Recently in Recordings
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
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
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.
29 May 2007
BRITTEN : Gloriana
Towards the end of his life Britten became interested in the idea of developing the opera experience beyond the technical confines of the stage. He would have, I think, loved this film because it’s so intelligently sensitive to his fundamental ideas. It is, no less, a work of art built around a work of art.
Britten’s opera focuses primarily on the character of the aging Queen Elizabeth I. The plot may
revolve around her feelings for the Earl of Essex, but Britten knew that most audiences would
know the story already : his aim was to explore why Elisabeth needed to keep up her image of
invulnerability. In the first scene, the Earl of Essex sings about a “chess game” in which the goal
is to win the queen. This Queen has to keep ahead of the game, constantly, through stratagem
and the illusion of invulnerability. Thus the stage action is woven with scenes from “behind the
scenes”, creating the effect of illusion within illusion.
Like the Queen herself, Barstow the actress is under pressure to perform. In the opening scene,
where she looks wearily into the mirror in her dressing room, while listening to the overture. It’s
very moving. Not all singers make good actresses. Barstow, though, is exceptionally good.
She’s so convincing that you forget, for a moment, that this, too, is illusion and stagecraft. Her
whole performance is a masterclass in opera characterisation, and worth studying for its own
sake. This Elizabeth is no fool, but watchful and tense, like a coiled spring. Hence the sharp
delivery and attack, and the bristling, sharp edge to the voice. When the Queen steals her rival’s
dress and dances in it, Barstow spits out her lines savagely, bringing out the menace that
underpins the elaborate party games at Court. When Essex breaks into the Queens room and
finds her unadorned and bald, Barstow’s very silence is moving. When she dismisses him, her
voice wobbles, “Go, Robin, go” in an intense mixture of conflicted emotion, before she crumbles,
the camera mercifully switching to long shot. It makes the “dressing scene” which follows all the
more poignant. Her white makeup is lit so her face looks like a death mask. Later, when she
assures Lady Essex that her children will be spared, her voice trembles with tenderness, “Frances,
a woman speaks”. Seconds later, her voice becomes shrill with anger as she scolds Lady Rich,
but when she’s signed the death warrant, her face contorts into a terrifying, wordless expression.
Film creates special new opportunities. For example, in the “Mortua”, when the Queen finally
faces her mortality, there are long silences which would not work on stage or recording. Here
though, the camera dwells on Barstow’s face which registers intense emotion. Sound, as such, is
unnecessary. When she does sing, weakly, the song she and Essex had playfully sung long ago,
she sing so quietly and tenderly that the impact would otherwise be lost. Similarly when she’d
earlier explained her love for her nation, the camera pans the balconies in the opera house,
backstage attendants and so on, as if all the world were listening to those noble, ringing words.
Just as the film draws out the effort the Queen makes to remain in control, the film shows how
much work goes on behind the scenes of a production. Recordings alone can sometimes break
the link between listener and performer, so sometimes people focus on recording values rather
than on artistic creation. This film is an excellent reminder that it is people who make opera and
that it isn’t easy work !
Musically, of course, this is very good, for Opera North has very high standards indeed. Britten’s
score itself adapts early English music forms, weaving them into the whole, just as the film itself
expands the basic opera. Early English music and poetry meant a great deal to the composer and
this is one of the longest works in which he explores it. Therefore Daniels delineates these
aspects of the score very clearly, because they, too, are an integral part of the multi-layered,
shape-shifting whole. If the courtly dances are somewhat on the fast side, that relates to the
narrative — the Queen deliberately tests the courtiers to their limits by making them dance and
sing at a furious pace ! Daniels also has the measure of Britten’s acerbic dissonances which,
throughout the opera add to the edgy tension in the drama. This opera has never been “popular”
because its uncomfortable idiom seems at odds with the opulent setting, but that was Britten’s
point. This is a powerful film, and completely unique.