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Amelia Farrugia: Joie de vivre!
Charles-François GOUNOD (1811-1893) Ah! Je veux vivre! from Roméo et Juliette [3.25]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880) Conduisez-moi vers celui que j'adore from Robinson Crusoe [3.44]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896) Oui, pour ce soir je suis reine ... Je suis Titania from Mignon [5.41]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Suis-je gentille ainsi? ... Obeissons   quand leur voix appelle (Gavotte) from Manon [5.13]
Charles-François GOUNOD (1811-1893) O Dieu! que de bijoux! ... Ah! je ris de me voir! from Faust [4.35]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864) Ombre légère from Dinorah [7.04]
Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782- 1871) C'est l'histoire amoureuse from Manon Lescaut [4.09]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Quando m'en vo from La bohème [2.31]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Ore dolci e divine from La Rondine [4.48]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) Tales from the Vienna Woods [4.38]
Carl ZELLER (1842-1898) Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol from Der Vogelhandler [2.38]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) Mein Herr Marquis from Die Fledermaus [3.21]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) Voices of Spring [6.46]
Ivor NOVELLO (1893-1951) Waltz of My Heart from The Dancing Years [2.42]
Richard MILLS (1949-) Love's Coming [3.19]
ANON. (arr. MILLS) Until We Meet Again [2.24]
Amelia Farrugia (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Briger
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studios, London; 26, 27, 29 September 2005. DDD.
DECCA 987 5237 [67.47]

As a prelude, a few words on how I approach any disc that I review. Upon receipt, I listen to it straight through without beforehand reading the booklet, other than to follow the track-listing and identify the artist(s) concerned. This initial hearing, during which thoughts are noted, is always followed by further listenings supported by the use of a text, if one is supplied or if I have one to hand (should one be required) – and again, thoughts are noted. Comparisons with other recordings in the same repertoire could also be made at this point. As a final stage a thorough reading of the accompanying booklet and any further documentary research is undertaken. Then the writing commences. The point of this is a simple one – it’s the music that comes first, and so too the reaction to it. Otherwise it might be all too easy for a reaction to be tainted – however slightly – by ‘external’ factors inherent in packaging, presentation or booklet before a note has been heard. That places the artist(s) at an immediate disadvantage.

The programme for this recital is one that displays at least a measure of originality, and it is most welcome that it be sufficiently present to take the content away from solely running out the same predictable fistful of arias; though inevitably and particularly when any young artist is making his or her first solo recording a number of those will be present. And it’s likely to be those that are employed when it comes to comparative listening against other artists’ efforts.

A while ago I was present at a master class given by Christa Ludwig. With one student singer-accompanist pair she spent more time berating the pianist for playing Schubert like Brahms than working with the singer. The point – made in Ms. Ludwig’s own inimitable way – was that in performance all parts are equally important and must have an understanding of the music, its meaning, its moods and feelings before anything can stand a chance of being artistically successful. At the time I felt she went much further than was needed with the poor pianist. Listening to this disc, I was not only mindful of her reaction, but understood her point more clearly than before.

The problems begin before Farrugia sings the opening line of Ah! Je veux vivre! Alexander Briger’s conducting – here, and throughout the disc – shows hardly any emotional response to the music. His conducting is at best peremptory. Where there should be musical commas, he places full stops. Where ebb and flow should be, there is a much harsher gradation at work. His Tales from the Vienna Woods was unfortunate enough to follow hot on the heels of my hearing Jansons and the Wiener Philharmoniker play it, but Farrugia’s reading is not worth a second reading, even if he does provide a rarely heard vocal part. The BBC SO sound is decent if hardly distinguished, though things do occasionally rise to higher levels periodically.

Maybe the singer can save the day? Farrugia can sing in the technical sense of hitting the notes, carrying a tune and producing reasonably flexible tone at any required volume. This much is beyond dispute; otherwise hopefully she would not have had the career she has since the mid-1990s, largely but not exclusively at Opera Australia. You can probably sense a ‘but…’ coming on, and yes they are coming. For a studio recording, more care should have been taken with the planning and the details as brought out in the execution of it.

Farrugia’s voice and this repertoire: I think there is a mismatch here that is fundamental to the resulting disappointment of the disc. I seriously question if she should even be singing this repertoire, the voice being somewhat heavier than the music demands.

Language: the opening line of Ah! Je veux vivre! sounds more like ‘Ze jeux vivre’ and the aria continues in a similar vein. Alright, so not the first soprano to have problems with the French language, but in her effort to imbue the line with happiness and joy it has become laboured and confused. Not that she is helped by Briger’s singularly uninspired reading. Among other six French arias the linguistic problems persist resulting in the fact that for all (except Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe, which I did not know prior to this) a host of preferable alternatives sprang to mind that cope better with language musical feeling and interpretation: Popp, Gruberova, Gheorghiu, Vaduva, Mesplé, and Streich. Thinking again about vocal weight, quite a range is represented in that list, showing exactly what Farrugia does not have. The other languages are handled moderately better than the French, though far from idiomatically.

Style and interpretation: as a friend whom I played this disc to said of it: "Repertoire like this needs to be done with bags of style, and this has very little’. I couldn’t agree more – comments on the laughing items I will make later – but others scarcely distinguish themselves. I’m well aware that singing is a living art and that artists of today have their own approaches, but if they run as counter to the music as here, then I don’t want to know. Take Musetta’s Waltz as an example, comparing Farrugia to the recording made by Lesley Garrett. Garrett’s tells you more than it says by what it implies in the way it is sung – she is properly knowing, and portrays a character that has been around the block a few times. Farrugia’s is cold, unknowing, and just goes through the motions: no character involved.

Laughter: there’s plenty of it included here, but in the sterile surroundings of a Maida Vale studio the sound of it is none-too-at-ease, and (often, frankly) rather shrill. Farrugia’s experience with those roles she has sung on stage does not overcome this. Soon I was waiting in dread of another laugh, the very joie de vivre sapped out of me.

By the time I reached the Novello and Mills items I couldn’t take any more – I gave them one listening to make sure they were on the disc and resolved never to listen to them again. Their inclusion does lower the tone of the company that the serious repertoire keeps, even if the intention was to do something light-hearted. Wasn’t that the purpose of all the ‘laughter songs’, as Decca calls them?

One glance at the booklet should be enough to tell you that Decca is unashamedly marketing this at a mass audience, and I am all for music of serious worth reaching that audience providing the artistic results are strong. Otherwise, the risk is run whereby at best mediocre results are taken to be great ones by the public, and that won’t do. The foreword from Decca blatantly oversells the non-existent qualities of this disc. The introductory note pitches things accessibly at a generalist reader, with texts, translations and artist biographies in accompaniment.

Artist photos, taken very much with the thought ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ in mind, show Farrugia looking every inch a young diva on the up. However was one of her reclining on sofa beneath a painting of a nude in a similar position really necessary? Or is even visual taste absent here?

And finally, there’s "thanks from Amelia" – all two and a half pages of it! – in which the word ‘thanks’ is mentioned 42 times for the ‘support’ and ‘belief’ she received in making this CD. There is even thanks for ‘extra Bling!’ – the artistic contribution of it is non-existent, but image-wise it’s inestimable. The pop industry, where nauseating acknowledgements of the minutiae on the underbelly of nothingness have long been essential, has so much to answer for that this has to become prevalent in the classical market too.

Of course the fight for sales is tremendously tough and Decca’s course seems set – this is hardly the first artist or release to be marketed this way; witness the horror of Renée Fleming’s recent ‘Sacred Songs’ release, even Bartoli’s ‘Opera Proibita’ that was sensationalised as far as possible for the sake of sales. It wasn’t like that in Joan Sutherland’s day, but then the world has moved on and suddenly I’m feeling way beyond my years. The label’s roster of ‘artists’ rolling out pseudo-classical products should act as a warning to any newcomer as to what might be expected. Nicole Cabell, their latest signing, releases her first arias disc in the summer – she has glamour, but will the disc have anything more than that? We’ll have to wait and see.

It pains me to say it, particularly as Farrugia and Briger are young artists in need of support and encouragement, but this disc is a total artistic disaster.

Evan Dickerson



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