Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ariadne on Naxos(1912) (sung in English) [118:00]
Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1911-17) [35:11]
Prima Donna/Ariadne - Christine Brewer (soprano)
Tenor/Bacchus - Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Zerbinetta - Gillian Keith (soprano)
Composer - Alice Coote (mezzo)
Music Master - Alan Opie (baritone)
Dancing Master/Scaramuccio - John Graham-Hall (tenor)
Harlequin - Roderick Williams (baritone)
Truffaldino - Matthew Rose (bass)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Richard Armstrong
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, January 2010
CHANDOS OPERA IN ENGLISH CHAN 3168(2) [75:11 + 77:43]
I got a hint of the quality this CD would deliver when the SCO played the Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite with Mackerras last January. As it turned out, this would be the last concert they played with him. Strauss is not a composer you most readily associate with a chamber orchestra, and it is a tribute to the SCO’s versatility that they inhabit his late-Romantic world every bit as convincingly as that of the Baroque or Classical. More than that: the smaller forces of a chamber orchestra leaven the textures of Strauss’s orchestration to a remarkable degree so that you hear things in the score that might previously have been lost in the luscious sweep of a full-scale symphony orchestra. Consequently this release provides the listener with a completely different experience to that of, say, Karajan, Masur or Sinopoli.
The playing is of gold standard throughout, both in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite and in the opera. As with everything the SCO does, this is primarily a communal enterprise and the sense of collective joy in the music-making is manifest everywhere. It helps that they are joined with such a sensational team of soloists. The face of Christine Brewer smiles at us from the CD cover. She is, indeed, superb here in what has been one of her signature roles. The voice is rich, fulsome and sumptuous throughout, especially in Ariadne’s monologues at the start of the second disc. The love duet is super too, though Robert Dean Smith’s Bacchus is a little pale in comparison with her. He isn’t as rich as I have heard him elsewhere, though the distant acoustic he is given on his first appearance certainly doesn’t help. Gillian Keith is a slightly brittle Zerbinetta, but she makes the most of every coloratura opportunity in her big Act 2 showpiece, here called Your gracious royal highness. Alice Coote’s composer is fussy and sensitive, melting the ice of her veneer at just the right moments in Act 1; her duet with Zerbinetta is quite touching. The other roles are well taken, with an especially alluring trio of Nymphs. The Commedia dell’Arte roles are all played with tongue-in-cheek humour that doesn’t cheapen them; predictably Roderick Williams’ Harlequin stands out. The domestic servants of the Prologue lighten the mood refreshingly as they undermine the arty pretensions of the performers, though it’s distracting rather than helpful to have Stephen Fry in the speaking role of the Major-Domo: he is recorded in a (blatantly) different acoustic and the joins between his sections and the sung passages are at times rather too obvious.
The translation captures the essence of Hofmannsthal’s German very effectively and the acoustic, while close, allows you to hear right into every part of the score. A final mention should go to Sir Richard Armstrong who stepped in to conduct when Mackerras withdrew. His shaping of the score shows that he understands very well the dichotomy at the heart of the work, namely the membrane that separates comedy and tragedy, and he has lots of fun exploiting it. Unless you’re entirely allergic to opera in English this set will give you a great deal of pleasure.
Simon Thompson
Unless you’re entirely allergic to opera in English this set will give you a great deal of pleasure.