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A Night At The Opera: The Next Generation
VERDI: Rigoletto: Un di, se ben rammentomi ... Bella figlia dell’amore (IT, KJ, MP, MK); MOZART: La Clemenza Di Tito: Parto, parto (KJ); GOUNOD: Faust: Quel trouble inconnu ... Salut! Demeure chaste et pure (MP); Alerte, alerte! (IT, MP, VR); PUCCINI: La Bohème: Vecchia zimarra (VR); MOZART: Don Giovanni: Là ci darem la mano (KJ, MK); VERDI: Don Carlo: Son io, mio Carlo (MK); O Carlo, ascolta (MK); OFFENBACH: Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Barcarolle (IT, KJ); HANDEL: Orlando: Sorge infausta una procella (VR); PURCELL: The Tempest: Arise, arise, ye subterranean winds (VR); VERDI: Il Trovatore: Vanne ... D’amor sull’ ali rosee (IT); BIZET: Les Pêcheurs de Perles: Au fond du temple saint (MP, MK); STRAUSS: Ariadne Auf Naxos: Seien wir wieder gut! (KJ); PUCCINI: Gianni Schicchi: avete torto! (MP); BELLINI: I Puritani: Suoni la tromba (MK, VR)
Indra Thomas, soprano (IT), Kristine Jepson, mezzo-soprano (KJ), Matthew Polenzani, tonor (MP), Mariusz Kwiecien, baritone (MK), Valerian Ruminski, bass (VR)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Rosenkrans
Recorded August 2001 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
NAXOS 8.557309 [70:59]

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The traditional opera recital has existed since the beginning of the 1950s, i e when the LP first appeared. It has also been criticized for more than fifty years, the main criticism being that few, if any singers are able to hold the listeners’ interest for such a long time-span. With the advent of the CD, when playing time could approach or even exceed 70 minutes, the need for more variety grew even stronger. Naxos have come up with a good alternative, not completely new but still very rarely encountered: take five fairly young but promising singers, match them with a world-class symphony orchestra conducted by an experienced maestro. Then choose a programme that is a mix of solo arias, duets and a couple of larger ensembles and, voilá! Here is a concept that overcomes the weaknesses of the "old" recital format! If the mix, as here, consists of a handful of old warhorses plus some items that you don’t meet in every other recital – so much the better. What else do we need for total success? Good singing, of course, and that is something you can’t always take for granted.

So let us sit down in our most comfortable armchair, put the CD in the player, a quick look at the CD-cover. Ah! The Rigoletto quartet, and not just the quartet proper but also the preceding tenor-mezzo duet. Press START and lean back. Here comes the little intro, as the teens say today, the acoustics sound good, space around the instruments, tempo right, forward moving and here comes the Duke of Mantua ... And suddenly we sit up! Now listen! That’s a voice! Flexible, beautiful, rounded tone, well-equalized and phrasing so naturally, a seductive timbre (yes of course, he is a skirt-chaser) – my, who is he? We reach for the cover again – Matthew Polenzani! Have to make a note about him. Oh, and here comes the mezzo: not alto-ish in timbre, rather soprano-ish. But good diction, good voice, not the seducing type, though, which she should be – after all she is the sister of Sparafucile, the murderer, and her task it is to charm the men that are supposed to be slaughtered. Kristine Jepson, the cover tells us. Yes, we heard her in Paris a couple of years ago, singing the trouser-role of Siebel in Faust. But, listen – now we are approaching the quartet. There is a glimpse of the soprano, Gilda. Light, agile she should be, but she isn’t. This is a dark, dramatic voice, as if Tosca or even Turandot had walked into the wrong opera. And there is Rigoletto himself and he has weight, the authority, all that you require from a true Verdian baritone. But, listen again to that tenor, how he floats his voice, how he caresses Maddalena, with vocal means alone, and the voice is absolutely even from bottom to a very considerable top. We have to hear more of him. A look at the cover again – yes indeed, he sings the Faust Cavatina.

And again, it is an exceptional voice, so unforced, so natural, so ... We almost run out of words while we follow him through this taxing aria. It isn’t just a voice – there is a mind behind it, one that knows how to inflect a phrase, who knows the importance of light and shade. And listen now how he builds up towards the climax, and there it flashes out in the air, fills the room: that feared high C, maybe a notch too loud in relation to the preceding notes, but it is a true high C – and still – almost – unforced! And listen – how he shades it down, almost imperceptibly to a golden thread of a pianissimo! And the timbre is absolutely right for this, the Frenchest of arias. Please, Naxos, let us have a complete Faust with him! And please, Mr Polenzani, don’t venture, at this stage of your career anyway, into the heavier roles of Cavaradossi and Calaf and Radamès – remember what happened to the marvellous voice José Carreras once had! There are enough Fausts, and Dukes of Mantua and Alfredos to be sung with this voice – maybe the best since Gedda’s heydays.

He sings the Pearlfishers’ duet as to the manner born, and his baritone partner, Mariusz Kwiecien, evokes memories of Robert Merrill in the famous recording of the duet with Jussi Björling. On his own again Polenzani sings the little tenor aria from Gianni Schicchi, and it is good to have it on a recital disc, so well sung. We even get a glimpse of the well-known piece from this opera, O mio babbino caro, in the little orchestral interlude.

And what about the rest? High quality indeed!

Miss Jepson sings a very good Parto, parto from La clemenza di Tito, a trouser role like the Siebel we saw in Paris, remember? And the obbligato basset clarinet solo is beautifully played by the unnamed soloist. Near the end of the recital she returns in still a trouser role, The Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Very well indeed. This is also someone to watch, and hopefully the little tendency to a widening vibrato will not develop to a wobble. The final trio from Faust, following directly after the Cavatina on this disc, introduces us to another remarkable voice, the bass-baritone Valerian Ruminski. He may not be as smooth as some of the legendary basses, but, on the other hand, what could you expect from someone playing the Devil? He manages to sound really menacing and seems to be a good actor, too. It is a pity he isn’t allowed at least one of Mephistopheles’ arias, so our next plea has to be: Please, Naxos, when you record that Faust we talked about, do engage this man, too! For he shows amazing things when we continue our listening: the Coat-aria from Bohème inwardly sung, not the seamless legato a Siepi or a Tozzi could produce (and that was long ago) bur very good anyway. And when we meet him a little later in the recital, surprisingly in baroque repertoire, we are quite stunned. Here he lightens his big voice, not so much in tone colour – it is still on the black side – but what seemed a rather heavy voice in the Faust excerpt, turns out to be a flexible instrument, executing the various runs and coloraturas in both Handel and Purcell with an ease that calls to mind memories of Ramey or David Thomas, even if the specific voice timbre has no similarity to either of these great predecessors. Good, vigorous, stylish playing from the orchestra, too, in these two pieces.

In the Faust trio we have also encountered the soprano voice of Indra Thomas. And I am afraid it isn’t a Marguerite-voice any more than it is a Gilda. There is no denying the beauty of it, but it is a bit unwieldy and the vibrato is too much of a good thing. Different ears take differently to vibratos, that is true, and ours prefer a smoother delivery. She also appears in the Hoffmann Barcarolle, and the first thing we notice here is the orchestral introduction. Here Rosenkrans finds the right rocking ripple of the waves in Canal Grande in Venice, where the so called Giulietta act takes place, and the woodwind playing is absolutely ravishing. Jepson, first, in yet another trouser role, sounds properly manly in the first solo phrases and then Miss Thomas joins her and manages to fine down her voice to match her partner’s. And, finally, we find her in repertoire that is her territory: the Verdi heroines. In this case it is the Trovatore Leonora. Again the RPO show their credentials in the beginning of the recitative and when Leonora enters it is a classy voice we hear. But it is that vibrato again. She can sing a piano though, even a pianissimo. The start of the aria proper is beautiful indeed, she has a trill and she phrases convincingly, in other words, there are many good things here, but also some "buts".

And so, nearing the end of a very long review, we are going to consider the baritone. We have caught a few glimpses of him, and they have been positive. But in track 6 we meet him in a part that really isn’t his cup of tea. One of the loveliest duets in all opera, the one where Don Giovanni tries to convince the innocent Zerlina that she should follow him to his little castle and do... we all know what. If there is a role that requires an intimate, honeyed delivery, this is it. And what do we get? Not an alluring Casanova-like approach (the real Casanova was present at the premiere of this opera in Prague, remember?) but a corporal shouting "Attention!" at a constant forte to the little peasant girl! No, Mr Kwiecien, this won’t do! Listen to, say, Håkan Hagegård in the Östman recording, or Bo Skovhus on the quite recent Naxos version. There is a thing or two to be learnt from them. No, we are not going to listen to this track in the future, which in a way is a pity, because Kristine Jepson is a fine mezzo-Zerlina. But, come to think of it, mezzo-Zerlinas never sound as innocent as the soprano-ones!

But Mariusz Kwiecien makes amend in the two excerpts from act three of Don Carlo, showing that he is much better suited to the Verdi-idiom. After the dark doom-laden introduction (again showing the RPO in fine fettle) he sings well, phrasing sensitively, although his somewhat gritty voice takes on an unpleasant vibrato when under pressure. The end of the aria is quite ugly. It is perhaps unfair to call it a bleating sound, but it may give an idea of what to expect. He is much better in Posa’s Death, which he gives an introverted reading.

The whole recital is rounded off by that show-stopper Suoni la tromba from Bellini’s I Puritani, the RPO trumpets blaring appropriately and the whole orchestra having a field day, bouncing along. The two singers also seem to enjoy themselves, the bass rather over-shadowing the baritone.

Let us then briefly sum up this ‘Night at the Opera’: It has been a pleasant meeting with some very good old friends and nice to encounter a few that we almost had forgotten (we are of course talking of the music). As for the performances, almost all of them are worthy to be in any opera lover’s collection, and what negative comments we have made during the course of this recital are more than compensated by the many positive ones. And we have found a tenor that might be the answer to many opera lovers’ secret dreams.

So go out and buy! And since Naxos’s CDs are still almost ridiculously cheap (we are talking of course of the price, not the quality – you even get full texts and English translations!) why not buy two, or three? There are always good friends out there who didn’t read this review.

Göran Forsling

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