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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.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal.
Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the
extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms
Among the recent recordings of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Valery Gergiev’s release on the LSO Live label is an excellent addition to the discography of this work.
While not unknown, the songs of Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) deserve to be heard more frequently.
Recorded on 5 and 6 May 2008 and 17 and 18 January 2009 at the Lisztzentrum (Raiding, Austria), this recent Bridge release makes available the piano-vocal versions of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder performed by mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselböck, accompanied by Russell Ryan.
Contraltos rarely achieve the acclaim and renown of sopranos. Assigned few leading roles in opera, they are condemned to playing the villain or the grandmother, or to stealing the castrati’s trousers in en travesti roles.
Following their 2011 Decca recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (1566), I Fagiolini continue their quest to unearth lost treasures of the High Renaissance and early Baroque, with this collection of world-premiere recordings, ‘reconstructions’ and ‘reconstitutions’ of music by Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Palestrina, and their less well-known compatriots Viadana, Barbarino and Soriano.
Eternal Echoes is an album of khazones [Jewish cantorial music] for cantorial soloist, solo violin and a blended instrumental ensemble comprising a small orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony is an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.
Oliver Knussen burst into British music with an unprecedented flourish. In 1967, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Knussen’s First Symphony, with István Kertész scheduled to conduct.
Based on performances given in Summer 2010 at the Lucerne Festival, this recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio is an admirable recording that captures the vitality of the work as conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) was one of the most popular composers of his day in Poland, and of the many works he wrote for the stage, two are performed from time to time, Halka (1848) and Strazny dwór [The Haunted Manor] (1865).
The Polish alto Jadwiga Rappé is a familiar voice in various stage and concert works, and the recent release of a selection of songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) is an opportunity to hear her performing artsongs.
Originally released on multiple discs in 1981 this reissue on two CDs is a comprehensive collection of art songs by Italian and French composers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An exciting contribution to the discography of this popular opera, the live performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome from the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden is a compelling DVD.
02 Jan 2006
VERDI: La Traviata
One takes a look at the sleeve and one realizes the wheel has finally turned a full circle. It started to move with the Decca La Traviata (Gheorgiu as Violetta, conducted by Solti) in 1994. Downloading and pc-copies were still in the future but nevertheless sales of complete opera recordings were spectacularly falling off since the eighties.
Therefore the marketing department made a major effort and agreed to ask people why they bought or didn’t buy a set. And look and behold, after quite an expensive effort, the marketers got a clear and correct answer, one they could as easily have gotten for free if they had questioned one opera-lover. People buy opera-recordings for the singers and not for the conductor. And the reason that people no longer were buying opera-recordings was clear as well. Domingo-fans probably had bought the RCA Price-Domingo recording. So why did they need another (official) one with the same tenor, even though it was conducted by Muti 4 years, Abbado 10 years and Levine 20 years later? And now Deutsche Grammophon has acted accordingly. The names of Netrebko and Villazon are printed in bold black letters on the sleeve while one has to look carefully to discover that conductor Carlo Rizzi and the Vienna Philharmonic are also participating. And thus is finally restored what ought to be restored since those bad days when conductors like Toscanini and Karajan succeeded in having critics and record executives think they were the important people. Once more the primacy of the singer in recorded opera is acknowledged.
It is true that Rizzi is not a “star” among conductors and that armchair critics always had a lot too say, not always positive, on his conducting. Personally I wonder why. For seasons he was a fixture at the Amsterdam Muziektheater where he conducted many new Verdi productions. He wasn’t the man of grand gestures but he always succeeded in having a good report between scene and pit. He didn’t rush his singers and probably breathed with them (difficult to control from the audience seats in Amsterdam) but neither did he linger or overindulge them. One always came away with a feeling of correct tempi and that’s exactly how I would describe his handling of the Vienna Philharmonic in this recording. Yes, the conducting may be a little bit unobtrusive but that’s only because one is not eternally reminded of the eccentricities of the man at the helm so that one can concentrate on the drama as given to us by the singers. It’s probably no coincidence that the only moment where one notes the presence of the conductor is the one place where no soloist is singing and where Rizzi rushes chorus and orchestra at breakneck speed through the party at Flora’s in the 2nd act.
If this set has one quality, it’s one of youth. This reportedly is the soundtrack (though one is never 100% sure which takes were used) of the now well-known Salzburg performances ending in a DVD, but even without the images one realizes that this is a Traviata sung by singers who have almost the age of the protagonists. Netrebko and Villazon are both in that stage of their career where they have finally mastered their craft while at the same time the bloom of youth is still on the voice; where the overtones point to a youthful sheen that inevitably will lose some of its quality. One is reminded of the first Callas or Moffo sets where the tenors are already a little bit too mature. This set was culled from several live performances and there is some loss too. Netrebko wants to husband her voice in the first act and only gives us one verse of “Ah! Fors’è lui” before launching into “Follie, follie !”. Villazon has no such excuse for giving us one verse only of his cabaletta “Oh mio rimorso.” But it is a hell of a piece to sing — in fact it has some leaps which make it more difficult than “Di quella pira” — and the tenor wants to have some breath left before sailing to a good strong (unwritten) high B. Villazon is in very fine voice, not missing a single point of interpretation; exhibiting charm and boyishness in the first act by a mixture of delicate pianissimo and emotion. As his personal trick he let’s his voice quiver in the now almost forgotten verismo way of the thirties though Villazon is in general more stylish than a Ferrauto, a Merli or a Pertile. In the second act he is very convincingly angry and in the third act once more he finds a fine balance between joy and grief. In fact he sings so well that one tends to forget that his is not a first class instrument. The colour is dark but often a little throaty and comparisons with the sheer beauty of young Domingo’s voice are not correct. Villazon has more in common with Flaviano Labo, though the natural means of the deceased Italian tenor were probably greater. But for this reviewer, Villazon is only surpassed by Carlo Bergonzi in one of his best recordings on the Sutherland-Pritchard-set.
Competition for Netrebko is of course far more stiff. Every great soprano since the thirties has tried to make the role her own and all have left an imposing legacy of official and live recordings. Netrebko is a big lirico and thus not equal to young Callas, Zeani and Caballé; all three of them ladies who could cope with the coloratura demands in the first act while switching into a heavier gear for the rest of the opera. The Russian soprano cannot master the same gifts in “Follie, follie” where she has to tread carefully as she hasn’t the voice for fearless coloratura. Wisely, though always what disillusioning for a top note hunter as myself, she omits the high E. In the second act she is at her best with that beautiful sound used expressively. I sometimes think record producers have taken Freni’s and Scotto’s voices, mixed them together and came out with Netrebko. Now does she plumb the tragedy of Violetta in her big scenes with père Germont, during Alfredo’s unwarranted attack on her, in her farewell too life? Yes, she does and she doesn’t. She gives it her all; but the clear bell like sound of the voice works a little against her. She has not Callas’ vocal depth and even a lighter though darker coloured voice as Gheorgiu’s is better suited to the role as we are now so used to some deep chest tones in for instance “Addio del passato” that we feel a bit cheated if a soprano doesn’t have them. Netrebko is clever enough not to damage her voice by imitating sounds she doesn’t have.
The disappointment of the set is Thomas Hampson. His bright baritone so apt to French ‘bariton-martin’ roles is wrong for Germont père. There are some moments in his confrontation with Villazon where the tenor’s voice sounds deeper and broader. The intelligent singer that Hampson is tries to mask the lack of a broad easy flowing Verdi baritone by interpretation, with a good mezza-voce and pianissimo but that is often no real help. Time and again one thinks here is a rival for Alfredo instead of a father. Hampson knows this himself and he vainly tries to broaden the voice, cannot really make those imposing sounds and then resorts to hectoring which becomes almost painfully comic in his denunciation at Flora’s party. But even in the duet with Violetta, it takes but a few moments before one is reminded of Fischer-Dieskau in his unlucky portrait in that forgotten Decca set: the same problems and the same bad solutions. On DVD it may be possible that Hampson’s histrionic qualities can forget the deficiencies of the voice but on record it’s not possible.
All in all a good though not definitive set but what Traviata is?