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Music Reviews - February, 2008 - Special CD/DVD Reviews

This month, I deviate from the usual review format. Instead of offering short, individual reviews of a host of CDs and DVDs, I offer three feature-length reviews that focus on four Divas past and present: Maria Callas, Cecilia Bartoli, Measha Brueggergosman, and Kate Royal. These four women, variously Greek/American, Italian, Canadian, and British by birth/heritage, provide object lessons in great singing.

Maria Callas: The Complete Studio Recordings | EMI 946 395918-2 (70 CDs)

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music-2-08-complete-callas.jpg

THIRTY YEARS WITHOUT CALLAS

Had she survived her self-created tragedies, Maria Callas would have turned 84 this past December. Instead, the controversial Greek/American soprano, many of whose operatic recordings remain unsurpassed, died in 1977 of “natural causes” (translation: from a broken heart and overuse of sleeping pills and other drugs). Her death came three years after the end of her ill-advised comeback tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, and twelve years after her precipitous vocal decline forced her departure from the operatic stage.

To those who still speak of opera in terms of B.C. and A.C. – Before Callas and After Callas – the physical passing came long after the voice that redefined opera had left Callas' body.

My own discovery of Callas came by way of two commercial recordings. The first, a 1964 recital of Rossini arias, reduced this youth to laughter when florid runs were capped by hideous, wildly wobbling high notes. “This is the Callas everyone raves about?” I wondered.

Nonetheless, Callas’ iconic status impelled another try. As a college senior, I purchased her 1953 complete recording of Puccini’s Tosca – the EMI recording by which all other Toscas are judged. Two and a half minutes after the first tenor aria, “Recondita armonia,” I heard a strange, muffled sound. I couldn’t identify it, but I literally saw sparks flying before my eyes. As the source moved closer to the microphone and the name “Mario” became clear, I was shocked to discover the fiery voice of Maria Callas.

But fire was only one aspect of the Callas genius. The best way to evaluate her complete commercial outpouring is by investing in a phenomenal box set.

Simply Callas | Warner (Fonit-Cetra) 2564 69877-2 (6 CDs)

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music-2-08-simply-callas.jpgThis is the most economical way to hear Callas' legendary studio performances remastered from the originals by the company that recorded her, we are reminded that the voice of "The Tigress" was also capable of the most heart-breaking and pathetic utterances, limpid coloratura, florid trills, and astoundingly high, sustained climaxes.

Callas' very first studio recital, recorded shortly after she had turned 26, featured both Wagner and florid, soaring Bellini. Her early Cetra recordings – the 1949 first recital, 1952 La Gioconda, and 1953 La Traviata -- are available both in the EMI box and a six-CD Fonit-Cetra set from Warner Music

Maria Callas: Birth of a Diva – Legendary Early Recordings | Warner 25646 98144 (2 CDs)

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music-2-08-callas-diva.jpgThis two-CD set pairs the first recital with excerpts from the same two operas included complete on the larger set. Warner eliminates most swishing of the recital's '78 grooves, doctoring the sound in the process, while EMI retains the raw truth of voice and offers fuller sound. Only EMI remasters Callas' final studio recording for Cetra, the complete Cherubini Medea that also stars a young Renata Scotto. EMI supplies a CD from which you can download librettos, translations, and a curious collection of 20 photos, while Warner leaves non-Italian speakers and those who cannot decipher Callas' muffled midrange in the dust.

The unconventional sound of the American-born Greek soprano's voice caused shock waves upon her emergence in the 1940s. Huge, intensely dramatic, with a mezzo-like solidity in the low range and a phenomenal, steely high extension, Callas' precedents, if any, lay in the unrecorded legendary soprano coloraturas of the 19th century, Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta. Nor had anyone since the great Lilli Lehmann attempted to sing Wagner one night, and high coloratura the next.

Callas began studying with her main teacher, coloratura Elvira de Hidalgo, shortly before her 16th birthday. De Hidalgo has said of their first meeting that the overweight, awkwardly dressed teenager with heavy-rimmed glasses produced "tempestuous, extravagant cascades of sounds, as yet uncontrolled but full of drama and emotion." She immediately granted Callas a full scholarship.

A subsequent conductor/mentor, the legendary Tulio Serafin, realized that the astounding dramatic soprano was also capable of agile, high-flying coloratura. But while every recorded coloratura before her had emphasized sweetness of timbre and purity of emission over drama, Callas revolutionized interpretation of 19th century bel canto repertoire (Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Cherubini and the like) by singing with full, gutsy emotional commitment and tones that often stunned more than they pleased.

Callas of course attracted attention for far more than her voice, artistic genius, and mesmerizing stage persona. Besides her rapid weight loss, and transformation from an ungainly woman to one of the most glamorous and arresting sopranos of the stage, her ascent to operatic and public stardom was from the start beset by controversy. Given her demands to fire a co-star who held a note longer than she; her intentional upstaging of tenor Kurt Baum in Mexico City performances of Aida by holding a blazing high E-flat for 10 phenomenal seconds; the infamous lips-flared, snarling photo of the "Tigress" confronting a summons-server at the Chicago Opera House; her 1958 opening night walkout from Tosca at the Rome Opera House (thereby leaving the President of Italy high and dry); and subsequent dismissal from the Met, Callas became mired in scandal after scandal. Factor in her ditching of husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini for shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and Onassis' subsequent ditching of Callas for Jackie Kennedy, and you've got the stuff that every dirt-digger longs for.

To her detriment, Callas' myopic handling of her public and personal life increasingly became fodder for the press. Mirroring the actions of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who hounded and denounced one Hollywood icon after another, the press hounded Callas, magnifying the publicly defiant but privately fragile diva's every misstep. For her part, the soprano who often approached operatic performance as combat seemed incapable of seeing what she was creating, and engendered yet more controversy. All this took a toll on a voice that some believe was controlled only through sheer willpower and psychic determination.

Callas' life ultimately became a huge psychodrama in which a tragedy befitting an operatic heroine was acted out in public. For those who value art over spectacle, the decline of this consummate artist was heart-breaking.


The Eternal Maria Callas | EMI DVD 5007209

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music-2-08-eternal-callas.jpgThis features a much-too-short documentary that begins with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini questioning whom the real Callas was. It also includes excerpts from filmed interviews. Its essential concert footage, mostly filmed during the years of decline, begins with an unmissable, new-to-DVD “Casta Diva” filmed in Rome on New Year’s Eve 1957. Even with a full orchestra and chorus behind her, Callas looks so fragile and alone at the start of the aria as to make one weep. (Watch her smile as she produces extraordinary, feather-light descents in the middle of the aria). The DVD and includes all subsequent filmed recitals.

Callas Conversations | EMI 49076495; 38845799

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music-2-08-callas-conversations.jpgThese interviews, dating from 1964 through 1969, are as important for what Callas says as for what she conceals. Unfortunately, both DVDs are padded with excerpts from the same recitals included on The eternal Maria Callas. I’m also quite fond of the DVD documentary included with

Callas life & art • EMI 7243 5 57831 0 3 (two CD plus DVD)
Performance: 5
Sound: 4

as well as a host of other documentaries and a huge stack of biographies. Finally, to fully understand Callas’ greatness, search out the copious live recordings, oft in substandard sound. Pearl offers the best-sounding Lisbon Traviata, while EMI and Myto vie with Allegro (Opera D’Oro) for supremacy in the rest. Listen to the live “monster” Martini & Rossi recitals, the astounding 1952 Armida, and the recitatives between arias to fully understand what made Callas so great.


Cecilia Bartoli: Maria | Decca 4759078

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music-2-08-maria-bartoli.jpgLA CECILIA HONORS THE OTHER MARIA

Before Callas – way before Callas –another Maria forever changed the face of opera. A mezzo-soprano with a phenomenal three-octave range, the Spaniard Maria Malibran (1808 – 1836) was born Maria Felicia Garcia in Paris. The middle child of the famous tenor, composer, and singing teacher Manuel del Pópolo Vicente Garcia (who created the role of Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia) and soprano Joaquina Sitches, Maria’s musical family included her older sibling, baritone and seminal singing teacher Manuel Garcia, and much younger sister, famed mezzo, composer, and pianist Pauline Viardot-Garcia, with whom she sang at an early age.

Maria made her official debut at age 17, subbing for the famed Giuditta Pasta as Rosina in Il Barbiere. Leaving Europe with their ever-peripatetic father, the Garcia clan brought opera to the U.S., with Maria singing Rosina in Barbiere and leads in other operas written for her by her father. With the support of Mozart’s famed librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, she also appeared as Zerlina in the first American production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in New York City.

Two years later, after a hasty marriage and separation, the 19-year old mezzo set sail for France where Rossini helped her become the idol of Paris. Soon England, then Italy were conquered, as Malibran triumphed in the operas of Bellini and Donizetti. Singing roles such as Amina in La Sonnambula that were conceived for mezzos but are today usually associated with sopranos, she became the toast of the continent. Bellini even adapted the lead in his last opera, I puritani, for Malibran, transposing arias downward, and welcomed her performance of Norma. Pacini, Rossi, Persiani, Hummel and a host of others also composed operas and songs for her. Malibran herself composed a substitution aria for Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and inspired Mendelssohn to write the concert aria “Infelice.”

There was far more to Malibran. The prototypical romantic Prima Donna, she was extremely outspoken in her political views. A sportswoman who was known to travel in men’s clothes and often grab the reins from her coachmen, her voice, physical beauty, and musical/literary skills made her the model of an emancipated woman. (Fainting spells, indisposition, and exhaustion only added to her allure). Who knows how many more operas would have been written for her had she not died in the middle of her 28th year, succumbing to injuries sustained during a serious riding accident in England.

All of which leads us to Cecilia Bartoli. The ever-inquisitive mezzo, who has previously tackled long forgotten roles by Vivaldi, Salieri, and Gluck, has just released Cecilia Bartoli: Maria.

This extraordinary musical portrait of Maria Malibran features recordings of many of Malibran’s greatest successes. Available in both CD-sized hardcover book and a “Super deluxe” limited edition 200-page version that also includes a DVD bonus disc and photo gallery, Bartoli is accompanied by the period instrument Orchestra La Scintilla conducted by Adam Fischer. A guest appearance by violinist Maxim Vengerov, plus chorus honors by the International Chamber Soloists under Jürg Hämmerli add to the allure.

The star, of course, is Bartoli. Recorded in her 40th year (she turned 41 in June), her beauty of voice and depth of artistry remain unique among mezzos. If anything, Bartoli’s agile coloratura technique, which varies between softly graced notes and machine gun-like articulation, as well as her eye opening trill, amazing facility with fioritura (flowery embellishment), and depth of emotional commitment have never been more impressive. Simply put, Maria offers some of the most phenomenal singing you are apt to encounter in this or any year.

That is not to say that album will be greeted without controversy. Regardless of Bellini’s eagerness to transpose for Malibran, 21st century opera lovers are unaccustomed to hearing “Ah! Non credea mirarti…Ah! Non giunge” from Sonnambula and “O rendetemi la speme…Qui la voce…Vien, diletto” from Puritani shorn of their high E flats, or “Casta Diva” dive downward at the very end. I don’t know how these versions will sit with other opera lovers, but I could not help at first feeling disappointed.

Then I listened to the album’s three bel canto standards again, then yet again, and grew to appreciate Bartoli’s treasure-trove of nuance, shading, articulation, precise note values, authentic Malibranian ornamentation, and surprising low notes. Simply put, I heard things that I had never heard before in renditions by Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Boronat, Galli-Curci, and a host of other early and current coloratura sopranos. From feeling shortchanged, I ended up feeling grateful for the arias from Sonnambula and Puritani. I’m remain puzzled, however, by Bartoli’s choice for the final note of “Casta Diva.” It’s almost as though Bartoli has intentionally chosen to end the album, not a high note that she can easily sustain, but rather with a reminder that she’d like to be valued on her own terms.

Note that the three Bellini masterpieces only take up 23 of the CDs generous 79:46 minutes. The rest are devoted rarely performed mezzo repertoire, initially written for Malibran, for which we have virtually no recorded models for comparison. The opening aria, from Giovanni Pacini’s Irene O L’Assedio di Messia, is gorgeous, ripe material for any mezzo with the heart and technique to transition from fragile prayer to full-voiced, florid vengeance. Giuseppe Persiani’s Ines de Castro may be equally unknown, but Bartoli choses a truly lovely aria of despair. Maxim Vengerov’s graceful, sympathetic playing melds wonderfully with Bartoli to distinguish the London version of Mendelssohn’s 12-minute scena and aria, “Infelice.”

Malibran’s father contributes two works, both with chorus. The most unusual, Spanish in flavor, features castanets, guitar, and flamenco clapping; the other ends with a blazing high B. Even more unusual os Hummel’s “Air à la Tirolienne avec Variations,” a ridiculous romp all over the map that includes mock yodeling. The two works by Malibran include her famed “Rataplan,” with Benjamin Forster on drum and Bartoli’s extended rolling “r”s sounding like yet an instrument. The sole work by Rossi allows Bartoli to rejoice, dancing around Robert Pickup’s clarinet.

I’m not going to tell you where the most amazing trill you’re ever likely to hear comes. But if I haven’t convinced you to get this album by now, I had might as well take up basket weaving.


Measha Brueggergosman: Surprise! | DG 000983602

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music-2-08-measha-surprise.jpgTWO YOUNG SOPRANOS OFFER HOPE

Not long after Gramophone trumpeted their names on the cover of its August issue, two of its three top “new sopranos,” Measha Brueggergosman and Kate Royal, have released career-defining recital discs. Both women fulfill their promise, and then some.

Canadian-born Brueggergosman, 30, whose last name was formed by combining her family name Gosman with her husband’s surname, Bruegger, is quite the phenomenon. Tall, slimmer than of yore though still “statuesque,” and complete with nose ring and wild hair, our Measha has enough chutzpah to cause jaws to drop as wide as Moses parted the Red Sea. She also possesses one of the most lush and compelling soprano instruments around. Equipped with sufficient depth of tone to sing the soprano solo on the Cleveland Orchestra’s recently released recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, her new DG recital shows her an artist of uncommon interpretive skill.

How many singers would dare begin their first major label CD by screaming “Surprise!” with the voice of a chipmunk in heat? In William Bolcom’s cycle of Cabaret Songs, Measha Brueggergosman starts with that exclamation, and ends by devoting several minutes to the life and death of drag queen Georgia/George. Bolcom and Brueggergosman deserve copious accolades, as much for their subject matter as the way they handle such teasing songs as “Toothbrush Time” and “Amor.” It takes a singer with a surfeit of personality to put these gems across.

Brueggergosman dedicates every inch of her lush tone to the delightfully decadent Cabaret Songs (Brettl-Lieder) of Arnold Schoenberg. She devotes equal attention to five divine gems by Erik Satie. How can one resist succumbing to the theatricality of Satie’s queen, “La Diva de l’Empire,” or waltzing to his popular “Je te veux,” when they are sung by a woman with so much to give? Brueggergosman may occasionally sound a little too wild for the soprano solos in Beethoven’s Ninth – to be fair, the girl has trouble containing so much energy – but she reigns supreme in her debut recital’s racy repertoire.


Kate Royal | EMI 94419

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music-2-08-kate-royal-photo.jpgUK’s Kate Royal, 28, is quite a different creature. Slim and elegant, she is blessed with an extremely beautiful, womanly lyric soprano that conveys an aura of natural, unpretentious aristocracy. (Unsurprisingly, Royal first rose to prominence in 2004 by singing Pamina in Die Zauberflöte and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro). Not since the late American soprano Arleen Auger recorded her golden recital Love Songs (Delos) in the late ‘80s have I encountered singing so infused with sincerity and wisdom. That Royal, on both her debut disc and just-released Schumann recital, is capable of such reasoned reflection and unforced sincerity at a relatively early age is cause for rejoicing.

The Songs of Robert Schumann | Hyperion 33110

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music-2-08-kate-royal-schumann.jpgWhere Few music lovers can resist succumbing to the earthy beauty and folk-like simplicity of Canteloube’s colorful arrangements of Songs of the Auvergne. Singing three favorites from this collection, Royal delivers a “Baïlèro” to rival the best, and the most moving “La delaïssádo” (The forsaken girl) I can recall.  Judging from the three songs by Richard Strauss on the EMI recital, she may not yet have that master’s idiom down entirely. Nor do her renditions of Rodrigo’s “De los alamos vengo, madre” or Schumann’s “Frühlingsnacht” possess the spirited abandon of a de los Angeles or Lehmann. But the beauty of her “Mondnacht” in her Hyperion performance of Schumann’s complete Liederkreis, Op. 39 nonetheless suggests a great lieder singer in the making.

Royal’s performances of “Debussy’s “Air de Lia,” Ravel’s “Vocalise en forme de habanera,” and Stravinsky’s “No word from Tom” are marvelous. I doubt you can resist hitting “repeat” after hearing the EMI disc’s final selection, an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the anonymous folk song “The Sprig of Thyme.” This Kathleen Ferrier Prize award-winner appears to share with Ferrier and Janet Baker the ability to make high art of the most simple English folk songs.