May 31, 2012


Johann Strauss Jr.: Die Fledermaus. Adrianne Pieczonka, Edita Gruberova, Carmen Oprisanu, Thomas Moser, Georg Tichy, Jörg Schneider, Gottfried Hornik, Franz Kasemann, Martin Zauner; Chor und Orchester der Ungarischen Staatsoper conducted by Friedrich Haider. Nightingale Classics. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier. Evelyn Lear, Jules Bastin, Frederica von Stade, Derek Hammond-Stroud, Ruth Welting, Nelly Morpurgo, James Atherton, Sophia van Sante, José Carreras; Netherlands Opera Chorus and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Janáček: The Makropulos Affair. Angela Denoke, Raymond Very, Peter Hoare, Jurgite Adamonytè, Johan Reuter, Aleš Briscein, Jochen Schmeckenbecher; Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor and Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. C Major. $29.99 (DVD).

L’Olimpiade: The Opera—music by 16 composers to the libretto by Pietro Metastasio. Romina Basso, Franziska Gottwald, Karina Gauvin, Nicholas Phan, Ruth Rosique, Nicholas Spanos; Venice Baroque Orchestra conducted by Markellos Chryssicos. Naïve. $27.99 (2 CDs).

      When opera performances are well sung, well played, true to the composers’ intentions even if not necessarily to the original staging, and altogether successful to hear (CDs) or see (DVDs), it becomes all the more important that they be brought to listeners (and viewers) in the most attractive form possible.  Otherwise, people hearing these works at home will be in a constant state of cognitive dissonance, enjoying the performances – and all those here considered are of very high quality – while being irritated by the form in which they appear.

      Nightingale Classics does things right – although in one way strangely – with Die Fledermaus as conducted by Friedrich Haider.  This recording, made in Budapest in 1998, zips right along, with good pacing throughout and a particularly nice turn by Edita Gruberova as Adele.  Adrianne Pieczonka and Thomas Moser as the mismatched and not especially faithful Rosalinde and Gabriel von Eisenstein also make a good pair, effectively overdoing their Act I “departure” scene as well as their flirtation-while-disguised in Act II.  And Carmen Oprisanu makes a suitably bored Prinz Orlofsky.  Strauss’ second-act ballet music is not performed; instead, we get the “Thunder and Lightning Polka.”  This is a common approach, but what is not common here, and in fact is rather odd, is the significant role given to the ever-tipsy jailer, Frosch (Martin Zauner).  This performance is given without dialogue, but with Frosch providing ongoing and often sarcastic commentary.  Usually a small and very funny part in the third act, the role of Frosch is here expanded in ways that make little narrative or dramatic sense and that are certainly not in keeping with the composer’s plans (or, for that matter, those of co-librettist Richard Genée, who also had a considerable hand in writing the music).  The Frosch appearances take some getting used to, but they are at least preferable to having the music without any narrative at all.  And many kudos to Nightingale Classics for providing a full libretto, with English translation of all the Frosch passages as well as the sung elements.  Die Fledermaus trips lightly here, just as it should.

      Brilliant Classics’ Der Rosenkavalier, however, trips up in the way it is presented.  This is a reissue of a Holland Festival performance from 1976, and some elements of it are so good that lovers of Richard Strauss’ charming comedy of manners will surely want to have this performance.  The wonderful Evelyn Lear as the Feldmarschallin is beautifully complemented by Frederica von Stade as Octavian – both the women are in exceptionally fine voice.  Jules Bastin is suitably oafish as Baron Ochs, Ruth Welting makes a lovely Sophie (in a performance that hints that the character is not quite as naïve as all that), and it is great fun to hear José Carreras in the minor role of “a singer.”  But this fine performance is undermined by really miserable packaging.  The CD box is flimsy and readily prone to breakage, and there is no bilingual libretto enclosed or available (although a German-only one can be accessed online).  There have been many fine recordings of Der Rosenkavalier over the years, and this is certainly one of them; and it is a pleasure to have it available at such a low price.  But the packaging makes this top-tier reading seem like a bargain-basement production.  The singers, conductor Edo de Waart, and Strauss himself all deserve much better.

      The DVD of the 2011 Salzburg Festival performance of Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair, staged by Christoph Marthaler, is, on the other hand, top-notch.  This was Marthaler’s sixth production for Salzburg and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s opera debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  The pairing is quite marvelous, with the work coming across more as a stage play with music than as a traditional opera.  In fact, there is little that is traditional about Janáček’s science-fictional 1926 work, which contemplates the price of immortality and requires a fine lead actress/singer for full effect.  Angela Denoke delivers a compelling performance, and Salonen brings forth the variegated score – which contains everything from Bohemian melodies to jagged 20th-century rhythms – with great skill.  The fact that he is working with perhaps the world’s finest orchestra helps a great deal: the Vienna Philharmonic’s lush sumptuousness is balanced with just enough bite from start to finish.  The value of DVDs of classical concerts is debatable, and even in opera, there is often something to be said for hearing the music on CD and imagining the scenario in one’s own head.  But not in this case.  Marthaler’s intriguing conception of The Makropulos Affair is definitely worth seeing, and video director Hannes Rossacher generally does a first-rate job of following the action without intruding into it unnecessarily.  Viewers have a sense of presence at the performance that clearly heightens the intensity of the music, and the emotional impact brought to the work by Salonen, Denoke and the rest of the excellent cast is palpable.

      The presentation of L’Olimpiade is as odd as that of The Makropulos Affair is involving and solid.  This two-CD Naïve set offers a rare, possibly unique operatic approach in its focus not on a composer’s music but on a libretto.  Librettists tend to be maligned, sometimes unfairly but often justifiably, in the opera world: their work, not to put too fine a point on it, often isn’t very good.  Whether this is because of composers or because of the librettists’ own abilities is arguable, but the fact is that few people attend or listen to opera performances because of the works’ narratives.  Pietro Metastasio’s libretto of L’Olimpiade, though, is an exception.  This libretto, based on Herodotus and originally written for a 1733 setting by Antonio Caldara, was so popular that some 60 composers used it – an extraordinary success by any measure.  The very first to pick it up after Caldara was none other than Vivaldi, in 1734, but the earliest major success of L’Olimpiade was the 1735 version by Giovanni Pergolesi.  This is a libretto with which many composers succeeded: Baldassare Galuppi (1748), Antonio Sacchini (1763), Josef Mysliveček (1778), Johann Nepomuk Poissl (1815, using a German translation), and others.  It is easy to see why the libretto proved so popular: set in the time of the ancient Olympic Games (and utilized by composers well before the Games re-started at the end of the 19th century), L’Olimpiade features an exotic setting that was particularly popular at the time the libretto was created; has characters who are rivals in love swapping places to attempt their amorous conquests; and concludes with not one but two marriages.  These are elements that are practically de rigueur in opera.  What the singers, conductor Markellos Chryssicos and the Venice Baroque Orchestra do for Naïve is to go through Metastasio’s libretto using 16 arias by 16 different composers – including Caldara, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Galuppi and Mysliveček, although not Sacchini or Poissl.  It turns out that even Cherubini and Cimarosa created operas from Metastasio’s libretto, and they too are heard here.  The result is, of course, a pastiche, but quite a fascinating one – although, in truth, there is little to differentiate some of the arias from others.  This L’Olimpiade never existed on stage, and the whole production is in some ways a curious exercise – more for the operatic “in” crowd than for listeners in general.  But it is a highly intriguing experiment, very well sung and played, and a delightful demonstration of at least one instance in which an opera libretto, far from detracting from a composer’s music, added a great deal to the work of a great many composers indeed.

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