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Boieldieu: La Dame blanche
Boieldieu: La Dame blanche
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £25.95

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Viens, gentille dame....", 6 Feb 2002
"Down with 'La Dame Blanche!'" was the rallying cry of Georges Bizet as he set to work on "Carmen", infuriated with the immense popularity of Boieldieu's opera and all the musical values it stood for. One of the biggest operatic successes of the 19th century (it clocked up 1669 performances in the hundred years that followed its premiere in 1825), "La Dame Blanche" has now virtually disappeared, along with almost all the other 'operas comiques' of its time by Herold, Auber and Adam. By a supreme historical irony, "Carmen", the least representative 'opera comique' of them all, is now the most famous surviving example of the genre. Reason enough then for us to consign "La Dame Blanche" to the limbo of unheard operas? Or did those Parisian audiences who flocked to see it in their thousands have a point after all? Conductor Marc Minkowski, never one to agree with conventional wisdom, thinks they did and this new recording (the first for almost forty years) should convince a few more people to investigate this attractive rarity.
Boieldieu had been writing operas comiques in France and Russia for over twenty-five years when he came up with his masterpiece, "La Dame Blanche".Its librettist, Eugene Scribe, had an unfailing knack for sensing the mood of the fickle Parisian public. Composers practically begged him to write libretti for them, so they would be assured of a hit at the box office. Scribe decided to cash in on the craze for the novels of Walter Scott (a craze exploited by many, many other composers, including Rossini, Donizetti...and, later on, Georges Bizet himself in "La Jolie Fille de Perth"!). Scribe 'borrowed' from no less than five of Scott's works to come up with a crazily complicated plot about 'The White Lady' of Avenel Castle, a ghost who is supposed to protect the estate and its rightful owners. I won't attempt to summarise the plot here (try reading the synopsis in Kobbe's Opera Guide), let's just say it is the sort of thing that was parodied mercilessly by later satirists - but its craziness is part of the opera's charm. The supernatural element also allowed Boieldieu to exploit the other great musical fashion of the 1820s, the popularity of Weber's "Der Freischuetz", although "La Dame Blanche" doesn't sound the least bit 'Gothic', its magic is more of the delicate and wistful kind (one critic has referred to its 'moonlit grace'). As for local colour, it doesn't sound the least bit Scottish either, except for the variations on the folk melody 'Robin Adair' in the last act. What it does sound is very, very French: graceful, light and of immense melodic charm. Once heard, its popularity is easily understood - its tunes are infuriatingly catchy. It may plumb no great emotional depths, but its surface is delightful, with delicate accompaniments to the arias by flutes, harps and oboes. Boieldieu's main influences are the operas comiques of Gretry and Cherubini and, to a lesser extent, of Rossini. The great Italian himself was full of praise for the famous 'auction' ensemble at the end of the second act.
Minkowski directs an energetic performance, far surpassing the previous recording, which was mostly a lifeless affair. Rockwell Blake, the Rossini tenor, copes well with the demands of the lead role, the soldier Georges Brown (who sings the only aria which is even half-remembered from this opera, the marvellous "Viens, gentille dame"), but his voice is too nasal to be beautiful. The two lead female roles are great: there is an unusual chance to hear Mireille Delunsch in a comic role, as the 'soubrette', Jenny; and Annick Massis (what has happened to her?) is very touching as 'La Dame Blanche' herself with her fresh, lyrical soprano. The only minor fault is that EMI's recording sounds rather shallow, to my ears at least.
So "La Dame Blanche" may not be "Carmen" but for all its simplicity (even naivety), it still has the power to cast its spell over the modern listener. Adventurous explorers of the byways of French opera need not hesitate, but its charm might well captivate many other people too. (Brys)
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Magdalena Kozená: Le Belle Immagini
Magdalena Kozená: Le Belle Immagini
Price: £11.86

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Standards and delightful rarities from Kozena, 26 Jan 2002
In many ways this is the standard recital that one would expect from a singer involved in this kind of repertoire on stage. Just a year ago, Susan Graham presented a disc with similar material, though Graham limited herself to Mozart and Gluck 'standards', while Kozena added four tracks of music by a Bohemian composer, Mozart's friend, Josef Myslivecek. Comparison between the two singers is not entirely out of place; Kozena's vibrant voice often reminds me of Graham's, though the latter is certainly a much stronger and more full-bodied instrument. Graham, whose gorgeous voice seems to flow more effortlessly and whose diction is much more secure than Kozena's, has all the makings of a master of vocal colouring, but she is surprisingly pallid, particularly in Gluck. Kozena has to work much harder (especially at the top) than Graham to produce this glowing tone but somehow brings much more life to her interpretations. I was complaining about her Handel disc where her lack of security resulted in some exaggerated recitativi and colourless interpretations of arias. Most of my quibbles disappear here. Kozena manages to sustain the dramatic tension impressively: she is less aggressive, yet more eloquent. She is also able to carry on the tension from the recitative into the aria itself and seems more comfortable with the language to colour whole sentences, not just single words. Still, she (and the music) would have profited from more relaxed tempi as her diction is slightly muddled.
Again, Kozena is at her best in slow, contemplative arias, such as the hauntingly lovely - and sadly rarely recorded - "Le belle immagini" from Gluck's "Paride ed Elena". She is also good at more virtuoso pieces, like the military aria from Myslivecek's "Antigona", Argene's aria from his "Olimpiade" or in some of the Mozart. My only serious problem with all this lovely singing is that I have to keep reminding myself that most arias here are from trouser roles. Kozena started with a rather low voice and trouser roles were a natural choice for her, so today it is hard not to sympathize with her when she talks with obvious excitement about the growing number of female roles that she is soon to sing (including Melisande). Her voice is so feminine that most of her vocal incarnations don't have the necessary masculine twist. Some of them, with more neutral texts, like "Le belle immagini" work perfectly, others would profit from more masculine touches or at least from more energetic singing.
But if we forget about the 'confusion' of genders, it is a lovely, if not always particularly memorable recital. Kozena really shines in Myslivecek! She seems particularly eager to share her excitement about performing this music. One of the reasons may be the fact that those are mostly female roles which really suit Kozena's voice perfectly. I have never heard any music by Myslivecek before and those samples here are nice surprises. None of them are outstanding, but they give a good idea of Myslivecek's considerable skills which were apparently admired by his contemporaries, including Mozart. My favorite track (and one of my very favorites of the whole disc, next to "Le belle immagini") is Sara's aria from "Abramo ed Isacco", with an interesting orchestral accompaniment. Here Kozena is really touching in her depiction of Sara's despair. Argene's aria from the 1st act of "L'Olimpiade" is a charming piece and Kozena sings it graciously, missing only some of the irony and bitterness that the text asks for. Actually, I've yet to hear irony and humour in her singing...
If I could redesign the programme, I would add a few more arias by the Bohemian composer (there were apparently 6 tracks of Myslivecek planned for this CD) and leave out some of the Mozart, especially "Voi che sapete" which sounds quite undercharacterized, though Kozena sung Cherubino on stage, apparently to great acclaim. I understand that young singers are under pressure from their record companies to focus on mainstream repertoire and only occasionally are they able to smuggle some dusty jewels into their programmes, so Kozena's achievement - even as it is - is worth the highest praise. I don't know what criteria decided the choice of the arias, but it would be particularly interesting to hear something that is known from settings by other composers. Half of Myslivecek's operas were written to Metastasio's texts, among them "La Clemenza di Tito". The fact is also mentioned in the booklet but with no musical illustration so we get two 'Clemenza' arias by Mozart, one by Gluck and none by Myslivecek! A real pity then! I can't think of a better way of promoting the composer than giving listeners the opportunity to compare his settings of a text to those of others. But let's trust Kozena's musical judgement here...
The orchestral accompaniment is lively though at times more transparency wouldn't hurt. In general, all tempi are quite hectic, sometimes to the detriment of the music. It is well illustrated by Gluck's gorgeous aria "Se mai senti...", where the miscalculated tempo and lumpy playing deprive the music of its character. To compare Kozena's interpretation to Bartoli's is probably pointless. Moreover, I am afraid that the quickish pace here is not the effect of an 'artistic decision' but rather an overreaction to the agonizingly slow (and murderous!) but terribly effective tempo adopted by Bartoli. It is a lament based on the metaphor of dying breath and the tempo is imposed by the words. Still, it is such a wonderful aria and it is great to hear it included in this recital. There is also rather routine accompaniment in the recitative to "Il tenero momento", where the heartbreaking last line - simply rushed through - loses its power, but in the aria itself the orchestra and conductor redeem themselves with some delightful playing.
A satisfying recital then, worth getting for the exciting new material (Myslivecek and Gluck) and for some lovely, if not always idiomatic Mozart singing. (Kicek)

Handel: Italian Cantatas HWV 99, 145 & 170
Handel: Italian Cantatas HWV 99, 145 & 170
Price: £13.39

13 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A young singer out of her depth...., 23 Jan 2002
Oh dear! It would be such a nice collection of rarely heard Handel cantatas if only Kozena didn't try to be a Bartoli or a von Otter! Not being quite in the same league as an artist and personality as the two divas, Kozena tries to infuse these cantatas with pathos and drama using lots of aggressive vocal gestures, but she isn't able to fill these creations with flesh and blood and make them believable (in this repertoire, you'd have to go back to Janet Baker to hear what I mean). So, we have exaggerated recitativi (sometimes to almost grotesque dimensions) and plain - if often ravishingly lovely - singing. I do find her voice mesmerizing when it just flows surrounded with an aura of melancholy (as in some of her earlier discs, including Handel's Dixit Dominus, also under Minkowski), but aggressive outbursts are not her cup of tea. Occasionally there are some mannerisms in the singing too and a rather disconcerting lack of variety of colour. Whatever it is - lack of comfort with the language or simply immaturity, I don't know. First of all she was badly advised and here I can't see anybody else to blame than Minkowski himself. Minkowski likes taking risks and expects his singers to follow his artistic visions. It often produces wonderfully dramatic performances, but this one is simply miscalculated. Kozena's rather delicate voice with this particular melancholic quality does not have the power to express fury and anger as volcanic eruptions. Her new disc with arias by Mozart, Gluck and Myslivecek shows that she is quite capable of expressing those emotions, using much subtler means and making them still eloquent. This new album shows that with different collaborators, who simply let her sing her way, she can bring quite a great deal of not only lovely singing but also some fine - and believable - characterizations.
When asked how she studies new roles, the much lamented Lucia Popp, Kozena's compatriot, said - and it seems like such an obvious truth: (a singer) "cannot reproduce the sound of another, it doesn't ring true and however much you might wish to repeat something a much-admired colleague has done, it never works because each voice is unique" (H.Matheopoulos: Diva. Great Sopranos and Mezzos Discuss their Art, Boston 1991, p.146). There is only one Bartoli, there is only one von Otter. One day there may be only one Kozena if only she can find her real voice, one able to express a wider range of emotions without resorting to some rather unconvincing and vocally dubious means or imitating her great colleagues. There is something of a 'folk singer' in Kozena, the simplicity of her singing and the way she projects her voice make it ideally suited for folk songs. It was that quality that made her Gramophone Award winning disc of Czech Love Songs such a treasure! The new disc (Myslivecek etc.) also brings us closer to what may be her 'individual' voice.
For those who are looking for perfect renditions of some of Handel's Italian cantatas there is the magnificent Janet Baker. I don't know about the availability of her superb "Lucrezia" on Philips, but recently EMI reissued two of her earlier recordings with Raymond Leppard, cantatas "Ah, crudel nel pianto mio" and "Armida abbandonata" (EMI 574284). There are a few recordings of single cantatas (by Deborah York and Veronique Gens), but it certainly is not an embarras de richesse - and that's why Kozena's disc, with its mannerisms, is such a missed opportunity... (Kicek)

Cecilia Bartoli: Gluck Italian Arias
Cecilia Bartoli: Gluck Italian Arias
Price: £14.81

33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Long lost music brilliantly performed by Bartoli and AAM B, 22 Jan 2002
This is a wonderful CD but, for various reasons, it is terribly difficult to write about. Yes, it is beautifully produced, with the booklet richly illustrated and filled with fantastic liner notes (really WORTH reading along with the arias!) by Bartoli's boyfriend and collaborator Claudio Osele. And yes, the music is gorgeously sung and equally gorgeously played (an improvement since the Vivaldi disc where the orchestral accompaniment was too rough). But how to describe the music itself, especially when so much of it has never been performed and it is impossible to refer the potential buyer to existing recordings, however obscure. Of course, the Vivaldi disc posed the same problem, but there the composer's name -familiar to so many - combined with Bartoli's reputation guaranteed its success. Gluck never enjoyed this kind of popularity and even among real opera aficionados it is hard to find those who are familiar with his works except the ubiquitous "Orfeo". And yet, Gluck's place in the history of opera is much more important than Vivaldi's - he was the great reformer, the man who transformed Baroque opera into Classical. But perhaps this very quality of being a transitional figure, neither wholly Baroque nor wholly Classical (plus his cosmopolitanism - he was a Bohemian who wrote operas in Italian, French and German for most of the major European cities) has made him difficult to fit into any category. People tend to think of Classical opera as sounding like Mozart - Gluck's reform operas don't and so people mistake his deliberate simplicity for incompetence. As for his early work before his reforms of the 1760s, this has been almost entirely forgotten - after all, the reasoning goes, if it needed reforming then there was clearly something badly wrong with it. This new CD proves how mistaken that judgment is.
All the arias here are set to the words by Pietro Metastasio, the most successful librettist of the eighteenth century and perhaps of all time. His 27 different libretti were apparently set 800 times by 300 different composers, so eighteenth century audiences coming to an operatic premiere would often know the words by heart before they had heard a note of the new musical version. Many of those composers enjoyed only a brief fame, but some of Gluck's arias recorded here can be contrasted with rival settings by the greatest: Handel, Haydn and Mozart. Track 3 brings a marvellous recitativo followed by a da capo aria from Gluck's 1750 opera "Ezio". Handel set the same Metastasio text (slightly adapted) to music some 20 years earlier. The contrast between Handel's lilting, dancelike melody and Gluck's passionate rage is striking...The very title "Clemenza di Tito" immediately brings associations with the Mozart opera of the same name. Unfortunately, Mozart used a text adapted by Mazzola but it is still possible to compare the two works. A piece which Mozart set as a trio appears here as an 11 minute long aria, "Se mai sentirti spirar". It is (literally) breathtaking, as life and hope slowly die away and Bartoli's performance is electrifying, time seems to stand still as she sings. The daring harmonies in this piece provoked immense controversy in its day. When his pupils told the famous Italian music teacher, Durante, that such unconventional music was obviously the work of a 'German donkey', he replied that no rules existed to justify such a combination of sounds but only a genius could have thought of it. This aria also shows one reason why Metastasio had such a strong appeal to musicians. Metastasio often wrote his texts around a single metaphor or simile (this one is based on the idea of breath), allowing composers the opportunity for vivid musical illustration. Anyone who has heard the Vivaldi Album might remember the two Metastasio arias there, with their metaphors of a storm at sea and of freezing winter. Here we also get arias based on the idea of Cupid's lyre, inspiring Gluck to a wonderfully rococo pizzicato accompaniment, and of a gentle stream gradually building to a great river ("Quel chiaro rio"). But human passions are also vividly and directly depicted - one of our very favorite tracks, "Berenice, che fai?" (#8), is a magnificent scene set to a superb text, that also inspired Haydn (Scena di Berenice, Hob.XXIVa:10) and apparently Handel. Haydn's "Scena di Berenice", composed in 1795, is more classically controlled and not as intensely dramatic as Gluck's, but it is no less powerful. Those who are lucky to have Arleen Auger's delightful recital of Haydn's arias and cantatas (Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre 1990, nla) can hear it in her touching interpretation.
What you won't hear on this CD is Gluck's most famous aria "Che faro senza Euridice". We heard so much about Cecilia's struggle with Decca over her refusal to record the aria that it almost became a legend. Of course everybody would love to hear it but in a way, its absence is a symbol of the artist's personal victory (besides the aria's text is not by Metastasio) - she got it her way and she is to be congratulated for her faith in this little known but quite wonderful music. Those who fall in love with Gluck through this superb recital and would like to explore more, should start with Minkowski's recording of "Iphigenie en Tauride", one of the best recordings of any Classical opera! There, if you still hunt for comparisons, you can find Gluck's own reworking of the two last arias on this disc. Enjoy!

Méhul: Stratonice
Méhul: Stratonice
Price: £13.21

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating rarity from a sadly neglected composer, 17 Jan 2002
This review is from: Méhul: Stratonice (Audio CD)
In 1816, the great German writer and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of Mehul's operas: "Serious, dignified, harmonically rich and thoughtfully fashioned, they should not be allowed to disappear from the stage". Sadly however, Hoffmann's advice was not followed in the twentieth century and nowadays they have vanished almost completely, despite being admired by (and influencing) Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz and Weber. French opera in general has been rather neglected on disc compared to its German and Italian counterparts, and whole areas have been left to gather dust on the shelves. The era between the retirement of Gluck and the emergence of Berlioz (roughly 1780 - 1825) has been particularly badly ignored, really only represented in the mainstream repertoire by Cherubini's "Medee" in a mangled Italian version which attempts to turn it into a bel canto opera. Now, with the appearance of "Stratonice", Francophiles at last have the chance to hear a real rarity.
Etienne Nicolas Mehul, along with his friend Luigi Cherubini, was the most important French composer of the Revolutionary era. "Stratonice", a one-act work from 1792, is a short example of the most popular genre of the time, 'opera comique' (though this work is not in the least bit comic - the phrase simply means it has spoken dialogue, and rather a lot of it, between the arias). The story, set in ancient Syria, concerns Prince Antiochus, who is secretly in love with his father the king's, fiancee, Stratonice. The king can't understand why his son is pining away but the canny doctor, Erasistratus, finds out the truth and everything is resolved happily. Mehul was a pupil of Gluck and the older composer's influence clearly shows in the cool, classical chorus which opens the work. But he was also the first composer to be described as a Romantic and his music is often a lot less balanced and more wayward and stormy than Gluck's, as can be heard in the next piece, Antiochus's tortured monologue, where the music follows the prince's changing moods from resignation to suicidal despair. The most impressive movement is a big ensemble (praised by Berlioz), some 15 minutes long, which starts as a duet, then builds to a trio, ending up as a quartet between all four soloists. Mehul's orchestration was famous for its originality and examples of his imaginative scoring are not hard to find- the orchestra is cut down to just the cellos for the trio in the ensemble; the dark, brooding woodwind in the middle section of Antiochus's monologue sounds almost like Rameau but the rushing strings which precede it look forward almost thirty years to "Der Freischuetz". In fact, Mehul had a big influence on Weber and the early Berlioz and it's intriguing to come across those influences here.
So all in all, a fascinating discovery by a sadly neglected composer who deserves to be heard more (his symphonies, which have been recorded by several conductors, are also well worth seeking out). Christie conducts a punchy period ensemble and the cast is young and fresh (though the two tenors, father and son, sound confusingly alike). Patricia Petibon and Yann Beuron are now rising stars (Beuron was particularly good in Minkowski's "Iphigenie en Tauride" last year). Finally, the packaging, with its cover by Ingres apparently inspired by this very opera, is some of the most beautiful I have ever come across. Recommended to adventurous lovers of French or early Romantic opera.

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