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Operas on Archiv

We’ve all heard how the classical music recording industry is in dire straits and how no company invests in studio opera recordings anymore. Except Harmonia Mundi when they issue perfection in Mozart, courtesy of René Jacobs (Cosi, Nozze). And except EMI when they indulge Placido Domingo in a recording of Tristan und Isolde. And, well, except Deutsche Gramophon’s Archiv label that just issued two operas that should make any classical music lover’s heart leap. The two operas in question are works that have not been recorded often and never in full before, and both have outstanding casts. Perhaps classical music is more alive than often assumed, after all. Gluck’s Paride ed Elena and Handel’s Rodelinda, under the batons of Paul McCreesh and Alan Curtis, respectively, ought to be on anyone’s wish list for this year.

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C.W. Gluck, Paride ed Elena, P. McCreesh
First to Paride: Gluck is the bridge between Baroque opera and Classical opera in such an influential way that it makes him one of the most important composers of opera, on the same level as Monteverdi and Wagner. Of the trio of Gluck’s ‘reform operas’ (Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, Paride ed Elena, all with libretti by Raniero de’ Calzabigi), only Orfeo got a solid foothold in the repertoire. Alceste less so – but at least it’s been recorded well – magnificently so a few years ago by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips).

And here comes Paul McCreesh with Paride ed Elena and unearths magnificence. Be it Gluck himself or just the genre of opera as such, but whereas ‘transition’ in orchestral music from the Baroque to the Classical style meant ‘mannerism’ or the ‘gallant style’ of the several Bach-juniors (much maligned in the past, now more appreciated again), the three mentioned Gluck operas have none of the stylistic uncertainty, structural aimlessness, or musical free-wheeling style of the J. C. Bach keyboard concertos or their like. These works, and Paride just as much as the others, know exactly what they want (namely to rein in the “ruinous excesses of opera seria, a form bedeviled by singers whose only interest was vocal display, and dramatic truth be damned…”) and have all the traits of stylistic maturity (if, admittedly, in a style you can’t quite put your finger on at first).

Gluck took opera to a new level by fusing word and music. Prima le parole – dopo la musica! (or vice versa) as we are told in Strauss’s Capriccio on the same topic. Gluck wanted the drama to be supported by the music and not have it be an excuse for music. The acrobatic vocal binges on which composers and their ego-driven singers had gone were put to an end. Thankfully. While there is legitimate difference of opinion on this (Debussy: “Long live Rameau, down with Gluck”), I’ll happily side with those who find that by emancipating the drama, Gluck actually strengthened the music rather than making it a mere vassal to the text. The libretto becomes the dramatic reason for the music, which is elevated by eliminating empty phrases and imbuing it with dramatic meaning. Everyone wins.

That the listeners win is in good part the doing of this recording. McCreesh states that Paride “might not work in a third-rate opera house with a fourth-rate cast, but if you have a wonderful cast, then I’m convinced that it’s more than worthwhile.” He certainly convinced me of it being “worthwhile,” and he never had to worry about a fourth-rate cast. Magdalena Kosžená, Susan Gritton, Carolyn Sampson, and Gillian Webster are Paride, Elena, Amore, and “A Trojan” as well as Pallade (Pallas Athene). They sound excellent from Webster’s “Non Stegnare” to Gritton and Kosžená’s “Sempre a te saró fedele.” The music is a constant joy; it was soothing and calming to the mind when I went to bed, and it was energizing and spirited when it accompanied morning espresso and FT the next day. Libretto in Italian, French, English, and German as well as good notes are included. Godi, trionfa! Elene é tua.

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G. F. Handel, Rodelinda, A. Curtis
Rodelinda exists in a live, cut, English-language version with Janet Baker and Joan Sutherland – glorious as a vehicle for their voices but heard from the perspective of how Baroque opera is performed today, it simply won’t do. The inferior sound quality does not help. Nicholas Kraemer on Virgin (with countertenors instead of mezzos) is better in almost every regard, but Sophie Daneman is not in top form and the orchestral contribution somewhat listless. At $60 it's also rather pricey.

Alan Curtis goes back to Handel’s original version, one that is less marked by compromises to different casts as are consequent editions though he does pick two raisins from the later additions. “Vivo, tiranno” most notably – Bertarido’s aria in the penultimate scene – as well as Unulfo’s “Sono i colpi della sorte”, where a simplified, more sensitive version replaces an original that Alan Curtis describes as “‘buck up!’ vocal muscle-flexing.” (That original, if Curtis’s description intrigues more than it cautions, is included in the appendix of the recording.)

With Il Complesso Barocco under Curtis’s exacting leadership, the cast answers most every wish upon initial listening and does not let on to weaknesses that might disappoint down the road. Simone Kermes as Rodelinda, Regina de’ Longobardi is impeccably in tune, and precision and projection are outstanding. Though forceful, her voice stops short of being piercing, is never shrill but instead thick and round. The marketing coup for this recording would have been the inclusion of Renée Fleming as Rodelinda. At least in the United States, after her MET performance, this would have meant a few extra thousand copies sold to an audience that is less associated with Baroque opera. I only heard the broadcast, and Fleming’s voice with the warm fuzz around its edges may indeed be more comforting to a wider crowd of infrequent opera listeners… but I am not prepared to declare a qualitative difference between her and Ms. Kermes.

Marijana Mijanović, Steve Davislim, Sonia Prina, Marie-Nicole Lemieux (with lovely sounding Handel credentials on a disc with Italian cantatas by Handel), and Vito Prisante may not be household names (yet), but I found none a weakness, most a strength. A hearty welcome to this recording too, then.

If pressed to chose between the two, though, the Gluck would be my pick. The music is just a dash fresher and we might have rather more Handel operas on our shelves than Gluck, anyway.

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