Not too many CDs of new opera recordings, at least of mainstream repertoire, come my way these days. Studio recordings have become rare and the usual medium is a video recording, itself a spin off from a live broadcast; TV, cinema or web, of a live performance. This makes sense to me. Just listening to an opera has always seemed a second best. Anyway, that’s all by way of saying that I was a bit surprised to find myself listening to a CD edition of a live recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut from the 2016 Salzburg Festival. How did this recording happen you ask? The answer is on the box, where Anna Netrebko in the title role, gets top billing, even over the composer.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s stagings of the Mozart/da Ponte operas in Salzburg concluded in 2015 with Le nozze di Figaro. I think it’s the most successful of the three. Bechtolf’s strengths lie in detailed direction of the action rather than bold conceptual statements and Nozze is probably the least in need of, and the least amenable to, the big Konzept. There aren’t any real dramaturgical problems to solve. It just works as written. I don’t think that’s so true for Don Giovanni or Così.
American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, 2013 winner of Cardiff Singer of the Year, sang at Koerner Hall last night with veteran Bradley Moore at the piano. Her first set; Joaquin Turina’s Homenaje a Lope de Vega gave us a pretty good idea of the basic value proposition. She has a fantastic instrument. There is power to burn, a pleasing dark tone, accuracy and musicianship. She never sounded remotely strained even while pushing out a very impressive sound. The rest of her first half programme; Chausson’s Three Melodies and four of Schubert’s Goethe settings showed that there was more than just a big accurate voice. Basically, it’s all there. She can vary colours and scale vibrato up and down. There’s some agility. She can float quiet high notes and she can tell a story. Her diction was clear in all three languages. I would say at this point the only question mark I had was around her ability to engage the audience. If I were to judge by the very highest standards, and I’m think Bryn Terfel or Karita Mattila, there was something just the merest shade cold and technical. The second half would see whether she could, as it were , lighten up a bit.
OK so who noticed that Barbara contains RBA twice? A perfect fit one might say and so it proved. In a short late afternoon concert Ms. Hannigan, joined by the TSO Chamber Soloists (Jonathan Crow, Peter Seminovs, Teng Li and Joseph Johnson) and Liz Upchurch, showed her chops as one of the day’s best interpreters of modern vocal music. First up was the String Quartet No.2 by Schoenberg. This is a most unusual quartet in that the players are joined by a soprano soloist for the third and fourth movements. It’s also unusual in that, although it predates Schoenberg’s full blown serialism, the first three movements are tonal (just) but the last is a full on experiment in atonality. None of this makes it easy to play or sing!
Having had a lot of fun with the Lyon recording of Orphée aux Enfers I decided to try and track down some more Offenbach operetta and managed to find a Zurich recording of La Belle Helène conducted, perhaps surprisingly, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
It’s not perhaps as wildly funny as the Orphée nor perhaps does it have as many memorable tunes but it’s good fun in an undemanding (at least for the audience) sort of way. The Zurich production, by Helmut Lohner, is painted in pretty broad brush strokes. The costumes a re very colourful, a bit silly and most have writing on them, much of it, oddly, in English. The thunder machine is positively Heath Robinsonish. There’s lots of stage action and fairly silly dancing around. It’s all very fast paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the sleeve notes leading one to expect more in the way of social satire. Harnoncourt is obviously having a whale of a time and occasionally gets caught up in the stage action rather as he does in the Salzburg King Arthur. Continue reading