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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

CD Review--Sack Time: Fischer-Dieskau in Rigoletto

This 1964 La Scala recording of Rigoletto features the unusual choice of acclaimed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik leading the proceedings. (It also has weird cover art, but hey, it was the Sixties.)

Known for his skilled interpretation of songs by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, Fischer-Dieskau is not the first name that comes to mind when it comes to this opera. The legendary baritone made some memorable recordings, but most of them are in the German repertory.

Fischer-Dieskau is a thinking man's jester. Like his lieder recordings, this is series of compelling miniatures that form a harrowing whole. While he is more restrained than some hunchbacks, he excels at portraying the suffering, pain and doubt that motivate the character.

Renata Scotto ("Little Renata" to us opera geeks, not to be confused with "Big" Renata Tebaldi) gives one of the finest performances of her recorded career as Gilda, the hunchback's daughter. Her "Caro Nome" is a virtual clinic on how this wonderful aria is to be sung, refreshingly free of annoying mannerisms. The spectacular coloratura work sounds giddy and refreshingly unforced--exactly what Verdi intended, the sound of an ecstatic young girl singing to herself.

Carlo Bergonzi applies his classic tenor to the Duke , making the most famous sexist pig in opera a thoroughly repugnant fellow who is a joy to listen to. Ivo Vinco is an able, dark-toned Sparafucile--his Act I duet with Rigoletto is a highlight of the set, paired with Fischer-Dieskau's acting instincts and led by Kubelik's instinctive musicianship.

This Rigoletto was deleted for a number of years, having been superseded in the catalogue by an excellent Viennese recording made by Carlo Maria Giulini, starring Piero Cappuccilli and Placido Domingo. Currently available as a bargain two-disc set, is being reissued (along with all the other DG Scala recordings) as part of a box set Great Operas from La Scala, coming later this month.

Monday, June 15, 2009

CD Review: The Abbado Ballo

The third in this survey of the La Scala Verdi recordings (and yes, it's wilfully out of order) is this excellent and largely forgotten Un Ballo in Maschera, conducted with flair by Claudio Abbado. Like the Aida (which was made around the same time with a similar cast) this Ballo comes at the very end of the analogue recording era, made in 1981 on the eve of the CD boom. And the warm, glowing sound of the violins and voices makes one regret all the problems that hit the recording industry because of that transition.

This is Domingo's second go-round on record as King Gustavo. The voice had not yet darkened and (with the exception of a slight tendency to always rrroll his R's) was still comparable to that other famous tenor. Domingo's portrayal combines brashness and dignity.The listener believes (especially in the Act II duet at the gallows) that Gustavo has really fallen in love with Amelia--so much so that he unwittingly sets up his own death at the hands of her husband.

Renato Bruson is a great choice as Anckarström, the cuckolded husband. Bruson sails through the difficult dramatic journey from trusted advisor and friend to cold-blooded assassin. His final duet with his wife with its great cry of "La vendetta" makes you believe that this is the historical Count, who used rusted bullets to ensure that the King died of blood poisoning. Ouch.

As Amelia, the wife torn between husband and king, Katia Ricciarelli is well suited as the dear caught in the opera's proverbial headlights. For once, Elena Obratzsova is ideally cast in a Verdi opera--here she can do little wrong as the intimidating witch Ulrica. The only small caveat is Edita Gruberova in the travesti role of the page, on record but a pretty good navigation of this role's treacherous coloratura.

This same cast appeared in a Covent Garden production by John Vernon that moved the action back to Sweden from its censor-approved 18th century Boston setting. Verdi, always a great one for history, fought with censors who wanted the action moved to Viking times, and to remove the conspirators, the adultery(!) and of course, the regicide. Eventually, the action was shipped up to colonial Boston, making King Gustav III into "Riccardo, Count of Warwick." The Vernon production proved that Ballo works better dramatically if a King, not a Count, is assassinated at the denouement.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

CD Review: Aida in the Temple of Doom

This 1983 Aida is made with the usual cast of Deutsche Grammophon suspects. Once again, Claudio Abbado leads the proceedings. He conducts another fine performance, watching his dynamic markings and occasionally outwitting the recording engineer to produce grand musical theater.

Despite the photo of Katia Ricciarelli that appeared on the front cover of the original LP and CD box sets, it is Domingo who is the star of this show. Here, (in the second of three studio recordings he made as Radames) he sounds positively restrained--especially when compared to Corelli or del Monaco. And that's a good thing. Sensitive and thoughtful in the opera's opening act, he opens up the pipes later on to let floods of passion come roaring forth. In the studio, he sings with a level of care that doesn't always come across in the opera house.

Katia Ricciarelli's portrayal of the title role veers from mild to wild at the start of "Ritorna, vincitor." This is a fine, well-sung dramatic performance that ranges between extreme self-loathing and the pathos necessary for a truly sympathetic Aida. Oddly, Ricciarelli seems to achieve this latter quality through shorter phrases, not the traditional legato lines that one often hears in the opera house. She is, like many of her fellow Ethiopian slave-girls, best heard on record.

As Amneris, Elena Obraztsova remains a controversial choice. The Russian mezzo made a lot of DG recordings in the '80s and they all feature that bludgeoning, thrusting voice, an impressive instrument that could punch its way over the orchestra. Here, one wonders if she is about to punch out that two-timing Radames. Lucia Valentini-Terrani is perfectly cast here as the singing priestess in the temple of Fthà. She's the best female performance on this record.

This entire performance sounds like it is being played in the same echoing acoustic that is usually reserved for the Temple scene in Act I. The effect is claustrophobic, with solo violins, harps and even choristers echoing forth into the pyramidal void. This is an approach to recording Aida that was done first (and better) by John Culshaw on the first Karajan recording in 1959. But at least Culshaw knew the art of self-retraint. Dynamic ranges are extreme on this recording--the pianissimi are nearly inaudible and the big moments are right in your face--or eardrums--especially that final "Immenso Fthà!"

Friday, June 12, 2009

Recording Recommendation: Putting Don Carlos in Order

Released in 1990, the Claudio Abbado/Placido Domingo version of Don Carlos (DG) was the first commercial recording of this opera in its original French. Along with the five-act version of the opera (with the often-cut first act put back in its proper place, complete with "Je le vieux") the hefty four-disc set included the opera's famous "cut" scenes. However, in a classic example of record company weirdness, the cuts were relegated to the end of the fourth disc, as a series of extras. So with CDs or cassettes, it was almost impossible to listen to the full score of Don Carlos in order.

These trimmed scenes are pretty substantial--and include:
  • The opening scene of the opera, where a chorus of woodcutters in the forest of Fontainebleau bemoan their hunger, and then encounter Elisabeth de Valois. Verdi cut this on opening night for length, but it puts the events that follow (particuarly Elisabeth's decision to marry her fiancee's father, Philip II) in context, and changes the whole tone of the opera. The Met performs this scene, albeit in Italian.
  • The "Ballet of the Queen". A spectacular Paris Opera ballet, this has no effect except stopping the action in the middle of Act III for some nice music. Cut when the opera was revised for Italian performance.
  • The original "Insurrection" scene complete with thundering chorus of inquisitors. Trimmed down in performance, here it is similar to the "Radames Radames Radames" scene in Aida.

The Abbado recording is not the best Don Carlos on the market (Domingo's earlier recording with Giulini wins that particular bowl of nachos) but it is a solid enough performance, despite the oddity of an Italian cast and chorus singing in French. Domingo is in excellent form as the Infante, and Ruggerio Raimondi is an imposing King Philip. The ladies are less well served. The late Luciana Valantini-Terrani is a smallish, but competent Eboli. Katia Ricciarelli is past her prime here, a squally, and whiny Elisabeth--but she rebounds in the final act.

The chorus and orchestra of La Scala is in top form, although the whole recording suffers from too much knob-twiddling by the Deutsche Grammophon tonmeister. What's neat though, and what makes this recording worth revisiting is the IPod. If you upload the four CDs into your ITunes, you can then make a playlist and ut all the missing pieces in the correct order. Now, with the Woodcutter's Chorus at the opening, the ballet in its proper, interruptive place, and the Inquisitors back to work shouting at Carlos and Posa, this finally sounds like a proper Don Carlos. And best of all, the missing pieces fit perfectly, unveiling the breadth and scope of Verdi's grandest opera.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Die Frau Under Ground

OK, I admit it. I own multiple, working IPods. I keep one for rock and roll, one for classical and opera, and one that I consider "current listening"--a mishmash of just about everything in my collection that I need to have with me at any place and time.

Recently, I changed headphone brands, ditching my crappy buds in favor of 'phones made by SkullCandy. Their noise-blocking basic buds come with large silicone sound-mufflers that block outside noises better than any other brand of headphones that I have tried. And yes, I like them better than the ultra-expensive (and easily lost) Bose earbuds.

Anyway, with these advanced noise-blockers in my ears, I set aside the Metallica, Rush and Dream Theater (mmm...Dream Theater) for major operas by the two Richards (Strauss and Wagner) and Verdi. I started at the deep (loud) end with Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Opening the Songs list, I cued up the first track and turned Shuffle off. (the opening notes and the scene with the Nurse and the Messenger) I sank into an orchestral oblivion, a swirl of strings and the famous descending "Er wird zu stein!". Awesome. Then, without a moment's notice, my 'Pod quickly switched composers on me--it jumped to the next song alphabetically in the playlist.

The problem was easily solved. I took the three discs of Frau and loaded them onto the "On-The-Go" playlist. You scroll the wheel over the album you want, press the button, hold it down and it loads the whole thing. So now with the opera in the right order, I resumed listening.

It's quite something listening to this gigantic score in the hurly-burly of the subways. All the magnificent orchestral sounds and orchestral detail came roaring forth, sounding absolutely magnificent. In fact, the swelling rush of one hundred and twenty VIenna musicians was a little hard to get used to--the sheer volume and breadth of auditory information made me feel intoxicated--pure sensory overload, Strauss-style.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.