Nelson’s Les Troyens

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I love this opera, though I’ve never actually seen it staged. The first time I heard it live was in two halves at a couple of Proms concerts in 1982. It was conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and starred Jessye Norman as Didon, Felicity Palmer as Cassandre and Richard Cassilly as Enée. I didn’t know the opera as well then as I do now, but I remember even then I loved it. People often moan that it is too long, hence why it is often split into two parts, but it’s no longer than some of Wagner’s operas (and shorter than one or two). Subsequently I heard it twice at the Barbican under Sir Colin Davis, for whom Berlioz was something of a lifelong passion. Indeed without him it is quite possible that Berlioz would still be underappreciated today. I’ve also long enjoyed both Davis’s first pioneering recording for Philips, with Josephine Veasey and Jon Vickers, which was based on performances at Covent Garden, as well as his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at concerts at the Barbican, with Ben Heppner, Petra Lang and Michelle DeYoung.

It is a magnificent score, Berlioz’s greatest achievement, and it is a terrible shame he never got to hear it performed in its entirety. According to the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns, it is

an opera of visionary beauty and splendour, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention… it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world.

As always with Berlioz, the orchestration is superb and he writes brilliantly for major and minor characters alike, one of the most haunting moments in the score being given to the young sailor Hylas, as he laments for his homeland at the beginning of Act V.

This recent set has garnered some great reviews, so I was keen to hear how it measured up to the Davis recordings. From an orchestral point of view it is certainly very fine, but the singers are all a little light of voice for my taste. I heard Michael Spyres singing Berlioz’s Faust at the Proms not so long ago, and I found him a wonderfully musical and intelligent singer. I wonder though whether his voice might be a tad too small for Aeneas. There were times at the Proms that I thought his lyrical voice a little too small even for Faust. Maybe I’ve become too used to more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner, but the role of Enée was in the repertoire of the great Georges Thill, who also had a rather more beefy voice than Spyres. Lemieux is also a light voiced Cassandre, though she’s a great improvement on Lindholm, who is on the first Davis recording. I wouldn’t prefer her to Lang on the second Davis recording, nor Deborah Voigt, who sings Cassandre on the less successful Dutoit recording and also on a live Met recording, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon.

DiDonato is probably the most successful of the soloists. Some find her vibrato distracting, though it doesn’t bother me unduly, and she is thoroughly inside the role. However she doesn’t evince the sort of innigkeit you find in Janet Baker, who can be heard in incomparable versions of the final scenes conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and also in a couple of live performances under Davis, nor of Hunt Lieberson, who can be heard in the live Met performance under Levine, mentioned above. That said, I don’t know of anyone else around today who could sing it better.

Nor do I wish to be too picky about a recording that is a considerable achievement for all concerned. It gets a cautious thumbs up from me; certainly the best since Davis I and II, with my preference still being for Davis I.

Joyce DiDonato – Stella di Napoli

 

Joyce DiDonato gives us here a collection of largely little known bel canto arias, some by composers such as Pacini, Mercadante, Valentini and Carafa who are hardly household names. It doesn’t get off to the best of starts as the heroine of Pacini’s Stella di Napoli sings a jolly little ditty, in which the heroine berates her lover for not being there to hear her dying breath. It is the sort of aria that gives bel canto opera a bad name and is exactly the thing Gilbert and Sullivan took such delight in parodying.

Happily we are on much stronger ground with the next item, a lovely elegiac piece from Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, and thereafter things greatly improve, though it is safe to say the best items are those by the more well-known triumvirate of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, even if the final item, a fourteen minute excerpt from Pacini’s Saffo does much to exonerate him.

DiDonato’s singing is supremly accomplished with a mastery of coloratura, scales, trills and legato which is second to none. Added to her technical accomplishments, she has a wonderful grasp of the dramatic situations presented and there is no doubt that she is pre-eminent in the field today. If I were nit-picking, I would say that her singing doesn’t quite have the sheer personality of some of her predecessors in this music, and the preghiera from Maria Stuarda doesn’t quite erase memories of Montserrat Caballé or Janet Baker in the same piece. But, that would be unfair and we should be grateful for what we have, which is a great deal; a singer at the height of her powers with a beautiful voice, technically proficient, put at the service of the music.

She is excellently supported by the Orchestre ey Choer de l’Opéra de Lyon under Riccardo Minasi and the disc comes with notes, texts and translations, though a little more information about the dramatic situations would have been welcome. Warmly recommended.

Amor e gelosia – Handel Operatic Duets

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Looking through my collection I note that the majority of fairly recent recital acquisitions seem to be mostly of music of Handel and the baroque. I’m not sure whether this has more to do with a change in my taste, the general change in taste or the dearth of decent singers of Verdi, Wagner and nineteenth century muisc in general. Whatever the reason, I think it’s safe to say there are far more excellent Handel singers around these days than there used to and the performers on this disc are certainly fine examples.

Handel’s operatic duets are rare delights, usually either expressing sadness at lovers’ parting or delight in reunion, and there is a good cross-section of both types in this recital. That said, I am not a Handel specialist and I personally find less variety here than I would in a programme of duets from the bel canto period or Verdi. The programme is drawn from well-known works, such as Rinaldo, Serse and Rodelinda, as well as lesser known works like Silla and Teseo, with no less than five excerpts (including the Act III Sinfonia) from Poro, and certainly no fault can be found with the performances.

We hear two very fine voices in prime condition, DiDonato’s darker, straighter mezzo contrasting and blending nicely with Ciofi’s bright, clear soprano. Both are expressive artists with a fine legato and superb technical proficiency in the florid music. They also repond well to the dramatic elements in the music, and are superbly supported by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco. The disc can be recommended unreseverdly to all lovers of Handel and the baroque, even if on this occasion, and I realise this has no relevance to the present disc, I found myself wishing I was listening to, say, Caballé and Verrett in their disc of Romantic opera duets. Maybe my tastes haven’t changed that much.