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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.
01 Jun 2006
MONTEVERDI: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
This Opus Arte set not only captures a mostly satisfying performance of Monteverdi's opera based on the last books of Homer's Odyssey, but features something even rarer: a booklet essay by the musical director (Glen Wilson) of remarkable lucidity.
Wilson covers the major issues in performing and staging a Monteverdi opera, and presents his justifications for his own decisions. Working with stage director Pierre Audi, Wilson has most fortunately helped to create a performance that reflects the insight and knowledge the essay indicates are in his possession.
However, no one would buy a DVD for the booklet essay. Wilson and Audi have put together an effective staging of as old an opera as any that gets staged (first performance, 1641), and it is Monteverdi's genius that makes the DVD worthy. The ecstatic excitement of Verdi lay two centuries in the future, and the lusher melodicism of Puccini another generation or two beyond that. Monteverdi's operas will likely never be as essential to the core repertory as his operatic descendants' work is; but this DVD shows that his work still makes its claim to the stage.
The spare set works well with the spare music. Handsome wooden floors support a few well-chosen props - a simple throne, a huge rock - with a gravel walkway slashing across the front. To supple some color, Penelope and her suitors are dressed in handsome solids of green, red, blue and yellow. Otherwise, the costuming, especially for Ulisse, remains on the drab side. Stage director Audi keeps the performers moving without indulging in frenetic over-activity, and the stage picture never grows stagnant. The most memorable stage effect occurs at the climax, when Ulisse drops his disguise as an old man and wreaks vengeance on the suitors against a background of flame. A fearsome hawk (seen with its trainer in an enjoyable bonus feature) also makes an impressive appearance as the suitors try to string Ulisse's bow.
The supporting cast features some very strong performances, including Diana Montague as the goddess Minerva (Wilson edited out other sections about the gods), Brian Asawa as both a symbolic human figure in the prologue and as a suitor, and Toby Spence as Telemaco. In what amounts to a cameo, the portly Alexander Oliver almost steals the show as Iro, one of the more disgusting abusers of Penelope's hospitality, who survives the final carnage long enough to sing of his gnawing hunger without the suitors to feed him, and then dies before us. His sweaty, blood-stained appearance may haunt many a viewer, but what really matters is the powerful way he uses a not every attractive voice to bring the scene to life (and then to his character's death!).
Though the two leads both give committed performances, neither completely satisfies. As Ulisse, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson relies on the audience's suspension of disbelief, as his hefty frame hardly suggests a man who has been through many a brutal trial over 10 years of war and 10 more of wandering. He has the resources for the role's vocal demands, but seldom puts a personal stamp on the music. Graciela Araya has the dignified posture for Penelope, but her rather homely tone doesn't earn her character much sympathy.
This may not be, then, a performance of a Monteverdi opera to attract opera lovers who have found the composer's works less than appealing in the past. However, for those open to the experience, the set, recorded at the Netherlands Opera in 1998, has much to recommend it.
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy