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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.