November 7, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Provenzale: La Stellidaura Vendicante (Academia Montis Regalis)

Obscure baroque operas are fairly common nowadays, but this first ever recording of Provenzale’s tragicomedy La Stellidaura vendicante, still wins points for novelty. Premiered in 1674 in Naples, it’s an opera in the Venetian style – lovers of Cavalli will instantly recognise the musical language – but also peppered with Neapolitan folk music and dances.   The plot is typical: a hopelessly tangled knot of misdirected letters and wayward hearts, multiple near-deaths and a knife-wielding heroine. As that heroine, the titular Stellidaura, mezzo Jennifer Rivera sings with limpid clarity; she easily sustains the long lines of her aria Ferma, arresta, and is unfazed by the frills of Dormi, o perfido tiranno. Carlo Allemano’s dark, heavyish tenor takes time to warm up but is a good fit for the ruthless Prince Orismondo, and he’s well contrasted with the higher-lying, slightly reedy voice of Adrian Strooper as his rival, Stellidaura’s true love Armidoro.    Countertenor Hagen Matzeit is in fine voice as the page Armillo, and bass Enzo Capuano, as the servant Giampetro, has more fun than anyone, rollicking his way through the role’s phony Caprese dialect and catchy ditties straight from the streets of Naples. Provenzale’s score is a touch uneven, but de Marchi’s inventive realisation, with authentic Neapolitan instruments, ensures a theatrical performance.

October 31, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: The Gambler (Mariinsky Opera)

This early Prokofiev opera isn’t performed all that often. Although it is a fine, well-written work, it’s devoid of big tunes appealing primarily to those who are interested in sung drama rather than more conventional opera. Of course, we all know that the composer could write fabulous tunes, as the ballet scores and his Third Piano Concerto attest, but he was then in his revolutionary period as a young firebrand. In 2007 when I saw this production in St Petersburg I was impressed by the ‘sung play’ aspect of it all. It was very effective and at two hours, didn’t outstay its welcome. In this story, virtually everybody gambles in some way, not just the foolish Alexei, and the plot, set in a German spa, is an intricate ensemble of desperate or failing people. It’s more akin to Strauss’ Arabella than say, La Traviata, both regarded as top conversation operas, and with this well-oiled ensemble, it’s a delight. The direction is sensible and, happily for those of us watching it on screen, the acting is first class, with none of those close ups of singers glancing nervously at the conductor which mar so many video productions. The singing is marvellous,…

October 24, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Arias (Anna Netrebko)

When Anna Netrebko released her first solo disc, she was the poster child for a supposedly new breed of opera star: glamorous young singers who photographed at least as fabulously as they sang and whose publicity machines whirred at hyperspeed. Like any sudden sensation, she was greeted by both acclaim and skepticism: was she precisely the new blood opera needed, or an omen of Hollywoodification? Did she really have the voice and stage instincts to back up her superstardom – and how long would it all last? Ten years later, Netrebko has not only fulfilled her early promise, but moved well beyond it. If she’s a poster child now, it’s for singers with staying power, and this new disc of Verdi arias, although timed to celebrate the composer’s bicentenary, is also a milestone for the soprano herself, now slowly but surely moving into heavier repertoire. Never a timid performer, Netrebko opens her program at full throttle, with twenty minutes of Lady Macbeth, before moving into heroine mode with arias from Giovanna d’Arco, I Vespri Siciliani, Don Carlo and Il Trovatore. The Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino under Gianandrea Noseda (who also conducted the soprano’s debut album) are sympathetic partners throughout, but…

October 3, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera/Mariotti)

Wow, those New York opera critics are a right bunch of grumble-bums, at least if this superb production of Rigoletto is anything togo by. Sure, the Met’s staging earlier this year wasn’t universally panned, but a viewing o the DVD suggests a world-class theatrical spectacle that didn’t deserve its mealy mouthed treatment from some who seem to have taken umbrage that director Michael Mayer came from Broadway and set the whole thing in 1960s Las Vegas. It’s a brilliant concept that actually has you laughing out loud early on, as the Duke (the ever so charming Piotr Beczała) sings Questo a quella in a Rat-Pack style white jacket, crooner’s microphone in hand, and surrounded by showgirls waving their, um, feathers. But then when the tragedy strikes, designer Christine Jones’ casino set with its brilliant elevator exit never imposes, making this a production that compels you to become emotionally engaged in one of the most pathos-ridden final acts that Verdi ever composed, even when the corpse is revealed inside the boot of a Cadillac. The casting’s the key. Želko Lucˇic´ as the eponymous tragic jester who loses his daughter through a terrible twist of fate was criticised for being wooden in…

September 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Saul (Purves, Connolly)

Paving the way for the triumph of home-grown music over continental, Saul was presented in 1739 as part of a London season notable for the complete absence of Italian opera. It was a revolutionary work in many ways. It was the first English oratorio with a male lead; it was the longest English music theatre work to date; and it required larger forces than any theatre work previously performed in England. Harry Christophers delivers a highly charged, dramatic reading of the score, from the grand, ceremonial opening choruses, through the more intimate court settings, right up to the spooky scene where the Witch of Endor raises the spirit of Samuel. Listen to the sonorous use of three trombones (a German import in their day) in the battle music. Military kettledrums (which Handel borrowed from the Tower of London) enhance the famous Dead March. David’s ravishing harp solos and a specially commissioned carillon complete the novel line up and Christophers gives each its moment in the spotlight. Christopher Purves is Saul, a fine baritone and an even finer singing actor. His kingly descent through jealousy, fury and despair is meticulously mapped out with singing of enormous bite and panache. Although the…

August 15, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi, Handel, et al: Enchanted Forest (Prohaska)

When they weren’t putting ancient kings on stage, Baroque opera composers nursed a fascination with witches, sirens and nymphs whose doings provided rich pickings for adventurous vocal and orchestral writing. Anna Prohaska’s Enchanted Forest gathers together a clutch of these characters for a program of otherworldly arias. More nymph than vengeful witch, Prohaska’s pure, slender soprano is at its best in the earlier selections: Restino imbalsamate, from Cavalli’s Calisto and Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa are ethereal yet dark-edged, with gently rippling coloratura and effective use of straight tone which elsewhere can turn a little strident. At top speed the voice loses some of its lustre, although there’s a vehement accuracy to these pieces – notably Vivaldi’s Alma oppressa and Handel’s Combattuta da più venti – which is not without excitement. Of the excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, it’s the mesmerising O let me weep which is most successful, Prohaska overcoming a needlessly imperious start to deliver a lyrical, moving Plaint. Best of all, though, is Cavalli’s O piu d’ogni ricchezza, an understated tour de force whose recitatives are as vibrantly delivered as its dance rhythms and vocal effects. Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo are atmospheric partners, but make the strongest…

August 8, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: George Benjamin: Written on Skin (Purves, Hannigan)

George Benjamin’s new opera is based on the strange and brutal 13th-century Provençal tale Le Coeur Mangê, in which an unnamed ruler (The Protector) asks an illuminator (The Boy) to glorify his power for perpetuity in a book. The Boy’s presence awakens the sexual independence of The Protector’s wife (Agnes), and their subsequent affair leads to the murder of The Boy. In a grisly dénouement, The Protector forces his wife to eat The Boy’s heart, after which she jumps from a window to avoid a similar fate. In order to allow the contemporary world to “bleed through”, British playwright Martin Crimp has added three “angels” who manipulate the drama as if conducting an experiment and double as subsidiary characters. It’s a brilliant conceit that produces
a satisfyingly tight piece of musical theatre matched in intellectual rigor by Benjamin’s razor-sharp score. Crimp ingeniously mixes direct speech with characters narrating their own actions, which lends the recording a special clarity, as you are frequently aware of what a character is doing or thinking. Benjamin uses his orchestra (in this instance 
the peerless Mahler Chamber Orchestra) with enormous imagination and sensitivity to evoke the musical world of the medieval illuminator. Bass viola da gamba…

August 1, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Weber: Der Freischütz (LSO)

Revered British conductor Sir Colin Davis passed away a few months ago, yet reviewing his last recording still comes a something of a shock. Listening to this live concert performance of Weber’s ghostly masterpiece is a welcome reminder of the virtues that kept this tireless musical advocate at the top of his game for 50 years. Carl Maria von Weber was a regular visitor in the Wagner household while the young Richard was growing up, and nowhere was his influence more clearly felt on the operatic giant- to-be than in his gothic fairytale, Der Freischütz. Davis homes in on that Wagnerian dimension, and if his Weber is a relatively sedate affair next to his blistering Berlioz, it benefits from his other great strengths – instinctive sense of orchestral balance and sensitivity to singers. It’s a big-boned reading and the LSO plays its collective heart out for their Chief. Soloists are ideally memorable and the horn section is to die for. Christine Brewer makes a fine Agathe. Her ample voice is beautifully shaded when required and her prayer is most moving. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill sings the vacillating hero Max. His voice is clear and penetrating but it’s a tight…

July 25, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Overtures and Preludes (Filarmonica Della Scala)

  It’s celebrations all round as Riccardo Chailly acknowledges Verdi’s bicentenary and his own 60th birthday with a disc of overtures, preludes and ballet music from some of the composer’s best-loved operas (and more than a few of his rarer specimens). Chailly’s crack band is the Filarmonica della Scala – the opera house with which Verdi himself was most closely associated and where Chailly launched his own career. Add to that the fact that Milan is the city where Verdi died and Chailly was born, and it would seem that all the stars are aligned. The conductor’s genius is to find that special something in the familiar – in this case the preludes from La Traviata and Aida, where he draws such a luminous sound from his string section that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Wagner. There are some rollicking tub-thumpers too: the prelude to Nabucco and the perky Sinfonia from the seldom-staged Alzira. Drama takes centre stage with the brooding introduction to Gerusalemme (Verdi’s reworking of I Lombardi) and a passionately vibrant Forza del Destino overture. Chailly gauges everything to perfection and his classy orchestra brings out the detail of Verdi’s orchestration. If I found myself wanting…

July 17, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Richard Tauber: Select songs (Beczała)

  Richard Tauber was not only one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, he also did much to break down the barriers between light music and classical opera by appearing in a series of popular films. His suave, gentlemanly look and trademark monocle went with an equally recognisable voice of great beauty. Composers like Franz Lehár knew that Tauber could make a show, and that the audience would expect to hear the “Tauber song”, and so a string of hits were written specifically with his unique voice in mind. Girls were made to love and kiss, I kiss your hand Madame and, of course, You are my heart’s delight are amongst the finest operetta songs ever written. Piotr Beczała is as near perfect a guide in this repertoire as you could hope for. His warm tenor has just the right quality – warm, slightly baritonal in the lower registers, thrilling and bright at the top with no hint of strain. Best of all, where some singers have a telltale hint of self- consciousness singing this old-fashioned repertoire (I’m thinking of Joseph Calleja on his recent Mario Lanza tribute), Beczała is stylistically spot-on. He manages the slight sob in the…

July 10, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Arias (Sabata)

Xavier Sabata delves into the darker side of Handel with this tribute to the composer’s scoundrels, miscreants and rebels – the so-called “Bad Guys” often neglected in favour of the heroes and their chivalrous effusions. The Spanish countertenor’s glossy voice isn’t an obvious embodiment of pure evil, but then neither are these complex characters, and Sabata brings out their ambiguities nicely. Vengeful arias like Egeo’s Voglio stragi (from the seldom heard Teseo) are forcefully sung, but it’s in reflective, melodious mode, as in the same character’s striking Serenatevi, o luce belle, that Sabata is at his most expressive and interesting. His mellifluous sound is underpinned by a wheedling, insistent quality, perfect for a master manipulator, and while the voice is full of sweetness, he’s prepared to employ a few dark and sinister colours – the snarling conclusion to Polinesso’s Se l’inganno sortisce felice (from Ariodante) is especially menacing. Though at times crisper diction and more emphatic delivery might be welcome, Sabata’s tone is firm and focused, and his timbre is attractive if not staggeringly distinctive. He’s a persuasive advocate for these arias, many of which are rarely performed in isolation. Tolomeo’s Belle dèe di questo core mightn’t make much of…

July 3, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: Winterreise (Coote, Drake)

Alice Coote has been successfully portraying men for years, but usually she’s done it with aid of wigs and costumes, in breeches roles like Orfeo, Idamante and Octavian. This disc, recorded live at the Wigmore Hall last year, finds her essaying a different sort of male role: that of the haunted protagonist in Schubert’s Winterreise. Coote is not the first female singer to take on the cycle, but it’s still predominantly the domain of tenors (the voice for which the songs were originally written) and baritones. In Coote, Schubert’s great and harrowing work finds yet another distinctive interpreter. Her velvety, contralto-ish voice is laced with mournful sweetness, and she takes a refreshingly simple, naturalistic approach: there’s no micromanaging of phrases or belaboured angst, just a subtle dissection of a disintegrating soul, whose occasional outpourings – the tempestuous Der stürmische Morgen, for instance, or the tearful urgency of Erstarrung – are made all the more potent by the slow burn which precedes them. Coote has a full and telling palette of vocal colours at her disposal, from an eerily pretty Wasserflut to the introspective glow of Der greise Kopf and the stripped- back tone of Die Krähe. She’s not afraid to let…

July 2, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Rossini: Arias (Kurzak)

The current roster of Decca/Deutsche Grammophon glitters with star sopranos, most of them on the lyric side and many with at least some claim to coloratura. Yet Aleksandra Kurzak continues to set herself apart, her formidable technique matched by vocal charisma and a richness of colour more idiomatic form here under conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi, playing with sympathetic panache. Kurzak sings with poise, rounded tone and evocative colours, moving mercurially from the ecstatic assurance of Semiramide’s Bel raggio to Amenaide’s ardent prayer from Tancredi and even a kittenish not always found in a voice of such agility. Her solo recording debut, Gioia!, came as something of a revelation, and while, two years on, she’s no longer such a surprise, this generous collection of Rossini arias is further proof of the Polish soprano’s ability to dazzle and delight. The album focusses mostly on the composer’s serious operas: Semiramide, Guglielmo Tell, Matilde di Shabran and, in a nod to Kurzak’s homeland, Sigismondo, whose title character is a 16th-century Polish king. There’s a smattering of comedy too, though, with arias from Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Il Turco in Italia, the former featuring an avuncular cameo by fellow Pole Artur Rucinski as Figaro….