February 19, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Serse (Early Opera Company/Curnyn)

Handel’s Serse of 1738 with its buffo elements and fast moving structure baffled the critics of the day who singularly failed to recognise Handel’s dramaturgical innovations; it was dismissed by some as a mere “ballad”opera and Charles Burney took him to task for reinstating the tragicomedic that had been banished from opera seria. Relying less on the static three-part da capo aria in favour of short snappy one-movement numbers it suits the light, nimble touch of Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company whose excellence in this field is a known quantity and the cast is ideal. Anna Stéphany is superb in the title pants-role, caressing the ear in moments of contemplation yet with sufficient metal in the voice to suggest the warrior king without going over the top and turning the character into a basket-case – her Se Bramante d’amar is a lesson in dramatic projection. Rosemary Joshua’s Romilda is her father’s child with nobility in the voice yet also a vulnerable femininity while her beau David Daniels is as strapping and heroic as a counter-tenor can manage. Thankfully the more comic characters are played relatively straight; Brindley Sherratt avoids conventional bluster as the soldier prince Ariodate, Hilary Summers…

February 19, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Monteverdi: Heaven and Earth (The King’s Consort/King)

  Monteverdi is celebrated for bringing opera to birth, but his extraordinary creativity also saw the gradual dissolving of the stylistic boundaries between sacred and secular music. Here we have a pleasantly varied sample of Monteverdi’s secular music, drawn from the later books of madrigals and some well known operatic items. Two of the items, the arresting Toccata from Orfeo and the vivacious Chiome d’oro from the Seventh Book of Madrigals, were ‘recycled’ as sacred pieces. One of the themes running through this selection is, as the booklet note puts it, “the sweet pains of love”. The most intense expressions of painful love are found in three laments. Lasciatemi morire, the only surviving music from the opera Arianna, was reworked as a five-part madrigal in which Arianna’s pain is intensified by some wonderful dissonances. A Dio, Roma from The Coronation of Poppea is movingly sung by Sarah Connolly while Lamento della Ninfa (one of the first laments over a descending bass) moves and impresses by gaining maximum impact from so little material. Charles Daniels sings Possente spirito, the famous tour de force from Orfeo with great agility and empathy, expertly accompanied by a phalanx of cornetts. The prologue from Orfeo…

February 13, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Eötvös: Love and Other Demons (Glyndebourne Opera/Jurowski)

Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös has plenty of operatic experience having produced versions of Angels in America and Chekov’s Three Sisters. His 2008 setting of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, then, might seem to promise more, but despite this excellent Glyndebourne cast recording giving it every opportunity to land, it remains peculiarly elusive and, for all it’s South American colour, a slightly drab affair. The story concerns the increasingly obsessive love of a priest for a 12-year-old girl suspected of contracting rabies after being bitten by a dog. Oddly, her age appears not to be an issue here, and sung by the capable Allison Bell, she simply comes across as a young woman – albeit one given to a good old scream now and again. There’s a greater tension between the world of the local ‘natives’, accused by the Catholic hierarchy of superstition, and the harsh attempts by the Bishop and Abbess to exorcise Sierva’s ‘demon’. Perhaps the problem is that the short story is just that – short. The characters lack background and relationships are sketchy. The libretto is skillfully adapted, but too often the score seems to drift along when it should seize the dramatic possibilities. Many…

February 13, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Decca Sound: The Acoustic Years (Various)

This release is a sequel to the earlier Decca Sound box set. It covers the years of Decca’s analogue “Full Frequency Range Recording”, starting with the company’s earliest stereo recordings from 1954 –Ansermet conducting the Suisse Romande Orchestra in music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Balakirev and Liadov – and finishing in 1980 just prior to the advent of digital recording, with Dutoit conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in tone poems by Saint-Saëns. The bonus CD gives us the Ansermet Russian program in its original mono, for comparative purposes. Unlike the earlier box, this is not presented as a best performance collection; rather, it is designed to showcase the peak of Decca’s sound quality over those analogue decades. And indeed it does: the sound of Fistoulari’s highlights from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake holds up stunningly (recorded with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961), not to mention Solti’s visceral Mahler Resurrection Symphony with Heather Harper, Helen Watts and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus from 1966.  Sometimes the sound is of its time. When Decca producers recorded opera in the late 1950s and early 1960s they preferred a cavernous space with the voices set back  – an opera house acoustic – yet the clarity and presence…

February 6, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Parsifal (Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie/Haenchen)

How to make a spectacle out of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal? There’s the rub. Belgian company La Monnaie called on Italian avant-garde theatre director Romeo Castelluci to lend his vision to this four-hour production. The result is a Kundry dressed in white anorak and gumboots, lashings of nudity and bondage and an albino python, said by Castelluci to represent Wagner’s music, and whose ‘venom’ might be a cure. (Herpetologist’s note: Pythons are not venomous). There’s also a German shepherd dog which occasionally makes an appearance like Inspector Rex on a case. Also in the mix are 300 extras and explicit scenes in the second act where Klingsor’s castle is a cross between an S&M parlour and a gynaecologist’s consulting room. It all looks like a Pilates class gone horribly wrong. Castellucci is known for shocking audiences with violence, nudity and, on occasions, steaming piles of excrement. This was his first operatic venture. It’s difficult to imagine how he would follow this up if invited. The cast, orchestra and chorus are all solid if not exceptional. But then it can’t be easy competing with 300 extras, a dog, a snake and topless dancers with white beehive wigs. The liner notes say…

February 3, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera review: La Bohème (Opera New England)

Without inviting accusations of Sydney snobbery, I think I can safely state that opera performances are not exactly a frequent occurrence in Armidale, a rural town of some 24,473 inhabitants in northern NSW. This makes the sophomore production by local company Opera New England something of a big deal – and not just for the town’s inhabitants, but for all those who believe opera can, and should, flourish outside Australia’s state capitals. Puccini’s La Bohème was the ambitious choice of opera (following on a well-received debut with Figaro last year), and it demonstrated that even a grand Romantic blockbuster can be staged in a small theatre on a small budget. All you need is an engaged community, a dash of talent and plenty of hard yakka. The cast of this production was comprised of hopeful young singers from around Australia, and I’m guessing it took little effort for them to step into the roles of passionate young artists living on the smell of an oily canvas. Many of the voices were still works-in-progress, but all the singers were able to meet the challenges of the score, some brilliantly so. As the consumptive seamstress Mimì, recent Sydney Con graduate Sarah Toth gave an assured performance,…

January 30, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky, Gergiev)

Strauss and Hoffmansthal’s fantastic fairytale has a reputation as a brute to stage and while expensive, requiring a heavy-duty cast of singers to do it justice its heavy symbolism and Jungian archetypes, it’s a gift to directors who can give free rein to their imagination. Sadly, most try too hard to spell out the bafflingly symbolic as seems to be the case in Jonathan Kent’s literal production which serves the human aspects well but is rather ho-hum when it comes to the other-worldly; Barak and his wife live in a squalid Laundromat while the inhabitants of the Spirit-World gad about in a colourful Russo-Oriental pastiche.  The Mariinsky singers have the necessary heft but also a great deal of Slavic wobble. Best of the bunch were the Olgas Sergeeva and Savova as the Dyer’s wife and Nurse; both threw themselves into the maelstrom and their dramatic intensity made up for the occasional ugly sound.  Gergiev’s conducting, while wildly exciting, lacks the sweeping Echt-Straussian line and while the strings make some glorious sounds the orchestra comes across as relentlessly loud and crude. An essential purchase for Gergiev fans, perhaps, but I would veer towards the Sawallisch/Munich production with its clever Kabuki-style and musical…

January 23, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner & Dietsch: The Flying Dutchman

Here’s a curiosity. It seems that the Paris Opera didn’t entirely turn down the young Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in 1840. Instead they bought the subject from the ever strapped-for-cash composer for 500 francs and gave it to a chum of the director, a former double bass player- cum-composer, Pierre-Louis Dietsch. For the Wagner birthday celebrations, Marc Minkowski came up with the ingeneous idea to perform both the rare original ‘Paris’ version of Wagner’s opera as well as Dietch’s jauntier bel canto confection, Le Vaisseau Fantôme (the Ghost Ship). The Wagner receives a fine performance with excellent soloists. Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin makes a spirited Holländer with plenty of textual nuance and lashings of angst, if lighter in tonal weight than is sometimes the case. He is well matched by his Senta, Ingela Brimberg, occasionally under pressure but often exciting and always committed. The period instruments feel a little thin at times (Wagner was perhaps already demanding more of the orchestras of the day) and Minkowski doesn’t always allow enough breathing space for the drama to land, but when it does, it’s an exciting enough affair. For the explorer, though, it’s the curiosity of the Dietsch that will draw them…

January 16, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Glyndebourne Festival Opera)

For the past year the music, life and character of Richard Wagner have been put under the microscope, assessed and reassessed, but no bicentenary survey would be complete without a superlative recording of Tristan und Isolde. Four years ago, Glyndebourne staged it with a predominantly German cast – Torsten Kerl and Anja Kampe as the doomed lovers and baritone Andrzej Dobber as Kurwenal and bass Georg Zeppenfeld as King Mark. Now Glyndebourne Music has released the live performance in a hard cover booklet set and it’s been worth the waiting for. With the London Philharmonic as your house orchestra and the exciting Vladimir Jurowski at the helm you know you are going to be in for a treat and this recording produced, engineered, mixed and edited by Sebastian Chonion will sweep you away. Jurowski’s attention to balance is spot-on and the magnificent sound of the LPO – a band with no discernible weak spots – ensures that the soloists are heard to their full advantage. Kerl’s tenor has a lighter, slightly nasal quality at times but that doesn’t detract at all and the vocal chemistry with the Italian- German Kampe is outstanding. The pair performed Tristan coming off a triumphant season in Fidelio. There…

November 28, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Requiem (La Scala)

Verdi's monument to a fellow hero of the Risorgimento and his fraught relationship with the Church must strike a chord with Daniel Banreboim drawing parallels with his friendship with Edward Said and interest in Israeli-Palestinian politics. Twety years ago he set down an exciting dramatic account in Chciago but thsoe optimistic days are past; this new recording is a lment for our troubled times – the tone is darker, almost opressively so. Mustival values are better served in chciago whereas spiritual matters are to the fore in Milan; the idfferent characters of the forces are the key – symphonic versus operatic. Despite the presence of Domingo in Chicago the new bunch of soloiosts are superior. Harteros' vibrant voice can turn pure and gleaming when required and Garanča sounds marvellously rich and idiomatic. Pape is suitably imposing, intelligently singing "on the words". Kaufmann might sound too teutonic for some ears (not mine) and his vocal production is so worryingly tight that one hopes it doesn't all go p ear-shaped with overwork. Barenboim's grasp of long term structure makes this performance work. Whiel there are some tremendous hell-raising moment eh eschews sensationalist effects in favour of a compassioante vision. Whilst not a…