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Ana Maria Martinez: Soprano songs and arias
Leo DELIBES (1836-1891) Les filles de Cadix [3:19]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Romeo et Juliette, Act I: Je veux vivre [3:36]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro [2:39]
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948) Die lustige Witwe, Act II: Vilja-Lied [6:24]
Pablo LUNA (1879-1942) El nino judio: De Espana vengo [6:02]
Francis LOPEZ (1916-1995) Violettes imperiales [3:06]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) La rondine, Act I: Chi il bel sogno di Doretta [3:34]
Joseph CANTELOUBE (1879-1937) Chants d'Auvergne, Series I: II. Baïlero [7:14]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Madama Butterfly, Act II: Un bel di vedremo [5:24]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959) Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 for Soprano and 8 cellos: Aria (Cantilena) [7:27]; Danca (Martelo)  [4:43]  
Ana Maria Martinez (soprano)
Prague Philharmonia/Steven Mercurio (conductor)
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, August 2000. DDD
NAXOS 8.557827 [53:26]

There are recital discs that do credit to the solo artist featured and there are those that seem to do their reputations no good at all. Happily, this disc falls squarely into the former category. This is despite the fact that the chosen repertoire will prompt many to compare Ana Maria Martinez to other greats, among them de los Angeles, Caballé, Gheorghiu and Freni. I can hear some eagle-eyed readers ask, "Did he really mean other greats?" Well, yes I did, and the inference that I think Martinez is to be tipped for greatness was equally deliberate.

I do not know how long these works had been in her repertoire before she recorded them, but it feels as if it could have been a long time. The performances suggest almost without exception that each aria has been thought through, and a definite approach decided upon. In many ways the Delibes sets the tone for the disc: expressive, strongly sung throughout the range and characterisation very much to the fore. The temperament - one of strength and passion - fits Martinez like a glove too, reflecting to a certain extent her Latin roots – she hails from Puerto Rico – and this makes the interpretation all the more winning. An auspicious opening indeed.

The pairing of Gounod and Puccini that follows reveals other sides to her artistic personality. So often arias CDs move between composers with less noticeable distinction than they ought to; not here, however. The Gounod is given with a lightness of touch and airiness in the vocal line, and the voice positively radiates a smile – poles apart from the last version I encountered: Amelia Farrugia on Decca. In the Puccini one is aware of her sensitivity to line and beauty of vocal tone. It was only after this experience that I reflected earlier her forte had been a bit too forced in the Delibes.

Lehár’s Vilja-lied is again strongly projected, and the same slight hardness creeps in, though for me it does not spoil things much. Another small thing I became conscious of was Martinez’s reluctance to enunciate vowels fully. In this she is far from alone today. But to linger is to over-accentuate a minor problem that will no doubt receive attention.

Of the two remaining Puccini items Doretta’s aria from La rondine appears to suit the voice more, given the warmth of emotion contained in the words, but it should be said that Madama Butterfly contains no vocal pitfalls for her, the voice having a remarkable range in addition to flexibility of expression. Oh, the days of youth when all seems possible!

Pablo Luna and Francis Lopez may not be household names in the UK, but their music is certainly close to Martinez’s heart, and she rewards both composers with passionate performances. Her singing of Spain (both composers) and of flowers (Lopez) made me aware of how right her voice would be for Carmen. By coincidence this CD’s release coincides with her Met debut, for which she sings that role. That we’ll have to wait for on disc, but in the meantime these works offer much in showing the direction she is already most wisely exploring. Of all the items included here these are amongst the ones I have returned to most often.

To that pair is added, for me at least, her Canteloube and Villa-Lobos. Immediately I recall my earlier words on her Puccini in respect of warmth of emotion and flexibility of expression – even without words there is feeling. Earlier still I mentioned de los Angeles, for many unequalled – even unequallable, let alone surpassable – in this music. I am among those that love de los Angeles’ recordings of these works, but by the time I had reached Martinez singing them I was wanting her to give them her own stamp, not just ape a previous great. Martinez does not disappoint either, and it is to her credit that her vision and personality shine the most when the recorded competition might be the strongest.

So far, not a word on the accompaniment. Some might regret more than me the lack of a chorus in the Vilja-lied, but the arrangement is adequate. Here, as throughout, Mercurio’s conducting is experienced and unfussy. The playing he draws from the Prague Philharmonia is more notable for pliant vigour and strength of instrumental colouring than its delicacy of shading.

It might seem churlish at this stage to bring up some other slight quibbles: the strange ordering of the items I can’t explain. Having texts and translations available as a PDF download worries me less here than it might if the release were a full price one. Then there’s the time delay in releasing the CD; why did it take over five years to reach us? Finally, there’s the shortish playing time. With Martinez’s repertoire extending far beyond the items included here it is a pity not to have more of it. Every diva dreams of leaving her audience wanting more. After this disc I certainly do, and Naxos should provide it with some urgency.

Evan Dickerson

see also review by Goran Forsling January RECORDING OF THE MONTH



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