May 28, 2009


Strauss: Das Spitzentuch der Königin. Jessica Glatte and Elke Kottmair, sopranos; Nadja Stefanoff and Gritt Gnauck, mezzo-sopranos; Ralf Simon, Markus Liske and Hardy Brachmann, tenors; Chor and Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Liederkreis; Frauenliebe und –leben; Die Löwenbraut; Der Nussbaum; Er ist’s; Loreley; Widmung. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Daniel Blumenthal, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Gilles Vigneault and Bruno Fecteau: La Grand Messe. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Antoine Bélanger, tenor; Olivier Laquerre, bass-baritone; Le Chœur de l’OSQ and L’Orchestre Symphonique de Québec conducted by Richard Lee. CBC Records. $16.99.

     Johann Strauss Jr.’s rarely performed Das Spitzentuch der Königin (“The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief”) neatly encompasses almost everything that is right and almost everything that is wrong in Strauss operettas. The music is simply marvelous, and most of it will be quite familiar even to first-time listeners, since Strauss created one of his most famous waltzes – Roses from the South – entirely from tunes from this operetta. The story, however, is weird, filled with contemporary (and now long-outdated) political references, and mixing real historical characters (notably the writer Miguel de Cervantes, of Don Quixote fame) with made-up ones and some crucial ones who do not even have names (the queen and king are identified only by their titles). The story is set in Portugal, where Cervantes decides to get the weak-willed king out from under the thumb of his prime minister, who has deliberately turned the king into a libertine. The king and his queen are estranged because of their disastrous wedding night, during which he fell asleep before they could enjoy a delicious truffle pastry together. The queen becomes infatuated with Cervantes and writes him a note on her handkerchief; the bit of lace then gets lost and passed from hand to hand at various points. Cervantes is imprisoned, released, declared a mere fool because of the physiognomy of his head, and disguises himself as an English ambassador, an innkeeper and a robber. Cervantes’ betrothed, Donna Irene, does the physiognomy exam while disguised as a doctor; she also dresses up as a lady bullfighter. The queen disguises herself as the innkeeper’s daughter. The prime minister and his main henchman are eventually humiliated by being dressed in a bull’s costume. And…well, it is all ridiculous, perhaps enjoyably so for those fluent in German (CPO again falls far short of best practices by providing a plot summary but no libretto). But the dramatic absurdity only serves to highlight the wonderful music that pervades the operetta. Among the especially delightful pieces are the Trüffel-Couplets sung by the king (here handled as a trouser role by Nadja Stefanoff); a newly rediscovered and quite delightful Trio for the king, queen (Jessica Glatte) and Donna Irene (Elke Kottmair); Cervantes’ (Ralf Simon’s) Romanze; the couplets sung by the prime minister (Hardy Brachmann); and the queen’s wistful song in the third act, Siebzehn Jahre. Lovely singing, excellent choral work and enthusiastic orchestral playing – all under Ernst Theis, a conductor who expertly keeps thing moving smartly along – add up to a wonderful performance of some genuinely lovely music put at the service of an indisputably outdated and creaky plot.

     There is nothing outdated about the emotions of Schumann’s songs, and it is a real pleasure to hear them sung by a contralto with the fluidity and grace of Marie-Nicole Lemieux. The two wonderful 1840 cycles, Liederkreis and Frauenliebe und –leben, sound especially good here, with Lemieux’ rich, full voice thoroughly exploring the emotions underlying the former cycle and the narrative connection of the latter. Lemieux is evocative and thoroughly Romantic in Liederkreis, with Daniel Blumenthal’s sensitive piano work ably backing up the emotionalism of Joseph von Eichendorff’s dozen poems. For Adelbert von Chamisso’s poetry in Frauenliebe und –leben, singer and pianist alike effectively evoke the many emotional stages of a woman’s life. The five individual songs that complete the CD also show Lemieux exploring emotions with intensity and passion; the disc as a whole showcases the singer’s versatility as well as her depth.

     Lemieux is a native of Quebec, and Gilles Vigneault (born 1928) is one of that Canadian province’s major musical figures. But while Lemieux, though Schumann, reaches out to the world, Vigneault seems focused more inwardly, partly in a religious sense (he is Catholic) and partly geographically (La Grand Messe was commissioned by the Quebec Festival of Sacred Music, and the performers are from the province). Vigneault goes beyond the traditional bounds of the Mass to open his work with an Ouverture and Introït before the Kyrie, and close it with Communion and Ite missa est after the Agnus Dei. The additional movements do add some variety to a form that is by its nature highly stylized, but they do not bring any significant additional depth or profundity to the old words. Vigneault worked with Bruno Fecteau, his longtime musical director, on scoring and arranging the texts, and the result is an interesting amalgam of Latin, French and Inuit. La Grand Messe is quite well performed, but somehow seems more clever than profound, as if it seeks through variety to communicate multiculturally even though the words at its heart are longstanding ones of a very specific belief structure. The fine performance and unusual elements of the composition garner this CD a (+++) rating, but this Mass appeals more as a well-thought-out work than as a heartfelt and deeply spiritual one.

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