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,…

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…