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Recordings

Frederica von Stade sings Mozart and Rossini arias
06 Dec 2006

Frederica von Stade sings Mozart and Rossini arias

Frederica von Stade was just about 30 years old in 1975, when she recorded these Mozart and Rossini arias with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Edo de Waart.

Frederica von Stade sings Mozart and Rossini arias

Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (cond.)

Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 158 [SACD]

$19.99  Click to buy

At the same time, Philips was experimenting with quadraphonic recording techniques, which never really took off at the time, but enabled Pentatone to release the performances now on a multi-channel Super Audio CD, bringing the young Von Stade to our attention once again.

It is a great pleasure to hear the smooth line, the sensitive musicianship, and the intelligent artistry that she brings to this program of arias that are largely what one would expect to hear from a young lyric mezzo bel canto specialist (“Una voce poco fa” and “Non più mesta”, the Cherubino arias, “Vedrai carino”), although there are a few surprises: the Vitellia and Sesto arias from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito might not be expected from such a young singer, and the lovely “Assisa a piè d’un salice” from Rossini’s Otello is something of a rarity, since the libretto has relegated the opera itself to relative obscurity.

The role of Cherubino was originally written for an actress rather than a trained opera singer, and Von Stade’s fine acting ability, evident in the expressive vulnerability she brings to his arias on this disc, no doubt accounts for the fact that she was in great demand for this role throughout her career, until she announced that it made no sense any longer for a 14-year-old boy to be played by a woman whose age was a approaching half a century. Her voice does not have the richness of some mezzos (particularly in the lower range), but she achieves a great deal of warmth, while the contrast between the exquisite legato in the main theme of “Voi, che sapete” and the paradoxical effect of breathless excitement in a well-supported phrase in the modulating section is not only emotionally affecting, but is a fine instructive model to voice students.

In the lengthier, more complex arias from La Clemenza di Tito, another paradox emerges in that the higher notes often have a more glorious impact than the lower ones. Thus we have a fabulous pianissimo at the conclusion of the recitative of “Non più di fiore,” and the climactic “che si dirà” in the aria, but her voice gets lost a bit in the low, chesty phrases of “Veggo la morte verme avanzar.” Nevertheless, I find her legato impressive in the huge skips in “Pietà di me”near the end. Since she made such an impact in the trousers roles for which her slim figure and consummate acting skills suited her so well, it is hard now to imagine her career without them, but listening to her voice at this age can lead to idle thoughts about the perhaps equally glorious career she might have had as a soprano.

The Rossini arias that begin the disc are examples of fine bel canto singing in which the ornamentation is sung with assurance but always in the service of the music itself. So there are fewer pyrotechnics than in the more recent performances of, say, Cecilia Bartoli or Vivica Genaux, but there is a delightful sense of playfulness in “Una voce poco fa” and joyfulness in “Non più mesta”. They are separated by the slow, sorrowful lyricism of the Otello aria, which is the “Willow Song” followed by a prayer, a sequence familiar from Verdi’s Otello¸ although the prayer in this case is for respite and the arrival of the beloved, crying for her in death if not able to console her in life. (Verdi’s prayer, an “Ave Maria,” seems a more profound recognition of approaching death, but it is interesting to note that, in the Shakespeare play, there is no prayer at all at this point). The arpeggiated harp introduction helps make this aria a particularly beautiful moment of peace between the more energetic and famous arias it separates. The lengthy and difficult “Non più mesta,” which closes the Rossini section, is beautifully sung and full of vitality; but once again her lower tones get lost occasionally, most sadly in the skips on the second syllables of the words “Un lampo, un sogno” down to a single E or F in the middle range, which are notes in the aria that I normally listen for with anticipation and was disappointed not to hear.

I should add a word or two about the SACD itself, as all these performances were available a few years ago, along with some Haydn arias, on a Philips CD with the straightforward but not terribly imaginative title “Haydn Mozart Rossini”. What is new here is the technology that makes use of the original quadraphonic recording from the 70’s to create multi-channel sound. Owners of the older CD may wonder whether it is worth buying this new one. My ears listening to these discs on my good, but not great, stereo sound system did not pick up a significant difference between the two. I took advantage of a visit to the Bay area to borrow the much more sensitive ears of my brother-in-law. We compared both CD’s on his excellent speakers attached to a mid-level system in a small room. While I didn’t hear a big difference myself, he reported hearing “absolutely no hiss” on the SACD Pentatone disc (I hadn’t heard it on the other one, myself), but he felt that there was also a certain liveliness of the performance that was lost (while her breaths were never heavy, he could hear them on the older Philips disc but not on the Pentatone one, which in his opinion detracted from the listening experience). I will also say that, when I then took the disc to another friend with a home theater and listened to it on that, the sound on the disc filled the room wonderfully (although my more technically-accomplished friend confessed that he was unable to get his theater system to decode the four channels in exactly the same way as they had been encoded, so the channels we were hearing were not necessarily the ones that the engineers had intended).

More mundane differences between this disc and the earlier one are the new notes in French, German and English, which discuss Von Stade’s career and the roles represented by the arias on this CD. (The notes describe them in the order in which they appeared on the earlier disc, however—there the Mozart preceded the Rossini, whereas on the SACD the Rossini comes first). Also included are the Italian texts of the arias, with French, German and English translations, and some notes about the recording technology.

Barbara Miller

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