February 19, 2015


Wagner: Preludes and Interludes—“Parsifal”: Prelude; “Götterdämmerung”: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March; “Die Walküre”: Ride of the Valkyries; “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”: Prelude; “Tristan und Isolde”: Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod; “Lohengrin”: Prelude; “Tannhäuser”: Overture; “Rienzi”: Overture; “Das Liebesverbot”: Overture; “Die Feen”: Overture. Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records. $18.99.

Verdi: Rigoletto. Saimir Pirgu, George Petean, Aleksandra Kurzak, Andrea Mastroni, Judith Schmid, Julia Riley, Valeriy Murga; Chor der Oper Zürich and Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records DVD. $24.99.

     Turn loose a fine opera conductor and a first-rate opera orchestra on symphonic repertoire and very interesting things happen, as quickly becomes clear in the first three releases from the new Philharmonia Records label of Philharmonia Zürich. Fabio Luisi, the Zürich Opera’s general music director, brings operatic sensibilities not only to opera-related orchestral music but also to dramatic music not tied to opera at all. For a two-CD set of Wagner preludes, overtures and excerpts, Luisi treads a great deal of familiar territory plus some that remains little-known – and except for a peculiar arrangement of the material and one strikingly ill-considered omission, this is an outstanding release. Luisi here shows his familiarity with and understanding of almost all the 13 completed operas by Wagner, and it is quite striking to hear the ways in which the very early Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot look ahead in some ways to Wagner’s later work – and, in other ways, go in directions that the composer decided not to follow. If there is a primary emphasis in Luisi’s interpretations, it is grandeur: he looks for and finds it in Rienzi and Tannhäuser as well as in Die Meistersinger and Siegfried’s Funeral March, and he balances it with a fine sense of atmospheric tone painting – very well performed by the orchestra – in the music from Lohengrin and Parsifal. It is slightly odd to include the thrice-familiar Ride of the Valkyries without also offering the equally well-known and upbeat Act III Prelude from Lohengrin, but that is not the truly disturbing omission: the distressing one is the decision not to offer the overture to Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s fourth opera, despite including the openings of his first three. Indeed, there is music here from 10 operas, and it is understandable that there is none from Das Rheingold or Siegfried, which are notoriously difficult to excerpt. But no Der fliegende Holländer? That is beyond strange in a set like this one. Also, the arrangement of the music is apparently random – it would have made a great deal more sense to present the material chronologically, but in fact Luisi offers it in something closer to reverse chronology, with Parsifal starting the first disc and Die Feen concluding the second. If there is a rationale for all this, it is far from apparent. What is apparent, though, is that Luisi and Philharmonia Zürich are a marvelous team, the orchestra being highly responsive to whatever the conductor calls for, and the conductor himself clearly being steeped in the meaning as well as the orchestration of Wagner’s music, resulting in performances that are clean, very well balanced, paced at just the right speeds, and exciting in highly individual ways – from the intense to the exalted. Yes, there could have been more music here – there is plenty of room for it on the CDs; and yes, the arrangement could have been better thought-out. But so much pleasure and so much understanding come through on this recording that its positives far outweigh its negatives.

     The same is emphatically true for Luisi’s interpretation of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. This is, in fact, an exceptionally operatic reading of one of the most Romantic of all symphonies. Luisi overdoes the tempo changes – and gets away with it every time, because he does so in a way that heightens the drama and intensity of the music. He goes for really big climaxes and really quiet soft passages – and, again, this works every time, accentuating the extremes of passion delineated in the music and heightening the listener’s experience of it. This symphony is episodic and even disconnected in many ways, its idée fixe notwithstanding, and Luisi makes no attempt to cover up its structural irregularities – instead, he embraces them, turning the work into something like an extended tone poem (it would be fascinating to hear him apply this technique to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony or Symphony No. 4). Here as in the Wagner release, Philharmonia Zürich plays simply beautifully, with excellent sectional balance, piquant winds, and an overall sound that is wonderfully robust. But also here as in the Wagner CDs, there are some oddities about the release. Musically, the strangest part of it is the finale, in which one would certainly expect Luisi to pull out all the stops and produce a hectic, hyper-dramatic conclusion. Instead, he here offers a movement more restrained than in many other performances, letting it build carefully and avoiding the feeling it sometimes has of nearly spiraling out of control. This is an effective way to handle the movement, but a rather strange one in light of the presentation of the four that come before it. Also, in terms of presentation rather than musical decisions, this CD contains only the symphony – and it is hard to imagine, with so many fine versions of this work available accompanied by other Berlioz music (frequently one or more of his wonderful overtures), why a listener would gravitate to a disc, even a very well-played one, that contains only the symphony and nothing else.

     It would be natural to expect the one actual opera among these new Philharmonia Records releases to be the most successful presentation of all, but even though Luisi interprets Verdi’s Rigoletto with passion and close attentiveness to details of the music, and the orchestra plays very well throughout, this DVD is a (+++) release – and scarcely a Rigoletto for the ages. The reasons are the staging and the unevenness of the singing. The stage director is Tatjana Gürbaca, who, like so many contemporary stage directors, insists on modernizing the opera, removing all those old-fashioned palaces and costumes, and indeed stripping the production of pretty much everything that might hold visual interest: the basic set throughout is a very large table, covered with a white sheet and with black chairs all around. The props of Rigoletto are entirely gone: no ladder, for example, and no blindfold (the abductors use pepper spray). Costumes are modern, and here is no way to understand, visually, just what Rigoletto’s job is or where he lives or works, because these matters have no connection with anything the audience sees. There is also no riverside inn for the final act of this grim set piece. The dull, essentially unchanging set forces a focus on the music, which would be a good thing if all the singers were of top quality. But they are not. Saimir Pirgu is a Duke of Mantua with little character, no visible acting skills, and no lyricism in his phrasing, although his voice itself has a fine tone and good volume. Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda has problems with her high range, but her acting is good: for example, she is initially excited at her abduction, even waving happily to the audience, but then gradually realizes the mob’s intent may be darker than she realizes. George Petean as Rigoletto and Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile are all right, but neither is intense enough to ignite the drama. The closest this production comes to a bit of humor – which is admittedly in short supply in this opera – is Julia Riley’s gum-chewing Giovanna, a small role that proves something of a scene-stealer amid all the bleakness elsewhere. To be sure, this opera is bleak, and in fact the strongest elements of this Rigoletto production emphasize that: the chorus is positively eerie as it glides on and off stage, sometimes wearing golden crowns, made of paper, that seem both out of place and vaguely threatening. The overall sense of menace of Rigoletto comes through forcefully at times, imperfectly at others: all the skill of Luisi and the orchestra cannot conceal the fact that the visual aspect of this production is simply not very engaging – and, for that matter, not very clear in indicating just who the players are and just what sort of drama is being enacted. Luisi shows himself in all three new Philharmonia Records releases to be a strong, committed conductor who can find and pull out the drama and contrasts in operatic and non-operatic music alike. But each release has some oddities or inadequacies that make this newly created label seem a touch too self-indulgent.

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