August 11, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Puccini: Turandot (Nina Stemme, Aleksandrs Antonenko, La Scala/Chailly)

In 2002, Riccardo Chailly conducted the first Turandot to use the new completion by Luciano Berio at the Amsterdam Muziektheater directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. 15 years later, the same team reunited to mount it at La Scala and commit it to video. Alfano’s completion sought to continue the spectacle but, in its rush to wrap up the story, is dramatically implausible – poor Liú is soon forgotten and love conquers all. Berio’s alternative is low key and pensive, its modernist touches may jar the ear but it’s more respectful than Alfano’s gauche reprise of “that” tune. Lehnhoff’s production has some curiosities but I “get” his neo-Brechtian-meets-Commedia-dell’arte aesthetic and there are some arresting images. Stemme is splendid as the cruel princess, her warm tone evincing a humanity behind the ice; her Wagnerian credentials allow her to ride the maelstrom from the pit in thrilling fashion. Antonenko does well to match her, though his sound has tightened since his fine 2008 Salzburg Otello. Maria Agrest is a lovely full-toned Liú, and the Milan chorus is superb whether delicately awestruck or baying for blood. Topping all is the brilliance of Chailly’s conducting – this could well be the finest account of the score…

August 11, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mascagni: Guglielmo Ratcliff (Wexford Festival Opera/Cilluffo)

We can thank the popularity of Walter Scott’s wildly romantic novels for the popularity of Scotland as setting for 19th-century Italian operas. If you add a German dramatist in Heinrich Heine and an Irish orchestra and chorus then this highly attractive new release of Pietro Mascagni’s neglected masterpiece Guglielmo Ratcliff has a truly global provenance. The composer first started work on it as a student in Milan following an unsuccessful love affair but it got put aside. After the success of Cavalleria Rusticana, Mascagni completed it but the tenor role was so challenging that after a successful premiere and a short run the work fell into obscurity. The hero is the spurned lover of Maria, disturbed since boyhood by an apparition of two lovers who can never have each other. Every time Maria is about to marry, her suitor gets killed – no prizes for guessing the perpetrator! The action centres on four monologues, one by Maria’s father MacGregor, two by Ratcliff himself and one by Margherita (“the mad woman of the castle”). This Wexford Festival production under Francesco Cilluffo is a corker. Angelo Villari thrills as Ratcliff, aided by a mainly Italian solo cast with the notable exception of…

August 11, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Monteverdi • Rossi • Sartori: La Storia di Orfeo (Philippe Jaroussky, I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis)

This startling new recording presents a modern form of pasticcio or, as countertenor and project originator Philippe Jaroussky says, a work that was “conceived as a kind of opera in miniature or as a cantata for two solo voices and chorus.” It also reminds us there were other fine operas on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice written after Striggio and Monteverdi’s famous favola in musica. (As there were, of course, before it, such as Rinuccini and Peri’s 1600 L’Euridice. Here again we have the tragic and all-too-familiar story of Orpheus’s doomed attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice, who had perished after being bitten by a serpent, from Hades’ realm. But by stitching together elements of three operas written decades apart – Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo (1647) and Antonio Sartorio’s L’Orfeo (1672) – we are introduced not just to bracing chiaroscuro effects that serve to heighten the drama; such anachronisms also demonstrate the changing styles of, and tastes in, music over nearly 70 years of the Baroque period. This was clearly a labour of love for Jaroussky (Orpheus). And what a fine thing to get such collaborators as Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth (Eurydice), I Barocchisti, Coro della Radiotelevisione…

July 12, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bellini: Adelson e Salvini (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Rustioni)

The clue is in the title. Bellini’s ‘graduation opera’ Adelson e Salvini is more buffo bromance than tragic romance, and none the worse for it. Composed while he was still a student at Naples’ Royal College of Music, and premiered by an all-male cast of fellow students in 1825, the work is a precociously tuneful, intermittently dramatic affair (though the less said about the 17th-century Irish plot the better). Rossini and Mozart are plentifully represented here in the younger composer’s first opera, but there are also tantalising hints of the mature composer to come, and this premiere recording by Opera Rara does its youthful promise proud. Opera Rara know how to put together a cast, and this one’s no exception. Baritone Simone Alberghini (Lord Adelson) and tenor Enea Scala (his friend, the painter Salvini) battle for the affections of the magnificent Daniela Barcellona’s Nelly – richly resonant, painting her vocal lines with the thickest of brush-strokes – while Maurizio Muraro blusters and booms characterfully as the Leporello-ish manservant Bonifacio. Rising young conductor Daniele Rustioni shapes an affectionate and lightfooted account of the score, deploying some lovely solo woodwind textures (skittish flutes for Bonifacio, melancholic oboes for Nelly’s Romanza Dopo l’oscuro…

July 12, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Theodora (Les Arts Florissants/William Christie)

You have to admit, Handel knew how to craft a drama equal with the best at HBO. Theodora is a masterpiece, and with the drama focussed on the relationships between the central four characters, superbly sung, this is a story that resonates easily with modern audiences. With unity in direction, concept and lighting, this is a fantastic production. Although he’s top billing, Philippe Jaroussky (Didyme) is the weakest member of this ensemble of singing actors. Vocally, he is stunning, but a stronger presence on stage would have made more of the juxtaposition between the feminine quality of his vocal tone and the traditional heroism of his character. The soldier’s physicality is a little uncomfortable, and in stark contrast to his masculine costuming. However, Kresimir Spicer (Septime) is so astonishingly good that the comparison is a little unfair. He sails through the notorious Dread the Fruits of Christian Folly, with gravity defying coloratura while Descend, Kind Pity reveals his astonishing legato. The female cast is just as strong. Katherine Watson (Theodora) is youthful and sweet, balancing the steel and sweetness of the martyr. Her Irene is the captivating Stephanie d’Oustrac, whose extraordinary presence translates effortlessly to screen. William Christie paces superbly…

July 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Carl Heinrich Graun Opera Arias (Julia Lezhneva, Concerto Köln/Mikhail Antonenko)

Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) shared Hasse’s popular acclaim and fondness for effervescent coloratura. Unlike Hasse, however, his music has remained confined to the archives, and it has fallen to Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva to dust it off. The arias here – world premieres all, save one – make a startlingly strong case for Graun’s music in all its exhilarating virtuosity and emotional variety. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Lezhneva, whose advocacy is blighted by technical problems. Something has gone badly wrong with this voice. Back in 2010, aged just 21, Lezhneva had a winning combination of purity and agility, and a lovely ease to her production. But vocal quirks and an increasingly manufactured delivery have crystallised into a voice that has retained agility, but at the cost of power and tonal control. Lezhneva now sounds like a precocious boy-treble – light and nimble, but snatching at top notes, swooping through intervals, blurting through legato passages. A shame, as there’s some thrilling music, stylishly performed by the exemplary Concerto Köln. Graun’s two styles – poised and proto-galant in ballads, outdoing even Vinci for brilliance in the stormy numbers – make for a disc of contrasts. There’s simple beauty in…

July 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi: Bajazet (Pinchgut Opera, Orchestra of the Antipodes/Erin Helyard)

Pinchgut Opera continues to unearth seldom heard baroque gems with Vivaldi’s Bajazet. Set in times when Tartars were taking on the Turks, there’s plenty of strong dramatic action, with torture, poisoning and rape all in the script. Erin Helyard’s liner notes explain that Bajazet was a pastiche with Vivaldi melding his own material with favourite arias by various composers. Helyard opts for all-Vivaldi arias, with one by Handel thrown in to maintain the hybrid spirit, and directs Orchestra of the Antipodes from the harpsichord. The twin natural horns of Darryl Poulson and Doree Dixon blow up a gale for Tamerlano’s In si torbida procella, and while the occasional ragged patch and on-stage noises can be distracting, the gusto and momentum of this 2015 live performance is preferable to the studio. The final disc contains some of Vivaldi’s starkest music with melodies stripped back to convey the awful action on stage. New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams is excellent in the title role while the countertenor pairing of American Christopher Lowrey as Tamerlano and local boy Russell Harcourt as Andronico works nicely, Lowrey’s more plummy timbre offset against Harcourt’s fluid soprano. Mezzo Helen Sherman is a riveting Irene, almost stealing the show…

July 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Catharsis (Xavier Sabata, Armonia Atenea/George Petrou)

In Aristotle’s Poetics, catharsis was considered a desirable state brought about by arousing and magnifying the emotions in such a way that the spectator’s inner being would be purified. The best way to do this, Aristotle reckoned, was to evoke fear and pity by confronting an audience with a vision of souls in torment. The musical equivalent is what Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata aims to induce on the enterprising Aparté label with a string of mostly unknown opera seria arias by the likes of Orlandini, Conti, Torri, Caldara, Ariosti and Sarro plus a handful of classics from Handel, Hasse and Vivaldi thrown in for good measure and a nod to marketing. Not that marketing needs much help. With the hirsute Sabata taking what I presume is a cathartic icy shower on the cover, this is a CD that is unlikely to go unnoticed on the shelves. With a good recital disc, the programme is half the battle, and in that respect Sabata has played an absolute blinder. He opens with a real find in the form of a classic ‘nemesis-aria’ from Orlandini’s Adelaide. Sabata has one of the richest, darkest countertenor voices on the circuit. Blessed with a splendid legato,…

June 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: The Great Comet of 1812 (Original Broadway Cast)

It’s fair to say that Dave Malloy’s dazzlingly eclectic musical-cum-opera on a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace divides critics way beyond its losing out at the Tony Awards to the way more mainstream Dear Evan Hansen. The tendency for Malloy’s characters to comment on the action even while taking part in it seems to alienate some, while its resolute refusal to avoid repetition (more on that later) and hit the sweet spot of the big ballad means that listeners are unlikely to come across it on an album of show tunes. A pity, because by essentially setting prose – and most of it Tolstoy’s – Malloy is doing something rather unusual and clever. But don’t despair, this addictive cast album gives listeners the chance to sit back and enjoy a rare and imaginative piece of musical storytelling without the challenge of what is going on in front of their eyes. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 starts at the point in War and Peace where the beautiful young Countess Natasha Rostova has fallen in love with, and gotten engaged to, the formal and somewhat starchy Prince Andrey Bolkonsky. While Andrey has departed for the war with France, his fiancé has…

June 9, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Arias (Aida Garifullina, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Cornelius Meister)

Operalia winner Aida Garifullina was signed to an exclusive recording contract by Decca back in 2015. It has taken a while, but now, with the release of her self-titled debut album – an exquisite selection of 19th-century songs, arias and folk-lullabies – we can finally hear why. The Russian lyric soprano has a wonderful technical ease which, coupled with a full, even tone, promises much for the future. But, in case you’re judging a singer by her repertoire, it’s worth pointing out that this disc doesn’t tell the whole story. Glancing down the generous programme from Juliette’s Je veux vivre to the Bell Song from Lakmé and the Queen of Shemakha’s two arias from The Golden Cockerel, you’d imagine perhaps a lighter, higher voice than you actually get. It’s a sleight-of-hand that’s far from unpleasant. Transposed down a tone, the Delibes gains in resonance and colour – these are bells of burnished gold rather than silver – and while Garifullina’s Juliette feels more poised society hostess than love-struck innocent, she’s one you’d clear your schedule for. Coloratura showpieces aside, the bulk of the disc comprises Russian repertoire, much of it glancing to the East and drawing on the soprano’s Tatar…

June 9, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Smyth: The Boatswain’s Mate (Nadine Benjamin, The Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez)

Poor old Ethel Smyth. A fine composer, she had the misfortune to be a) English and b) a woman, both of which have condemned her to musical purgatory for much of the 70 years since her death. Still, Der Wald (never recorded) was the only opera by a woman to be staged at the Met until Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2016. The Boatswain’s Mate (1914) is a small-scale but quintessential English comic opera. The widow and publican Mrs Waters is wooed relentlessly by a retired boatswain. When he recruits an unemployed soldier to frighten her into thinking she needs protecting, matters are turned upside down, with unexpected results for Mrs Waters’ head and heart. Act I employs spoken dialogue, a device awkwardly dropped in Act II, and some sections go on far too long, but it’s a winning libretto set to highly attractive music and incorporates elements of folk and popular song – it even quotes Smyth’s suffragette anthem, The March of the Women, though the work really doesn’t own the feminist credentials that are sometimes claimed for it. This world premiere is conducted by Odaline de la Martinez who directed the marvelous first recording of Smyth’s The Wreckers…

June 9, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Grétry: L’Amant Jaloux (Pinchgut Opera)

Without André Grétry (1741-1813) there wouldn’t be opera as we know it. The first French composer to successfully marry French and Italian styles in the Classical period, Grétry’s melodic and dramatic gifts coupled with a strong desire to push opera to its limits ensured his lasting fame. First performed at Versailles in 1778 before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, L’Amant Jaloux, ou Les Fausses Apparences (The Jealous Lover, or False Appearances) was an immediate success. The setting is Cadiz, Spain. The rich Don Lopez (baritone David Greco) forbids his widowed daughter Léonore (soprano Celeste Lazarenko) to marry again. But she is in love with the eponymous jealous lover, Don Alonze (tenor Ed Lyon), who has a sister Isabelle (soprano Alexandra Oomens), who is Léonore’s friend and the beloved of French officer Florival (tenor Andrew Goodwin). Without giving too much away, much mayhem ensues before the happy ending. Erin Helyard directs cast and orchestra – both of which are uniformly excellent – from the keyboard with great attention to detail yet with a sure grasp of forward momentum. We also get snippets of English dialogue which must have made live performances from which this recording was made an absolute joy, as…