Recently in Recordings
This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.
This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.
We see the characters first in two boxes at an opera house. The five singers share a box and stare at the stage. But Konstanze’s eye is caught by a man in a box opposite: Bassa Selim (actor Tobias Moretti), who stares steadily at her and broods in voiceover at having lost her, his inspiration.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.
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?
20 May 2013
Ariane et Barbe-Bleue on Blu-Ray
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.
Now it is an intriguing second-rank work whose time may have come
again. Recent performances have led to recordings under Bertrand de Billy and
Leon Botstein, re-releases on classic recordings under Armin Jordan, Gary
Bertini, Tony Aubin and Jean Martinon, and now this first Blu-Ray under
Stéphane Denève from the Gran Teatre del Liceu.
The music and the production, which I witnessed live in Barcelona, are
reproduced faithfully here in high-resolution Blu-Ray quality. Musically, the
best thing about it is Denève’s conducting. He manages to convey Dukas’
half-tone mix of Debussy, Wagner and Strauss (all of whom are both quoted and
imitated in the score), though he struggles to keep the volume down and achieve
the requisite palette of orchestral color. The singing is no more than
adequate. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is committed singer with a large voice,
good diction, and stage presence, but her voice is unpleasantly stressed by
louder and higher passages in way that grates in an opera where she is
continuously on stage. Irish soprano Patricia Barden has made something of a
specialty of the Nurse, and she is solid, though shows similar strains. José
van Dam delivers a focused, careful performance of the surprisingly short role
of Barbe-Bleue; though over 70 at the time of the production, looks more
convincing on stage than anyone else. Of the wives, the strongest musically is
rising Catalan mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert as Sélysette. Yet all this
does not add up to a recording that matches the best CD effort (under Armin
Jordan) or even Toscanini’s excerpt.
So the case for seeking out this recording comes down to the production of
Claus Guth. Any smart and successful German opera director these days—Guth is
both—bends the libretto’s explicit instructions. Most spectators, lacking
previous experience with Ariane, will find the result in this case
confusing: its sparseness leads to absurd inconsistencies with the libretto.
Those with some knowledge of the work, or the time and inclination to think
through Guth’s production, may be even more troubled. Guth’s basic
interpretive trope is to modernize settings and then to contrast bleak
naturalism to individual madness. For him, every libretto contains a hidden
Wozzeck longing to get out. This treatment is singularly unsuited to
Dukas’ delicate and subtle work.
To see why, a little background is useful. The Nobel-prize winning Belgian
Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck—who provided Ariane’s libretto and
that of Debussy’s Pelleas—was widely viewed as the greatest
Francophone writer of his time. He believed that human emotions and choice are
secondary. We are all marionettes driven by silent, slow-moving forces of which
we are, at best, semi-conscious. His plays do not portray stark realities,
philosophical concepts or madness, but moods, often of feminine melancholy and
foreboding. Maeterlinck seeks to capture these deeper forces and moods through
deliberately ambiguous symbols, metaphors and rituals couched in sparse French
The plot, as Maeterlinck and Dukas meant it to be, turns neither on
Ariane’s relentless impulse to liberate, nor on the feeble resistance of
Barbe-Bleue, but on the fact that his five former wives do not in the end leave
their wounded warrior, reactionary though he may be. Not by chance, they are
evocatively named Sélysette, Ygraine, Bellangère, Alladine, and
Mélisande—all mythic heroines from Maeterlinck’s beloved previous dramas.
Nor is it incidental that Dukas serenades them with his most lovely music: the
chorus of the daughters of Orlamonde, two sets of jewel variations, the escape
from the dungeons, and the finale. The staging and costuming instructions
portray them as unique visions. Whether they are real, or just visions of what
Ariane might be or thinks they are, is unclear. Yet Maeterlinck and Dukas’s
underlying message is clear as it is deliberately ambiguous: the ancient world
of richly imaginative private visions and the modern world of public justice
and mass equality cannot coexist or even communicate. Those who discover this
are not crazy, even if they cannot express precisely why they act as they do.
They are just profoundly human.
Guth has no sense of these existential and historical undertones, or he
chooses to ignore them in the interest of a chic and topical setting. So
Maeterlinck’s medieval castle, with its finely shaded distinctions between
gloomy interiors and imaginary vistas of stained glass, forests and the sea,
becomes the plain off-white interior of a row house, suggesting an asylum.
Barbe-Bleue becomes a suburban psychopath who compensates for his masculine
inadequacies by keeping five former wives chained in its cellar. Ariane becomes
a woman’s libber who sweeps in with the opening chord proclaiming freedom and
independence for all, quickly dominates her new husband, and rescues his
The sole reason left for the wives to reject Ariane’s road to freedom in
favor of servitude in the hands of a criminal is because they are insane, as
indicated by their relentless eye rolling, limb twitching, hair twisting, and
clutching of stuffed animals. To assume that fictional characters must be out
of their minds to act as they do demonstrates a lack of dramaturgical and
cultural imagination. This transforms what is already a subtle and challenging
opera into a very long evening indeed.