English

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

Let’s talk about Mozart’s Idomeneo

.

Gods! Did they ever mean well with us poor humans? We were provoked and incited by them only to be tormented and punished, with no defence at all. After all: did we really have free will? The divine decree was law and we could not escape the fate predestined for us. All this can be read in the thick book called ‘Mythology’, from which the greatest (stage) writers, poets, painters and composers have liberally drawn.

El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, c. 1904.



Take the Trojan War, for instance. It all started with an apple and a ‘Miss Goddess – contest’ and hundreds of thousands of human beings suffered as a result. The jury was bribed with the promise of love from the most beautiful woman in the world, but this promise failed to add that she was already married and her husband might claim her. If not voluntary then forced.

The war lasted no less than ten years and by the end, just about all the heroes were dead or cursed by the gods who, after all, had caused the whole situation. And don’t think, you can catch your breath now, because after the war we had to deal with the real post-Trojan War traumas (I’m not making it up!) and the gods were also still arguing amongst themselves.

Idomeneo, king of Crete, returns to his country, but things don’t go smoothly. He ends up in a huge sea storm and promises Neptune to sacrifice to him the first creature he encounters on his return. But this happens to be his own son, Idamante! Oops!

Loopholes are sought, but gods are obviously smarter. And then we have a triangle relationship: Elletra (yes, Agememnon’s daughter) has fled to Crete and fallen in love with Idamante. But so has Ilia, the captured daughter of King Priam of Troy. Anyway – if you do not know the full story, just read it.
We will now deal with the various performances of the opera.


Personally, I have never found Idomeneo to be Mozart’s strongest opera and I was never really impressed. But now, after repeated listening and re-listening, I have had to revise my opinion. Because the music, it really is genius after all!

Anton Raaff, de eerste vertolker van de rol van Idomeneo



CDS


Sir Charles Mackerras



To get right to the point – I personally think the 2001 recording by Warner Classics (5099994823820) conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras is the very best. It does have one downside (about that later), but that could also be down to my personal taste.

To start with the smaller roles, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Arbace) has a voice of pure gold. It is a pleasure to listen to him and I can never get enough. One can only wonder: why Arbace and not Idomeneo himself? Yes, I know he recorded the role for Gardiner, but, so what?

Paul Charles Clarke is a fantastic Supreme Priest, chilling yet a real human at the same time. La Voce is very impressively sung by the then very young John Relya.

Barbara Frittoli is a wonderful Elettra. Hurt, and yearning for revenge, yet ultimately resigned to her fate. I would have liked to have heard a bit more drama, but her rendition fits in nicely with the conductor’s vision.

Lisa Milne’s rendition of Ilia is perhaps the finest I have ever heard. Lovely she is, but also loving and very determined. Her soprano is ‘liquid’ – think, warm honey, but with a peppery touch. To that, the warm, tormented mezzo of the lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson fits like a glove. Together, they sound as if they were indeed always a unit.

And now for my minus: Ian Bostridge’s Idomeneo. Not yet as vain, narcissistic and mannered, which so marred his recordings and performances in recent years, but he sounds so incredibly ordinary! Not a tormented king, but the next-door neighbour. He singing is clean, but his coloratures are sparse – and this for someone coming from the Baroque tradition!

The score is pretty much complete, not even the ballet at the end is missing. It is usually omitted, and as far as I am concerned absolutely rightly so. It is nothing but an anticlimax and, after listening to it once, I never listened to it again. There is a brief booklet with the track list, but the box also includes a bonus CD with synopsis and the complete libretto.



James Levine



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 really is! The tempi are obviously brisk, but nowhere rushed and most of the voices are overwhelming.

The role of Arbace is curiously taken by a baritone. Well, Thomas Hampson’s timbre is indeed more like that of a tenor and he is more beautiful in the highs than in the lows, but Mozart explicitly asked for a (light!) tenor. But it is not disturbing, quite the contrary. Especially since Hampson manages to fill in the role of the king’s confidant so perfectly.

Frank Loppardo is no match for Clarke with Mackerras, but he holds his own in the small but very heavy part of the Chief Priest.

Bryn Terfel is a very strong La Voce, his sound will automatically make you shiver with fear.

Carol Vaness (Elettra) sounds surprisingly lyrical. Fortunately, she picks up nicely at ‘Oh smania! O furie!”, exactly as we have come to expect from her. Delicious! Yes, she is an Elettra after my own heart!

Heidi Grant Murphy (Ilia) is a bit out of place in the big voice fest. Her pouty timbre reminds me a lot of Kathleen Battle, not really my ‘cup of tea’.

Cecilia Bartoli is a very virtuoso Idamante, very convincing too, though she sounds a bit too feminine at times.

Finally, 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.


DVDS

Pier Luigi Pizzi

From Teatro San Carlo in Naples comes Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production, recorded in 2004 (Dynamic 33463). The direction is typical Pizzi – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Very realistic, but with a twist and lots of male (semi-)nudity. Lots of ballet too and the colours are mainly black and white with a touch of red. Only Elettra brings in an extra colour. Her purple outfit must – I assume – represent her fury. The setting has a strong cardboard feel to it and there is a lot of lying on the floor, singing.

To be honest, by now I have had enough of it, of nudity and nappies, over the years I have seen more than enough of them. But one thing I have to give Pizzi credit for: his productions are always exciting and his character direction very competent. It also has a very Greek feel to it.

 Jörg Schneider (Arbace) is on the very light side. His voice is definitely beautiful, but I miss the expression. The Chief Priest (Dario Magnabosco) doesn’t really come across, a pity, and about La Voce I’ll keep quiet: he is barely audible. Perhaps he should have been amplified?

Iano Tamar is an outstanding Elettra. She impresses not only with her appearance and acting, but also with her singing. That’s how I like to hear it.

I had more trouble with Angeles Blancas Gulin’s Ilia. Beautiful woman, good actress, but so incredibly Callas-focused. And I found her singing really annoying at times, since it is often not on pitch.

Sonia Ganassi is perhaps the best Idamante ever. Not only is her singing most beautiful, her coloratures are perfect and her timbre warm. For her alone, the DVD is more than worth it.

Kurt Streit was once among my favourite tenors. He is also very much in his prime here. Listen to his undoubtedly impressive ‘Fuor der mar’, even if it doesn’t sound entirely pure:




Dieter Dorn



Anyway, compared to Dieter Dorn’s production, shot in Munich in June 2008 (Medici Arts 2072448), Pizzi can pass for the best director in the world. Dorn starts with slaps, blood and violence. What is this all about? Surely the war ended long ago? But maybe we’re looking back? Or are these Idomeneo’s nightmares?

And where and when is it all taking place: it could be Crete, but we could also have ended up in Africa. Could also be Munich in June 2008. The characters look most like a mixture of hippies and Hells Angels in African costumes, but maybe those are really Martians? Oh well. Why not. Sigh.

The choreography is disturbing, in itself there is nothing against that. The storm is nicely depicted – unfortunately the images don’t make sense. And why are, during Elettra’s first aria, the extras covered in blood? Furthermore, there is a continuous running through the hall – those poor people sitting upstairs and/or to the side. Bet they couldn’t  see anything at all.

Rainer Trost is a pretty much perfect Arbace in terms of voice, but if you want to enjoy his singing, you have to close your eyes and keep it that way. What on earth the director came up with for him… !

Juliane Banse is a beautiful Ilia. Her voice is small and limited, but very beautiful in timbre. Moreover, she is a more than convincing actress.

Annette Dasch (Elettra) is a young attractive singer, who shot up like a comet and has made a huge career within a short time. Don’t ask me why. I find her just plain ordinary. Oh yes, she is good, sure, but that good? In the recording, she sounds distant and not even completely pure.

For Idamante, they surprisingly chose a tenor. Nothing against it, especially if the tenor in question is called Pavol Breslik and possesses a wonderfully lyrical timbre. But you should prepare your ears for a different sound.

John Mark Ainsley is Idomeneo. I could not take my eyes off him. Such an actor! And what a voice! You will surely instantly forget the ridiculous direction. For his performance alone, I wouldn’t want to miss the DVD – you must see and hear it at least once.

Below trailer of the production:




As a bonus, I have for you Sena Jurinac as Ilia in ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’. This is the very essence of beauty.





About ‘Knoxville, Summer of 1915’ by Samuel Barber

‘Knoxville, Summer of 1915’, is, apart from Adagio, perhaps the best-known work by the American tone poet Samuel Barber, who is still being blatantly and infamously neglected in the Netherlands.



Barber composed the piece after James Agee’s prose poem in 1947, when his father was on his deathbed. The nostalgia and wistfulness, the longing for the old days, for the time when you were a child and everything was taken for granted, all that immediately appealed to him. But there was more. Agee, who was more or less a peer of Barber’s, wrote the poem in memory of his own father who had died in a car accident in 1916, after which the family left Knoxville, never to return.



‘Knoxville, Summer of 1915’ was first performed by Eleanor Steber in 1948, after which the song would remain attached to her name for a long time, despite renditions – brilliant at times – by many leading sopranos such as Leontyne Price, Dawn Upshaw and Roberta Alexander.

Eleanor Steber:


Leontyne Price


Renée Fleming also has included the song in her repertoire.  She recorded it in 2016 for Decca, with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchest onder hun Finse dirigent Sakari Oram

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.

La Bohéme…. something from the old days

NEW YORK live

First, attention for two live recordings from the New York Met: from 1947, under Giuseppe Antonicelli and from1958, conducted by Thomas Schippers. Both were released on Sony some time ago and both are well worth listening to.

Bidú Sayão 1947



Brazilian Bidú Sayão was considered one of the most beautiful sopranos at the Met, and not just literally. Her voice is feathery light and reminiscent of women’s voices in the old movies from the early days of the “talking movies,” which definitely suits the role of Mimi.



Personally, I prefer rounder voices with slightly dramatic undertones, but this really makes me happy. Combined with the young Richard Tucker, she sounds very delicate and needy. Giuseppe Antonicelli’s conduction is fast-paced (Sony 74646762)



Below Richard Tucker, Bidu Sayao, Mimi Benzell and Frank Valentino in the quartet “Dunque e proprio finita” from the third act:



Licia Albanese 1958



A warning is in order: the sound is not great. It is sharp and dull and occasionally the radio waves are humming rebelliously, but it also has something quite endearing. As if a time machine takes you back to the afternoons of yore, when the whole family settled down in front of the radio to listen to the latest invention, the live broadcast.

The performance, too, is old-fashionedly delicious. Not that the voices are all that exceptional, apart from Carlo Bergonzi who is at his finest, the other roles could have been better cast.

Licia Albanese (almost fifty by then, which is not at all audible) was a real crowd pleaser, especially in New York. Thomas Schippers conducts very vividly (Sony 8697804632)

STUDIO



Victoria de los Angeles 1956


Do you want to cry, from the very beginning? If so, you have come to the right place. Thomas Beecham really does his best to make the RCA orchestra sound a little detached, but the musicians are real human beings and they have no reservations concerning true love. Completely unashamedly, they allow all feelings, including a healthy dose of sentimentality. So you may cry all you want to!

The first meeting between Rodolfo and Mimi already… his ‘così’ when pouring his ‘po’ di vino’ and then her ‘grazie, buona sera’…. Folks, anyone here who doesn’t instantly forget about the rest of the world has no heart!

Jussi Björling is a dream Rodolfo: sensitive, sensible, sweet and so damn attractive! That Victoria de los Angeles (Mimi) falls for him we can’t blame her for, after all, so do we. But we grant him to her wholeheartedly because of her voice, it is so terribly beautiful that it almost hurts. As if she were the Madonna herself who has her extinguished candle lit by her neighbor. In which we conveniently forget that she probably blew out the candle herself. That, then, is the only downside of the recording: Mimi was no Madonna.

For the rest: a must. Also because of the irresistible Marcello by Robert Merrill (Naxos 8.111249/50)




Maria Callas 1956



This recording will not go with me to the “desert island.” It is not because of the conductor, nor the splendidly playing orchestra from La Scala: Antonino Votto conducts smoothly and excitingly and his attention to all the details is truly brilliant,

Rolando Panerai (Marcello) and Giuseppe di Stefano (Rodolfo) are a match for each other, their voices suit each other excellently, although I find di Stefano a bit on the screaming side at times. I also like young Anna Moffo’s very sensual Musetta. The problem – at least for me – lies with La Divina.

Mimi is not a role with which we associate Callas, and rightly so. She has therefore – wisely enough – never sung her on stage. No matter how hard she tries (and she really does!) nowhere does she manage to convince me that she is a poor seamstress, her voice is just too regal for that. Frantically she tries to keep her voice small which makes her sound quite artificial. But I’m sure her fans would disagree with me.

The recording still sounds surprisingly good (Warner Classics 0825646341078)




Renata Tebaldi 1958



Actually, I also find Tebaldi’s voice a bit too heavy for Mimi, a tad too dramatic too, but there is no denying that her interpretation is very exciting. You have to keep listening to it.

Carlo Bergonzi is an insanely beautiful Rodolfo; secretly, I think he is the real star of the recording. Ettore Bastianini is a very charming Marcello, but Gianna d’Angelo is not a beautiful Musetta. Her singing has nothing sensual and is vulgar at times.

Tulio Serafin conducts more than superbly and the orchestral sound is brilliant. Remarkable actually how wonderful that recording still sounds! (Decca 4487252)






Cesira Ferrani



Would you like to know what the first Mimi sounded like? You can. Cesira Ferrani who created the role in 1896 recorded two minutes from Mimi’ in 1903 (Creators’ Records SRO 818-2).

Cesira Ferrani (Mimi) and Evan Gorga (Rodolfo) at the premiére 1 februari 1896



It still sounds surprisingly good, thus we know that Mimi’s soprano was very light, but far from soubrette. Ferrani was also the first Manon Lescaut, Micaela and Melisande, so you can suspect some deeper things under the veneer of an “innocent” girl. As it should be.


Also on Spotify, are a few of her recordings taken from The Harold Wayne Collection and released on Symposium. Here, in addition to “Si mi chiamamo Mimi,” you will also find “Donde lieta usci. And – a real oddity! – an aria from Lohengrin sung in Italian.






Moonstruck



And then there’s (go ahead, it’s almost Christmas anyway) one of all-time’s greatest feel-good movies: Moonstruck.

The story itself has little to do with the real opera, except that the main characters attend a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan – it’s good old Zeffirelli – after which we fast-forward to the movie’s happy ending. But in that scene, we too, along with both protagonists are allowed to shed a few tears. The fact that Puccini’s music resounds not only at the credits but also throughout the film is a nice touch.

Trivia: the old man (Loretta’s grandfather) is played by Feodor Chaliapin junior, the son of the great Russian bass.

Scene in the opera. The voices you hear are those of Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi.

La Bohème: few of my favorite recordings on DVD

Mirella Freni



Many opera lovers will probably agree on one thing: one of the best Bohèmes ever is the 1973 version recorded by Decca under von Karajan. With Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.



Rodolfo has always been Pavarotti’s calling card. For years he was considered the best interpreter of the role – his fantastic legato, the smoothness and naturalness with which he sang the high notes are truly exemplary. Incidentally, as befitted a typical Italian tenor of the time, he sang the end of “O soave fanciulla” at the same height as the soprano. Not prescribed, but it was tradition!

Freni was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Mimi’s in history. Tender and fragile, with her heartbreaking pianissimi and legato arches she managed to move even the greatest cynics to tears.

Von Karajan conducted theatrical and passionate way, with ample attention to the sonic beauty of the score. As the Germans would say “das gab’s nur einmal.”

In 2008 we celebrated not only Puccini’s 150th birthday, but also von Karajan’s 100th. Moreover, it was 35 years since the famed conductor recorded La Bohème: a cause for celebration! And lo and behold – Decca has released the opera in a limited deluxe edition (Decca 4780254). On the bonus CD, Mirella Freni talks, among other things, about her relationship with von Karajan and about singing Puccini roles. It is really fascinating.

Arias and duet from the first act:



Mirella Freni made her debut as Mimì at the Metropolitan Opera in September 1965. Her Rodolfo was another debutant: the (how unfair!) nowadays almost completely forgotten Italian tenor Gianni Raimondi. For me, he is preferable to Pavarotti. I find his voice more pleasant and elegant. And he could act!
Freni’s and Raimondi’s renditions were captured on a wonderful film, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. An absolute must (DG 0476709).

“O Soave Fanciulla” with Freni and Raimondi:




Renata Scotto



History was made with La Bohème from the Met in 1977 (DG 0734025): it was the very first direct transmission from the New York opera house on TV. The production was in the hands of Pier Luigi Pizzi, who at that time was not yet obsessed with excessive ballets and the colour red.



Although I was never a big fan of Pavarotti, I cannot deny that he produces a fresh sound here and that his high notes stand like a house. Acting was never his cup of tea, but here he does the best he can.

It becomes really exciting when Mimì enters: in 1977, Renata Scotto was at her unprecedented peak. She spins the most beautiful pianissimi and her legato and mezza voce are so beautiful they make you want to cry. The rest of the cast is no more than adequate, but the young James Levine conducts as if his life depended on it!

Scotto sings ‘Si mi chiamano Mimì’:



Musetta was not really a role with which we associate Scotto. Neither did she herself, but she accepted the challenge with both hands. In the Zeffirelli Met production of 1982, she sang a Musetta to die for. Alongside the very moving José Carreras and Teresa Stratas, she was the undisputed star of this recording (DG 073 4539 9).


Scotto as Musetta:


Cristina Gallardo-Domâs



Sometimes I wonder how perverse it is when people pay a lot of money to go see, dressed in fur coats, the misery of freezing poor artists?



I myself took great pleasure in the sight of all those fur-wearing audiences on my way to a performance of La Bohème at La Scala in 2003 (Arthouse 107119). The then 40-year-old Zeffirelli production was altered a bit, but the beautiful, realistic sets and brilliant lighting remained the same. The snowflakes, the light radiating from the inn that warmly colors the white earth, the snowy bench and Mimi’s tear-stained face: there is something magical about it all and it is more like a movie than a performance in the theater. It cannot leave you unmoved, all the more so because all the protagonists are truly superb.

Cristina Gallardo-Domâs is a delicate, emotionally torn Mimì. Her lyrical soprano is a bit reminiscent of Freni. Malcero Ãlvarez convinces with a (then still) beautifully lyrically sung Rodolfo and Hei-Kyung Hong, clearly inspired by Scotto, portrays a kitschy Musetta. Bruno Bartolletti conducts lively, without shying away from sentiment.

Below, ‘O soave Fanciulla’ with Gallardo-Domâs and Ãlvarez



Gallardo-Domâs was also present in Zurich two years later. With this very realistically staged Bohème, Philippe Sireuil made a thunderous debut at the Zürich Opera House (EMI 3774529). Don’t expect Zeffirelli-like scenes with snowflakes drifting down, however.

Sireuil’s conception is very “down to earth” and as such more veristically faithful than any other production known to me. With great love of detail, he draws the lives of the foursome of artist friends: their attic is tiny and stuffy, and their struggle to better themselves is life-like. The costumes (second-hand clothing from thrift stores) is contemporary, yet timeless at the same time.

Whatever Mimì is suffering from (it is surely not tuberculosis – the director doesn’t even allow her to cough) doesn’t really matter, although it seems to be drug related. Like a sick bird (how much she resembles Edith Piaf!) she slowly slides into the abyss, and her death forces the others to really think, for the first time. The third act, set at a gloomy train station, is particularly strong and painfully poignant.

The entire cast, headed by a movingly beautiful Marcello Giordani and a very virile Michael Volle (Marcello) in addition to the heartbreaking Gallardo-Domâs, is also outstanding. The much lamented László Polgár  sings Colline. Believe me: this La Bohème is really not to be missed.

Below, Marcello Giordani and Michael Volle in ‘Marcello finalmente:



Cheryl Barker



Back in time a little, to Sydney, Australia, 1993. For the first time I saw the production on TV (yes, kids: once upon a time there were the days when an opera was simply broadcast live from an opera house on TV!) and not soon will I forget that night. I didn’t know any of the singers; it was the name of the director (Baz Luhrmann) that drew my attention to the production.



The singers were mostly young – a plus, since the opera is about young people in love. They could sing, too, and with their looks of real movie stars, they could have been on the movie screen. Strange really, that, apart from Cheryl Barker (Mimì), no one had a great career. That Luhrmann was obsessed with opera is also confirmed by the film buffs: his Moulin Rouge is a direct look alike , including the red-lit “L’amour” on the rooftop. (Arthaus Musik 100 954)


Scene from the production:


Ileana Cotrubas



But, hand on heart, if I had to go through life with only one recording of La Bohème … I would choose John Copley’s 43-year-old production made for the Royal Opera House.

My “desert island recording” was captured on DVD in 1983 by NVC Arts (Warner 4509 99222-2) and – no matter how many times I watch it, I never get tired of it. And still, after all those years, it always makes me cry. Some things never age.

 Neither does the cast : Ileana Cotrubas as my beloved Mimì, the irresistible young Neil Shicoff as Rodolfo and Thomas Allen as a very erotic Marcello.

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:

José Carreras in just few of his many roles

Carreras in just few of his many roles

LA TRAVIATA

Tokyo 1973


And don’t think that in the old days, when everything was done by the book, the performances were static and boring! In 1973, La Scala was on tour in Japan, and there, in Tokyo, a legendary performance of La Traviata was recorded (VAI 4434).

The leading roles were played by the then still ‘curvy’ Scotto and 27-year-old (!) José Carreras. DVD does not mention the name of the director, perhaps there was none, and the singers (and the conductor) did it all themselves? Anyway, the result is really beautiful, moving and to the point. I am not going to say any more about it, because this recording is an absolute must for every opera lover.

Finale of the opera:

L’ELISIR D’AMORE 1976

My beloved CD recording is live and, to be honest, far from perfect (Legato Classics LCD 218-2). Yasuko Hayashi is only so-so as Adina, she is no more than average and the use of her voice is too heavy.

But the men! José Carreras is a dream of a Nemorino – silly and hopelessly in love. On him the potion is actually well spent, it really makes him happy and elated.

Geraint Evans is a delightful Dulcamara, more than a bit exaggerated, but entirely in the spirit of the character. Thomas Allen is a very potent Belcore and the Covent Garden orchestra and choir are very spiritually and engagingly conducted by John Pritchard.

The recording (London, 1976) sounds fine. As a bonus, we get a recital that Carreras gave at Carnegie Hall 30 November 1980, on which he also sings some lesser-known arias and songs, including parts from Leoncavallo’s Lady Chatterton and Rossini’s Pietra del Paragone.

SIMON BOCCANEGRA 1977

In 1971, Claudio Abbado conducted a magisterial and now legendary performance of Boccanegra at La Scala. It was directed by Giorgio Strehler and the beautiful sets were designed by Ezio Frigerio. In 1976, the production was shown at the ROH in Covent Garden. Unfortunately, no official (there are ‘pirates’ in circulation) video of it was made, but the full cast did fortunately go into the studio, and thus the ultimate ‘Simone’ was recorded in 1977 (DG 4497522).

Abbado treats the score with such love and such reverence as if it were the greatest masterpiece of all time, and under his hands it really does transform into a masterpiece without parallel. Such tension, and with all those different nuances! It is so, so beautiful, it will make you cry.
The casting, too, is the best ever. Piero Cappuccilli (Simon) and Nicolai Ghiaurov (Fiesco) are evenly matched. Both in their enmity and reconciliation, they are deeply human and always convincing, and in their final duet at the end of the opera, their voices melt together in an almost supernatural symbiosis:

Before that, they had already gone through every range of feeling and mood, from grievous to hurtful, and from loving to hating. Just hear Cappuccilli’s long-held ‘Maria’ at the end of the duet with his supposedly dead and now found daughter (‘Figlia! A tal nome palpito’).

José van Dam is an exquisitely vile Paolo and Mirella Freni and Jose Carreras are an ideal love couple. The young Carreras had a voice that seems just about created for the role of Adorno: lyrical with a touch of anger, underlining Gabriele’s brashness. Freni is more than just a naive girl; even in her love for Adorno, she shows herself to be a flesh-and-blood woman

HERODIADE 1984


 This recording also may only be obtained via a pirate (or You Tube), but then it is complete and moreover with (admittedly bad) images!


Dunja Vejzovic portrays a deliciously mean Hérodiade and Juan Pons is a somewhat youthful but otherwise fine Hérode. A few years later, he will become one of the best “Hérodes” and you can already hear and see that in this recording.

Montserrat Caballé is a fantastic Salomé, the voice alone makes you believe you are in heaven and José Carreras is very moving as a charismatic Jean.

Below, Carreras sings ‘Ne pouvant réprimer les élans’:



None of the protagonists is really idiomatic, but what a pleasure it is to watch a real Diva (and Divo)! They really don’t make them like that any more

The whole opera on you tube:

LA JUIVE

Vienna 1981

I have never been able to understand why José Carreras added the role of Éléazar to his repertoire. It did fit in with his desire to sing heavier, more dramatic roles. Roles that were one size too large for his beautiful, lyrical tenor. Which absolutely does not mean that he could not sing the role! He succeeded quite nicely and the result is more than worth listening to, but he doesn’t sound truly idiomatic.

In the live recording from Vienna 1981 Carreras also sounds too young (he was only thirty-five then!), something that is particularly noticeable in the Seider-evening scene. It is sung beautifully, but due to a lack of weight he tends to shout a bit.

José Carreras sings ‘Rachel, quand du Seigneur’.

Ilona Tokody is a Rachel of a Scotto-like intensity (what a pity she never sang the role onstage!) and Sona Ghazarian sings an excellent Eudoxie.

Studio recording 1989

La Juive, recorded by Philips in 1989, marked the first studio recording Carreras made after his illness. His voice was now less sweet and smooth than before, but sounded much more alive, which improved his interpretation of the role.

Julia Varady is a beautiful Rachel, perhaps one of the best ever and Eudoxie is in excellent hands with June Anderson.

Dalmacio Gonzales is a more than decent Léopold, in any case much better than Chris Merrit and the French-American-Portuguese conductor Antonio de Almeida shows he has a real affinity with the opera. (Philips 475 7629)

LA BOHEME

Metropolitan Opera New York 1982


Musetta was not really a role with which we associate Scotto. Neither did she herself, but she accepted the challenge with both hands. In the Zefirelli Met production of 1982, she sang a Musetta to die for. Alongside the very moving José Carreras and Teresa Stratas, she was the undisputed star of this recording (DG 073 4539 9).

TURANDOT 1983

Harold Prince, with no less than 21 Tony Awards to his name, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) musical producers/directors, tackled ‘Turandot’ (Arthaus Musik 107319) in 1983, with very impressive results. He created a world of illusion ruled by fear, where the inhabitants, dressed in dazzling costumes, hide themselves (and their true feelings) behind masks. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

Eva Marton sings a phenomenal Turandot and Katia Ricciarelli is a fragile, pitiful Liù. Her “Signore ascolta” spun out with the most beautiful pianissimi is heartbreaking.

And José Carreras… He makes me cry too, because at the age of 37 he had one of the most beautiful (lyrical) voices in the world. But Calaf was not his role. He sings it beautifully, but one hears him crossing his own boundaries. And yet …. His hopeless macho behaviour, which goes against all odds, not only fits the concept of the director, it also illustrates Calaf’s character perfectly. At least for me.

The orchestra from Vienna is conducted by Lorin Maazel. Not my favourite conductor, but in this case, I have no reason to complain.

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)