April 07, 2016


John Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles. LA Opera conducted by James Conlon. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Haydn: Opera Overtures. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Michael Halász. Naxos. $12.99.

Steal Away: The African American Concert Spiritual. Seraphic Fire conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. Seraphic Fire Media. $14.99.

Viri Galilaei: Favourite Anthems from Merton. Choir of Merton College, Oxford, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips; Charles Warren and Peter Shepherd, organ. Delphian. $19.99.

Laudato Si: In the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Charlene Canty, soprano; Andrey Nemzer, countertenor; Nicholas I. Will, organ. Navona. $14.99.

Bushes & Briars—Folk-Songs for Choirs, Books 1 & 2. St. Charles Singers conducted by Jeffrey Hunt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     It is about time that someone released a recording of John Corigliano’s lengthy, ambitious and fascinating The Ghosts of Versailles, a nearly three-hour concoction of grand opera and opera buffa that Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman thus correctly label “a grand opera buffa.” Commissioned in 1980 but not completed until 1987 and not performed until 1991, the opera has captured the imagination of many performers and audiences, and has been in various ways toned down (by eliminating the called-for onstage orchestra and other costly elements), reworked for smaller opera houses (in a chamber-orchestra version), and performed as originally intended, with a substantial cast, many musicians and a great deal of stage business. It is this original version that PentaTone has now released: this is a live recording of an LA Opera production from 2015, the West Coast première of the work. The Ghosts of Versailles is a strange, multifaceted, ambitious and surprisingly affecting opera whose complexities of plot and staging require considerable attentiveness not only from the musicians, singers and conductor (James Conlon does a first-rate job here), but also from the audience. Written in English, The Ghosts of Versailles is loosely based on the third of Pierre Beaumarchais’ trilogy of “Figaro” plays – Beaumarchais’ last work and one that never attained the popularity of The Barber of Seville or The Marriage of Figaro. This final play, La Mère Coupable (“The Guilty Mother”), has been set as an opera before – by Darius Milhaud in 1966 – but for Hoffman and Corigliano, it is more of a superstructure upon which to create a larger work, a jumping-off point for an opera that is, among other things, about opera. So there is an opera-within-the-opera here, and a framing tale involving the affection of Beaumarchais – who becomes a character in his own play and the opera made from it – for the doomed Marie Antoinette, who really was a Beaumarchais advocate: after Louis XVI forbade performance of The Marriage of Figaro in 1781 because of its satire of the aristocracy, it was his queen who argued in favor of the play and helped bring about its eventual staging in 1784. These little historical tidbits permeate The Ghosts of Versailles, whose framing tale focuses on exactly what its title says: the ghosts of the long-dead members of the Versailles court, still trying to come to terms with their life and afterlife.

     Marie Antoinette is central here and is quite well sung by Patricia Racette; Beaumarchais, who is in love with her and determined to change history so she will not have died so miserably, is affectingly and strongly presented by Christopher Maltman. Other key roles are those of Figaro (Lucas Meachem), who is as likable a rogue as always (and as roguish); a Turkish singer named Samira (Patti LuPone, rather oddly cast, although the role fits her vocal range well enough); the manipulative “bad guy” taken from The Guilty Mother, Bégearss (Robert Brubaker); and Count Almaviva (Joshua Guerrero) and Rosina (Guanqun Yu), she being the title character because of a brief affair decades earlier. Hoffman and Corigliano move and manipulate the characters adeptly, and manage to do a surprisingly good job of incorporating relatively straightforward operatic elements alongside ones that satirize the form, or at least handle it playfully. There is a lot to follow here, and it would arguably be better to have this work on DVD rather than in a two-SACD set, although it has to be said that the sound here is excellent and helps make the progress of the work reasonably easy to follow. There is pathos here, and spectacle, and lightheartedness, and enough buffa elements to make the whole production attractive even to people who would usually find opera off-putting – indeed, getting non-operagoers interested in the form is one thing Hoffman and Corigliano wanted to do. The Ghosts of Versailles is not an unalloyed success: much of the music is passable but not distinctive, the plot does creak and does threaten to collapse of its own weight from time to time, and it can be hard to figure out just who all the characters are and how they relate to each other. But the work certainly does not lack for ambition, and the LA Opera production offers it with a level of enthusiasm that is all too rare for modern large-scale opera productions, which often tend toward the stodgy simply as a way of protecting the huge investment they require in singers and staging. The Ghosts of Versailles may not be great opera; its self-referential irony may be a touch heavy-handed; its amusement may seem forced at times; but it is a very substantial work by any measure, filled with interesting intricacies and enough emotional heft to sweep an audience into its world and keep it pleasantly fascinated there for nearly three hours. That is, by any measure, a substantial achievement that makes this recording a wonderful one to have.

     If The Ghosts of Versailles is very much an opera of our time, it is scarcely the first to combine operatic approaches and even satirize the operatic form itself. More than two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, Haydn created La fedeltà premiata and labeled it a dramma pastorale giocoso, which is to say a dramatic/pastoral/comic work, not unlike Corigliano’s grand opera buffa. And Haydn managed to include everything from a vengeful goddess demanding gory annual sacrifices to no fewer than three separate sets of lovers, all of whom are eventually united in coupledom after a series of misadventures largely orchestrated by a scheming high priest. Come to think of it, Corigliano and Hoffman could well have been inspired by La fedeltà premiata – but they apparent were not. Indeed, the operas of Haydn were very much of his time and, although highly popular during the composer’s life, quickly fell out of favor afterwards as the operatic form evolved and some approaches that were important to Haydn – such as marionette operas – simply became obsolete. Haydn’s symphonies, most of them disconnected from theatrical works, retained and still retain interest, as do his late-in-life oratorios. But his operas have virtually disappeared – a fact that, on the basis of a new Naxos recording of the overtures to 14 of them, means audiences are missing out on some wonderful music. The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Michael Halász offers deliciously upbeat readings of overtures that span more than two decades of Haydn’s career, from 1768 to 1791. The operas’ titles are not especially closely connected to the music, which is generally of the settle-the-audience-down sort rather than the hear-tunes-from-the-work-to-come type. But Haydn, who shows a sure sense of drama in his symphonies and oratorios, displays it repeatedly here as well. Seven of the overtures are in the form of multi-movement sinfonias: Acide e Galatea (1762), Philemon und Baucis (1773), L’infedeltà delusa (1773), L’incontro improvviso (1775), L’isola disabitata (1779), La vera costanza (1776), and Armida (1784). The remaining seven are the single-movement type that was to become standard: Lo speziale (1768), Le pescatrici (1770), Der Götterath (1773), Il mondo della luna (1777), La fedeltà premiata (1781), Orlando Paladino (1782), and L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (1791). Symphonic elements abound here, and in fact Haydn reused the overture to, yes, La fedeltà premiata as the finale of his Symphony No. 73, “La Chasse.” Individually, these overtures are miniatures, less substantial than Haydn’s symphonies, setting a mood rather than proclaiming anything specific about the dramatic, comic or multifaceted material that is to come. What the fine, fleet performances here show is that in opera as in other forms, Haydn was a true master, even though not all of his music has endured equally well.

     If Haydn’s operas are nowadays little-known, much other vocal music, outside the operatic orbit, is even less familiar. The 13-member chorus called Seraphic Fire explores some fascinating material that straddles the line between folk and concert music on a new CD called Steal Away, released on the ensemble’s own label. The group’s leader and conductor, Patrick Dupré Quigley, argues that this music, although it features religious texts, is distinct from gospel music because it was intended for concert rather than church performance; and that although it was created by African-American composers, the intended audience of the earliest pieces was post-Civil-War white society, largely for the purpose of promoting higher education for African Americans. The origin of the music is interesting, but the religious-or-not analysis is a distinction without a difference, because these pieces come across again and again with the cadence of gospel music and many of the same themes. It is also a matter for academic analysis rather than listening enjoyment to discuss whether these 15 specific works are “really” folk music or concert music – although Quigley’s belief that the pieces’ treatment of tunes from oral tradition is analogous to the way Brahms and Dvořák handled folk tunes of their homelands is something of a stretch. The music here stands on its own merits, whatever its provenance, and its quality is more than sufficient to intrigue listeners who may have little or no knowledge of the composers represented here: Roland M. Carter (born 1942), John Work (1901-1967), William L. Dawson (1899-1990), Undine S. Moore (1904-1989), Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), Jester Hairston (1901-2000), Moses Hogan (1957-2003), and André Thomas (born 1939). The composers’ dates show that this is mostly 20th-century music, yet its connection with its 19th-century origins is everywhere apparent, and there is very little here, compositionally, reflecting the dates on which the works were written. Indeed, Quigley’s own arrangements of three old pieces – Over My Head, Were You There? and Steal Away – show just how readily these traditional tunes fit in with much-more-recent compositions in the same vein. The works’ religious feelings are pervasive and paramount, in titles including My God Is So High, There Is a Balm in Gilead, You Must Have That True Religion, Poor Man Lazrus and Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord. The singing is excellent throughout, most of it showcasing fine choral work – although some solos within the ensembles stand out, such as that of Charles Evans during Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit. Because there is a certain homogeneity to the works’ topics, the singing style and the music itself, this will be a (+++) release from most listeners’ perspective. But anyone wanting to hear first-class ensemble performances of less-known American-originating mixed-choral works will find the CD an enjoyable experience.

     The religious orientation is quite direct and overt on two new CDs that are, in a sense, “tribute” recordings, directed as they are toward famous religious figures: a Delphian CD devoted to the Virgin Mary and a Navona disc focused on St. Francis of Assisi. Both these (+++) releases offer very fine singing of music spanning the ages from the Baroque era to today, with Viri Galilaei a highly varied choral disc and Laudato Si a recording featuring one or two voices. Viri Galilaei takes its title from a 1987 Ascension Day anthem by Patrick Gowers (1936-2014), who was known mainly for film scores but who shows in this work that he can write skillfully and movingly for choral ensemble. It helps that the ensemble here, the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, is so fine: the 35-voice group blends exceptionally well and is blessed – the word seems appropriate – with two highly skilled conductors with different focuses: Peter Phillips’ attention to polyphony is as evident throughout the recording as is Benjamin Nicholas' commitment to and flair for recent choral material. The disc starts and ends in modern times, with Gowers’ work at the conclusion and the world première recording of Te Deum by Jonathan Dove (born 1959) at the start. In between these two works appear pieces of varying provenance and interest: Thomas Tallis’s If ye love me and O nata lux, Edward Elgar’s Give unto the Lord, Thomas Morley’s Nolo mortem peccatoris, John Rutter’s The Lord bless you and keep you, Hubert Parry’s Blest pair of sirens, William Byrd’s Diliges Dominum and Ave, verum corpus, Roger Quilter’s Lead us, heavenly Father, Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice, and William H. Harris’s Faire is the heaven. So homogenously does the choir treat these works that the significantly different time periods from which they are drawn seem to merge into one, while the compositional elements distinguishing one composer from the next are downplayed in a series of meltingly beautiful choral passages that are lovely to hear but become – because of the considerable sonic similarity from piece to piece – somewhat wearing, for all their beauty. It is that ever-present beauty, more than any particular characteristics of individual works, that listeners will find most appealing here.

     The primary composer heard on Laudato Si is Eli Tamar (born 1966). His three works on texts written by or attributed to St. Francis are all world première recordings: Prière de Saint François d’Assise for alto and organ, Salutatio Virtutem for soprano and organ, and Canticum Fratris Solis for soprano, alto and organ. Charlene Canty, Andrey Nemzer and Nicholas I. Will deliver sensitive performances of these works, in which Tamar offers a mixture of multiple styles, from Gregorian chant to Italian verismo. Tamar generally looks for drama in the text, often finds it, sometimes imposes it, and occasionally offers surprises, as in his slow, measured and quite affecting unfolding of St. Francis’ prayer. The theatricality of Tamar’s other settings does tend to be a bit much for the material, and the works are inclined to go on rather longer than need be – a situation driven home by the sole non-Tamar work here: Stabat Mater, an eight-section compilation of shorter pieces by Vivaldi, Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779), Boccherini, Rossini, Haydn, Poulenc, Dvořák and Pergolesi. The stylistic variances within this 40-minute work, and the skill – including dramatic skill – brought to the material by these composers combine for an enthralling work that shows the comparative weaknesses of Tamar’s settings, which are heartfelt but often seem to be trying too hard to make their points. The straightforward and moving religious devotion of Vivaldi and the distinct theatricality of Rossini, to cite two examples, simply come across more feelingly and with greater effectiveness than Tamar’s carefully crafted offerings. This is nevertheless a striking and often unusual disc, one whose Stabat Mater has poise, elegance and emotion aplenty and whose three Tamar works draw with at least intermittent success on some of the grand traditions of sacred vocal writing.

     The musical background of the material sung by the St. Charles Singers under Jeffrey Hunt on a new MSR Classics CD called Bushes & Briars is of quite a different type. This is plain and simple folk music, although the words “plain” and “simple” can be misapplied to some of this material and some of these versions of the songs. There are 25 arrangements here from a folk-song collection edited by John Rutter. Some items are American and some British; some will likely be familiar to listeners (Greensleeves, Londonderry Air, The Three Ravens) and others will likely be new to many listeners (Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron, Afton Water, Ca’ the Yowes). Like folk songs in general, in any language, these pieces deal with the homey and homely: work, family life, love requited and unrequited. The versions heard here include some by well-known composers (Percy Grainger, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams) and others by less-known arrangers, but one and all possess a smooth mellifluousness that lets the words be clearly heard and allows this very fine singing group to show its ability to blend, emphasize, and evoke a wide variety of emotions. There is more pathos than tragedy here, more lightness than out-and-out humor; but if the songs are on the superficial side – resulting in a (+++) rating for the CD – the performances are polished, professional and thoroughly engaging. As in Seraphic Fire’s new CD, this recording has a certain sameness about it from start to finish, the result of the similarity of the material being sung and the very well-blended vocal ensemble. What that means is that the disc will certainly appeal to fans of the St. Charles Singers, and perhaps even bring them some new ones – but 70 minutes of this sort of material is rather a lot to hear straight through: individual works are easier to appreciate than the collection as a whole.

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