on 15 February 2003
I was astounded by the quality of the singing and the absolutely gorgeous music that was sung on this album. The two singers sing like goddesses and are very committed to the drama of the music.
The sound is excellent, both spacious and crystal-clear. Teldec sure knows how to capture voices and operatic music on CD. Many thanks to Teldec for recording this exquisitely sung duet album. If only they were around to record a duet album featuring Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. Now that would have been great!
The soprano, Hei-Kyung Hong, has an excellent coloratura technique. Her trills vary from mediocre to very good. Overall, her fioritura is first-rate. Her diction is crystal clear. Her Italian is exquisite. Almost every "r" is rolled. Her French is generally excellent. Her German is quite good. I love the sound of her voice. It is bright and silvery-toned with a brilliant top. The mezzo-soprano is Jennifer Larmore. She has a gorgeous voice, rich and dark. Her voice reminded me of the voice of that great coloratura mezzo, Marilyn Horne. Her coloratura may be a bit below that of the soprano's but it is more than passable. Her trills also range from mediocre to very good. Her diction is sometimes obscured by her rich tone but it is generally excellent. Her track record with rolling the "r's" is not as good as the soprano's but it is more than passable.
The first duet is the Barcarolle from Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffman". I had never heard it before. The simple yet exquisite quality of the music is just wonderful. Both singers acquit themselves admirably in this duet. Their voices blend together beautifully in this love duet.
The second duet is the wonderful duet from Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier". I had never heard this duet before. Strauss' music is sparkling and brilliant, an absolute joy to the ears. The two singers are wonderful in this duet.
The third duet is a fine love duet from Handel's "Giulio Cesare". The harp accompaniment is fantastic. It was the harpsichord's sounds that made this duet so enjoyable. Handel did a great job writing the music for this very fine opera. Hong is breathtaking in this duet. Larmore supports her wonderfully. I can't decide if I like this duet the most or the one from "L'incoronazione di Poppea". The notes in the booklet say that this duet comes at the end of the opera. This is incorrect. It comes well before the end of the opera.
The fourth duet is from Claudio Monteverdi's underperfomed and underappreciated masterpiece, "L'incoronazione di Poppea". It was an absolute delight to hear this exquisite duet with its fine Baroque music. From Hong's first note, the listener knows that he/she is in for a wonderful treat. The perfomance of this duet is so good that words do not do it justice.
The fifth duet is from Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito". I didn't realize that Mozart could write such fine Baroque music. The music is beautiful and noble. The singing is excellent.
The sixth duet is the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes' "Lakmé". It is an exquisite piece of French music. I love this duet. No wonder it is considered by many to be the most beautiful operatic piece ever composed. The singing done by Hong and Larmore is transcendental. Mere words cannot describe the sounds that they make with their beautiful voices.
The seventh duet is from Bellini's "Norma". What you get is wonderful, vigorous bel canto music at its best and gorgeous singing by two very able singers. The coloratura is amazing! The staccati notes done in unison are wonderful. The high notes of both singers are powerful and clear. Larmore makes a powerful and convincing Adalgisa, but Hong is clearly not suited to Norma. She doesn't have the temperament to sing the role and her voice is too light to tackle the role's heavy dramatic demands.
The eighth duet is from Donizetti's masterpiece, "Anna Bolena". The bel canto melody found in this piece of music is very fine indeed. Hong tries her best to sound like Bolena, but this role does not show her in the best light. Her voice is too light for this heavy role and she doesn't have the queen's regal temperament. Larmore is very convincing as the repentent Jane Seymour. The singing is fabulous. So is the diction of the two singers. The high C done in unison that ends the duet is spectacular and breathtaking.
The ninth duet is from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly". This is the other Flower Duet on the album. The singing is magnificent. Larmore makes a very fine Suzuki. Hong's Cio-Cio San is excellent. She would make a fine recorded Butterfly. She is, after all, Asian. Some people say she is not good enough to be a Butterfly. I strongly disagree. If Freni and Scotto, two of the lightest-voiced sopranos to have sung the role, were allowed to record "Madama Butterfly", then Hong should be able to do so too.
The tenth duet is from Rossini's "Tancredi". This taxing piece of bel canto is handled superbly by Hong and Larmore. It is 10 minutes and 35 seconds of some of the most difficult coloratura ever written. I was astounded by the singers' amazing virtuosity in this piece. They show us why their coloratura techniques are world-class. The trills, runs over octaves, and roulades are tossed off expertly. Even though this music is very taxing, they still manage to characterize! Sutherland and Horne would be proud.
The eleventh and last duet is from Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hänsel und Gretel". The duet opens with beautiful music but I found this piece to be the weakest of the selections chosen for this album. The music doesn't rise to new heights after the opening notes. The singing is more than average but the piece is not a good showcase for the talent of these two singers. Really, another duet from a better opera should have been included that would have done justice to these singers' unique talent.
Finally, I have to comment on the superb conducting and orchestral playing on this album. Jesús López Cobos is an above average conductor, that's for sure. His conducting supports the singers very well and never intrudes upon their singing. The Münchner Rundfunkorchester provides excellent orchestral playing. They never play too loudly as to drown out the singers. Overall, this duet album is one of the finest ever made with two female singers.