27 Jun 2010
Massenet's Thaïs at Teatro Regio Torino
What sort of production would be optimal for an opera that with more style than content?
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.
What sort of production would be optimal for an opera that with more style than content?
A good place to evaluate one's answer to that question comes in the form of this DVD of Stefano Poda's staging of Thaïs by Jules Massenet (composer) and Louis Gallet (libretto). Viewers who find the opera slightly risible but who still enjoy the music are likely to be amused and fascinated by Poda's over-the-top aesthetic, part dance and performance art spectacle, part out-of-control fashion runway show. Anyone actually captivated by the opera's conjunction of overripe sexuality and pained religiosity may be much less pleased.
A fairly long opera for its story, Thaïs has a cast listing of 9 roles, but the story never strays far from the title character and her admirer, a monk who sets out to convert the courtesan from her sinful ways and put her on the path to righteousness. In the end, the monk Athanaël finds himself over come by her attractions, but it is too late for his own conversion to sensuality, as Thaïs can no longer respond, having forsaken her former life and then, after being born again, rather abruptly dying.
The Metropolitan Opera recently staged Thaïs with stars Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles, and stars of that magnitude are needed. Without their charisma, a flimsy story and the fallows of the score between its 2 or 3 highlights make for a forgettable evening. Excellent singers both, such charisma doesn't get projected by Barbara Frittoli or Lado Ataneli, caught on this recording in live performance from 2008 at the Teatro Regio Torino. Frittoli has beauty enough for the role, edging just a bit into Rubenesque territory. Only in her big scene, the so-called Mirror aria, does the relative blandness of her vocal instrument come into too close focus. Ataneli, no actor, doesn't do much more than glower and look down, and in his dark floor-length tunic he looks a bit like Rasputin on a Middle East holiday. His handsome voice, however, makes credible the growing attraction the courtesan feels for him. In the only other truly notable role, as Thaïs's Babylonian sugar daddy Nicias, Alessandro Liberatore doesn't so much disappear into the role as just disappear.
What makes this show a fascinating experience is the total design effort of director Stefano Poda, who also choreographs and designs the sets, costumes, and lighting. He has no interest in pretending this is a naturalistic story of early AD Babylon. He plays with black, mostly in the costumes, and white in the sets. He does not attempt much differentiation between the libretto's settings, opting instead for a stylized dimension where barely clothed dancers sweep on and off, illustrating the action in the opera's extensive instrumental passages. It all borders on the silly, but so does the opera. Poda's flow of invention in creating eye-catching stage pictures makes the show not just bearable but actually fairly entertaining, especially seen in the incredibly crisp and detailed Blu-Ray picture.
Gianandrea Noseda elicits sensuous playing from the house orchestra. The production in the Metropolitan Opera's performances, broadcast last year in the HD Moviecast series, was also fairly stylized, but it didn't draw attention to itself the way Poda's does. If that sounds like criticism of this version, stay away. If it sounds appealing, check it out.