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Recording

Charpentier: Médée

Véronique Gens (Médée), Cyrille Dubois(Jason), David Witczak (Oronte), Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet
170:43 (3 CDs)
Alpha 1020

It is nearly 50 years since William Christie’s first recording of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée (harmonia mundi) vividly illustrated that French Baroque opera meant more than Rameau and the occasional nod in Lully’s direction. Since then Médée has become firmly established and acknowledged not only as Charpentier’s operatic masterpiece – though I would argue that David et Jonathas (1688) should be considered its equal – but one of the peaks of the repertoire.  First performed at the Paris Opéra (Académie Royale de Musique) in 1693 it was one of the first operas given there after Lully’s monopoly was ended by his death six years earlier. Despite the presence of Louis XIV at the premiere, the opera was not a success, receiving ten performances before being withdrawn and not revived until the 20th century.

Cast in five acts with the usual prologue, Médée is a tragédie en musique that for once lives up its genre, a feature that may have some bearing in its contemporary unpopularity. By the end of the opera not only are Créon, King of Corinth and his daughter Créusa, the new amour of Jason dead, but in her fury at Jason’s treachery the sorceress Médée (Medea) has committed filicide. Yet it is measure of the quality of Thomas Corneille’s libretto that far from being simply an irredeemable villain poisoned by jealousy, Médée emerges as a deeply ambivalent character driven to madness by the ingratitude of Jason. The picture becomes more opaque still if her earlier services (the Golden Fleece) to Jason are taken into account. And it is more than just the text, for Charpentier gives to Médée not only music that is highly dramatic but in her act three air ‘Quel prix mon amour’ the most touchingly beautiful music in the score. Musing on whether she should murder her sons, the product of her love for Jason, also give momentary relief from the derangement from which Médée  now suffers, her servant Nérine a little earlier having spoken of her ‘Eyes staring wildly, her steps unsteady’. The role is one tailor-made for Véronique Gens, one of the great tragediennes of our day and a singer to compare with the creator of the role, Marthe Le Rochois, the creator of all the leading female roles in Lully’s tragedies lyriques and who was considered without parallel for her mastery of the declamatory styleGens’s mastery of the role ranges from the imperious in the infernale scene at which she is at her most powerful, displaying some awesome chest notes, to the sheer, pure beauty of her singing in the air noted above.

Her errant husband is given a poor hand by comparison, at his best in the tenderness he displays toward his new love Créuse, its cynical political implications drowned out in the exquisitely sensitive music Charpentier gives the couple in their scenes together (act 1, sc 5 and act 4, sc 2). The experienced Judith Van Wanroij (the cast listing spelling is used in the heading but here the more usual spelling is adopted) is at her best in this kind of gentle heroine role and here she is utterly engaging. There are, too, few finer stylists in haute-contre heroic roles than Cyrille Dubois, though here the fast vibrato that is a part of his voice does occasionally threaten to be a distraction. The only other significant role is that of Creon, which asks for little more than Thomas Dolie’s richly authoritative baritone until the great scene in which he is made mad by Médée (act 4, sc 8/9). Then considerable vocal acting powers are called upon, a demand met admirably by Dolié. 

Among smaller roles baritone David Witczak’s Oronte, the deposed suitor of Créuse, should be noted, as should the enchantingly fresh soprano of Jehanne Amzal in several comprimario roles. Her singing of the Italian air included in the act 2 divertissement is one of the delights of the set. Hervé Niquet’s direction of the prologue, the customary panegyric dedicated to Louis XIV with Glory, Victory and Bellone (goddess of war) doing the honours, is curiously – if arguably understandably – briskly uninvolved. Thereafter it improves significantly without ever becoming one of his finest achievements. Notwithstanding the set is required listening for all Gens’s many fans, who will also encounter a great opera and much excellent singing.

Brian Robins 

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Recording

Charpentier: David & Jonathas

Clément Debieuvre David, David Witczak Saul, Edwin Crossley-Mercer the ghost of Samuel/Achis, Jean-François Novelli Joabel, Jean-François Lombard Pythonisse, Natacha Boucher Jonathas, LesPages et les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, Orchestre Les Temps Présents, directed by Olivier Schneebeli
122′ (2 CDs in a CD-sized book)
aparté AP342

David et Jonathas owes its existence to the tradition of the Jesuits of the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris staging plays and musical dramas during the course of carnival season. It dates from 1688, when it was staged between the acts of a now-lost spoken drama. It should be recognised that it is an opera, not an oratorio and as such has a framework familiar for the tragédie en musique, that’s to say a prologue and five acts. Only the relative brevity of the work, with less importance attached to the divertissements and fewer dances than usual mark it out as unusual in that respect.

As was widely recognised from its first performances David et Jonathas is a powerful masterpiece. It is indeed one of the great pieces of late 17th-century French theatre, apparent from the outset of the prologue, which to the best of my knowledge is unique in being a part of the action. In concerning itself not with the usual royal panegyrics but rather with the visit of Saul to the Witch of Endor (Pythonisse) and the fateful utterances of the ghost of Samuel, it provides an introduction to the drama that will unfold, drama culminating in the final tragedy of the deaths in battle of Saul and his son Jonathan. Yet because the opera has a didactic purpose its ending is not tragic, but rather a brilliant paean of praise to the victorious David, the man who remained obedient to God’s laws, in contrast to the defeated Saul, who has not. More importantly still, the opera is an investigation of human relations on a psychological level rare in opera of this period, specifically the complex love between Saul and David, and those of the brotherly love between David and Jonathan. At their heart are the great monologues given to all three, their lyricism again a distinguishing feature of an opera in which récitatif plays a smaller than usual role.

In 2022 the opera was given a superlative production and performance in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, a highly appropriate venue given its original commissioning by the Jesuit fathers of the Collège Louis-le-Grand. That performance has already been issued on CD and DVD on Versailles Spectacles. The set to hand was made live at Versailles, but was a concert performance given in the Opéra Royal the previous year. Ironically it is this performance that seeks to come closer to the original 1688 performance than the staged production in the Chapelle by using a children’s choir for the upper voices and a child for the role of Jonathas, though in this instance a girl rather than a boy. The present performance also almost certainly comes closer to the original performance at the Collège by using considerably smaller orchestral forces, although the playing of the somewhat oddly-named Orchestre Les Temps Présents (it is a period instrument band) is excellent. Also giving a hint of the context of the Jesuit performance is the inclusion of brief spoken 17th-century ‘déclamations’ placed as introductions to each act and, especially movingly, immediately after the death of Jonathan. Thus rather than a play serving as the context, the spoken word provides interludes to a music drama.

One of the features of David et Jonathas is that in contradiction to the title, the leading character is neither Saul’s son nor his much loved David, but the king himself, his tortured soul revealed in a manner and to a depth rare in Baroque opera. The role is here taken by bass David Witczak, heralding the overwhelmingly searing and insightful  characterization he brought to the role just over a year later in the Versailles production. David is sung by contre-ténor Clément Debieuvre, an alumnus of the CDMBV. His voice is lighter and more youthful in timbre than that of Reinoud Van Mechelen, whose assumption of the role was one of the glories of the production. Since the biblical David was young, some may feel Debieuvre’s sensitive if less authoritative performance is more authentic, but there’s no gainsaying Van Mechlelen’s authority. There is of course no valid comparison between the respective interpreters of Jonathas, but the sweet-voiced Natacha Boucher achieves an immensely touching degree of sensitivity in the events leading up to his death (act 5).

The remaining smaller roles are all well filled, with the experienced Edwin Crossley-Mercer a resonant Ghost of Samuel (in the prologue) and Achis, Saul’s general.

There is no question that David et Jonathas is one of the masterpieces of Baroque opera. The story is dramatic, Charpentier’s music magnificent. And like all masterpieces, it is capable of responding to alternative approaches. This version – orientated as it is toward its original college production – is in any event very different to the magisterial Versailles recording. Both have a more than valid place in the catalogue, as indeed does the earlier Erato set under the direction of William Christie.      

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Monteverdi: L’Orfeo

Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall
109:06 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS080

This series of recordings, made in conjunction with live concerts at the Palace of Versailles, presents exciting new artists an revisits memorable milestones of authentic performance – the present recording belongs to the latter category. Jordi Savall’s presentations of Orfeo in the early 2000s with the principal role played by Furio Zanasi and the role of Musica unforgettably taken by Savall’s late wife, Montserrat Figueras, are remembered fondly by all of us lucky enough to see a live performance, and it was transferred very successfully to CD. This time the role of Orfeo is taken by Marc Mauillon, and like Zanasi before, he combines a stunning technique with a believable dramatic presence. It is good to hear the famous virtuoso aria “Possente spirto” sung with such complete technical assurance, but also with bravura – perhaps not since the legendary account by Nigel Rogers have we heard so many of the incidental notes in exactly the right places, and indeed Mauillon’s voice is reminiscent of Rogers’ distinctive timbre. Here and elsewhere in the opera, Mauillon succeeds in articulating the eye-watering degree of ornamentation without allowing it to interfere with the dramatic sweep of the music. This is a remarkable account of this extremely demanding role! The clearly generous budget of the Versailles concerts allows musical directors to indulge themselves, and Savall fields a lavish instrumental team, probably many times larger than anything Monteverdi could have mustered but providing a superb range of textures, and en masse a rich and impressive sound. This is matched by a capable and splendid vocal chorus, while an equally impressive line-up of other soloists animates the multiple distinctive solo roles. Savall’s earlier productions featured him sweeping down through the audience to his instrumental ensemble for the overture clad in a Magus’s cloak, and he has lost none of the old magic in what is much more than a revival of his earlier account of Monteverdi’s masterpiece. He has brought a lifetime of experience to bear on this remarkable piece, and has mustered an ensemble of all the talents to allow him to realise his vision. A final virtue of the Versailles Concerts CDs is their lavish presentation, and this release is no exception with a richly illustrated booklet including an intriguing essay by Jean-François Lattarico and background details about all the participants.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

Christina Fanelli Amore, Lauranne Oliva Giunone, Fortuna, Emőke Baráthe Minerva, Rihab Chaieb Penelope, Alix Le Saux Ericlea, Mathilde Etienne Melanto, Philippe Jaroussky L’Humana fragilità, Anders J Dahlin Pisandro, Philippe Talbot Eumete, Zachery Wilder Telemaco, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro Ulisse, Fulvio Bettini Iro, Álvaro Zambrano Eurimaco, Anthony León Anfinomo, Giove, Nicholas Brooymans Tempo,  Antinoo, Jérôme Varnier Nettuno, I Gemelli, conducted by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
177:00 (3 CDs)
Gemelli factory GEFA006

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro’s Monteverdi Orfeo won high praise from me when it was released on Naïve in 2020. He has now turned his attention to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi’s penultimate opera, first staged at the Teatro San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1640 to a libretto by Giacomo Badoaro. The set is the first to be issued under the name of the ensemble founded by Gonzalez Toro and artistic director Mathilde Etienne, who is excellent in the role of the lascivious maid Melanto. It is an extraordinarily lavish affair issued in book form, with the English edition consisting of 234 pages printed on high-quality paper. There are no fewer than five major articles including an interview with Etienne and Gonzalez Toro and a highly speculative piece peppered with inaccuracies (San Cassiano, Venice’s first public opera house was not purpose-built for opera but adapted from an existing theatre and so on) on the history of Monteverdi’s operas and their supposed debt to the commedia dell’arte, Orfeo excepted. Nowhere are the considerable doubts that surround the attribution of Il ritorno even mentioned in the interview or the other articles. On a practical level the libretto, the most essential bit of literature for most people, is paradoxically printed in a smaller – and in English lighter – font than the articles, making it difficult to follow.

The lavish presentation seems to be of a part with that devoted to the production itself, which was recorded over a 23-day period, an astonishing amount of time these days. The cast list, too, speaks of generous support for the project, with no fewer than 17 different singers to cover 20 roles. Furthermore, four very brief scenes that were not set by Monteverdi (or any collaborator he may have employed) have been composed especially, that for Nereids and Sirens (act 1, sc 3) being particularly appealing. It might seem, therefore, that the scene is set to report another great success to set alongside the I Gemelli Orfeo. And indeed there are certainly things to commend, but Il ritorno is not Orfeo, which poses relatively few problems to a director if they follow the composer’s beautiful printed score – a rarity for the period – and detailed instructions as to instrumentation. While Orfeo still has slightly more than one foot in the Renaissance, ll ritorno is an unashamedly Baroque opera posing all kinds of problems that need solving by anyone mounting it.

It is the failure to provide satisfactory answers to two of the most important of these questions that to my mind mars this set considerably. The first concerns instrumentation. Gonzalez Toro has gone for a large orchestral body of some 30 players, far exceeding the pair of violins, bass and modest continuo most authorities accept is the norm for mid-century Venetian opera. As Gonzalez Toro makes clear in the interview he is well aware that his orchestra is not historically accurate, rather lamely suggesting that since the first score of the opera to be re-discovered was in Vienna, where the court employed a sizable number of instrumentalists, the work may have been given there. There are in fact two good reasons for the modest scoring of Venetian operas of this period. The first is practical. The explosion of interest in opera in Venice (and subsequently elsewhere) resulted in a number of new opera houses being built in Venice. Invariably they were small and we know from surviving designs and images that the ‘pit’ (often an inverted shell-like structure) would have been incapable of housing more than some half-dozen instruments comfortably. The second is the more important because it concerns the nature of operas of the period, which relied heavily on the heightened recitative or recitar cantando, songs or more lyrical passages being only occasionally introduced. Such writing, as is the case with the later plain recitative that evolved, needs only the support of the continuo bass. To add fuller instrumentation to vocal writing risks obscuring the all-important vocal line. That’s what happens here far too frequently. For a single example from among many go to act 1, sc 5 and 6, where first Neptune is swamped by sackbuts, then Jupiter is drowned out by cornetti not just playing but adding agile improvisation that ensures it is impossible to hear what the god is singing. Certainly there is no prima le parole, dopo la musica here and it is surprising to find a musician with Gonzalez Toro’s experience with this repertoire making such a fundamental error.

Equally as surprising is that he chose for the critical role of Penelope – Ulisse’s long-suffering wife – a singer who had never previously performed Baroque repertoire. Rihab Chaieb is a young Tunisian-Canadian mezzo who has been making waves in later repertoire – go to YouTube and listen to her beautiful, glowing voice soaring in Richard Strauss. But the casting experiment fails disastrously. Much of the role lies just under what I would guess to be the ‘break’ in her voice, where there is little colour and none of the dramatic personality the role requires. Both in the opening monologue and the final reconciliation with her husband, this Penelope misses point after point and is not within hailing distance of the superlative performance by Lucile Richardot in the Versailles set under Stéphane Fuget, a set I have described elsewhere as setting new standards of performance for this repertoire.

Let’s turn to what is good. The set is directed by Gonzalez Toro with a keen awareness of tactus, which means he obtains a fluent flow with plenty of scope for flexibility within the beat. To hear this at its best, listen to Ulisse’s opening monologue (act 1, sc 7), where the warrior awakes, finding himself on a beach after the Phaeacians are shipwrecked. Here the stream of thought and reaction is brilliantly echoed through the constant screwing up and subsequent release of tension. Throughout the tenor’s singing and portrayal of the role is as outstanding as his Orfeo; if less spectacular than that achievement that is only because the role itself is.

It is not my intention to minutely detail every singer’s performance, not least because some of the singing is more than acceptable without being especially notable. This is no doubt because of the director’s declared belief that additional ornamentation to that already provided by Monteverdi is not required. Given the poor articulation of some of what there is, he may be right, but it contributes to some rather featureless performances. Among those that are certainly not featureless are the bright, lively Minerva of Emőke Baráth, the Antinoo and Tempo (Time) of Nicolas Brooymans, the Anfinomo and Giove of Anthony León and the ripely comic Iro (which is a true commedia nell’arte) of Fulvio Bettini). Also commendable is the splendid madrigalian singing of the suitors in their trios of act 2, sc 13 and the choral passages generally.

So much has gone into the making of this set that it seems churlish to conclude by reiterating that it is flawed by what are in my view two serious errors of judgment. Admirers of Gonzalez Toro (of whom I count myself as one) will certainly wish to hear it, but for a general recommendation the recording cannot compete with that of Fuget.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Saint-Georges: L’Amant anonyme

Haymarket Opera Company, conducted by Craig Trompeter
170:31 (3 CDs)
Cedille CDR 90000 217

The Afro-French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, then a French colony, around 1745, the son of a local mother and a wealthy planter and nobleman. Little is known about his earlier life other than that he received an all-round education befitting his status. This included not only music but swordsmanship, at which he became one of the most noted exponents of his day. Again we know little of his musical training but he was a fine violinist, good enough to take over the directorship of Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs in 1773, three years later unsuccessfully attempting to become a leader of the Paris Opéra.

It is as an instrumental composer that  Saint-Georges is today best remembered, but he also composed four (and possibly more) opéras comiques, three of which were written for the Comédie Italienne and are now wholly or partly lost. The fourth was L’Amant Anonyme, here receiving its first recording. It differs from Saint-Georges’ other operas in that it was composed in 1780 for the private theatre of Madame de Montesson, the mistress (later wife) of the Duke of Orleans. Cast in two acts, it is a curiously hybrid work. The use of French, the spoken dialogue and the inclusion of ballets all point firmly to the kind of opéra comique developed by Philidor and Grétry. Yet musically the style is decidedly Italianate, as a couple of minutes spent with the quasi-Mozartian overture will reveal. Arias are in a variety of forms; it is interesting to find da capo arias termed ‘ariette’, following the pattern established in the tragedies lyriques of composers such as Rameau.

L’Amant Anonyme has a libretto drawn from a play of the same name by the prolific writer the Comtesse de Genlis. The simple plot involves the intrigues of Valcour, the anonymous lover of the title to win the love of the young widow Léontine, who he has loved in silence for four years but who has finally decided to ‘come out’. The only other characters are their confidants, respectively Ophémon and Dorothée (a non-singing role that the notes suggest may have been played by Madame de Montesson herself) and a young peasant couple, Jeannette and Colin, who are on the cusp of marriage. A certain faux-naiveté informs both the plot and much of the music.

The recording stems from the Haymarket Opera Company, which is based in Chicago and specialises in period productions; the pictures in Cedille’s splendidly produced booklet suggest spectacularly lavish costumes. The performance is pleasant enough but in truth lacking any real distinction. The potted biographies of the singers reveal that none are early music specialists – a curious anomaly for a company devoted to HIP – as is readily revealed by the amount of continuous vibrato on show. The best of them is the Léontine, Nicole Cabell, who does well by the score’s finest and most extended number, the act 2 ariette ‘Du tendre amour’, but is elsewhere apt to become shrill in her upper range. The French dialogue is spoken with varying degrees of success, but if you don’t want to hear it the third CD contains just the musical numbers.  

This a brave effort that deserves praise simply on the grounds that it is an ambitious project – even the music needed editing – executed honestly and with integrity. I’m not convinced that it reveals Saint-Georges to be more than a talented secondary composer and don’t think the note writer’s hyperbole helps his cause any more than the occasionally used lazy appendage, ‘the black Mozart’. Among other things he asks us to look on L’amant anonyme as some kind of trailblazer, remembering that in 1780 Mozart had yet to write any of his, quote, ‘major’ operas. True, but La finta giardiniera predates L’amant by five years and the comparison is invidious. Case dismissed.

Brian Robins

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Book

Dorothea Link: The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna

University of Illinois Press, 472 pp.
ISBN 9780252044649 (cloth) – £112:00; ISBN 9780252053658 (ebook) – £32.38 on Kindle.

The story of the Italian opera company formed in Vienna by the Emperor Joseph II might have remained an interesting byway in the history of opera but for one rather significant fact. It happened to be the birthplace of two of the three operas Mozart composed in collaboration with the court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, all three operas of course standing among the supreme achievements of the genre. Both Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte were commissions for Vienna, though the libretto of the latter only came to Mozart after Antonio Salieri, the court Kapellmeister, had declared it unworthy of being set. Don Giovanni was not a Viennese opera, having been composed for Prague in 1787, but it transferred to Vienna with a few changes the following year.

Josephine opera starts in 1783, two years after Mozart took up permanent residence in Vienna, and concludes when it was transformed in 1791, shortly after the emperor’s death the previous year. One of the remarkable aspects is that the company was run as a commercial enterprise by Joseph, who oversaw every aspect of its functioning – including the hiring (and firing) of the contracted singers, the majority of whom were Italian – over most of the course of the company’s existence. Only at the end of the period, when he was away fighting another of the endless wars with the Turks, did Joseph loosen his grip. Many of those contracted were among the leading singers of the day, a highly important asset since the success or otherwise of an opera most likely depended not so much on the composer or work but the singers, above all the prima donna (or leading lady).

It is this milieu that is thoroughly investigated in The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna by Dorothea Link, Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia. As the name suggests her principal topic is the careers of the Italian singers that were engaged in Vienna; one of the most valuable sections of the book is an appendix in which the roles taken by the most significant of these singers not just in Vienna but in other major centres are charted. This in itself leads to some fascinating information that will not only be of great value to scholars but of interest to a more general readership. Who, for example, will not find questions coming to mind about the type of singer that created the well-known roles in Mozart’s Da Ponte operas when we discover the first Contessa in Figaro, Luisa Laschi was also the first Viennese Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Few today would think of casting a Zerlina as the Countess, at least not until she’d matured a bit. And who will argue with Link, having seen her argument that the role of Despina in Così is intended for a mezzo, not the soprano we generally hear? Link’s plan has been to treat each season as a separate chapter in which the comings and goings of contracted singers are recorded along with local reaction to them, leaning heavily on the formidable Count Karl Zinzendorf, a government officer and diarist, who attended virtually every opera, sometimes on multiple occasions. Zinzendorf was something of a ‘groupie’ follower of Nancy Storace, creator of the role of Susanna in Figaro, and the prima donna that dominates the earlier chapters (she was at the Burgtheater, the Viennese home of Italian opera, from 1783 to 1787. Incidentally, it is also fascinating to learn that had Figaro been premiered a few months earlier Storace would have sung the Countess, since the role of Susanna would have been sung by Storace’s co-prima-donna Celeste Coltellini had the latter not left for Naples earlier in the year. More food for thought, given that the high-spirited Storace is often thought of as the archetypal  Susanna.

The question of identifying the voice types that created the familiar roles in Mozart’s operas of this period is arguably the most valuable single topic in the book, since of course it plays a part in how we view these characters when we go to these operas today, not to mention how we identify with the manner in which in the role is played or produced. A good example is Francesco Benucci (c.1745-1824), the creator of Figaro and Guglielmo (Così),  and of Leporello in the Viennese Don Giovanni. Described as a buffo caricato, a complex vocal identification applied to baritones or basses, we know from the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Basilio) that Mozart greatly admired Benucci’s singing, but it is extracts from several reviews quoted by Link that should set the Mozart enthusiast pondering: ‘Benucci combines unaffected, excellent acting with an exceptional round, full and beautiful voice… He has a rare habit that few Italians share: he never exaggerates.  Even when he brings his acting to the highest extremes, he maintains propriety and secure limits, which hold him back from absurd, vulgar comedy’. Another report speaks of his ‘inimitable polish and comic naturalness’ and his ability to convey, ‘the ridiculous with decorum in every, in every word, in every gesture, in every look, in every movement …’  These are words that should set modern directors, singers and audiences thinking about the way in which we play these – and other comic bass characters – today.

There is so much valuable detail of this kind in these pages that in that sense the book is self-recommending to anyone that would better understand the opera of the period, and not just in Vienna. Regrettably, for the general reader, the book is written in an academic style that makes it difficult to read and will likely restrict it to being a reference tool. Link’s prose lacks style, but above all she has a tendency to incorporate long lists of facts that would have been far better put into tabulated form, leaving her prose to flow more naturally. There are also a number of typographical errors and several instances of carelessness, such as that on p 312, where we are told a proposal to invite Francesco Bussoni, the creator of the role of Don Alfonso (Così) to sing ‘Haydn’s oratorio was rejected …’ Which Haydn oratorio is not identified (it was Il ritorno di Tobia).

Such caveats do not detract from the academic achievement of The Italian Opera Singers, which is considerable and laudable. The book is an important addition to our knowledge and understanding of opera in Mozart’s Vienna, not just the operas of Mozart himself, but of many other composers such as Salieri, with the focus very much on those that performed them.

Brian Robins

Categories
Concert-Live performance

Opera Streaming – Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano in Ravenna

Photo © Zani-Casadio

With the onset of the Covid pandemic, the streaming of live opera became an increasingly viable and popular way not only to bring opera to an established audience unable to attend public venues, but also to open up the genre to a new audience. Opera Streaming is the name given to a seasonal programme of opera transmissions that are freely available on YouTube. Based in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, the project draws on the productions presented in an area rich in historic theatres. Within this comparatively small region, there are no fewer than eight theatres, those of Bologna, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna and Rimini. Opera Streaming has no input into the theatre production, streaming solely without interference as an ‘onlooker’. Among the works scheduled for the 2022-23 season were new productions of Verdi’s Rigoletto (from Piacenza), Die Fledermaus, given in Italian (!), and the one to which I was invited, Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano given in the beautiful mid-19th century theatre in Ravenna on January 14 and 15, on the latter of which the opera was streamed live.

I wrote above ‘Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano’ but knowledgeable Vivaldians will be aware that is only partially true, since the opera is a pasticcio, one of three operas commissioned by the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona for the Carnaval season of 1735. Vivaldi had been hired as impresario for the season, so his occupation in that capacity probably accounts for the reason he put on a pasticcio, one based on a manuscript of his own, Il Bajazet. From that he took the majority of arias, but added others by Giacomelli (3 arias), Hasse (3) and Riccardo Broschi, the brother of Farinelli, who is represented by two. Vivaldi was therefore left with only recitatives to compose, including several stretches of accompagnato, most notably Bajazet’s spine-chilling denunciation of his daughter Asteria near the end of act 2. Also worth noting as being of exceptional quality is Tamerlano’s ‘Cruda sorte’, taken from Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia of 1733, although that almost certainly had much to do with the magnificent performance it received at Ravenna. But more on that anon. Tamerlano has a libretto by Agostino Piovane that had already been set by several composers, in particular Handel (1724). It is relatively unusual among Baroque operas in having a straightforward story without subplots. It concerns the relationship between the famous Mongol emperor Timur (Tamerlano), who historically defeated the Turks and captured their Sultan, Bayezid (Bajazet). Although Tamerlano is engaged to Princess Irene, he has fallen in love with Asteria the daughter of Bajazet, who has been promised in marriage to the Greek prince Andronico. The opera revolves largely around the battle of minds between victor and loser, but encompasses the moving and powerful love of a proud father who would rather take his own life, than see his daughter become the wife of his hated enemy Tamerlano.

Ravenna’s production started with two considerable advantages: the first the presence in the orchestra pit of the local home team, the Accademia Bizantina under their director Ottavio Dantone, indisputably for some years Italy’s number one Baroque orchestra, who also made a superlative recording of Il Tamerlano some two years ago with a cast that featured the same principals. This told especially in the Tamerlano of the outstanding Filippo Mineccia, who sang throughout with thrilling power and intensity, and the equally impressive Asteria of Delphine Galou, at once a vulnerable and strong character. As Bajazet the baritone Bruno Taddia was a commanding presence, even if vocally the voice itself sounded more worn than it had done on the recording and was less impressive than that of Gianluca Margheri, who took over for the live streaming. Honours in the roles of Irene and Andronico remain in the hands of the recording artists, Sophie Rennert, whose Irene equalled that of Marie Lys for command of coloratura demanded by the role but excelled it for tonal beauty, while Marina de Liso’s outstanding fluid and gracious Andronico was also preferable to that of sopranist Federico Fiorio, though the latter deserves credit for the trill of the performance (the only one throughout apart from a brief attempt by Galou). Both Giuseppina Bridelli in the theatre and Ariana Vendittelli (on CD) were excellent as Idaspe. However, without undermining some fine singing, the point has to be made that the true stars of the performance were Accademia Bizantina, whose playing under Dantone was simply magnificent.

Rather less than magnificent was the production of Stefano Monti, who also designed the sets and costumes. The basic stage set, which incorporated a fair amount of meaningless or puzzling (take your choice) back projection, was clean and uncluttered, featuring only monumental stone columns and steps on each side of the stage. I claim no expertise on the subject of the garb of Mongol warriors, but quick research courtesy of Google suggests Monti’s are pretty authentic looking. Less authentic for an era where operas were staged with bravura magnificence and brilliance was the drab impression made by the staging, predominated as it was by greys and blacks, with the odd splash of red from time to time. Nevertheless, such caveats pale into insignificance compared with Monti’s greatest blunder. This was the decision to have each character shadowed by what was termed a dancer, but in reality was a twitching, demented marionette whose activity barely ceased. The movement not only conflicted for the majority of the time with the music, but, worse, committed the cardinal Baroque opera crime of detracting attention from a singer’s aria time after time, sufficient indeed to earn several lifetime sentences. If you wish to see for yourself, Opera Streaming’s relay will be available on YouTube for six months at the time of writing (June 2023). You can catch it HERE .

Brian Robins

Categories
News

Podcasts from Paris

Fans of the French Baroque are in for a real treat if they visit https://expodcast.cmbv.fr/en – six podcasts have been produced by the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. To a rich musical backdrop, all sorts of information is shared (either in English or French) from the golden era of Louis XIV to the dawn of the Revolution. These are highly recommended!

Brian Clark

Categories
Recording

Handel: Theodora

Lisette Oropesa Theodora, Joyce Didonato Irene, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian Didymus, Michael Spyres Septimus, John Chest Valens SmScTTB, Il Pomo d’Oro, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev
Erato 5054197177910
179:18 9 (3 CDs)

Having frequently berated British conductors for directing Handel’s operas as if they were oratorios, here’s a case of the boot being on the other foot – a non-British conductor directing one of the oratorios as if were an opera. If you are going to choose to do this, it would be difficult to think of a better candidate than Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora, first given to a libretto by Thomas Morell at Covent Garden in 1750. It is unusual for Handel in a number of respects, not least because it does not follow the usual format of setting an Old Testament story, but rather that of a Christian martyr in the Roman Empire. Moreover, in addition to being a morality, it is equally a love story between Theodora, the martyr and Didymus, a Roman soldier converted to Christianity by his love for her. That the pair suffer martyrdom together to meld into a love as unbreakable and eternal as that of Galatea and Acis is the uplifting message of Theodora, one underlined in Handel’s final chorus but totally (deliberately?) missed by Peter Sellars in his infamous 1996 production for Glyndebourne.

Maxim Emelyanychev’s approach is light-textured, rhythmically buoyant in quicker, more dramatic numbers, but above all infused with the Italianate lyricism that is so much a defining feature of Handel’s operas. More expressive numbers are often taken fashionably and excessively slowly, the Roman soldier Septimus’s sensitive ‘Descend, kind pity’ and Irene’s ravishing ‘As with rosy steps’ being two extreme examples from part 1; others follow at regular intervals. Also taken far too deliberately are the plain recitatives, which suffer from the all-too-common fault of being sung, often cantabile. And speaking of tediously repetitive faults in current performance practice, the inclusion of a theorbist who constantly makes his presence felt where it is not wanted is another. Indeed his superfluous and at times tasteless contributions serve to further inspire my intentions to found a society for the banning of continuo lutenists. It is worth recalling that in his benchmark recording of the oratorio Paul McCreesh found no reason to include such a personage. More positively, Il Pomo d’Oro’s playing is well up to the orchestra’s high standards, while the choral singing is one of the glories of the set. Employing a leaner ensemble than we usually hear in Handel oratorios – just four voices per part – balance, contrapuntal detail, incisiveness and projection are exemplary, while the English diction of the largely Italian membership is highly commendable. 

The cast assembled is interesting for including some of the most fashionable current names in the operatic world, a far cry from the kind of soloists that normally appear in a British Handel oratorio performance or recording. The Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa is particularly hot property at present – as I write she is about to sing her first Alcina as Covent Garden – whose activities extend way beyond the Handelian repertoire. The voice itself is simply gorgeous, generously imbued with a near-voluptuous quality. Bigger than one might expect in this repertoire, neither that fact nor a fast vibrato is troublesome here, both being under impressive control. Oropesa’s mid-range is especially lovely, with ‘Angels, ever bright’ a particularly good place to sample it. An air like ‘Oh, that I on wings’ displays an attractive bright agility, while passage work throughout is stylishly articulated. Some less than stylish ornamentation in the da capo of the same aria however features a less laudable side of her singing, while I found scant evidence of the ‘endless supply of golden-age trills’ mentioned in a blurb on the singer’s website. Indeed trills of any age are in notoriously short supply and you won’t find any coming from Joyce DiDonato’s as Theodora’s Christian companion Irene. What you will find in spades is her rare ability to colour a text and given the role’s allotment of some of Handel’s most memorable airs – ‘As with rosy steps’ and ‘New scenes of joy’ to name a couple – there is much to relish from her splendid assumption of the role. Not everything is praiseworthy, however, and like Oropesa, she is inclined to moments of self-indulgence, especially at cadenzas. Much the worst example occurs at the end of the recap of ‘Lord, to thee’, the air that opens part 3, where the long, unaccompanied meanderings come close to touching on narcissism.

The young French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian is another artist understandably making considerable waves. The voice is one of intrinsic beauty, well produced and controlled. His Didymus is a highly musical performance, as is already apparent in the way he shapes the opening of his first aria, ‘The raptured soul’, while ‘Dread the fruits’ demonstrates full confidence in more bravura writing, with impressive passaggi. I’ve become accustomed to Michael Spyres as today’s leading interpreter of the great Berlioz tenor roles, so wondered what he’d make of the part of Septimus, the empathetic friend of Didymus. The answer is that he triumphs with it, producing a performance of great character, while demonstrating himself fully capable of encompassing the rather different technique required for Handel. And finally to round off a truly distinguished cast, John Chest is magnificent in the role of the unbending Roman tyrant Valens, his richly burnished tone and authoritative performance adding a further element of distinction.

Theodora is indisputably one of Handel’s greatest works, though it is worth recalling that as with many works of great stature, it was not always considered so. As such the present set is highly valuable for the fresh light it casts on a work that is one of the glories of the English oratorio repertoire. It is not perfect, as noted above, but it does include some exceptional singing and should to be heard by anyone who loves the work. If the ultimate library version remains Paul McCreesh’s superb 2000 recording, I am grateful to have heard this remarkable new Erato, to which I hope to return on many occasions.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Lampe: The Dragon of Wantley

Mary Bevan, Catherine Carby, Mark Wilde, John Savournin, The Brook Street Band, John Andrews
107:56 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
resonus RES10304

The Dragon of Wantley by the German-born John Frederick Lampe and his regular librettist Henry Carey was one of the most successful English stage works of the 18th century. A burlesque opera offered to Drury Lane, it was refused and waited a further two years until its premiere at the Little Theatre in 1737. The rejection transpired to be a bloomer comparable with Decca’s rejection of the Beatles; The Dragon was the sensation of the season, later being taken over by John Rich at Covent Garden, where in its first season it received no fewer than 59 performances, more than had been achieved by The Beggar’s Opera nine years earlier. The libretto was reprinted endlessly, the opera taken up by other companies and holding the stage until 1782.

The reason for The Dragon’s success is not hard to understand. A full-scale three-act opera, it broadly follows the design of opera seria. Unlike most English stage works, there is no dialogue, only recitative. The secret of the work’s appeal to English audiences is that it is a clever and merciless parody of Italian oratorio and opera, debate over the latter remaining a contentious issue in England throughout the century. While Lampe, who earlier had himself composed three serious operas, composed music that is skilful, attractive and often touching, Carey’s libretto persistently undermines any element of seriousness by being absurd, cleverly creating a near-constant conflict between words and music. There’s a wonderful example at the start of act 2, where the heroine Margery sings a long aria in the voguish sentimental style regretting she has asked her lover, the foppish Moore of Moore Hall, to kill the dragon that has been terrorising the neighbourhood. Set in a nocturnal garden it opens with an exquisite moon-kissed orchestral introduction. But any magic is immediately dissipated by the opening words, ‘Sure my Stays will burst with sobbing, And my Heart quite crack with throbbing’. So we have the full parody treatment: an aria di furia complete with Handelian chromaticism for Margery’s rival Mauxalinda; a furious duet between the rival women that early audiences will have associated with the warring between Handel’s singers Faustina and Bordoni; a mock Battle Sinfonia replete with trumpets, horns and timpani – Moore kills the dragon with a kick up the backside – and a grand oratorio final chorus, in which repeated  ‘Huzzas’ stand in for the customary ‘Hallelujahs’.   

While far from perfect, this first performance of the complete opera is enjoyable, not least for playing the piece relatively straight and without guying it. Therein, however, is also a problem, for although John Andrews’s direction is idiomatically assured and the playing of The Brook Street Band neat and tidy, it is possible to imagine the work benefitting from a more spirited, lively performance. This impression is underlined by tempos that tend to the pedestrian and rhythms that are not infrequently four-square and lacking ‘lift’. It is also a pity that the recording emphasises the ecclesiastical acoustic of St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, a less appropriate sound for a bawdy opera being hard to imagine. This affects the singers, too, in particular Mary Bevan’s Margery, whose largely excellent performance is spoiled by the voice spreading in the upper range. None of the other singers have much in the way of early music credentials and it shows in the level of continuous vibrato on display, particularly in the case of the Mauxalinda. Ornamentation is applied haphazardly and with variable success, that of Bevan being superior to her colleagues. Bass John Savournin is fine in the brief role of Gubbins and an even briefer appearance as the Dragon who devours, ‘Houses and Churches, to him Geese and Turkies’, but tenor Mark Wilde’s Moore has intonation problems in passage work, though he brings more character to the recitative than is in evidence elsewhere.  

As I suggested earlier, Lampe’s fine work is enjoyably enough presented, though it would be good to hear it given a more vocally stylish performance. More careful proofreading of Andrews’s notes might have avoided reference to Handel’s Giustnino (for which read Giustino).

Brian Robins