opera music

VIVALDI - ORLANDO FURIOSO      CPO 777 095-2

Orlando FuriosoAntonio Vivaldi’s three-act opera, Orlando Furioso, is set to an Italian libretto by Grazio Braccioli based on an epic poem of the same name by Ludovico Ariosto. This Italian poet lived from 1474 to 1533 and worked on Orlando Furioso for almost 30 years, not publishing it in its final form until a year before his death. This celebrated narrative poem of the Italian High Renaissance has inspired many artists and musicians in the years since. The first performance of Vivaldi’s version was at Teatro Sant’Angelo, Venice in 1727. His opera alternates arias with recitative and is set on an island at an unspecified time. The story combines several plot lines from Ariosto about the exploits of the hero Orlando, his unrequited love for the beautiful Angelica, and the powerful sorceress Alcina. Vivaldi claimed to have written more than 90 operas, although evidence survives of only about 50, and Orlando Furioso is one of the most important. The score has a wealth of colour and dramatic structure as many choruses, arias, and recitatives figure significantly in the overall action. On this 3-CD recording, Italian conductor Federico Maria Sardelli leads his prizewinning Modo Antiquo baroque orchestra in an authentic performance on historical instruments. The cast includes mezzo-soprano Anne Desler as Orlando, Nicki Kennedy as Angelica, and Marina De Liso as the voracious Alcina.

BERNHARD LANG – I HATE MOZART     COL LEGNO

Born in 1957 in Linz, Austria, Bernhard Lang received his early musical training there then studied philosophy, German language and literature, piano and composition in Graz. After finishing his piano studies he began studying composition with Polish composer Andrej Dobrowolsky, who introduced him to the techniques of new music. He also studied with Hermann Markus Pressl who taught him counterpoint and introduced him to the work of Josef Matthias Hauer. In 1999 he moved to Vienna, where he works as a freelance composer. He has held a professorship in composition at the Graz University of Music and Dramatic Arts since 2003. His music has been performed at the Steirische Herbst Festival, at the Moscow Alternativa Festival and the Moscow Modern Festival, Biennale Hannover, Tage Absoluter Musik Allentsteig I and II, Klangarten I and IV, Resistance Fluctuation Los Angeles, Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Salzburger Festspiele, Wien Modern, Donaueschingen, Witten and many others. His adventurous and provocatively-titled opera, I Hate Mozart, written with librettist/director Michael Sturminger, was commissioned for the Vienna Mozart Year in 2006. Dealing with Mozart, his music and his character, this turbulent romp centres around a young, highly gifted conductor who uses a combination of charm and ambition to create for himself the image of a successful genius and furthers his career with an iron will. At the heart of this production lies its protagonists’ almost inevitable failure to do justice to the great composer. The music of Mozart, especially his arias, ensembles and instrumental works, serve as a basis for a departure into electronic, computer-generated soundscapes. Lang also uses a twenty-piece orchestra as well as an ensemble of singers and actors. This amazing work brings fresh insights to Mozart’s music and is joyously performed in this world premiere recording on DVD and two SACDs. Also now available is Ali N. Askin’s EISENHANS! (‘Iron John!’). Putting his trust in the weird, wild man, a child overcomes his fears and worries and, at the end of the day, emerges as the happy winner and gets the king’s daughter. Following the great success of Wolfgang Mitterer’s ‘Brave little tailor’, this second children’s opera production staged by the Wiener Taschenoper is now released on CD by Col Legno. Berlin composer Askin delights in merging many different sounds, from waltzes to musical-style ballads, into a fantastic listening experience as we accompany the king’s son as he plunges into the fantastic world of Iron John, where gold is real gold just as iron is real iron, where boys grow into real men, and where love is worthless unless it be faithful, too. Highly recommended.

PUCCINI'S HEROINES - MELANIE DIENER    MSM MSM0006

Giacomo Puccini’s talent and originality were outstanding and he has long been acclaimed for his melodic writing, dramatic harmonies and theatrical skill. Many of his compositions are in of the regular repertory of the world’s opera houses and some of arias have become part of modern culture. To celebrate the 150th anniversary Puccini’s birth, Michael Storrs Music has released this collection of arias for soprano, performed by one of the world’s leading sopranos. Melanie Diener studied in her native Germany and at the Indiana University before making her debut as Ilia in Idomeneo. She appeared at many opera houses and festivals, including the Vienna Staatsoper, the Metropolitan, Covent Garden and Bayreuth. Singing here with the City of Prague Philharmonic, conducted by Luciano Acocella, she gives intelligent and powerful interpretations of arias from Le Villi (Se Come Voi Piccina Io Fossi), La Rondine (Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta), Manon Lescaut (In Quelle Trine Morbide), Suor Angelica (Senza Mamma) La Boheme (Donde Lieta Usci), Gianni Schicchi (O Mio Babbino Caro), Tosca (Vissi dArte), Turandot (Signore Ascolta) and Madama Butterfly (Un Bel Dí Vedremo).

JANACEK – THE EXCURSIONS OF MR BROUCEK DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4777387

Leoš Janáček’s only mature comic opera has a libretto by eight different writers based on the two satirical novels of the same name by Svatopluk Čech, and the author himself makes an appearance in a vision near the start of Act 3. Janáček worked on the opera from 1908 until 1917 and its first performance took place at the National Theatre, Prague, in 1920. Janáček originally intended a one-act opera, dealing with pub landlord Brouček’s journey to the moon, but then added a time travel story as the second part, a prologue and an afterword to to produce the final four-act version of the opera. Janáček’s remarkable score, with its superb choral writing and opulent orchestration, calls for bagpipes and an organ, both of which are used to great effect in one of the climaxes of the 15th-century time travel excursion. Only two other recordings of this challenging opera exist, so this new release of a live recording of semi-staged performance in London in 2007 is an invaluable addition to the catalogue. The double CD box set includes a booklet with the complete libretto in Czech, English, German and French. A great Czech cast is headed by the excellent tenor Jan Vacik in the title role, with Peter Straka, Zdenek Plech as the publican Wurfl, and two fine sopranos, Maria Haan and Martina Bauerová. In this exciting and authentic performance of Janáček’s witty but rarely recorded opera, the BBC Symphony Orchestra is under the baton of its chief conductor, Czech maestro Jirí Belohlávek. ‘It was all thrillingly done’ - The Guardian.

MENDELSSOHN - ELIAS    CARUS

Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809 and began learning piano at an early age, giving his first recital at nine and beginning to compose at ten. By the time he was fifteen he had written several string symphonies, piano pieces and songs, as well as an opera. By the time Mendelssohn came to write Elias (or Elijah) in 1847 he already had experience of writing Paulus (1836) as well as his Second Symphony, Lobegesang (1840), with its important vocal element. Elias became an overnight success and has remained a staple of the oratorio repertoire ever since its debut. This grand oratorio was first performed in 1846 at the Birmingham Music Festival. It depicts events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah, taken from the books 1 Kings and 2 Kings in the Old Testament, and was composed in homage to Bach and Handel, whose music Mendelssohn greatly loved. The work is scored for four vocal soloists (bass/baritone, tenor, alto, soprano), a full symphony orchestra (including trombones, ophicleide and an organ), and a large chorus singing usually in four, but occasionally eight or three (women only) parts. This excitingly dramatic work expresses a fervent belief in God, a belief which in the 19th century was no longer self-evident. Mendelssohn transposed the visible world of the Old Testament into numerous musical expressive possibilities in which Old Testament texts, including psalm texts and commentaries from the words of the Prophets, were shaped into biblical dramas. This double SACD features the excellent Frieder Bernius as conductor and continues Carus’s prizewinning series of Mendelssohn’s complete sacred works. The soloists are Letizia Scherrer (soprano), Renée Morloc (alto), Werner Güra (tenor) and Michael Volle (bass), with the Kammerchor Stuttgart and Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart.

VERDI - FORZA DEL DESTINO     NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111322-24

Maria Callas was born Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos to Greek parents in Brooklyn, New York, and moved with her mother to Athens at the age of 13. She studied with the soprano Elvira de Hidalgo at the Athens Conservatory and made her professional debut at the Athens Opera in 1941, as La Tosca. Combining an impeccable bel canto technique with great dramatic gifts, Callas became the most famous singing actress of the post-war era. An extremely versatile singer, her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria, such as Spontini’s La Vestale to late Verdi and the verismo operas of Puccini. I this 1954 Scala Milan recording of La forza del destino, Callas casts her Donna Leonora in the grand manner and her breath spans are of a truly notable length. She makes us conscious of every section of Leonora’s music, setting off the first scene in Act I with fitting simplicity. In the Act III duet with Padre Guardiano, Più tranquilla, Callas shows her just rendition of note values; each of them is sung as Verdi specifies, contained within a perfect legato and yet she injects the subtlest rubato so giving it life. Under Tullio Serafin’s inspired direction she sings the two famous arias, Madre pietosa vergine and Pace, pace mio Dio, with appropriate grandeur, on a tragic scale, underlining Verdi’s indications ‘come un lamento’ and ‘con dolore’. Other soloists include Richard Tucker (Don Alvaro),  Carlo Tagliabue (Don Carlo di Vargas) and Elena Nicolai (Preziosilla). Maria Callas also features in two other new releases of Verdi operas recorded in 1956 at La Scala, Milan: Il Trovatore (NAXOS HISTORICAL 8111280-81, with Giuseppe Di Stefano and Karajan) and Ballo in Maschera (NAXOS HISTORICAL 8111278-79, made before Callas undertook this role on stage, with Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi). These three outstanding recordings celebrate the work of a supreme artist in her dramatic and vocal prime.

MOZART - LUCIO SILLA      DYNAMIC CDS524

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s three-act opera, Lucio Silla (Lucius Sulla), was written in Italy when Mozart was only sixteen and first performed at the Teatro Regio Ducal, Milan, in 1772. The libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra tells the story of a Roman dictator (Silla) who lusts after Giunia, the daughter of his enemy Caius Marius. Giunia, on the other hand, loves the exiled senator Cecilio, who is in exile. Silla’s sister Celia loves Cecilio’s ally, Cinna. For unclear reasons, Silla finally relents, allowing Cecilio and Giunia to be reconciled and Celia and Cinna to marry. History was not Mozart’s main concern and the rather unconvincing plot is fiction, although some of the characters are historical. Lucio Silla is not often performed but is considered to be musically the finest work that Mozart wrote in Italy, ranking with opera seria by the greatest masters of the time. Using the traditional structures of Neapolitan opera as a basis, in Mozart gave life to a style that was very advanced in both forms and contents: the choruses, the great number accompanied recitatives, the arias that were not necessarily scored with the ‘da capo’ structure represent the opera’s main novelties alongside wholly unusual, bold harmonic and melodic features. The use of various forms of solo aria - and the consequent abandonment of the single ‘da capo model - confirms the composer’s wish to find the structures best suited to the expression of various different emotional states. Alongside the characters of Neapolitan theatre, accentuated compared to the models, we find traces of an impassioned spirit, seeking to reach beyond conventional patterns. This double-CD set features a lively 2006 recording made at the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, with the Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Tomás Netopil. The soloists are the Italo-German lyric tenor Roberto Saccà in the title role, Parisian soprano Annick Massis (in scintillating form as Giunia), mezzo Monica Bacelli (Cecelio), Veronica Cangemi, Julia Kleiter and Stefano Ferrari. This is a rare chance to hear Mozart’s early masterpiece in an impressive and vibrant performance.

PUNCH AND JUDY – HARRISON BIRTWHISTLE     NMC D138

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, one of the most important contemporary British composers, has been hugely influential on a generation of musicians. Born in Accrington in Lancashire, he studied clarinet at the Royal Manchester College of Music in Manchester, where he met fellow composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, and at the Royal Academy of Music. He worked as a schoolteacher then won a Harkness Fellowship to continue his studies in the United States before deciding to dedicate himself to composition. His works of the 1960s culminated in the controversial chamber opera Punch and Judy, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1968, an event which caused Benjamin Britten and several other members of the audience to walk out in disgust. This remarkable opera with a libretto by Stephen Pruslin features unbridled savagery and weird subject matter, but through a process of stylised violence and ritual (Punch murders the unfortunate Judy no fewer than four times) the tragi-comic actions of a homicidal puppet are raised almost to the status of myth. This new double-CD is an Ancora reissue of the acclaimed recording by the excellent London Sinfonietta under David Atherton (previously released on Etcetera), with soloists including Phyllis Bryn-Julson, David Wilson-Johnson and John Tomlinson. Punch and Judy - together with Verses for Ensembles and The Triumph of Time – was the work that firmly established Birtwistle as a leading voice in British music and it remains as powerful and challenging as his more mature compositions. Re-mastered by David Lefeber, this reissue includes an essay about Stephen Pruslin and the full text of his libretto.

STOLEN NOTES – PARMA OPERA ENSEMBLE    MSM 0000

The Parma Opera Ensemble (POE) was formed in 1996; the impetus for the project being the clarinettist, Sergio Pelllegrini. The purpose of the group was to bring together the classic repertoire for chamber orchestra with a series of instrumental fragments, romanze da salotto and divertissement from nineteenth century opera for different instruments. The notion was to take famous arias and themes from the operas of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and combine them, in an incomparable way, with the flourishing tradition of chamber opera asserted in the past century with the intent to offer merited recoveries. The uniqueness of the Parma Opera Ensemble's concept involves concertising in various ways ranging from a trio to a small orchestra. Since the debut, their concert activities have obtained optimal acceptance from the Italian and foreign music critics, and the POE has become an important presence in the panorama of the international concert scene. Their originality and the performing talents of this group has brought them worldwide attention at numerous music festivals and extensive guest appearances in the United States, Spain, France and South Korea. The Parma Opera Ensemble is based at the celebrated Teatro Regio in Parma; they are all key players in the opera orchestra. The Ensemble members are a selected group of extraordinary musicians who are active in the most illustrious Italian orchestras and Italian Chamber Orchestras. Each member, in addition to being part of the ensemble, is a talented soloist in their own right. Stolen Notes features arrangements of arias and overtures by Verdi played by the Parma Opera Ensemble with Annick Massis (soprano), Marco Berti (tenor), Dmitry Korchak (tenor), Francesco Meli (tenor), Alfredo Daza (baritone) and Giovanni Battista Parodi (bass).

MARCO BERTI – RARE VERISMO       MSM MSM0002

The Italian tenor Marco Berti began his outstanding career with the Teatro alla Scala in performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, Beatrice di Tenda, La bohème, La rondine and Macbeth. His international reputation was established through a remarkable performance as Macbeth’s adversary, Macduff, in Luc Bondy’s production at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999. He made his Covent Garden debut in Simon Boccanegra and soon returned for acclaimed performances in Madama Butterfly and Il trovatore. Marco Berti has been the star of the Arena di Verona summer festival for many years, delivering memorable performances in a variety of roles, including: Isamaele in Nabucco, Don José in Carmen and Manrico in Il trovatore. He made his New York Metropolitan Opera debut two seasons ago in Madama Butterfly and future engagements include a new production of Carmen at Covent Garden, Macbeth at the Met, Aïda at the Liceu in Barcelona Tokyo, debuts as Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur in Florence and Calaf in Parma. His voice ranges from the soft-toned to the penetrating, powerful and effortless top notes and his significant vocal qualities and expressiveness characterise the classic Italian heavy lyric/dramatic tenor. His first solo album, Rare Verismo, is a selection of arias by composers who specialised in this genre. Verismo (meaning ‘realism’, from Italian vero, meaning ‘truth’) is the term for a style of Italian opera that started in 1890 with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and lasted into the early twentieth century. The style is distinguished by realistic - sometimes sordid or violent - depictions of contemporary everyday life, especially among working class people. Berti is accompanied by the excellent Parma Opera Ensemble and the music is by the great Giacomo Puccini, Leoncavallo, Catalani, Alberto Franchetti and Riccardo Zandonai. Along with well-known arias from La Boheme the CD has rousing, Italianate excerpts from rarely performed operas such as Chatterton and Germania.

THE BEST OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN     NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111311-12

Arthur Seymour Sullivan is perhaps the best known of all English composers. He wrote many choral and orchestral works but is most remembered for his theatrical partnership with the librettist William Schwenk Gilbert. The somewhat neurotic W S Gilbert’s satirical silliness combined perfectly Arthur Sullivan’s wonderfully memorable music to produce a dazzling succession of triumphs, and together they transformed the earnest and orderly Victorian age into a topsy-turvy world that is all their own. Despite the couple’s personal quarrels their comic operas have stood the test of time, gaining a special place in the culture and affections of the English-speaking world. Whilst William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were both respected in their own right and during their own time, Gilbert as a playwright and Sullivan as a composer, their collaboration under the management of D’Oyly Carte proved an inspired combination in the late Victorian period. Gilbert’s fantastical plots together with Sullivan’s inventive settings have come to epitomise much of what we consider to be British culture in 19th Century. These excerpts featured in this double CD, from 1948-1954, are recorded as they were originally intended, in the great tradition of The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and make a perfect introduction to this immortal partnership.

HOWARD HANSON – MERRY MOUNT     NAXOS 8.669012-13

Howard Harold Hanson (1896-1981) was one of the most important of American composers of his day as well as a conductor, educator, music theorist, and ardent champion of American classical music, promoting the work of such composers as Roy Harris and Jack Beeson. By 1930, he had composed in nearly every musical form except opera. Then the Metropolitan Opera in New York commissioned Merry Mount, which received its professional première conducted by Tullio Serafin in 1934, both live and on radio, receiving more than fifty curtain calls. Hanson’s collaborator, New York music critic Richard L. Stokes, based his libretto on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Maypole of Merry Mount, a grim story that was in turn based on an actual event in 1628 that focused on a violent encounter between business-oriented fur traders and the Pilgrims’ community at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where intolerant and self-righteous practitioners strongly resented the secular ‘adventurers’. Many of the characters have memorably preposterous names such as Wrestling Bradford, Praise-God Tewke, Plentiful Tewke, Peregrine Brodrib, Love Brewster, Desire Annable and Faint-Not Tinker. The composer described the music for his three-act opera as ‘warm-blooded…essentially a lyrical work [that] makes use of broad melodic lines as often as possible’. The Met gave nine performances of Merry Mount that season but despite the success of the opera there was no second-season revival and subsequent performances have been scarce, perhaps because Hanson’s late-romantic style became unfashionable. This double CD features a live recording made in 1996 at the Seattle Center Opera House to mark the composer’s centenary. It was directed by Joseph Crnko and features the excellent Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Singers include the Seattle Symphony Choir as well as Lauren Flanigan, Walter MacNeil, Richard Zeller and Charles Robert Austin. This fine recording of Merry Mount shows that Howard Hanson’s only grand opera is a wonderfully passionate and richly tuneful experience.

WAGNER - TANNHAUSER        DYNAMIC IDIS - IDIS 6510/12

Richard Wagner’s remarkable three-act opera Tannhäuser, or Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest on the Wartburg) was inspired by the Germanic legends of Tannhäuser and the song contest at Wartburg. It deals with the struggle between sacred and profane love, and redemption through love, in a style that mixes mythological elements of German opera and the medieval history of French opera. Both the historical and the mythological are united in Tannhäuser’s personality; although he is a historical poet composer, little is known about him other than myths that surround him. Integrating French operatic style, the opera contains on-stage brass, but instead of using French brass instruments, Wagner opts for twelve German Waldhorns. The composer conducted Tannhäuser’s premier in Dresden in 1845, with his niece Johanna Wagner singing the part of Elisabeth. The revised ‘Paris version’ of the opera is the more frequently performed today. This triple excellent CD set features a historic performance recorded live in 1957, featuring the RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Rome and Artur Rodzinski, one of the most popular conductors on the international scene between 1930 and 1958. Much admired by Toscanini, who appreciated his refined conducting technique, he was successful both in the United States (where he conducted in Cleveland, New York and Chicago) and in Europe. Rodzinski was also acclaimed in Italy, especially for conducting Russian and German works. This wonderful Tannhäuser also features an outstanding cast of Wagnerian singers, including Karl Liebl (Tannhäuser), Gré Brouwenstijn (Elisabethj) and Eberhard Wächter (Wolfram). Altogether, this is a thrilling performance of Wagner’s most voluptuous opera.

MARCHETTI - ROMEO E GIULIETTA       DYNAMIC CDS 502/1-2

The Italian opera composer Filippo Marchetti (1831-1902) was a contemporary of Ponchielli, Boito and Verdi. Despite having to compete with the latter’s overwhelming genius Marchetti still achieved a certain amount of success. He was not a prolific creator but after writing three unnoticed operas his Romeo e Giulietta (1865) was well received in Italy. His interpretation of the famous story even held up for a while against Gounod’s acclaimed version, assuring its composer a premiere at Milan’s prestigious La Scala in 1869 for his next opera, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tragedy Ruy Blas. After two more operas that had limited success, Filippo Marchetti largely gave up composition in favour of academic life. His reading of the Romeo and Juliet story provides a different perspective from the better-known operas based on this subject by Bellini, Gounod and Berlioz. The tragedy of the two lovers from Verona, in Marco Marcelliano Marcello’s libretto, creates a Verdian mood, with echoes from Traviata and Ballo in maschera. The vocal style is typical of a period of belcanto that has faded, having the forcefully - almost dramatic - lyrical accents heralding Verismo. Listen carefully and you will find several musical quotes, including the unmistakable one from Traviata. This splendidly produced double CD records the revival of Marchetti’s neglected masterpiece at the Martina Franca Festival. The Bratislava Chamber Choir and Orchestra Internazionale D’Italia are conducted by Andriy Yurkevych, with singers Mario Cassi, Serena Daolio (Giulietta), Giovanni Coletta, Dario Solari, Roberto Iuliano (Romeo) and Emil Zhelev. A fascinating comparison can be made with the first complete opera recording of the 1830 La Scala version of Vincenzo Bellini’s I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI from the Martina Franca Opera Festival of 2005, with Patrizia Ciofi, Clara Polito and Federico Sacchi (DYNAMIC CDS 504/1-2).

FRANCOIS-ANDRE PHILIDOR - TOM JONES     DYNAMIC CDS509

The French composer François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795) was the youngest son of André Danican Philidor, composer and music librarian, and half-brother of Anne Danican Philidor, also a composer. Of Scottish origin, the Danican family (Philidor being a nickname) produced a dozen musicians and composers - the best known being François-André. As a pageboy in the royal chapel at Versailles he studied music with André Campra and learned to play chess. In 1740 he went to Paris, where he earned a living by copying and teaching, although he was more interested in chess. He studied with and defeated France’s best player, Légal, and was soon recognised as the best single chess player of his age, writing a book on the subject that became the standard manual for a century. He also found time to write eleven opéras comiques, including Le Maréchal ferrant, Le Sorcier and Tom Jones (1765). After 1771 he spent much of his time in London, giving lectures on chess and producing his major choral work, the Carmen saeculare. Tom Jones is certainly one of his best operas and is a perfect example of 18th-century French Opéra-comique. The libretto was derived from Henry Fielding’s novel The History of Tom Jones, a foundling, while the music, with its dialogues, airs, ariettes, and ensembles delightfully embodies the elegant and caustic spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. This live world premiere recording features the Lausanne Opéra production of 2005, conducted by the brilliant Jean-Claude Malgoire. Soloists include Sébastien Droy in the title role, Sophie Marin-Degor (as Sophie), Marc Barrard (Squire Western) and Rodolphe Briand (Blifil). A rare treat that revives an unjustly neglected work by this intriguing composer.

WAGNER - PARSIFAL   DYNAMIC CDS 497/1-4

The great German composer Richard Wagner’s three act opera Parsifal is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the medieval (13th century) epic poem about the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the spear used to stab Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. Wagner first conceived the work in 1857 but it was not completed until twenty-five years later, the first production being in Bayreuth in 1882 (Wagner had previously conducted a private performance of the Prelude for his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1880).The composer preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ - ‘A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage’. For the first twenty years of its existence, the only staged performances (apart from eight private performances for Ludwig II at Munich in 1884 and 1885) took place in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, for which the work was conceived. Wagner (and later Cosima) refused to permit performances elsewhere in order to prevent Parsifal from degenerating into ‘mere amusement’ for an opera-going public, although concert performances were allowed to take place in various countries during this time. In 1913, Wagner’s centenary year, Bayreuth’s monopoly on the work was finally broken and since then the work has been freely staged throughout the world. This excellent four-CD box set features a recording made in 2005 of a performance at the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, with conductor Gabor Ötvös and featured solists including Richard Decker (a moving and sensitive Parsifal), Matthias Hölle, Wolfgang Schöne, soprano Doris Soffel (outstanding as Kundry), the powerful baritone Mikolaj Zalasinski and Ulrich Dünnebach.

WEIGL - DIE SCHWEITZER FAMILIE      GUILD GMCD 7298/9

The prolific Viennese composer and conductor Joseph Weigl (1766-1846) can be seen as a link between Mozart and Schubert. He was born in Eisenstadt and studied music under Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri before becoming Kapellmeister at the court theatre in Vienna in 1792. He wrote several operas, both in Italian and German, most of them being comic, as well as 18 ballets, 11 masses, two oratorios, 22 cantatas and much chamber music. He also directed many music performances and became a favourite at the imperial court. After composing his first Opera at the aged only 16 he went on to write many other stage entertainments, most notably Die Schweitzer Familie (The Swiss Family) and L’amor marinaro, from which Ludwig van Beethoven used a theme in the finale of his Trio for clarinets in B Major, op. 11. The Swiss Family became one of the most popular German-language Singspiels in the first half of the 19th century - more successful even than Beethoven’s Fidelio and some of the Mozart operas. Following its première in 1809 at the Vienna Kärntnertor Theatre, it was performed on stage almost everywhere between Paris and St. Petersburg as well as in Stockholm and Milan. After its apparently last production in Munich in 1918 it was not performed again until 2004. This fascinating world premiere recording features Tobias Müller-Kopp as a rich landowner, Count Wallstein and Petri Mikael Pöyhönen as his steward. Stephan Bootz and Olivia Vermeulen play a poor Swiss farmer and his wife, with Marília Vargas is their unhappy daughter, Emmeline, and Roman Payer portrays her lover, Jacob. The Chorus and Orchestra Dreieck are conducted in authentic style by Uri Rom.

VIVALDI - MOTEZUMA    DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON/ARVHIV PRODUKTION

The prolific composer Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Venice, Italy. Of the forty operas that Vivaldi wrote, only about twenty are known to survive. Although though the libretto for his opera, Motezuma, had survied, the music had been missing since its world premiere in 1733. Fortunately a fragment of the whole representing 12 of 22 arias was found among the archives of the Berliner Singakademie in 2002. After being seized by the Soviet Army at the close of World War Two, the archive emerged in Kiev in 1999 and was returned to Germany a few years later. As was common with ‘opera seria’, the score consists of long recitatives interspersed with arias. This splendid three-CD box set from Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv Produktion features the world premiere recording of this rediscovered work, one of Vivaldi’s most ambitious, colourful and exotic scores. The story is loosely based on the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés and the downfall of its former emperor Moctezuma (also ‘Montezuma’ - there are a variety of theories as to why the librettist adopted ‘Motezuma’), though the libretto includes a fictional love story between Moctezuma’s daughter and Cortés’s brother. The harpsichordist, conductor and Baroque music specialist Alan Curtis has assembled a fine cast of vocalists for this recording, including Vito Priante (Motezuma), Marijana Mijanovic (Mitrena) and Maite Beaumont (Fernando). Curtis also contributed to the meticulous editing and reconstructing of the music that was missing from the recovered manuscript, collaborating with leading Vivaldi experts to produce the new edition heard on this recording. This is remarkable discovery and all concerned should be congratulated for rescuing such an important opera from oblivion.

BRITTEN - THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA    PEARL GEMS 0231

Benjamin Britten two-act opera, The Rape of Lucretia, has an English libretto by Ronald Duncan based on André Obey’s play Le Viol de Lucrèce. The work was first performed at Glyndebourne on July 12, 1946, and featured Kathleen Ferrier’s operatic debut as Lucretia. Her character is wife to the Roman general Collatinus and is reputed to be the only chaste woman in Rome, making her an irresistible challenge to the loathed Etruscan Prince, Tarquinius. The rape drives Lucretia, her honour lost, to suicide. An interesting aspect of this opera is the telling of the story by a Greek Chorus - a tenor and a soprano. The story is set about 500BC, but the Chorus is Christian. Thus the pagan myth of Lucretia is juxtaposed with the Christian morals identified by the Chorus, who comment on the action ‘out of time’ (as in Greek tragedy). For both economic and aesthetic reasons, Britten devised this work, first performed a year after Peter Grimes, as a chamber opera utilising a small cast and an orchestra of only thirteen players. The pared-down textures enhanced the composer’s operatic vision and later inspired Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw. This two-CD set features rare recordings made in Glyndebourne in 1946 and 1947, with a cast that includes Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan as well as the irreplaceable Kathleen Ferrier. The second CD also has a 1949 recording of the incidental music that Britten wrote for his friend, Ronald Duncan’s play, Stratton. This is an invaluable addition to the available recordings of one of the Twentieth Century’s most important composers.

IL TROVATORE/MANON LESCAUT - ROYAL SWEDISH OPERA  CAPRICE CAP 22051

The Royal Swedish Opera was founded in 1773 on the wishes of King Gustaf III, who decreed that all opera be sung in Swedish. The beautiful Opera House opened in Stockholm in 1782 but ten years later the King was assassinated. His death was immortalised by Giuseppe Verdi in A Masked Ball and the same composer wrote Il Trovatore, first produced in 1853. This has long been a popular work in the repertoire thanks largely to the wonderful melodiousness of the score. Jussi Björling made his debut at the Royal Opera House and returned in 1957 to take the part of Manrico in Il Trovatore, with the Norwegian soprano Aase Nordmo as Leonora and the superb baritone Hugo Hasslo as Count Luna. Luckily, a member of the choir placed a tape recorder in the wings at the request of the mezzo-soprano Margaret Bergström, who had the role of Azucena. Stefan Johansson, now head dramaturgist at the Opera, borrowed it for a radio broadcast in the 1980s and caused a sensation. Because the first scene is missing on this recording, there has been room for a bonus: Jussi Björling in all the des Grieux solos as well as the final scene with Hjördis Schymberg in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut - a 1959 recording of one of his last performances at the Opera. Björling is in terrific form and this two-CD set of rare recordings make up the first volume in a series called the Royal Swedish Opera Archives. In eight volumes, the Royal Opera and Caprice will present some of the finest ‘house recordings’ made during the years 1956-60 with soloists such as Björling, Schymberg, Nilsson, Sigurd Björling and Kerstin Meyer. Others so far in this invaluable series feature Der Rosenkavalier and Fidelio with Birgit Nilsson (CAP 22052), Samson et Dalila and Les Troyens (CAP 22054) and Aida, Lohengrin and Parsifal (CAP 22055).

JUDITH WEIR - BLOND ECKBERT       NMC D106

Born in Cambridge of Scottish parents, Judith Weir studied with John Tavener in London and at King’s College, Cambridge with Robin Holloway. Her interest in theatre, narrative and folklore has resulted in several full length operas as well as collaborations with the Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. She has also composed a song cycle for Jessye Norman as well as music for Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO and a series of chamber works for the Schubert Ensemble. Blond Eckbert, Judith Weir’s first opera, is based on Ludwig Tieck’s dark and complex tale of an elderly couple whose quiet life unravels as their fantastical past catches up with them. Eckbert and his wife Berthe live in seclusion in the Harz Moutains. One stormy night, Eckbert’s friend Walther arrives and, to while away the time, Berthe tells him her life story. Walther seems to know a great deal about Berthe’s early life and Eckbert’s suspicions grow, eventually leading him to murder Walther during a hunting expedition. Eckbert then revisits the fairy-tale scenes of Berthe’s childhood, accompanied by a magical singing bird, and learns the terrible truth about Walther, Berthe and himself. The music’s apparent simplicity, with echoes of Weber’s Freischütz, belies its underlying darkness. This excellent recording, originally released by Collins Classics in 1994, features the Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera, conducted by Sian Edwards, with soloists Nicholas Folwell, Anne-Marie Owens Christopher Ventris and Nerys Jones. This is a touching and beautiful work by one of Britain’s most accomplished composers.

CANTOLOPERA - MEZZO SOPRANO 3   BELLA MUSICA BM 31.2401

Cantalopera is an impressive new anthology that gathers together some of the most famous arias in the opera repertoire. This is a stimulating musical itinerary through an art form that has characterised the history of Italian music for over two centuries and whose appeal continues to grow. Uniquely, Cantalopera gives you the opportunity to hear a complete performance model and then stand in for the soloists by singing to the accompaniment of a symphonic orchestra. This approach offers opera enthusiasts an occasion for entertainment as well as for testing their personal talent. Apart from being great fun, it can also be a valuable support to aspiring singers and a useful application tool for professionals, providing an in-depth teaching aid. On this CD in the series, the soloists to emulate and aspire to are the Italian Santina Lanza and Russian singer Galia Tchernova, and the Compagnia d’Opera Italiana are conducted by Antonello Gotta. The arias here are by Bellini, Ponchielli (from La Gioconda), Verdi (Don Carlo and Il Trovatore), Bizet (Carmen), Massenet (Werther) and Cilea (L’Arlesiana). The entire project consists of 140 arias by Italian and foreign composers, from Gluck to Mozart, from Gounod to Wagner, in addition to Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. It provides a fascinating world view of opera that should appeal to opera lovers, students, teachers and professionals alike.

JOSEF FOERSTER - EVA      MARCO POLO 8225308-09

Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951) was born in Prague and studied at the Prague conservatory. He married the singer Bertha Lauterer in Hamburg and earned his living as an organist, critic and teacher both there and in Vienna. He moved back to Czechoslovakia in 1939 and seven years later was the first person to be declared a National Composer. His varied compositions include five symphonies as well as other orchestral works, chamber music (including five string quartets and a popular wind quintet), concertos for cello and violin, and much liturgical music. The most famous of his six operas is Eva, first staged in 1899 and based on Gabriela Preissova’s sensational play, Gazdina roba (The Farmer’s Woman). Foerster had earlier reviewed the play, which tells the story of a socially respectable farmer’s wife who scandalously leaves her husband to live unmarried with another man. The music is lyrical but Foerster doesn’t shrink from showing the harshness of country life as the tragic story unfolds. The soloists on this double-CD include soprano Iveta Jiríková in the title role, Kostyantyn Andreyev, Denisa Hamarová, Igor Tarasov, Elizabeth Batton and Roland Davitt. The Wexford Festival Opera Chorus and Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra are conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink. This recording, made in 2004, is one of a series of unjustly neglected operas performed at the Wexford Festival, including productions of Saverio Mercadante’s La Vestale (Marco Polo 8.225310-11) and Walter Braunfels’ fairy-tale opera, Prinzessin Brambilla, first performed in Stuttgart in 1909 (Marco Polo 8.225312-13).

EMMA BELL - HANDEL OPERATIC ARIAS      LINN CKD 252

The outstanding young British soprano Emma Bell studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where she won several awards, before joining the Glyndebourne Chorus in 1998, making her Glyndebourne Touring Opera debut in a performance of Handel’s Rodelinda. She subsequently repeated this role for the Glyndebourne Festival and her other performances have included Donna Elvira and Radamisto for Opera North and Almirena in Rinaldo for Grange Park Opera. She has also sung for Geneva Opera and the Komische Oper, Berlin, and has given recitals at the Bath, Buxton and Brighton festivals, as well as in the Wigmore Hall. Emma Bell made her début with the English National Opera as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito and this new disc, issued in SACD format, coincides with her Royal Opera House debut as Leonore in Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade. She sings 11 arias representing the whole of Handel’s London operatic career, from his first (Rinaldo, 1711) to the last (Deidamia, 1741), showing his wide range of moods. Tracks include the heartbreaking ‘M’hai resa infelice’ (Deidamia), ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ (Guilio Cesare) and ‘Se’l mio duol’ from Rodelinda, a role which Emma Bell is rapidly making her own. The excellent Scottish Chamber Orchestra is directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr. This impressive album shows that Emma Bell’s fresh and sensual voice is as much at home in the world of Baroque opera as it was for late Romantic lied in her acclaimed debut release last year of songs by Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss and Joseph Marx (LINN CKD 238). ‘Emma Bell sings Rodelinda with gorgeous tone and spectacular vocal control over the role’s well-nigh impossible range’ - The Guardian.

 

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