The singer Christine Brewer and the music deserve that, and not the often awkward translations and occasionally sub-par conducting and recording supplied by producer Chandos for the Moores Foundation’s English series [Chandos 3127].
Let me get my own bias, if that’s the term, out of the way up front: I find it hard to enjoy German, French or other languages translated into English for operatic performance. I’ll never forget an English National Opera production in the 1970s, of the French Manon with Valerie Masterson and Alberto Remedios, which should have been stunning, but was reduced to near-Gilbert and Sullivan in the English vernacular. But, hark! All is not lost, for just as soon as Brewer has delivered an impressive, if Englished, “Ocean Thou Mighty Monster” (Weber) on this disc, than she turns to Arthur Sullivan’s cantata, The Golden Legend for the big soprano/choral scene, “The Night is Calm and Cloudless” – a big dramatic scene in best Victorian style – that proves quite effective in its native English. I rest my case. Native lingo is best, for the language is part of the music.
With that caveat, how does La Brewer do with her big dramatic pieces mixed in with a few show tunes in this new arias disc? Swimmingly in the classical numbers, a bit less idiomatically in the translated operetta pieces by Lehar and Kalman, but fine in tunes of Richard Rodgers and Bob Merrill. Where there are problems, they seem to come from David Parry and the Philharmonia Orchestra and a choir. The lead-in to Countess Maritza’s entrance aria is a real bog – not only slow, but dragged down tonally and out of synch between orchestra and a slightly rough chorus. Better rehearsed, put back into German and speeded up it would be just fine. Brewer’s mellow low and mid-voice rendition of Rodger’s immortal “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is big league; it may well be remembered as a touchstone performance. Rossini’s Stabat Mater is dropped into the middle of these light songs, and the “Inflammatus” rings with resounding soprano tones just in case we’ve forgotten Brewer is one of the most luxurious big voices of our time. Three out of a dozen selections are in their original English, and they are entirely comfortable. The juicy Kalman operetta aria “Meine lippen sie kussen so heiss,” here “On my lips ev’ry kiss is like wine” (see what I mean?), is sung elegantly, if without the lilt and flirt of the German text. Beethoven’s concert aria, “Ah Perfido,” to my ear the best performance on this CD, is sandwiched between Lehar and Bob Merrill (his lovely Lili’s song ‘Mira’ from Carnival) creating a peculiar ambience if one listens straight through the disc, which is not recommended. But the Beethoven is superb, sung with much feeling and poise, and with ravishing tone, Brewer at her best. But who set the order of these selections? It’s wiser to make one’s own.
Finally, I do have to carp a little about the sonics: Heaven knows Brewer needs no help with pitch or amplitude. But the engineers have fiddled with the position of the voice, often too close, and have added resonance, which can sometimes create a ragged release or blurred detail, as in the smudged, rushed orchestral opening in Elisabeth’s Act II aria from Tannhauser, and the occasional forte high note can blast. Brewer sings “Mira – Can you imagine that,” so sweetly and simply, it is one of her finest numbers; but here it is set in a resonance too big and imposing. Even so: yum!
Most of all I wish conductor David Parry had worked his musical forces into a better fused whole, and achieved more graceful and consistent tempos. At times he is too cautious and can seem to hold back the soloist.
In sum: a mixed blessing, but worth its price due to the many beauties of Christine Brewer and quality of the music she sings. This is a good documentation of her distinguished talents, caught in top form over three days in March 2005.
J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico