November 20, 2014
(++++) DREAMS ON DISPLAY
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Sea Pictures. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; David Soar, bass; BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $39.99 (2 SACDs).
Rob Kapilow: Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express; Dr. Seuss’s Gertrude McFuzz. Sung by Nathan Gunn, with the Polar Express Children’s Choir (Polar); sung by Isabel Leonard, with Olivia Lombardi as Gertrude (Gertrude); Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra. GPR. $19.99.
Nicola Porpora: Arias. Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Academia Montis Regalis conducted by Alessandro De Marchi. Naïve. $16.99.
A dream of death and beyond, and one of the many moods of the ocean and those who encounter it, are paired and performed beautifully on a new Chandos release of music by Elgar. The Dream of Gerontius gives a primarily Catholic view of life’s end and what comes after (although its final portrayal of Purgatory is not entirely orthodox). It is a sort of extended “death and transfiguration,” using vocal lines to make the action clear and to guide listeners through an abridged version of a poem by Cardinal (John Henry) Newman. The poem is sufficiently reverent in a wholly conventional sense so that the words are less meaningful to non-Catholics than they might be if the text were more spiritually inclusive – but Elgar clearly responded to the poem with emotional intensity that led him to create music that transcends his chosen source. Whether The Dream of Gerontius sustains adequately for its considerable length – an hour and three-quarters – depends largely on the quality of the performance, and the one led by Sir Andrew Davis is particularly fine. Stuart Skelton is especially praiseworthy as Gerontius, nearly managing to make this typecast “old man” figure into something more than a cardboard character through the sheer emotive power of his singing and the sincerity with which he declaims the dream of a dying man. Bass David Soar intones the lines of the Priest with appropriately dark and polished tones, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly makes a highly affecting Angel by singing with what sounds like genuine concern and an otherworldly kind of love toward the human she is charged with bringing from the mundane world, to Heaven, and thence to Purgatory. A problem with The Dream of Gerontius is that it is so earnestly one-sided that it gives almost no scope for drama, but what little exists – as in the two brief choruses of quite non-threatening demons – is well-presented here. Indeed, the choral and orchestral work is so fine that the music’s power and beauty come through clearly whether or not a listener accepts or agrees with the argument of the text. And this sacred work is very well complemented by the secular Sea Pictures, in which Connolly delivers five songs of varying moods, to words by different poets, with understanding and emotional resonance. Sea Pictures has music more varied than that of The Dream of Gerontius, with the ocean’s moods ranging from serenity to storminess; and here too the playing of the orchestra rises to every occasion within the cycle, painting in toto a picture that has depth, beauty and strong emotional resonance – all captured in particularly fine SACD sound.
The dreams are for the youngest listeners rather than the oldest on a new GPR recording of two works by Rob Kapilow, one based on Chris Van Allsburg’s moving Christmas dream/fable, The Polar Express, and the other taking off from a much lighter fantasy by Dr. Seuss, Gertrude McFuzz – a work that does, however, have a moral as clear as Van Allsburg’s. This is a CD for families already familiar with the two works that Kapilow sets, because the text is almost identical to that in the books but, of course, does not have the pictures that render these two very different works so intriguing and enthralling in printed form. Kapilow is especially sensitive to Van Allsburg’s pacing: listeners can easily hear the places where the composer moves from one page of the book to the next. The music is supportive of the narration but also has a delightful character all its own. In The Polar Express, for instance, snatches of Christmas carols are woven into the musical tale, while in Gertrude McFuzz, little bits of well-known tunes are included in a score that nicely characterizes the participants – Gertrude’s Uncle Dake, for example, gets a jazzy beat, while Gertrude herself is accompanied by rather whiny notes that neatly complement her temper tantrums. The performers are all first-rate, not over-intellectualizing any of the words but not talking down to the intended audience, either. Nathan Gunn narrates with seriousness befitting that of an older man looking back on childhood while retaining a sense of wonder and communicating it to children, while Isabel Leonard offers bounce and brightness and just enough snottiness to show a narrative disapproval of the demands of Olivia Lombardi, who gets her comeuppance in typically gratifying and amusing Seussian fashion. This CD is not inexpensive, considering the fact that it runs just 34 minutes and that CDs of books’ readings are sometimes included at no extra charge within the books themselves. But the fine music and wholehearted involvement of all the performers make the disc a very worthwhile seasonal gift, especially for families that see it as a complement to The Polar Express and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (in which Gertrude’s tale, and tail, appear).
It is primarily dreams and dramas portrayed on the opera stage that Franco Fagioli brings vividly to life on a new Naïve CD featuring a dozen arias for countertenor (originally for castrato) by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768). Porpora is best known as the teacher of famed castrato Farinelli and as an instructor of Haydn, Pergolesi and Alessandro Scarlatti, but he was also in his time a very considerable composer of opera seria, writing more than 50 operas in a lengthy career that spanned the years 1708 to 1760. Porpora’s arias are quite difficult to perform, being filled with display elements such as trills and coloratura passages and also demanding excellent legato when at their most serious and melancholic. It is worth remembering that Baroque opera arias rarely advanced the stage action: they were expressions of characters’ feelings, emotions and motivations, with the action handled through recitative. This is one reason so many composers engaged in self-borrowing – Handel is especially well-known for plucking an aria from one of his works and plunking it down in another where similar emotional expression is called for. What this means in performing Porpora is that the technical demands must be placed at the service of the emotional communication – as is not the case in the much later bel canto period, when technique alone can and does carry many singers through difficult passages. Fagioli has a firm grasp of the emotive elements of these arias, and although the specifics of the operas from which the arias are drawn are not especially important, Fagioli fully understands the need to be as expressive as possible in everything he does. The CD includes one aria from Ezio (1728), two from Semiramide riconosciuta (1729, revised 1739), one from Didone abbandonata (1725), two from Meride e Selinunte (1726), one from the oratorio Il verbo in carne (1748), one from the cantata Il ritiro (1735), two from Poliferno (1735), one from Carlo il Calvo (1738) and one from the cantata Vulcano (1735). All skillfully evoke specific emotional states while presenting considerable technical challenges to the performer – ones that Fagioli, ably abetted by Academia Montis Regalis under Alessandro De Marchi, fully understands and conquers. The dreams of the Baroque may not be those of today, but performances like these keep them alive and meaningful even after hundreds of years.