May 28, 2015


Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. Fernando Guimarães, Jennifer Rivera, Aaron Sheehan, Leah Wool, João Fernandes, Owen McIntosh; Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman. Linn Records. $39.99 (3 SACDs).

Dvořák: Alfred. Petra Froese, Ferdinand von Bothmer, Felix Rumpf, Jörg Sabrowski, Peter Mikuláš; Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heiko Mathias Förster. ArcoDiva. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Paganini. Kristiane Kaiser, Eva Liebau, Zoran Todorovich, Martin Zysset, Jörg Schörner, Philipp Gaiser; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Long unaccepted as a genuine opera by Monteverdi, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (1640) has been acknowledged, since being proven authentic in the 1950s, as a work every bit as worthy as Orfeo (1607) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642). A splendid Boston Baroque recording of Martin Pearlman’s own new edition of the opera, released by Linn Records, shows this work to be richly textured and – thanks to fine performances by tenor Fernando Guimarães as Ulisse and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as Penelope – emotionally trenchant. This is more than a simple tale of revenge, which is to say that Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto retains some of the ambiguity of books 13-23 of Homer’s Odyssey, on which it is based. On the one hand the story of the return home at last of an aging warrior who finds the world changed around him and his faithful wife under unending assault by demanding suitors, this is on the other hand the tale of a man portrayed as heroically noble and tremendously crafty – who commits an act of extreme violence that leaves the audience pondering his legacy and the extent of his humanity. Pearlman does a first-rate job in his edition of filling in the many gaps in the surviving manuscript of this opera, producing a version with fine attention to detail and full, clear appreciation of period style. By using a continuo of seven instruments, and 13 players in accompaniments of arias, Pearlman gives the opera a tonal richness that it does not always possess in accounts that hew more closely to what survives of the manuscript but not, perhaps, to Monteverdi’s original intentions and performance plans. Pearlman uses recorders and cornetti in ritornelli, but stops short of so expanding the ensemble as to overweight the non-verbal portions of the score: this is an opera that belongs to the singers. And the youthful cast here is particularly fine, with Guimarães tremendously moving in the recognition scene with Aaron Sheehan as Telemachus, and Rivera displaying a voice of beauty and expressive power, with an especially impressive lower range. All the singing roles are well filled, and the orchestral playing is outstanding throughout, as Pearlman conducts with a firm hand and precise cuing that keeps the action moving ahead smartly while showcasing the beauties and emotional depths of Monteverdi’s score. Since the surviving manuscript does not fully indicate instrumentation, any edition of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria requires guesswork, and Pearlman’s offers a well-chosen approach throughout that always sounds right – and that lets the emotional impact of the story come through clearly. There have been several high-quality recordings of this opera with conductors whose knowledge of historic performance practice is strong, including Raymond Leppard and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Pearlman’s stands up to any of them, and its emphasis on the psychological depth of the opera gives this 375-year-old work considerable resonance today, likely causing listeners to confront their own feelings about the use of extreme violence in a good cause.

     Far less known than Monteverdi’s work, Dvořák’s first opera, Alfred, received its first-ever performance in its original language as recently as September 2014. That original language is German: this is Dvořák’s only opera using a German libretto. (The opera was first performed in 1938, translated into Czech.) The subject of Alfred the Great, the ninth-century King of Wessex who repelled a Viking invasion, had attracted a number of composers before Dvořák came to it, and the actual libretto, by Karl Theodor Korner, had already been set to music by Friedrich von Flotow in about 1835, long before Dvořák wrote Alfred. This was in 1870, when the composer was 29. He had already composed two symphonies and a number of chamber works, including a string quartet and quintet and a clarinet quintet, plus other vocal and orchestral music, and had begun to establish his style firmly. Thus, Alfred already sounds like Dvořák’s better-known works, with its lush orchestration and generally strong sense of vocal writing – although the crucial parts of Alvina (soprano Petra Froese in the new ArcoDiva release, a live recording) and Harald (Ferdinand von Bothmer) are quite exposed and hard to manage, causing the singers some difficulty despite their obvious commitment to the material. Alfred is intended as a heroic opera, although not on the massive historical scale of the works of Meyerbeer; in structure, though, it is much more a “rescue opera” along the lines of Fidelio. Interestingly, Harald, the villainous Viking chieftain, is a tenor, while Alfred, the hero (Felix Rumpf) is a baritone. The two are competing not only for territory but also for possession of Alvina, who repeatedly proclaims herself a true Briton and refuses Harald’s offered hand despite all his threats. The opera progresses from Alfred’s initial defeat in Act I through his rebuilding of his forces and eventual triumph over Harald, whom he magnanimously offers to free but who kills himself rather than accept Alfred’s generosity, which the Viking believes would shame him. As in other rescue operas, this plot is a straightforward one, but Dvořák works it through skillfully, paying special attention to the Viking Gothron (baritone Jörg Sabrowski), who is uncertain that Harald’s initial triumph will last and tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to warn his leader of the coming resurgence of Alfred and his forces. Alfred is a very assured work, with a strong sense of musically supporting the dramatic story and moving it ahead at an appropriate pace. The musical material is not highly noteworthy in itself – there are no grand and glorious arias that listeners will want to hear again and again – but it is well-crafted throughout and remarkably assured for the content of a first opera. About a decade after composing the opera, Dvořák created a concert version of its overture, now known as the Tragic Overture, Op. Posth. B. 16a. This work – itself not performed during the composer’s lifetime and only published in 1912 – has heretofore been the only chance for listeners to familiarize themselves with any of the music from Alfred. The opportunity to experience the complete work in this generally very fine performance, with Heiko Mathias Förster skillfully leading the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, is a most welcome one.

     The new recording of Lehár’s Paganini is welcome as well, and while this is structurally an operetta rather than an opera, it is clearly more than just an operetta – as Richard Tauber, whose long and mutually fruitful association with Lehár began with this 1926 work, knew well: criticized by some of his fellow opera singers for his involvement with this work, he indignantly remarked, “Whatever do you mean by ‘merely operetta’? I don’t sing operetta, I sing Lehár. That’s something quite different…” Indeed it is, with a richness and emotional strength every bit as telling and involving as most of the works of Puccini, Lehár’s friend and longtime colleague. Paganini is not really about the historical violinist, except incidentally: it is a story of the conflict between love and duty, of devoting oneself to another person or to one’s artistic calling, with the latter eventually winning out for Paganini despite the heartbreak it brings to his inamorata, Princess Maria Anna Elisa (Kristiane Kaiser). The renunciation of love for the sake of art is scarcely an unexplored theme, but Lehár’s lush, hyper-romantic music lends it special intensity here, enough so that the work’s “second couple” – opera singer Bella Giretti (Eva Liebau), mistress of Anna Elisa’s husband, and court chamberlain Giacomo Pimpinelli (Martin Zysset) – provides genuinely welcome relief that goes beyond the typical lighthearted comedy for which “second couples” are usually responsible in operetta. All these singers do fine jobs in their roles, and solo violinist Henry Raudales handles the many Paganini-like violin passages in the score with real élan. The title role, though, as sung by Zoran Todorovich, is a touch disappointing: Todorovich’s voice comes perilously close to cracking in higher passages, and although his lower range is strong, he never produces the full-throated warmth and expressive intensity that made this part such a plum one for Tauber. He is certainly a serviceable Paganini, but scarcely a great one. The presentation of the recording is serviceable as well, with an unusually detailed and clear synopsis that very much helps in following the action but with, as occurs constantly in these CPO operetta releases, no full libretto and no link to one online – a particularly distressing omission in the world of operetta, where the dialogue carries forward so much of the action. Something is also unconscionably sloppy in the timing list for the second CD, with multiple incorrect and reversed timing indications. On the other hand, Ulf Schirmer, a first-rate conductor of repertoire like this, paces the performance with his usual excellence and attentiveness to musical and dramatic detail. And the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester show themselves yet again to be among the best performers of this repertoire to be found anywhere. Paganini has remained popular in parts of Europe but has not held the boards worldwide, partly because Die Lustige Witwe continues to overshadow everything else by Lehár and partly because the very elements that make this an operatic work make it difficult for many audiences to figure out how to respond to it. Hearing it on CD shows that the only response needed is one from the heart.

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