29 Aug 2006
I can readily understand why Bayreuth refuses to perform Richard Wagner’s third opera.
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 do occur.
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.
I can readily understand why Bayreuth refuses to perform Richard Wagner’s third opera.
The maestro himself took his distance from this work, even though the opera had clocked more performances during his lifetime than all his other opera’s (sorry Gesamtkunstwerken). But this was not at all uncommon. Puccini and Verdi distance themselves from many of their early operas, such as Le Villi, Edgar, and Il Corsaro. And so the Wagner of Tannhäuser has his detectable roots in Rienzi.
Of course, there are quite a few differences as well that the Wagner family probably didn’t want to remind their audiences of them. After all, Rienzi has an interesting historical topic as a subject instead of the silly humbug of Der Ring. Once upon a time Wagner tried to “out-Meyerbeer” Meyerbeer, but nobody in the family wants the public to know that the maestro followed the examples of other composers. Then there is the treatment of the human voice. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau once said that in Wagner’s best known operas “we singers have the honour of accompanying the orchestra” while in Rienzi the vocal line is still supported by the instruments. And, this is really too awful a truth to admit, the maestro even enjoyed writing a long 38-minute ballet without the excuse that the Paris Opéra obliged him to. Admittedly, there are some tedious moments in the opera when the wind section blows too long and too loud, when the choruses repeat themselves or when the melodic inspiration in concertati is sagging but on the other hand there is far more inspired music than Wagner himself acknowledged, such as the fine duet between Rienzi and his sister in the last act.
But to discover this and more, a good recording such as this issue is helpful. More than that, it is the only recording that gives us a real idea what Rienzi is all about. The four CD’s total 4 hours and 41 minutes. An interesting historical issue with Treptow and Eipperle plays for 2 hours and 48 minutes; that’s almost 2 hours of music cut. Even the best commercial recording up to now (Sawallisch – Kollo) gives the listener one hour less of music. This performance is the Dresden version, where the composer made some cuts after he himself found the successful première a bit long (more than six hours though with intervals).
Though this is an entirely British and Commonwealth cast, it is a strong one. John Mitchinson never had the morbidezza necessary for Italian roles, though I heard him sing a very fine Verdi Requiem. Nevertheless, he has a strong, big stylish voice easily riding the orchestral climaxes and the infamous Bayreuth bark is not to be found in his interpretation. His German is quite good too and he is an impressive Rienzi. Maybe Lorna Haywood’s voice is a shade too light for the long role of Adriano, the lover of Rienzi’s sister (at La Scala tenor Cecchele sang this role in a horribly mutilated version with Di Stefano). Yet Haywood brings a wealth of experience in Italian opera with her, and this is evident in the fine legato, the sweet sound in an opera, which after all was still firmly embedded in the French-Italian tradition. Lois McDonall as Irene has the bigger voice, and she too was a good Verdi and Puccini soprano and knew how to bring belcanto to a role. Her first act duet with Mitchinson is outstanding, and the voices of the two women blend. All the other singers are well-known names from Covent Garden and the English National opera and they bring their experience to roles they probably never performed anywhere else.
For many years Edward Downes was a household name at Covent Garden where he conducted hundreds of well-reviewed performances, often after the star conductor had left. To opera lovers in the rest of the world, he was mainly known for his inspired accompanying of singers in recitals such as the début albums of Bruno Prevedi and Luciano Pavarotti. Fed up with his London assignments, he went to Sydney to conduct for the Australian opera company. Rienzi was not his first Wagner discovery, as this was only part of a prestigious project by BBC North. But in May of 1976 Downes conducted concert performances of Wagner’s first-born Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot (both available on Ponto), followed by this Rienzi one month later. Downes knows how to shape the music, and, as he was very well versed in Italian Grand Opera, he is completely at ease. He doesn’t drown his singers and succeeds very well in getting over some tedious moments. It’s not his fault that some choruses or marches are a bit loud — Wagner probably thought that the more wind instruments the better the score.
Warmly recommended, especially to the Wagner family who, with the exception of Eva who wanted this opera to go on in Bayreuth, still cling to their outdated dogmas.