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…

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…

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