August 28, 2008


Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro. Glyndebourne Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Silvio Varviso. Glyndebourne. $44.99 (3 CDs).

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery. Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Glyndebourne. $29.99 (2CDs).

Wagner: The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Reginald Goodall. Chandos. $44.99 (4 CDs).

Lully: Psyché. Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).

      To the numerous self-launched CD labels that have sprung up in recent years can now be added one that should have opera lovers everywhere rejoicing: the Glyndebourne Festival’s own label, which will release both recent and archival performances from the famous festival and which is starting off with one of each. Silvio Varviso’s Marriage of Figaro dates all the way back to 1962 – this is an analog recording, although one that has been well remastered – and retains tremendous charm. How could it not, with Mirella Freni as Susanna? And it also has Gabriel Bacquier in fine voice as Count Almaviva, plus the relatively little-known Heinz Blankenburg turning in a passionate and energetic performance as Figaro. With Leyla Gencer as the Countess and Edith Mathis as Cherubino rounding out the principals, the cast is finely balanced and well attuned to the music, which of course bubbles along with this opera’s marvelous mixture of fun and heart. Not the greatest performance of The Marriage of Figaro, perhaps, but a very noteworthy one that showcases the strengths of – among other things – the Glyndebourne Chorus.

      The chorus (not the identical members, of course) also does very well in a much more recent performance, the 2006 Glyndebourne production of Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery. As little known as Mozart’s work is well known, Prokofiev’s 1940-1 work is also a comic opera, although it was scarcely written during an amusing time: the Nazis were invading Russia as Prokofiev worked on it. Nevertheless, this is one of the composer’s brightest and bounciest compositions, based loosely on Richard Sheridan’s 1775 comedy, The Duenna. The plot revolves around two pairs of lovers and makes more than passing references to the fading of the now-impoverished aristocracy as the lower classes, including the merchant class, gain wealth and therefore power. It is a member of that class, the fishmonger Mendoza (sung by Sergei Alexashkin), who emerges as the opera’s central hero (or antihero). Neither Alexashkin nor the other singers will be particularly well known to most listeners, but all handle their roles well, and Vladimir Jurowski, who seems to thrive when conducting unfamiliar scores, bring Prokofiev’s wit and underlying wisdom vividly to life.

      The wisdom pervading Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is deeper than anything Prokofiev offers: Wagner’s grand comedy is one of the most humane and understanding of all operas. It is also an opera so thoroughly enmeshed in the German language – including the series of outrageous German-language errors that eventually sinks Beckmesser’s bid for Eva’s hand, and Hans Sachs’ reminder at the end to honor the German masters of the past and their art – that it is particularly ill-suited to appear in the Chandos “Opera in English” series. Still, the live 1968 Sadler’s Wells analog recording, led by Reginald Goodall, has a great deal to recommend it. This is a famous “lost” recording, archived by BBC Radio for many years. Even remastered, the sound is less than ideal, but there is enough beautiful singing (from Norman Bailey as Sachs, Alberto Remedios as Walther von Stolzing, Margaret Curphey as Eva, and others) to make the recording more than a period piece. It is, however, something of a curiosity, given the deeply Germanic nature of the method that Wagner used to tell his story of beauty, melancholy and art. A huge treat for those who have long awaited the return of this recording to the catalogue, Goodall’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg will not likely be a first-choice recording for anyone else.

      The new recording of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Psyché, on the other hand, will be the first choice of anyone interested in this opera, since the work has never been recorded before. Lully’s lyric tragedy of the world’s most beautiful woman, and the jealousy she provokes in the goddess Venus, was originally performed at the court of Louis XIV – 330 years ago. Certainly the overextended plot and opera seria approach of the action being carried forward through extended recitatives show the work’s age. But with the ongoing rediscovery of operas by Vivaldi and Haydn, listening to Lully is no longer the stretch that it would have been as recently as a decade ago. The Boston Early Music festival performance, recorded just last year, is a very fine one indeed, featuring Carolyn Sampson as Psyché, Karina Gauvin as Venus, and Aaron Sheehan as Cupid – whom Psyché is eventually able to marry after Jupiter (Matthew Shaw) overcomes Venus’ objections by giving the human girl the gift of immortality. Before that happens, there are arguments on Olympus, journeys to the underworld, and all sorts of lavish arias and choruses to explain and comment upon the characters’ trials and tribulations. Lully’s music is varied and colorful, and the singing is skillful and conveys emotions with appropriate intensity. It would be unreasonable to expect Psyché to appear in the first rank of the operatic canon, but this is a work of considerable interest both vocally and instrumentally, and the new CPO recording should be of great interest to opera lovers looking for something unusual.

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