June 11, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera Arias (Kiri Te Kanawa)

With a career spanning four decades Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has established herself as one of the most popular lyric sopranos of all time with a devoted fan base, especially in Britain and here in Australia. This four-disc budget collection comprises what has been (plus a couple of what might have beens) to mark her 70th birthday. The package is home brand rather than anything lavish, but the four discs are all excellent previously released recordings covering 1989 to 1997. Two are devoted to Italian opera – a 1990 compilation of Puccini, Verdi, Cilea, Giordano, Bolto and Leoncavallo favourites and a 1997 Puccini disc which includes three songs with piano accompaniment. But perhaps the cream of the set is the mainly French compilation Te Kanawa made with Jeffrey Tate and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in 1989, in particular a beautiful rendering of Berlioz’s L’année en vain chasse l’année from The Damnation of Faust. No Te Kanawa collection would be complete without some Mozart and Richard Strauss, and these are provided on the fourth disc, but with them comes a pleasant surprise – a little Wagner with four arias, two from Tannhaüser, O Sachs! Mein Freund from Meistersinger…

May 18, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Hasse: Opera Arias (Cencic, Armonia Atenea/Petrou)

Until the 1980s Johann Adolf Hasse remained a historical footnote – a famous and prolific opera composer in his day of whom one had hardly heard a note. Then in 1986, William Christie made a landmark recording of Cleofide with an exotic line up of four counter-tenors and he was gradually rediscovered. Fast-forward to today and counter-tenors are superstars and major labels release whole recitals of Hasse – who’d have thought?  Max Emanuel Cencic was first heard as first boy on Solti’s 1991 Die Zauberflöte and has since developed into one of those aforesaid superstars. This superb recital includes seven world premiere recordings plus a mandolin concerto for instrumental interlude. Cencic’s voice is one of the richest around today with a gleaming top, a fulsome but firm bottom register and his technical facility is spectacular yet always beautifully expressive. His fiorature runs are cleanly articulated but always maintain a legato line with no nasty aspirates.  The accompaniments are bold, energetic yet elegant and technically immaculate; intonation is spot on. Theodoros Kitsos plays the mandolin concerto with limpid tone. The recording is close but not annoyingly so and wonderfully firm and weighty. Hasse’s arias rival Handel for invention but the whole…

May 18, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Complete Operas (Various Artists)

Even though his father Franz had played horn in the premieres in several of Wagner’s operas, the old man was not a fan of Herr Richard’s music dramas. His son, the composer Richard Strauss, would hold a similar position until his late teens when he discovered the piano score for Tristan and Isolde and he would prove a master of the orchestral tone poem and lieder before writing his first opera – the Wagnerian pastiche, Guntram – around his 30th birthday. However it was not until his third work in the field – Salome (1905), after Oscar Wilde’s notorious play – that he would have a major success de scandale with many productions being rapidly presented across Europe.  With this and his take on the classical tale of Elektra a few years later, Strauss would electrify audiences while balancing precariously on the edge of tonality. However he would suddenly pull back to celebrate his other major influence, Mozart, and with the likes of Ariadne auf Naxos and particularly Der Rosenkavalier, he would create the much loved dramas wherein his unique ability to write for the female voice would shine, creating a template for the rest of his operatic output amounting…

May 16, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Caccini: L’Euridice (Concerto Italiano/Alessandrini)

The 1600 marriage of Maria de’ Medici to Henri IV of France was more than just a Renaissance knees-up. For two composers, Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, it was the opportunity for each to claim to have produced the first example of what came to be known as ‘opera’. On the day, the performance was 90% Peri. Caccini went on to compose an entirely different version (and to subject his colleague to polemical broadsides over the ensuing decades). It’s his version recorded here. L’Euridice relies to a greater extent on recitative than later works by Monteverdi and Cavalli, with fewer ritornelli and choruses to liven things up. A comparison with Peri reveals Caccini to be a tauter dramatist, no bad thing given the tendency towards verbosity at the expense of action. Alessandri’s version, here captured in a live recording from the Innsbruck Festival, also has the advantage of a more imaginative instrumental realisation with three twangling theorbos, a host of keyboard instruments and a beautifully rich double lyre. He also has the benefit of supremely creative singers: Silvia Frigato as a fetching Euridice, Furio Zanasi as a moving Orfeo, Sara Mingardo poignantly announcing the fatal snake-bite and Antonio Abate as…

May 15, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Sullivan: The Beauty Stone (BBC National Orchestra/Macdonald)

For some time, enterprising groups have been recording the Sullivan operas which he didn’t write with Gilbert, a welcome development, especially when as well performed and recorded as is this splendid offering from Wales. Most contain a good measure of attractive music and are important additions to the catalogue. The Beauty Stone arrived at the Savoy in 1898, two years after the last G&S opera, The Grand Duke and ran for a mere 50 performances. The Savoy audience had tired of the genre and were being entertained by hits such as Floradora and The Geisha. On top of that, the librettist, Comyns Carr and the brilliant playwright Arthur Wing Pinero, overwrote the piece into the ground. Unlike Sullivan, who knew a thing or two about these things, they thought it was play with music, and it ran four hours at its premiere. Now, with a good recording and first-rate cast we can largely ignore the clumsier aspects of the drama and content ourselves with Sullivan’s fine score, and it is excellent. With his grand opera, Ivanhoe in 1891 Sullivan was endeavouring to find a way from Wagner to a newer romantic English school with strong medieval elements. He continued this…

May 8, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Rameau: Castor et Pollux (Pinchgut Opera)

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tragédie en musique Castor et Pollux received merely a lukewarm reception when it was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1737. However, its 1754 revision turned out to be a complete triumph. That’s the version Australia’s Pinchgut Opera presented in Sydney, December 2012, from which live performances this recording was assembled. One of Rameau’s most popular operas, containing music of exceptional quality and beauty, it’s surprising this was the first time the work had been performed in Australia in its entirety. Better 258 years later than never, I suppose.  It is also of great comfort that this is such a fine interpretation. The story is straightforward. The immortal Pollux offers to marry his deceased mortal brother’s widow, Télaïre. She’d rather have her husband back, which request Jupiter agrees to grant providing Pollux takes his slain brother’s place in Hades. Castor’s filial love is too strong, however, and he insists on spending one day only with the grieving Télaïre. Impressed, Jupiter makes Castor immortal as well and both brothers are placed among the constellations as the heavenly twins. Conductor Antony Walker and harpsichord continuo player Erin Helyard are fully conversant with the style of the French Baroque, and…

April 22, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Tonight (Fleming, Vogt, Staatskapelle Dresden/Thielemann)

Celebratory concerts such as this are always a mixed bag. Those who like American songs will often be at odds with those who prefer the sounds of old Vienna. The days are long gone when a traditional German orchestra sounded stiff and formal playing a Broadway tune. The fabulous Dresdeners are quite at ease in this music and play it better than most. The deliciously slinky way they have with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band Overture would match all comers. Thielemann is on top of all musical styles, even though the first half of the concert is clearly the better half. Renée Fleming’s voice is best suited to operatic items; she sounds as if she’s slumming it in the American material. Her version of I Could Have Danced All Night is breathlessly over the top. She is simply too heavy for those parts and tries too hard to be ‘cool’. Vogt, with his superb voice and matinee good looks is a charmer. Although in Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better by Irving Berlin, he is under par and Fleming is simply wrong. The alternate verses are sung in German, which is a treat for us Anglos. The overtures from many of these…

April 20, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: L’Amour (Flórez, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Communale di Bologna/Abbado)

It’s four years since Juan Diego Flórez released an album, but he’s back full of singing in this collection of less-than-household- name arias from French composers. Maybe even too full of singing. The voice itself has everything one would expect from a lyric tenor whose initial success at La Scala resulted in the first encored aria in 70 years. There’s clarity of tone, a ringing quality up top, and a good turn of musical phrase. It also has an insistence and ardour that can work to thrilling effect when projected into big theatres. On recordings, though, an abundance of high notes unleashed with the fury of a thousand hell-cats, can be as much feared as revered, when lyric becomes heroic and the listener is pinned against the living room wall. That’s why it’s the gentler arias like A la voix d’un amant Fidele from Bizet’s La Jolie Fille du Perth and the reflective O Blonde Ceres from Berlioz’s Trojans that work best on an album that also features works by Boildieu, Donizetti, Adam, Gounod, Delibes and Thomas. Among the better-known things from this catalogue of operas that don’t often get done are the two arias from Massenet’s Werther, the ruminative O Nature, pleine de grace and…

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…

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