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…

October 3, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera/Mariotti)

Wow, those New York opera critics are a right bunch of grumble-bums, at least if this superb production of Rigoletto is anything togo by. Sure, the Met’s staging earlier this year wasn’t universally panned, but a viewing o the DVD suggests a world-class theatrical spectacle that didn’t deserve its mealy mouthed treatment from some who seem to have taken umbrage that director Michael Mayer came from Broadway and set the whole thing in 1960s Las Vegas. It’s a brilliant concept that actually has you laughing out loud early on, as the Duke (the ever so charming Piotr Beczała) sings Questo a quella in a Rat-Pack style white jacket, crooner’s microphone in hand, and surrounded by showgirls waving their, um, feathers. But then when the tragedy strikes, designer Christine Jones’ casino set with its brilliant elevator exit never imposes, making this a production that compels you to become emotionally engaged in one of the most pathos-ridden final acts that Verdi ever composed, even when the corpse is revealed inside the boot of a Cadillac. The casting’s the key. Želko Lucˇic´ as the eponymous tragic jester who loses his daughter through a terrible twist of fate was criticised for being wooden in…

September 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Saul (Purves, Connolly)

Paving the way for the triumph of home-grown music over continental, Saul was presented in 1739 as part of a London season notable for the complete absence of Italian opera. It was a revolutionary work in many ways. It was the first English oratorio with a male lead; it was the longest English music theatre work to date; and it required larger forces than any theatre work previously performed in England. Harry Christophers delivers a highly charged, dramatic reading of the score, from the grand, ceremonial opening choruses, through the more intimate court settings, right up to the spooky scene where the Witch of Endor raises the spirit of Samuel. Listen to the sonorous use of three trombones (a German import in their day) in the battle music. Military kettledrums (which Handel borrowed from the Tower of London) enhance the famous Dead March. David’s ravishing harp solos and a specially commissioned carillon complete the novel line up and Christophers gives each its moment in the spotlight. Christopher Purves is Saul, a fine baritone and an even finer singing actor. His kingly descent through jealousy, fury and despair is meticulously mapped out with singing of enormous bite and panache. Although the…

August 15, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi, Handel, et al: Enchanted Forest (Prohaska)

When they weren’t putting ancient kings on stage, Baroque opera composers nursed a fascination with witches, sirens and nymphs whose doings provided rich pickings for adventurous vocal and orchestral writing. Anna Prohaska’s Enchanted Forest gathers together a clutch of these characters for a program of otherworldly arias. More nymph than vengeful witch, Prohaska’s pure, slender soprano is at its best in the earlier selections: Restino imbalsamate, from Cavalli’s Calisto and Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa are ethereal yet dark-edged, with gently rippling coloratura and effective use of straight tone which elsewhere can turn a little strident. At top speed the voice loses some of its lustre, although there’s a vehement accuracy to these pieces – notably Vivaldi’s Alma oppressa and Handel’s Combattuta da più venti – which is not without excitement. Of the excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, it’s the mesmerising O let me weep which is most successful, Prohaska overcoming a needlessly imperious start to deliver a lyrical, moving Plaint. Best of all, though, is Cavalli’s O piu d’ogni ricchezza, an understated tour de force whose recitatives are as vibrantly delivered as its dance rhythms and vocal effects. Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo are atmospheric partners, but make the strongest…

August 8, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: George Benjamin: Written on Skin (Purves, Hannigan)

George Benjamin’s new opera is based on the strange and brutal 13th-century Provençal tale Le Coeur Mangê, in which an unnamed ruler (The Protector) asks an illuminator (The Boy) to glorify his power for perpetuity in a book. The Boy’s presence awakens the sexual independence of The Protector’s wife (Agnes), and their subsequent affair leads to the murder of The Boy. In a grisly dénouement, The Protector forces his wife to eat The Boy’s heart, after which she jumps from a window to avoid a similar fate. In order to allow the contemporary world to “bleed through”, British playwright Martin Crimp has added three “angels” who manipulate the drama as if conducting an experiment and double as subsidiary characters. It’s a brilliant conceit that produces
a satisfyingly tight piece of musical theatre matched in intellectual rigor by Benjamin’s razor-sharp score. Crimp ingeniously mixes direct speech with characters narrating their own actions, which lends the recording a special clarity, as you are frequently aware of what a character is doing or thinking. Benjamin uses his orchestra (in this instance 
the peerless Mahler Chamber Orchestra) with enormous imagination and sensitivity to evoke the musical world of the medieval illuminator. Bass viola da gamba…

August 1, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Weber: Der Freischütz (LSO)

Revered British conductor Sir Colin Davis passed away a few months ago, yet reviewing his last recording still comes a something of a shock. Listening to this live concert performance of Weber’s ghostly masterpiece is a welcome reminder of the virtues that kept this tireless musical advocate at the top of his game for 50 years. Carl Maria von Weber was a regular visitor in the Wagner household while the young Richard was growing up, and nowhere was his influence more clearly felt on the operatic giant- to-be than in his gothic fairytale, Der Freischütz. Davis homes in on that Wagnerian dimension, and if his Weber is a relatively sedate affair next to his blistering Berlioz, it benefits from his other great strengths – instinctive sense of orchestral balance and sensitivity to singers. It’s a big-boned reading and the LSO plays its collective heart out for their Chief. Soloists are ideally memorable and the horn section is to die for. Christine Brewer makes a fine Agathe. Her ample voice is beautifully shaded when required and her prayer is most moving. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill sings the vacillating hero Max. His voice is clear and penetrating but it’s a tight…

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