October 30, 2014


Boito: Mefistofele. Ildar Abdrazakov, Ramón Vargas, Patricia Racette; San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Nicola Luisotti. EuroArts. $39.99 (2 DVDs).

James MacMillan: Clemency. David Kravitz, Michelle Trainor, Christine Abraham; Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by David Angus. BIS. $21.99.

Janáček: Glagolitic Mass; The Eternal Gospel. Soloists, Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tomáš Netopil. Supraphon. $19.99.

Ensemble LaCappella: Shimmering. Rondeau. $18.99.

Eric William Barnum: Choral Music. Choral Arts conducted by Robert Bode. Gothic Records. $18.99.

     Arrigo Boito’s version of the Faust legend is not performed particularly often, and the San Francisco Opera’s version on DVD, released on the EuroArts label, helps show why. Boito was a fine librettist – for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and other works – and his book for his own opera is well done, even including the latter part of the story, in which Faust travels back to the ancient world to encounter Helen of Troy. Furthermore, Boito had some skill as a composer, creating an opening scene for Mefistofele in which the music mounts up and up, seeming to rise to impossible heights before eventually settling, as it must; a moving death scene for Margherita; and some fine choral writing. But the opera is woefully uneven, with more pages of uninspired music than engaging ones. It takes a really excellent Mefistofele to smooth over the many rough edges and hold the work together. Unfortunately, Ildar Abdrazakov is not up to the task: his voice is neither powerful enough nor of sufficient intensity to sweep the audience into the story and captivate listeners. And Ramón Vargas, as Faust, has a too-tight high register and some difficulty in phrasing in a number of his arias – although his dying aria is very effective, as if he has saved his best for last. The most consistent performer here is Patricia Racette as Margherita (and Helen, called Elena in the opera). She manages to sing with naïveté, nobility, grandeur and remorse as required, and her pronunciation and phrasing are first-rate. Unfortunately, even she is at the mercy of the rather flabby conducting of Nicola Luisotti, who dwells far too long on far too many unremarkable elements of the music, resulting in a performance that too often simply drags (the DVD set runs 145 minutes). The visuals do not really make up for the musical lacks here, although they too have their moments. This is an updated version of a Robert Carsen production from 1989 (restaged in 1994). But the new version is directed by Laurie Feldman with altogether too much ponderousness. The Prologue has the best setting to go with its wonderful music: it takes place in God’s private opera house. A similar touch of offbeat almost-comedy would serve other parts of Mefistofele well, but that is not what the production delivers: pretty much everything is taken very much at face value, and unfortunately, this opera’s face value is not of the highest. Certainly this is a worthy recording of a work that operagoers may have few chances to see in a live performance – but it is simply not a terribly compelling production of an opera that also, alas, is not terribly compelling.

     Religion gets a different, Old Testament treatment from James MacMillan and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts in the chamber opera Clemency, now available on BIS in a live recording of a Boston Chamber Opera production. Even without visuals, the opera’s intimate setting and its concerns are easy to follow: Abraham and Sarah are visited by three strangers, who reveal that when they return in a year, Sarah will have a child – something she finds hard to believe, given her age. Asked where they are going, the strangers reveal themselves as angels and say they are on the way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – leading Abraham and Sarah to argue with the angels and try to save the townspeople in what is ultimately a futile attempt. David Kravitz and Christine Abraham sing well in this world première recording, and the string orchestra under David Angus provides a fine accompaniment. MacMillan’s work is paired with an English translation of Schubert’s Hagars Klage (“Hagar’s Lament”), in which Hagar (sung by Michelle Trainor), mother of Abraham’s firstborn child, sings of her sadness and anger after the two of them are abandoned in the desert. Bible readers will know that Hagar’s story ends better than that of Sodom and Gomorrah: God miraculously produces a well with water for Hagar and Ishmael, who survives to marry and settle in the land of Paran. Schubert’s song ends before this happens, but listeners who know these Bible tales will see how well the Schubert and MacMillan works fit together, both dealing with aspects of clemency – granted or not. The quietly contemplative conclusion of MacMillan’s work is its most attractive element; by and large, the music is chant-like and faintly Middle Eastern in flavor, pleasantly unchallenging to hear and more than adequate to the story.

     The music is thornier and more complex in Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, heard in the world première recording of its original 1927 version on a new Supraphon release. There are a number of differences between this version and the 1928 one usually performed, but nothing that reduces the impact of the music or its vibrant, rhythmic writing for soloists and chorus. The highlight remains the penultimate movement, a fascinating organ solo that does not draw on any particular church precedents and that practically explodes with wild, continuous energy in a kind of perpetuum mobile that is challenging for organists and surprising to anyone hearing this mass for the first time. The organist here, Aleš Bárta, plays skillfully and with feeling, although perhaps a little too matter-of-factly – indeed, the whole performance under  Tomáš Netopil is reverent enough, maybe even a little too narrowly so: a touch more fiery enthusiasm would have been welcome. Nevertheless, this is a fine reading of this major Janáček work, and it is accompanied by a piece that is much less known: The Eternal Gospel, a four-movement “Legend for Soloists, Mixed Choir and Orchestra after the Poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický” that dates to 1914. This is nothing less than a cantata, featuring soprano and tenor soloists in a work in which the composer transforms overt religiosity into an expression of the contemporary world’s need for reconciliation (the piece was first heard during World War I, in late 1917). Forthright and direct, filled with lyricism and expressiveness, The Eternal Gospel is in some ways more accessible than the Glagolitic Mass, although the better-known work is unquestionably more ambitious and innovative. The chance to hear the two pieces together is one that all listeners interested in Janáček’s music will welcome.

     Music that is mostly religious and mostly more recent than Janáček’s is offered by the ensemble LaCappella (Antonia Bieker , Marie Tetzlaff, Rosalie Schüler, Magdalena Bauer, Madeleine Röhl and Karen Tessmer) on a new CD entitled Shimmering. The attraction here is as much the beauty of the voices and the overall subject matter of the disc – explorations of facets of Mary, mother of Christ – as it is the specific works, which vary in quality and level of interest. There is little repertoire for female choir before the Romantic era, but one piece here is quite old: Sancta et immaculata by Francesco Guerrero (1528-1599), which is quite beautifully harmonized. From later times, there are three pieces by Schumann: Im Meeres Mitten, Der Bleicheren Nachtlied, and Das verlassene Mägdlein. And there are three early-20th-century works: Reger’s Mariae Wiegenlied and Ravel’s Toi le Cœur de la Rose, both arranged by Clytus Gottwald, and Maurice Duruflé’s Tota pulchra est. The pieces are not presented chronologically or with any apparent reason for the sequence in which they are offered – a weakness in a generally strong presentation that features particularly fine ensemble cooperation. In addition to the seven works of the early 20th century or before, there are eight more-recent ones: Shimmering—Ave generosa by Ola Gjeilo (born 1978); Ave Maria by Simon Wawer (born 1979); Assumpta est Maria by Vytautas Miškinis (born 1954); De Angelis by Petr Eben (1929-2007); Lux aeterna by Wolfgang Drescher (born 1990); O magnum mysterium by Colin Mawby (born 1936); O salutaris hostia by Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977); and, as a final offering, Es saß ein klein wild Vögelein arranged by Morten Vinther (born 1983) and Magdalena Bauer (born 1990). The selections show that even in the modern age, Latin is generally the favored language for writing works about Mary; and even in our largely secular time, aspects of her story continue to resound with composers from many places and many backgrounds. There is a certain uniformity both to the works and to the performances, lending the disc a sense of evenness and timelessness that sometimes threatens to become dull but never quite does – probably because the individual pieces are generally short, and the entire CD lasts only 47 minutes. This Rondeau release will appeal mainly to fans of female chamber choirs – a rarefied group, to be sure, but one that will quickly warm to the skill with which LaCappella performs this repertoire.

     Listeners who prefer a mixed chorus and works with a secular orientation will enjoy the very fine performances of 11 pieces by Seattle-based Choral Arts on a new CD of the music of Eric William Barnum (born 1979). The LaCappella disc about Mary focuses on transcendent, sacred love, while the Gothic Records release of Barnum’s music has a distinctly secular flavor. Although Requiescat and, in a different way, Remembered Light have spiritual elements, other pieces here have a certain worldly abandon: Jenny Kiss’d Me, Afternoon on a Hill, Moonlight Music and more. As a totality, these pieces look at aspects of love under various circumstances and at different times of life – the CD progresses through its 55 minutes more or less chronologically in terms of the ways in which people’s attitudes toward and experiences of love change. Choral Arts features great purity of tone, a fine blending of different voice ranges, sure and solid ensemble work, and a pacing under Robert Bode that brings out the varying elements and effects of Barnum’s music. The music itself is interesting enough to sustain hearing and occasional rehearing, having elements of folk and pop orientation within settings that are primarily classical in style. None of the individual works is a particular standout, but as a whole, the disc provides a warm and pleasant feeling of imagining and reimagining love in its many mostly secular guises.

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