December 1998

MOZART: Don Giovanni

Remigio, Isokoski, Pace; Keenlyside, Heilmann,
Terfel, Salminen, D'Arcangelo; Coro di Ferrara Musica, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, C. Abbado.
Text & translations. DG 457 601-2 (3)

DG's new Don Giovanni is a musical, conscientiously prepared account that elucidates fresh aspects of a work all too easily taken for granted.

Claudio Abbado paces his conventionally structured and proportioned reading to maintain a consistent dramatic continuity and flow. Time and again, a secco recitative's cadence will lead directly into the start of an aria or ensemble, after which the recitative resumes with no interruption. (Sometimes these transitions are a bit too hurried, as at "Non ti fidar, o misera," where neither Elvira's first note nor the preceding rest is held for the prescribed length.) Where tempos depart from custom, they are generally quicker and lighter -- as with "Ah taci, ingiusto core" and the earlier, comic portions of the supper scene -- thus keeping the action moving. Expressively applied appoggiaturas in the set pieces as well as the recitatives, and discreet embellishments in the tripartite arias, make for musical as well as dramatic variety.

By selecting relative unknowns for the female leads and conspicuously holding down the singers' volume at many points in the concertante passages,
Abbado stresses the ensemble nature of this work to a significant degree. This incidentally throws the dramatic focus more sharply onto Don Giovanni, and, to some extent, Leporello.

Fortunately, the inhabitants of these roles can withstand the scrutiny. In the title role, Simon Keenlyside makes a strong impression with his firm, compact baritone and alert, responsive inflections. His youthfully vigorous Giovanni conveys the character's sheer hedonistic relish: his "Viva la libertà!" in the first finale is not just proclamatory but proudly narcissistic. His ebullience recalls Eberhard Wächter's for Giulini (EMI); if Wächter brought a firmer, more honeyed mezza-voce to the seductive, insinuating moments, Keenlyside conversely avoids his predecessor's occasional lapses into loutishness. Among recent Dons, Keenlyside's is more strongly profiled than Hampson's strangely neutral one (Harnoncourt/Teldec) and offers a more fully detailed portrayal than does Bryn Terfel (Solti/London). Terfel's move here into the servant's quarters is a marked success. His patter lacks the naturally Italianate inflection of Taddei's (Giulini/EMI), but his Leporello is spirited and flavorful, marred only by a handful of overdone snarls and a stagy yell of "Dite di no!" in the second finale. Terfel's voice is sufficiently rounder and darker than Keenlyside's to make them readily distinguishable in their scenes together; their bantering recitatives, the best on record, are lively and amusing, with quick, mercurial shifts of tone conveying the vividness of a stage performance.

Carmela Remigio brings an attractive, round, soft-grained lyric timbre to Anna's music. She fails to seize focus in "Fuggi, crudele," but she delivers a gripping narrative to Ottavio and sings the set pieces with authority. Though the passagework in "Non mi dir" gives her no problems, the lower tones in the sextet sound insubstantial. Soile Isokoski, with a distinctive, somewhat peculiar timbre, limns an agitated, driven, but never hysterical Elvira. Some may find her portrayal too restrained, but the character emerges as more single-minded, less schizophrenic than usual. Both ladies, presumably at the conductor's behest, frequently glance at the peak notes of phrases rather than singing into them.

Patrizia Pace's forthright Zerlina is especially winning in the recitatives, where she and her Masetto, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, capture some of the same spontaneous give-and-take as do Keenlyside and Terfel; in the arias, her crystalline tone is apt to go white and vibratoless. D'Arcangelo, underplaying his role's more grotesque bumpkinisms, provides quite simply the best-sung Masetto on records.

As in the Solti set, the Ottavio is the weak link, with Uwe Heilmann's mushy, underenergized singing an active liability. The lack of a solid tonal core and the incipient bleat on sustained tones make the arias something of a trial and render the character more than usually ineffectual. Abbado's steady, graduated buildup brings Matti Salminen's Commendatore into his own with an imposing yet dignified impact. The chorus sounds unusually good in its brief contributions.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is a mixed blessing. The reduced forces allow some ordinarily underplayed details to register clearly, but the outbursts heralding the Don's entrances in both finales could do with stronger bass support, and elsewhere the desired tonal depth and weight simply seem beyond the capabilities of this ensemble.

The Abbado Don Giovanni undoubtedly will not be to all tastes, nor will it necessarily achieve the classic status of such recordings as Colin Davis' (Philips), Giulini's (EMI) or Krips' (London); but for shedding light on aspects of the piece that ordinarily remain neglected or underplayed, this set commands attention.




BELLINI: I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Mei, Kasarova; Vargas, Chiummo, Alberghini; Chor des Bayerischen
Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, R. Abbado.
Text & translations. RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68899-2 (3)

Vincenzo Bellini, who usually took his sweet time composing an opera, wrote his sixth in uncharacteristic haste in 1830. Felice Romani helped by supplying a quick revision of a libretto he had written for Nicola Vaccai four years earlier, based not on Shakespeare but on earlier Italian sources of the Romeo and Juliet story. And although Bellini was obliged to refashion material from his earlier Zaira and Adelson e Salvini in order to meet his deadline, the fresh vitality of I Capuleti e i Montecchi belies its somewhat cobbled gestation.

Even when working within conventions, Bellini's inventiveness is always keen in this score. For example, after the slow concertato movement of the first-act finale -- a quintet primarily in block harmony and partly a cappella -- he avoids the usual fast and furious stretto, opting instead for a cantabile melody, "Se ogni speme è a noi rapita," sung in unison by Romeo and Giulietta over syllabic rhythm for the rest of the ensemble and chorus. Although this texture subsequently became commonplace in Italian opera of the period, it usually came earlier in the finale. Apart from its novelty, this reveals Bellini's assured sense of musical psychology, as he rings down the curtain with his two lovers sharply outlined against a highly controlled backdrop of conflicting forces.

This is a very satisfying recording, thanks to Roberto Abbado's sympathetic sense of bel canto phrasing and elasticity of tempo -- he manages to give his singers just the right amount of breathing space without compromising the sense of forward motion that maintains excitement. If the orchestra is a bit too prominent at times, the clarity of instrumental detail keeps one's ear primed.

Abbado is also fortunate in his three primary singers. Eva Mei's rather wide vibrato notwithstanding, she sings Giulietta with affecting passion and vulnerability. As Romeo, Vesselina Kasarova, previously paired with Mei on RCA Victor's Tancredi, deploys her booming, vibrant mezzo with splendid vigor. The two singers blend well in duets and make the most of passagework and ornamentation, both written and interpolated. So does Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, who sings Tebaldo with conspicuous warmth and vivid coloration. His is a more Puccinian timbre than usually heard in this repertory, now that it has become a definite area for vocal specialists, but he applies himself to Bellini with unimpeachable style. Moreover, all three artists pay close attention to diction, exploiting the sounds of the words for their own color, which makes their respective performances even more expressive. Basses Umberto Chiummo and Simone Alberghini -- the Capellio and Lorenzo -- are surprisingly dry of timbre for such young singers, but they are adequate in their supporting roles.

Bellini's complete opera is presented on two discs. A third contains the tomb scene of Vaccai's Giulietta e Romeo, which was customarily substituted for Bellini's finale after Maria Malibran set the precedent, and was even published in the standard Ricordi score. Now that lesser lights of Romantic bel canto are being explored, this appendix allows an interesting comparison between two contemporaneous treatments of a similar text.


A. SCARLATTI: Il Primo Omicidio, overo Cain

Fink, Oddone, Röschmann; R. Croft, Jacobs, Abete; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Jacobs. Text & translation.
Harmonia Mundi 901649.50 (2)

Don't feel culturally challenged if you've never heard of Il Primo Omicidio -- it is definitely an obscurity. Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio, first performed in 1707 in Venice, is in two parts: in the first, Adam and Eve (tenor and soprano) beg their sons to learn from their parents' expulsion from Eden. But the sons are already the familiar doomed figures from Genesis, Abel (soprano) full of devotional serenity, Cain (alto) self-conscious, jealous. The Voice of God commends Abel's sacrifice over his brother's. This is followed by a showstopping (needless to say) visit to Cain from Lucifer (bass). In Part II, the inevitable slaughter of brother by brother occurs with startling, powerful simplicity. God and Cain then engage in an extraordinary series of recitatives and arias as the sinner is confronted and then seeks redemption. Back home, Adam and Eve, full of foreboding, hear Abel's voice (from heaven) assuring them of his immortality; the parents comfort themselves with hopes that God will bless them with more children.

Is it possible for a work so devout to succeed in these belligerently secular times, when even seeking the "meaning" in a work of art is regarded as heretical or reactionary? It is, when the piece is performed with the craft, spirit and conviction offered by the Akademie Für Alte Musik, led by René Jacobs (who also takes the role of Voice of God). Scarlatti is not Handel. There is little of the splendid bravado that powers that composer's creations. Scarlatti is more earnest, reflective. During parts of Il Primo Omicidio, a listener may feel like an eavesdropper on troubling yet eloquent spiritual interrogations. But Scarlatti is also, incontestably, a dramatist. Freed from visual obligations and conventional dramatic unities, this oratorio (like the best of its genre) has the instant, epic sweep of silent films or radio dramas. The deprivation of one sense encourages the spectator's instant, eager collaboration. Not even the most dementedly ambitious stage director could visualize an Abel convincing enough to seem to be singing from the heavens, but when we have only the music and our minds, the illusion is perfect.

It was once assumed that early music dramas made up in prettiness what they lacked in drama, but every aspect of this recording pulses with dramatic incisiveness and conviction. The overfamiliar story becomes affecting through the beautifully expressive music, revealing not only well-trained musicians but fervent drama.

Leading this notable effort, Jacobs' conducting is fully persuasive throughout. Except for William Christie, there is no other conductor of this repertory who can deliver performances in which the whole and all its parts are saturated with awareness and gesture. In such hands, the briefest recitatives or sinfonias become pleasurable and potent. The highest compliment I can pay to this recording is that it left me full of memories of beauty and questions of faith -- surely what its composer intended when he wrote it.

Music so long forgotten it might as well have never existed is now gracing eager ears again, but oratorio itself is perhaps the most terminally ill of the musical arts. New operas, symphonies, sonatas, quartets, songs still receive premieres -- but try to name five oratorios written in the last fifty years. This splendid performance of a Scarlatti gem left in the dark for centuries underlines how sad that attenuation is. This is an art form with plenty to offer us still. (As post-culturalism spreads and "fine arts" lose their subsidy and public, will oratorio resurface as a cheaper alternative to opera?) The fiery spiritual power of this soulful vocalism can energize and counsel performers and listeners to a degree beyond other forms. May Jacobs and his colleagues' act of faith in an old genre (and the faith of Harmonia Mundi, which has handsomely packaged and produced this set) lead to more performances of old -- and new -- oratorios.


BERLIOZ: La Damnation de Faust

Von Otter; K. Lewis, von Halem, Terfel; Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Chung. Text & translation. DG 453 500-2 (2)

Subtitled a "Dramatic Legend in Four Parts," Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust (1846) was originally conceived as a concert opera, not intended for the stage. It is more suited to the studio than many other works, which may explain why there are more than a dozen recordings currently available of this relatively little-performed piece. However, apart from the classic 1959 Markevitch recording (re-released on CD by Theorema as TH 121170/171), most versions are mixed, with both good and bad elements. This new DG recording, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, while not an exception, is overall quite interesting, especially due to Bryn Terfel's superb Méphistophélès.

The Welsh bass-baritone once again shows remarkable insight and sensitivity in creating his characterization of Méphistophélès. From his first entrance, it is hard not to become wholly entranced by the devil's wry humor and sarcasm. (His sneer is audible when he addresses Faust as "doctor.") He seduces his audience as he seduces Faust. His voice is rich and dark, perhaps darker than most other Méphistophélès' (of Berlioz, that is), but it is beautifully textured and subtle, so that emotion shapes every note.

Almost as shining and ardent as Terfel is dark and devious, Anne Sofie von Otter makes a beautiful Marguerite. Her voice is pure enough to seem angelic (as Marguerite is destined for heaven), yet sufficiently strong in color to convey Marguerite's intense love for Faust. This is most clear in "D'amour, l'ardente flamme," in which she declares her undying love knowing that she will never be united with Faust. She handles difficult passages with ease and maintains exquisite phrasing even when portraying overwhelming emotion.

Brander is solidly sung by Victor von Halem, even though he does not always bring out the humor of the role. The weakest link in this ensemble, unfortunately, is Keith Lewis' Faust. Although he portrays an acceptably earnest, albeit passive, Faust, his voice cannot compass the full vocal range of the part. His lower register is quite lush and his phrasing good, but on higher notes he sounds narrow and nasal. In general, the performance is solid but lacks excitement, despite the bracing, full sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Chung. Even the departing Hungarian soldiers in Part I sound as if they were returning from war exhausted, rather than marching off to it full of ambition.

The recording itself is a bit odd. The soloists seem to fade into the distance of the soundstage for large parts of the performance, only to leap out every now and then when close miked. This is especially distracting in Part I, in which Faust is almost inaudible until the entrance of the soldiers in Scene 3. If this was a deliberate attempt to sound "staged," as is often badly done with operas meant to be staged, it is an especially unfortunate choice here.



WEILL: The Seven Deadly Sins (sung in English), Songs

Faithfull; Vienna Radio Symphony, Davies. RCA 74321-60119-2

Marianne Faithfull's smoky, world-weary, hard-as-nails Anna in this new Seven Deadly Sins will not be to everyone's taste -- especially not musical purists. The liner notes allow that Faithfull, who frequently performs Weill's music in concert, has taken the original score "as a point of departure," transposing her part down a full octave. (Lotte Lenya's 1956 recording was transposed down only a fourth.) Faithfull growls, moans and whispers in an unapologetic baritone, shrugging her way out of troublesome notes and delivering the Auden/Kallman English translation in an endearingly bizarre accent that is equal parts bluesy femme fatale and British public school boy. This may not be what Weill intended, but taken as pure show-biz, it is ferociously convincing and great fun. Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Vienna Radio Symphony with coruscating intelligence.




Ben Heppner

"GERMAN ROMANTIC OPERA." Arias by Beethoven, Korngold, Wagner, Weber. North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Runnicles. RCA 63239-2

Ben Heppner's newest solo disc is a brilliant achievement, as admirable for its intelligence and emotional honesty as for its powerful singing. (When was the last time that was said about a recital that featured forty minutes of Wagner?) The Canadian tenor is in wonderful form, shaping strong, clean, long-breathed phrases and biting into his texts with full-blooded romantic passion and a genuine sense of communicative urgency. Considering Heppner's reputation as a rising heldentenor, the sheer musical force of his Siegfried, Erik, Parsifal and Cola Rienzi here is not surprising, but his ability to sing with real tenderness, as in the opening of Euryanthe's "Wehen mir Lüfte Ruh" or the closing moments of "O Freund, ich werde sie nicht wiedersehen" from Die Tote Stadt, is an unexpected joy. He has great heart. Two quibbles: the Fidelio selection included is taken from the complete set recorded under Colin Davis three years ago, and the (superb) Tristan Act III selection begins with "Dünkt dich das?" rather than with "Wo ich erwacht," as stated in the libretto booklet. Donald Runnicles and the NDR Sinfonieorchester are appropriately vigorous.



Marcelo Álvarez

"BEL CANTO." Arias by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi. Welsh National Orchestra, Rizzi. Texts & translations. Sony Classical SK60721

The first album of the young Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez (who is making his Met debut in this season's new La Traviata) contains some very promising singing. Álvarez has a lean, handsome, appealing lyric tenor. The sound is a little Domingo-like, with a power that seems to propel the voice through space in sudden bursts. The foundation for this voice doesn't always sound solid: some opening attacks are softly tentative, and the voice seems to surprise itself by demonstrating more power than it actually commands. Of musicality the album discloses little, in part because Álvarez and his conductor (Carlo Rizzi) whip through some of the arias as if lingering over a cadence or pause might cause a musical pileup.

None of this is much cause for concern. This is an artist with little experience; Álvarez began classical voice studies only five years ago, having previously worked as a factory foreman in his native town of Córdoba. More time onstage and in the studio doubtless will encourage the growth in amplitude and consistency that the voice needs. What is troubling is the singer's lack of inspiration. None of these performances demonstrates the musical and dramatic curiosity, insights and passion that contribute to the artistic constitution of a great singer. The Duke of Mantua, Nemorino, Edgardo and the other heroes all possess the same vocal "face," enunciation, breathing. Each character sounds like the product of one period, one composer. As poised and careful as Álvarez' singing is, I'd gladly tolerate a rougher surface for more of the creative drive that propels great musicians into the arena of performance.

As recording studios don't always bring out the best in new artists, Álvarez' Met debut remains one to look forward to. It is to be hoped that it will carry more fire than the singing on this pleasant if unmoving album.



Susanne Mentzer and Sharon Isbin

"WAYFARING STRANGER." American and French folksongs; songs by Martini, Schubert, Rodrigo; guitar solos by Granados, Sainz de la Maza, Tárrega. Erato 3984-23419-2

A riveting set of five American songs opens this excellent duo-recital by mezzo Susanne Mentzer and guitarist Sharon Isbin. Mentzer is marvelous, delivering "The Nightingale," "Red Rosey Bush" and the title track with poignant simplicity and directness (and admirably crisp, unmistakably American diction) and shaping the brief a cappella section of "Black is the Color" with astonishing purity of line. Several French and Spanish songs are almost as fine, demonstrating Mentzer's highly sympathetic partnership with Isbin. Less successfully judged are three Schubert lieder transcribed for voice and guitar, in which one misses the cutting directness of Schubert's writing for piano. Three of the tracks are guitar solos.


Plácido Domingo

The Legendary First Recital Recording. Arias by Cilèa, Donizetti, Giordano,
Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Ponchielli, Puccini, Verdi. With Profé, soprano; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Santi. No texts. Teldec 3984-23292

"POR AMOR." Songs by Agustin Lara. Silvetti, music director. Texts only.
Atlantic 23794-2.

Among the joys for Plácido Domingo fans this season is the reissue of his first recorded recital. Made just weeks before the tenor's Met debut thirty years ago, "Sempre Belcanto" reveals a young artist of prodigious talent. His tone is sterling and pure, his pitch impeccable, his musicianship graceful and self-assured. The most striking aspect of these performances of standard arias is the depth of interpretive understanding, unusually profound for a man in his mid-twenties. This prescient recording has been out of print for too long, and it will make a most welcome addition to the collections of all opera-recording enthusiasts.

Domingo's championing of Hispanic composers is admirable, and on that level one can understand his interest in making the late Agustin Lara's music available to a wide audience through recording. Many regard Lara, famous for such hits as "Granada," as Mexico's most important popular-song stylist. But on "Por Amor," Domingo's new disc of Lara songs, neither tenor nor composer is well-served. The treatment of both artists is degrading. One of the great opera voices of the century is sunk knee-deep in cloying string pads covered by a gooey oil slick of synthesizer washes. ("Music direction" is credited to Bebu Silvetti.) This kind of album is usually made by singers who cannot get the attention of the musical public in any other way, not by artists of international importance. As a long-standing admirer of Domingo's singing and Lara's songs, I am saddened by this travesty.



Audra McDonald


Songs by Brown, Giering, Gordon, Guettel, LaChiusa. With McCarthy, Upshaw;
Guettel; Brown, Musiker (piano), Stern. Nonesuch EN 794-82

Audra McDonald's "Way Back to Paradise" marks the bull's-eye arrival of a singular and major new voice. This disc's content is as significant as its performance, for McDonald has given over her debut solo album to material from the youngest generation of musical-theater songwriters.

"You Don't Know This Man," a song from Jason Robert Brown's upcoming Parade, exemplifies the success of this recording. Brown displays a mature sense of phrase structure and the knack of writing a piece that is not one word or one note longer than it needs to be, and McDonald, who has a secure, classically oriented technique, performs it beautifully. Pop music is rarely sung so well in purely vocal terms, but McDonald is also a true actress. Even her defiant intakes of breath are in character.

The appearance here of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again seems odd in prospect, because the show, based on Schnitzler's La Ronde, is a series of duets. McDonald cleverly plucks out "Tom," in which one of the characters is asleep. She is in complete control of the piece vocally, able to sing it more slowly and effectively than Carolee Carmello on the original cast album. (McDonald is, after all, an actress who sang Lady Macbeth's first aria every night during the run of Master Class.) Her sultry yet intense performance has an unstoppable build, and LaChiusa's lyrics ("We fly like angels would like to fly") are both beautiful and sharp.

McDonald does in fact bring in some duet partners. Dawn Upshaw holds her own in the sisterly title track; Theresa McCarthy gets trounced in Jenny Giering's moody "I follow." Composer Adam Guettel joins in on his own "Come to Jesus" from Saturn Returns. This is an overwhelming number in its architecture and its ambivalence, combining the story of an abortion with musical references to a hymn.

If Ricky Ian Gordon is unsure whether or not he is writing classical art song, he is still served well by McDonald. Of his four songs here, the most effective is "A Lullaby," with text by James Agee, beautifully orchestrated by Dan Sebesky. The recorded sound on this release, alas, is distracting, with the voice in a markedly different acoustic from the instruments. But this voice is one of a kind. Highly recommended.


Della Jones

DONIZETTI ARIAS. Assisting artists, Royal Philharmonic/London Symphony, Francis/Parry. Texts & translations. Opera Rara ORR-203 (Harmonia Mundi, dist.)

Bruce Ford, Paul Austin Kelly and William Matteuzzi

"ROSSINI: THREE TENORS." Excerpts from Donna del Lago, Otello, Ricciardo e Zoraide, Armida. With Miricioiu, sop.; Philharmonia Orchestra/St. Martin in the Fields, Parry. Texts & translations. Opera Rara ORR-204 (Harmonia Mundi, dist.)

Della Jones' Donizetti recital captures the Welsh mezzo in refreshingly unfamiliar repertory, including a few takes from complete recordings previously issued. With a voice of open (not covered) tone and even quality, strong at both upper and lower ends, this resourceful singer puts considerable intensity into the words, relying on accentuation for expressive shading, yet without stressing the voice. After a loud, solid opening line of her first (travesti) aria, she soon achieves contrast with an accompanied cantabile recitative that shows steady focus and firm legato, reaching some pianissimo phrases that lie quite high for a mezzo, right up to the aria proper; by this time, the listener is engaged with the character's predicament. There's little change from the earliest (1977) recordings to the latest, though the rondo finale from Alfredo il Grande (recorded in 1990) is written in hunt-and-peck coloratura style, like that of Linda di Chamounix's "O luce di quest' anima," not as comfortable for Jones as running passagework, where she can define the notes incisively.

Perhaps the Three Tenors idea has been run into the ground, but here at last is a new perspective. Rossini actually wrote operas (Otello, Armida) with as many as three tenor parts, giving them duets, even trios. Never a company to flinch from the obscure, Opera Rara now brings us a virtuosic CD with Bruce Ford, Paul Austin Kelly and William Matteuzzi, recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, in 1996.

The difficulty of bel canto tenor writing is twofold. Proficient coloratura technique is hard enough by itself, but combining it with the expressive spinning out of long, sustained melodies requires just as much control and flexibility. These three tenors, as good as any you're likely to hear nowadays in this specialized repertory, give the lie to the silly idea that florid vocal writing serves only for display, not for the expression of fear, agitation or rage.

The excerpts on this disc are long enough to show how Rossini builds the excitement of a dramatic scene -- turning a duet, for example, into a trio by introducing a third character, who may be quite upset to discover the relationship into which he's intruding (La Donna del Lago). As dramatic tension builds, the vocal writing grows more and more demanding. Virtuosity is a vehicle, not an end in itself. Joined on two of the nine tracks by veteran soprano Nelly Miricioiu, who shares their flair for Rossini's refined style, these three tenors give us an excellent idea of what primo ottocento singing was all about.


JOHN CAGE: Litany for the Whale

Hillier, Theater of Voices.
Harmonia Mundi 907187

Paul Hillier's collection of nine vocal works by John Cage is done with the same care and stylistic awareness as his early-music recordings. In the case of Cage, "performance practice" means a willingness to play with the scores and make some changes just to see what might result. The seminal solo "Aria" is divided among seven singers (Cage calls for ten distinctly different vocal styles in the piece) and given clever recorded sound effects for the interspersed "noises." Hillier shares the "36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp" with avant-garde hero Terry Riley, who reads his own contributions in a genial, reassuring voice. The combination is annoying in small doses but at full length attains an inspired looniness. The electronic processing required for some numbers and added to others is less effective on a recording, when it might be expected, than in live performance.

Hillier himself sings "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," Cage's tiny masterpiece of 1942, but he seems constricted rather than inspired by the direction to "sing without vibrato, as in folk-singing." A good model is Andrea Fullington in "Experiences No. 2"; this effective piece, with text by e.e. cummings, is hereby commended to recitalists as a sure-fire encore. With the recent great popularity of Gregorian Chant, Gorecki and Pärt, "Litany for the Whale" (1980) seems ahead of its time. It gets a deeply committed performance from Alan Bennett and Paul Elliott.



FAURÉ: Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine; Motets by Roger-Ducasse and Villette

Argenta; Keenlyside; Winchester
Cathedral Choir, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Hill. Virgin Classics 45318-2

The Winchester Cathedral Choir gives a top-notch performance on the new Virgin Classics recording of Fauré's Requiem. Its intonation is terrific, its blended tone glorious and its control (especially on pianissimos) excellent. This is sublime choral singing. Soloists are the delightful Nancy Argenta and Simon Keenlyside, who sings with abandon, understanding and fervor.

It is David Hill's slightly forced reading of what Fauré called his "lullaby to death" that proves distracting. His tempos are not necessarily too fast -- Fauré has written that the piece should last thirty to thirty-five minutes, and this recording is thirty-six minutes long -- but Hill overdoes, albeit slightly, every nuance, losing subtlety and grace. Crescendos throughout are overstretched. Consequently, the truly dramatic sections of the piece, such as the fortissimo entrance for tenors, basses, trumpets and horns in the "Hosanna in excelsis" section of the Sanctus, lose effectiveness. Hill seems to be fighting for an inappropriate, almost Mahlerian sound.

The Bournemouth Sinfonietta performs remarkably well -- instrumental ensemble and soloists each have just the right color -- but recorded balances are odd. When the harp and violin enter during the In paradisum, for example, they are louder than they should be. The recording sounds overproduced, manipulated and, again, forced -- more like a movie soundtrack than a choral performance.

Other pieces included here are Fauré's popular Cantique de Jean Racine, which flows delicately; three fine motets by Fauré's student, Jean Roger-Ducasse, which showcase treble Kenan Burrows and organist Stephen Farr; and two motets by twentieth-century composer Pierre Villette, read very well by Hill.


"Agnus Dei II"

Works by Albinoni, Brahms, Martin, Byrd, Fauré, Bizet, Schubert, Lotti,
Monteverdi, Bruckner, Purcell, J. S. Bach. The Choir of New College, Oxford. Edward Higgenbottom. Texts and
Erato 3984-21659-2

This excellent choral recital is particularly noteworthy for its inclusion of several transcriptions and reorchestrations. Among these is a full-stop rendition of Albinoni's Adagio as a choral/orchestral setting of the Beatitudes and the Intermezzo from Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2 as a surprisingly evocative a cappella treatment of the Agnus Dei. The choral singing is superb throughout, musically heartfelt and technically masterful. Don't be put off by the slick ("music to soothe the soul") packaging; this recording has sent me to the store in search of the first Agnus Dei album.



WAGNER: Lohengrin

Amara, Gorr; Kónya, Dooley, Hines, Marsh; Pro Musica Chorus, Boston
Symphony, Leinsdorf (1965). Libretto & translation. RCA Red Seal 50164 (3)

RCA's 1965 Lohengrin, based on a concert version given at Tanglewood, merits reissue for the title role as sung by Sándor Kónya, firm choral work and elegant orchestral execution by the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf's seasoned, no-nonsense leadership. The recording, produced by Richard Mohr in Symphony Hall, Boston, sounds more like a live performance than a studio reading, sometimes giving the voices undue resonance and the orchestra undue prominence, but it captures the score's luster.

In his posthumous book Leinsdorf on Music, the conductor creates the misleading impression that this Lohengrin was undone by RCA's casting dictates, based on promotional considerations. Leontyne Price had been slated for Elsa but (wisely, according to Leinsdorf) withdrew. The new Elsa, Lucine Amara, gives the role gentleness and impressive musicianship if not all the rapt transport needed for big, long phrases. Rita Gorr, though steadier and more authoritative than many another Ortrud, lacks any hint of insinuating subtlety and has pitch trouble on loud, sustained high notes: "Entweihte Götter!," apparently the cause of numerous troublesome takes, sounds like an obvious splice. Jerome Hines, at less than his best, lacks the big, dark, rolling sound for Heinrich. Leinsdorf, who led this opera forty-three times at the Met, must have often worked with casts of this caliber.

And the conductor could scarcely have asked for a better Lohengrin. Kónya's smooth, glowing tone and legato, his lyrical style backed by spinto solidity, placed him at the head of the class for this role. Here he gets to sing a fairly lengthy continuation of "In fernem land," cut by Wagner and never included in the published score. William Dooley gives revealing voice to Telramund's disgruntlement and injured dignity. In general, this is a Lohengrin one would be grateful to hear in an opera house. On disc, it has serious competitors, notably those led by Kempe and Solti.


MONTEMEZZI: L'Amore dei Tre Re

Moffo; Domingo, Elvira, Siepi; London Symphony Orchestra, Santi (1976). Text & translation. RCA 50166-2 (2)

Italo Montemezzi's 1913 opera L'Amore dei Tre Re was the only one of the composer's works to sustain a tenuous toehold in the repertory. It enjoyed some popularity at the Met in the early part of the century, racking up forty-nine performances, although no revival has been mounted there since 1949.

The opera is static dramatically and the plot, a tenth-century love triangle, preposterous even by verismo standards. Fiora, betrothed to Avito, deposed prince of Altura, is forced to marry Manfredo, son of the conquering king, Archibaldo. The lovers' furtive meetings arouse the suspicion of the blind and elderly Archibaldo, who, chancing upon an encounter between the two, strangles Fiora to death. At her wake, the grieving Avito is killed by poison placed on the deceased Fiora's lips by Archibaldo. Manfredo, stung by guilt and remorse, also kisses her and dies in agony. While the opera seems on the brink of evolving into a memorable aria that never quite arrives, Montemezzi's lyrical music is attractive and smartly orchestrated, boasting some artful writing for chorus and a second-act love duet that rises to a luxuriant Straussian climax.

In this 1976 recording, the young Plácido Domingo is in magnificent voice, and the clarion strength and beauty of his instrument provide the performance's best moments. Cesare Siepi, caught late in his career, is a surprisingly sonorous Archibaldo. Pablo Elvira's Manfredo is workmanlike if undistinctive.

Anna Moffo's soprano seems a size too small for Fiora, and her timbre is thinner and less pure than in her earlier recordings. Yet her singing is never less than committed and her high notes in the Act II duet are thrilling in their attack and immediacy. Dramatically, Moffo's mercurial heroine is jarring in its intensity, veering from an ice goddess in her coolly calculated replies to the clueless Manfredo to the desperate fury of her outburst as she turns on Archibaldo. Fiora's death scene is riveting, Moffo's gasps and strangulated cries startlingly realistic. Nello Santi obtains incisive playing from the London Symphony Orchestra, and his superb advocacy, strong in forward impetus, makes the best possible case for this flawed yet intriguing work. The recording has come up well in this remastering, although breaking the second act in mid-disc was unnecessary.


VERDI: Il Trovatore

Carena, Minghini-Cattaneo; Pertile, Granforte, Carmassi; La Scala, Nastrucci/Sabajno (1930). No libretto. Romophone Opera Magna 89003 (2)
(Harmonia Mundi, dist.)

Reissued many times on LP and CD, this classic 1930 recording of Il Trovatore has never sounded nearly so good as it now does in Romophone's superlative transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. The improvement is significant enough to prompt a reappraisal of the singers, who admittedly color the romantic Verdi style with a dash of verismo. Soprano Maria Carena, often faulted for stridency, emerges with full, dramatic tone. Her coloratura is sketchy, but few other recorded Leonoras bring such excitement and commitment to the role. With the abatement of blasting that disfigured Aureliano Pertile's timbre, the tenor's Manrico now sounds elegant and passionate (albeit with a transposition downward of "Di quella pira"). Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, perhaps more soprano than mezzo, is one of the most dynamic Azucenas on disc. Apollo Granforte, seldom equaled for power and subtlety, is magnificent in Di Luna's "Il balen" and "Vivrà! Contende il giubilo." The conductors, Gino Nastrucci and Carlo Sabajno, were old hands at this music, as were the orchestra and superb chorus.


Rosa Raisa

No texts. Marston 53001 (3)
(Harmonia Mundi, dist.)

Frances Alda

"IN OPERA AND SONG" (1910-1928). With Caruso, Martinelli, Journet; Elman (violin), LaForge (piano). No texts. Atoll 9701 (National Library of New Zealand; Jem, dist.)

As the first Turandot and as prima donna of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, Polish soprano Rosa Raisa (1893-1963) holds an assured place in opera history. Like her friendly rival Rosa Ponselle, Raisa had a large voice, surpassingly rich; unlike Ponselle, she also had a blazingly secure top. But while Ponselle made records in her prime for Columbia and Victor, Raisa recorded for offbeat companies -- Pathé, Aeolian, Vocalion, Brunswick. By the time she recorded for La Voce del Padrone, her best days were behind her. Raisa's records are maddeningly inconsistent. In the midst of a superbly sung selection, the tone suddenly wavers, or the singer seems oddly lost. Engineering must be to blame. Large voices like Raisa's have always required the greatest care in the studio. (Olive Fremstad and Lillian Nordica encountered similar problems.) Luckily, there are several phenomenal Raisa recordings that need no apology, chief among them a dramatic "Suicidio!," a thrilling "O patria mia" and a soaring "L'altra notte," in which the awesome size of the voice is miraculously apparent. Ward Marston's transfers on this three-CD set have gone far in correcting imbalances in records that have never sounded so good as they do here.

The legacy of New Zealand-born Frances Alda (1879-1952) is also a complicated one. The soprano made enemies with her frank 1937 memoir Men, Women and Tenors. Her successes were often dismissed as a by-product of her marriage to Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the Met's general manager. But the neglect of her records probably stems as much if not more from the antipathy of her superstar contemporary Geraldine Farrar and the latter's fans.

Records can be marvelous correctives. Ironically, Alda's are much better than the more celebrated Farrar's. Exhibit A would be Alda's ravishingly lovely "Ebben? ne andrò lontana" from La Wally. Equally fine are her deftly florid "Selva opaca" from Guglielmo Tell and "L'altra notte" (with finely articulated trills) from Mefistofele. Owing to Farrar's grip on the role of Cio-Cio-San, Alda never sang Madama Butterfly on the Met stage, but her "O quanti occhi," with an ardent, mellifluous Giovanni Martinelli, shows her exceptional gifts as a vocalist and interpreter. Best of all is the trio from I Lombardi, with Caruso and Journet -- Verdi singing of the highest caliber. Songs, including a Maori ballad and an unsentimental, in-tempo reading of Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?," and a spoken reminiscence by the soprano round out this well-transferred CD. Documentation included from the National Library of New Zealand is exemplary.




Vera Galupe-Borszkh

"FORGEEF ME MY ENKLISH": the Wit and Wisdom of Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh; Siff, Juntwait; LGS012-1/2 (2)

While she may crave adoration as much as the next prima donna, Vera Galupe-Borszkh is a diva of a different stripe: charming, apologetic, solicitous, eager to please. For those unfortunate enough not to know, Galupe-Borszkh is the stage name of Ira Siff, founder of La Gran Scena Opera Co., the all-male opera team who has given New York and the rest of the world many wonderful staged performances of opera excerpts over the past fifteen years. Extracted from twenty-three of Galupe-Borszkh's weekly appearances on WNYC-FM's Weekend Music with Margaret Juntwait, the two-CD set offers all the adroit wordplay of the troupe's live stage shows through the backstage philosophy of an aging diva.

Madame's monologues, replete with highly original malapropisms ("I rest my cakes!"), can occasionally display a temper about a subject close to her heart, but her purpose is inevitably to instruct. On conductors, for example: "The vocal life of a soprano has four stages: 1, bel canto; 2, can belto; 3, can't belto; 4, can't canto. Conductors will get you to stage four as quickly as possible!"

The connective tissue on the recording is forty-six repeats of Madame's version of Poulenc's "Les Chemins d'Amour," which introduced these segments on WNYC. One wonders if there hadn't been a way to omit at least a few of these intros and exits with fading in and out, making the record a good deal shorter. But the meaty comic interviews in between are well worth the wait.



OPERA NEWS, December 1998 Copyright © 1998 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.



Claudio Abbado leads Simon Keenlyside,

Bryn Terfel and the Chamber Orchestra

of Europe in Don Giovanni