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27.4.07

Sopranos Work Their Magic

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Gluck, Armide, M. Delunsch, L. Naouri, E. Podleś, M. Kožená, Les Musiciens du Louvre, M. Minkowski
(1999)
Mrs. Ionarts and I were living near Paris when this live recording of Gluck's Armide was made, at the Cité de la Musique in the fall of 1996. I remember seeing the ads for the performances in the Métro and inquiring about cheap tickets, but there was some reason that I was not able to attend. I was happy indeed a few years later when the recording was released, because this was an opera I had spent some time studying in Paris, as I mentioned in my review of a local production of the opera earlier this week. Gluck deserves to have his operas produced more than they are, but this opera has just not quite made it into the mainstream repertory. The Washington National Opera, for example, has yet to stage a single one of Gluck's operas. For the American premiere of Gluck's masterpiece, Arturo Toscanini conducted a production at the Metropolitan Opera, with the unlikely cast of Olive Fremstad as Armide and Enrico Caruso as Renaud. Even with that introduction, Armide had fewer than a dozen performances at the Met, between 1910 and 1912, after which it disappeared.

From La Cieca's Unnatural Acts of Opera, a live performance of Gluck's Armide:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

That recording features the lovely Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role and Riccardo Muti conducting at La Scala (December 7, 1996). In the supporting cast, Donnie Ray Albert (Hidraot), Vinson Cole (Renaud), someone named Juan Diego Flórez (Le Chevalier danois), and someone named Violeta Urmana (La Haine).
This recording merits repeated listening, and it is the only (almost) complete recording currently available. Since it is a live recording, it is possible to imagine better versions of some parts, but overall the performances are excellent. Marc Minkowski, who has given us so many fine recordings, particularly of French opera, leads with an assured hand and mastery of texture and color. His players and chorus were in top form, as was the solo cast. Mireille Delunsch has moments of sweetness where the role demands subtlety and a reedy graininess in the more strident parts. Ewa Podleś is unforgettable as La Haine, her large apocalyptic mezzo cutting through the somber tones of the magic scenes like a buzzsaw. Laurent Naouri is an imposing Hidraot, and American tenor Charles Workman, who is heard more in Europe than he is here (sadly), is a lyrical and unforced Renaud. A young soprano named Magdalena Kožená also has quite a nice turn in the small role of Un Plaisir. Her contribution to the Act V divertissement is lovely, especially the sultry, avian C'est l'amour qui retient dans ses chaînes. Finally, an authoritative essay by Italian scholar Mario Armellini -- author of a magisterial study of Armide operas called Le due Armide (Florence, 1991) -- in the liner notes makes this CD irresistible.

Archiv 459 616-2


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Massenet, Esclarmonde, J. Sutherland, H. Tourangeau, C. Grant, G. Aragall, National Philharmonic Orchestra, R. Bonynge
(re-released in 2006)
One of the best operatic experiences I have had in Washington was the Washington Concert Opera's performance two years ago of Massenet's Esclarmonde. Massenet created this opera, among others, for the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson, as well as Thaïs and probably also La Fée in Cendrillon. (The daughter of a Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, she was Massenet's favorite in the role of Manon, too -- here is to hoping that someone somewhere has a recording of her voice.) Esclarmonde, with its rather ridiculous libretto and outrageously difficult vocal demands, remains a vehicle for a great soprano in the title role. For the WCO performance, it was Celena Shafer, whom I subsequently heard in a stunning outing in Santa Fe Opera's Lucio Silla. Dame Joan Sutherland apparently regarded this 3-CD set of Esclarmonde, originally released in the 1970s, as her best recording, and that is saying something when you look at that woman's discography. The next opera company to stage this crazy opera will get a gold star from Ionarts.

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Jack Winsor Hansen, The Sibyl Sanderson Story: Requiem for a Diva
(2005)
Sutherland's voice is at its most terrifying, and as with Mireille Delunsch and Ewa Podleś in Armide, it is the female voice that creates the force behind the sorceress's magic spells. Massenet wrote one of the most virtuosic parts for soprano, and La Sutherland shatters all expectations. The famous invocation ("Esprits de l'air! Esprits de l'onde! Esprits du feu!") of the magical spirits of air, water, and fire opens with a leap up to a B-flat. The incantation concludes with the spine-shivering phrase "Entendez ma voix!" (Hear my voice!), with its octave leap up to high E-flat. Every time I hear Sutherland do that, it leaves me breathless. It is not only Sutherland who appeals, however, as Richard Bonynge sculpts a brassy, dramatic reading of the score from the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a group of crack players assembled regularly for studio recordings in London. Huguette Tourangeau is a dusky Parséïs, and tenor Giacomo Aragall is stentorian, if a little shouty, as Roland. Recently re-released by Decca, this recording is a curiosity that a collector must have.

Decca Classic Opera 475 7914



Joan Sutherland, "Esprits de l'air!" (from Esclarmonde, audio only)

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