Recently in Recordings
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of
Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at
Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced
disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and
supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by
Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic
selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary
versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of
songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime
friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at
the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been
many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s
major opera houses today.
In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.
During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.
Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.
It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing
traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set
compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche
Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of
orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of
the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s
Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled
Great Wagner Singers.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a
record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and
Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
11 Dec 2005
LEHÁR: Das Land des Lächelns
This version of Lehár’s second most popular operetta is not one for purists. By the mid-seventies, it was already clear that one of the biggest tragedies of Western classical music was taking place — the disappearance of operetta with its tons of wonderful music.
There were several reasons. Many German-language operetta stories took place in Austria-Hungary and the knowledge and familiarity with its history, its social mores and its nobility were quickly going away so that it all became old-fashioned and stale. Many operetta librettos were silly, though not sillier than most opera stories — the big difference being that impossible reunions, incredible coincidences are often skipped over in recitative in opera while in operetta they are mercilessly exposed in minutes of spoken dialogue. And, of course, the waltz no longer reigned supreme in an age where the onslaught of rock killed so many marvellous and inspired melodies.
During the sixties and early seventies, German television regularly broadcast its own productions of classic operettas, usually on New Year’s Eve and regrettably with first class singers doubled by actors. I remember Sandor Konya singing Paganini, though not acting it. And recently, a CD appeared with another and more purist Land des Lächelns with Fritz Wunderlich (who never sang an operetta on screen) while another operetta tenor, Gerhard Riedmann, acted the part. When colour came to the European continent at the end of the sixties, TV-operetta became showier, often taking clues from American musical movies with a dim view of those arias and duets that slowed the show, while open throated singing didn’t make for flashy pictures. Therefore producers and directors thought for a short time that distorting the story, cutting the music or even inserting numbers from other works (sometimes not even by the same composer) could salvage something from the wreck of changing taste. In the end it didn’t help much and operetta is now very low on the scale of merit. Strangely enough a lot of music remains known, sometimes even on a somewhat subconscious level, and when it pops up one is always amazed at the melodic richness.
Franz Lehár is still the best known name in the business and with good reason. He churned out one memorable tune after another and Land des Lächelns is especially memorable. In retrospect the score in this DVD is rather faithfully respected, though there are two barbaric cuts (only half of “Bei einem Tee à deux” and “Es ist nicht das erste Mal”). As the producer had engaged the Korean Court Ballet, one had to find employ for these girls and some probably authentic Korean music is inserted into Lehár’s score which makes twice for a rather distorting effect during the performance.
One is grateful that at least the singers act their parts themselves. René Kollo is a convincing and restrained Sou-Chong who sings better than I remember from memory when I watched the broadcast some 30 years ago. Kollo, the son and grandson of popular operetta composers, could probably already sing the score back to front at the time of the recording though he would wait till he was almost 60 (in 1996) before he played the role in the theatre. (Incidentally, his memoirs “Die Kunst, das Leben” are among the most brutally honest I have ever read and they really deserve translation.) At the time of the recording the 36-year old tenor already had numerous Parsifals, Eriks and even Walters von Stolzing under his belt; but the sound is clear, pure and beautiful. He knows how to make a pianissimo and he is superb after the break with his Western wife. Kollo never was a king of the high C and the voice thickens somewhat in the high register and he cuts notes short when the score goes too high. What is lacking most is charm, sweetness and a kind of freedom with the score that Tauber brought to it.
The echt -Wienerische operetta diva, Birgit Sarata, is Lisa. At the time it was still possible to be a stunning blonde, concentrate a career on operetta and have a voice as well. It is a rather small not unattractive soprano, becoming a little bit shrill above the stave.
Dagmar Koller is the fine spirited Mi, proving she once was a dancer and showing a lot of legs though one can hardly take her serious as an Asian princess. Most non-Europeans will know her name as the partner on recordings of Lehár’s Zarewitsch and Land des Lächelns with Giuseppe Di Stefano.
Heinz Zednik is a far better than average Gustl. Of course he cannot compete with Erich Kunz on the first EMI-recording but he really sings the role which is often more or less voicelessly said by so-called buffo’s in other recordings. As this is not a theatre production there is a slight though clearly noticeable synchronic difference. The picture quality is good for the times.
If you don’t know the original version you won’t be disturbed by some of the director’s many alterations. Indeed I admit that a lot of them make sense —decisions I utterly and somewhat unjustly rejected so many years ago. He has lifted the action out of China which is acceptable as the original writers still thought China was a Buddhist country which it isn’t. But I still don’t like the transposition towards the imaginary island of Buratonga. As a consequence the phrase “wir Chinezen” in Sou-Chongs first aria “Immer nur Lächeln” becomes the somewhat ridiculous “wir Asiaten”. And in the same number Sou-Chong no longer thinks that Lisa is intoxicating “wie Hasjisj”. Princess Mi doesn’t make her appearance in the second act as in the original but is already match-making for her brother in the first act and this makes her short affair with Gustl far more believable as both youngsters already know each other when they once more meet in ….well Buratonga.
The idea of having Sou-Chong recalled from Vienna to quell an uprising and succeeding his murdered brother is a good one, better than the original too where he becomes prime-minister. Therefore I was disillusioned that in the second act one of the most original and most impressive scenes is simply deleted. Though the music is mostly kept in place it only serves to show us the return of Lisa to her husband after a trip to the mountains. Originally this is where the ceremony of “Die Gelbe Jacke” (the yellow coat) takes place; the handing over of the coat as a symbol of the office and the original title of the first version of the operetta before Lehár reworked it for Tauber. A symbolic coat suits a hereditary ruler far better than a prime-minister and I sorely miss the combination of impressive music and the original idea.
In this version under review Sou-Chong and Lisa are at least married and are even somewhat desperate they are still childless after one year and this too is a dramatic improvement on many earlier versions. In the Tauber-movie the Chinese prince meets Lisa and they both go to see the operetta that proves that East and West will never meet. So they decide that marriage is not for them. Thus, a short marriage (and the implicit idea of sex) and an irregular divorce —things that could hurt the sensitivities of the public in the thirties — were avoided. All in all, this German TV-production is quite an acceptable proposal for those who want to hear and see one of Lehár’s masterpieces. For those who prefer to be their own directors and can substitute the soundtrack, Tauber’s movie is indispensable.