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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Prima Donna - The First Ladies of Opera
see end of review for details
DECCA 478 2096 [68:14 + 70:39]
Experience Classicsonline

This double disc set titled Prima Donna - The First Ladies of Opera immediately caught my eye on the list of review discs. Here is a collection of thirty arias from sixteen of the world’s finest singers – mostly sopranos with three mezzo-sopranos. With the exception of say Joan Sutherland, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, June Anderson, Mirella Freni and one of today's stars Natalie Dessay, most of the leading female opera singers from the last thirty years or so are represented here.

The set also offers terrific value: lasting well over two hours. Twelve of the singers perform two arias each and Anne Sofie von Otter actually sings three arias. Maintaining a no-frills approach we get a simple track-listing. There’s no information about the singers. It really doesn’t matter a jot as the high quality of the singing speaks for itself. Both discs were enjoyable from start to finish and I couldn’t find a single weak track.

The majority of the thirty arias are from late-Romantic operas with Puccini the leading figure being represented by an aria each from his five operas Madam Butterfly, Tosca, La Boheme, Suor Angelica and Turandot. There are one each from Bellini’s Norma and La sonnambula, Verdi’s The Force of Destiny and Don Carlos, and Gounod’s Faust and Romeo and Juliet. Mozart represents the Classical era with six arias, variously from The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Zaide. The late-Baroque era is not forgotten with Handel having arias from the operas Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Ariodante, his oratorio/opera Semele and his oratorio Samson.

Predictably many of these are the most popular arias of the repertoire such as Dvorák’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka, Bellini’s Casta Diva from Norma and Handel’s Let the bright seraphim from Samson. Repertoire perhaps lesser known today is represented by the Nun’s Chorus from the Johann Strauss II operetta Casanova and Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben from Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaide. The wildcard is Al mio core oggetti amati from Donizetti’s L'assedio di Calais (The siege of Calais); an opera virtually forgotten today.

Favourite soprano Renée Fleming is in wonderful form. Butterfly’s aria Un bel di vedremo from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is a splendid choice aptly demonstrating her smooth and creamy voice sung with great assurance and sensitivity. The clear expressive mezzo of Anne Sophie von Otter is a joy to hear - marvellously so in the aria Dopo notte, atra e funesta from Handel’s Ariodante.

Charismatic soprano Anna Netrebko, a real life Cinderella, is the biggest draw in the opera world today. Rapt and expressive in Song to the Moon from Dvorák’s Rusalka Netrebko’s timbre is like polished ebony. In the Chanson du Roi de Thule - Air des Bijoux from Gounod’s Faust Netrebko sings with electrifying emotion - making the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end.

The lovely angelic soprano tones of Sylvia McNair are displayed splendidly in Che fiero momento from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and I found soprano Kiri te Kanawa brilliant and uplifting in Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim. The universally admired soprano Barbara Hendricks is represented by the aria Signore ascolta! from Puccini’s Turandot. Recorded in 1982, the velvety warmth together with her rapt assurance show what a remarkable voice the diva had in her prime.

Cecilia Bartoli, as Norma the Druid priestess of the Temple of Esus, brings off an astonishing performance in Casta diva. This track was a wonderful surprise as it is rare to hear Bellini’s celebrated soprano aria Casta diva from his opera Norma sung in the composer’s version for mezzo-soprano. The legendary diva Giuditta Pasta, who sang the role of Norma at the 1831 première, was actually a mezzo-soprano. Madame Pasta was generally referred to as a soprano, however, she undoubtedly had a considerable range with the unusual ability to sing contralto as well as manage soprano. It seems that Madame Pasta couldn’t easily sing Casta diva in its original soprano tessitura so Bellini revised it and took it down to mezzo. Here in Casta diva Bartoli’s uniquely layered mezzo-soprano, with an extended range, sounds like dark and richly piled velvet. From Bellini’s revised score we also hear Bartoli’s authentic use of the pianissimo and even the sotto voce markings. Here Bartoli is accompanied by the period instrument ensemble Orchestra La Scintilla. It did take some time to get accustomed to the woody toned flute. On the second disc, Amina’s aria Ah! non credea mirarti from Bellini’s La sonnambula, Bartoli is joined by star tenor Juan Diego Florez.

I love the distinctive and bewitching voice of coloratura soprano Patricia Petibon who is especially at home in French late-Romantic operas. In the aria Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Petibon demonstrates her exceptional ability to glide effortlessly through rapid changes of dynamics. Her distinctive embellishments are frequently glittering. Golden-voiced Elina Garanca is fresh from her recent success as Carmen to Roberto Alagna’s Don José in Francesca Zambello’s production of Bizet’s Carmen at Covent Garden. The young mezzo has quickly become established as one of the newest stars on the international stage. Garanca’s is in beautiful voice here displaying especially impressive control in the rarely-heard aria Al mio core oggetti amati from Donizetti’s L'assedio di Calais.

Legendary soprano Montserrat Caballé rarely disappoints. In the favourite aria Vissi d'arte from Puccini’s Tosca Caballé soars upwards quite beautifully into the high registers in which she seems eminently comfortable. Recorded in 1976 her vibrato is noticeable but never intrusive. In Handel’s famous aria Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte from Rinaldo it would be hard to imagine a more sensitive interpretation or finer diction than that from soprano Danielle de Niese.

Sumi Jo the lyric coloratura soprano is renowned primarily for her interpretations of bel canto. Although the most obvious choice from Mozart’s The Magic Flute would have been the Queen of the Night’s famous ‘vengeance aria’ Der Hölle Rache here she performs O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn. Few sopranos are as comfortable with such high tessitura as Sumi Jo who floats like a seabird in a wind thermal. One cannot fail to be impressed by mezzo Magdalena Kožená. I greatly admire her art particularly in late-Baroque repertoire. In the aria Da tempeste il legno infranto from Giulio Cesare she demonstrates her remarkable communication skills and superb vocal technique.

Superstar soprano Angela Gheorghiu sings two splendid arias Pace, pace mio Dio from Verdi’s The Force of Destiny and the celebrated Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì from Puccini’s La Bohème. Richly dramatic and bursting with vivid colour the diva’s beautifully warm and glowing timbre just continues to delight and enchant. For the spine-tingling glories of her famous Puccini aria Gheorghiu is joined fleetingly by her husband the star tenor Roberto Alagna. A recent announcement on her website provides sad news of their two year separation and divorce proceedings.

Throughout this Decca set the sound quality is most impressive. All bar one of the tracks seem to be digital recordings. The year when each recording was made is given in the notes but no details of the venues. Containing a cornucopia of glorious singing this is a special collection and one to cherish.

Michael Cookson

Track Listing
1. PUCCINI Un bel di vedremo (Madam Butterfly) - Renée Fleming (soprano) [4:52]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec: 2000
2. DVORAK Song to the Moon (Rusalka) - Anna Netrebko (soprano) [5:07]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec: 2003
3. MOZART Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (Le nozze di Figaro) - Sylvia McNair (soprano) [4:13]
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec: 1997
4. BELLINI Casta diva (Norma) - Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo) [6:42]
Maria Goldschmidt (flute),
International Chamber Soloists, Orchestra La Scintilla/Adam Fischer
rec: 2006
5. HANDEL Let the bright Seraphim (Samson) - Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) [5:52]
Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet),
St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir, English Chamber Orchestra/Barry Rose
rec: 1984
6. VERDI Pace, pace mio Dio (La forza del destino) - Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Riccardo Chailly
rec: 2000
7. MOZART Come scoglio immoto resta (Così fan tutte) - Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo) [6:43]
with Karita Mattila (soprano), Francisco Araiza (tenor), Thomas Allen (bass), Jose van Dam (bass),
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec: 1990
8. PUCCINI Signore ascolta! (Turandot) - Barbara Hendricks (soprano) [2:49]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec: 1982
9. MOZART Voi che sapete (Le nozze di Figaro) - Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo) [2:47]
The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock
rec: 1997
10. GIORDANO La mamma morta (Andrea Chénier) - Montserrat Caballé (soprano) [5:28]
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec: 1984
11. ROSSINI Di tanti palpiti (Tancredi) - Elina Garanca (mezzo) [3:04]
Filarmonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Roberto Abbado
rec: 2009
12. HANDEL Endless pleasure, endless love (Semele) - Danielle de Niese (soprano) [3:32]
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec: 2007
13. MASSENET Adieu, notre petite table (Manon) - Patricia Petibon (soprano) [2:16]
Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Lyon/Yves Abel
rec: 2003
14. VERDI Au palais des fées (Don Carlos) Magdalena Kožená [4:23]
with Marina Lodygensky (soprano),
Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre, Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Marc Minkowski
rec: 2003
15. MOZART O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Die Zauberflöte) Sumi Jo (soprano) [4:46]
with Uwe Heilmann (tenor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec: 1991
1. GLUCK Che fiero momento (Orfeo ed Euridice) - Sylvia McNair (soprano) [3:01]
rec: 1993
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
2. MOZART Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben (Zaide)- Renée Fleming (soprano) [5:26]
Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec: 1996
3. PUCCINI Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì (La Bohème) - Angela Gheorghiu (soprano) [4:52]
with Roberto Alagna (tenor),
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Chailly
rec: 1999
4. BELLINI Ah! non credea mirarti (La sonnambula) - Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo) [5:03]
with Juan Diego Florez (tenor),
Orchestra La Scintilla/Alessandro de Marchi
rec: 2008
5. GOUNOD Chanson du Roi de Thule - Air des Bijoux (Faust) - Anna Netrebko (soprano) [6:28]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec: 2003
6. CHARPENTIER Depuis le jour (Louise) - Nicole Cabell (soprano) [5:19]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec: 2007
7. PUCCINI Senza mamma (Suor Angelica) Barbara Hendricks (soprano) [5:04]
Orchestre National de France/Lorin Maazel
rec: 1988
8. STRAUSS II Nuns' Chorus (Casanova, arranged Benatzky, Gamley) Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) [3:33]
Mormon Tabernacle Choir,
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Julius Rudel
rec: 1989
9. HANDEL Dopo notte, atra e funesta (Ariodante) - Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo) [6:45]
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
rec: 1997
10. GOUNOD Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve (Roméo et Juliette) - Patricia Petibon (soprano) [3:29]
Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Lyon/Yves Abel
rec: 2003
11. DONIZETTI Al mio core oggetti amati (L'assedio di Calais) - Elina Garanca (mezzo) [3:30]
Filarmonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Roberto Abbado
rec: 2009
12. HANDEL Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte (Rinaldo) - Danielle de Niese (soprano) [5:02]
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec: 2007
13. PUCCINI Vissi d'arte (Tosca) - Montserrat Caballé (soprano) [3:33]
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Colin Davis
rec: 1976*
14. MOZART Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden (Die Zauberflöte) - Karita Mattila (soprano) [3:49]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard
rec: 1988
15. HANDEL Da tempeste il legno infranto (Giulio Cesare) - Magdalena Kožená (mezzo) [5:28]
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
rec: 2003



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