January 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Callas Remastered

Limelight Featured Recording – November 2014 Maria Callas was one of the very greatest artists of all time – a woman whose life mimicked her art and vice versa to such an extent that she captured a public’s imagination above and beyond the bounds of most opera singers. She was fortunate to fly her highest at a time the gramophone record was coming of age, straddling the 78, to mono LP, to stereo era. But, and it’s a big but, her fortunes over the years have been mixed. Her legacy has been nipped, tucked and generally madeover a bit like an aging celeb going under the knife – it can sound fine across a crowded record store but up close and personal it’s a fright.  The 1997, 2000 and 2002 EMI remasters focused on removing tape hiss but took a degree of life and immediacy with it. Many fans were up in arms, screaming about artificial enhancement and false ambience. With the subsequent demise of EMI, Warner Classics have become keepers of the flame as far as the Callas recorded legacy is concerned and what we have here is their first back-to-basics attempt to put the record straight. Let me say…

August 8, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Gluck: La Clemenza di Tito (L’Arte del Mondo)

Although Gluck’s Orfeo of 1762 was his big reform statement, by that time the composer had spent a fair few decades committing the very sins that he so clearly wanted to stamp out. La Clemenza di Tito, a setting of the same Metastasio libretto that Mozart would prune for his own version, was in fact Gluck’s 16th opera out of around 30 that preceded Orfeo! The plot is familiar from the Mozart, as are many of the arias (it’s fascinating to hear another master try his hand at Parto, parto). Many features of the mature Gluck are in evidence, immaculate orchestration; musical invention; a sure sense of dramatic progression. Where Gluck falls down is a tendency to long-windedness – this is close on four hours of opera. L’Arte del Mondo play modern instruments in period style and Werner Ehrhardt is adept at keeping everything moving, while bringing out Gluck’s colours and ensuring recitatives are engaging. His cast is mostly excellent. Rainer Trost makes a firm-voiced, if occasionally stretched Tito while Laura Aikin is thrilling as the scheming Vitellia. As befits the central role of the conflicted Sesto, Raffaella Milanesi is the finest here, singing with ardent tone. Arantza Ezenarro makes…

July 30, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Kiri Te Kanawa: The Classic Albums

Released as part of Dame Kiri’s 70th birthday celebrations, this 6CD set is a representative tribute to a much-loved and exceptionally fine lyric soprano – taken from recordings made during those years when she was at the peak of her illustrious career (the early 80s through to the mid-90s). This well chosen set sticks to the repertoire in which she excels. It ranges from imperative discs devoted to composers who celebrate the joys of the soprano voice – namely Mozart and Richard Strauss – through intimate song settings – a whole disc of Canteloube’s Auvergne settings – to Granados and Obradors, which still inform her recitals as those who heard the Dame during her recent Australian tour will attest. In all of these discs Kiri is given admirable support from the label’s finest – from Jeffrey Tate through to Sir Georg Solti and the recently departed Sir Colin Davis. Having both Roger Vignoles and Solti as song accompanists is yet another luxury afforded her here. Whilst she would record for other labels (crossover for EMI for example), this set represents the finest work in a long career and showcases those composers with which the Dame is most closely identified and…

July 21, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Bavarian Opera)

That enfant terrible of the opera stage Calixto Bieito must be mellowing in his middle age – either that or we have become numbed to the edgy Spanish director’s naughty ways. How else to explain why his take on Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Boris Godunov has less shock value than your average episode of Midsomer Murders? True he does have the Simpleton shot by a teenage girl, not to mention one of the crowd beaten to a pulp – oh and in Boris’s great death scene the pretender Dmitri strangles Xenia and suffocates the Tsarevich Fyodor.   This Bayerische Staatsoper production is set in recent times. We know this because the chorus hold up posters of Putin, Bush, Sarkozy and Berlusconi. Bieito ditches the third act but strangely this causes little collateral damage. That’s because Bieito has a trump card in 38-year-old Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who is undoubtedly on the verge of a stellar career. He has everything – good looks, dramatic nous and a gorgeous voice that has delicacy as well as power. He’s backed by a first-class cast including Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen and Vladimir Matorin who makes a good Varlaam, looking uncannily like the famous portrait of the…

July 8, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten: Music for Radio Plays (The Hallé/Elder)

The British recording label NMC has done wonders making available the rarer works of British composers, and during the Britten centenary turned to that master. With Britten To America they focus on perhaps Britten’s second most important collaborator, the great modernist poet WH Auden, with whom in the 1930s he collaborated in works for radio and stage. Although Auden’s ‘cabaret’ songs would become popular from recitals with Britten’s life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, it’s wonderful to discover them in their original choral context as music for the play The Ascent of F6 (1936), written by Auden in conjunction with Christopher Isherwood on the subject of mountaineering. The other substantial piece here, On the Frontier, comes from the following year and is also written by those two playwrights with a contemporary political eye on a transfer to the West End. Others – namely An American in England and the closing setting by poet Louis Macneice, Where do we go from here?, stem from contemporary BBC radio programmes. Whilst these works may be regarded as peripheral to Britten’s output, there is no doubt as to the professionalism of the group of performers involved and Britten’s compositional brilliance shines through, even in…

July 1, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Donizetti: Rita (The Hallé/Elder)

A comic opera about wife beating? Not sure how it would go down today but in 1841, Donizetti penned Rita, a one act, to a French libretto. Due to various vicissitudes, not the least of which must have been the composer’s advancing case of the clap, it was never performed in Donizetti’s lifetime, premiering posthumously at Paris’ Opéra-Comique in 1860. It’s a slight affair. Believing her husband Gasparo drowned at sea, Rita has married the timorous Pepe. Gasparo used to beat Rita, she now beats her new spouse. When Gasparo, who fancies wedding another hapless maid in Canada, turns up hoping to destroy his old marriage certificate, Pepe sees his chance to escape his matrimonial obligations. Several farcical twists and turns involving games of chance and fake disabilities end in a duel, at which point Rita sees the value of Pepe after all and Gasparo heads into the sunset advising Rita to keep her fists primed for the future. Opera Rara have done their usual superb job with recording and packaging but it can’t quite disguise the thinness of the material. It’s late Donizetti, therefore it’s tuneful and crafted fare. The orchestra and conductor couldn’t be bettered and the three…

June 22, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera Arias (Kiri Te Kanawa)

With a career spanning four decades Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has established herself as one of the most popular lyric sopranos of all time with a devoted fan base, especially in Britain and here in Australia. This four-disc budget collection comprises what has been (plus a couple of what might have beens) to mark her 70th birthday. The package is home brand rather than anything lavish, but the four discs are all excellent previously released recordings covering 1989 to 1997. Two are devoted to Italian opera – a 1990 compilation of Puccini, Verdi, Cilea, Giordano, Bolto and Leoncavallo favourites and a 1997 Puccini disc which includes three songs with piano accompaniment. But perhaps the cream of the set is the mainly French compilation Te Kanawa made with Jeffrey Tate and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in 1989, in particular a beautiful rendering of Berlioz’s L’année en vain chasse l’année from The Damnation of Faust. No Te Kanawa collection would be complete without some Mozart and Richard Strauss, and these are provided on the fourth disc, but with them comes a pleasant surprise – a little Wagner with four arias, two from Tannhaüser, O Sachs! Mein Freund from Meistersinger and Du bist der Lenz from Die Walküre. After a…

June 15, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Tamerlano (Il Pomo d’Oro/Minassi)

Handel’s Tamerlano, written for the Royal Academy in 1724, is something of a secret pleasure for fans of 18th-century Italian opera. Lacking the magical stage machinery of the likes of Rinaldo, and with a low quotient of showcase arias to tickle the sensation seeker’s ear, it nevertheless has a claim to greatness. Why? It has one of the composer’s most grimly determined plots and a set of characters upon which Handel lavishes his utmost psychological insight.  In 1402, the Mongol herdsman Timur defeated his enemy, the Turkish sultan Bayezid, who history relates he had carted around in a cage for months afterwards. In the opera, the wicked (i.e. Eastern) tyrant Tamerlano has designs on Bajazet’s daughter, Asteria, and sends his ally, the Greek (hence noble) Andronico to convey his desires to the maiden and her vengeful father. Unbeknownst to Tamerlano, Andronico is himself in love with Asteria and from these complications a tense, potentially bloody political opera ensues.  Handel wrote the work at speed, as was his wont, but revised it at his leisure on more than one occasion in order to create as tight a musical drama as he was capable of. It culminates in a thrilling scene of…

June 11, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Gounod: Faust (Kaufmann, Metropolitan Opera/Nézet-Séguin)

Gounod’s Faust is the sort of opera that gives the genre a bad name. Its libretto is based on a play that takes Part 1 of Goethe’s original mystical morality tale and encrusts it with dowdy Victoriana and shifts the focus to the tortures inflicted on poor Marguerite whose eventual redemption hardly seems a fair consolation in today’s secular world; the lovely music coats a bitter pill that takes quite an effort to swallow.  Des McAnuff’s production attempts to restore some of the original’s dramatic gravitas by shifting the opening scene to the Los Alamos laboratories with Faust as a tortured atomic scientist. The arresting imagery during the overture gave an initial frisson so I looked forward to further clever analogies but apart from the obvious effects during the Walpurgisnacht they failed to materialise so the concept proved to be only half-baked. There were other fine visual moments such as the giant project images of Marguerite’s face but the unit set of Faust’s laboratory didn’t seem to be used to its full potential and my attention wandered.  Musically however, one couldn’t ask for more with a splendid cast of singing actors doing their best to sell the piece. Kaufmann is…

June 11, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera Arias (Kiri Te Kanawa)

With a career spanning four decades Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has established herself as one of the most popular lyric sopranos of all time with a devoted fan base, especially in Britain and here in Australia. This four-disc budget collection comprises what has been (plus a couple of what might have beens) to mark her 70th birthday. The package is home brand rather than anything lavish, but the four discs are all excellent previously released recordings covering 1989 to 1997. Two are devoted to Italian opera – a 1990 compilation of Puccini, Verdi, Cilea, Giordano, Bolto and Leoncavallo favourites and a 1997 Puccini disc which includes three songs with piano accompaniment. But perhaps the cream of the set is the mainly French compilation Te Kanawa made with Jeffrey Tate and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in 1989, in particular a beautiful rendering of Berlioz’s L’année en vain chasse l’année from The Damnation of Faust. No Te Kanawa collection would be complete without some Mozart and Richard Strauss, and these are provided on the fourth disc, but with them comes a pleasant surprise – a little Wagner with four arias, two from Tannhaüser, O Sachs! Mein Freund from Meistersinger…

May 18, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Hasse: Opera Arias (Cencic, Armonia Atenea/Petrou)

Until the 1980s Johann Adolf Hasse remained a historical footnote – a famous and prolific opera composer in his day of whom one had hardly heard a note. Then in 1986, William Christie made a landmark recording of Cleofide with an exotic line up of four counter-tenors and he was gradually rediscovered. Fast-forward to today and counter-tenors are superstars and major labels release whole recitals of Hasse – who’d have thought?  Max Emanuel Cencic was first heard as first boy on Solti’s 1991 Die Zauberflöte and has since developed into one of those aforesaid superstars. This superb recital includes seven world premiere recordings plus a mandolin concerto for instrumental interlude. Cencic’s voice is one of the richest around today with a gleaming top, a fulsome but firm bottom register and his technical facility is spectacular yet always beautifully expressive. His fiorature runs are cleanly articulated but always maintain a legato line with no nasty aspirates.  The accompaniments are bold, energetic yet elegant and technically immaculate; intonation is spot on. Theodoros Kitsos plays the mandolin concerto with limpid tone. The recording is close but not annoyingly so and wonderfully firm and weighty. Hasse’s arias rival Handel for invention but the whole…

May 18, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Complete Operas (Various Artists)

Even though his father Franz had played horn in the premieres in several of Wagner’s operas, the old man was not a fan of Herr Richard’s music dramas. His son, the composer Richard Strauss, would hold a similar position until his late teens when he discovered the piano score for Tristan and Isolde and he would prove a master of the orchestral tone poem and lieder before writing his first opera – the Wagnerian pastiche, Guntram – around his 30th birthday. However it was not until his third work in the field – Salome (1905), after Oscar Wilde’s notorious play – that he would have a major success de scandale with many productions being rapidly presented across Europe.  With this and his take on the classical tale of Elektra a few years later, Strauss would electrify audiences while balancing precariously on the edge of tonality. However he would suddenly pull back to celebrate his other major influence, Mozart, and with the likes of Ariadne auf Naxos and particularly Der Rosenkavalier, he would create the much loved dramas wherein his unique ability to write for the female voice would shine, creating a template for the rest of his operatic output amounting…

May 16, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Caccini: L’Euridice (Concerto Italiano/Alessandrini)

The 1600 marriage of Maria de’ Medici to Henri IV of France was more than just a Renaissance knees-up. For two composers, Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, it was the opportunity for each to claim to have produced the first example of what came to be known as ‘opera’. On the day, the performance was 90% Peri. Caccini went on to compose an entirely different version (and to subject his colleague to polemical broadsides over the ensuing decades). It’s his version recorded here. L’Euridice relies to a greater extent on recitative than later works by Monteverdi and Cavalli, with fewer ritornelli and choruses to liven things up. A comparison with Peri reveals Caccini to be a tauter dramatist, no bad thing given the tendency towards verbosity at the expense of action. Alessandri’s version, here captured in a live recording from the Innsbruck Festival, also has the advantage of a more imaginative instrumental realisation with three twangling theorbos, a host of keyboard instruments and a beautifully rich double lyre. He also has the benefit of supremely creative singers: Silvia Frigato as a fetching Euridice, Furio Zanasi as a moving Orfeo, Sara Mingardo poignantly announcing the fatal snake-bite and Antonio Abate as…