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:

Nikolai Medtner: a ‘silly sentimentalist’?

Nikolai Medtner. For many music lovers no more than a name in the music history books. Except for the pianists, perhaps, because they cannot ignore Medtner. If only because he has written such beautiful pieces for the instrument, which immediately remind you of Rachmaninov and pianists like to include them in their repertoire. And that’s the cause. Because nobody can match Rachmaninov?

Medtner does. His pieces are no less virtuoso. And forget his genuine sentiment, that I prefer to call nostalgia. Although Medtner called himself a “silly sentimentalist”. But he had a lot more to offer. Just think of his songs, he composed no fewer than 107! Hundred and Seven! Why don’t we hear them? And why not? Because we’re one-eyed?

Fortunately, there are still artists who go beyond the usual Schuberts, Strausses and Schumanns. Ekaterina Levental is one of them. Wonderful singer, harpist, actress and performer who goes above and beyond. Not that she shies away from the standard repertoire, but she spreads her wings and looks beyond the horizon. Together with the pianist Frank Peters she took care of the songs of Medtner: the intention is that they will put all his songs on CD. Applause!

The first, titled Incantation, has just been released. The songs, based on the lyrics of Lermontov, Pushkin, Tyutchev and Fet were composed in the first decade of the last century and, how could it be otherwise, they are almost all about love. The unanswered love, the love that has passed, the pain that love can cause… Call me a jerk, but I can really cry about that. Not only because of those beautiful songs, but mainly because of the time for such songs has passed. Although there are sparks on the horizon that the expressed feelings are allowed again. The sentiment. The feeling.

But make no mistake: singing Medtner is not easy! This is due to the complexity of the music. The piano part is emphatically present, while vocal lines are mainly lyrical and modest, and that is what makes Medtner’s music attractive and challenging. Both performers fulfilled their task excellently.

I eagerly await the sequel. And as long as it lasts, this CD stays in my CD player.

English translation: Frans Wentholt

Nikolai Medtner
Incantation; Complete Songs Volume 1
Ekaterina Levental (mezzo-soprano), Frank Peters (piano)
Brilliant Classics 96056

Plácido Domingo as Andrea Chénier

André Chénier

For me, Andrea Chénier is one of the best and most beautiful operas ever. I think the music is nothing less than divine and the story is timeless. It remains current, perhaps now more than ever. The tyrant must be cast off his throne and the people must take control. Surely, we all agree on that?

If only it were that simple! Anyone who grew up in a post-revolutionary totalitarian regime knows how much horror it brings. One terror is replaced by another.

This, at least for me, is the main theme in Giordano’s biggest hit. I don’t think the real lead role is the actual poet, André Chénier (did you know that Giordano used Chénier’s poems in his arias?) nor his beloved Maddalena. It is the French Revolution, which, as Gérard (once Maddalena’s houseboy and now one of the revolutionary leaders) bitterly observes, devours its own children.

To my great surprise, I read that Domingo didn’t much like the part of Andrea Chénier. He loved the opera, but the role, one of the toughest in the ‘lirico-spinto’ repertoire, was not really interesting for him dramatically. For him, Chénier was ‘an idealist who always has his head in the clouds’. And yet it was one of the operas he loved to sing!

I myself think the role of the poet/revolutionary fits him like a glove. Passion for love and enormous involvement in everything that happens in the world were – and still are – his trademarks.

Domingo sings ‘One of all’azzurro spazio’:

He sang his first Cheniér in 1966 in New Orleans, as the last-minute replacement for Franco Corelli, but that was not his first performance of the opera. In the 1960/61 season he sang The Incredible and The Abbot, in Mexico.


My favourite CD recording was recorded in 1976 by RCA (GD 82046). The cast is delectable. Renata Scotto sings Maddalena, Sherrill Milnes is Gérard and in the small roles we hear, among others, Jean Kraft, Maria Ewing, Michel Sénéchal and Gwendolyn Killebrew. James Levine, who conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra, understands exactly what the opera is about. Tear jerkingly beautiful.

Scotto sings ‘La Mamma morta’:


chenier domingo dg

In 1981 the opera in Vienna was recorded for TV. That recording has since been released on DVD (DG 073 4070 7). Gabriela Beňačková, one of the most underrated singers in history, sings a Maddalena of flesh and blood. Horrifyingly beautiful and moving.

Piero Cappuccilli is a Gérard among thousands and the small roles are also filled by great singers: Madelon is sung by none other than Fedora Barbieri. Otto’s Schenk’s production is a feast for the eyes.

English translation: Douglas Nasrawi

Between Gods and Demons: George London

And now I would like to tell you about George London. Born as George Burnstein into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in Montreal, Canada in May 1920, he grew up in Los Angeles and began his career in the 1940s in the Bel-Canto Trio. The other two were soprano Frances Yeend and … Mario Lanza!

                                                              with Mario Lanza


London was the very first American to sing Boris Godunov (in Russian!) at the Bolshoi in Moscow and was considered one of the best Wotans/Wanderers of his era. His Scarpia was also already legendary during his lifetime.

Here is a wonderful recording from a 1962 concert of George London (in perfect Russian!) as Boris,


In addition to his Boris Godunov and Scarpia, London was mainly renowned for his Don Giovanni. Everyone agreed about his Don Juan that if you ooze that much sex appeal, it can be demonic. Definitely something to think about! As far as I know, there is no complete film of the opera with him in it. All the more reason to recommend to all of you the portrait of the singer that came out a couple of years ago at Arthaus Musik (101473). The title of the documentary says it all, Between Gods and Demons.

About a decade ago, the budget label Walhall re-issued two historic recordings of Tannhäuser on CDs, one a Berlin performance in 1949 conducted by Leopold Ludwig (WLCD 0145) with Ludwig Suthaus (Tannhäuser), Martha Musial (Elisabeth) and a very young Fischer-Dieskau (Wolfram), and the other a performance at the Met (WLCD 0095) conducted by Rudolf Kempe in 1955. Except for the not very idiomatic Astrid Varnay as Elisabeth, it featured a magnificent array of the greatest singers of the day, Blanche Thebom, George London, Jerome Hines and Ramon Vinay. Here is George London singing ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’:


Decca London

But he was also a real entertainer who took popular music seriously, to him they were all ‘artificial art songs’. On the CD On Broadway (Decca 4808163) he gives us a lesson on how to sing the songs of musical composers Rogers, Kern and Loewe.

Below London sings Rogers and Hammerstein’s If I Loved You:

And you get Wagner as a bonus.

English translation: Sheila Gogol

Thomas Adès by Thomas Adès: You can’t get it any better

Ades picos

Thomas Àdes (1971) is one of my beloved contemporary composers. In contrast to many of his (older, I admit) colleagues, he writes music that is not too complicated, without it becoming a tapestry of sound. His music is exciting, stimulating, progressive and yet accessible. In one sentence, he has brought the ‘classic’ and the ‘innovative’ to each other and melted them together. In addition, he does not shy away from horror-like outbursts and even dodecaphony, which makes his music extremely visual and often terrifying.

This is also the case with Totentanz, a composition for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra based on an anonymous text from the fifteenth century, a story about the struggle between Life and Death. The latter always wins. Adès dedicated the work to Witold Lustoslawski and his wife. It was first performed at the Proms in 2013, with Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenlyside.

This recording was made live in Boston in 2016 and I can’t imagine a better performance is possible. Mark Stone (Death) and Christianne Stotijn sing their roles chilling, melancholic, provocative and resigned. Just listen to the last two parts: it’s as if Schubert and Mahler run into each other and find each other in a deadly embrace. With the dying copper sound like the exhaling of the last breath.

Adès composed his piano concerto for the Russian master pianist Kirill Gerstein, an unprecedented virtuoso who combines his romantic beat with an enormous gift for improvisation. I had to listen to it a few times because the concert does not show itself quickly. Mainly because of the many colors and ‘intermediate colors’, which means more than just nuances.

The transitions between the parts are great, so the tension makes you gasp for breath. The fact that the composer himself stands in front of the really impressive performing orchestra from Boston can only be regarded as an enormous advantage. What a CD!

English translation: Frans Wentholt

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Totentanz
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Stone (baritone)
Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Adès
DG 48379989

Discovering Walter Kaufmann: when Bombay meets Berlin

Slow, way too slow and actually way too late, but the music world is waking up. One gap after another is finally being filled and the (consciously or unconsciously) ‘forgotten’ composers are also entering our CD players. It’s also partly thanks to the Canadian ARC Ensemble. A few years ago, together with the English label Chandos, they set up the project ‘Music in Exile’, to which we owe splendid recordings of works by, among others, Szymon Laks, Jerzy Fittelberg and Paul Ben-Haim.

And now it is Walter Kaufmann’s (1907-1984) turn, an originally Czechoslovakian composer whose name, even to me, was nothing more than a name. Not that he had been completely forgotten: in Canada, his new homeland since 1947, he was a highly regarded piano teacher at the Halifax Conservatory. In 1956 he was offered a job at a conservatory in US where he was adored by his students. But as much as he was loved as a teacher, as forgotten he was as a composer. And that is extremely unfortunate because Kaufmann’s life course – and his works – are quite different from those of his exile fellows.

Early on, Kaufmann became obsessed with Indian music, which made him decide to flee to India in 1933. Once at his destination, Kaufmann immersed himself in the music of his host country. Among other things, he composed a tune for ‘All India Radio’ and founded the ‘Bombay Chamber Music Society’. All the chamber music works, on this Chandos recording really magnificently played by the ARC Ensemble, are also composed in India.

No, it’s not that you should immediately think of Ravi Shankar, but the Indian influence is undeniable. And that, while you are clearly dealing with western music from the twenties / thirties. A bit hybrid, yes, but luckily that is allowed again.

Translation: Frans Wentholt

Walter Kaufmann
String Quartet No. 7, String Quartet No. 11, Violin Sonata No. 2 op. 44, Violin Sonatin No. 12, Septet (for three violins, viola, two cellos and piano)
ARC Ensemble, Chandos CHAN 20170

Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella: what a surprise!

Dynamic Schubert

What a surprise! I have to admit: I love, love, love it! A romantic fairy tale about an old king, who is thrown off the throne by his rival, and about his son who falls in love with the daughter of his father’s rival.

After some complications (there is also a real bad guy) everything goes well: Alfonso and Estrella get married and the old king gets his throne back, which he then promptly hands over in favour of the young couple. And there is also a moral: a really big man forgives his enemies.

The music is very beautiful. No, it’s not a masterpiece, but still … it’s unmistakably Schubert. There are a few incredibly beautiful ballads: a song by Froila about the cloud girl, for example. Or a touching ‘Wo ist sie’ by Mauregato, who thinks he has lost his daughter.

Eva Mei, Rainer Trost, Alfred Muff, Markus Werba and Jochen Schmeckenbacher play and sing exceptionally well, and I also think the staging (directed by Luca Ronconi) is a great success. In a setting of string instruments only, the opera is played out two-dimensionally: on stage and on the platform behind it, where puppets play the scenes.

In the first act the singers are dressed in evening dress (suggesting a song recital?), in the second and third act they wear period costumes from the region  (Spain in the eighteenth century).

The opera was recorded in 2004 in Cagliari, an opera house that is not afraid of unknown repertoire.

A few words about Leyla Gencer


Born 10 October 1928 in Polonezköv, a small town close to Istanbul, Leyla Gencer had – just like Maria Callas – a cult status, even today, but on a smaller scale. She had a Turkish father and a Polish mother, which made her proficient in that language. There is even a pirate recording of her with songs by Chopin in Polish:

Gencer’s real speciality was belcanto. She sang her first Anna Bolena only a year after Callas:

And unlike Callas, she also included the other Tudor Queen operas by Donizetti in her repertoire: Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda.

Gencer as all three Tudor Queens


Besides all her Bellini’s, Donizetti’s and Verdi’s, and between Saffo by Paccini and Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai, she also sang some of Mozart’s songs. Fortunately, her Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) in Glyndebourne was recorded and released on  CD some time ago. For the rest, you have to settle for the pirates.

Her round and clear voice – with the famous pianissimi, which only Montserrat Caballé could match – is so beautiful that it hurts. If you have never heard of her before, listen below to ‘La vergine degli angeli’ from La forza del Destino, recorded in 1957. Bet you’re going to gasp for breath?

Help, help, the Globolinks are coming and only music can save us!

Liebramann Globolinks

Especially for Hamburg, the Italian-American composer and director Gian Carlo Menotti composed Hilfe, Hilfe Die Globolinks!, an opera ‘for children and for those who love children’. The premiere took place in 1968 and a year later it was filmed in the studio.

I must confess that I’m not a big fan of children’s operas, but I’ve been shamelessly enjoying this one. It is an irresistible fairy tale about aliens (Globolinks) who are allergic to music and can only be defeated by means of music.

The images are very sensational for that period, full of colour and movement and the forest little Emily (the irresistible Edith Mathis) has to go through with her violin to get help is really frightening. The aliens are a bit of a let-down according to modern standards, but that doesn’t matter, it gives the whole a cuddly shine. The work is bursting with humour and irony; musical barbarians are lashed out at: the school principal who doesn’t like music turns into an alien himself.

There are also a lot of one-liners (“music leads you to the right path” or “when music dies, the end of the world is near”). It is incomprehensible a work like this is not performed all the time in every school (and I don’t mean just for the children), the subject is (and remains) very topical.

None of the roles, including the children, could be better cast, and this once again proves the high standard of the Hamburg ensemble. In which other city would you find so many great singers/actors who can perform so many different roles on such a high level?