June 8, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Hérold: Le Pré aux Clercs (Orquestra Gulbenkian/McCreesh)

Bru Zane’s latest from the vault of neglected French opera suggests why Ferdinand Hérold was once regarded as the country’s greatest musician. Le Pré aux Clercs is a light counterpart to Les Huguenots. Despite duels and a death it ends happily. Certainly happier than for Hérold himself, who died of consumption a month after the premiere in 1832. Only his ballet La Fille Mal Gardée and the brilliant overture to Zampa survive today. A pity, because Pré is delightful: an elegant, refined score, mixing pathos and melancholy with wit and dancing rhythms. Listeners may know the once-famous overture and Isabelle’s virtuoso aria Jours de mon enfance (on which Strauss modelled Zerbinetta’s aria in Ariadne). Lesser-known highlights include a catchy syllabic trio (a definite earworm) and the romance Souvenirs du jeune âge. The largely Francophone cast is excellent, headed by Marie-Ève Munger, Marie Lenormand and the American Michael Spyres, a versatile and stylish tenor like his idol, the late Nicolai Gedda. The singers in the 1959 Benedetti recording may be more idiomatic, trained in the old Opéra-Comique theatre tradition. Since 2004, the relaunched Opéra-Comique’s mission has been to explore its heritage. This production, enthusiastically received in Paris and Wexford in 2015,…

June 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Pepusch: Venus and Adonis (The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen/Robert Rawson)

Johann Christoph Pepusch, aka John Christopher Pepusch or just plain Dr Pepusch, was born in Berlin in 1677, but moved to England around 1700 where he became a leading light of London’s musical life. In 1726, he was one of the founders of the Academy of Ancient Music and two years later scored his greatest success arranging the music for John Gay’s runaway hit, The Beggar’s Opera. The peak of his career coincided with the rise of the Italian opera in London, and, as his involvement with Gay’s famous lampoon would suggest, Pepusch was strong on the side of those seeking an English alternative to continental excess. Written in 1715, his masque Venus and Adonis looked like it might be just the thing to ‘reconcile Musick to the English Tongue.’ For all its Englishness – and it’s a clear precursor of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – the work is packed with the stock in trade of Italian opera including da capo arias, virtuoso instrumental effects and plenty of accompagnato recitative. So, what’s it like? The immediate observation listening to what is a world-premiere recording on the enterprising Ramée label is how can this melodious and memorable music have languished until…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Farinelli – A Portrait (Ann Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset)

It was the soundtrack to 1994 film Farinelli that put Les Talens Lyriques on the musical map over two decades ago. Now Christophe Rousset and his musicians mark their 25th anniversary by coming full circle, with an album of arias associated once again with the 18th century’s star castrato. But Farinelli is now well-trodden ground. Vivica Genaux, David Hansen and Philippe Jaroussky are just the most recent singers to lay claim to this repertoire on disc, so is there really a need for another homage? There are two strong arguments in this disc’s favour. In Ann Hallenberg, Rousset has a collaborator whose agility, power, and range of vocal colour is singular – capable of inhabiting both of Farinelli’s contrasting musical personalities. The project is also particularly canny in its repertoire choices, rejecting the usual single-composer route in favour of a broad selection of musical highlights from, not only Handel and Porpora, but also Leo, Hasse, Giacomelli and even Farinelli’s own composer brother. The result is a disc full of musical drama, heightened by a live recording originally made in 2011 at the Bergen International Festival. After a slightly slow start in Riccardo Broschi’s handsome, but pedestrian Son qual nave and…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Oh Boy! (Marianne Crebassa, Mozarteumorchester/Minkowski)

French mezzo Marianne Crebassa’s debut disc makes a stylish calling card that should raise the stock of this fine artist. Her characteristic French tang, tight vibrato and tasteful use of portamento harks back to an earlier style but her precise intonation and control in passage work is very much of our time. There is a true mezzo quality to her timbre but she doesn’t bellow in chest voice. Her plangent manner recalls a young Frederica von Stade. The programme alternates 19th-century French arias with Mozart’s seria plums for castrati but, while it may be a celebration of trouser roles, she sounds resolutely feminine. From the impish cover shot, I suspect she is convincingly boyish on stage, so thankfully she doesn’t resort to arch guying; the inevitable Cherubino numbers are refreshingly straight. Flashy numbers show off her immaculate legato fiorature with no nasty aspirants: Il tenero momento from Lucio Silla is a showstopper. The bravura aria from Gluck’s Berliozed Orphée with its cadenza padded out by Saint-Saëns might horrify purists but Crebassa’s elegant poise channels the spirit of Pauline Viadot. The number from Chabrier’s L’Étoile is a sensuous delight as is Sommeil, ami des dieux from Thomas’ Psyché. Marc Minkowski directs…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Pictures of America (Natalie Dessay, Paris Mozart Orchestra/Claire Gibault)

I have long admired and respected Natalie Dessay so it saddened me to hear of her retirement from the opera stage. Her fearless tackling of daunting coloratura repertoire and the searing intensity of her stage presence proved too much for such a slight physique. Having built a fine discography with Warners she has jumped ship to Sony Classical France – this lavishly presented first release may be a success in the home market but I suspect the critical response elsewhere may cause some executives to lose sleep. Graciane Finzi’s Scénographies d’Edward Hopper is a melologue with texts by Claude Esteban spoken over a string orchestra. As a preface, Dessay has selected songs from the American Songbook matching each to a specific Hopper painting. Finzi’s tone painting is effective if unmemorable and Esteban’s texts left me out in the cold – my basic French couldn’t keep up with the semantic intricacies. For the songs, Dessay adopts an intimate chanteuse delivery but I have long opined that few classical singers can successfully cross-over to the popular idiom unless they hail from the American continent and Dessay doesn’t convince me otherwise. She tries hard with the language but certain elisions and tortured vowels…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Turandot (Handa Opera/Brian Castles-Onion)

For its fifth Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia chose Puccini’s Turandot, set in a fantasy China. Spectacle is a pre-requisite for the stunningly located outdoor event, and Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng delivers striking visual effects without resorting to tacky glitz, while his martial-arts inspired choreography enhances the clear story-telling. Dan Potra’s design is dominated by two set pieces: a giant, fire-breathing dragon and a towering, spiky pagoda, from where the frosty-hearted Princess Turandot looks down on the execution of the suitors who fail to solve her riddles. Scott Zielinski’s imaginative lighting add lashings of colour. Serbian dramatic soprano Dragana Radakovic is an impressive, imperious Turandot with a powerhouse voice, which has a steely glint. As Calaf, Italian tenor Riccardo Massi is a commanding presence. At six foot four he is every inch the romantic hero, giving a passionate, lyrical portrayal, matched by rich, bronzed vocals. Hyeseoung Kwon is very moving as the slave girl Liù. The chorus is also outstanding, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra gives a good account of the gorgeous score under Brian Castles-Onion. Fine camera work makes the most of the spectacular location, while close-ups of the performers add to the experience.

April 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bravura: Arias by Vivaldi and Handel (Gabriella Di Laccio, Musica Antiqua Clio/Fernando Cordella)

Gabriella Di Laccio’s debut recital disc is a frustrating one. The Brazilian coloratura soprano’s technique is solid, it’s an attractive voice, and she has a feel for the Italian language. That said, this recording of just six arias is neither musicologically adventurous nor deeply interpreted. A celebrated baroque specialist in her home country, she never disappoints technically, but the result is short of noteworthy. Her strongest performance is the album’s opener, Vivaldi’s barnstorming Armatae face, et anguibus. Di Laccio meets the demands of the aria with ease, Vagaus’ call to arms appropriately ferocious. The same can’t be said of the second track, the regularly programmed Agitata da due venti from the same composer. It’s a reading curiously devoid of emotion, Constanza’s inner turmoil only superficially telegraphed in puzzling emphases of text. While the B section picks up a bit, there simply isn’t much agitata in Di Laccio’s reading. Rounding out the album’s Vivaldi offering is the tempestuous Siam navi all’onde algenti, another showcase for her formidable technique – yet it suffers from the same lack of dramatic insight. This problem is particularly evident when we get to the set of Handel arias, some of the repertoire’s most musty gems. Lascia…

March 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Berg: Lulu (Marlis Petersen, Metropolitan Opera/Lothar Koenigs)

Marlis Petersen has been the preeminent Lulu for two decades. Since she announced that she would be retiring from the role after this Met production, this Bluray is an important document. Visual artist William Kentridge wowed the Met a few years ago with a hyperactive production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, but I was wary of his take on Berg’s towering masterpiece – with a work of such dramatic intensity I’d happily swap all the Met’s technical gee-gaws for a few chairs and a spotlight. I suspect his arresting visual trickery might have been distracting in the theatre, but thankfully the filming strikes an ideal mean with cameras focusing our attention on the intense drama. That said: it is certainly a visual feast with constantly evolving projections referencing Expressionist and Weimar Republic visual cues with India ink, linocut and woodcut overlaying newsprint. The occasional Rorschach blot is a clever visual metaphor for both the moral ambiguity of Lulu (“I’ve never pretended to be anything but what men see in me”) and the opera’s formal arch structure. The cast is excellent. Johan Reuter manages to draw sympathy as a younger than usual Dr Schön, his anger more menacing for that. Susan Graham…

March 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: A Journey (Pretty Yende, Orchestra Della RAI/Marco Amiliato)

Viennese opera-goers expecting Cecilia Bartoli in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory would not have felt short-changed when the diva had to be replaced by the dazzling young South African soprano Pretty Yende. You can get some idea of the excitement she must have generated from her debut album, somewhat blandly titled A Journey, where she is superbly backed by Marco Armiliato and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. At a time when good bel canto soprano albums are being released left, right and centre, Yende makes a compelling case for a place in your collection with this finely-engineered and recorded disc. The excerpts represent her “journey”, starting with the time she heard the Flower Duet from Lakmé on a British Airways TV commercial and decided she wanted to sing like that. Kate Aldrich joins her on that track and for an excerpt from Lucia. Gianluca Buratto and Nicola Alaimo lend sterling support in the Mad Scene from I Puritani, and Yende shows her remarkable vocal agility in the obligatory Una voce poco fa. But the standout is Ah, la pena in lor piombo from Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda. It will make the hairs of your neck stand on end. Yende doesn’t…

March 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Andrea Chenier (Royal Opera House/Pappano)

Giordano’s 1896 French Revolution opera is not as popular as it was. A star vehicle for a great tenor, it’s lumped in the verismo basket, though it bears more resemblance to the historical romances of Verdi. The score balances period pastiche with more urgent fin de siècle passions, and in the right hands it can soar. That’s certainly the case under the baton of Antonio Pappano in this, Covent Garden’s first new staging in 30 years. David McVicar’s meticulously researched, dramatically detailed production gives this sprawling beast its best chance to bite – you can smell the foul breath of the mob. Robert Jones’ grand sets and Jenny Tiramani’s authentic costumes provide a backdrop against which McVicar can deploy his quick intelligence, ensuring credibility and motivational insight. On the other hand, there’s little can be done about the awkward dramaturgy. Crucial changes of fortune happen off stage, and the five year gap between acts one and two is a problem for an audience unversed in the political ups and downs from the Estates-General to the Jacobin Terror. Nevertheless, you couldn’t ask for a finer Chénier than Jonas Kaufmann. Firm-toned and ardent, he’s well matched by Eva-Maria Westbroek as an intense,…