April 23, 2009


Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Suite from “I gioielli della Madonna”; Prelude and Intermezzo from “I quattro rusteghi”; Suite-Concertante for Bassoon and Orchestra; Overture and Intermezzo from “Il segreto di Susanna”; Overture and Intermezzo from “L’amore medico”; Intermezzo and Ritornello from “Il Campiello”; Overture from “La dama boba.” Karen Geoghegan, bassoon; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 1; Introduction, Interlude and Carnival Music from “Notre Dame.” Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. Naxos. $8.99.

Daron Hagen: Shining Brow. Robert Orth, baritone; Brenda Harris, soprano; Robert Frankenberry, tenor; Matthew Curran, bass-baritone; Elaine Valby, mezzo-soprano; Gilda Lyons, soprano; Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, the Italian-born composer whose works for many years were more successful in Germany than in his home country, remains best known today for his lighthearted romp, Il segreto di Susanna, a period piece (1909) in which Susanna’s husband suspects she has a secret lover but her actual secret is that she has picked up the then-scandalous habit of cigarette smoking. But the bright and bustling music of this one-act comedy is far from representative of Wolf-Ferrari’s 14 operas. Nor is the work for which this composer is most notorious: I gioielli della Madonna (1911), his sole venture into verismo, which includes everything from an on-stage orgy scene to love between a brother and his (adopted) sister. As it happens, the four-movement suite from I gioielli della Madonna that the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda plays with such spirit on the new Chandos Wolf-Ferrari CD shows the composer’s fluency with melody, his knack for beauty and his distinctly Rossinian roots. But there is more to Wolf-Ferrari than these two operas, and this disc provides an unusual chance to hear music from some of his other works. It turns out that tunefulness, limpid orchestration and hummable melodies are characteristics shown by Wolf-Ferrari throughout his career, as early as I quattro rusteghi (1906) and as late as La dama boba (1939, based on a Spanish play and with its title in Spanish). A few of the operatic excerpts here also show the composer’s skill at writing for solo instruments: the Intermezzo from Il segreto di Susanna showcases John Bradbury’s fine clarinet playing, while the one from L’amore medico has lovely solo cello work by Peter Dixon. And then there is the one non-operatic work here, the Suite-Concertante for Bassoon and Orchestra, which gives Karen Geoghegan ample opportunity to show herself highly expressive in the first movement and quite jaunty in the remaining three. The cumulative effect of this CD is to show that Wolf-Ferrari’s melodic inventiveness was substantial and is worth hearing more frequently.

     Franz Schmidt was a far less prolific composer than Wolf-Ferrari, and he wrote only two operas, Notre Dame (based on the Victor Hugo novel) and Fredigundis. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky plays three excerpts from Act I of Notre Dame with intensity and depth on the new Naxos CD of Schmidt’s music. Notre Dame dates to 1904-6, three decades before Schmidt’s huge oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, but already in this opera the composer is showing his mastery of large orchestral forces and his ability to produce telling effects – notably, in these excerpts, with the harp. This music ties clearly back to that of Wagner, but already displays signs of originality in structure. Schmidt’s first symphony (he wrote four) also ties back: written in 1899, it sounds more like a mid-19th-century work than like one written on the eve of a new century. It is nevertheless an impressive achievement, with fine writing for all sections of the orchestra, a generally upbeat mood, and a particularly interesting scherzo marked Schnell und leicht. Although the work breaks no new harmonic ground, it shows Schmidt’s early mastery of large forces – he was 25 when he wrote the symphony – and indicates that a release of Schmidt’s later symphonic works would be most welcome.

     Like Schmidt, American composer Daron Hagen (born 1961 in Milwaukee) has four symphonies to his credit; but unlike Schmidt, he has a strong operatic focus, with four of his six operas set to libretti by Paul Muldoon. The first of these, Shining Brow (1992), is now available on CD for the first time, and it is a considerable achievement. The title is the English translation of the Welsh Taliesin, the name of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous and ill-starred houses, and the opera is a set of scenes about Wright, two of the women in his life, and his relationship with Taliesin and with the architectural establishment. Hagen is essentially a tonal composer, but Shining Brow is also filled with polytonality (reflecting the interrelationship of principal characters) and a variety of 20th-century techniques (reflecting their emotional state). It is an impressive if, oddly, a rather dry opera, considering its emotionally explosive content. Part of it involves the estrangement of Wright (Robert Orth) from Louis Sullivan (Robert Frankenberry), an establishment-architecture figure. Even more of it involves Wright’s initially passionate affair with an early feminist, Mamah Cheney (Brenda Harris), whose husband, Edwin (Matthew Curran) will not grant her a divorce – just as Wright’s wife, Catherine (Elaine Valby) will not set Wright free (they had been married 20 years and had six children when the affair with Mamah Cheney began). Hagen’s opera jumps from scene to scene as Wright meets Mamah Cheney, designs Taliesen, “elopes” to Europe with Mamah (who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with their relationship, in scenes that parallel Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with Wright on a professional level), and eventually returns to the United States and a completed Taliesen. Then the opera plunges into tragedy as Taliesin is destroyed by fire, Mamah and her two children are killed, and four other people also die – an event that really happened in 1914 when a hatchet-wielding employee committed mass murder and arson, then killed himself. This is certainly tragedy at an operatic level, but it fits a trifle uneasily into Shining Brow, since the work’s episodic structure never really prepares the audience for what is going to happen – and the tragedy itself, in the opera as in real life, seems to have no direct connection with Wright’s personal or professional activities. On balance, Shining Brow is an often-effective opera that it is good to have on CD – JoAnn Falletta keeps everything moving smartly, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra handle their roles with strength and even passion. This Naxos set is a worthwhile purchase for anyone curious about one direction that American opera is now taking.

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