This disc most definitely
has a recital feel about it. I say that not solely because it
was recorded live at the Smetana Hall in Prague, where thankfully
the audience was silent throughout until breaking into wild
applause at the end of each item. The chief cause for the recital
feel is structural – groups of arias interspersed by three intermezzi
– two Italian, one French – thus providing a good framework
for the whole. Having composers similarly grouped and arias
given in sequence within each opera is also beneficial to the
Up until listening
to this disc I had only heard Eva Urbanova in Czech repertoire;
unsurprisingly an area in which she is both excellent and widely
recorded. I was curious to hear her in Italian arias. The results
reveal the differences in vocal palette required between the
Czech and Italian schools and also Urbanova’s difficulty in
totally adjusting to the task. You can instantly tell that these
are not performances from an Italian soprano.
It is, to my mind
at least, daring to open a recital with ‘Casta Diva’. To bring
it off and deflect inevitable comparisons with Callas takes
quite something. Urbanova does not quite succeed. Diction is
a problem initially – it is “Caata diva” rather than “Casta
diva” at the very opening. Nerves at the start of a live concert
perhaps, but she fails to make you fully believe what she sings,
no matter how it is pronounced.
prove problematic at times too: passage work is not perfect
and the sound itself is not always beautiful per se.
Callas showed how bel canto could be brilliantly sung
despite supposed vocal problems and even, dare I say it, an
ugly sound. What made it work for Callas was in my opinion an
unrivalled awareness of her voice, a lifetime’s experience with
the music and that special something, the ‘x factor’.
It sounds as if
I am damning Urbanova’s efforts in holding them up for comparison
against the high altar of operatic art. Well, I would not go
that far; I merely intend to show what divides a worthy and
at times quite successful recital from the truly great. There
are nice touches to Urbanova’s portrayals in shading the voice,
but too often she hits the edge of the note, rather than securely,
confidently and full on. Again, this is a sign of a performance
caught live. Under studio conditions I feel sure there would
have been retakes. ‘In questa reggia’ is a case in point: it
just does not stand up to repeated home listening.
It is welcome to
hear an aria from Puccini’s Edgar, one of the most musically
successful items on this disc. So too must be counted the Cilea
and Catalani arias together with one of the Verdi. I should
draw your attention briefly to the atmospheric reading of the
Massenet Intermezzo from Thaïs, sensitively played by Lucie
Svehlova, and enhanced by the wordless contribution of the choir.
Although the Prague
National Theatre Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir play and sing
well, bringing experience to their part in the proceedings,
Ondrej Lenard’s tempi are sometimes a little staid. This is
a surprise considering the drama of most of the arias. The opening
of ‘O don fatale’ suffers particularly. This is a shame, because
here in the dying minutes, Urbanova suddenly catches fire. The
mezzo timbre of her lower voice is well formed, whilst she excites
in the higher reaches, in a way not managed earlier in the programme.
consisting only of notes on Urbanova’s career to date, this
further adds to my view that this is a release largely for her
admirers. Those after more convincing interpretations and/or
more involved, cleanly sung, performances should look elsewhere
for a first recommendation of selected Italian arias.