of English music and English folk song in particular. A Cotswold Romance is a concert version by Maurice Jacobson of Vaughan Williams’ robust ballad-opera, Hugh the Drover, written in the era before World War One and later refashioned as a cantata in 1951 using the opera as its prime source. The open-hearted, full fresh air composer is in fine form here; the music is very attractive and performed in great style by the assembled forces. It is led by the late Richard Hickox, whose work in rescuing forgotten English music is his legacy. This sweet rural fantasy is about a time when a young man could risk all to get the girl he loves and finally, after various tribulations, the happy couple sets off on the road to a new life, under the open sky. In today’s more cynical times, we can only look upon such idealistic foolishness with wry amusement and affection. As operas go (and the composer’s very fine Sir John in Love is similar) it inhabits a very different world to the more heady European styles, opting not for gripping drama but for more serene stories of village life with…

March 21, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: VillazoĢn Sings Verdi

Record companies love anniversaries, so
 with Wagner, Verdi and Britten all reaching significant ones in 2013, we can expect a plethora of celebratory releases. Rolando Villazón actually has two Verdi tributes out: one a compilation from his former label, Virgin Classics, which predates the tenor’s well- publicised vocal crisis and subsequent 
surgery; and this new, meatier
 collection, recorded – with able
 support from the Orchestra del
 Teatro Regio di Torino and its
 principal conductor Gianandrea 
Noseda – as an early birthday
 present to Italy’s operatic master. There’s no avoiding the difference
 in Villazón’s voice: his molten gold
 timbre has hardened and the sound as a
 whole (particularly up top) is narrower and tighter, no longer the effortless wonder it
 once was. What hasn’t changed is Villazón’s inimitable enthusiasm. He wears his heart quite audibly on his sleeve, and reinforces 
it with instinctive, pliable phrasing and a knack for five-minute vocal portraiture. His program here is substantial and varied, with plenty of lesser-known repertoire alongside several of the usual suspects, and even
 a few non-operatic selections, including 
three Romanze orchestrated by Berio. Villazón attacks each piece with gusto, and if the results aren’t always flawless, his commitment is undeniable. The Duke’s…

March 20, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: 18th-century Portuguese Love Songs

In his booklet notes to this most bewitching of releases, David Cranmer quotes from a 1787 journal entry by the English traveller William Beckford, in which he refers to modinhas, or Portuguese love songs: “This is an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums.” Wow. Fans of Portuguese fado
 will find these songs, which effortlessly bridged the gap between the popular and the courtly, immediately attractive, languid and sensual. Just listen to a modinha such as Tempo que breve passaste (“So short a time you passed”) by Antonio da Silva Leite. Then there are those, such as the bright, cheeky Onde vas linda Negrinha (“Where are you going, pretty black girl”) by the same composer, alive with Afro- Brazilian rhythms. L’Avventura London director Zak Ozmo, who also plays Spanish and English guitars, has wisely broken up the songs and instrumental works with more “classical” fare with a Portuguese connection – keyboard pieces by Carlos de Seixas and Domenico Scarlatti. The performances by sopranos Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seeara, violone player Andrew Kerr and guitarists Taro Takeuchi…

March 13, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivica Genaux: A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni

Vivica Genaux’s superb recording of arias by Handel and Hasse composed for Faustina Bordoni shows why that 18th-century singer, who had a notorious catfight with her rival Francesca Cuzzoni in front of the Princess
 of Wales, was so envied. Handel wrote some glorious arias for her, most notably Lusinghe piu care from Alessandro, beautifully sung by Genaux on the opening track. Johann Adolph Hasse didn’t quite have the magic touch of Handel musically, but he married Bordoni and then proceeded to compose 
at least 15 operatic roles for her – truly justifying their contemporary reputation as the power couple of 18th-century opera. As for Genaux, she began her career singing Hasse’s music back in the 1990s with René Kollo, and her interest in his repertoire has never faltered. Her tightly controlled coloratura is ideally suited to Hasse’s technical showpieces, especially in Padre ingiusto from Cajo Fabricio. Genaux’s voice gets swamped occasionally in the Radio Bremen mix, but such is her compelling presence on disc that it hardly matters, and generally she finds sympathetic support in the Cappella Gabetta, established in 2010 with brother and sister Andrés and Sol Gabetta as the driving forces. They are sparkling interpreters of the Baroque…

March 13, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Solti Remastered)

Few would have been surprised when Solti’s Decca recording 
of Richard Wagner’s The Ring 
of the Nibelung was voted The Recording of the Century: there was simply nothing which came within a bull’s roar. The entire seven-year project (1958-1965) was a miracle not just of great casting, singing, conducting 
and orchestral playing; it was equally epic in its organisation, logistics, budgetary discipline and technical innovation. The world of recording was never the quite the same. It changed the way people heard opera in their living rooms. An army of experts and professionals deserve credit for the outstanding quality of the finished product (which has retained its magic aura to this day) but the twin geniuses of the project were undoubtedly John Culshaw and then plain Georg Solti. Culshaw had long been a force in the industry as Decca’s leading recording producer but Solti, despite appearances at the Salzburg Festival and recordings with both the Israel and London Philharmonic Orchestras
 as feathers in his cap, was a completely unknown quantity 
in an undertaking as mammoth as this, by far the largest, most ambitious and genuinely visionary recording ever attempted. Now, with live performances of The Ring appearing as regularly as Railway…

March 12, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera Australia: La Traviata on the Harbour (DVD)

By any standards, Opera Australia’s staging of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in April was 
a triumph. The terrifying logistics included a purpose-built raked stage on foundations driven deep into the harbour bed, a signature oversized chandelier rising and falling above the action, and amplified singers coordinated by video-link with conductor Brian Castles-Onion and the AOBO Orchestra underneath it all. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and did anyone mention how much this all must have cost? In the end, the critics were unanimous in their praise for 
a production that had so many unforgettable visual images associated with it, from the fireworks at the end of the drinking song, to the high notes in Sempre Libera being sung mid-air above Sydney Harbour, and on to the party guests in Act Two arriving by water-taxi. But as this incredible DVD demonstrates, what made this production one for the ages was the exact opposite of spectacle. With its superb casting, Francesca Zambello’s staging of the Verdi masterpiece centres ultimately on the deep and profoundly human relationships that occur against that tawdry world of the beautiful people and their glitter-ball existence. Librettist Francesco Piave’s intense psychological drama features lengthy duets wherein the…

March 11, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: James Rutherford: Most Grand to Die

The First World War took its toll on a whole generation but George Butterworth was probably British music’s greatest loss, killed on
 the Somme in 1916. Ivor Gurney survived, but was confined to a mental hospital for most of his remaining life. Ralph Vaughan Williams escaped with impaired hearing but his musical outlook was darkly coloured by his wartime experiences. Programming these composers side by side isn’t unusual (Simon Keenlyside’s excellent Songs of War is still fresh in my ears), but when the singer is as good as James Rutherford it’s a pleasure to revisit the repertoire. The songs were mostly written before the conflict and so are not all as mournful as the CD cover might suggest. Death is a regular guest of A E Housman, and Gurney’s poems are certainly elegiac, but there is much idyllic music here as well. Butterworth’s Bredon Hill and On the Idle Hill of Summer, Gurney’s Severn Meadows and Sleep and Vaughan Williams Let Beauty Awake and Bright is the Ring of Words are among the finest songs in any language. James Rutherford’s is a substantial baritone voice, darker than Bryn Terfel’s but with plenty of bite. Thomas Allen (or indeed Keenlyside) may…

March 7, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Giulio Cesare (Alan Curtis)

Hopping from label to label, Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco have managed to notch up an arsenal of Handel opera recordings, alternating between the composer’s more familiar works – Ariodante, Alcina and Rodelinda – and lesser-known gems such as Floridante and Ezio. Now the group has tackled what is
arguably Handel’s greatest stage
work, Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The
 cast, even by Curtis’s luxurious
 standards, is remarkable. Marie-
Nicole Lemieux’s billowing, 
fruity contralto is gripping in the 
title role, whether she’s singing up
 a storm of coloratura (her Empio, diró
 is fabulously ferocious) or basking in
 the reverential stillness of Alma del gran Pompeo, delivered not only with exceptional breath control and tonal beauty, but with moving sincerity. Indeed, that sense of sincerity underpins every performance in this recording. Karina Gauvin’s Cleopatra – one of Handel’s most varied and challenging female roles – is also sensationally sung (Gauvin’s full-bodied, opalescent soprano is one of the finest of its type) and delicately characterised, from the flirtatiousness of Venere bella to a poignant Se pietà and a breathtaking Da tempeste. While this dynamic duo might on its own make a triumph of this set, they’re well matched by their colleagues. Romina Basso’s…

February 28, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Glanville-Hicks: Sappho

Commissioned in 1963 by San Francisco Opera as a vehicle for Maria Callas, Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s last grand opera Sappho never saw the light of day, rejected on the grounds of “unacceptable dramatic timing” and a surfeit of “modal tonality”. It was thus spared the fate of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida and Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, two dangerously tonal operas that flopped in a musical world where the avant-garde was on the up and up. We have young Australian conductor and impresario Jennifer Condon to thank for deciphering the manuscripts and bringing this important work into the recording studio, just scraping into Glanville-Hicks’s 2012 centenary. Her silver tongue has even coaxed this particularly starry cast to give of their art for the sheer love of the music! For her second ancient Greek opera, Glanville-Hicks adapted a verse play by Lawrence Durrell, collaborating first by correspondence and subsequently at her home in Athens. Sappho, then, is blessed with a beautifully poetic libretto, packed with memorable phrases and singable lines. The plot is cursed with a lack of forward momentum, but what it lacks in dramatic impetus it makes up for in meditative insight. Ironically, Durrell’s Sappho doesn’t chase the young maidens but…

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