Editor's Desk

Grammy Rundown

(Recordings, Listening, Criticism) Permanent link

THE GRAMMY AWARD NOMINEES announced last week included many recordings reviewed by OPERA NEWS over the course of 2015 in multiple categories. The five nominees for "Best Opera Recording" were Boston Baroque’s recording of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; a two-CD set of Mozart’s Entführung Aus Dem Serail, conducted by Yannick Nézet–Séguin; the Boston Early Music Festival’s recording of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe; a DVD of Janáček’s Jenůfa from the Deutsche Oper Berlin; and Seji Ozawa’s Decca recording of Ravel’s Enfant et Les Sortilèges.

Recordings Ulisse in Patria Cover 1115 

Of the Monteverdi, our critic William R. Braun wrote, “There have been versions of Ulisse that seemed studies in marmoreal ritual, and versions that took delight in the syllable-by-syllable inflection of Monteverdi's setting of text. But this one … is notable for what might be termed a ‘modern’ sensibility in the dramaturgy … the production as a whole treats the work almost like a brand new opera. It renews appreciation for the way Monteverdi, presented with a not especially astute libretto, tweaked such elements as the timing of the revelation as to who Minerva really is, and the presence of Penelope at the archery trial, with a fine dramatic instinct that puts some of today's literary adaptations to shame.” Find the full review here.

The Steffani CD was featured in our upcoming January issue’s Best of 2015 list, for Philippe Jaroussky’s turn as Anfione, which Braun called, “an out-and-out star performance,” adding, “under music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Baroque practice and modern tastes are both accommodated.” You can read the full review here.

Recordings Entfuhrung Cover 1215 

For the Entführung, our critic David J. Baker notes that soprano Diana Damrau offers a fresh interpretation of Constanze, but that it doesn’t always work. “Damrau’s vocal condition on this recording undermines her attempt to soften the music’s impact,” Baker writes, and conductor Nézet–Séguin’s tempos often don’t help. But, “When Constanze is not at center stage, the conductor emphasizes spark and contrast,” Baker writes. “He maintains tension in the melodic line and … strong forward momentum. His style is informed by the historically informed school of Mozart performance; he adopts the period instrumentalists’ brio and, in the overture and march, traces of their jangly ‘Turkish’ timbres.” You can read the full review here. 

Our critic Joshua Rosenblum was skeptical of the silent, two-minute opening of the Jenůfa video, but praised much of the rest of the disc, particularly the “versatile, charismatic powerhouse” mezzo Jennifer Larmore, who plays Kostelnicka. “In a role that almost demands to be shrieked, Larmore achieves startling vocal and dramatic intensity without ever sacrificing the intrinsic beauty of her resplendent, crystal-clear mezzo,” he writes. “The result is a fully fleshed, three-dimensional Kostelnicka, who manipulates others with charm and persuasion as opposed to cold-blooded, brute force domination. Larmore’s multilayered portrayal brings out the best in everyone around her.” Read the full review here. 

(OPERA NEWS did not receive an advance copy of Enfant, so we did not review it, though a review of another new recording, from Naxos, featuring the Lyon National Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, is scheduled to appear in our April 2016 issue.)

Recordings Puccini Cover 1215 

Works nominated in other categories were also reviewed by OPERA NEWS. Jonas Kaufmann’s Puccini Album, our #1 Recital Disc of 2015, was nominated for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. So was Joyce DiDonato’s Joyce & Tony—Live from Wigmore Hall (our #3 Recital Disc); Mark Padmore’s recording of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart; Talise Trevigne’s take on Christopher Rouse; and Cecilia Bartoli’s St. Petersburg.

Of the Kaufmann recording, our critic Judith Malafronte wrote, “After a dazzling start with excerpts from Manon Lescaut, we hear something from each of Puccini’s operas, arranged in order of composition, offering a superb look at the composer’s development as well as Kaufmann’s virtuoso vocal acting … the superstar tenor’s zillions of fans … will be ecstatic.” You can read the full review here. 

Of the Padmore, Malafronte wrote, “If you make it through the opening tracks of Mark Padmore’s newest lieder-recital disc—or better yet, skip the overindulgent, mannered Haydn set altogether—you’ll be rewarded with imaginative, committed performances, especially of some out-of-the-way Beethoven songs”—the cycle “An die Ferne Geliebte.” You can read the full review here. 

BartoliStPeteCD 

About St. Petersburg, Malafronte wrote, “The relentlessly curious Cecilia Bartoli investigates the birth of opera in Russia with world-premiere recordings of arias by Italian and German composers based at the eighteenth-century court of St. Petersburg. Bartoli turns her keen musical personality to the lyrical shapes and gestures of this style, and her clean, instrumental approach is highly satisfying.” Read the full review here. 

Of the DiDonato, Henson Keys wrote, “The ebullient personalities, instinctive musicianship and rock-solid technique of mezzo Joyce DiDonato and pianist Antonio Pappano are amply displayed on this two-CD set.” Find the full review here. 

OPERA NEWS did not review the Talise Trevigne disc. It did however review several more nominees, including two nominees for Best Classical Compendium—Handel’s Allegro, Il Penseroso Ed Il Moderato, conducted by Paul McCreesh; and Laura Karpman’s setting of Langston Hughes, Ask Your Mama—as well as Gerald Barry’s Importance of Being Earnest, nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Of the Handel, Malafronte writes, “Most Handel-lovers admit a special affection for” this work, adding, “It’s a pleasure to hear conductor Paul McCreesh return to Handel, and his thoughtful approach is matched by passionate, deeply felt performances, especially from the chorus and orchestra (the Gabrieli Consort and Players).” You can read the full review here. 

Recordings Ask Your Mama Cover 1115 

Of Ask Your Mama, critic Sam Perwin wrote,The Carnegie Hall performance of the piece was well received by critics and audiences alike, prompting an ongoing tour of Ask Your Mama at concert halls around the country. Unfortunately, despite its best efforts, the urgency of the live experience is lost on the recording. Many moments that I assume would take flight given a staging, multimedia accompaniment, and live singing instead fall flat in a studio. This is not to diminish the magnitude and impact of the work. Karpman’s score, in adhering to the sprawling nature of Hughes’s poem and musical instructions, explores genres ranging from Afro-Carribean drum beats and R&B ballads to German lieder and jazz-club swing.” Read the full review here. 

Lastly, of the Barry, critic Joanne Sydney Lessner was harsh. Barry is a deconstructionist, dismantling the elements of Oscar Wilde’s perfect comedy of manners and reassembling them on his own terms,” she writes. “The result is engineered cacophony, topped by impossibly angular vocal lines—all necessarily doubled in the orchestra—that are virtually unsingable and almost entirely incomprehensible. Even if the listener can parse specific words, any meaning, let alone subtext, is completely lost in Barry’s purposeful disregard of the natural rhythm of the text. Worse, there is no delight in the language. Barry’s approach would find a better match in the work of Ionesco, whose dialogue is largely absurdist. But Wilde is about wit; it’s not about nonsense, and it’s not about nothing.” Read the full review here. spacer 

Elina Garanča's New Music Video

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Crossover) Permanent link

Reports of the death of the music video, much like that of print media, are greatly exaggerated. Lady Gaga proved as much earlier this month at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she nabbed eight "moonmen" (MTV’s equivalent to the Oscar statuette) in recognition of her revitalization of the genre.

Classical-music marketers never met a pop trend they didn't like, so Deutsche Grammophon gives us "El Vito," a music video of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča singing Obradors' song in support of her latest album, Habanera.

The video seems singularly designed to convince us that Garanča is a sexy minx in her role as a hard, bewitching, capricious Gypsy — but is that enough of a concept to sustain its three-and-a-half minutes? Music videos were created to visualize pop music, and over the past thirty years, the style of their presentation has evolved in tandem with the style of that particular genre. Does Garanča's video embrace the idea of a cinematography of classical music? No. Could one be created? Maybe. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Rediscoveries

(Recordings, Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

When I was little, Renata Tebaldi was "it." In my household, the Verdi recordings on the shelf all featured Tebaldi, my mother's favorite, and it didn't much occur to me that a Verdi soprano could sound any other way. Of course I occasionally heard other divas of the current generation, in passing, when some grownup turned the Saturday Texaco radio broadcasts on, but the essential sound that was stuck in my head was La Tebaldi's, and hers was the image I associated with the great heroines of opera-land. (To my eyes, the Tebaldi Traviata cover and the cover of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights had a similar glamour and sex appeal and were, in fact, not all that easy to tell apart.)

It wasn't until the opera bug bit me as a young teenager that I started branching out and discovering that all those great melodies could be sung in many idiosyncratic ways, and to very different effect. Via television and radio, I became a devotee of "little Renata" (Scotto), a great Met favorite at that time, whose lean, metallic sound struck my ears as particularly youthful and clean. As I began attending live performances more and more regularly, I gradually came to recognize and appreciate the vast variety of timbres, personalities and styles offered by the artists of the day and no longer expected that archetypal Tebaldi sound — a good thing, as no other soprano has ever reproduced it.

The danger of such early familiarity with a great singer is that one often comes to take her charms for granted. Tebaldi always sounded exactly right to me, but because she was the first and, for a time, only example I had of how certain roles should be sung, I did not understand quite what a special thing her artistry was. My loyalty to Tebaldi was such a foregone conclusion that as time went on I did not listen as closely to her as I might to other less familiar artists, because I already knew what I was going to hear.

The beauty of it, of course, is that later in life one has a chance to "discover" a beloved singer all over again in the context of many years of exposure to different interpretations, both live and on recording. The advent of podcasts and YouTube and the release of archival materials on CD and video has brought easy access to historic performances I had not encountered before, and in poring over them, I have relished the chance to listen old favorites with fresh ears. It's nice to know, in retrospect, that it was not ignorance that made Tebaldi seem so perfect: the warm, luminous tone, the unbroken legato, the infallible evenness from top to bottom of the register, the breath control and command of dynamics, and above all else, that rich, creamy, enveloping wave of sound, utterly devoid of shrillness, are sui generis. For vocal beauty and Italianate line, Tebaldi is still "it." spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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Summertime Blues

(Recordings, Observations, Tristan Kraft, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link
Blog Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin 9110  

George and Ira Gershwin's melodies pervade popular culture with the same frequency as Carmen or Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Two weeks ago, Brian Wilson contributed to the fold of Gershwin interpretations, releasing his newest album "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin." The album, issued on Disney Pearl Series, is his second after the release of the much-anticipated "Smile" in 2005.

As you might expect, the former Beach Boy presents these standards, musical theater numbers and arias in cooing, three and four-part harmonies awash in reverb. Wilson plays "'S Wonderful" as a bossa nova, à la João Gilberto; he redefines "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess as a instrumental jig for harmonica; and he adds both string and saxophone accompaniment to "Summertime" , singing with what you might call Southern California sprezzatura.

If it's too weird for you, there are plenty of other renditions to fall back on. Take the following, for instance: Leontyne Price singing "Summertime" for Jimmy Carter in 1978. spacer 

– TRISTAN KRAFT

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E tu, Renée?

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link

I feel ever so slightly betrayed by Renée Fleming. After the 2005 release of her jazz CD Haunted Heart, which I liked none too much, she really went out of her way to regain my trust. She turned in one splendid performance after another (from Violetta and Desdemona to Tatiana and Rusalka) and recorded a handful of intriguing CD projects. And then — with a regularity that rivals the phases of the moon — she dropped another crossover album.

That is not to say that Dark Hope, her new indie-rock effort, is nearly so heinous as Haunted Heart, which left me demanding concrete, recorded evidence that Fleming actually spent any of her college days touring as a jazz singer.

At the end of the day, Dark Hope is simply impressive in its genre impersonation (more the music than the video for the first single; see below). You can catch Joanne Sydney Lessner’s delicious yet fair review of the album in the October issue of OPERA NEWS. spacer 

— Oussama Zahr

Crossing Over

(Recordings, Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

Why do so many practitioners of "crossover" profess to be so deeply offended by the term? It has no inherently negative connotation as far as I can see: it was coined merely to indicate an artist "crossing over" from one genre into another — generally one for which he/she was not previously known. The word itself certainly implies no harm in that.

Many artists have successfully made forays outside what is considered their home territory. Take Eileen Farrell's recordings of Irving Berlin or Rodgers & Hart: I defy anyone listening blind to identify Farrell as an interloper in the pop world. And Cesare Siepi's "I've Got You Under My Skin" — silly, over-the-top and heavily accented as it is — remains fun, sexy and utterly irresistible. In the opposite direction, Sting has earned kudos for his idiosyncratic but earnest ventures into lute song, and Aretha Franklin's accidental appropriation of "Nessun dorma" was a smash hit.

I can't imagine Farrell would have had much objection to the term "crossover," since she seemed to hold dual citizenship in the pop and classical worlds and could travel back and forth over the border confident of a warm welcome whichever way she went. The trouble seems to arise with artists who want to be taken for natives but come across more as the kind of daytripping tourists whose cameras, Hawaiian shirts and socks-with-sandals are a dead giveaway. One suspects there would be less niggling over terminology if the artists in question were not so worried about tripping over the barbed wire and finding themselves caught in no-man's land, with hostile searchlights trained on them from both sides. spacer 

— Louise T. Guinther 

Sound Check

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Listening) Permanent link

 

Blogs Verdi Arias CD Cover 62510  

Recorded sound is not necessarily accurate or fair. Like a photograph, it carries the promise of realism, deceiving us into believing that what we're hearing (or seeing) is 100% representational — a duplication of a live experience — when in fact it isn't at all.

Sondra Radvanovsky is an estimable artist, a soprano capable of delivering thundering fortissimos and a keening line in the Verdi repertory. But in my opinion, her latest CD, entitled Verdi Arias and reviewed in our upcoming August issue, shows off the singer's power but not her strengths. Now, Delos is what we might call a boutique record label. But even so, the engineer could have given us something better than a big, fuzzy soprano sound drowning in reverb.

Having seen Radvanovsky live at the Met as Elvira in Ernani and Leonora in Trovatore (selections from both operas appear on the CD, and excerpts can be heard below), I can testify to her distinctive timbre, dynamic range and, above all, tonal clarity — to say nothing of intangibles like her warmth and dramatic alertness.

The disc puts me in mind of Dolora Zajick, a colossus of the dramatic mezzo repertory, who also recorded an album of Verdi arias that seemed to miss the point of her art. Let's hope that Radvanovsky finds a sound engineer as loving and solicitous as the ones Renée Fleming enjoys over at Decca, the kind of collaborator who can lavish attention upon her voice so that we might better enjoy it. spacer 

— Oussama Zahr

"D'amor sull'ali rosee" from Il Trovatore   

"Tutto sprezzo che d'Ernani" from Ernani   

 


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