January 03, 2013


Wagner: Die Feen. Alfred Reiter, Tamara Wilson, Anja Fidelia Ulrich, Juanita Lascarro, Burkhard Fritz, Brenda Rae, Michael Nagy; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern-und Museumsorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Oehms. $39.99 (3 CDs).

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Stephen Gould, Nina Stemme, Kwangchul Youn, Johan Reuter, Michelle Breedt, Simon Pauly, Clemens Birber, Arttu Kataja, Timothy Fallon; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $49.99 (3 SACDs).

Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 1—La gazza ladra; Semiramide; Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (Il barbiere di Siviglia); Otello; Le siège de Corinthe; Sinfonia in D “al Conventello”; Ermione. Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $9.99.

Elgar: The “Longed-for Light”—Elgar’s Music in Wartime. Simon Catlow, speaker; Susan Gritton, soprano; BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. SOMM. $18.98.

      Before he began to cement his personal style in Der Fliegende Holländer, his fourth completed opera, Wagner made three excursions into existing operatic styles. His third opera, Rienzi, is hyper-grand opera in the manner of Meyerbeer, and in fact is quite a fine work that deserves more-frequent performance (although it is devilishly difficult to sing, much less stage – as are many of Meyerbeer’s works).  Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot, is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and is Italianate in approach – Wagner channeling Rossini, although not entirely convincingly (although the work does have some attractive elements).  Wagner’s very first finished opera, Die Feen, can fairly be “damned with faint praise” by observing that it out-Marschners Marschner. Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861), whose work is almost unknown today, was the most important German opera composer after Weber, until Wagner came along. Marschner was much given to supernatural horror, and his Der Vampyr, based on John Polidori’s novel, is particularly effective. Wagner was quite significantly influenced by Marschner – as, to a lesser extent, was Schumann – and Die Feen shows the influence most strongly. It is a complex story of fairies and humans, secrets kept and revealed, transformations and immortality. And it is the artistic ability of the hero, Arindal, that eventually turns him into a hero – a look ahead toward Die Meistersinger.  In fact, there are glimmers of later Wagner throughout Die Feen, which receives a very strong and interesting performance from the Frankfurt forces under Sebastian Weigle. Even this early, for example, Wagner is moving beyond “number opera,” with its series of set pieces, by using orchestral transitions and primitive leitmotifs to propel the action and unify the work. There is no question that the music is derivative: when not sounding like Marschner, Wagner here sounds like Mendelssohn, Weber, Mozart, even Gluck. But this is very well-structured music, and the third act’s use of music itself as the redemptive force (Arindal uses it to restore his wife to life after she has been turned to stone) is very much in keeping with a theme that Wagner was to adhere to throughout his career. The Oehms presentation is a fine one throughout, and even includes the German libretto – although, unfortunately for English speakers, without translation.  It is worth noting that Wagner himself wrote the libretto, based on works by Carlo Gozzi. In this literary aspect of creativity as well as some musical ones, Wagner’s Die Feen literally sets the stage for the composer’s approach to his later works.

      One of the greatest of those works, Tristan und Isolde, is the fifth in the outstanding in-progress PentaTone series of Wagner’s 10 major operas conducted by Marek Janowski. This live performance from March 2012 is both propulsive and tender, gripping from first note to last, and utterly convincing. The doomed lovers are sung wonderfully by Stephen Gould and Nina Stemme. Gould’s rather low-range Heldentenor voice is firm and powerful throughout, and Gould manages to bring different vocal qualities to the three acts: authority in the first, warmth in the second and controlled passion in what is essentially a “mad scene” in the third. Stemme combines a wonderful top range with a warm middle one, resulting in a passionate and deeply committed Isolde with toughness at her core. Her final Liebestod is simply radiant – reaching beyond the earthly toward transcendence and eventually attaining sublimity.  The supporting cast ranges from satisfactory to excellent. Michelle Breedt as Brangäne sings beautifully and with conviction, although her voice is on the light side and therefore takes some getting used to. Johan Reuter is firm and strong as Kurwenal; Kwangchul Youn is a stolid, straightforward König Marke, if not an especially distinctive one; and Timothy Fallon brings considerable intensity – maybe a bit too much of it – to the small role of the young sailor. The members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin show their usual mettle in their offstage parts as Tristan’s crew in the first act. And the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is simply splendid: flexible, responsive, warm, deep and blessed with outstanding recording quality that itself is an almost palpable element of the production. The release is filled with felicitous recording touches, from the offstage horns in the second act to the miking of the voice of Brangäne as she keeps watch over the lovers. And Janowski’s conducting is splendid throughout – a complete triumph, and the fifth straight remarkably effective recording in what is turning out to be a truly exceptional series of releases of Wagner operas.

      A Wagner opera can easily take four hours; Rossini’s complete opera overtures take about the same amount of time to perform. But what a different sonic environment they offer! The first of four CDs in a Naxos series conducted by Christian Benda showcases the many moods of Rossini, whose typecasting as a creator of lightweight comedies is belied by the seriousness of mood in the openings of Otello, Semiramide and Le siège de Corinthe. The Prague Sinfonia Orchestra plays these works with as much seriousness of purpose and intensity as they deserve, and lightens up considerably for La gazza ladra and Rossini’s most famous double-duty overture, which introduced the serious Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra in 1815 and, four months later, opened the composer’s most famous comedy, Il barbiere di Siviglia. Rossini never hesitated to reuse themes as well as full pieces: the Sinfonia in D “al Conventello,” for example, includes a theme later used in the opera Il Signor Bruschino.  And Rossini was more creative in some of his overtures than he is often credited with being: the opening of Ermione, a tragedy dealing with Trojan War figures, includes a chorus of Trojan prisoners lamenting their fate – an unusual element in an opera overture in Rossini’s time and thereafter. Well played and, in the Ermione overture, well sung, the music on this CD bodes well for the other three in the series.

      The sentiments are highly operatic even though the music, strictly speaking, is not, on a very well-played SOMM CD with the unusual title, The “Longed-for Light”—Elgar’s Music in Wartime. Actually, not all the music dates to the years of World War I: Sursum Corda, which concludes the disc with suitable solemnity, is from 1894. But most pieces here were created during “the war to end war,” and there are some vocal works that make the anguish of wartime – and its effect on Elgar’s output – quite clear. Two are for speaker and orchestra: Carillon and Le Drapeau Belge, both delivered feelingly (perhaps a bit too feelingly) by Simon Callow, who knows how to get to the heart of Elgar – a recent Chandos release has him narrating The Starlight Express, another wartime work although it is, on the surface, a children’s play with incidental music.  On this CD, the two pieces presented solely by Callow and Une Voix dans le Désert, sung plaintively by Susan Gritton with Callow narrating, are all based on works by Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts, lamenting his country’s suffering. There are several small, atmospheric pieces here that enhance the longer ones: the gentle Sospiri for strings, harp and organ, the charming Carissima, and the poignant Rosemary (referring to Ophelia’s line, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”).  One of the two most-extended works here is Polonia, a tribute to the people of Poland (Wagner wrote an overture with the same name, which is very rarely performed). It includes the expected patriotic themes, mixed with music by Chopin and Paderewski and original material by Elgar, and features a particularly lovely violin solo. The other extended piece is something of a discovery, or rediscovery: The Sanguine Fan, a ballet written for a wartime charity concert, whose scenario is based on a drawing showing figures in 18th-century dress plus cupids, Echo and Pan. The story involves lovers who part angrily, after which the man curses Eros, is attracted to Pan’s beloved, Echo, and is struck down by Pan. The music mixes lyricism with intense and dark drama and is filled with mood changes. John Wilson conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra with considerable spirit and rhythmic intensity in the ballet, and brings a subtle hand and careful attention to nuance to all the works on the CD – Polonia, for example, has great sweep and strength. Elgar never wrote an opera, but the musical and verbal expressions of his wartime music show his communicative strengths very clearly indeed, and Wilson’s strong, sustained, flexible performances make the composer’s troubled concerns about war and its effects as clear as any music drama could.

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