24 Sep 2006
VERDI: La Forza del Destino
The better can be the enemy of the good and this recording proves it.
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 Magdalena Kožená.
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 archives.
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.
The better can be the enemy of the good and this recording proves it.
As parts of this radio broadcast have circulated before, this means that the original acetates left the cupboards a few times and were put on tape. The sonic quality of the CD’s under review is high and I’m fairly sure the producers didn’t want to use some older tapes but employed the acetates. Unfortunately, acetates can be very fragile and some of them were already slightly damaged as one can derive from the hiss at certain moments. Several times this results in heavy blasts which are quite painful to hear, especially during some of the Stella-solos in act 1 and 2. So the better (using the originals all the time) is less than the good (using some older tapes).
Moreover, the sound picture is not exactly helped by Antonietta Stella. The soprano had made her début one year earlier and she is still finding her way. She gives the impression of singing her heart out in the Verona Arena instead of the rather intimate and not overly big Concertgebouw. She sings unrelentingly loud with almost no nuances. She often lashes out with a glottal bang and the voice doesn’t resemble much the fine Verdi soprano she would become later on. Indeed, only five months later she sang Amelia in Simon Boccanegra far more subtle and there the voice is immediately recognizable as witnessed by the recording Cetra years later put on the market (with Carlo Bergonzi in his first year as a tenor).
Loudness is the main quality of José Soler as well. Most collectors will know him from his Cetra Chénier with Renata Tebaldi and some from his aria album on the same label. An old hand at the Verona Arena told me he was present back in 1949 when Soler sang Manrico. The tenor had good high notes and he encored ‘Di quella pira’. Still the public didn’t let him go and clamoured for another encore. Soler however pointed at the pyre and shouted: “ My mother is burning” and off he ran. The Uruguyan tenor has the right material though he is more a lyric than a real spinto tenor. But he unmercifully puffs up his voice at every high note and has a tremendous success with a public starved of international tenor singing since the war. Soler is not really unmusical, using far less sobs than most tenors did at the time in the same role but phrasing is not his forte. Good strong tenor singing, yes, but bland at the same time.
The only one of the three title singers for whom less is sometimes more is baritone Rolando Panerai. With his lyric baritone he is less inclined to rely on volume and he succeeds in singing with style and nuance. His aria is well done and puts forwards the doubts Carlo has. It is a pity EMI asked the aging Carlo Tagliabue three years later for the Callas-Tucker Forza as Panerai would undoubtedly been an improvement. As far as I know this is his only known recording of the opera and so it is a pity that the second baritone-tenor duet was still cut at the time.
Enzo Feliciati starts out well as Padre Guardiano but soon proves himself to be a rough-and-ready bass. In the last act there is no smoothness at all, no consolation in the voice but just barking along. Amalia Pinta as Preziosilla has one of the biggest vibratos I ever heard which probably explains her lack of a career as the basic colours of the voice are fine. Melchiorre Louise is one of those comprimario-singers we remember well from the legendary recordings of the fifties. He sang Benoit in Bohème or Sacristan in Tosca but Melitone is a league higher and his exaggerated utterances are probably meant to hide his lack of a true baritone or bass voice. Aad de Rijk takes on three roles in one Verdi opera which must surely be some record. The Netherlands had a most austere economic programme after the war and this is one of the results: a bass completely strange to Italian roles. Argeo Quadri drives on his forces without any problem though he too is not too subtle and therefore not a conductor who can demand some lowering of the volume by his two main singers.
Forza is a difficult opera for labels. Even a cut version is still some 10 minutes longer than two CDs can bear and therefore some bonuses are necessary. The first one is quite a contrast with the complete performance. The idiosyncratic style of Helge Rosvaenge never appealed to me in Italian roles; nor does his permanent use of explosive sounds. Heinrich Schlusnus had the most Italian of all pre-war German baritones and he succeeds very well in overcoming the German translation and Hilde Scheppan has a better ear for nuance than Stella though the sound is not very Italian and reminds one of Gundula Janowitz. The second bonus is a strange one: ten minutes of the first act of a Covent Garden Forza of 1975; not exactly the most popular part. Still in those few moments Carlo Bergonzi gives us more real Verdi phrasing than Soler and Rosvaenge combined, even though by that time he flattened every time above the stave.