September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles

When the Metropolitan Opera asked composer John Corigliano to write them a new opera to celebrate their centenary in 1983, no one expected to get one of the nuttiest pieces of theatrical lunacy in the history of the art form – and eight years late at that. The Ghosts of Versailles was a sell-out hit in 1991, but an attempt to revive it in 2008 was canceled due to the weakened US economy. This LA Opera live recording under James Conlon stems from 2015 and gives a pretty fare impression of the busy score and crazy plot. Set in the afterlife, the ghost of Beaumarchais attempts to cheer up the melancholy shade of Marie Antoinette by putting on a new opera. In it, Count Almaviva, aided by Figaro and Susanna attempt to save the Queen from being executed by the Revolution. Finally, Antoinette forbids Beaumarchais (who steps into the action) to alter the course of history, accepting her fate and going willingly to the guillotine. The Almavivas escape to America while the Queen and Beaumarchais are united in Paradise. Corigliano’s attractive, sparkling music ranges from semi-atonal to Classical operatic pastiche. There’s something fundamentally undisciplined about the writing, however, making it…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: The Rabbits (Live Original Cast Recording)

The Rabbits has become a real success story in contemporary Australian opera. Featuring a gorgeous score by singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke and Iain Grandage, with a libretto by Lally Katz, the work has won four Helpmann awards and was nominated for best world premiere at this year’s International Opera Awards. Based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s illustrated tale of the British invasion of Australia, it’s unquestionably powerful, and stylistically the score draws on all manner of genres. The music of the natives (a band of marsupials) is influenced by pop and musical theatre, while music for the bird (Miller-Heidke’s character) incorporates electronic effects to conjure the aerial world it inhabits. The more explicitly operatic elements are reserved for the leporine European invaders, with waltzes and wonky recitatives underscoring the singing of these slapstick caricatures. A band of five packs a real punch, some doubling or tripling on other instruments. Some of the most engaging music on the disc features Miller-Heidke’s extraordinarily agile and expressive singing. Also worthy of mention is Jessica Hitchcock’s honest performance as Flinch, a young marsupial, as well as Kanen Breen’s prim portrayal of a sadistic scientist rabbit, employing his raucous countertenor to hilarious effect.

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

This 2012 production was the centrepiece of Cecilia Bartoli’s first season as Artistic Director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. It’s a pleasure to note that Andreas Scholl has retained almost all his tonal beauty over 20 years now. Costumed as a European Union bureaucrat, his towering physical presence and wonderful sound befits the stature of the role.  Christophe Dumaux exudes danger and menace as Tolomeo. His nemesis, Sesto, usually comes across as a dithering ninny but Philippe Jaroussky takes hold of the role, his youthful look suggesting a boy out of his depth in a pool of circling sharks. Anne Sophie von Otter has gravitas as aging beauty Cornelia, singing with such artistry as to conceal any marks of time.  Bartoli’s Cleopatra is a knockout; a big, blousy Elizabeth Taylor portrayal sung with flamboyance in triumph and tenderness in defeat. The big tragic arias are heart-rending showstoppers, the artist spinning endless strands of silken tone. In contrast there’s Bartoli in frizzy blonde wig astride a missile. Once seen it’s difficult to unsee. And there’s the rub – wonderful musical performance in an ugly mess of a production. I counted off the directorial clichés; No 7 – dancers in army fatigues,…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Balfe: Satanella (or ‘The Power of Love’)

The huge repertoire of English opera from the Victorian and Edwardian eras has virtually vanished from public view, but not from the public ear, thanks to top recordings such as this one. Michael Balfe, the composer of Satanella, was prolific, writing some 30 operas for both British and European opera houses. However, his most famous piece, The Bohemian Girl, hasn’t been seen on its feet for decades.  Satanella opened at Covent Garden in 1862 and held the stage for 60 years, including a visit to Sydney in 1962. It is a sturdy work, a mix of opera, operetta and ballad opera. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the music as it is very professionally written with a reasonable balance between arias, choruses and ensembles. However it lacks true inspiration and there is little that grabs the ear. To put it crudely, it has no memorable tunes, and as with fellow works in the genre, makes us realise how brilliant Gilbert and Sullivan were and why they are the great survivors from that period. Bonynge has edited the work and the recording is happily without dialogue, always a weakness in this repertoire. As it is unlikely that any of…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Leoncavallo: Zazà (BBC Symphony Orchestra)

Curious fact: at one time Leoncavallo’s Zazà outstripped Pagliacci for popularity. It’s Milan premiere in 1900, conducted by Toscanini, was a major hit, putting its composer up there with Puccini as Italian opera’s great white hope. A perfect example of verismo – saving that no one is brutally murdered or jumps off a cliff – it remained in the repertoire for several decades before performances dwindled to a trickle and then pretty much stopped. What was up? Leoncavallo, an odd fish, was certainly inept at self-promotion. Or did the Wagnerian declamatory style in his setting of the libretto upset Italian opera fans? For all its winning tunefulness, the score has a stubborn refusal to cohere into a show-stopping aria. Either way, as this superb new studio recording from Opera Rara reveals, the modern world has sorely misjudged Zazà. The plot is simple. Good-time girl and cabaret artiste Zazà tumbles into relationship with posh gent who hangs around backstage. Too late she learns where he lives and finds he’s married, leading to confrontation and a husband’s brutal comparisons between “tawdry” mistress and “angelic” bourgeois wife. What a scumbag, eh? Opera Rara’s cast is near faultless. Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, an impressive…

September 1, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Higdon: Cold Mountain (Santa Fe Opera)

Jennifer Higdon is one of the most performed composers in the US, and Cold Mountain is the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s first operatic sojourn. The composition got off to a rocky start when the original commission from San Francisco Opera failed to eventuate. Happily, Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera rescued the commission of this brilliant new work, with the premiere staged last year in 2015 in Santa Fe. After sell-out performances, the work has since won the 2016 International Opera Award for best world premiere. The libretto by Gene Scheer is adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Charles Frazier, which tells the story of Civil War deserter W.P. Inman and his journey to find his beloved Ada, a once well-off but now desperate woman who learns to fend for herself with the help of Ruby, a mountain woman. The setting for the story had a special significance for Higdon, who grew up on a farm in East Tennessee, only 60 miles from the real Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Musically, Higdon’s score is fresh and cast in her own personal brand of Neo-Romanticism, while drawing on numerous hallmarks of classical and folk Americana. Throughout the…

August 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Cavalleria Rusticana & I Pagliacci (Staatskapelle Dresden)

The twin verismo peaks of ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’ have oft appeared on the same programme since they were first shackled together by the Met in 1893 (bizarrely, they’d previously coupled ‘Pag’ with Gluck’s Orfeo in a staging where Melba sang Nedda). Less frequent has been the same tenor singing both Turiddù and Canio on the same evening (Domingo and Vickers pull it off on DVD), while a double role debut is even less common. Now you can add Jonas Kaufmann to that list (at the 2015 Salzburg Easter Festival), and here he is on film to prove it. Philipp Stölzl’s compartmentalised staging works well, solving problems inherent in the Salzburg stage – one of the widest on the circuit – and his mix of dramatic snapshots and live video pulls the action together in intriguing and illuminating ways. Take for instance the opening of Cavalleria Rusticana. Instead of an offstage serenade, Kaufmann’s Turridù is discovered in the attic garret he shares with Santuzza and their young child (spot the backstory) singing dreamily over the rooftops to Lola who lives across the street. Projected large on the opposite side of the divided stage, what might be hard for an audience to…

August 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Smetana: Dalibor (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiri Belohlávek)

Written at the height of his powers, Bedrˇich Smetana’s third opera Dalibor polarised critics and failed to capture the public imagination. What a loss, for as the liner notes to this magnificent BBC recording point out “Dalibor is Smetana’s loveliest operatic score and a great deal subtler than his first two works for stage,” (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride). In fact, Smetana grew resentful of the Bride’s success, dismissing it as a “toy” for those who thought he was incapable of writing a comedy. The tragic chivalric tale of Dalibor with its plot reminiscent of Fidelio is full of superb music, particularly the beautiful duet in Act 2 when Milada, disguised as a minstrel boy, smuggles an old fiddle into Dalibor’s cell. Packed with great solos shared among five major characters, the vibrant score covers a broad canvas and there are some great theatrical moments, including the pompous Judges’ March which almost pre-empts Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. However, the Prague musical establishment considered Dalibor too Wagnerian for the new national musical movement and it was shelved. Although revived in the 1890s after Smetana’s death, with Mahler conducting a performance in Vienna, it has remained neglected. The excellent…

August 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mayr: Saffo (Concerto de Bassus)

Johann Simon Mayr’s delightful two-act opera Saffo, here receiving its first recording, features a love triangle between the eponymous poetess (soprano Andrea Lauren Brown) her former lover Faone (soprano Jaewon Yun), whom Saffo still desires but who still pines for his late wife, and the poet Alceo (tenor Markus Schäfer), in love with Saffo. Set in and around a Greek temple near the Rock of Leucas, from which dejected lovers are prone to throw themselves, the opera includes a host of other characters such as the oracular priestess Amfizione (mezzo Marie Sande Papenmeyer). The first of 70 operas by the Bavarian composer (1763-1845), Saffo premiered at La Fenice in 1794. As Marion Englhart writes in her booklet note, “Perhaps Mayr’s musical achievement was not least to combine innovations from the so-called Viennese School of Classicism with the Italian ideal of bel canto.” But it is his peculiar ear for orchestral colour, which comes to the forefront in this fine recording under Franz Hauk on Naxos. To sample the aforementioned qualities, one need look no further than Saffo’s first aria L’onda del mar, che al vento, where she compares her sufferings to a breaking wave. The undulating melodies and the colourful…

August 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Saimir Pirgu: Il Mio Canto

This recording opens on a high, with Saimir Pirgu’s opening cry “O inferno!” from Simon Boccanegra. He is taking no prisoners. All at once there is much to be excited by as you hear a muscular, athletic tone coming from a handsome, young Albanian tenor. Maybe we’ve discovered the natural successor to Jonas Kaufmann? Upon further listening though, the initial enthusiasm fades. The album serves up a main course of meaty Verdi arias, with side dishes of Donizetti, Cilea, Gounod, Massenet, Strauss and Puccini. It’s a mixed bag. Quite simply, Pirgu – occasionally capable of divine sounds – consistently over-sings and often doesn’t seem to be in complete control of his instrument. The famous Che Gelida Manina, seems stilted and Pirgu doesn’t create enough light and shade for a love-stricken hero. The first two lines of Salut! Demeure chaste et pure create a delicious sense of bel canto legato, but Pirgu can’t seem to sustain it as the aria continues.There are moments of glorious beauty, however, like the aria from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, which Pirgu sings with simplicity and gravitas. It’s the highlight of the disc. It can’t be denied that Pirgu has an astonishingly beautiful voice, but pressure and force means…

June 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Acis and Galatea (Boston Early Music Festival)

Boston Early Music Festival singers and period instrument players, co-directed by lutenists Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, are in cracking form on this studio recording of Handel’s buoyant pastoral. The vocal ensemble are exceptional, especially in their opening number O the Pleasure of the Plains (which always reminds me of For unto us a Child is born from Messiah).  Handel wrote Acis and Galatea for the Duke of Chandos to celebrate his marriage and the building of his lavish mansion, the Cannons, in Middlesex. The house had its own orchestra as well as extensive gardens with the latest water features. It didn’t survive for long, however, for within 20 years it was demolished and its features sold off when Chandos’s fortune took a dive in the South Sea Bubble. In Ovid’s tale, the shepherd Acis is metamorphosed into a fountain by his lover Galatea after the jealous cyclops Polyphemus launches a boulder which crushes him. Thus the gardens of Cannons made the perfect setting for this pastoral tale. Handel was briefly the Duke’s resident composer while things were quiet in London (and where he was having trouble managing to stage his Italian operas). Hats off to the excellent soloists, tenor…

May 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Cavalli: L’Amore Innamorato

As Ilja Stephan writes in her informative booklet note to this exquisite new release from French period instrument ensemble L’Arpeggiata, Francesco Cavalli “rode the crest of Venetian opera’s wave”. This full-time church musician composed 40 operas on the side and made a fortune in the process (though a prudent marriage to a rich widow also helped). The programme offers up a selection of arias and instrumental works from six Cavalli’s works – L’Ormindo, Il Giasone, La Rosinda, L’Artemisia, La Didone, L’Eliogabalo and the famous La Calisto – plus instrumental works by contemporaries Kapsperger and Falconieri. As Stephan points out, “the poetic text was a literary work of art in its own right” and Cavalli was lucky to have the talents of such masters as Giovanni Francesco Busenello (who furnished Monteverdi with the libretto for L’Incoronazione di Poppea). In her usual imaginative fashion, Christina Pluhar, directing from harp or theorbo, has filled out the skeletal scores by employing a rich array of instruments including lutes, harps, psalteries, percussion and a harpsichord and chamber organ. And if sopranos Nuria Rial and Hana Blažíková dazzle with their pure, sensuous tones and expressive, lightly virtuosic declamations, recriminations and laments, cornetto player Doron David Sherwin is…

May 13, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Donizetti: Le Duc d’Albe (Hallé Orchestra)

There are few more tantalising torsos to be found in the history of opera than that of Donizetti’s abandoned Le Duc d’Albe. Commissioned to write two works for the Paris Opéra in 1839, the Italian composer, newly resident in the French capital, duly set out to adapt his Poliuto as the more Gallically apposite Les Martyrs, while simultaneously beginning work on the opera whose remains we have here. It is unclear why that second project never came to fruition. Two acts were composed and the remainder planned out when problems arose. Firstly, Donizetti was in a queue behind Halévy and Meyerbeer, neither of whom seemed in any hurry to deliver their commissions. Then there were rumours of a change of prima donna in the offing, potentially rendering his plans for writing a radical spitfire heroine obsolete.  Years dragged by. In 1845, one of the librettists, Eugène Scribe, sued the management to free up his text. Donizetti considered doing the same, but a year later he was a spent force, confined to an asylum suffering the final stages of tertiary syphilis. In the end, Scribe tactfully changed the location to medieval Sicily under the Normans and flogged his idea to Verdi,…