05 Feb 2007
BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust
Why do some conductors make it and others don’t?
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.
Why do some conductors make it and others don’t?
Often luck and relationships play a more important role than talent. Lille (Rijssel in Dutch) is a magnificent city in the North of France and its architecture betrays the fact that for almost 800 years it was one of the four big cities of the county of Flanders till Louis XIV conquered it. The city had a fine opera house though until recently the company was in a bad patch and there was no season for several years. It is now slowly on its way back. In 1976 Jean-Claude Casadesus became the principal conductor of the newly formed Orchestre National de Lille to which ensemble he devoted a big part of his career. Of course he took conducting assignments elsewhere and I heard him conduct at the Flanders and the Walloon Opera. He struck me as exceptionally able in the French repertoire; having a lightness of touch without becoming superficial and I always thought he never got the career he deserved. He once more proves his mastering of such a score on this recording and one almost forgets that his orchestra is only second rate. The song of the flea gets the appropriate lightness while ‘L’amour, d’ardente flamme’ receives its portion of tragedy. Casadesus leads orchestra and singers in a way that makes ‘Damnation’ an opera, inevitably leading up to its redeeming end, instead of the somewhat unequal collection of arias, marches and ballet it can be in a lesser maestro’s hands.
It is a joy to finally meet Alain Vernhes in a big part on records. The French bass-baritone (and not a baritone as noted on the sleeve) had an unusual career. He became an opera singer but left the profession due to lack of engagements (not unusual in France for many years where ‘imports’ by definition were almost always considered to be better singers and where good French singers were often literally on the dole). After several years Vernhes tried again and this time he succeeded though as with Casadesus he didn’t get the big career. Although he is no longer young his rolling voice and tremendous acting capacities can still make quite an impression as I gladly noted last year when I heard him as Gounod’s Méphistophèles. Granted, the voice is somewhat rougher than José van Dam’s and his lower notes are, as proven on this recording, not his best ones. But he has the French style in his blood and masterfully characterizes each of his solos (sardonic in his flea song; threatening in his ‘devant la maison’) and he easily surpasses such exotic birds as Fischer-Dieskau, Lloyd or Pertusi. Moreover the voice is fuller than Cachemaille’s or Bastin’s and for those who don’t know him his interpretation will come as a nice surprise.
Michael Myers’ Faust is well-known as he already recorded the role in 1987 for Philips. The voice has become more manly and for a moment one confuses him with Gedda but the chinks in the vocal armour ( the voice becoming smaller above the stave; not always a firm line) soon tell the listener that Myers is somewhat of a poor man’s Gedda; especially if one compares with the early sixties highlights recording with Gedda and Rita Gorr.
Marie-Ange Todorovitch didn’t convince me. Yes, she is French and maybe a dugazon (a high mezzo like Von Stade or Von Otter) suits Marguerite better than a powerhouse like Gorr or Crespin but the voice has not enough beauty in it and sounds often somewhat slack. Her ‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé’ is unremarkable though she is more convincing in ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’. Nevertheless I regret Naxos didn’t engage the formidable Béatrice Uria-Monzon whose performance in the house some years ago led me to believe here was Gorr’s successor. Sadly the lady is not much interested in recording as she told me herself.