in: News & Features

December 5, 2018

Interesting and Unusual Opera CD Suggestions

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Last year in this space [HERE] I offered an overview of more than a dozen fascinating new CD releases of opera recordings, ending with detailed reviews of two additional operas: by Bellini and by English composer John Joubert. My feature stirred up some lively comments.

During 2018 the harvest has been even more astounding. Whether you are new to the world of opera listening or have great familiarity with the repertoire, you are bound to find something for your taste, or to give as a gift to someone who loves music, theater, or the singing voice.

I divide the pile of discs into several rough categories, for convenience: 1) relatively well-known works that have been recorded many times; 2) a handful of valuable Mozart recordings from different points in his career; 3) lesser-known works by well-known composers; 4) Baroque and Classic-era works done in some version of Historically Informed Performance style; 5) forgotten French works from the 19th century that have now been given first recordings, in superb performances; and 6) other forgotten works that turn out to be quite interesting, most of them, too, in expert performances that play to a work’s strengths.

Well-Known Works, Often Seen in a New Light

I was pleased to listen to recordings that made me think in a new way about operas that I thought I knew rather well. The big discovery for me, in this group, was a 1962 studio performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger [HERE] sung in Italian by such great artists as Giuseppe Taddei, Renato Capecchi, and Boris Christoff. I don’t recall ever hearing Wagner sung with such conversational ease, and almost entirely without wobbling, barking, or shouting. The pacing flows fleetly under the baton of the renowned Croatian-born Lovro von Matačić.

And then, to add to my pleasure, I got sent a CD release of a 1967 Bayreuth Festival performance of Lohengrin [HERE], which turned out to feature three of the steadiest voices I have ever heard doing Wagner: soprano Heather Harper, tenor James King, and bass Karl Ridderbusch. (My detailed review can be read [HERE].) Only baritone Donald McIntyre, here, allows dramatic verve (though a welcome virtue in itself) to mar the basic quality of his tone. Rudolf Kempe conducts as keenly as he did on his much-praised studio recording of the same work from a few years earlier.

I was quite surprised by a new recording of Verdi’s Otello, conducted by Lawrence Foster [HERE]. It is played and sung rather “straight,” without many of the tempo adjustments that make, say, James Levine’s much-praised recording from 1978 so vivid and involving. (The Levine recording featured Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, and—wonderful despite an incipient unsteadiness on held notes—Renata Scotto.) The singers for Foster are less well matched: Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff has a bright, tight sound, American soprano Melody Moore a rich, full one, and American baritone Lester Lynch too much wobble for comfort. Still, the result is often enlightening. This Desdemona seems less placid than some, and her Otello seems, for once, human-scaled rather than near-godlike. Despite Foster’s general tendency here toward an “as written” interpretation, he (admirably) slows his tempos at times to accommodate Moore’s plush voice. This is definitely a recording that makes an oft-recorded work sound fresh again.

Two operatic epics came my way. Berlioz’s Les Troyens received a generally well-cast recording (most of the singers are native French-speakers!) under John Nelson [HERE]. I found Joyce DiDonato’s vocal production too edgy and intense, which pains me to say, given how much I have admired her in Rossini roles. A DVD of excerpts is enclosed with the CDs, and there her dramatic vividness led me to ignore almost entirely the qualities that had annoyed me while listening to the CDs. The other epic work that I was glad to hear again is Borodin’s Prince Igor. The famous early-stereo recording that the London/Decca engineers made of that work in Belgrade (Serbia) [HERE] has now been re-released, though, unfortunately, without a libretto. The singing shows splendid commitment, and I delighted in rediscovering parts of the opera that I didn’t recall.

Puccini’s La rondine got a new, clear, sensible reading by Romanian soprano Elena Moşuc and other international singers, under Croatian-born Ivan Repušić [HERE]. But here I’d recommend instead two earlier recordings: Molinari-Pradelli’s (featuring the young Anna Moffo) and Loren Maazel’s (with Kiri Te Kanawa).

The latest recording of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole [HERE], by contrast, puts many previous ones in the shade. (See my review HERE.) I hope to hear more recordings soon (please, please, please) from the recording’s two stars: mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez and conductor Asher Fisch.

Mozart Early and Late

Important historic recordings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Marriage of Figaro made it to CD this year. Both derive from staged performances in 1954. The Don Giovanni was recorded at the Glyndebourne Festival (under George Solti) [HERE]; the Figaro is a performance given by the soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the Vienna State Opera (under Karl Böhm) during a London tour [HERE]. What a delight to hear such accomplished performances from both casts! I was particularly struck by the artistry with which vocalists as different as Margaret Harshaw (an accomplished Wagnerian) and Léopold Simoneau (an elegant tenor with a slender reed of a voice) managed to work together to fine effect in the Anna/Ottavio duet from Act 1 of the Glyndebourne Don Giovanni.

I hope that the new recordings of Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione (conducted by Ian Page [HERE]) and La clemenza di Tito (conducted by Jérémie Rhorer [HERE]) will do much to help put those two operas back on the map. Sogno and Clemenza come from vastly different periods in Mozart’s career, yet both show his ability to respond to characters from ancient Roman history and myth with music of great freshness and individuality. Listeners who tend to find such “old-fashioned” plots off-putting may be surprised by the music’s emotional warmth and coloristic variety

Other Operas Less Frequently Heard

Some lesser-known works by major composers also grabbed my attention, including Bellini’s first professionally staged opera, Bianca e Gernando [HERE], and five serious operas by Rossini: Adelaide di Borgogna [HERE], Aureliano in Palmira [HERE], Bianca e Falliero [HERE] (don’t confuse it with the Bellini, as I did for a while!), Demetrio e Polibio [HERE], and Sigismondo [HERE]. Several of the five Rossini works contain passages that the composed “borrowed” in order to insert them, often substantially reworked, in some other opera that he composed a year or two later. Hearing those borrowed passages in their original context brings special rewards. For example, we are often informed that the Barber of Seville overture was originally written for Aureliano, but I didn’t realize that the closing pages of that overture also form the basis for the end of the Act 1 finale in Aureliano, a passage full of exciting vocalizing for the opera’s many characters plus chorus. All these Bellini and Rossini performances (which come from summer festivals in Europe) are first-rate. I can’t resist at least mentioning the high-flying tenor in the Bellini: Maxim Mironov. Here he sings “A tanto duol,” from Act 1 of Bianca e Gernando: [HERE].

Giordano’s Fedora is an opera that gets revived from time to time, mostly when a full-voiced and highly theatrical Italian soprano wants to have a go at it. The work involves mainly Russian characters, but each act takes place in a different European country, allowing for some variety in “local color.” The new recording [HERE] was made at a staged performance in Italy in 2015. The late Daniela Dessì sings splendidly, even at age 58, and the whole performance surges with dramatic energy. The performance is also available on DVD [HERE] and BluRay [HERE]; I haven’t viewed it, but this trailer gives a good sense of Dessì’s ability to bring a character to life on stage [HERE]. (She would die suddenly a year later.)

I can’t resist recommending one rather operatic work that is not however an opera, but, rather, a cantata, composed for performance “in concert” (i.e., without stage action, sets, or costumes): Dvořák’s The Specter’s Bride. In the new performance conducted by Cornelius Meister, the tenor Pavol Breslik and two other Czech or Slovak soloists (plus the marvelous Vienna Singakademie Chorus) tell a spooky tale movingly [HERE].

Eighteenth-Century Works (besides Mozart)

A hefty handful of 18th-century operas and dramatic oratorios came my way. A 1950s studio recording of Handel’s Semele, a brilliantly dramatic oratorio (in English), is, alas, rather heavily cut and sometimes stodgily paced [HERE]. Still, it contains some treasurable moments, largely from Jennifer Vyvyan, a soprano for whom Benjamin Britten wrote several major operatic roles. Ignaz Holzbauer’s Tod der Dido (The Death of Dido), recorded live in 1997, is an ear-opener: a one-act serious opera, in German—quite a novelty for 1780—and full of vitality and character, with splendid performances by (among other singers) sopranos Sandrine Piau and Carmen Fuggiss [HERE] under Frieder Bernius. The opera of course tells basically the same story as Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Act 5 of Berlioz’s aforementioned Les Troyens, yet it makes its own points, very persuasively.

Four recordings of Italian serious operas show how varied and distinctive such works could be at a time when, one might think, the conventions of operatic writing left little room for individual imagination. I particularly loved the four main soloists in Leonardo Vinci’s Didone abbandonata: soprano Roberta Mameli, mezzo-soprano Marta Pluda, countertenor Raffaele Pé, and tenor Carlo Allemano [HERE]. The work is of course yet another fresh retelling of the last days of Queen Dido of Carthage. I also admired many singers in three other operas: Paisiello’s Zenobia in Palmira [HERE], Hasse’s Attilio Regolo [HERE], and Nicola Porpora’s Germanico in Germania [HERE]. I was particularly struck by mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove in the Paisiello, Carmen Fuggiss (again) in the Hasse, and countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic and soprano Julia Lezhneva in the Porpora.

Major French Rediscoveries

Stage design for Halévy’s La reine de Chypre

The Center for French Romantic Music (located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane, in Venice) brought out three wonderful recordings of utterly forgotten French operas from the nineteenth century: Gounod’s Le tribut de Zamora [HERE], Benjamin Godard’s Dante [HERE], and Fromental Halévy’s La reine de Chypre [HERE]. (Halévy is best known for his powerful opera La juive.) I also finally caught up with another such opera, released a few years earlier: Catel’s Les bayadères [HERE]. Each of these four works creates a sound-world appropriate to the dramatic action and, to some extent, to the locale and time period. The Catel takes place in India, perhaps in the sixteenth century, the Gounod in tenth-century Spain (when much of the Iberian Peninsula was under Arab rule), and the Godard, which retells (or invents) some episodes in Dante’s life, takes place, of course, in Italy but also, for two scenes, in imagined versions of Heaven and Hell. (No Purgatory—presumably because opera, as a genre, is better at conveying extreme situations than in-between ones!)

Most stirring of all, to my taste, is the Halévy, which is set in fifteenth-century Venice and turns out to be chockfull of tuneful, colorful, and stirring numbers that are as strong as the two excerpts that were previously known to avid record collectors (a soprano aria, which Joan Sutherland recorded, and a powerful duet for tenor and baritone that foreshadows Verdi’s famous tenor-baritone duet in La forza del destino). The singers in all these recordings are nearly all first-rate, showing steady tone, enviable breath control, and great insight into roles that they are the first to have incarnated in modern times. I limit myself to mentioning only three: soprano Véronique Gens and tenors Cyrille Dubois and Edgaras Montvidas. Montvidas launches this “trailer” showing highlights from the live performance used in the recording [HERE].

Surprises from Many Parts

To conclude, I’ve lumped together a number of largely forgotten operas by other composers (i.e., outside of France) who had great success in their own day. No surprise: their operas turn out to be well crafted, melodious, dramatically responsive, and musically inventive. My favorites in this category were from the twentieth century: Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis [HERE], William Walton’s The Bear [HERE], Gottfried von Einem’s Der Besuch der alten Dame [HERE], starring a credibly scary Christa Ludwig (the opera is based on a famous Dürrenmatt play known in English as The Visit), and Laci Boldemann’s Swedish-language opera Black Is White—Said the Emperor [HERE]. I review the Boldemann [HERE] enthusiastically and provide links to some of its particularly enchanting and intriguing tracks. A dramatic excerpt from near the end of von Einem’s Der Besuch can be heard [HERE].

It was fun to hear a strong performance, by students of the Manhattan School of Music, of Nicolo Isouard’s Cendrillon [HERE], a work that had great success until Rossini’s La Cenerentola (based on a similar libretto) drove it off the stage. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s delightful I quatro rusteghi got a fresh new recording [HERE], with high-quality sound that reveals all kinds of wondrous details in the orchestral part. This bubblingly humorous work was written in Venetian dialect, hence the spelling of “quatro” with one “t.” (The album cover erroneously adds the second “t” as do many online sites.)

Two serious one-act operas grabbed my ear and wouldn’t let go. Zemlinsky’s one-act Eine florentinische Tragödie (after the Oscar Wilde play) is a study in parallel obsessions by three characters, well conveyed in this new recording [HERE] conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Lamberto Pavanelli’s Vanna [HERE] is a lost gem: a verismo tearjerker that deserves to be heard and seen at least as much as Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Giulio Ricordi’s shortish three-act operetta La secchia rapita [HERE] would be an utter hoot if performed with all its spoken dialogue: the recording gives only the musical numbers (on a single CD) but helpfully prints the full spoken text (in Italian and good English) in the booklet—so you can “perform” the work at home if you wish, aloud or in your mind!

Finally, I want to mention four works (again, by relatively little-known composers) that have their own special interest for music lovers. Franz von Suppé is best known to music lovers (and musicians) today for certain of his comic-opera overtures, such as Light Cavalry and Poet and Peasant. Des Matrosen Heimkehr (The Sailor’s Homecoming) [HERE] is a real oddity in his output: an opera that is fully sung, eschewing all spoken dialogue. Heimkehr deals, in sentimental fashion, with life on an island in the Adriatic. Alas, the performance is drab, and it’s sung in Italian, but lovers of German opera will want to get to know it anyway. You’ll need to look for it under its Italian title: Il ritorno del marinaio.

Franz Lachner’s Catharina Cornaro [HERE] gets much better treatment, allowing us to savor the ways in which it resembles, and differs from, two other operas based on essentially the same libretto: Halévy’s La reine de Chypre (discussed above) and Donizetti’s Catarina Cornaro. I was struck by many moments in which Lachner’s music is dramatically specific and imaginatively orchestrated. In retrospect, I realize that I should not have been surprised: Lachner, after all, was the composer who provided the crucial and often gripping accompanied-recitative passages that we hear in most performances and recordings of Cherubini’s Medea. (That work was originally written in French, with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers.)

Félicien David’s Christophe Colomb [HERE] is not an opera but rather (like the Dvořák work mentioned above) a drama-filled concert piece for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, plus in this case a narrator offering us, in verse, the successive moments of the plot. We hear about Columbus’s first voyage to the New World, we experience the anxieties of his sailors, get to hear him reassure them during a period when the wind dies down and they are beginning to revolt, and we finally discover, with Columbus, the life of the Caribbean natives, including a spirited “Dance of the Savages” and a sweet-sad lullaby sung by a native woman over her baby. This 3-CD set includes a number of other little-known works by David, reminding us how skillful he was, despite some moments of emotional naiveté. Six songs, likewise previously unrecorded, are sung magnificently by the aforementioned tenor Cyrille Dubois. This album comes from the aforementioned Center for French Romantic Opera and contains informative essays about the composer and his music (as do the albums containing the four French operas mentioned earlier).

Mark Blitzstein: The Cradle Will Rock

And this one just reached me: Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock [HERE]. One of the most renowned works of liberal-to-leftist political activism in music, this opera made a big splash in 1937 when the Federal Theater Project, which had sponsored it, suddenly withdrew permission, hours before the premiere, for the work to be performed. Blitzstein, who wrote Cradle’s words and music, performed it that evening in a stripped-down version, with piano instead of orchestra. The actors (forbidden to take the stage) stood up from seats throughout the hall to speak and sing their lines. Cradle here finally gets the complete recording, with original orchestration, that it has long needed. The performance was recorded at the Saratoga Festival, and features stunning readings of the roles of The Moll (Ginger Costa-Jackson), Ella Hammer (Nina Spinner), and Larry Foreman (Christopher Burchett). The musico-dramatic impact is greatly enhanced by surprising touches in the orchestration, not least from single percussion instruments, a Hawaiian guitar, and slow held chords in the winds. Now that we know the full Cradle, we shouldn’t be content with a miniaturized one anymore. A trailer for the Saratoga Festival staged production emphasizes the still-relevant political messages but hints, at least, at the work’s musical richness and variety [HERE].

This past year’s releases offer much to enjoy, wallow in, learn, and think about. Who said that the operatic repertoire is stagnant? Not on recordings, surely! And wow, what a pleasure to encounter so many wonderful, stylistically aware, linguistically secure young singers!

Ralph P. Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has published two books on music and the exotic (Cambridge University Press) and edits the book series Eastman Studies in Music (University of Rochester Press). Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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