Dmitri Hvorostovsky in two live recitals

Songs and Dances of Death (VAI 4330)

Hvorostovsky Dutoit

After Hvorostovsky won the Cardiff Competition in 1989, record companies were queuing up to sign a contract with him. Philips was chosen and promptly a small number of recitals and a few complete operas were recorded with him.

Hvorostovsky in Cardiff:

It was all too premature, Hvorostovsky was not ready: he did not speak any languages but his own, and his repertoire was much too limited. His contract was not renewed, and things went downhill for him.

But he redeemed himself in a big way! On 18 July 1998, he gave a recital for thousands of enthusiastic listeners at the Festival de Lanaudière. He sang the Songs and Dances of Death by Mussorgsky, followed by a number of arias.

I have to confess that I had been planning to read a book to help me pass the time, but I never did. Instead I listened breathlessly to his velvety voice, his matchless legato and his flawless interpretation, which moved me to tears. As Hvorostovsky is such a very charismatic singer, it is a pure unadulterated pleasure to be watching him.

Hvorostovsky and Charles Dutoit in Rossini’s ‘Largo al Factotum’ (Barbiere di Seviglia by Rossini):

Russian Songs from the war years (VAI 4318)

Hvorostovsky War years

Patriotism has become an old-fashioned word. Everything has to be international, global, multicultural and cosmopolitan, and maybe that’s for the best. The Second World War ended seventy-five years ago, and it seems so long gone….

Yet there are still people alive who experienced ‘The Great Patriotic War’. There are still (personal) stories. And then there are the songs. I grew up with them; the Russian songs from that time. My mother, who had fought in the Red Army throughout the war, sang them instead of lullabies, and they made me dream about the lonely accordionist looking for his beloved.

None other than Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought them back to the concert hall, and on 8 April 2003 he performed them for no less than 6,500 spectators in the Kremlin Palace.

Below, Hvorostovsky sings  “Журавли” (Cranes) from the film “When the cranes fly over”, by Mikhail Kalatozov:

The arrangements have been slightly altered; they sound less over the top, they have been loosened up a little and they are foremost nostalgic. There is no ‘hurrah patriotism’.

Hvorostovsky sings in a clearly relaxed way, with a mild smile around his mouth, without any vocal exaggeration or obvious articulation. A bit like a crooner, a Sinatra or a Bing Crosby.

The audience sniffles softly and mouthes the words, soundlessly singing along. I too become fascinated and feel a tingling sensation in my eyes. Nostalgia? My Dutch friend, born on Curaçao, was just as moved. Very touching.

String quartets by Weinberg played by the Arcadia Quartet: perfection at hand

He composed seventeen of them. Seventeen string quartets that just about mark his entire musical life. Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the composer who is finally being rescued from oblivion, albeit (too) late. And posthumously.

The best known of all his quartets is, I think, number eight. This does not surprise me because it is not only insanely emotional, but at the same time also restrained. It begins with an Adagio that you cannot escape. Very beautiful but also quite painful. The following Alegretto does not offer any solace either: it should be cheerful but it is not. Part three, Doppo piú lento is nothing but distressing. This music will not make you happy, but it gets under your skin and then never lets go. Weinberg composed it in 1959 and dedicated it to the Borodin Quartet.

Number two is an early piece; he wrote it in 1939, when he was still a conservatory student in Warsaw and he dedicated it to his mother and sister (neither of whom survived the war). He revised it in 1987. I would love to be able to compare both versions… maybe one day I will?

The Arcadia Quartet and Chandos have now embarked on a new project: they are going to record all of Weinberg’s string quartets, commendable. It is not the first time that all of Weinberg’s string quartets have been recorded though; the Danel Quartet preceded them. Something that escaped the press.

I myself don’t know this earlier recording, but I think it cannot possibly be better than this version. Because it is just perfect. The members of the string quartet, unknown to me until now, play lively and their commitment is palpable. Simply put: they play the stars from the sky.

Arcadia Quartet about Weinberg: “his music is like a glow of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown […]. With every recording and every live performance of his music, we want to shed some light on this wide-ranging, profound phenomenon, which has been overlooked for so long, and we hope that in time Mieczyslaw Weinberg will take his rightful place in the history of music”.

I can only say ‘Amen’ to that and I just can’t wait for the sequel. Bravo Arcadians! And chapeau again to Chandos!

Mieczyslaw Weinberg
String quartets 2, 5 and 8
Arcadia Quartet
Chandos Chan 20158

The Divine Emma /Božská Ema …


Emílie Pavlína Věnceslava Kittlová (February 26, 1878 – January 28, 1930) or, as the world knows her: Emmy Destinn. She is considered to be one of the greatest sopranos of the first twenty years of the twentieth century. She celebrated triumphs in Berlin, Paris, London and New York, she performed with Enrico Caruso, who had once proposed to her, and together they sang the world premiere of La Fanciulla del West, an opera that Puccini had composed with her voice in mind.

Emmmy Fanciulla

In her homeland, Bohemia, she was mainly loved for her patriotism, which even earned her a three-year house arrest during the First World War. The Czech documentary about her life is both interesting and irritating.

Emmy Dinh

Interesting because it recounts many unknown facts about her life and it provides us with beautiful images, photos and film clips and special acoustic recordings (including a real rarity: the Czech national anthem, sung in Czech together with her, then, lover, the Algerian baritone, Dinh Gilly):

Irritating, because it is put together as a very old-fashioned, extremely sentimental filmic portrait, full of seagulls flying overhead, windblown cornfields, a recurring hourglass and larded with staged fictional images. And all that to the sounds of Chopin’s Nocturne.

But the worst thing is that they had Destinn’s voice replaced with that of Gabriela Beňačková! So a great singer is not even allowed on- screen, because the leading part is – of course – intended for a beautiful young lady.

And here the _real_ Emmy:

The Greatest Czech Soprano
Supraphon, SU7006-9

Schönberg’s  ‘Gurre – Lieder’


For me Gurre-Lieder is one of the most beautiful works ever composed. From the moment the music gently begins to swell, I am in heaven. The music, like a Dybbuk, takes hold of me completely and there is no escape possible.

Not that I mind. Feeling completely immersed in something, identifying with something, will give you a surreal feeling of being set afloat. A bit scary, yes, but also a bit like an initiation. Love, murder, an immense sadness that drives you mad, the fight against God, the power of nature: everything is there and it is fully integrated into the music.

The famous Viennese critic Julius Korngold called the work “a flowering cactus”. A beautiful metaphor.

In ‘Sehnt die Sonne’, the last piece of the cantata, Schönberg achieves something truly unprecedented, although he does not (yet) know it himself: he is building a bridge between past and present. Think of the finale of Iris by Mascagni. And think of Schönberg’s own masterpiece, A Survivor from Warsaw, composed after the war.

Below, ‘Sehnt die Sonne’ in the performance of the (not discussed here) Berliner Philharmoniker olv Simon Rattle:

The premiere, on February 23, 1913, in Vienna, was conducted by Franz Schreker, with 757 musicians participating. The Dutch premiere, conducted by Schönberg himself, took place in March 1921. The idea of performing the work scenically did come up; apparently there were plans for it as early as 1927, but Schönberg has always resisted the idea.

It’s a cliché, I know, but you must hear the Gurre-Lieder live at least once in your life. No recording, no matter how great, can match the overwhelming power of a live concert.


Gurre Stokowski

The very first commercial recording, as far as I know, is from 1932. None other than Leopold Stokowski conducted the American premiere of the work on April 8 that year. It was recorded by RCA and with a bit of a search you may be able to find it (though I did not succeed).

In 1961, Stokowski took the Gurre-Lieder to Edinburgh, where it caused a sensation. The performance was recorded by radio and later released on Guild (GHCD 2388/89). His affinity with the work is clearly audible, it is as if it were his love child: his approach is caressing, stroking, cuddling, but with justified outbursts of anger when the child wants to be unruly. I think that is wonderful, really wonderful.

Gré Brouwenstein is a good Tove. Nice voice, although I find her a bit distant at times. James McCracken is a bit of a heavy Waldemar, but he never degenerates into roaring, something that later marred many of his recordings. Personally, I prefer a voice that is more agile, but Stokowski’s lyrical approach also transfers to his soloists, including McCracken.

The concert begins with the announcement of the BBC presenter, after which ‘God save the Queen’ is given. Quite nice and adding to the atmosphere.
Below the Prelude, followed by Waldemar’s first song (James McCracken):


Gurre Ozawa

In 1979, Mc Cracken was long past his prime. A pity, because it is the only blemish on an otherwise splendid performance by Seiji Ozawa (Philips 4125112).

The young Jessye Norman could do anything she wanted with her voice, and her dark soprano with its enormous width is very sensual. A little dominant, it is true, not really an innocent lady, but I like it.

Jessye Norman sings ‘Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick’ :

Tatjana Troyanos is a very heartfelt Waldtaube. The whole was recorded live at the Boston Symphony Hall.


Gurre Chailly
I find the rendition by Riccardo Chailly (Decca 4737282) somewhat disappointing. It is a ‘studio’ recording (recorded in 1985 in Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin), but the sound does not really come across. I also find Chailly a bit noisy, with few nuances.

Siegfried Jerusalem just sounds Wagnerian, and that is, in this case, not a compliment. Also Susan Dunn (Tove), at the time a Chailly protégé, is not really adequate, sometimes it seems as if she does not know what she is singing. But then Brigitte Fassbaender (Waldtaube) comes along and any doubts are gone!


In 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen (SIGCD173) caused a sensation with his performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London. And rightly so. The performance is really sizzling and the soloists, with foremost Soile Isokoski as the most beautiful Tove ever, are fantastic.

Stig Andersen is certainly a good Waldemar and Monica Groop a heartbreaking Waldtaube. Unfortunately, the recording is abominable. There is no sound balance whatsoever, you have to adjust your volume buttons all the time. I do not have a SACD player, but my speakers could not cope with it. A pity.


gurre stenz

The performance recorded in June 2014 under Markus Steinz for Hyperion (CDA68081/2), is in my opinion among the best available. The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln evidently feels like a fish in water in the late Romantic idiom and – reinforced by the six different choirs – they do not shy away from any means of getting through to the listener and his heart. The “Zemlinsky years” of James Conlon are apparently in their genes forever…..

The, in itself, warm mezzo of Claudia Mahnke (Waldtaube) unfortunately has some sharp edges. For me, I would have liked it to be a bit more lyrical – less Wagner and more Zemlinsky, so to speak – but her performance is more than impressive. A real voice actress.

The Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman is a very sensual Tove, but best of all is Brandon Jovanovich. As Waldemar, he is pushing his limits, but he never oversteps them. Very masculine and at the same time very fragile. For me, his performance is more than sensational.

The baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle is a fantastic speaker. His presentation is devoid of any mannerisms, something many performers of this role are guilty of (Sunnyi Melles in Amsterdam!).


Gurre de leeuw

Before I reveal my absolute favourite (we all like a bit of suspence, don’t we?), a word about Reinbert de Leeuw’s performance, recorded by KRO on March, 26, 2011 in a sold-out Dr Anton Philipszaal in The Hague. The orchestra was “halved”, there were “only” 356 musicians. I did not really like the soloists , but it is still a homegrown document. The Internet offers enough (pirate) recordings. Otherwise, just search for it on youtube.

Reinbert de Leeuw speaks about the Gurre-lieder:



René Leibowitz. Have you ever heard of him? In the 1950s, he was one of the best conductors, the ones who put their own stamp on everything they undertook. In 1953, he conducted “Gurre-lieder” in Paris. When I received the CD (Preiser 90575), I thought: interesting, let it come… Well… a few hours later I knew: better, more beautiful, more moving than this does not exist, at least not for me. With Leibowitz you can even hear the flapping of the dove’s wings!

Richard Lewis sings a Waldemar as I have always wanted to hear him: sensitive and delicate. Ethel Semser (Tove) was well acquainted with Schoenberg’s oeuvre; she had already recorded his Pierrot Lunaire.

Nell Tangemann (Waldtaube) remains a great unknown, despite the roles she has created: Mother Goose, for example. Or Dinah, in the world premiere of Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti”. Ned Rorem has also composed a few things for her. Unfortunately, no recordings of this exist, so you can consider the Gurre-lieder as a document and a tribute to the unknown mezzo-soprano who honestly deserved better.
An absolute must.

A curiosity: Schoenberg conducting his ‘Lied der Waldtaube’, here sung by Rose Bampton. The recording dates from 1934:

Barbers Vanessa from Glyndebourne: it doesn’t get any better than this

Vanessa dvd

We, European snobs, turn up our noses at American music. We find it all kitsch without really understanding it at all. What do we know about Samuel Barber and his partner Menotti, who also was a gifted composer, director and librettist? Little, I’m afraid. But how ‘American’ were they?  And what does that actually mean?

Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s first opera, hit like a bomb. The premiere at the Met on January 15, 1958 was a huge success. Newsweek reported that Barber’s performance was hailed with “an utter roar, usually reserved for prima donnas”. Dimitri Mitropoulos, who conducted the performance, remarked with great  enthusiasm, “At last, an American Grand Opera!”

But not so long after, the opera was labelled ‘un-American’. And that is a good point, for the libretto by Menotti, slightly based on the stories of Isak Denisen (Karen Blixen), is universal and of all times; and most reminiscent of  ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens.

After the premiere in 1958 (and the recording on RCA), Vanessa was locked up and almost forgotten. The reason? Ask the programmers, the managers, the musicologists, because I do not know. That the opera is still being staged, albeit sparsely, is thanks to Kiri te Kanawa who sang the role of Vanessa in Monte Carlo in 2001 and repeated it twice: in Washington and Los Angeles. That was a wake up call.

I cannot help but consider the production recorded for DVD at Glyndebourne in 2018 to be an absolute masterpiece. Keith Warner’s staging is very cinematic and it does the opera justice. You can really feel the cold and the frost and there are even a few snowflakes. Think of winter in Scandinavia. Of Strindberg. And of those emotions that remain hidden under a thick layer of ice…

Barber composed the role of Anatol for Nikolai Gedda. Edgaras Montvidas does not really come close to it. His beautiful, light tenor lacks sensuality, so it is not really plausible that he would break the hearts of no less than two women. Although… Vanessa has been waiting so long that she is ready for anything and Erika has never even met a man before. One thing is for sure: this Anatol is going to cause a lot of problems. Another thing is also for sure: this Anatol is going to make you hate him.

Erika is officially a cousin of Vanessa, but the good listener knows better and this production blatantly shows it. Erika is Vanessa’s daughter. That makes all relationships even more complicated – she is now also Anatol’s sister! – but at the same time also clearer. The French light mezzo Virginie Verrez is irresistible in the role. Her voice sounds youthful, curious and longing. Her ‘Must the winter come so soon’ already brings tears to my eyes. Towards the end, her voice becomes almost Vanessa-like in timbre. She closes the curtains, covers the mirrors and locks the doors. It is now her time to wait. Touching.

Vanessa is portrayed phenomenally by Emma Bell. Overemotional on the one hand, and yet pretty cool and calculating on the other. Something is not right there, you feel it, no, you know it. Bell does an excellent job of expressing that borderline-like quality. Both in her singing and in her acting.

Rosalind Plowright is peerless as the old baroness. She too, as are her daughter and granddaughter, is emotionally conflicted. Compassionate but up to a point: her principles win out over her feelings.

Donnie Ray Albert is irresistible as the old doctor. His ‘Under the linden tree’ is a real showstopper.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jakub Hrusa, plays the stars from the sky. My God, what a conductor!

Barber: “Art is international, and if an opera is inspired, it needs no boundaries.” And that is so true here.

Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez , Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, William Thomas, Romanas Kudriasovas
The Glyndebourne Chorus;  London Philharmonic Orchestra olv Jakub Hrusa
Regie: Keith Warner
Opus Arte OABD725

Isata Kanneh-Mason honours Clara Schumann

Schumann Isata

To me, ‘diversity’ is just a buzzword that has nothing to do with reality. But because it is almost obligatory now and quotas still have to be met, the classical music business too has had to conform. And I am not talking here about opera characters like Aida or Otello, who contrarily need to be ‘decolorized.’ That is why orchestras and record companies are almost desperately looking for people of colour.

Now don’t understand me wrong: I think diversity is a good thing and I applaud it wholeheartedly, but on one condition: there must be quality! And the quality of the English pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason is high, very high. She is the eldest of the seven Kanneh-Mason children. They are all musicians: four of her siblings study at The Royal Academy of Music, where 22-year-old Isata herself still takes lessons. Her cellist brother Sheku has already preceded her in fame.

Clara Wieck-Schumann was a child prodigy who grew into a piano virtuoso. The fact that she also composed was ignored for a long time: as a mother of eight she was expected to look after them, as well as take care of her famous husband.
On her first CD recording, Isata Kanneh-Mason plays the works that dominated almost all of Clara’s life. She begins, for instance, with the piano concerto that Clara composed when she was just thirteen years old. She played the premiere when she was sixteen, on which occasion Mendelssohn conducted.

Isata Kanneh-Mason plays it with virtuosity and makes the most of it: which is not very much, actually. That is not a bad thing, because when played this way, the concerto is lifted to higher realms. She is excellently accompanied by the Liverpool Orchestra. However, I like the violin romances best, they were composed for Joseph Joachim. Together with violinist Elena Urioste, Kanneh-Mason provides us with an unforgettable experience. Top!

Moshinsky directs Grigorian in La Forza del destino

Text: Peter Franken

                                                             Gegam Grigorian as Don Alvaro

We will stay with Gegam Grigorian, who would have turned 70 on 29 January. In addition to the Russian repertoire, he also frequently sang the great Italian opera roles. One of those is Don Alvaro from Verdi’s La forza del destino. Grigorian sang this role in 1998 in a remarkable production of the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev. The director this time was the renowned Elija Moshinsky who died on 14 January this year, six days after his 75th birthday.

                                                                Elijah Mochinsky

In this very fine production, Moshinsky limited himself to directing, nothing more, nothing less. The stage setting is a meticulously recreated copy by Andreas Roller of the original work by set designer Andrey Voitenko, who had been responsible for the stage set at the 1862 premiere of Forza in St. Petersburg. At the start of each scene, an image showing Roller’s work is briefly projected, immediately followed by the reconstructed version. It is very cleverly done and miraculously brings back to life the premiere of the very first version of the opera.

For the music the choice is also on the little-performed St. Petersburg version. In my opinion, the biggest difference with the later Milan version of 1869 lies in the much shorter overture. Here it ends very quickly, whereas the later version seems to drag on endlessly. Other changes pale into insignificance compared to the countless cuts that have plagued performances of Forza over the years.

Gergiev is presenting a complete original version and the result is astounding. The all-Russian cast, soloists, chorus and dancers, are magnificently dressed in costumes derived from the period in which the work was created. Although the story is set a 100 years earlier, (in the mid-18th century), it still  feels quite authentic to a contemporary audience.

A modern viewer will also be more alert to the racism that characterises the libretto of this opera. Don Alvaro is a half-breed, admittedly of Inka nobility, but still an indian. The furious way in which the Marquis of Calatrava and his son Don Carlo pour out their anger and indignation on Alvaro goes far beyond the classic case of ‘daughter elopes with a nobleman and we want our revenge.’ Here it is all about the alleged ‘pollution of the bloodline’; the ultimate affront to the Marquis and his hot-tempered son.

Prima donna Galina Gorchakova sings an almost spotless Donna Leonora. Her hesitations, fears, despair and agony are all perfectly dosed, and nowhere is her acting forced or overemphasised. She’s the whole package.

Marianna Tarasova is an, also outwardly, attractive Preziosilla. Her volume in the low register leaves something to be desired, but overall it is a fine performance. Tarasova’s acting is very strong; even had she not actually sung it, she would still have been able to recognisably perform the role.

Georgy Zastavny knows how to hold back as Fra Melitone; his monk is a somewhat frustrated, quick-tempered man who takes himself very seriously: Moshinsky clearly does not go for a buffo rendition. Melitone’s superior Padre Guardiano is in good hands with Sergei Alexashkin, a beautiful bass. A young Yevgeny Nikitin in the small role of the Alcalde is also quite pleasing.

Nikolai Putilin’s Don Carlo reminded me, particularly in the first two acts, of Detective Andy Sipowicz in the NYPD Blue series, a man with an extremely unreliable looking “ugly mug.” Also a matter of transference of course: Don Carlo does indeed lie about everything and anything. His make- up in the later acts is clearly different; now he is the revenge-seeking nobleman who has made the killing of his sister and her lover his life’s purpose. Putilin sings and acts a very convincing Don Carlo, someone you quickly come to dislike, and that is a compliment. His role fits perfectly in the line of ‘heroic baritones’ that Verdi has patented.

As so often with Verdi, the hero tenor does not get the girl, hardly even gets to sing a real duet with her and only meets his lost lover at the very end for a very brief moment of recognition and happiness. On the other hand, Don Alvaro does have very beautiful solos to sing, not as an intimate lover but more as a desperate romantic.

It is all made for Gegam Gregorian. It is the only recording I have of him singing in Italian and I can well imagine that in his glory years he took the international stage by storm. This Don Alvaro is absolutely top-notch; I am glad that, on the occasion of Grigorian’s seventieth birthday, I finally played that DVD again after at least 15 years.

Gergiev is the overall musical director and he turns it into a festive occasion. This recording comes six years after Pique Dame and it is clear that the overexploitation, that he subjected himself to during those few years, has aged him by 20 years. He has, of course, succeeded in his mission: to bring back the Mariinsky Theatre to the world stage.

Tribute to Gegam Grigorian.

Text: Peter Franken


Armenian tenor Gegam Grigorian died in 2016 shortly after his 65th birthday. Today he would have turned 70. For that reason, a memorial performance took place on 28 January in the Mariinsky Theatre where Grigorian achieved so many great successes under Gergiev in the 1990s. His now world-famous daughter Asmik sang the role of Lisa in Pique Dame, the opera in which her father so often starred as Herman.

For over 20 years, after travel restrictions were lifted due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Grigorian had an unparalleled international career that took him to all the leading opera stages. He sang almost every major tenor role in the Russian repertoire, but also many others. His Italian repertoire included Radames, Renato, Don Carlo, Alfredo, Il Duca, Manrico, Otello, Pinkerton, Loris, Cavaradossi, Pollione, Count Almaviva, Maurizio, Canio and Turridu.

I am not sure that I have ever heard him sing live. In 1996, Gergiev came to The Hague with the Mariinsky for two performances of Prince Igor, a production that he had recorded for Philips. On this recording Grigorian sang Vladimir Igoryevich, but I cannot find out if he was actually present in The Hague. On other recordings that I possess, he sings Pierre Besuchow in War and Peace and Don Alvaro in La forza del Destino.

But in view of the choice that the Mariinsky made for the memorial concert, I thought it appropriate to take another look at the 1992 recording of Pique Dame. It is a live performance from the Mariinsky under a very young Valery Gergiev. The credits still refer to the Kirov Opera, as the performance took place shortly after the revolution.


Yuri Temirkanov’s production is extremely classical, both in terms of the costumes from the time of Catherine the Great and the manner of staging. Everything is done exactly as prescribed by the libretto, down to the smallest details. The cast is representative for the top quality that characterised the company in those days; there are the big names in all the leading roles.

There is the luxurious cast of Olga Borodina as Pauline and Sergei Leiferkus as Count Tomsky. Leiferkus is emphatically present; you can hardly ignore him because of his somewhat ‘over the top’ costume. His two arias about the three cards and the little birds that are allowed to sit on his branch are performed with humour and verve.  Ludmilla Filatova as the Countess is rather a caricature, especially when she is given a nightcap to wear. Vocally, her contribution is adequate. The same applies to Alexander Gergalov’s Prince Yeletsky who, all considered, has only one chance to make himself heard. His declaration of love is moving, but Lisa walks away without any perceptible reaction immediately after the last note.
Lisa is sung by Maria Gulegina, and she gives an excellent performance. In her big solo in the last act, she does have to force herself a bit, but that may be blamed on the composer rather than the soprano. I would have liked to hear Asmik in this role; if anyone can handle these passages well, it is she.

But the reason I am reviewing this DVD is, of course, the Herman of the company’s star tenor at the time, Gegam Grigorian. He is 42 years old and in very good shape, Hochform as they say in Germany. His simple black costume, a kind of uniform, makes him stand out from the other men, who look a bit like tropical ornamental birds in a cage. This makes him instantly recognizable as an outsider. For that matter, Lisa’s dress is also remarkably sober, so simple indeed that she also stands out from her own entourage and thus is immediately paired up visually with Herman.


Grigorian’s Herman gets more and more touching towards the end. First he leaves his troubled Lisa to her fate and then he enters the gaming room. His behaviour is that of someone almost haunted, he is no longer in control of himself. After his winning card, the seven, he sings ‘What is our life? A game’. He is about to make a fortune, but it does not really matter to him any more. The death scene at the end, where, with his last breath, he asks Prince Yeletsky for forgiveness, reminds me of Fedora in the opera of the same name that I saw in Stockholm with daughter Asmik in the leading role. Gegam once sang the role of Fedora’s lover Loris.

I am determined to see his Forza del Destino again, not only because Grigorian sings Don Alvaro, but also because of the director of this production: the recently deceased Elijah Moshinsky. Also someone who will be sorely missed.

Refice’s Cecilia: music cutting through the soul


There are those operas you just don’t know what to do with. You find them beautiful, divinely beautiful even, and you are moved to the depths of your soul. And that without understanding even a single word. Apparently the composer knows how to hit a sensitive chord, because as you listen you keep hoping that the heavenly music will never stop.
Heavenly is perhaps indeed the best word with which to describe Cecilia by Licinio Refice (1883 – 1954), an opera that most resembles a mystery play.
I am not insensitive to the miraculous, I grew up as a Jewish girl in a strongly Catholic Poland. But even as a child I was already aware that all those miracles were unattainable to me and therefore I found them extremely exciting and attractive.


We know Saint Cecilia as the patron saint of music and church music, which, according to many hagiographers, is based on a misunderstanding. What we know of her comes mainly from the Legenda Aurea by Jacopo da Voragine, a reference book on the lives of saints, written in the thirteenth century. That book was the starting point for Refice’s opera. Refice, who was not only a composer and a conductor, but also a priest!

The legend (and the libretto) in short: the stunningly beautiful Cecilia went to martyrdom as a virgin, but not before she had persuaded her husband Vergilio (whom she never de facto made her husband) and his brother Tiburzio to come to the true faith. Both gentlemen share the same fate as Cecilia (beheading), with Cecilia being tortured first, which she endures in a miraculous way.

The premiere in Rome in 1934 was an unprecedented success and the opera was performed more than a thousand times until the rational took over from the mysterious. Cecilia’s  musical language is blatantly veristic, with sentiment increased to exeptional heights. You recognize fragments from Butterfly, but the rousing chords and the scents of roses and lilies, as captured in notes, remind me most of Zandonai and his Francesca da Rimini. One also tastes the atmosphere of Byzantium, that of La Fiamma of Respighi. I love it very much and I can completely lose myself in this music.

Until recently I only knew the opera from two shortened recordings, one with Renata Scotto and one with Renata Tebaldi, and from two arias sung by Claudia Muzzio.

Renata Scottio sings ‘Per amore di Gesù’:

The performance, recorded live in the Cathedral of Monte Carlo in 2013, is, as far as I know, the first complete commercial recording of the work and I am sorry to say that the performance is no more than satisfactory.


                                             Denia Mazzolla Gavazzeni

Denia Mazzolla Gavazzeni has for years been the greatest advocate of obscure and little-known veristic operas and for that alone she deserves the greatest praise. She has never been the best opera singer of the world; there was always a frayed edge to her voice and her high notes could sound unpleasantly metallic. But I could (and can!) forgive her these flaws. She was always able to strongly identify with her roles and her performances could be scorching at times. But now that her voice has lost its freshness, her Cecilia cannot convince me of her unearthly beauty. To produce the heavenly sounds he composed for Cecilia, Refice needed someone to sing with ‘God in the throat’. And that is lacking here.

Giuseppe Veneziano is a decent Valeriano, Corrado Cappitta is convincing in the double roles of Tiburzio and Amachio and Serena Pasquini sounds angelic enough for the “L’annunzio” sung by God’s Angel. Everyone really is trying their best, it is just not good enough for a top performance, which may also be due to the very prosaic and down to earth direction of Marco Fracassi.

Below: Claudia Muzio in two scenes from Cecilia: the prologue ‘Per amor di Gesu’, recorded in 1934, and the death scene, ‘Grazie, sorelle’, from 1935:

The fact that Refice has not yet been completely forgotten is due to ‘Ombra di Nube’ (Shadow of the clouds) a song that is still being sung and recorded, a.o. by Jonas Kaufmann:

And here again is Claudia Muzzio, for whom Refice originally composed the song. Now you can hear what Refice meant by ‘God in the throat’, this singer can and does give a tangible feeling to his deep faith and she is also able to make you believe that the ‘dark clouds will disappear naturally, making life beautiful again’.

Some words about Domingo and Otello:

otello domingootello
There is no doubt in my mind that Plàcido Domingo is the greatest interpreter of Otello, especially in the last 30 years of the twentieth century. Not only as a singer, but also as an actor Domingo knows how to adapt to his partners in a really brilliant way, thus his interpretation always fascinates and it is never the same twice. Sir Laurence Olivier, one of the greatest British actors, once said: ‘Domingo plays Othello as well as I do, and he has that voice!’

Domingo’s fascination with Otello started early on. In 1960 he made his debut in this opera, but as Cassio. In 1962 – it was also the last time he sang the role – he sang opposite Mario del Monaco’s Otello. In his memoirs he writes that he already knew then that Otello was going to be his ‘dream role’.

He sang his very first ‘Moor from Venice’ in Hamburg, on 28 September, 1975. He himself says it is one of the most important dates in his career. Desdemona was sung by the very young Katia Ricciarelli and the opera was conducted by James Levine. The complete production is now available on You Tube:

A year later the opera was performed at the Milanese Scala. It was the first collaboration between Domingo and Carlos Kleiber (outside of studio production). Mirella Freni sang Desdemona and Piero Cappuccilli Jago. It was broadcast live on Italian TV and it is now also on You Tube.

There is a sound recording also. It has been released on various pirate labels and can also be found on Spotify. It is actually mandatory for lovers of the opera, despite the poor quality of the sound and the abcense of a few bars from the third act (something happened in the audience).

otello domingo en price
Another fantastic live Otello comes from London, recorded on 19 February 1978. Again with Carlos Kleiber, but Desdemona was sung by Margaret Price and Silvano Carroli was Jago. Very exciting.

otello rca
Of all his studio recordings of Otello, the one from – once RCA now Sony- released in 1978, is the one I hold most dear. Desdemona was sung by Renata Scotto and she gave the role an extra dimension. She was not only innocent, but also audibly angry, sad and scared. Sherrill Milnes was a devilish Jago and the whole was led by James Levine.

otello kiri
Opus Arte (OA R3102) has released an old-fashioned, beautiful performance from Covent Garden (director Elijah Moshinsky). It was recorded in October 1992. With her beautiful lyrical soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa is a dream of a Desdemona. Her passivity fits the role well, especially as it is also very much within the director’s concept. Sergei Leiferkus (Jago) is not really idiomatic in Italian, but he sings and acts well and the orchestra, under the firm leadership of Georg Solti, plays the stars from the sky.

otello fleming
The same production was given at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1996 and recorded by Deutsche Grammophon (0730929). It was a milestone in opera history, because Renée Fleming made her unparalleled debut in the role of Desdemona.

She really made my heart contract with sorrow and emotion. Her ‘Willow Song’ with the strongly accentuated repetitions of ‘cantiamo’, her angelic ‘Ave Maria’, her oh-so-human played despair, disbelief and sorrow – no one could remain unmoved.

The lyrical tenor Richard Croft was also visually well cast as Cassio, and the whole production was under the thrilling leadership of maestro Levine.

Here is an excerpt: