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Recordings

Große Opernchöre — Great Opera Choirs
21 Mar 2007

Große Opernchöre — Great Opera Choirs

In setting the scene or furthering the action on stage, the opera chorus often provides some memorable aural scenery in works by composers from Claudio Monteverdi to Arnold Schoenberg, and this collection offers a representative selection of examples from both those composers, and well as a number of others. Recorded on 14 January 2004, this concert of the Stuttgart Staatsopernchor and Staatsorchester offered a program devoted to memorable choruses.

Große Opernchöre — Great Opera Choirs

Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart, Peter Schrottner, conductor

Profil PH 04046 [CD]

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The selection offered here is as diverse as the function of the chorus in the works represented, and this points to the demanding role the chorus has in this genre.

Audiences may be familiar with the version of Borodin’s “Polevtsian Dances” from Prince Igor in its orchestral form, but the music properly belongs to the chorus, who commands the stage for the quarter hour of this scene. As an opening number in this compilation, it is impressive for the stylistic demands placed on the ensemble, and the skill of the Stuttgart group offers a convincing reading of this work. Full of the exoticism found in modal passages, spare and unusual scorings, percussive interludes, and other sound effects. To these sounds the choral forces contribute their own particular colors as Borodin juxtaposed men’s and women’s voices, contrasted smaller ensembles with larger ones, and otherwise manipulated the chorus just as he deftly scored the orchestra.

Some of the choruses are well known enough to have taken on a life of their own, as is the case with the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida, and its performance here conveys majesty without ostentation. Schrottner offers a crisp reading and avoids indulging the cliches that can mar the piece. As with the excerpt from Prince Igor, Verdi scored the chorus with a variety of colors to suggest the various groups enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh, and the vocal timbres that the Staatsopernchor brings to the piece are varied sufficiently to create such a sonic tableau.

Other choruses can be more atmospheric, as with the one from Pagliacci, “Andiam, andiam,” which often blends into the staging of Leoncavallo’s opera. Performed apart from Pagliacci, this chorus is effective by itself, and resembles in some ways the famous chorus from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with its nuanced choral scene-painting. It is an excellent choice for a concert of opera choruses because of the rare occasions when this excerpt from Pagliacci is heard on its own. Likewise, it is a pleasure to encounter the chorus “Wo ist Moses?” from Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron on this recording. A satisfying excerpt on its own merits, its presence here calls attention to the role the chorus has in that opera. Similarly, the chorus of nymphs and shepherds from Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a fine choice, which represents some of the earliest efforts to include the chorus in the genre. Balancing some of the more familiar choral excerpts, these latter two are worth hearing separately, so that audiences can appreciate their character and which, in turn, adds to the depth of the operas to which each belongs.

Such ensembles can function as characters in their own rite, as with the chorus of exiles from Verdi’s Macbeth or the Russian people in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. With the latter, the Stuttgart chorus is highly effective in creating the dramatic tension required in the prologue. The famous “Coronation Scene” requires a strong chorus to set the scene, and this performance offers a fine reading of Mussorgsky’s score. Its dark colors reflect the Russian populace well, just as the lower female voices needed in the first-act “Witches’ Chorus” from Verdi’s Macbeth is appropriately dark in its execution. A well-known excerpt, it is a fine example that uses exclusively women’s voices.

The performance is exemplary, and the recording suggests studio quality, with audience and stages sounds virtually imperceptible. Yet after the last track, the enthusiastic applause shows that this was recorded live and benefitted from the dynamism that arises when an audience is present. The chorus involved certainly would know how to react to the situation, and they carry themselves with elan and intensity. As much as recordings of opera choruses can sometimes, blur, this particular recording contains some fine choices that are not often encountered.

James L. Zychowicz

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