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J. J. Mayhew

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La Traviata   (Arena Flegrea Napoli 11/8/1956)
La Traviata (Arena Flegrea Napoli 11/8/1956)
Price: 11.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Violetta but very poor sound, 6 Jun 2014
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Zeani is, quite rightly, a highly regarded singer if this role, her fluttering vibrato and dark timbre well suited to the quicksilver changes of mood from the forced gaiety of act one to the tragedy of act three. She is a fine vocal actress, and a superb technician.

However, this recording is in very poor sound. The voices are reasonably well captured (including, unfortunately, the voice if the prompter!) but the orchestra is extremely distant and much detail in general us lost. The supporting cast are not of the same standard as the Violetta.

There are other recordings of Zeani in this role, including an exciting Royal Opera performance, which is to be preferred, and a Romanian studio recording as well.

This set has interesting extracts from a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, recording in London just a year or so before Sutherland revived the opera at Covent Garden. But it's not enough to really recommend this set. Historically interesting, but it does not to justice to Zeani's superb assumption of the role.

The Enchanted Garden - Piano Transcriptions of Russian Fairy Tales by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov & Stravinsky
The Enchanted Garden - Piano Transcriptions of Russian Fairy Tales by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov & Stravinsky
Price: 12.72

5.0 out of 5 stars Enchanted Garden... And enchanting Lettburg, 10 May 2014
This is a fascinating a deeply rewarding disc. All the music is drawn from operas and ballets by the most fantastical of the Russian composers. Fairy tales were a rich source of inspiration to many Russians, from writers and painters, to composers. But Glinka, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov surely take the laurels for their unique and often peculiar operas and ballets. But then, as belief has to be suspended in the lyric theatre, perhaps magical realms work best?

Of course, this trio of composers are well know for their rich and colourful orchestration. So why on earth perform extracts arranged for piano? Well, these are transcriptions by many notable people, including Stravinsky himself and Rimsky-Korsakov's wife, no less (herself a distinguished musician), so they deserve to be heard. Maria Lettburg brings surprising depth and emotion to music so often dismissed and light and trivial. Her playing is beautifully phrased, dazzlingly accomplished and in fact gives the impression of being highly coloured and rich through her impressive virtuosity.

I can honestly say this is the loveliest disc I have listen to for many months. It is an intelligent and very attractive programme, and some of the lesser known pieces ( like the snowstorm from Kaschey) are the most rewarding, and the transcriptions bring an intimacy and true sense on enchantment to these magical and highly inventive pieces. The recording quality and liner notes are excellent.

Very highly recommended.

Korsakov: Legend of the Invisible City [Blu-ray] [2013] [Region Free]
Korsakov: Legend of the Invisible City [Blu-ray] [2013] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Dmitri Tcherniakov
Price: 29.17

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous and frustrating, 9 Jan 2014
Despite winning a major award, this production is deeply controversial. Tchiernikov's concept of this fascinating opera is sometimes intelligent and thought provoking. But I ultimately felt unmoved by his direction, and objected to the fact that the storyline has been rewritten to accomodate his personal desire to tell a certain story. In other words, I find the interpretation disrespectful, however visceral and dramatic the central acts are.

This opera is generally accepted as Rimsky-Korsakov's masterpiece, and it is an unusual and beautiful combination of two "old believer" legends. Bielsky's libretto is crafted in Old Russian, and the Patheistic references to nature as God are philosophical and surprisingly relevent in these ecological times. The pure forest-dweller Fevroniya saves the mystical city with her inherent goodness, and in so doing, gets her Prince, but only through death. This is no fairy tale; It is a Legend, an important distinction. It is certainly good to have a production attempt to explore the serious themes of beauty and goodness destroyed, of patriotism and the meaning of death. These are difficult, powerful subjects.

This production takes us out of Medieval Russia and into a modern warn-torn world, with the apotheosis in paradise apparently now a post-apocalyptic world of hopelessness and madness. Where this production fails, I feel, is in the over complicated, cliched "Regie" storytelling added to an already convoluted plot. And also by the fact that everything, apart from the opening scene, is so irredeemingly ugly that it is quite at odds with the composer's intent. The music, the words, all speak of beauty. Yet there is none.

I appreciate this view of paradise is "all in the mind" and the city - never actually seen in this staging - is invisible to us all. Yet to have the whole chorus - who have so much to do in the final scene - off stage to fit the concept is indulgent. Many ideas here are good ones, but ultimately this really can't be considered the last word on this glorious opera, nor indeed much of a recommendation for it as a repertoire piece. It is trying to make a cohesive, relevent (ie: "gritty"), hard-hitting political drama out of something that is fundamentally intended to be ambiguous, symbolic, subtle, and transcendentally uplifting. The opera has so much more to tell us, much more to give than is revealed here and has a healing heart, something that we are tragically denied in this version.

The singing is uniformly good, with a tremendous central performance of Fevroniya by Svetlana Ignatovitch. Even she cannot eclipse Tatiana Monogarova's Bolshoi performance on Naxos (DVD and CD) - another bizarre production, flawed and confusing, but visually more sympathetic to the music. I don't really feel the need to watch either ever again, although I cherish the audio of both and will happily close my eyes and conjur a production in my imagination that serves the intention of Rimsky-Korsakov and Bielsky more honorably than this does.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Snow Maiden
Rimsky-Korsakov: Snow Maiden
Price: 11.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cold hearted Snowmaiden - not a Brilliant Classic at all., 6 Sep 2013
Rimsky-Korsakov often declared this his favourite amongst his 15 operas. It's easy to see why, for the score is really a celebration of nature - a favourite theme with this composer.

The touching story of the daughter of Winter and Spring being adopted by mortals and attempting to fall in love, is magical and not without emotion. The nature painting scenes can be ravishingly beautiful. The chorus has plenty to do and the opera is littered with irresistible folk dances and bird song.

Alas, it makes no difference how often this recording is repackaged (the current cover is beautiful), it's a disappointment. How anyone can make such a charming and tuneful work sound so lifeless and ill-tuned is a bafflement, but Angelov, the conductor, manages it. Despite bright digital sound, the recording is dull and completely lacks sparkle.

In fairness it picks up a little after the prologue, with the role of Mother Spring poorly sung. But some individual moments cannot make a whole and this presents very poor case for reviving this neglected work.

Happily there are other choices and I would strongly urge aqnyone interested to spend a tiny bit more and get another recording. Fedoseyev's older recording in good stereo is the best, with Valentina Sokolik as a sparkling Snow Maiden and Irina Arkhipova as Spring AND Lel. It's a magnificent achievement - one of the greatest recordings of Russian opera. Now reissued on the Relief label.

Another more recent Russian recording is worth looking into as well, on the Melodiya label, it sports the same cover art as this Brilliant Classics issue. But it is so much better conducted (by Lazarev) and has a winning cast that has the opera in it's veins.

The Brilliant Classics issue is a false economy, a cold unloving recording of an opera about thawing an icy heart. It never thaws here... Definitely avoid!

Bellini: Norma
Bellini: Norma
Price: 24.87

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Casta Controversial Diva; a fascinating experiment., 23 May 2013
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This review is from: Bellini: Norma (Audio CD)
This is a controversial recording and will not suit everyone's tastes. But then, as Bartoli in the accompanying essay explains, our modern tastes are based on inauthentic practise. This recording tries to strip away the inconsistancies, the bad habits, the preconceptions, and present the opera as it may have been heard in Bellini's day.

We will never prove how authentic this really is, but it makes very interesting listening, and is an commendable effort to step out of the shadow cast by Callas and Sutherland.

The recording uses a new edition of the score, with expanded duets and trios and new variations here and there. It's not as ground-breaking as suggested by the booklet: much of these discoveries were performed by Holland Park opera some years ago (with Nelly Miricioiu), and nor is this the first ever performance with period instruments. But in terms of restoring, reviving and research, Decca and Bartoli are here following in the footsteps of pioneers like Opera Rara. Integrity and history can sometimes lead to a dull outcome, but here, whatever one makes of the casting or the edition, it is certainly alive with personality.

I've often felt, in the past, that Bartoli's coloratura can sound too aggressive and staccato for my taste. Here, the explosive nature of her dazzling technique, works very well; Norma is a wronged woman, and Bartoli, despite a smaller-than-usual voice for the part, is dramatically alert to the possibilities. Singing at the original pitch, the more prayerful introspective parts are beautifully sung and overall I was much taken with her interpretation - more so than I expected. It's on a more human scale than Callas, but infinitely more in focus than Sutherland or Caballe.

Sumi Jo is the soprano Adalgisa, and certainly she sounds a lot more youthful than mezzos Ebe Stignani (with Callas) or Horne (with Sutherland). It's a more delicate approach, but she's an intelligent singer and her voice is lovely. Osborn's Pollione - a thankless role - is cleanly sung, lacking Corelli's heroics but bringing much bel canto detail. It's a sweet toned voice in quieter passeges (The Qual cor tradisti scene is exquisite), and under pressure it's still flexible and secure, if a less lovely sound. Pertusi is the sombre father figure.

All the principles decorate the music. In Bartoli's case, I disliked her additions to the line in Casta Diva, and thought Osborn over-decorated Pollione's cabaletta too. He also adds interpolated high notes (but Norma has none of her climactic notes added). So some inconsistancy there perhaps.

Antonini conducts a sprightly account, allowing this full edition to fit 2 CDs. In that respect he is similar to Levine's account with Scotto (often over-looked but full of memorable moments). Sometimes it seemed to me that the determination to be different resulted in contrary effects-for-the-sake-of-it. Even the overture is hurried along sometimes, and certain crucial passeges - presumably following the score to the letter - are prosaic; the famous "son io" at the climax of the opera is usually held and given great significance. Not here. Despite that, the opera obstinitely refuses to look back to the Baroque, and remains, even here, a throughly forward looking Romantic masterpiece.

The recording is clear and well balanced if a little too reverberent or echoey for my ideal.

Put alongside other recordings (I won't be parting with Callas OR Scotto), this is a fascinating exploration. And whichever version you listen to, one thing is for sure: Bellini's genius shines through every bar.

Price: 6.32

163 of 174 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Agnetha Faltskog - the Queen of Pop is back!, 13 May 2013
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This review is from: A (Audio CD)
This is a triumphant return by the girl with the golden hair - ABBA's legendary blonde diva. Her unforgettable voice is in pristine condition, maturity giving it even more colours, expression and subtleties than in her ABBA days, yet still - astonishingly - as fresh and clear as Nordic spring water, and often heart stoppingly beautiful.

Few other singers in the history of pop can match her particular ability to deliver a poignant lyric in such a memorable and touching way; a unique mixture of vulnerability, innocence, yearning, and sexiness. Her disarming Swedish accent - so familiar from her ABBA recordings - only heightens the appeal. Agnetha can make any song immediately hers; it is an instantly recognisable voice and in technical terms, her breathing, pitch, phrasing and diction in this "torchy" repertoire are all unparalleled in modern pop music. Forget Kylie, Madonna and co.; this is the real deal - she is, simply, a living legend.

Jorgen Oleffson's bespoke songs, with contributions by, amongst others, Carole Bayer-Sager and Gary Barlow, are by and large worthy of her talents, presented in sweeping and sophisticated arrangements. There is nothing to alarm ABBA fans here, just a good mix of timeless ballads, disco numbers and nostalgic pop.

The two early singles, The One Who Loves You Now, and When You Really Love Someone, are far from the best things on the album, albeit delivered with heartfelt conviction. I Was A Flower might have sounded sentimental in less skilful hands, but here become a painful anthem to the loss of innocence, genuinely moving. The retro Dance Your Pain Away sounds like the disco love-child of Voulez-Vous, and Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, capturing exactly the swirling hedonistic atmosphere of the late 70s. The implicit lyric will surely make this a huge hit in gay clubs all over the world.

The bitter-sweet duet with Gary Barlow I Should Have Followed You Home has a dark sense of regret; a hint, perhaps, of The Day Before You Came. The two voices blend perfectly. Several other tracks - Past Forever, Perfume In The Breeze and the unlikely title of Bubble (Agnetha's favourite on the album) - are tinged with a similarly haunting atmosphere of sadness. They inevitably reinforce the fantasy of Faltskog as a lonely, rejected, heartbroken women - mainly because she brings such pathos to her generous performances. The balance is then redressed with the cheery Back on your Radio, a piece of pure bubble-gum pop.

The final track, I Leave Them On The Floor Beside My Bed, is also noteworthy; it's Agnetha's own composition, her first for a quarter of a century. It's another wistful, melancholic theme, the sort of nostalgic wallow so suited to her fragile, plaintive voice. Who else cries with the voice like Agnetha?

This is a tremendous return to form, without doubt her most successful English language solo album. If she never recorded again (we must hope she does, but she is, after all, 63 years old), she could still rest assured that she had concluded her remarkable career on a genuine high.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 31, 2013 11:30 PM GMT

Donizetti: Maria Stuarda (in English)
Donizetti: Maria Stuarda (in English)
Price: 19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The case for the defence..., 23 Feb 2013
Many will by-pass this because they are wary of translated opera performances. And indeed some do work better than others. But what a treat they will miss... for here we have a most convincing case for the defence, an Italian opera about (fabricated) English/Scottish history, sung in English.

Under the baton of Mackerras, the opera sweeps the listener along to the tragic finale with impressive strength and drama. The live recording is a little hollow, but vivid enough, and the cast are fully engaged as only native speakers can be.

David Rendell's flickering tenor makes a properly impassioned Robert Leicester. Rosalind Plowright's volcanic soprano sometimes explodes a little too much as Elizabeth I, losing focus, tone and pitch on the hightest notes, but within the framework of a dramatic personage, it works.

BUT the towering performance, of course, is Dame Janet Baker, whose mezzo-soprano Mary has simply never been surpassed in any language, edition or transcription. The vocal line has been slightly adjusted to accomodate her voice (as was common even in Donizetti's day), while her impassioned, scorching singing, ravishingly beautiful and tender where required (and with superb control), and vividly blazing in the finale, carries all along with it. In this single recording, Baker does as much as Callas ever did to reveal Donzetti as a truly dramatic composer. This is true bel canto singing and the final scene is deeply moving.

The story, of a fictional meeting between the two queens, culminates in Mary's furious outburst in the act one finale. Here, Baker hurls her abuse at Elizabeth with all the skills of a great singing actress, as she declares the English Queen a "Royal Bastard!". But in a performance of great consistancy and beauty, it is often the reflective moments - of which there are many - that haunt the listener.

No other performance on disc or on film has brought the character of Mary to such astonishing and thrilling life. A real jewel in the crown of Baker's career and Chandos' Opera in English series.

The Story of Ferdinand (Reading Railroad Books)
The Story of Ferdinand (Reading Railroad Books)
by Munro Leaf
Edition: School & Library Binding
Price: 8.02

5.0 out of 5 stars FIVE STAR FERDINAND, 16 Nov 2012
I'm appalled that somone has given the book one star because it mentions bullfighting; I feel they have, sadly, missed the point of the book entirely. It is absolutely saying that bullfighting is bad and pacifism is good. It was this book, read as a child, that first introduced me to the pointlessness of cruelty and confrontation. I worry about censorship with children's books. They need to see stories like this! Simply told, superbly illustrated, it's a classic and a masterpiece and should be in every child's library.

by Emma Dodd
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.64

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A triumph!, 8 Sep 2012
This review is from: Cinderelephant (Hardcover)
This is a wonderfully clever idea, beautifully executed, in which the well known fairy-tale is retold with a pachyderm heroine, with a trunk-load of charm. Many fairy tales have been subverted for comic effect but rarely as well or as endearingly as here.

The story trips off the tongue, liberally scattered with clever ideas like jewels, and the illustrations are full of sharp and witty characterisations and clever design. I absolutely loved it. A small masterpiece and destined, surely, to become a classic.

Rimsky-Korsakov Edition
Rimsky-Korsakov Edition
Offered by ____THE_BEST_ON_DVD____
Price: 42.51

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rare Rimsky, with just a few reservations, 4 Sep 2012
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This review is from: Rimsky-Korsakov Edition (Audio CD)
This is an exciting and generous anthology, an undoubted bargain. But one with a few disappointing performances amongst the gold, and with some misleading information.

The set describes certain discs as "historical recordings", while other, equally historic performances have no such label put on them. It's confusing as many recordings are modern digital (or good stereo) recordings, but some are, frankly, quite rough and of strictly historical interest. Then there are curious duplications: two Scheherazades (neither an ideal performance) and why include the overture to The Tsar's Bride when elsewhere a complete recording of the whole opera is featured? This is not to say this is a bad set. It is full of wonderful things. But some clarification is helpful.

The modern stereo recordings include the Three symphonies, Serbian Fantasy, Overture on Russian themes, Skazka and Tsar's Bride Overture well performed by the LSO/Butt in digital sound; Scheherazade, Sadko and opera suites rather less well performed by the Armenian Philharmonic/Tjeknavorian, but also digitally recorded; Pan Voyevode suite under Svetlanov; The complete songs, variably sung but interesting none the less, and four rare cantatas (the one based on Homer is a real gem) also digitally recorded, and several complete operas: The Golden Cockeral (well performed under Manulov), Tsar's Bride (reasonably good under Chistiakov), Vera Sheloga (old Angelov recording), Mozart & Salieri (Rozhdestvensky with Nesterenko), May Night (less good, with Chistiakov) and Angelov's disappointing Snow Maiden - which is extraordinarily dull for such a lovely opera (the Fedoseyev set is the one to find!).

Then there are older recordings: Golovanov's Scheherazade, Rozhdestvensky's third sypmphony, his mother's recording of Fevroniya in the old Soviet Kitezh (a staggering work in a colossal performance, including Ivan Petrov, although Rozhdestvenskaya is a trifle mature for Fevronia). The suite from Kitezh (under Mravinsky in very old sound); Richter in the Piano Concerto. And a lovely trio and quintet, the former being especially rare.

No Russian Easter or Spanish Caprice, but this set gives a proper focus on Rimsky's operatic work, and quite rightly; despite his orchestral panache, he considered himself an operatic composer. And it is good to have a broad selection of his stage works alongside his songs.

So this is a useful, interesting, affordable set, although one needs to pick a choose and supplement a few recordings perhaps. The discs are in card sleeves (with casts and conductors listed) and there is a good essay by David Nice. No librettos or songwords though - naturally enough at this price (although more notes are accessible online).

Lastly, for such a colourful composer, it does seem a shame the set was not packaged more attractively! A fabulous set design by Korovin or Bakst would have been just the thing...

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