August 27, 2015
(++++) OPERATIC WORLDS
Rameau: Les Indes Galantes. Amel Brahim-Djelloul, Benoît Arnould, Eugénie Warnier, Olivera Topalovic, Judith van Wanroij, Vittorio Prato, Anders Dahlin, Nathan Berg, Thomas Dolié; Choeur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux and Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset. Alpha DVD. $39.99.
Bizet: Carmen. Ekaterina Semenchuk, Irina Lungu, Carlo Ventre, Carlos Álvarez, Francesca Micarelli, Cristina Melis; Children’s Chorus A.Li.Ve and Arena di Verona Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Henrik Nánási. BelAir Classiques DVD. $24.99.
Rossini: Il Signor Bruschino. Carlo Lepore, Maia Aleida, Roberto de Candia, Francisco Brito, David Alegret, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Chiara Amarù; Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini conducted by Daniele Rustioni. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.
Ludwig Meinardus: Luther in Worms. Matthias Vieweg, Catalina Bertucci, Clemens Löschmann, Corby Welch, Markus Flaig, Annette Gutjahr, Clemens Heidrich, Ansgar Eimann; Rheinische Kantorei and Concerto Köln conducted by Hermann Max. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Verdi: Arias from “Nabucco,” “Attila,” “Macbeth,” “Il Trovatore” and “Aïda.” Amarilli Nizza, soprano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi. Dynamic. $14.99.
Unusually conceived and thoroughly neglected in the modern age, Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) turns out to be, by virtue of the ways in which it differs from other operatic works of its own time, unusually interesting in ours. Rameau’s 1735 work is actually an opéra-ballet, consisting of a prologue and four standalone acts with separate storylines, all revolving around love in the exotic locations of Turkey, Arabia and the Americas. In the prologue, Hébé, the goddess of youth, attempts to gather young men and women as her followers, but they are instead drawn to Bellone, the goddess of war – so Hébé decides she must find acolytes away from Europe. Hence the four small love stories that follow, complete – in Rameau’s original conception – with gods descending from the heavens in specially made stage machinery, sets transforming in front of the audience’s eyes, and numerous ballet interludes. As interpreted on a new Alpha DVD by Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques and the Bordeaux opera troupe, with some interesting stage design and choreography by Laura Scozzi, Les Indes Galantes turns its episodic nature into an advantage, offering refreshingly uncomplicated stories, highly varied musical numbers, and some catchy and very well-staged dances. Les Indes Galantes (the title translates as “The Amorous Indies”) is officially given not in acts but in entrées entitled Le turc généreux (“The Gracious Turk”), Les incas du Pérou (“The Incas of Peru”), Les fleurs (“The Flowers”) and Les sauvages (“The Savages”). The singing is quite good throughout this performance, especially that of sopranos Amel Brahim-Djelloul (whose second-act aria with flute obbligato is a highlight of the whole production) and Judith van Wanroij (who moves seemingly effortlessly from the role of a despairing slave girl to that of a bold but failed seductress). Also especially commendable are Anders Dahlin, whose bright high register sounds unforced in all four of his roles – no small achievement. He is especially enjoyable in Les sauvages as a Frenchman bickering with Benoît Arnould as a Spaniard – both are in love with the daughter of a native chief, who, however, prefers one of her own people. Arnould’s voice, which is a touch weak in its lowest register, is less impressive in this act than in Les incas, in which he portrays the High Priest of the Sun and is buried in lava after a volcano erupts (which must have been quite a special effect in Rameau’s time). The musicians of Les Talens Lyriques play energetically from start to finish – sometimes a bit too much so, with a few of the many dance interludes on the fast side. Rousset keeps everyone and everything together – the whole conception works delightfully. And this is a case in which having a work on DVD is absolutely necessary for anyone wanting to absorb its many pleasures, which make it into not only four entrées (appetizers) but also a full-course meal and, in the rondeau at the end of Les sauvages – a piece called Forêts paisibles – a delicious dessert.
One’s expectations and standards are inevitably quite different when it comes to an opera as familiar as Bizet’s Carmen. The Arena di Verona production on BelAir Classiques, in a staging by Franco Zeffirelli, has many fine moments, but neither the stage direction nor the singing is involving enough to gain this DVD more than a (+++) rating. The original, 1995 Zeffirelli version of Carmen was memorable, but the new 2014 one is much less so: the stage is barer, the overall look rather shabby, and the mountain panels used as backdrops tend to flutter disconcertingly. There are financial reasons for this trimmed-down staging, to be sure, but from a musical and dramatic standpoint, it undermines the effectiveness of the work, despite the ways in which Zeffirelli uses crowd scenes to excellent advantage and even includes mounted riders to lend authenticity to the action in the town square. Anna Anni’s costumes are another big plus here, neatly contrasting the upper-class townsfolk with the vividly dressed gypsies and the comparatively drab workers, soldiers and ragamuffins. On the other hand, the choreography – credited to “El Camborio after Lucia Real” – is rather foursquare and traditionally balletic, without the sort of apparent spontaneity and fire that would bring the story vividly to life. As for the singing, the best of it comes from the choruses, with that of the adults expressive and energetic and that of the children scene-stealing in its mimicry of the changing of the guard. Most individual singers, though, are less vital than this. Ekaterina Semenchuk is better in the last two acts than the first two, delving into Carmen’s sense of doom much more effectively than into her earlier seductiveness and joie de vivre. Carlo Ventre is a steady, rather stolid Don José, his singing strong and his projection very good, but his sense of the character's pathos is muted. Carlos Álvarez gives Escamillo a commanding presence, but he has an irritating vocal habit of dwelling too long on the last notes of musical phrases. Irene Lungu sings Micaëla with suitably angelic tone, but there is nothing special in her interpretation – she comes across as the generic “good girl.” The conducting is on the generic side, too: Henrik Nánási is brisk, efficient and competent, but rather soulless and quite uninterested in drawing out any of the expressiveness that permeates Bizet’s score. The orchestra itself sounds rather wooden and uninvolved, whether at the conductor’s behest or out of its own lack of inspiration in this production. Everything here is adequate, and a few elements of the staging and choral sections are very effective, but as a whole, this Carmen is neither a first-rate listening experience nor a top-notch viewing one.
The music is marvelous but the presentation not for purists in the new Opus Arte DVD of Rossini’s delightful piece of fluff, Il Signor Bruschino. This is the fourth and last of the one-act Italian-style farces that Rossini wrote early in his career: his first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (1810), was followed in this form by La scala di seta (May 1812), L’occasione fa il ladro (November 1812), and then Il Signor Bruschino (1813). Each of these is a romp with a small number of characters, each featuring mistaken identity and young lovers artificially kept apart, only to be united at the end against all odds (with the audience knowing from the start that that is what will happen). The libretti are formulaic but clever. That for Il Signor Bruschino, by one Giuseppe Maria Foppa (based on an earlier French farce), has Sofia, whose guardian is Gaudenzio, in love with Florville, whose father is Gaudenzio’s enemy, so Gaudenzio opposes the match. Sofia is also engaged to someone she has never met: the son of Gaudenzio’s old friend, Signor Bruschino. Complications abound and are obvious, with Florville eventually taking the place of Signor Bruschino’s actual son (who has gotten in trouble over an unpaid bar bill) in order to wed his beloved; hence the opera’s subtitle, Il figlio per azzardo (“The Accidental Son”). Rossini’s sparkling music propels the work along wonderfully from start to finish, and the overture is justly famous for a bit of forward-looking orchestration that drives string players crazy: Rossini calls for the second violins to play col legno, with the wood of their bows striking their music stands, and that is definitely not what players using extremely expensive bows wish to do. The singers in this new recording are all fine, but it is important to realize that acting is as significant as singing in these early Rossini works. That is where this performance will divide listeners and viewers into those who deem it a (++++) recording and those for whom the staging will reduce it to (+++) despite the fine vocalizing and the ebullient playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini under Daniele Rustioni. This Rossini Opera Festival presentation makes no claim to on-stage authenticity, instead offering a kind of Rossini-themed theme park where balloons and over-the-top costumes set a scene of bright merriment, within which the events of Il Signor Bruschino unfold. The stage design and broad acting of the performers combine to turn this very light opera into a very light situation comedy that just happens to be accompanied by delightfully skittish music. The comparative downplaying of the musical material – in favor of broad, even slapstick comedy – will not please traditional opera aficionados, although it might well have pleased Rossini himself, since he so frequently rewrote and reused his own music and even at times seemed indifferent to it except on a business basis, which is to say insofar as it pleased or failed to please an audience. Il Signor Bruschino is an opera that has so little to say that a production like this one, by Teatro Sotteraneo, can certainly get away with saying it in this form. The result is more musical comedy than opera, but in a sense that is exactly what Rossini himself was looking for with this particular material.
Another little-known work in operatic style – as serious in its way as Rossini’s farce is amusing in its – has just become available on CD. That means no visuals, but the visual element is not really needed for Luther in Worms, an oratorio by the almost forgotten Romantic composer Ludwig Meinardus (1827-1896). Dating to 1874, this is the fourth and last of Meinardus’ oratorios, written after Simon Peter (1857), Gideon (1862) and King Solomon (1863). Although not a composer of considerable reputation even in his own time – Schumann and Mendelssohn knew him but did not think much of his work – Meinardus was capable of some sophistication in his choral and orchestral writing, and Luther in Worms is a considerable work even though its pietistic elements may be a bit much to take and its length (an hour and three-quarters) is rather too extended. It is the operatic elements of Luther in Worms that are most interesting: Meinardus called this piece an “ideational drama,” and incorporated into it such effects as fanfares, sounds of knights approaching and other spatial phenomena not usually found in oratorio. The work is essentially a two-part celebration of the Protestant Reformation, which will have its 500th anniversary in 2017: the first part is “The Journey to Worms,” the second “Before the Emperor and Empire.” Suitably reverent but allowing for considerable room for drama, the work requires eight soloists (four basses, two tenors, a soprano and an alto), a mixed chorus and boys’ choir, and a large orchestra. The choral sections on CPO’s new recording are especially well-handled under the direction of Hermann Max, who also expands Concerto Köln significantly to fill it out to the orchestral size Meinardus requires. Max is a fine advocate for this music, choosing tempos judiciously and resolutely refusing to allow the material to flag even when Meinardus’ musical creativity is subpar and his religious expression thoroughly conventional. Nevertheless, it is hard to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for this (+++) recording except insofar as it gives listeners a chance to hear a composer and work to which little attention has been paid for more than a century. The music clearly lies in the tradition of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, but Mendelssohn communicated the sweep and drama of his material so much more effectively than Meinardus did, and with so much greater skill in orchestration, that Luther in Worms pales beside works such as St. Paul and, in particular, Elijah. For that matter, Meinardus’ grandiose conception is less attractive to hear than Mendelssohn’s modest one in his “Reformation” Symphony (No. 5). However, comparing the workmanlike Meinardus with the genius Mendelssohn is inherently unfair – Meinardus’ work is actually more typical of religious musical writing in the 19th century, and those interested in oratorios of the Victorian era will find Luther in Worms very much worth hearing, if scarcely the uplifting experience that the composer intended it to be.
Much-better-known operatic music is the primary focus of a Dynamic CD featuring soprano Amarilli Nizza with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi. Nizza deserves credit for including two of Odabella’s arias from Attila here: Santo di patria and Oh nel fuggente nuvolo. These are dramatic, effective pieces not frequently heard in sopranos’ recitals. Also somewhat off the beaten track, and sung quite well, is Abigaille’s Ben io t’invenni from Nabucco. The rest of the material here, though, is altogether conventional and unsurprising, including three Lady Macbeth arias from Macbeth, two arias from Leonora in Il Trovatore, and – inevitably – Aïda’s Ritorna vincitor and O cieli azzurri. Nizza has a strong voice that is capable of considerable shades of meaning, and she does a generally good job of characterizing the various protagonists whose emotions she expresses here. The problem, though, is that the disc, called This Is My Verdi, is just about any soprano’s Verdi, with the few exceptions noted. The five Verdi heroines here are (except perhaps for Odabella) among the best-known protagonists on the opera stage, and their exclamations and dramatizations have been heard innumerable times within the operas and in recitals such as Nizza’s. Spinto sopranos are, if not quite a dime a dozen, very common and very popular, and the sort of music Nizza offers here – she could also have sung arias from, for example, Maria in Simon Boccanegra or Elisabetta in Don Carlos – is so familiar that it takes a truly exceptional voice to make listeners sit up and take notice. Nizza’s is a fine voice but not an exceptional one; there is little in this (+++) recording to indicate that she belongs high in the pantheon of great Verdi sopranos. Now 44, Nizza has a sure command of her vocal instrument and a fine sense of the drama (and melodrama) that Verdi provides – indeed, her dramatic delivery is the greatest strength of this disc. But the CD, which is sufficient to mark Nizza as a very fine Verdi soprano, is not enough to make listeners regard her as one of the very best to be heard on recordings.