biografieën

A few words about Mara Zampieri, one of the greatest soprano’s of the last thirty years of the 20th century

© Tamino autographs

IL GIURAMENTO


Some forty years ago, I paid a real fortune for those two badly copied cassette tapes of Saverio Mercadante’s Il Giuramento, recorded live in Vienna on September 9, 1979. And now that the Austrian broadcaster ORF is digging up one after the other live recorded opera from their archives and transferring them to CDs, this splendid opera also came on the market – for little money and in an excellent sound quality (Orfeo C 6800621).

Il Giuramento is, just like La Gioconda, based on Victor Hugo’s play ‘Angelo, Tyrant de Padoue’, but there is a world of difference between the two works. La Gioconda is a very passionate, at times overwhelming, opera and contains a selection of (over)famous arias. Think of ‘Suicidio’ or ‘Cielo e mare’. Il Giuramento is smaller and more intimate. Think of Bellini with a touch of early Verdi.

The whole opera is really nothing but a succession of the most beautiful melodies, which force you to listen without even wanting to sing along. Or it must be ‘Compita è ormai la giusta e terribil vendetta’, a beautiful aria sung with much melancholy and elan by Domingo.



Domingo rehearsed the role, which was completely new to him, in four days (!) and stepped in – after only one rehearsal – for the sick Peter Dvorsky. Who else would be capable of pulling this off?

Mara Zampieri, unlike many of her contemporary colleagues, had a very individual sound that you may or may not like, but you cannot not possibly confuse her with anyone else. Her silver-coloured, sensuous soprano blends in beautifully with the golden velvet of Agnes Baltsa (then still without the ugly register break that marred her later performances so much) and in ‘Oh! Qual nome pronunziaste’ their voices melt together into a wonderful unity that is so beautiful it hurts.


ATTILA



There are those performances where everything is just in perfect harmony and you get the feeling that it could not be any better. People keep talking about them and they become legends.

Verdi’s Attila was such a performance, at the Vienna State Opera on 21 December 1980. It was Giuseppe Sinopoli’s debut in the house, his name was still virtually unknown, but the initial reluctance of the audience turned into frenzied enthusiasm from the very first bars. Verdi’s score – not the strongest – has never been heard before with such warmth, fervour and tenderness.

Nicolai Ghiaurov was a great Attila. With his sonorous bass, he gave the character not only the allure of a general but also the gentleness of a loving man.

In her role as Odabella, Mara Zampieri proved that she is not only a fantastic singer with a radiant height and a dramatic attack, but also a great actress.

The stretta ‘E gettata la mia sorte’ in the second act requires the baritone to sing the high b flat. Piero Cappuccilli hit it with ease and suppleness, and then was forced to encore by the frenzied audience, something one seldom experiences in opera. A rare occurrence.



Met Plácido Domingo in La Fanciulla del West

Mara Zampieri sings verismo

And try to find this one, You can’t live without this recording, believe me!
Just  few examples



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3H_xnGJemW8

Plácido Domingo in his lesser-known recordings

Isaac Albéniz Merlin

The present recording offers a great opportunity for a musical game. The composer came from Spain, the orchestral sound is Wagnerian and the sung text is in (Old) English: who, oh who?

Isaac Albéniz (because this is about him) lived for quite some time in London where he befriended Lord Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, a wealthy banker with great ambitions and literary aspirations. His greatest dream was creation of an English counterpart to the Ring of the Nibelungen, and the story of King Arthur lent itself perfectly to that.

Albéniz received all possible support from the librettist/commissioner and in 1897 Merlin was created, which should have been the first part of the trilogy. The opera was never performed in its entirety and the score lay scattered between Madrid and London. That it was found and restored is thanks to conductor José De Eusebio, who, bolstered by a star-studded cast, was also allowed to record it for Decca.

The truly great cast is led by Plácido Domingo at his best as Arthur. As Merlin, we hear Carlos Álvarez: a dream of a baritone, warm, round and blessed with an almost old-fashioned morbidezza

https://open.spotify.com/album/40MeVLGOC3RuN7hwsQd441?si=aNCEPU5NQKuZan3eGiAJXQ

Beethoven Fidelio

If you want thunder and lightning in your Fidelio: choose for Daniel Barenboim’s

recording. Here, not only is the orchestra (Staatskapelle Berlin) of almost Wagnerian proportions, so are the singers: Waltraud Meier (Leonore), Plácido Domingo (Florestan), Falk Struckman (Don Pizarrro), René Pape (Rocco), Kwangchul Youn (Don Fernando).


On the other hand the roles of Jaquino (Werner Güra) and Marzelline (Soile Isokoski) are wonderfully lyrical (although more heavily cast than usual). The tempi are solid but never punishing, and Barenboim conducts with verve.

Bretón La Dolores

I know Tomas Bretón as one of the best zarzuela composers and his La Verbena de la Paloma regularly ends up in my CD player. From La Dolores, I knew – until not so long ago – only one aria and a single duet, as those belong to my Domingo collection.

Plácido Domingo sings ‘Jota’ from La Dolores:



This CD was a very exciting and very pleasant first encounter with the complete work and I sat up straight at the very first notes. The beautiful colours that the orchestra here displayed could only be the work of an important maestro.

The prelude strongly reminded me of Cavalleria Rusticana, which was only reinforced by the choral part that followed. But just when I thought I had heard it all before (besides the already mentioned ‘Cavalleria’, I also thought I recognised ‘Carmen’), it took a totally different turn.

Yes, it is unmistakably Spanish and often I was also reminded of El Gato Montés by Manuel Penella Moreno, especially in the brilliant scenes preceding the bullfight. But what most surprised me: why was La Dolores not recorded earlier? The first performance in 1895 was a huge success and the opera was even filmed.

Manuel Lanza (no relation) has a beautiful baritone voice that reminded me strongly of Carlos Álvarez.

Tito Beltrán has recorded a few solo CDs since 1993, when he won the Cardiff Competition, and it felt good to hear him in a complete opera recording.

And Plácido Domingo is, as (almost) always, superior.

Alberto Ginastera



The music of Alberto Ginastera, arguably the most important Argentine composer, is still terra incognita for most of us. Warner Classics has collected several of his vocal works on a new CD, with shining contributions from Plácido Domingo and Virginia Tola.
The scenes from ‘Don Rodrigo’ are no less than a gift, but: why only these two scenes? There is still no official recording of the opera, which is best described – in terms of musical structure – as the Argentine Wozzeck.

Plácido Domingo already sang the lead role at the opera’s US premiere in 1966 (!), at the New York City Opera. It is hard to compare his voice then and now, but his great aria “Señor del Perdón”, still rings as clear as a bell.

Domingo sings”Señor del Perdón”, recording from 22 February 1966:



In 1966, the role of Rodrigo’s beloved Florinda was sung by Jeannine Crader, an American soprano who was also the first to record Ginestera’s cantata Milena.

In the new recording, Domingo is joined by the brilliant Argentine soprano Virginia Tola. Her voice is childlike naïve and dramatic at the same time. Her last words after Rodrigo’s death will continue to haunt you.




Händel Tamerlano




A production directed by Graham Vick and conducted by Paul McCreesh was recorded at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2008 (Opus Arte OA Bd7022 D). The cast was undoubtedly good, with Sara Mingardo leading the way as an outstanding Andronico.

Plácido Domingo (Bajazet) was making his debut in a baroque opera, but even he, my great idol, could not prevent me from falling asleep all the time. At his ‘Figlia mia non pianger’, I woke up and was momentarily moved, but that was it.

Much of the boredom is undoubtedly down to the director. Vick’s production is bare, bleak and (I assume?) aesthetically pleasing.


Below, Domingo in ‘Figlia mia non pianger’

Mare Nostrum: Plácido Domingo honours the Mediterranean Sea


Plácido Domingo recorded this CD in 2016. The ‘Mar’ in this case is the Mediterranean Sea. The singer who never takes a break, as Domingo is widely known, has collected songs from numerous Mediterranean countries. A surprising selection…

The Romans called the Mediterranean Sea ‘Mare Nostrum’, our sea. And that is true: the sea belongs to all of us. Domingo states on the album: “I bow before your grandeur. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of having been born in Spain, the land that is always caressed by your waters. I honour you in the only way I can: by singing your songs.”

The countries that surround the sea are all different and you can hear that in their songs. Domingo’s choice is surprising. Besides the not very exciting ‘Torna a Surriento’ and ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ (both in a new arrangement by Robert Sadin), he sings, among others, the Spanish classic ‘Del Cabello Más Sutil’ by Fernando Obradors, one of the most beautiful songs ever.

Very exciting and surprising are the Corsican polyphonic ‘Anghjulina’, sung with Barbara Fortuna and ‘Potho Reposare’, a beautiful love song from Sardinia.

I am less happy with ‘Aranjuez’, which in my opinion has already been completely milked dry, although the arrangement here is very refreshing. In its place I would have liked to hear something from Greece, because the traditional Cypriot song ‘To Yasemi’ certainly tastes like more.

There are more things of beauty on the CD. ‘Adio Kerida’ for example, sung in Ladino, one of the best known songs of the Spanish Jews.

Or the Israeli ‘Layla Layla’ by poet Natan Alterman, sung in perfect Ivrit. Or ‘Lamma Bada Yatathana’, a ‘muwashshah’ from Arab Andalusia, from the 12th century, with a typical North African rhythm (samai thaqil).

Trailer:






Mozart Idomeneo



In 1996, Deutsche Grammophon (4477372) recorded the opera conducted by Maestro James Levine with just about the Metropolitan Opera’s biggest stars of the time. No idea if it is idiomatic, but I find it HUGE!

Levine’s muscular conducting brings out hidden treasures and in no other performance can you hear how progressive the music is! The tempi are obviously brisk, but nowhere rushed, and most of the voices are overwhelming.

Plácido Domingo’s Idomeneo is exactly what we expect from him: with his beautiful, warm tenor, his regal recitation and his commitment, he makes Idomeneo a very emotional and mostly very humane king.

Rossini Barbiere di Sevilglia



In 1992, Deutsche Grammophon (4357632) presented a very special recording of the work: in fact, the role of Figaro was sung by none other than Plácido Domingo.

He does it very convincingly, proving that he has not only a beautiful voice but also a comical talent.



Arias by Verdi, but now as a baritone



The Domingo phenomenon …. No, I am not going to bombard you with facts and trivia, all of which you will have known for a long time because the press can’t get enough of them.

It so happens that, besides being a real fan, I am also a critical listener and I do my best not to let my ratio and my anima get in each other’s way. Whether I succeed is up to you, my reader, to judge.

Shaking my head, I read what some of my colleagues write about Domingo. He is blamed for singing baritone roles when he is not a real baritone. No, he is not (do I hear anything about Ramon Vinay?), but what bothers me most is that those are the same critics who have never even considered Domingo to be a real tenor. Everything, and certainly a human voice is mostly a matter of taste. But how you construct your criticism (or not) is more than that, it’s also about decency.
And now back to what this is all about: CD of baritone-Verdi arias by tenor/baritone Plácido Domingo.

Domingo has a Verdi curriculum to match, so he had already sung live in most of Verdi’s operas. But there is more, as he has also recorded all his major tenor arias.

It is a bit of an unreal experience to hear him now; singing his former rivals or the fathers in the same operas. His advantage: he knows the operas inside out. Your advantage as a listener: a totally different approach to those roles than you are used to. He understands the other side too!

That his Simon Boccanegra makes the most impression is not surprising: he has had that role in his repertoire for a few years now and has performed it all over the world (no, not in the Netherlands, somehow the Netherlands no longer count as part of “the world”).

Domingo sings ‘Plebe! Patrizi’ from Simon Boccanegra (Met 2010):



‘Ecco la spada’ is of such intensity that it renders me breathless. In this, he is assisted by (among others) Angel Joy Blue, a soprano who also partnered him at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam. We are going to hear more from that lady.

His father Germont (La Traviata) and Rigoletto also betray a his powerful experience of the stage: in ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ he sounds no less than heartbreaking.
He has also made Luna (Il Trovatore) his own by now. ‘Il balen’ already sounds impressive, but in ‘Qual suono’, with the more than excellent contribution of the Valencia choir, he lets himself go all the way and the result is stunning.

The Orquesta de la Comunitat Valenciana conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado sounds very competent and it gives the star all the space he needs to shine, which he amply does.
The making of:

Bonus

Plácido Domingo in “The Enchanted Island” (2011): “Who dares to call me? – Gone forever”


One more bonus:

Entartete Music and Berthold Goldschmidt

Korngold, Braunfels, Goldschmidt, Zemlinsky, Ullmann, Schreker, Schoenberg, Toch, Weill, Krenek, Spoliansky, Holländer, Grosz, Waxman, Haas, Krasa, Schulhoff, Klein… a litany of names. Labelled “entartet” and banned by the Nazis, vilified, driven away, murdered. The composers who survived the war were forgotten, just like those who were murdered. Has this all really been the fault of the Nazis?

Today I want to tell you more about Berthold Goldschmidt, as it is his 120-th Birthday.
Goldschmidt was born in Hamburg in 1903.  He studied philosophy and art history, as well as composition (with Schreker) and conducting.  He served as Erich Kleiber’s assistant for the premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925. His musical career began in earnest during the heyday of the Weimar Republic.

In 1925, Goldschmidt achieved his first major success with his Passacaglia which earned him the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize. Hailed as one of the brightest hopes of a generation of young composers, Goldschmidt reached the premature climax of his career with the premiere of his opera Der gewaltige Hahnrei in Mannheim in 1932.

And then…. And then the Nazi’s came to power and he became “Entartet. In 1935 Berthold Goldschmidt left Germany and travelled to London. During World War II, Goldschmidt worked for the BBC and served as the Music Director of its German Service in 1944-47. While taking jobs in conducting, Against his better judgement he kept composing, but his works remained unperformed. In 1951 Goldschmidt won an opera composition contest with Beatrice Cenci, which had to wait until 1988 for its first concert performance.

In the 1980s, stimulated by the renewed interest in his work, Goldschmidt started to compose again. His Rondeau from 1995, written for and performed by Chantal Juilliet,  was recorded by Decca, together with his beautiful Ciaccona Sinfonica from 1936. This CD has been out of print for years now, and the composer’s works have all but disappeared from the concert platform.



An absolute must is the DVD entitled ‘Verbotene Klange. Komponisten in Exil’ (Capriccio 93506). It is a documentary on German and Austrian composers who, as the commentator puts it, “instead of being revered, were despised”. And who, thanks to emigration, survived. With interviews with, among others, Ernst Krenek and Berthold Goldschmidt: the latter we meet at the very first recording (after 50 years!) of his string quartets. And the almost centenarian Krenek says something that could be called typical for that generation: “I am caught between continents. In America I don’t really feel ‘heimisch’, but I would never consider going back to Europe. There is no home for me anywhere. Not anymore.

Music by Goldschmidt on Spotify:

For soprano Corinne Winters 2022 was a stellar year

Text: Peter Franken

A recording of Halka from the Theater an der Wien was released on DVD in January 2022. In the title role American soprano Corinne Winters, who had been steadily gaining fame in Europe in previous years. The recording dated from 2019 and Winters’ career had been at a low ebb since then as a result of the Covid epidemic. But 2022 was going to be a great year for her.  For those not yet really familiar with Corinne Winters, now first a retrospective.



Born in 1983, she first performed in a professional production in ….. 2011. That was a late career start and this fill-in for a pregnant Mélisande in St.Louis turned out to be the starting point for a real catch-up. Winters was advised to audition for ENO and in 2013 she sang Violetta there in Konwitschny’s production of La traviata. There seem to have been quite a few casting directors and intendants in the premiere audience, including reportedly Sophie de Lint. Be that as it may, her performance attracted strong attention. Bachtrack wrote about it: ‘Corinne Winters was an outstanding Violetta, who proved capable of controlling the various aspects of vocal technique demanded by Verdi’s operatic tour de force.’ And on the Planet Hugill blog we read: ‘Winters is a lyric soprano, but one with the resources to not only sing La traviata without an interval but to take her through Act 3 with flying colours. She did everything asked of her and more, and was simply mesmerising. She has quite a bright voice, without excessive vibrato so that it was a beautifully clean expressive performance. I do hope that we hear her again soon in the UK.’



Winters with Michael Spyers in Benvenuto Cellinii in the ENO

The wait didn’t last too long: in 2014 Winters sang in that madcap production Terry Gilliam made of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Bachtrack: ‘Corinne Winters, returning to the Coliseum after her spectacular debut as Violetta last season, wowed us once again as Teresa. Her Act I aria “Hearts full of love” was wonderfully sung, but the cabaletta which followed treated us to a cascade of coloratura, glittering with diamonds. Winters displayed bags of personality, including a knack for comedy.’

Interest in Winters was piqued among European casting directors and engagements at Opera Vlaanderen followed as Donna Anna and Desdemona, and then also the role she had already performed in America: Mélisande. A recording of that performance in Zurich has been released on DVD. Soon after, she made her debut at the Royal Opera House as a brilliant Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte, also released on DVD. From then on, she has definitely managed to add Europe and the very best opera houses to her field of activity.

Of course, there were also performances in the United States, including, in 2017, her role debut in Seattle as Katia in Janáček’s Katia Kabanova, which would become her signature role. A review said: ‘Maryland soprano Corinne Winters was vocally secure and dramatically intense, in the challenging role of Katya. Winters conveyed the soul-searing turmoil of a woman with deeply-held religious belief that extra-marital sexual thoughtsare mortal sins, yet who accedes to a liaison with Boris while her husband is away.’ ‘

© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

My first meeting with Corinne Winters dates from 2019 when I saw her as Rachel in Halevy’s La Juive. It was a production by Konwitschny which I saw in Gent. I wrote about it:  ‘In the big scene with her rival Eudoxie, Rachel sings from the auditorium. This creates a literal rift between the two. Soprano Corinne Winters used the parterre row 6 and was immediately in front of me. She had a very big voice, never forced herself and was always in control, with her wonderful timbre and no trace of any vibrato. In the revealing scene her acting was also very strong, she was truly convincing the audience of her disbelieve and I got the impression that she was on the verge of berating Léopold in a very ranting Italian.’

La Juive:



Shortly afterwards came Halka and what immediately stands out in that production is her great range. She initially ‘was’ a mezzo and decided to make the transition to the soprano profession. But this has not come at the expense of the low register. Most of the time, as Halka, she is just a real mezzo who can also handle the heights effortlessly. And, what I find so important: she can sing very softly in all registers

I have never heard and seen her as Butterfly but I can hardly imagine her Cio-Cio-San cutting through the soul even more than Halka does. It is the most moving performance I know of her to date.


Meanwhile, we are back in that stellar year 2022 when I got to experience Corinne Winters as Giorgetta and Suor Angelica. This was a production of Il trittico at La Monnaie Brussels. Due to the Covid epidemic the premiere was sung by a colleague but fortunately I was in the audience for the last performance and she totally lived up to my expectations.


Those Puccini heroines were all role debuts and right after followed another: Jenufa in the opera of the same name. This was a production by Tatjana Gürbaca in Geneva, where Winters would return later in the year for Gürbaca’s Katia Kabanova. That it would become her signature role has been proven by now, especially after her debut as Katia at the Salzburg Festival where she was so very successful. We will surely see her there more often in the future, be it not in 202

Kat’a Kabanóva:

Jenufa:

:



The year ended with Les dialogues des Carmélites in Rome. She sang Blanche de la Force there in a production by Emma Dante, and with great success. Jenufa is scheduled for januari 2023 in Valencia but since she was already there she had to jump in last minute as Mimi in La Bohème at the end of December ’22. This lady is a real jack of all trades and although Katia has become her calling card, I hope that in the future she will give us many more performances of all the other roles in her repertoire: Yolanthe, Tatjana, Fiordiligi, Desdemona and so on.

Les dialogues des Carmélites;



When asked, she was able to tell on her fanpage that a DVD of Katia in Salzburg will probably be released in due course: ‘stay tuned’. That is something to look forward to and in the meantime, of course, there are those recordings with her Mélisande, Fiordiligi and Halka. Corinne Winters has made it all the way and that is worth some heartfelt congratulations.

Mado Robin: the eighth world wonder?

The French coloratura soprano, born on 29 December 1918 in Yzeures=sur-Creuse  could actually be considered the eighth world wonder.
Her voice was of the soubrette type with a very pleasant girlish timbre and her coloratura technique more than sublime, but there was more: her high notes were extremely high. With her voice she not only reached the F4, but even had the C4 within her reach without any problems, one of the highest notes ever sung by a human voice

.

All her high notes in a row, with the description:

She was star of television and radio in the 1950s the fifties,  was a very celebrated radio and TV star in France, but her fame reached far beyond her national borders. She celebrated her greatest triumphs as Lakmé and Leïla (Pearl Fishers), but her Lucia and Olympia were also proverbial.

Mado Robin hits C7 Lucia di Lammermoor:

Gounod’s Mireille is not really a role we would expect from her, but it fits wonderfully well with her childishly naive timbre. I enjoyed these fragments the most, much more than her Lucia and Bellinis.

Kind of Top Ten 2022

First of all, my apologies: this year I have hardly posted any new reviews. This was for personal reasons

 I was forced to limit myself to translations but  I did a lot of portraits of singers who deserved to be featured again.

Renata Scotto had her birthday on 24 February


Renata Scotto, ‘la mia Divina Assoluta’ made her opera debut at the age of eighteen as Violetta (La Traviata). Her ‘official’ debut was the next day in Milan. Shortly afterwards, she sang Madama Butterfly in Savona.

Geraldine Farrar 28 February

In 1915, Cecil B. DeMille filmed the opera again, this time with Geraldine Farrar as the man-eating gypsy. Now, Farrar was not only one of the greatest sopranos and MET legends of the early 20th century, her beautiful appearance and excessive acting talent also enabled her to build a career as a Hollywood actress.

Beverly Sills was born on 25 May

Beverly Sills was born in Brooklyn as Belle Miriam Silverman. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa and Bucharest. As a child, she spoke Yiddish, Russian, Romanian, French and English. Although she had an enormous repertoire, that ranged from Handel and Mozart to Puccini, Massenet and Verdi, she was best known for her interpretations of coloratura soprano roles. Her radiant high D’s and E-flats sounded seemingly effortless and natural.

José Carreras became  76 at 5th December

About just few of his many roles

Sara Scuderi was born 11 December

Scuderi sang in the most important theatres of the day, both in Italy and abroad, most notably in the Netherlands! She had a contract at La Scala where she received high praise for her interpretations of the most well-known operas.

Rita Streich 18 december

High coloratura soprano is one of the most admired voice types. It’s only logical, because what these ladies do falls a bit into the category of “nightingale on a trapeze”.

And November 22th it was  it was  five years that Dmitri Hvorostovsky died, only 60 years old

But, but…. I made an article about King David and music

King David…. One of the Bible’s most inspiring and appealing personalities. But did he really exist? We live in a time when all sorts of things are being doubted, and that is alright.

And in Dutch

A few words about Sara Scuderi on her birthday


Sara Scuderi was born on December 11, 1906. She sang widely in Italy and Europe, most notably in the Netherlands! She had a contract at La Scala where she received high praise for her interpretations of the most well-known operas.

Scuderi, who was Jewish, was born in Catania/ She made a debut there as Leonora “Il Trovatore’. She sang in the most theatres worldwide and her interpretations of Tosca will are particularly celebrated, with the 1937 production at the Terme de Caracallea a, with Beniamino Gigli and Luigi Montesanto being among the best known. Additionally, she premiered the operas Il volto della Vergine (Ezio Camussi) and Giulio Cesare (Malipiero).

She retired from the stage at the end of the 1940s. For the latter part of her life, she lived at the Casa di Riposo per Musicti, the world’s first nursing home for retired opera singers, founded by Giuesppe Verdi. Film director Daniel Schmid used Scuderi as a central character in his capture of the essence of the retirement home for these former glories in his Il Baccio de Tosca, in 1984. Scuderi died three years later, in 1987. (Wikipedia)

As you porbably all know I am a great Tosca admirer. Thehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vx4S1cjWEhUre are thousands of ‘Toscas’ on the market. I will certainly not discuss them, too much, too many really good ones. Go and listen to Rosa Ponselle, Rosa Raisa, Mafalda Favero, Maria Caniglia, Magda Olivero, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, Eleanor Steber, Leyla Gencer, Leontyne Price, Montserrat Cabbalè, Renata Scotto, Raina Kabaivanska, Régine Crespin … They are all excellent, each in their own way, as it should be with a real diva. But – for me – no one beats Sara Scuderi:

Eight lesser-known operas by Donizetti

Portrait of the composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Found in the Collection of Museo Teatrale alla Scala. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


75 operas he wrote, the bel canto giant from Bergamo. Seventy-five! Add to that, I quote: 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 28 cantatas and some solo concertos, sonatas and chamber music. And how much of all that beauty do we hear these days? An average music lover gets no further than Lucia di Lamermoor, L’Elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale… Perhaps the Tudor triptych (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux). And, oh yes, La Fille du Regiment, because of all those high Cs in a row.



PIA DE’ TOLOMEI


Set against the backdrop of a war between Florence and Siena, this story by Salvatore Cammarano, author of Maria di Rudenz and Il Trovatore, among others, about a castle lord’s wife unjustly accused of adultery, has been provided by Donizetti with the most beautiful arias and duets.
The cast, with a truly peerless Majella Cullagh as Pia and Manuela Custer as her brother Rodrigo, is, as always at Opera Rara, truly sublime (ORC 30).


ROSMONDA D’INGHILTERRA


The story is set in twelfth-century England. King Henry II is married to Leonora of Aquitaine, but also keeps a mistress. This mistress (Rosmonda) is locked in a tower, and the page Arturo, who is supposed to look after her, has fallen in love with her himself. A – delightful, that is – dragon of a story, but the music is divinely beautiful: lyrical passages alternate with fierce ensembles.

Renée Fleming is the sweet-voiced Rosmonda, and Nelly Miricioiu the embittered Queen Leonora. Both ladies meet in the final scene, resulting in one of the most thrilling duets. (ORC 13)



PARISINA

Reuse… No one used to be averse to that, including Donizetti. Especially when the premiere was imminent and the libretto was long overdue. For Parisina he borrowed some of his own music, and for convenience he ‘cut and pasted’ the (brilliant, by the way) overture he had already composed earlier for Ugo, Conte di Parigi. Despite the tight composition time (it took Donizetti no more than a few weeks), the opera was very enthusiastically received and remained regularly on the repertoire, including abroad. Rightly so. Felice Romani was a truly gifted poet, and with Parisina he delivered one of his finest librettos. It has everything in it: love, murder, sacrifice, deceit … And with Donizetti’s beautiful cantilenes added, one cannot help but sniffle and enjoy.

Parisina has been married off against her will to an old man, Azzo. For years she has been in love (reciprocally, though platonically) with Ugo, who, it later turns out, is the son of Azzo and his first wife, who had been murdered by him out of jealousy. Parisina betrays her feelings while sleeping (can you remember Cassio’s dream in Verdi’s Otello?), Ugo is killed and she dies of grief.

Carmen Giannattasio, José Bros and Dario Solari sing their roles very creditably. An essential CD for a Donizetti (and not only) collector

LES MARTYRS

Les Martyrs started its life as Poliuto. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille from 1642 which was impregnated by the vision of its author that free will is a deciding factor in life.

Because of the choice of the topic – the life and martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus – the censor had Poliuto banned, and opening night was cancelled. It was forbidden to show the persecution of Christians on stage in Naples at the time.

After Donizetti arrived in Paris he commissioned a new libretto from Scribe and rewrote and expanded the overture and composed several new arias for the title character.

He also changed the first act finale and added the required ballet music. He then considerably toned down the romantic entanglements and stressed the religious aspects even more.

In his big aria at the end of the second act Poliuto complains about the supposed disloyalty of his wife and speaks about the jealousy that torments him. His “Let me die in peace, I do not want anything to do with you, you have been unfaithful to me” from Polyeucte has been changed to the credo (now at the end of the third act): “I believe in God, the almighty father, creator of heaven and earth….”

Despite its early successes Les Martyrs failed to hold the stage. Instead Poliuto made it’s return, albeit on few occasions. After 1920 the opera was performed only sporadically (a remarkable fact: in 1942 Poliuto was performed on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to Mussolini, the title role sung by Benjamino Gigli).

Thanks to Callas, who rediscovered the opera in 1960,  a short revival came about. Her live recording from La Scala with Franco Corelli left me cold. The reason for that I only understood later when I heard the live recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. In an opera with vulnerability as its main theme big dramatic voices sound out of place.

In October 2016 Opera Rara recorded Les Martyrs in the studio, followed by a concert performance in November.

Joyce El-Khoury, clearly following in the footsteps of Leyla Gencer, is the perfect Pauline: dreamy, loving and fighting like a lioness (nomen est omen) for the life of her husband who turned into a Christian. A husband she does not even love. Only because she believed her former fiancé was dead she has agreed to be married off to her father’s protégé. a

In “Qu’ici ta main glacée” she sounds very vulnerable,  moving me to tears (her pianissimi!). “Dieux immortels, témoins de mes justes alarmes,” her confrontation scene with Sévère, her lover she believes to be dead (a very impressive David Kempster) is simply heartbreaking.

Joyce El-Khoury: becoming Pauline:

Michael Spyres is a very heroic Polyeucte. In “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples” he sings a fully voiced, perfect high “E.”

The orchestra under Sir Mark Elder is on fire. The three ballet scenes halfway though the second act lighten up the mood a little, however briefly.

Much praise as well for the perfect singing of the Opera Rara Chorus (chorus master Stephen Harris).
Opera Rara ORC52



LE DUC D’ALBE

The story in short: Duke Alva, King Philip’s bloody emissary, rules Flanders with an iron hand. He has the Count of Egmond beheaded, and Hélène, Egmond’s daughter, swears revenge. Her lover Henri de Bruges turns out to be really Alva’s son, and when Hélène wants to kill the tyrant, he intervenes. Henri dead, Hélène bewildered and Alva leaving for Lisbon desperate with grief. End of opera. If the libretto seems somewhat familiar to you, you are correct. Verdi also used it inhis Les vêpres siciliennes.

Donizetti composed the opera in 1839 for Paris, but the work remained unfinished. Already a few years after the composer’s death, attempts were made to complete the opera: the Italian translation of the libretto was taken as a starting point. Here and there performances were given, but the opera never became really popular. Too bad really, because this work paved the way to Verdi and his Don Carlo.

With this recording, Opera Rara (Opera Rara ORC54) limits itself to the unfinished original, so the story ends with the arrest of Henri. The rest is left to the imagination.

With Laurent Naouri, the role of Alva is more than perfectly cast. His baritone sounds authoritarian and at times terrifying. But also imploring. You could even feel sorry for him!

Angela Meade is a very firm Hélène. Her coloratures are firm and precise but don’t expect a fainting heroine like Lucia or Elvira: this lady has guts! Which is not to say she can’t also be tender and sweet with her beloved, but that revenge is her priority is rather obvious. Listen for a moment to the love duet in the second act: “Ah! Oui, longtemps en silence” and the subsequent heroic “Noble martyr de la patrie,” in which Hélène prevails.

Michael Spyres’ Henri, despite his heroic timbre, is the softest character. Not in his singing performance, oh no, because with his role he sets a new benchmark for bel canto in French; but as a character. In the confrontation with his father, he shows his most sensitive side. The
scene, by the way, is one of the opera’s highlights. Donizetti at his best, this is something Verdi would not have been ashamed of.



ENRICO DI BORGOGNA


What makes the recording truly irresistible is the staging. Now ‘theatre in the theatre’ is not really anything new, but Silvia Paoli knows how to put her own spin on it and the result is not only hilarious but also really good. And those gorgeous costumes…. Stunning!

What is the opera about? Love, revenge and justice, of course. Enrico’s father had been dethroned by his brother Ulrico whose son Guido now wants to keep not only the throne but also Elisa, Enrico’s lover. Are you still here? Good, because rest assured: all will be well.

But it’s not just the staging that makes the recording so incredibly worthwhile, the singers too are unquestionably good. Anna Bonitatibus sings an excellent Enrico and his opponent Guido is excellently portrayed by Levy Sekgapane. Sonia Ganassi sings a very virtuoso Elisa.
Alessandro de Marchi and the Academia Montis Regalis give a smashing performance. (Dynamic 37833)

For Joan Sutherland on her Birthday

Alcina


The fact that the opera has become so incredibly popular and has been performed so very frequently in recent decades is largely thanks to Joan Sutherland. Back in 1957, she brought Alcina to life in London and directed by Zefirelli. Unfortunately, we do not have a video recording of it, but La Stupenda sang and recorded the role several times afterwards and there are many both official and pirate recordings of it in circulation.


Personally, I have a soft spot for the 1959 live recording (DG, made to mark the 200th anniversary of Handel’s death), not least because of Fritz Wunderlich, who sings the role of Ruggiero. Last but not least, Dutch soprano Jeannette van Dijck sings the role of Morgana. And believe it or not, the Cappella Coloniensis, led by Ferdinand Leitner, is already playing on authentic instruments. In 1959!




The score has been considerably shortened. Thus, pretty much the entire role of Oberto has been dropped. And yet… opera is mostly about voices, isn’t it? And Sutherland’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ and Wunderlich’s ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ are simply second to none. (DG 4778017)

Norma

Joan Sutherland recorded Norma twice (officially). Her first recording from 1965 (Decca 4704132) caused a real sensation. It was the very first recording of Bellini’s complete music, without any cut. Moreover, it was the first recording in the original key (Bellini composed his opera in G, but before the premiere he changed it to F).

In those days, Sutherland was considered the belcanto specialist par excellence. Her voice knew no limits and seemed to be made of elastic. High, higher, highest, and with coloraturas that sound almost inhumanly perfect.


Adalgisa was sung by Marilyn Horne, Sutherland’s alter ego in the mezzo voice. The result is dazzling, but it lacks the necessary drama, all the more so because John Alexander (Pollione) has a beautiful but insipid voice.


The orchestral playing is excellent, however, and if you like pure singing, high notes and coloratura, this recording is the best choice.




Twenty years later, Sutherland recorded the role again, this time with Montserrat Caballé (Adalgisa) and Luciano Pavarotti (Pollione). Let’s call it a mistake, although Caballé’s Adalgisa is at least interesting. It’s a pity it wasn’t thought of sooner.


Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor has always been, perhaps even more than Norma, a point of contention between the supporters of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. The performances of both ladies are indeed fantastic and, moreover, totally different. Which of the two should you own? That is not easy. A matter of taste, shall we say?


Joan Sutherland is unprecedentedly virtuoso and her coloraturas so perfect that they hurt. And yet I remain untouched by her. Why? Perhaps because it is too perfect? I do not know. It could just be me.

I Puritani

Elvira, like Lucia, was a showpiece for Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, both of whom recorded it several times. In 1974, Richard Bonynge (Decca 4175882) made a peerless recording of the opera, besides Sutherland, there was the sublime male trio: Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Piero Cappuccilli. Sutherland sounds like a little heap of misery, and her virtuosity knows no limits. Pavarotti still possessed all his glorious long high notes in those days and he pops them out with no effort at all.

Les Huguenots




 Les Huguenots, once one of the most successful operas in the history of the Paris Opera, had the misfortune, along with its creator, to be labelled ‘Entartet’ (degenerate) by the Nazis. One of the reasons why the work was ignored for decades and was only sporadically performed.

Marguerite de Valois has always been one of Joan Sutherland’s favourite roles, she sang her in 1962 at La Scala, and she chose to sing her in her last opera production on stage, on  October 2, 1990 in Sydney.

The voice of the over 60-year old La Stupenda is not so solid anymore, but her height and her coloratura are still very much present, and apart from Amanda Thane (Valentine) and the really splendid Suzanne Johnston (Page), none of the singers manage to perform at her level. The acting is very good and the inevitable ballet is anything but irritating.

The costumes and the scenery are true-to-life and evocatively beautiful, and the entire stage most resembles a large, seventeenth-century painting. The very traditional production is not only beautiful to look at, but also insanely exciting: this is proof that a good director (Lotfi Mansuri) does not need concepts

A brief summary about Cheryl Studer in some of her best roles

SALOME BY MASSENET: HERODIADE



Orchestrally, this recording is really top-notch. Michel Plasson conducts the orchestra from Toulouse very energetically, with a lot of verve and drive, and he also knows how to allow space for all the subtleties. Exciting and beautiful. That is how I like to hear opera.

José van Dam is an impressive Phanuel and Nadine Denize an excellent Hérodiade., although her intonation is not always pure.

Hérode is not really a role for Thomas Hampson, but he sings it very beautifully. Something that unfortunately cannot be said of Ben Heppner’s Jean. A heroic tenor in that role is nothing but a terrible mistake.

Cheryl Studer, on the other hand, is a Salomé of everyone’s dreams: girlish, innocent and naive. Her voice shines and sways and her final words “Ah! Darned Queen, if it is true that your cursed loins have given birth to me, look! Take back your blood and my life!” leave you shuddering and desperately weeping. Brava.

STRAUSS:

SALOME


I realise that many of you will not agree with me, but for me Cheryl Studer is the very best Salome of the last fifty years. At least on CD, because she has never sung the complete role on stage (DG 4318102). Like few others, she knows how to portray the complex character of Salome’s psyche. Just listen to her question ‘Von wer spricht er?’ after which she realises that the prophet is talking about her mother and then she sings in a surprised, childishly naive way: ‘Er spricht von meiner Mutter’. Masterly.

Bryn Terfel is a very virile young Jochanaan (it was, I think, the first time he sang the role), but most beautiful of all is Giuseppe Sinopoli’s very sensual, wide- sounding conducting.


ELEKTRA



This stage production from Vienna (Arthaus Musik 100 048) 1989 is more than extraordinary. Harry Kupfer’s direction is extremely gripping and terrifying, and although he is very realistic in his approach, he limits himself to the directions in the libretto.

The scene is dominated by grey in all its shades and is particularly dark. The only colour in the performance looms when Chrysotemis, at her heartfelt cry that she wants to live and bear children, rips open her blouse and reveals a red vest.

Eva Marton (Elektra) is exceptionally convincing: moving in her longing for her father, repulsive in her contempt for her sister and terrifying during her confrontation with her mother.

Cheryl Studer is a splendid Chrysothemis. With her slightly sweet, lyrical, yet still exceptionally powerful soprano, she can portray a very strong character: her Chrysotemis is a girl disappointed in life with a strong desire to escape, but without the decisiveness to actually bring it about.
Also phenomenal is Brigitte Fassbänder in her portrayal of the mentally ill queen, plagued by nightmares and guilt. Both the mother and her two daughters would be on Freud’s couch in no time – talk about hysterical women!
Franz Grundheber is an exemplary Orest and Claudio Abbado conducts with an intensity that borders on the impossible.




FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN


In 1992, Solti conducted a complete performance of the work in Salzburg. Götz Friedrich’s direction was considered particularly strong at the time, but I do not find it entirely satisfactory. The mise-en-scène is undoubtedly excellent, but it fails with the direction of the characters, causing the singers to run from place to place in a rather awkward way.

The stage design is beautiful with very minimalist but realistic sets, but the costumes are a bit bizarre at times. There is a lot of use of strobe lighting, which combined with violent musical passages may come across as rather violent.

Cheryl Studer is a dream of an Empress. Her voice, with its very recognisable timbre and beautiful pitch, is soaring, transparent almost, innocent and erotic at the same time. Thomas Moser is an attractive Emperor, perhaps a tad too light for the role, causing him occasional breathlessness and pressed notes, but his singing is fine.

Marjana Lipovšek is a truly phenomenal Amme. What that woman has at her disposal in terms of colour nuances and how she handles her (very warm) mezzo borders on the miraculous. In the process, she is also a gifted actress; I couldn’t take my eyes off her. (Decca 0714259)

WAGNER

TANNHÄUSER



I have never been a ‘Wagnerian’. I could never muster the patience to sit through hours of his operas. I found them bombastic. Pathetic. And even though I had to admit that there were some beautiful melodies, I felt that I really needed a pair of scissors and radically shorten them

That this feeling has totally changed, I owe to Domingo. In my collector’s mania (I had to have everything he had done), I bought Tannhäuser (DG 4276252) in 1989. And then it happened: I became addicted.

Later, I learned to appreciate the music for itself and to this day, Tannhäuser is not only a very beloved Wagner opera, but also one of my absolute favourites.

I still consider this recording, conducted very sensually by Giueseppe Sinopoli, to be one of the best ever. Also because all the roles (Cheryl Studer as Elisabeth and Agnes Baltsa as Venus, such wealth!) are excellently cast. At the time, in the eighties and early nineties, this was not necessarily a given.


DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER



This CD recording from 1998 (DG 4377782) is particularly dear to me. First of all because of Cheryl Studer, at the time probably the most beautiful Senta one could imagine. Her wonderfully lyrical soprano with its easy and sensual height seemed made for the role.

The Holländer is sung here by Bernd Weikl. Not really the youngest anymore and you can really tell, but still very suitable for the role. Peter Seiffert is a splendid Steuerman, and in the role of Erik we hear none other than Plácido Domingo, a luxury!

But best of all is the orchestra: under the truly inspired leadership of Giuseppe Sinopoli, the Orchester der Deutsche Oper Berlin performs in a really magnificent way.