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Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.
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
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versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano
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friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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?