July 21, 2016


Verdi: I Due Foscari. Plácido Domingo, Francesco Meli, Maria Agresta, Maurizio Muraro, Samuel Sakker, Rachel Kelly, Lee Hickenbottom; Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Antonio Pappano. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Puccini: La Rondine. Dinara Alieva, Charles Castronovo, Alexandra Hutton, Alvaro Zambrano, Stephen Bronk; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Delos DVD. $19.99.

Nicolas Kaviani: Te Deum (2005); Tous les Matins du Monde (2014). Janáček Opera Choir  and Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Prague Mixed Chamber Choir conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $18.99 (CD+DVD).

Alan Beeler: The Sutton Songs; Symphony No. 3, “Shaker Hymns”; Jabberwocky; Inhuman Henry. Navona. $14.99.

     Opera performances that have strengths and weaknesses onstage retain them on DVD, even though the DVD-viewing experience, guided by the decisions of a video director, is quite different from that of attending a performance and deciding where to focus one’s attention at any given time. New DVD releases of less-known Verdi and Puccini operas provide ample opportunity for one’s attention to wander despite the necessity of watching just what the video displays – rather than making one’s own decision about how to combine visual and auditory elements. Verdi’s sixth opera, I Due Foscari, is one of his darkest, its score filled with deep brass and low strings to an extent unusual in Verdi’s music. When well done, this is a deeply sad work, in which the adherence of the Doge of Venice to the letter of the law leads him to turn his back on his own son – and on justice. That was the point of Byron’s fact-based drama, on which Verdi’s opera is based. But the point comes through with less than total clarity in the production by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on a new Opus Arte DVD. The problem is not with the music, which Antonio Pappano conducts with suitable intensity and attentiveness to detail. Nor is it with Plácido Domingo, who, as the older Foscari – the Doge, Francesco – shows himself as strong-voiced and convincing in this baritone role as he used to be in tenor parts (although he does not have a full, warm lower baritone range). The issue here lies more with the younger Foscari, Jacopo (Francesco Meli), who offers appealing pathos but little subtlety; and his wife, Lucrezia (Maria Agresta), whose wildness is always on the verge of being overdone – and becomes so at the very end, when she goes mad (which Verdi did not intend) and even tries to drown one of her children, thus distracting from Domingo’s final aria. The opera’s conclusion is tragic only by the excesses of Romantic melodrama: both Francesco and Jacopo die of broken hearts, within minutes of each other. But the ending can work when sufficiently well sung and well staged. The staging by Thaddeus Strassberger, though, is the biggest disappointment here: individuals and groups move about to no special purpose; inserted scenes of torture are presumably supposed to be chilling but simply seem meaningless; and both the costumes and the exaggerated, rubble-like settings draw mostly negative attention, more or less fitting the era of the story (the 15th century) but adding very little to the impact of the libretto or the singing. Fans of Domingo will enjoy the DVD, which shows him doing quite well in one of his new baritone roles, but fans of Verdi will find they are not so well served.

     Nor do Puccini fans have much to hold onto in the Deutsche Oper Berlin version of La Rondine. A simplistic opera originally commissioned as an operetta and dismissed by Puccini’s publisher, with some justification, as “bad Lehár,” La Rondine is yet another of those tales of a courtesan with a heart of gold who nobly gives up true love for the sake of the honor of her lover’s family. It has elements not only of La Traviata but also of Die Fledermaus, and suffers by comparison with both. It does have some gorgeous music (and Puccini’s only dance music), and it can work when all the main singers are attentive to the work’s dramatic and comedic elements and the production emphasizes the human scale of the drama. Unfortunately, few of these elements are present in the new Delos DVD performance conducted by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. As the more-or-less-tragic heroine, Magda, Dinara Alieva is smooth-voiced and convincing, but as her lover, Ruggero, Charles Castronovo is scarcely warm or seductive enough to seem a worthwhile match – although their final exchange, before Magda returns to her former life as the mistress of Rambaldo (a strong, stolid Stephen Bronk), is appropriately emotional. The work’s second couple (part of the typical design of an operetta of this vintage) also suffers a mismatch. As Magda’s maid, Lisette, Alexandra Hutton is appropriately spirited; but as her lover, the poet Prunier, Alvaro Zambrano offers ragged-edged vocals and little sense of the buffo spirit of his role. And here as in the new Verdi recording, the sets get in the way of the performance. This is Roland Villazón's Berlin debut as stage director, and what he does with it is update the story from the 1890s to the 1920s so he can bring in surrealistic elements that do not fit at all and are a constant distraction – notably three faceless men who lurk around Magda at all times, as if representing the ghosts of her many past lovers and indicating the impossibility of her finding happiness with Ruggero. The conceit is both over-the-top and over-obvious. And there are other visual oddities, too, such as costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s decision to have Lisette show up at one point in a tuxedo and top hat despite the libretto’s explicit call for her to be in a black silk coat. On top of all this, the orchestra’s playing is subpar, with many passages so thick they sound muddy and some parts of the score simply dragging. La Rondine is not often performed, and it does deserve to be heard more frequently; but this recording does it no favors.

     There is a DVD as well in a new Navona release of half an hour of music by Nicolas Kaviani – a presentation implying high significance of both the composer and his music. Neither really deserves so strong a focus: the 25-minute Te Deum has interesting elements and the five-minute Tous les Matins du Monde, for 16 unaccompanied voices, shows real skill in vocal writing, but nothing here justifies a very short full-price CD packaged with a “making of” DVD documentary.  There is a certain grandiosity of intent and purpose here: Kaviani has the interesting notion of turning the distinctly religious Te Deum into a secular work appropriate for a modern era that is less accepting of the certainties of organized religion. The concept deserves praise for its boldness even though it does not really work emotionally: those who  know the Latin words will find it hard to accept them as humanistically directed, while those who do not may simply find the whole experience puzzling. Kaviani certainly strives for emotional connection here, and uses a great many classical styles to do so, reaching back to Gregorian chant and forward to a variety of contemporary techniques. He gets the underlying celebratory nature of the old Te Deum right, but his method of presenting it as humanism devoid of strict religiosity comes across as more quixotic than convincing. Tous les Matins du Monde is actually a more successful and involving piece, its alternation of sadness with thoughtfulness readily comprehensible and its eventual sense of transcendence almost palpable. The performances are fine, and so is the music, but “fine” does not really justify the unusual attention lavished on this release.

     By contrast, the vocal music of Alan Beeler is presented in a more-standard way on another Navona CD, and is the better for it. The CD is more reasonable in length – over 50 minutes – and more varied in tone. The seven movements of The Sutton Songs are settings of poetry by Dorothy Sutton, a former Beeler colleague at Eastern Kentucky University. As sung by soprano Aliana de la Guardia with accompaniment by pianist Karolina Rojahn, the works come across as comparatively straightforward emotional miniatures with impressions ranging from the tart and slightly sarcastic to the warm and lyrical. Symphony No. 3, “Shaker Hymns,” is performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Târgu Mureş State Philharmonic, conducted by Ovidiu Marinescu. It explores some familiar Shaker music in pleasantly involving ways, and never strays far from the tonality and simplicity that continue to make these hymns moving in simple but thoughtful ways. Some of this work – arranged in a traditional four-movement symphonic structure of Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Finale – bears inevitable comparison with the music of Copland, which in some ways it distinctly and perhaps deliberately echoes. But Beeler uses the hymns differently and with some interesting touches in turning them into a convincing vocal symphony (and a brief one, lasting less than 15 minutes). Also on this disc are two pleasantly quirky works whose humor contrasts nicely with the generalized seriousness of classical vocal music. One is Jabberwocky, to the familiar Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, done to a fine turn by baritone Brian Church and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Petrdlík. The other, Inhuman Henry, is less-known but more intriguing. The poem here, by A.E. Houseman, is about things unexpected, unusual and surprising. Tenor Eric Christopher Perry and the Moravian orchestra under its more-usual conductor, Petr Vronský, revel in exploring Houseman’s doggerel, which is about a “bloody-minded boy,” a “sanguinary lad,” who sets a lion upon some unicorns and finds himself consumed when the lion cannot catch them – and which ends with the admonition to “be kind to unicorns.”  Tenor and orchestra present the material with suitable gentle strangeness and amusement. Beeler here exhibits a fine sense of fun at the chance to use atonality to tell an out-of-this-world tale; indeed, the CD as a whole displays the composer’s skill in mixing tonal and atonal elements in ways that allow vocal and instrumental lines alike to flourish with their own individual and generally very effective expressivity.

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