More 2012 Recordings

Although I’ve done my best to review all of the new recordings I’ve heard this year, there’s still a huge pile of CDs sitting on my desk. I was hoping to review all of these other recordings by the end of the year, and since I don’t have the time to write full reviews, I’ve decided to write a little about each in one big post. The fact that I’m writing less certainly doesn’t mean that I have less to say about the recording, or that they’re not as good – it’s just an unfortunate necessity of time!

Philippe Sly – In Dreams

The young Canadian bass-baritone has been making a name for himself as a versatile performer, both as an opera singer and recitalist. This song recital contains the ever-popular Dichterliebe and Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, as well as songs by French composer Guy Ropartz and Jonathan Dove’s increasingly popular Tennyson settings. Sly shows an equal affinity for all three languages, as well as the stylistic differences between the Ravel and Ropartz. Schumann’s Dichterliebe is hardly underrepresented on recordings, but it’s rare for a singer to record it so early in his career. This has its advantages and disadvantages: his more youthful interpretation is more emotional and impetuous than usual, bringing more contrast to the individual songs, but at the same time he’s not as developed vocally. It’s still a very accomplished performance, but I’d love to see how his interpretation develops over time. Dove’s evocative Tennyson songs shows off his lovely voice and excellent diction, but he really shines in the French pieces. Ravel’s Don Quichotte chansons can be difficult to pull off effectively due to their brevity and simplicity, and although Sly is still far from the aged, experienced Don Quichotte, his musicality allows him to make the songs unique. He is particularly effective in the expressive ‘Chanson épique’, which displays his vocalism and musicality in full. Guy Ropartz is a composer I’m not familiar with, but this performance of his Heine settings make a strong case for further exploration of his music. It’s comprised of four poems along with a short prelude and postlude, and although it was written in 1899 is musically reminiscent of early Debussy or Fauré chansons rather than the later, more chromatic French Impressionist works. Sly is obviously very comfortable with the French style, and pianist Michael McMahon provides sensitive and detailed playing throughout.

Christian Gerhaher – Ferne Geliebte

Baritone Christian Gerhaher is one of the most accomplished and intelligent lieder singers performing today, so it’s always interesting to see what programs he comes up with. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform in Vancouver this past May, and I was delighted to see that he recorded the Beethoven and Haydn pieces that were so effective live. While the recording obviously does not quite capture the extraordinary charisma and immediacy of his live performances, his natural, intelligent, yet expressive singing comes through. These classical songs are contrasted with two major works of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg’s Book of Hanging Gardens and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder. Schoenberg’s large-scale song cycle, based on poetry by Stefan George, marked the beginning of his shift into atonality. Gerhaher brings out the lyricism of the vocal line, and displays a multitude of colours to complement the text. His performance proves that this music can be intellectual as well as accessible and deeply moving. Though Berg’s Altenberg Lieder were notoriously part of Schoenberg’s 1913 Skandalkonzert, they are in fact highly lyrical and passionate. Gerhaher’s singing is intense and captivating, and the cycle is a perfect vehicle for his lyrical voice. The lieder are performed with piano, and Gerold Huber is particularly impressive in the demanding orchestral reduction of the Berg.

Anne-Sofie Von Otter – Sogno Barocco

Lyric mezzos often have an interesting transition into their late careers – at a certain point, Angelina and Cherubino just don’t cut it anymore. As a result, many mezzos experiment with different fachs, whether singing lower soprano roles or dramatic mezzo roles. The Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie Von Otter has long left her Dorabella and Oktavian days behind her, and now sings Fricka, Brangaene, and duets with Elvis Costello equally comfortably. Her latest recording is equally interesting, consisting of Italian baroque music and avoiding any repertoire overlap with the other similarly-themed recordings that seemingly come out by the dozen these days. The most well-known tracks are the Monteverdi selections, including the two duets from L’Incoronazione di Poppea with the brilliant Sandrine Piau. Piau also joins Von Otter for a lovely duet from Cavalli’s La Calisto, aptly named “Dolcissimi baci”. Apart from two Cavalli instrumental tracks, featuring the enthusiastic and colourful playing of the Capella Mediterranea, the rest of the recording is composed of monologues. The most successful is Penelope’s intense scene from Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, which benefits from Von Otter’s well-known dramatic instincts and musicality. Overall, it’s an outstanding and unique recording in the well-populated field of baroque vocal recitals, and is well worth acquiring.

Iestyn Davies – Arias for Guadagni

In a world where countertenors are arguably more sought after than mezzos in armour, it’s surprising to hear one that clearly distinguishes himself from the rest. British countertenor Iestyn Davies is fast becoming recognized as an exceptional musician and voice in a field that includes many other excellent singers, and his newest recording is proof of that. Gone are the days where countertenors had breathy, high voices – Davies’ voice is rich, even, and almost mezzo-like in range. It’s a surprising choice to record an entire disc around music written for Gaetano Guadagni – unlike his castrato colleagues, Guadagni didn’t place much importance on flashy vocal writing, and played a role in Gluck’s opera seria reforms. A risky choice for a young singer, perhaps, but one that ultimately pays off. Davies displays a mellow, even voice with flawless legato, demonstrated particularly well in the aria from Handel’s Saul and a stunning aria by JC Smith. However, he still has a chance to show off his coloratura technique in Handel’s florid “Destructive War” from Belshazzar and two rather flamboyant arias from Hasse’s Didone Abbandonata. Guadagni’s most famous role, Gluck’s Orfeo, sits awkwardly for many countertenors, but Davies more than compensates with a beautiful tone and a musical, restrained interpretation. More successful is the expressive aria from Gluck’s Telemaco, as is an aria of Guadagni’s own composition. Jonathan Cohen conducts the period Arcangelo with sensitivity and incredible virtuosity where needed.

Karina Gauvin – Prima Donna

One of the most in-demand baroque concert singers, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has long been known as a connoisseur’s singer. However, the recent baroque revival has greatly increased her visibility, and her latest recording proves that she deserves to be at the top. Accompanied by the Arion Orchestre Baroque, Gauvin sings a selection of Handel arias written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò, plus two arias by Leonardo Vinci and Antonio Vivaldi. Throughout the recording, Gauvin shows that she is surely in her prime – a beautiful, womanly voice, flawless technique, and fine musicality down to the smallest detail. The arias all suit her perfectly, from the showy “Scherza in mar” from Handel’s Lotario to the fluid “Care selve” from his Atalanta. One might wish for more variety in programming (out of the 25-or-so Handel operas that del Pò sang in, only 7 are represented here), but her astonishing Alcina arias put that to rest. Her deeply moving “Ah, mio cor” is almost enough to make this DiDonato superfan regret that Curtis cast Gauvin as Morgana instead in his recording of the opera. It may not be as flashy or varied as other baroque recordings, but there’s nobody that can sing this music as gorgeously as Gauvin.

Danielle de Niese – Beauty of the Baroque

Often publicized as opera’s hippest, sexiest soprano, it may therefore come as a surprise that her latest album is an understated, intimate recording. A mix of sacred pieces, arias, and duets, the programme is designed to exhibit her ever-maturing musical and vocal skills. Although most of the pieces are quite well-known, they are all well-suited to her voice. Particularly effective are two of John Dowland’s lute songs, which show off her distinctive voice and impressive interpretive skills. Also impressive is the aria from Handel’s Acis and Galatea; criticisms of her supposed poor breath control are proven wrong. As with most recordings, the least successful are the most popular pieces – Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” sounds a little uncertain, and her voice simply isn’t suited to the gravity of Purcell’s Dido. She’s joined by countertenor Andreas Scholl for three duets from Handel’s Rodelinda, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The most effective is the Monteverdi – De Niese is justly famed for her interpretation of Poppea, and this recording is simultaneously pure and sensual. It’s actually very enjoyable, and is undoubtedly De Niese’s best recording to date.

Nezet-Seguin – Don Giovanni

In an age where DVDs more common that CDs, it’s almost shocking to see a full opera being released by a big label. The first in a promised series of Mozart recordings featuring Rolando Villazon and conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, this Don Giovanni features the starriest names in the operatic world today. Despite this, there’s an excellent sense of ensemble between cast and conductor. It’s a very fast reading of the opera, but the singers obviously have no problem in keeping up and the young Mahler Chamber Orchestra matches them in virtuosity. The most engaging performance comes from Luca Pisaroni as Leporello. It’s hard to believe that at the time of recording, this was still a relatively new role to him. Vocally, of course, he is impeccable, but has an excellent sense of timing and is overall a charming Leporello. Some of the high points of the recording are the secco recitatives between Don Giovanni and Leporello – it’s always a delight to hear native speakers make the most of those seemingly throwaway lines. At some points, however, I could have sworn that they switched lines. Contrary to common practice today, Giovanni has a deeper, lower voice than his servant, reminiscent of productions in the 50s that featured Pinza or Siepi. Despite his deeper voice, D’Arcangelo has the coloratura and range to surmount the technical hurdles of “Fin ch’han dal vino”. However, his soft singing is less effective, particularly when he tries to scale down his voice to match his Zerlina in “La ci darem”. Probably the most controversial casting choice in the recording, Rolando Villazon proves to be an effective Don Ottavio. After his much publicized vocal problems, he has been turning to Mozart, much to the horror of some audience members. Don Ottavio’s two fiendishly difficult arias may not be the best place for any tenor to begin, but Villazon tackles them head-on and displays a solid technique and good breath-control. In addition, he makes the most out of his much-maligned character – instead of the usual wimpy, incompetent aristocrat, Villazon’s Ottavio is fiery, passionate, and a real match for Giovanni. As his fiancée, Diana Damrau is every bit the wronged woman. Although her voice may have seemed a little light for the role, her “Or sai chi l’onore” is impressively dramatic, and needless to say her “Non mi dir” is exquisite. One of the advantages of this recording is that the three women are well differentiated in sound; there’s never any confusion in the ensembles. Traditionally, either Donna Elvira or Zerlina can be sung by a mezzo, and in this case Joyce DiDonato’s high mezzo is a perfect fit for Elvira’s often awkward tessitura. DiDonato’s technique is now nearly legendary (even the most bitter fans go into raptures whenever she trills), but her Elvira is much more than glorious vocalism. Aside from Pisaroni, DiDonato has the clearest idea of who her character is, and how to express that vocally – Elvira is no madwoman, but simply a passionate woman driven mad by jealousy. Her “Mi tradi” is transposed, but otherwise is a nearly perfect recording of the aria. Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina at the Met last fall was criticized for being underpowered and shrill, but with a smaller orchestra she sounds lovely, if unremarkable. Although it may not supplant Giulini or Furtwangler, it’s an exciting performance from a highly charismatic cast.

Summers – Dead Man Walking

One of the most acclaimed operas written in the past 20 years, this is the second commercial recording of Jake Heggie’s 2000 opera. To have two recordings of such a recent opera is rare, but the casting of Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen and Frederica Von Stade as Joseph’s mother fully justifies it. It’s a shame that these performances were not filmed for DVD release instead – I feel like being able to watch as well as hear this production would add to its impact. Nevertheless, it’s still a highly moving experience, almost entirely due to Joyce DiDonato’s performance as Sister Helen. DiDonato sings the role in a less overtly ‘operatic’ way than Susan Graham in the original recording, but both interpretations are equally effective. In many ways, Sister Helen is the perfect role for DiDonato, who has always emphasizes meaning rather than just singing. Phillip Cutlip is engaged and sensitive as the rather two-dimensional Joseph de Rocher, but the character is far less interesting than that of his mother, sung by Frederica Von Stade. Joseph’s mother is arguably the most conflicted character in the opera, and struggles to reconcile her love for her son with her knowledge of his crime. These were Von Stade’s final performances in a staged opera, but she is absolutely devastating in the role. Her voice is still admirably warm and rich, and Heggie has done a wonderful job tailoring the role to suit Von Stade’s voice and artistry. All of the smaller roles are luxuriously cast, with Measha Bruggergosman as Sister Rose, Susanne Mentzer as Jade Boucher, and John Packard (Joseph de Rocher in the world premiere) as Owen Hart. Patrick Summers conducted the premiere, and he gives an even more detailed but equally charged performance here.

and of course…

Joyce DiDonato – Drama Queens

I’ve been anticipating the release of this CD for months, even going as far as trying to piece together the program (see the list here: https://nonpiudifiori.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/joyce-didonatos-drama-queens-a-prediction/ I got 7 out of 13, which isn’t bad!). I absolutely lack the objectivity to provide any sort of decent review, but it’s pretty much universally agreed that it’s her best recording to date. Her voice has grown in size, richness, and range, and particularly effective are Porta’s “Madre Diletta” (with Caballe-worthy pianissimos) and Orlandini’s fantastic “Da Torbida Procella”. Dazzling singing and orchestral playing and absolutely no missteps make for an indispensable recording.

CD Review – Still Falls the Rain (Nicholas Phan et al.)

In addition to the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries, 2013 also marks the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten. Although Britten’s operas are nowhere near as popular as those of Verdi and Wagner, many have nonetheless become part of the standard repertoire. I don’t know Britten’s music very well, apart from his Violin Concerto, and I figured that there was no better time to learn than this year. As Peter Pears seems to be rather polarizing, I decided to start with Nicholas Phan’s newest Britten recording, centred around the composer’s collaborations with various artists. I started out a Britten novice, and came out a fan an hour later – surely a testament to the quality of this recording!

One thing that I’ve often heard about Britten’s music is that it can be academic and rather bloodless – on this recording, at least, that is definitely not the case. The Fifth Canticle for tenor and harp, for instance, is almost shockingly graphic. The text, by TS Eliot, is rather vague on its own, but Britten’s music makes its meaning very clear. Also on the album is his Third Canticle for piano, horn, and tenor, based on a poem by Edith Sitwell. Sitwell’s powerful poem speaks of the bombings in London during WWII, and Britten enhances the emotion by alternating the tenor stanzas with horn solos. When the tenor and horn finally come together it’s incredibly powerful, reflecting the hope of Sitwell’s poetry. It’s not a short piece, around 11 minutes, but it never drags thanks to the intense performance from Phan, pianist Myra Huang, horn player (hornist? horner?) Jennifer Montone, and above all Britten’s skill in building up the emotional tension. Originally written as a stand-alone piece, Britten later made it the centrepiece of an arrangement featuring other poetry by Sitwell. Some is set to music, although much shorter in length, and others are simply text – actor Alan Cumming provides the ultimate luxury casting for these readings. All of the poems are similar in tone and atmosphere, and as a result further heighten the emotion of the Third Canticle and forms a wonderfully coherent work.

The other major piece on the album is his late “A Birthday Hansel”, which has nothing to do with the fairy tale. Rather, it’s a song cycle accompanied by harp, based on poems by Robbie Burns. The songs are lively and direct, reminiscent of folk music, but the range of the voice and harp are fully exploited to create a dazzlingly wide range of colours and moods. The rest of the CD is composed of Britten’s folksong arrangements, accompanied by either voice or harp. To me, these were what tipped me into the Britten fandom – simple, melodic songs that I grew up with (the one British element in my otherwise westcoast upbringing) with often unexpected and always interesting harmonies. Opera singers often tend to have difficulties with folksongs – what do you do with those simple melodies? Do you go for Schubertian word painting, or do you add verismo-esque effects to add emotion? Thankfully, Phan knows better and simply performs the music. Besides, his vocal and intellectual skills speak for themselves, with his incredible diction worth singling out. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer Montone’s beautiful playing, but the recording also features harpist Sivan Magen and pianist Myra Huang. As with all good chamber musicians, you never feel that they are simply ‘following’ the voice – instead, they are musical equals and brilliant performers in their own right.

As a whole, it’s a wonderful, varied recital that was a great introduction to Britten’s vocal music. Although I have no point of reference, all of the musicians (and one actor) were excellent, and it was an unusually involving recording – not really something to listen to as background music! Apologies, by the way, for my less-than-brilliant insights into the music – I usually try to only review recordings where I know the music/style reasonably well, but I thought it would be interesting to document my thoughts on Britten throughout his centennial year. Onto those operas now…

DVD Review – La Traviata (Evans, Konwitschny)

At some point last year, I decided that I wouldn’t watch or listen to another La Traviata for a long, long time. Within a short period of time, I had seen three productions (Jonathan Miller in Vancouver, Hugo de Ana in Verona, and the cinema broadcast of Richard Eyre from London), and I was frankly tired of the opera. The story seemed trite and romanticized, and the music not much better. However, a new Peter Konwitschny production from Graz seemed interesting and had gotten phenomenal reviews from a bunch of opera fans, who, like me, seemed sick of the ‘traditional’ Traviata. When I found the DVD at a great price, I caved, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a thought-provoking production, and is certainly worth seeing.

When I first saw the DVD cover, I was not particularly impressed: Violetta in a red cocktail dress, stark sets, cruel male-dominated society, blah blah blah – didn’t seem that different to the Willy Decker production from 2005. Despite the superficial similarities, the two productions could not be more different. To me, Decker’s production casts Violetta as a myth, the product of male fantasies. Thrust into a highly visible position (her red dress against the white walls), Violetta tries desperately to enjoy herself. However, that’s not possible – her happiness is only temporary, and her society quickly banishes and replaces her. Really, Decker’s interpretation of Violetta’s fall from grace isn’t much different from a more traditional production. Konwitschny’s production, on the other hand, takes a rather more pessimistic view. His production takes place in front of a series of curtains, representing society. Violetta’s red dress has the exact same pattern – unlike Decker’s more exposed, vivacious Violetta, Konwitschny makes it clear that his more jaded Violetta is very much integrated into society. This is a society that does not accept newcomers, and the chorus mercilessly taunts the outsider Alfredo. Violetta observes this cruelty, and chooses to take Alfredo’s side. During their act 1 duet, Alfredo starts pulling back the curtain, and Violetta is tantalized by this glimpse of another world.

By act 2, she has chosen to join Alfredo’s bourgeois world. Her character has been completely desexualized, and she wears what appears to be a lumberjack outfit (it’s not as bad as it sounds). However, the backdrop is still the same curtain. After Violetta’s encounter with Germont, the meaning becomes clear: Alfredo’s society is just as misogynistic and cruel as Violetta’s. The gambling scene has seemingly infinite layers of curtains – no matter what, every society can be just as cruel. As Alfredo insults Violetta in front of the assembled guests, he pulls down the curtains and the stage is covered in a mess of bodies and cloth. After the guests (and curtains) exit the stage before the final act, Violetta is left with nothing more than a pathetic little black curtain, which she clings onto during “Addio del passato”. In the final scene, that one remaining curtain pulls back, and Violetta walks into the darkness. It’s a rather difficult production to explain, but the whole concept is detailed and intelligent. Particularly thought-provoking is the direction of the chorus – in act 1, they are crude, drunk, and clearly enjoying watching the drama unfold before them. In act 2 scene 2, the lines blur between Violetta’s society and Alfredo’s society, and by the end, Alfredo, Germont, Annina, and the doctor are no different from the rest. Germont’s arrival in act 3 is through the audience, and he never goes onstage. Alfredo and the rest join him, and they abandon Violetta through the auditorium doors as she dies. The chorus/society is deliberately unpleasant, and also somewhat sickening to watch when you realize that we, the audience, are implicated as well – after all, we have been watching and enjoying the story as well.

This performance has been much criticized for its supposed disrespect of Verdi’s score. The performance was performed without intermission, and so any music that didn’t propel the plot forward was cut. In reality, it’s not that drastic – apart from the excision of the gypsy/matador choruses, the cuts are similar to those in a standard performance 50 years ago. Second verses are cut, as is Germont’s cabaletta. While I should feel a whole lot more offended at the cuts, I honestly can’t say I minded much – the cuts are made smoothly, and I never liked those two choruses anyways. The musical values are all at a high level anyways, so you never feel like the cuts are being made in concession to the cast or orchestra.

Marlis Petersen has my preferred voice type for Violetta – in the Moffo mode, she has a full, rather dark lyric voice with enough lightness to get through act 1. She is clearly a great musician, and it’s almost as if she learned the part exclusively from the score without listening to any other recordings of the opera. As a result, her interpretation is refreshing and unique, but always stays true to Verdi’s music. She gets through act 1 quite easily, but really shines in the later acts and has a large enough voice to sing “Alfredo, di questo core” curled up in the middle of the stage in the fetal position. Her “Addio del passato” is easily the best singing in the performance, and she ends the aria with no vibrato. It’s risky, but certainly effective and doesn’t come across as an ‘effect’. She’s also an attractive woman, and more importantly, a dedicated actress. It can’t be easy to play Violetta’s loss of dignity in such a raw way, with no pretty costumes to hide behind, but she does a very convincing job both physically and vocally.

It also can’t be easy to play Alfredo in this production – instead of the charming handsome young man, he’s portrayed as socially inept and emotionally volatile. He reacts in a very childish manner most of the time, and often comes across as pathetic rather than romantic. His primary solace is in reading, and he offers Violetta a book in act 1, which she reads with fascination. It’s unclear whether Violetta is genuinely in love with Alfredo, or whether she shares his romantic ideals. However, this is in no way a criticism of Giuseppe Varano’s singing or acting. Rather, it’s a testament to his skill in both that Alfredo’s character is delineated so clearly. His tone is quite dark, almost reminiscent of Kaufmann at times, although Varano’s voice is nowhere near as loud. Consistent with Konwitschny’s idea of the character, Varano never bawls and somehow vocally conveys Alfredo’s awkwardness without losing the line.

James Rutherford is a Wagnerian bass-baritone who has Sachs, Dutchman, Barak, and Jochanaan in his repertoire. As such, his Germont is a far cry from, say, Hvorostovsky’s elegant and sleek portrayal. Again, this is consistent with Konwitschny’s interpretation of the role. Germont is portrayed as a crude, abusive man, who brings his daughter along in act 2 with the express purpose of manipulating Violetta. Rutherford’s singing is loud and authoritative as expected, but surprisingly sings “Pura siccome un angelo” with excellent legato and subtle phrasing. Vocally and physically, his character turns out to be more sympathetic than he first appears. After a round of abusing both Violetta and his daughter, he is shocked and tries to intervene when Violetta tries to shoot herself, and ends up genuinely concerned for Violetta. It’s become popular to interpret Germont as a close-minded but fundamentally kind person, but this is definitely a valid take on the role.

Conductor Tecwyn Evans leads the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a way that complements the spare sets and costumes. Everything is quite quick, and the emphasis is on moving the plot forward. There’s less rubato than usual, and none of the usual bombastic playing at “Amami Alfredo”. However, it would be unfair to categorize the playing as simply ‘efficient’ – it never feels rushed, and the appropriate amount of time is taken in the right places. The chorus sings very well indeed, given the amount of stage action they receive. Overall, the production is stark and intelligent but also very moving, and there is an uncommon unity between director, conductor, and singers. Definitely a contrast from the usual Victorian lampshade productions, and very much worth seeing. Also worth noting that the production is being presented by ENO in London next February with a great cast – see it if you can!

Joyce DiDonato’s “Drama Queens” – A Prediction

One of the most anticipated releases this year is Joyce DiDonato’s new CD, entitled ‘Drama Queens’, which will be accompanied by a tour that will take her to Carnegie Hall, Baden-Baden, and Berlin, among others. The CD release date is (I believe) October 1st, and in all my fanboy excitement, I’ve tried to piece together the program.

The Liceu website lists the composers – George Frideric Handel, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Antonio Cesti, Claudio Monteverdi, Reinhard Keiser, Johann Adolph Hasse, Giovanni Porta, Geminiano Giacomelli, Joseph Haydn and Leonardo Vinci. The San Francisco, London, and Carnegie Hall sites also mention Gluck. The Baden-Baden site lists the characters she will be portraying –  Semiramide, Armida, Berenice, Orontea, Octavia, Iphigenia and Cleopatra.

Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760) apparently wrote around 40 operas, but the most well-known are his ‘Nerone’, ‘Antigona’, ‘Arsace’, ‘Artaserse’, and ‘Griselda’. Among these, only ‘Nerone’ and ‘Griselda’ have any of the above-listed characters – Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni sang Poppea and Octavia, respectively, in ‘Nerone’, and Orontea is the daughter of the title character in ‘Griselda’. Arsace is one of the main characters in Rossini’s ‘Semiramide’, of course, but from what I can tell, Orlandini’s opera is about a different Arsace.

Antonio Cesti (1623-1669)’s most famous opera is ‘Orontea’, which will likely be in the program. This opera has been recorded by René Jacobs, with Helga Muller-Molinari, who appears to have a similar vocal range to DiDonato, in the title role. However, Cesti also wrote an opera called ‘Il Cesare Amante’, later revised and retitled ‘Cleopatra’, as well as a later opera called ‘La Semirami’.

Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) was a well-known German composer, whose most famous opera is ‘Octavia’. This opera has a famous aria called ‘Geloso Sospetto’ for mezzo-soprano, so that will likely be on the program. Keiser also wrote an opera called ‘Iphigenia’ as well as an opera about Julius Caesar, so those are possibilities as well.

Not much can be found about Giovanni Porta (1675-1755), who was a close colleague of Vivaldi. Porta’s most famous opera is ‘Numitore’. Again, I couldn’t find much, but soprano Ann Turner Robinson, the first Polisenna in Handel’s ‘Radamisto’, apparently performed in the opera. Numitor was a king of Alba Longa who was later overthrown by his brother, but Numitor’s daughter Rhea Silvia later gave birth to Remus and Romulus – promising territory for some dramatic female singing!

Geminiano Giacomelli (1692-1740) is famous for his aria “Sposa non mi conosci”, which Vivaldi later revised as “Sposa son disprezzata”. DiDonato has been singing this aria in all of her recent recitals, so it’s a pretty safe bet that it will be on the program. Confusingly enough, the aria in its original form appears not to be sung by a queen at all, but rather by a man! Giacomelli also wrote operas called ‘Semiramide riconosciuta’, ‘Cesare in Egitto’, and ‘Achille in Aulide’, which may have roles for Semiramide, Cleopatra, and Iphigenia respectively.

Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) wrote many, many operas. Among the many are ‘Farnace’ (Berenice may be a character), ‘Semiramide’, ‘Ifigenia in Tauride’, ‘Didone Abbandonata’ (the ultimate drama queen), and ‘La Semiramide riconosciuta’.

That leaves Handel, Haydn, Gluck, Hasse, and Monteverdi, with all of the characters except Armida already covered. Haydn’s Armida is the most likely, although DiDonato may very well be singing one of the arias from Gluck’s ‘Armide’ (I’d love to hear her sing “Enfin il est en ma puissance). I think she’d also be wonderful as Handel’s Armida in ‘Rinaldo’, which is probably more likely than the Gluck.

Of the Handel roles, the most obvious is Cleopatra – while the role is usually sung by a soprano, mezzos have often sang the role (particularly “Piangero”). Every program must have some popular arias, and between Handel’s Cleopatra arias and “Sposa son disprezzata”, that would be enough. However, there are so many other fascinating portrayals of Cleopatra, and I imagine that someone as musically curious as Joyce DiDonato would rather record, say, Hasse’s version. Handel’s ‘Berenice’ is a definite possibility, as well as Ifigenia in ‘Oreste’, although that seems to be a high soprano role.

In addition to his ‘Armida’, Haydn also wrote the famous ‘Scena di Berenice’ (is that even the same Berenice??). Joyce DiDonato has performed the concert aria before, so I’m not sure whether she would include it. None of his other operas would seem to fit the program. Gluck, on the other hand, offers many possibilities. In addition to ‘Armide’, there’s also ‘Iphigenie in Aulide’ and ‘Iphigenie in Tauride’. The Aulide Iphigenie is usually a lyric soprano, but the Tauride Iphigenie would be ideal. Clytemnestre in ‘Iphigenie in Aulide’, however, would sit perfectly for her voice. In addition, Gluck also wrote a ‘La Semiramide riconosciuta’ (so many versions!), but I couldn’t find any information on the range of the role.

Hasse also wrote a ‘Semiramide riconosciuta’, in addition to a serenata called ‘Antonio e Cleopatra’. I couldn’t find anything on the Semiramide opera, but ‘Antonio e Cleopatra’ has a great mezzo role. Unfortunately, that role is Antonio – Cleopatra is a high soprano. The Monteverdi selections are more obvious: what could be more fitting than Ottavia’s “Disprezzata Regina”? DiDonato has already recorded her “Addio, Roma”, but she might include that as well. None of his other operas fit the roles listed, although I’d love to hear her as Penelope or in the “Lamento d’Arianna” as well.

No matter what the program ends up being (and given how obscure some of the operas are, I couldn’t find out much anyways!), I have no doubt that the CD and concerts will be great, and this basic research has certainly piqued my interest. I can’t wait!

DVD Review – Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Thielemann, Loy)

Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten is widely considered to be a connoisseur’s opera. While the music is no more dissonant/”modern” than the more popular Salome or ElektraFrau requires 5 star singers instead of just 1 or 2, and the story is challenging for even the most creative directors. Despite this, it’s becoming more widely performed, and Opus Arte has released a DVD of the Salzburg production from last summer with an all-star cast.

Any libretto that calls for children singing out of a frying pan, flooded houses, and golden waterfalls (not to mention finding a Wagnerian soprano with no shadow) presents a challenge to the director – do you go for all-out special effects and realism, or do you simply ignore them? Christof Loy, one of my favourite directors, chooses the latter and instead bases his production on the recording process of the world premiere recording. At first, this seemed to be veering dangerously close to bad regietheater, where a director imposes his or her own story onto the music that has absolutely no relation to the story. Upon watching the video several times, however, I realized that this production is much deeper than that. Often, the Empress seems like a spoiled, selfish young woman who realizes the importance of selflessness at the very end. In this production, she becomes a much more interesting character and brings out some very interesting artistic questions. The Empress is a young soprano, very focused on her career, and the complete opposite of the Dyer’s wife. The Empress seemingly does not want to become the Dyer’s wife, who has sacrificed parts of her career for a marriage (which isn’t even going very well). However, this soprano, who seems to know nothing but her music, must record a part in which she has to emotionally connect to a woman who believes that marriage and children are the most important things for a woman to do. By the end, it’s ambivalent whether the Empress has changed – perhaps she has learned something about life from the Dyer’s wife, or perhaps she has simply learned to act better. And the audience applauds nonetheless – is there really a difference between those two? This production ends up investigating a) how an artist can connect to a character/emotion they themselves have not experienced or do not want to experience, b) finding a balance between a career and a personal life, and c) how external circumstances can/must affect art. Perhaps I’m reading far too much into it, but this production brought up a lot of artistic and social issues that I don’t think I would have gotten from a typical “fairy-tale” production. Besides, fairy tales are all metaphors anyways, so this one isn’t that far off the mark. And the best for last – Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer’s wife is amazing. Her voice may not be the most evenly produced, but she has a huge voice that she uses intelligently. She’s also a great actress, and altogether she

Onto easier topics to discuss: the singing and orchestral playing are all gorgeous. Anne Schwanewilms has often been accused of being a cold, uninvolved actress with a gorgeous voice. After having seen both this DVD and her Rosenkavalier one, I can see why people would think that, but the cold and aloof characterization is part of both productions. In fact, I find Schwanewilms to be a very talented actress – throughout this performance, she subtly changes her posture, movements, and even her style of singing to enhance the character arc Loy has developed for her. Despite a few hardened top notes, her voice is impressively even and beautiful. The Emperor, played by Stephen Gould, was also impressive in this equally demanding role. This role is perhaps comparable to Bacchus in Ariadne in terms of its high tessitura, so it was a surprise to hear such a baritonal voice in the role. However, Gould sang and acted well throughout the evening, especially at the beginning. Michaeala Schuster was a little over-the-top in terms of her acting, making the Nurse little more than an evil caricature, but her voice is undeniably large and exciting. Wolfgang Koch sings beautifully and elegantly in what can be a barky role, but a little bit at the expense of the character. And the best for last – Evelyn Herlitzius is an amazing Dyer’s Wife. It’s not a very sympathetic character, and it’s easy for the character to end up like a complete shrew. However, Herlitzius is a very good actress and has a nice voice with the appropriate laser-like quality for projection. In the end, Barak and his wife become a very real couple, unlike the Emperor and his wife, and are the emotional centre of the production.

This opera is also known for having a rich and thick orchestration, but Thielemann never lets the orchestra completely cover the singers. He still manages to bring out the variations and colours in the score, and there is finer orchestral detail in this recording than many studio recordings. I personally love Strauss’ orchestrations, and so it’s nice to have such detail in good sound. Even though this is an opera I first discovered a few years ago, this is certainly the finest DVD, and one of the finest recordings, of the opera I’ve encountered.