August 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Fiamma del Bel Canto (Dianna Damrau)

★★★★☆ Fresh from her triumphant Lucia, German diva Diana Damrau stays in Donizetti territory for her latest solo album, mixed up with some Bellini, Verdi and a couple of verismo numbers for good measure. The 43 year-old has established a glowing reputation in Europe and at New York’s Met where she has become a firm favourite. This collection shows us why. Damrau’s versatility is firmly to the fore in excerpts from Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghliterra and Maria Stuarda, intercut by arias from Bellini’s I Puritani and La Sonnambula, before her applauded dramatic skills are given a workout in selections from Verdi’s I Masnadieri, La Traviata and Luisa Miller. Her vocal accuracy and agility are no better displayed than in Ah! Non giunge from La Sonnambula, but it is what she does with Verdi – and favourites from La Bohème and Pagliacci – which whet the appetite of this reviewer. This is a voice full of power and beauty across the entire range, but with the additional character and buoyancy necessary for the bel canto repertoire. Damrau gets strong support from mezzo Nicole Brandolino, tenor Piotr Beczała and her husband bass Nicolas Testé. The Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino under Gianandrea Noseda has…

August 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Five Countertenors

Editor’s Choice: Opera, July 2015 ★★★★★ Fifty years ago, the idea of “The Five Countertenors” would have been Alfred Deller, John Whitworth, Russell Oberlin and, err… Even 30 years ago a quintet of such voices would have likely encapsulated half of the known suspects. Nowadays, however, the countertenor seems almost as common as the next voice-type, its superstars are fêted on world stages and their fans are becoming as opinionated as those of rival divas from way back when. The beauty of Decca’s latest recital disc, though, is not just the presence of five of today’s finest guys who sing high, it’s an opportunity to explore repertoire in a programme where most of us would probably only be familiar with the two Handel arias (and those not that common either). Comparisons are odious as they say so I’ll begin at the beginning with Romanian-born German countertenor Valer Sabadus (pictured above) who gets a couple of stonkers: Jommelli’s catchy Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio and a superbly dark, theatrically intense aria from Gluck’s Demetrio. His silky smooth voice is high (but not the highest here) and his tone deliciously plangent. The Catalan Xavier Sabata is probably the lowest voice…

July 15, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Recording of the Month: Les Martyrs

★★★★★ Donizetti was one of the most prolific opera composers of all time, an appealingly personable fellow (if you read the letters), and an extraordinary professional capable of turning out a work in just a few weeks. That very facility though has led to a general dismissal of his music as too easy, rushed, derivative, or worse. Les Martyrs disproves all of these. A late work (1840), this grandest of his French grand operas was written simultaneously with the slighter, yet inexplicably more popular La Fille du Régiment, but the two works couldn’t be more different – one a trivially sucrose French confection, the other a profound meditation on faith and duty. But while Daughter of the Regiment went on to conquer the world, Les Martyrs sank without a trace. That latter statement isn’t entirely true. Les Martyrs was itself an expanded reworking of Poliuto, an opera Donizetti had written for Naples that fell foul of the censors and so never made it to the stage. Poliuto has been championed intermittently over the years (there’s a superb live version with Callas, Corelli and Bastianini) and Glyndebourne have just given its British premiere, but Les Martyrs is a horse of a…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Purcell: The Indian Queen (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)

★★★★☆ Finally, one of Britain’s finest ensembles tackles the final masterpiece of one of Britain’s finest composers. The results are, as you’d expect, spectacular. Henry Purcell left the semi-opera The Indian Queen unfinished at his death in 1695 and it fell to his brother Daniel to supply a happy ending of sorts in the form of The Masque of Hymen for the 1696 revival. Consequently, audiences would have heard less music at the work’s Theatre Royal premiere in 1695 than they would have in any of Purcell’s previous semi-operas such as The Fairy Queen, from which the present work borrows a dance (more recycling sees the inclusion of the overture from the ode Come Ye Sons of Art). But what the music might lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Purcell devoted every ounce of his skill and artistry to bring to life John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard’s convoluted play about the Mexican Queen Zempoalla’s war with the Montezuma-led Peruvians, and the airs, dances, duets, trios and choruses perfectly manifest those “Italian and French styles English’d” so typical of this English Orpheus.  The recording opens with an amusing pre-show entertainment, Purcell’s satirical three-voice catch To…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brian: The Tigers (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Friend)

★★★★☆ Interested in the contenders for the bulkiest opera of all time? Look no further than Havergal Brian’s The Tigers. Yes, if you thought his Gothic Symphony was impractical you ain’t seen nothing yet! Composed between 1917 and 1919, and scored for massive orchestra (including five tubas, harmonica, three timpani players, thunder machine, ship’s siren, two vibraphones, tubaphone(!) and organ), the work has never been staged. The full score was lost until the Brian Society put out a reward for its recovery, and the plucky BBC made a radio recording back in 1983. That performance, thanks to Testament, is now available on three discs. The opera concerns the (at times mystifying) bumbling antics of a regiment known as The Tigers on manoeuvres in the Home Counties. But Brian isn’t just offering a semi-Straussian comic opera. There are dream ballets for gargoyles come to life, a commedia dell’arte fantasy and the massive opening scene on Hampstead Heath (which calls for an elephant!) culminates in a huge set of orchestral variations on Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly. Ambitious! The fine cast comprises many of the top British singers of the day (including the likes of Teresa Cahill, Marilyn Hill-Smith, Alan Opie and…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: My Life Is An Opera (Roberto Alagna)

★★★☆☆ It’s unfortunate that at 51, French tenor Roberto Alagna is probably best remembered for walking off after being booed by the La Scala claque, all captured on YouTube. And then there were tempestuous years with second wife Angela Gheorghiu, which prompted the nickname “the Ceausescus” and for Jonathan Miller to dub them the Bonnie and Clyde of opera. But there have been triumphs as well. From his earliest days, listening to his Sicilian dad singing Italian songs on building sites around Paris, and cathartic moments when he saw Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso and later met Luciano Pavarotti at a record signing, eventually auditioning for him, Alagna’s life has resembled the synopsis of an operatic potboiler. Hence the title of his latest album, My Life Is An Opera, which comes with the most excruciating liner notes I have read for a while and on which he forsakes his earlier crossover hits for some mainly bel canto and verismo arias. In among them he includes a couple of surprises – Ernest Reyer’s Esprits, gardiens des ces lieux vénérés and Karl Goldmark’s Magische Töne, for example, as well as a short excerpt from his brother’s opera The Last Day of…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wiener Philharmoniker/Gatti)

★★★★☆ This splendid DVD of Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s 2013 Salzburg Festival production of Die Meistersinger draws a strong visual analogy between Wagner’s comic opera and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It works well, aided by a superlative cast, some knockout staging and the full Vienna Philharmonic and Staatsopernchor under conductor Daniele Gatti. The sets comprise oversized Biedermeier furniture and fittings, emphasising the fairytale feeling. Roberto Sacca as Eurovision song candidate Walther works well with Anna Gabler convincing as his eventual bride. The show, of course, belongs to Hans Sachs, and in Michael Volle we have a particularly fine one, slapstick when playing off Markus Werba’s pedantic, conniving Beckmesser, but also with a very human touch. There are some clever theatrical moments, but look out for the Apprentices’ Dance when hand puppets make way for the full-size thing. Busts of Beethoven, Goethe and Schopenhauer – representing German art to be protected from foreign influences – act as silent witnesses until the exquisite quintet when Sachs unveils the noticeably larger bust of Wagner himself. There is some obligatory on-stage carnality in the crowd scenes but nothing too hard-core. Gatti (shortly to take up his new position as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw),…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Hasse: Siroe re di Persia (Armonia Atenea/George Petrou)

★★★★☆ Editor’s Choice: Opera, June 2015 Johann Adolph Hasse’s Siroe (Dresden, 1763) was a setting of Metastasio’s hit libretto about an otherwise utterly unmemorable King of Persia. Kavadh II was king of the Sasanian Empire for all of one year in 628 after revolting and overthrowing his father. Vinci, Vivaldi and Handel all had a stab at it, and Hasse’s original version starred Farinelli and Caffarelli, but what we have here is his later reworking of the opera. It’s one of those ‘make-you-want-to-shout-at-them’ plots. It seems everybody except his son Siroe is plotting against tyrannical King Cosroe, but who is it that the silly old sod suspects? Yes, you’ve guessed it – Siroe. And, of course, the latter is the only person so honourable that he prefers to stay schtum rather than betray the others.  Hasse reveals himself a master of baroque form, perhaps lacking Handel’s memorability, but his equal in structural sonics and dramatic ambition. Occasionally he makes a musical wrong call – an over-passive aria might follow a recitative that should imply a number with a bit more musical spunk – and the modern restorers have had recourse to a couple of inserts from other works in the…

April 24, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Don Giovanni (D’Arcangelo)

The Sferisterio Opera Festival is a summer music festival held in Macerata in the Marche region of Italy under the artistic direction of Pier Luigi Pizzi, popular with Italian audiences for his cool minimalist but determinedly non-regietheater direction.  This 2011 production features star baritone Ildbrando D’Arcangelo surrounded by an ensemble of competent but unfamiliar names under the sprightly, if occasionally fussy, musical direction of Riccardo Frizza. D’Arcangelo is superb with a commanding presence; his dark tone carries a constant threat of violence and his portrayal is the very essence of Mediterranean misogeny. Andrea Concetti is a fine animated Leporello and his relationship with his superior is more intense bro-mance than the usual servant-master dynamic; they’re always playing footsies! He is also rather too familiar with the mentally unhinged Elvira as played by Carmela Remigio. Myrto Papatanasiu as Zerlina stands out for her fine vocalism and noble beauty but her beau is the usual weed and his pledges of revenge are unintentionally comic.  Otherwise humour is a scarce commodity and Pizzi’s direction is drearily low key with one puzzling exception; after a conventional opening scene there was the potential of an interesting psycho-sexual dichotomy with Elvira paying no attention whatsoever to…

April 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: St Petersburg (Bartoli)

Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli will be remembered in years to come not only for her formidable, many would say matchless, talent as a singer but also for her ability to uncover lost or neglected treasures from the Baroque and early Classical eras. Starting with her Vivaldi album, then with the Salieri and Sacrificium projects to the dazzling Steffani series, the Roman diva has been stamping her considerable personality on a rich vein of musical gold and bringing ‘new’ old music to the wider public. Now, with St Petersburg, she turns her attention to a fascinating period in Russian history, the 18th century when, under three empresses, the nation’s culture and politics were wrenched from the dark ages and brought into the sunshine of western European enlightenment. The troika of Tsaritsas – Anna who reigned from 1730-40, Elizabeth (1741-61) and Catherine the Great (1762-96) – imported Italian musicians and composers and commissioned the first Russian operas. Once performed, though, the scores languished in the archives of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre until Bartoli came along and set them free. Five composers feature on 11 tracks in this treasure trove of delights, opening appropriately with Neapolitan Francesco Araja, the first of the court…

March 17, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Muhly: Two Boys (Robertson)

You know that New York’s Met has made it into the 21st century when it starts putting on operas with cyber-thriller plots. Manhattan-based Nico Muhly (The Reader, Kill Your Darlings) has all the audacity you’d expect from a composer in his thirties, and to call this recent production daring would be a glaring understatement. The opera, with libretto by Craig Lucas, is based on true events: a teenage boy is stabbed in the heart and lies comatose in a hospital bed. An older boy is the main suspect. Detective Anne Strawson must discover how an online friendship could wind up in attempted murder. The investigation leads to a mysterious and sordid world of online chat rooms. Muhly’s music has a modern edge and his orchestration glows like the virtual colour-world of cyberspace. The score is full of fascinating textures, including a disturbing polyphony of chat room addicts: mums and miscreants chanting in fragmented cyberspeak. It underscores the drama well and is highly engaging, though there’s the unmistakable suggestion of John Adams’ operatic style and language at play. The leads are strong. In particular, Paul Appleby’s sensitive turn as the confused and tormented older boy, Brian, as well as Alice Coote’s…

March 10, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner, Verdi: Documentary (Thielemann)

This six-part German-made series compares the two greatest opera composers of their time. While it is not without interest, it is often laboured, primarily because the filmmakers (all six of them) couldn’t make up their minds on the direction of the narrative. Prominent singers, conductors and directors feature, and this makes the series worthwhile. The scenes with the remarkable vocal coach Elio Battaglia are treasurable. The man is worth a doco of his own! Wagner’s anti-Semitism is dealt with, the filmmakers arguing that he was far less of an anti-Semite than his followers, especially considering the hive of racial nastiness, known as the Wagneriana, which still surrounds Bayreuth today. Further south, Italy’s extremist Northern League uses the humanitarian Verdi’s Va, pensiero as their anthem. Unfortunately German filmmakers are obsessed with overdubbing commentaries instead of using subtitles. Additionally, the quaint English speech of the commentator, with many ambiguous sentences and bizarre pronunciations is confusing. For example, he pronounces ‘Trovatore’ as ‘Trovatora’, ‘soprano’ as ‘sopranist’ and ‘Bayreuth’ as ‘Bayrate’. Consequently, he often sounds as if he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The failure of the filmmakers to handle this properly is surprising and counterproductive.

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Puccini: Madama Butterfly (Opera Australia)

There are two Opera Australia DVDs of Madama Butterfly and, apart from the music and some of the performers, you could be watching two different operas. For Moffatt Oxenbould’s production – still going strong after 18 years – designers Peter England and Russell Cohen used Kabuki theatre as their inspiration with ninja-clad servants handing out props; sliding screens and a surrounding moat to represent the divide between Japanese and American culture. Cio-Cio-San, also sung by Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura, was dressed in a kimono, looking the true geisha. For the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production, newly released on DVD, director Àlex Ollé from the groundbreaking Spanish theatre group La Fura Dels Baus takes an edgier and more political approach to this tragic love story set amid a clash of cultures. Here we are in the present day and the passionate, unscrupulous Pinkerton is a shiny-suited salesman intent on building a housing development in Nagasaki. Butterfly sports a full body tattoo, denim shorts and a Stars and Stripes T-shirt. For the first act the clever set is a grove of bamboo atop a grassy knoll. For the second act everything is different. No more nature – it’s all building sites,…