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Diana Damrau became famous mostly by her portrayal of the Queen of the Night in Mozart´s Die Zauberflöte. Her voice joins the heaviness of a dramatic soprano and the extension/lightness of a soprano leggero. This is highly unusual and very appropriate to the classic repertoire, as Diana Damrau showed in her album Arie di Bravura. In the 2007-2008 season of the Metropolitan Opera NY Diana Damrau interpreted both the roles of Queen of the Night and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, in different nights, but showed an interest in diversify her repertoire. Since then she Diana Damrau has been singing many different roles and her new album shows her new “colors”.

In this new album are represented Italian, French, German and English (American) arias.

The album starts with Ah! Je veux vivre (Gounod) literally full of life, and gives us one of the best performances of Zerbinetta’s Monologue, from Ariadne auf Naxos (R. Strauss). The arias of Oscar, from Verdi’s Ballo, don’t sound very masculine but are interpreted in a very witty way. The Mad Scene from Thomas’ Hamlet is perfectly sung, however the conducting in this version makes it more interesting than the singing. Usually the mad scene sounds a bit like an exotic island dance, but here the slow tempi give it an Arabian ring (this tells a lot about how French composers saw English dramas).

The arias Caro nome (Verdi) and Una voce poco fa (Rossini) are perfectly sung, technically speaking, but Damrau’s voice and style may not be the most adequate for these roles: her Gilda sounds too womanly, lacks a girlish tone, and Rosina lacks the witty Italian spirit (as most Rosinas these days…).  Donizetti’s O Luce di quest’anima is thrilling, as always, but can’t stand the comparison with Gruberova’s performance, where the high-speed coloraturas sound like disk scratching.

The album finishes with an exquisite Glitter and be gay, by Leonard Bernstein.

Overall this is an excellent album, not only for the high quality of the singing but also for the exotic interpretation of Diana Damrau and the Münchner Rundfonkorchester, directed by Dan Ettinger. It really brings new colors to this repertoire, which was overly sung by so many great singers.

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The Four Last Songs, for soprano and orchestra, were the last completed works by R. Strauss. The poem for Im Abendrot (At sunset) was by Joseph von Eichendorff while the poems for Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) were written by Hermann Hesse, writer of Siddartha and Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.

The main subject of the poems/songs is Death, but not in the romantic sense of it. Death is seen as a wanted moment of rest after a full life. No afterlife is referred in the text, and it is implicit that there is nothing after death, but that is taken with calm and acceptance. Strauss gave no indication that they should form a song cycle, however they are usually played together, mainly due to the similarity of their subject. There is no correct order for them, but usually they are played by a subject “chronological” order: Frühling, September, Beim Schlafengehen, Im Abendrot.

There are many available recordings of the 4 last songs, most of them with famous singers and maestros. Naxos version, as usual, has no huge names, Ricarda Merberth (soprano) with the Weimar Staatskapelle conducted by Michael Halász, but the interpretation is one f the best I have ever heard. Halász is the great star of this recording, conducting in a Viennese style but with perfect awareness of the message present in the music and text. Merberth sings with her full dramatic soprano, which may sound wobbly for some listeners used to lighter voices, but it must be reminded that the songs were premiered by the great dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad (Frühling), following the composer’s request. The disc also contains the Bretano-Lieder and orchestral excerpts from the opera Ariadne auf Naxos, which leaves the hope that Naxos may give us a complete recording of Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Michael Halász.

Among the most recent recordings is the Renee Fleming/Thielemann. As it happens in the older Fleming/Eschenbach recording, Renée Fleming (September) sings beautifully but somehow the spirit of Strauss is missing.

My favorite recording (still) is the Janowitz/Karajan. Gundula Janowitz’s voice is perfectly tuned with Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker, and so the music sounds like a ray of light through crystal in a Russian winter morning: bright, crystal-clear, sharp and cold. These characteristics are the reason why some people criticize this version, or why others love it. (Beim Schlafengehen, Im Abendrot).

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Alcina was the beautiful and glamorous Queen/Enchantress/Zoo-Keeper of a hospitable Island. She welcomed any ships that arrived and usually took the most handsome man for her lover. When Alcina got tired of the lover, she just transformed him into an animal for her Zoo.

One day a ship arrived at her Island commanded by two men. Alcina welcomed them but she was satisfied with her current lover, Ruggiero. Morgana, Alcina’s sister, fell in love with the younger one. However the older officer was Ruggiero’s friend Melisso, and the younger one (to whom Morgana fell in love) was Bradamante, Ruggiero’s bride, who came to rescue Ruggiero.

Ruggiero iwas under a spell and did not recognize his friends. Melisso managed to break the spell with a magic ring, and together they plotted to defeat Alcina by breaking the urn which was the source of her power. Without their powers, Alcina and Morgana vanished, never to be seen again.

The plot of Alcina, like many librettos at the time, was based on Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto. Handel, however, gave a great focus on the Alcina character, showing her reasons/feelings and her humanity, and so twisting the story: we actually feel pity for Alcina when she looses her powers.

I am a big admirer of Handel’s Operas, but Alcina is by far his best work. For me it is one of those Operas which went far beyond time and style, becoming an Universal Masterwork.

Alcina is a well balanced opera, where all the music serves its dramatic purpose (together with all the passages for a virtuoso performance). Each character’s personality is well developed: one can notice every nuance and change in a character just by paying attention to the isolated character’s arias in sequence. Another thing that I find remarkably brilliant is the sequence of arias in the second act: Morgana’s aria “Ama, sospira”, in which she mockingly warns Alcina that Ruggiero is deceiving her, then Ruggiero’s aria “Mio bel Tesoro”, where he pretends to be in love with Alcina, and then Alcina’s “Ah, mio cor” when she discovers Ruggiero’s deceit. The aria “Ah, mio cor” is a masterwork by itself, the mix of savage feelings in it is tremendous: from sadness and self-pity to pure rage against Ruggiero and against herself for falling in love with him.

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Renée Fleming (Alcina), Susan Graham (Ruggiero), Natalie Dessay (Morgana), Kathleen Kuhlmann (Bradamante), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (live). My personal favorite. Fleming makes a perfect Alcina technically and dramatically, with all the pathos Händel intended to the role. Natalie Dessay is the lightest, funniest and more fairy-like Morgana on record. William Christie was attentive to every detail of the score, bringing up the best of it. This recording is often criticized by the lack of period singing: the singers have bigger voices than expected, and the improvisation is romantic bel-canto style, not baroque. I agree with these critics, but I like it as it is… Watch Renée Fleming as Alcina.

Joyce DiDonato (Alcina), Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero), Karina Gauvin (Morgana), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis. This is, in every way, a period style recording, with a very ballanced cast where everyone shines in her/his role. Didonato surprised me by singing as soprano and in such a feminine way. Beaumont is my favorite Ruggiero. Curtis does a good work with the conducting. The tempi are very fast, which works well with some arias, but not with others such as “Ah, mio cor”. Joyce DiDonato as Alcina

Arleen Augér (Alcina), Della Jones (Ruggiero), Eiddwen Harrhy (Morgana), Kathleen Kuhlmann (Bradamante), City of London Baroque Sinfonia, Richard Hickox. Augér is another first-rate Alcina, and in this recording she proved to be one of the greatest baroque interpreters, combining technique, baroque style and drama. Della Jones does a peculiar Ruggiero. The rest of the cast is fairly good. Hickox tends to be too slow (and sometimes sluggish). Arleen Augér as Alcina

Joan Sutherland’s recordings. There are two recordings available: the studio recording, with a starry cast (Teresa Berganza, Mirella Freni, etc), and the live recording, with Fritz Wünderlich. Both recordings are NOT in a period style, and are a must-have for every Sutherland fan (the live recording is also a must-have for every Wünderlich fan). I don’t think Sutherland was an expressive Alcina, though. Both casts are fairly good (even the not-so-famous cast in the live recording). The tempi are rather slow where they shouldn’t and, as a result, both recordings tend to get boring. Note: Sutherland was used to “steal” the aria “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Morgana.

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Les Troyens

Les Troyens, by Hector Berlioz, is the grandest epic French Opera, based on Vergil’s Aeneid.

 

The first part is set in Troy during the siege. It is centered in the character of the princess-prophetess Cassandra, who is suspicious of the big wooden horse the Greeks left near Troy. No one listens to her. The Greeks invade Troy, and just a small party, led by Aeneas, manages to escape. Cassandra leads a mass women suicide in the temple, not to become slaves of the Greeks.

 

The second part is set in Carthage and is centered in Dido, Queen of Carthage, who sees in Aeneas a future husband and King of Carthage, combining affection and political interest. But Aeneas is supposed to lead the Trojan people to Italy, and not to stay long in Carthage. He departs and Dido dies in grief, among political disorder.

 

The 2009/10 lyric season of the Palau de les Arts, Valencia, Spain, is starting with a Sci-Fi version of Les Troyens, a co-production with the Mariinsky Theater, directed by Valery Gergiev.

 

The staging, by Carlus Padrissa and La Fura dels Baus, turns the Opera into the confrontation of interplanetary civilizations. The cyber-punk Trojan civilization is condemned to extinction except for Aeneas party, who departs in search of a new planet to colonize. They reach Carthage and find a environmental-friendly/sustainable-economic-development civilization.

 

Unfortunately I didn’t watch it, but all the descriptions and critics I read really caught my attention (even the worse critcs). I will not miss the DVD when it comes up (by Decca).

 

What also caught my attention was that Cassandra is sung by the great Portuguese dramatic soprano Elisabete Matos (watch a bit on youtube).

 

Check the NYTimes Review.

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Norns

The Norns spinning the thread of Destiny (by Arthur Rackham)

My favorite recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen, by Richard Wagner, is the one conducted by Josef Keilberth in 1953, in the Bayreuth Festival.

The main characters were interpreted by Martha Mödl (Brünnhilde), Hans Hotter (Wotan) and Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried).

The other roles were taken by Regina Resnik (Sieglinde/3rd Norn), Ramon Vinay (Siegmund), Ira Malaniuk (Fricka/Waltraute/2nd Norn), Josef Greindl (Fafner/Hunding/Hagen), Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich), Paul Kuen (Mime), Hermann Uhde (Gunther/Donner), Erich Witte (Loge), Maria von Ilosvay (Erda/1st Norn), Gerhard Stolze (Froh), Ludwig Weber (Fasolt), Rita Streich (Waldvogel), and others…

Martha Modl, like Astrid Varnay, never portrayed a young Brünnhilde. Both voices sound older than what Brünnhilde should sound in Die Walkure. However they were both very dramatic, feminine and human, which compensates for the lack of youth, and makes them the best choice for Götterdämmmerung. Nilsson sounded younger, but not so dramatic, and Behrens was young and dramatic, but the voice wasn’t so big and full. Compare the great Brunnhildes by listening to their battlecry.

In this recording both Hans Hotter and Wolfgang Windgassen sounded fresher and lighter than in later recordings. Regina Resnik made an incomparable Sieglinde (for me, the best on record). Resnik’s Sieglinde sounded much like Jessie Norman’s in James Levine’s Ring. Ira Malaniuk made a sharp Fricka and Waltraute, much like Christa Ludwig. The rest of the cast was made by singers highly specialized in the roles, and, therefore, they made a terrific work.

Sieglinde and Mime (by Arthur Rackham)

Sieglinde and Mime (by Arthur Rackham)

The star of this recording is definitely Josef Keilberth. He made the music sound fluid and colorful. The music created an atmosphere that never attached the story to reality, putting magic into it. When the music should sound big, Keilberth made it monumental, and when it should be soft, he inserted a dreamlike beauty into it. Keilberth managed these effects without dragging the tempi like later conductors, such as James Levine, so it never gets boring. Although Keilberth conducted the Ring in other years, I find this one his best achievement.

It is a live recording, mono sound, but the sound is very clear and there are no noises from the audience or the stage.



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I Capuleti e I MontecchiI Capuleti e I Montecchi tells the famous story of Romeo and Juliet as it is known in Verona. It has some minor differences from the Shakespearean version, but the main storyline is the same: boy and girl from rival families fall in love, girl pretends to be dead to escape family, boy believes she is dead and drinks venom, girl wakes up when boy is dying and stabs herself.

I Capuleti is not so well known as Norma, La Sonnambula or I Puritani, but Bellini is a composer you can rely: even his most obscure operas are masterpieces*. The music in I Capuleti is not only beautiful but also dramatic and adequate to create the atmosphere of the play. Take, for instance, Julieta’s heart-melting first aria (Act I, scene 2). The way of uniting drama and music is ravishingly well done in this opera, as can be heard in the finale of Act I, or in the death scene (Act II, scene 3).

Anna Netrebko and Elina Garaca do a very nice work portraying the lovers Juliet and Romeo, respectively. Both singer have beautiful, velvety and glamorous voices, and they sound very well together. Garanca’s cloudy voice gives an extra pathos to Romeo, without taking his “virility”. Joseph Calleja also does a nice job in the role Tebaldo. Fabio Luisi may not be the best, but gets the job (well) done.

If you are a fan of Netrebko and Garanca, don’t hesitate in getting this recording. If you are a opera/bel canto/Bellini fan and have plenty of recordings, you can add this to your collection. If you are searching for a good version to listen for the first time, there are other options. I Capuleti is not performed very often, however there a few nice recordings on the market that are worth mentioning:

The one conducted by Riccado Muti, with Edita Gruberova and Agnes Baltsa, is definitely the best accomplished musically. Both Gruberova and Baltsa are terrific. However, and as always, Muti is stubborn about playing “come scritto”, so there are no bel canto improvisations, or extra high notes.

The one conducted by Giuseppe Patanè, with Beverly Sills and Dame Janet Baker (and Nicolai Gedda as Tebaldo). Patanè gave the dignity of a Grand Opera to this recording, and the vast added to it. Sills and Gedda were not young and fresh but that doesn’t spoil it. Janet Baker, with all her experience in male roles, makes a very special Romeo. Improvisation and high notes can be found in this recording, but very well integrated in the music.

* Not to miss, by Bellini: Il Pirata, La Straniera, Zaira and Beatrice di Tenda.

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