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Locke’s List for 2023: Notable Operatic Recordings Plus

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This past year has seen an outpouring of fascinating and important recordings of operatic and other vocal works. I have been fortunate to receive copies of many of them for review in this and several other venues (notably in American Record Guide and at the Boston-based arts magazine The Arts Fuse). I’m happy, once again, to be presenting here at the Boston Musical Intelligencer my personal selection of some of the most notable and engaging of the lot.

Baroque era: I was delighted to get to know John Frederick Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley (1737), in a highly accomplished and spirited recording. The work feels a bit like a successor to The Beggar’s Opera, not least in its pointed satire of social norms. (The work was just performed by the Boston Early Music Festival, though with a different cast and orchestra; the Boston Globe called the result “spellbinding.” Virtual tickets to watch the videorecording are available through December 23, 2023.)

A recording of a serious English opera of the period, Matthew Locke’s Psyche, was musically marvelous but utterly undone for me by the mispronunciations of the libretto by the all-Francophone cast. No such problems occurred with Jean-Marie Leclair’s Scylla et Glaucus, gorgeously performed and exquisitely pronounced. The work has the further advantage of reminding us that Leclair, though long known primarily for his violin works, was a fine all-around composer. Much the same can be said of Marin Marais’s Ariane et Bacchus, since that composer, too, is normally known for his instrumental music (and/or as the character played by Gérard Depardieu in the beloved film Tous les matins du monde).

Another French composer from the same era is even less well known today, Desmarest, whose Circé got a stupendous recording featuring Véronique Gens. This is the same opera that the Boston Early Music Festival performed to great acclaim in Jordan Hall (see the detailed review  HERE). Particularly fascinating in this group of recordings is Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s sacred opera David et Jonathas (1688), whose recording (the work’s fourth!) includes, as a bonus, a video version on DVD, which is staged and costumed both imaginatively and appropriately. (Unlike some other opera productions nowadays.) The highly capable performance becomes even more effective when watched as well as heard.

Reinhard Keiser was the leading opera composer and impresario in Hamburg in the early 1700s, and it was at his theater in the “Goose Market” that some of Handel’s first operas were performed. Keiser’s operas have mostly not survived, but Ulysses has, and now it has gotten a spiffy reading. The work is mostly in German, but some of the arias are in Italian, as was common at the time in Germany (and occasionally in France). Handel’s oft-performed Serse (i.e., Xerxes), entirely Italian, is treated this year to a splendid recording that features two utterly marvelous sopranos, Mary Bevan and Lucy Crowe, under the responsive baton of Harry Bicket.

Other Baroque operas that proved entertaining and enlightening were L’Idalma by Bernardo Pasquini (best known for his “cuckoo” piece for organ, gloriously orchestrated by Respighi in the Ancient Airs and Dances), Cavalli’s L’Egisto (featuring two remarkable and distinctive tenors: the lighter Zachary Wilder—a favorite of Boston audiences—and the darker Marc Mauillon), Lully’s Psyché (which is full of colorful details, including music for giants hammering at anvils, two centuries before Wagner, though of course the percussion here is more modest than the actual anvils in the Ring Cycle), and Rameau’s Zoroastre, featuring astonishingly accomplished performances by Jodie Devos, Véronique Gens (again!), Gwendoline Blondeel, Mathias Vidal, and Tassis Christoyannis.

Classic era: From the mid to late 1700s, we got a remarkable collection of arias by “Maestrino” (young master) Mozart, sung enchantingly by Marie-Ève Munger, with an early-instrument ensemble from Montreal; Paisiello’s L’amor vendicato (1786), which demands remarkable virtuosity from one of the two sopranos and from a solo oboist (though this particular oboist is only so-so); and L’Accademia di musica (1799), a richly humorous comic opera by Johann Simon (Giovanni Simone) Mayr, the Bavarian-born composer who would later become Donizetti’s guide and major composition teacher.

Of special interest from this era is the long-awaited world-premiere recording of the one opera that completely survives by Joseph Bologne, chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent composer, violinist, and military officer from just before and during the French Revolution, who was born (on the island of Guadeloupe) to a French plantation owner and a woman enslaved to his wife and known as “Ninon.” The opera, first performed in or around 1780, is entitled L’Amant anonyme, and I found it delightful, thanks in part to a team of performers led by the internationally renowned soprano Nicole Cabell. In February, the work will be given three performances, with the dialogue in English (and with surtitles), by Boston Lyric Opera at the Huntington Theatre.

Nineteenth century: Some unfamiliar yet often very engaging early nineteenth-century operas got first (or first adequate) recordings, including Meyerbeer’s early Jephtas Gelübde (Jephthah’s Vow, 1812), Cherubini’s 1813 Les Abencérages (of which one tenor aria was previously familiar to opera lovers, from a Roberto Alagna recording), and Il proscritto, an 1842 opera by an important contemporary of the young Verdi, Saverio Mercadante. The Mercadante opera has won the award for best recording of a complete opera at the International Opera Awards.

Auber’s Le Philtre (1831), a work whose libretto, adapted to Italian taste, would be set by Donizetti as the still widely loved L’elisir d’amore. Auber’s work is particularly fascinating for this reason, since opera lovers can hear another composer’s very capable and sometimes quite individual responses to the same sequence of dramatic events. It helps that Patrick Kabongo, a young tenor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (and now a French citizen) is on hand, embodying the peasant lad who finally realizes that he is worth being loved for his own merits.

Tenor Rinde Eckert, in a performance of Jonathan Berger’s 2015 powerful opera Mỹ Lai, now available on CD (or for download or streaming). Maria Alejandro Cardona photo)

Most notable in this early-nineteenth-century group are the best recordings yet of two works long recognized as major: Spontini’s 1807 La Vestale (with Marina Rebeka utterly superb in a title role that once belonged to Maria Callas; this recording just won the Premio Abbiati del Disco for best opera recording of the year) and Robert le diable (1831) by the aforementioned Meyerbeer. The generally superb cast in Robert includes Erin Morley and John Osborn, both of whom are widely loved thanks to their frequent performances at the Met.

Since 1900: The other operas that I had a chance to review and that impressed me particularly were all composed in the twentieth century or later. The first-ever recording (1960) of Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David (1902) was re-released, coupled with a fascinating work by Helge Bonnén (whose dates are 1896-1983) for actors and orchestra: poems from Edgar Lee Masters’s famous Spoon River Anthology, spoken while the orchestra plays an interpretive underscore!

The reemergence of lost or forgotten works by Kurt Weill continues with the (belated) release of a 1998 recording of Propheten, a cantata (i.e., unstaged) version of the stirring final act that got cut before the original performances of The Eternal Road, his grand pageant about Jewish history (using a text by the renowned novelist Franz Werfel). The performance is well sung, though not very expressively conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. The CD is filled out with a splendid performance of Weill’s Four Walt Whitman Songs, featuring Thomas Hampson who, in 2001, was in his mid-career prime.

Other quite viable and even fascinating works for the musical stage that have drifted out of general consciousness now prove their credentials on disc (or, of course, streaming): Swiss composer Richard Flury’s 1962 Der schlimm-heilige Vitalis (about a sex-obsessed early Christian priest who learns to lighten up), East German composer Paul Dessau’s 1996 Lanzelot (satirical and, in its music, stylistically kaleidoscopic), and Bohuslav Martinů’s Larmes de couteau and Comedy on the Bridge (one-act operas, with music deftly pointing up the semi-comical, sometimes surrealistic librettos).

From our own day and country come Jonathan Berger’s Mỹ Lai, an enormously effective retelling of an American officer’s attempt to stop a massacre, by American troops, of innocent civilians in that Vietnamese town—the work features tenor Rinde Eckert, multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, and the Kronos Quartet—and an enormously effective work about police brutality against Black Americans: Blue, composed by the renowned Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori, to a libretto by Tazewell Thompson.

Other genres: I should also mention non-operatic “bests” of the year: a collection of songs, chamber, and piano works by Samuel Adler (who is still composing at age 95!), two CDs of fresh and appealing pieces (including the intriguing Improvisation Diary) by Allen Shawn, four colorful and stirring orchestral works by Israeli-born, Grammy-winning composer Avner Dorman, a CD from Boston Chamber Music Society (with stimulating and accessible works by Pierre Jalbert, David Rakowski, and Scott Wheeler), and a 2-CD recital of pieces, splendidly rendered by Kenneth Hamilton, that Liszt based on operas of the day (some now forgotten, but Liszt reminds us some of their better features, and then elaborates on them in transcendent fashion).

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, and The Arts Fuse. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). The present article first appeared in The Arts Fuse and is republished here by kind permission.

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