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Volume 25 Issue 5 - February 2020

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Visions of 2020! Sampling from back to front for a change: in Rearview Mirror, Robert Harris on the Beethoven he loves (and loves to hate!); Errol Gay, a most musical life remembered; Luna Pearl Woolf in focus in recordings editor David Olds' "Editor's Corner" and in Jenny Parr's preview of "Jacqueline"; Speranza Scappucci explains how not to reinvent Rossini; The Indigo Project, where "each piece of cloth tells a story"; and, leading it all off, Jully Black makes a giant leap in "Caroline, or Change." And as always, much more. Now online in flip-through format here and on stands starting Thurs Jan 30.

yearns for Ricciardo,

yearns for Ricciardo, her Christian-crusader lover. Disguised, Ricciardo attempts her rescue, but is captured. Zomira, Agorante’s jealous wife, plots the lovers’ downfall. This 2018 Pesaro production boasts a fabulous international cast, headed by lustrous South African soprano Pretty Yende (Zoraide), phenomenal Peruvian high-C wizard, tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), sturdy Italian bass Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano) and two powerful, beefy voiced Russians, tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante) and mezzo Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira). There’s a major Toronto presence, too: Opera Atelier’s co-directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg are, respectively, the stage director and choreographer, their familiar predilections for mannered stage movements and bare-chested men further undermining the far-fetched scenario’s minimal dramatic verisimilitude. I won’t call this opera a neglected masterpiece. However, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the truly spectacular singing provide plenty of Rossinian thrills over its nearly three-hour duration, making this a must-have for all opera-on-DVD enthusiasts. Michael Schulman Offenbach – Un mari à la porte Soloists; Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino; Valerio Galli Dynamic 37844 (naxos.com) !!“Sheer silliness” were the words that kept coming to me as I watched and listened to this unfamiliar, 48-minute, one-act Offenbach operetta. Following the graceful, charming waltz-overture, Florestan (tenor Matteo Mezzaro) literally drops into Suzanne’s bedroom, falling through the chimney after scampering over rooftops to escape from a jealous husband. He hides when Suzanne (mezzo Francesca Benitez) and her friend Rosita (soprano Marina Ogii) enter, fresh from Suzanne’s wedding party. Rosita extols the delights of dancing the waltz in the operetta’s hit number, the effervescent Valse Tyrolienne. Henri, the groom (baritone Patrizio La Placa), arrives at the bedroom door, only to find himself locked out – to avoid being discovered by Henri, Florestan, now out of hiding, has locked the door and thrown the key out the third-floor window. Stuck outside the bedroom, Henri adds his voice in an exuberant quartet, a sparkling example of Offenbach’s high-spirited “patter” music. Finally, after Henri manages to find the key in the garden, it all ends happily, with the newlyweds reunited and Florestan and Rosita potentially altar-bound themselves. The exaggerated silliness of the plot is reflected in the exaggerated, silly costumes, makeup, props and gestures by the animated cast in this 2019 Florence production, while conductor Valerio Galli keeps it all bubbling along. My only cavil: adding another oneacter would have made this fun-filled but very short DVD even more desirable. Michael Schulman Weber – Der Freischütz Soloists; MDR Leipzig Radio Choir; Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Marek Janowski Pentatone PTC 5186 788 (pentatonemusic.com) !! Since it was first performed in 1821, Der Freischütz has remained popular in Europe – especially in composer Carl Maria von Weber’s native Germany. The music is inspired, the plot suspenseful and the atmosphere evocatively romantic. Yet it is rarely performed in North America, though in Toronto both Opera Atelier and Opera in Concert have done worthy productions. Undoubtedly the long passages of dialogue present problems, especially on a recording. Often the dialogue gets trimmed down, removed altogether, sung using Berlioz’s added recitatives, or turned over to a narrator. On this recording, the dialogue has been totally reconceived by stage director Katharina Wagner and dramaturge Daniel Weber, and split up between two narrators. But, confusingly, both are pivotal characters in the opera, a Devil called Samiel, and a Hermit. So it is disconcerting to hear them (in the original German – a libretto with translations is included) give away key plot points, scold other characters, and do their best to disrupt things. In the opera, Samiel doesn’t sing, so it works seamlessly to cast this role as female. But Corinna Kirchhoff’s voice is too grating and unnuanced here to cause terror, especially in the nightmarish Wolf’s Glen scene. In the opera the Hermit is a selfless, wise holy man who shows up only at the end to save the day. But in this narration, he comes off as vindictive and pompous. In any case, Lise Davidsen, magnificent in the first act of Die Walküre with the Toronto Symphony last year, is powerfully radiant here. Andreas Schager, who made a thrilling Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s recent Götterdämmerung, is here just as ardent and versatile. The rest of the cast, the choir and orchestra are standouts, especially with the buoyant phrasing and clear textures shaped so expressively by conductor Marek Janowski. Pamela Margles Wagner – Tristan und Isolde Soloists; Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Opera of Rome; Daniele Gatti Cmajor 752208 (naxos.com) !! Arthurian legend provides raw material for Wagner’s greatest opera, but his treatment for the story was inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, specifically his contention that bliss can only be found through the negation of will and desire. Schopenhauer is certainly a presence in the opera, which ends in blissful annihilation, but desire is its governing force. Essentially, Tristan und Isolde is a five-hour love song. The plot is refreshingly simple. Tristan is sent to Ireland to bring the Irish princess Isolde as a bride for his uncle King Marke of Cornwall. But Tristan falls passionately in love with the bride-to-be and she reciprocates. They conclude that death is the only way out and take what they believe is poison. But Isolde’s maid Brangäne substitutes a love draught and their passion is reconfirmed. Their affair continues until they are caught by one of Marke’s knights. Tristan is wounded and taken back to Brittany where he dies just as Isolde arrives. Sinking into his body, she is united with him in death. The cast directed by Pierre Audi (and musicians by Daniele Gatti) masterfully navigate Wagner’s sinuous melodic lines and suspended harmonies. A sense of heady sensuality and physical longing saturates this production. Andreas Schager and Rachel Nicholls are brilliant in the title roles. Raul da Gama Antônio Carlos Gomes – Lo Schiavo Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; John Neschling Dynamic 37845 (naxos.com) ! ! Brazilian-born Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) lived many years in Milan, composing operas for La Scala, before returning to Brazil as a national icon. He intended Lo Schiavo (1889) as a protest against slavery, still legal in Brazil when he began working on it, setting a libretto prepared for him by Rodolfo Paravicini. A success in Brazil, it was largely ignored in Europe, although Caruso recorded Américo’s Act 2 aria, Quando nascesti tu. This 2019 70 | February 2020 thewholenote.com

production from Sardinia’s Teatro Lirico di Cagliari was, in fact, its Italian premiere. The opera is set in 1567, near Rio de Janeiro, during a revolt by indigenous Tamoyos, many having been enslaved by the conquering Portuguese. Américo (tenor Massimiliano Pisapia), the abolitionist son of slaveholder Count Rodrigo (bass Dongho Kim), loves the slave girl Ilàra (soprano Svetla Vassileva). To separate the lovers, Rodrigo orders Américo to the battlefront and forces Ilàra to marry Américo’s friend, the enslaved Tamoyo leader Iberè (baritone Andrea Borghini), before selling them to the Contessa di Boissy (soprano Elisa Balbo). Despising slavery, she sets them free. They rejoin the Tamoyos who soon capture Américo. Iberè, rejected by Ilàra and loyal to Américo, helps the lovers escape. Facing the rebels’ condemnation for his action, Iberè commits suicide. This production’s exotic sets, costumes and choreography, reflecting the libretto’s historic time and place, admirably reinforce Gomes’ bold, assertive, robustly scored late-Romantic music, with stirring choruses calling for freedom and the end of slavery. Michael Schulman Anton Bruckner – Requiem RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; Lukasz Borowicz Accentus Music ACC30474 (naxosdirect.com) !! Pious and naïve, church-organist Anton Bruckner may never have shed his lumbering manner and rustic accent but his massively soaring music attests to his ability to communicate the redemptive force of the divine. The composer, however, found his true musical vocation when he saw Wagner conducting a performance of Tannhäuser in Linz. In what became a kind of Wagnerian moment, Bruckner realized (like Wagner) that in order to move forward he must assimilate and then break every theoretical rule in the proverbial book. Bruckner’s legacy, enshrined not only in his symphonic works, rises to prominence in his choral music, the most vaunted being the Te Deum. Bruckner was, after all, a devout Catholic and his faith pervades all of his music, considered to be Gothic cathedrals in sound. Requiem (the disc) is a magnificent example of Bruckner’s majesty as a composer of spiritual material not least because of these performances. No less than four of the eleven works on this disc are premiere recordings. Perhaps the most moving work is the Libera in F Major. But the Requiem in D Minor is the crowning glory. It evokes the mass tradition of Mozart and Haydn, the lyricism of Schubert and the austerity of Bach. Moreover, the Requiem presents the grand melodic roar of the organ, moaning trombones and soaring voices of the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin which combine to provide the most intensely moving Bruckner music ever recorded. Raul da Gama Charles Villiers Stanford – The Travelling Companion Horton; Mellaerts; Valentine; New Sussex Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Toby Purser Somm Recordings SOMMCD 274-2 (naxosdirect.com) !! In 1835 Hans Christian Andersen published The Travelling Companion, a touching yet violent story full of wizards, princesses and mysterious strangers; in 1916, the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford set this text to music, creating what would be his last opera. Although reprised occasionally since its premiere, this recording of The Travelling Companion is the first of its kind, captured live at Saffron Hall in December 2018. It is immediately noticeable that this is a live recording, as the sound quality lacks some clarity, with slightly blurred timbres and occasionally opaque orchestrations, as well as the feeling that everything is being performed at a distance. Despite the issues of transferring this live performance to disc, the musical execution itself is of notably high quality, with soloists, chorus and orchestra combining to present a cheerful and charming interpretation. Cheerful and charming are also the best words to describe Stanford’s score, which maintains the levity and brevity characteristic of early-20th-century English music, never falling into verismo’s dramatic angst or Wagnerian mysticism. Major keys run consistently throughout the work, as do little woodwind marches, fanfares, and lighthearted figurations. This can only be taken as a deliberate decision on the part of Stanford, for his symphonic and choral works are some of the most stunning of his era and leave no doubt that this was a man who was highly capable of writing whatever music he wished to hear. English opera has relatively few major composers to its credit: Purcell, Handel and Britten are three that have maintained a presence in modern opera houses, but there are also works which are only occasionally revived and recorded that are well worth listening to. Such is the case with Stanford’s The Travelling Companion and this disc by New Sussex Opera. Matthew Whitfield Ambroise Thomas – Hamlet Soloists; Les elements Orchestre des Champs-Elysees; Louis Langrée Naxos 2.110640 (naxos.com) ! ! Once immensely popular, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet had mostly disappeared from opera stages until the Canadian Opera Company’s historic performance with Joan Sutherland in 1985 (though Stuart Hamilton, ever astute, had chosen it to inaugurate Opera in Concert in 1974). It is now heard much more frequently. This terrific production from the Opéra Comique in 2018 offers definitive proof that it belongs in the standard repertoire. Instead of using built sets, stage director Cyril Teste projects live and pre-recorded video on to curtains, backdrops, and movable walls. There are some astonishing feats of technological wizardry, especially when the singers interact directly with the live video. While video can no doubt feel clichéd these days, here it seems fresh, innovative and integral to the considerable psychological depth of this production. It’s amazing to watch the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Jérôme Varnier, make his way down from the back of the stage through what looks like steeply raked rows of empty seats in that theatre. Video director François Roussillon puts us in the middle of the action. But the focus is always on singers. Extreme close-ups show the commitment of this remarkable cast, especially in the brilliantly staged interactions between singers, like Ophélie and Hamlet in their exquisite duet Doute de la lumière. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother is so gripping that it seizes the emotional centre of the opera. Sabine Devielhe, a natural heir to the fabulous, now-retired Natalie Dessay, is a delight as Ophélie, with her formidable agility and charm. Stéphane Degout is a compelling presence, expressive and brooding in the title role. Mezzo Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo’s Gertrude is powerfully searing, while bassbaritone Laurent Alvaro humanizes Claudius with finely shaded details. The Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, playing on period instruments, and the choir Les éléments, all under conductor Louis Langrée, who has long been devoted to this great opera, are elegant and responsive. Pamela Margles thewholenote.com February 2020 | 71

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