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Opera Rarities
rec. 1981-1998
ORFEO C200081 [10 CDs: 664 mins]

The Orfeo label is celebrating its 40th anniversary by delving into its back catalogue. The latest to hit the market is a box set of 10 CDs that comprises some rare operas. Orfeo is a label that has never been shy to put out new releases of works that sit on the very fringes of the repertory. At just over 11 hours of listening, the current list price works out to slightly more than $6:00 per CD, which seems to me more than reasonable for what has been made available in the set. There is a small amount of documentation for the works in question although predictably, no libretti, synopses, or translations are provided.

Up first is Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni. The Venetian premiere of this opera pre-dated Mozart’s more famous one by about 6 months. Musicologists consider it likely that Lorenzo Da Ponte was inspired by this work, which is far more comic, in the opera buffo style, than Mozart’s work. It is quite possible that Da Ponte grabbed the idea of the orchestral music accompanying the banquet scene and the Catalogue aria for Leporello, here named Pasquariello, from Gazzaniga’s librettist, Giovanni Bertati. The opera is a pleasantly comic romp through the familiar Don Juan story, which seems to have become a European fixation during the 18th century, based on the number of masques and plays that were performed about the subject. There are a few differences between the operas; Donna Anna disappears after the opening scene, never to return, and this opera is performed in a single long Act. There are a few extra characters that Da Ponte left out of his libretto, such as a servant, Laterna and an extra love-struck woman named Donna Ximena. The cast on this Bavarian Radio recording is uniformly fine. John Aler gives a fantastic performance of the title character. His tenor has an attractive grain and his expression is most vivid. He is matched in this by Jean-Luc Chaignuad’s lively servant, Pasquariello; his full, even tone is resplendent and, along with Aler, impressively skilled at managing the many recitatives. Pamela Coburn sings Donna Elvira’s music most prettily. Maturina (Zerlina) is sung by the pert sounding Julie Kauffman who gets to sing a charming laughing duet with Donna Elvira in this version. The remaining singers are all excellent but Gazzaniga doesn’t give them a great deal to do. Stefan Soltész conducts a well- paced version of the score that includes all of the recitatives. The only previous recording of this work on Sony under Bruno Weill is of the musical numbers only and uses a period instrument ensemble. This recording therefore is generally preferable.

Bizet’s one act opera Djamileh is the second rarity in the set. This charming little comedy derives from a work by Alfred de Musset, whose work also inspired the creation of La bohčme. It received a total of ten performances in Paris in 1872 but then didn’t travel much beyond that. There was an English version of the work that the Carl Rosa touring company mounted in Dublin in 1893 but it failed to make it as far as London. It’s too bad that it has been so neglected, as this is a delightfully subtle little work which is well-worth the occasional revival. Orfeo’s 1983 recording was the first that became commercially available; an all French cast version which was conducted by Jacques Mercier came along on RCA in 1998, but is now only available as part of a ten CD box set of Mercier’s recordings on Sony Classical (88985470862). The delights of this CD make it a real winner. Lamberto Gardelli surprises by showing off a lighthearted sprightliness combined with wryness in the delicious little prelude that starts things off. Franco Bonisolli was a tenor who could sometimes exhibit a coarse approach to vocalizing, but hearing him sing in idiomatic French, he becomes a completely transformed singer. He sings with beautiful tone and a near mastery of French style, veering into coarse phrasing only once during the final duet. As the comic servant Splendiamo, Jean-Philippe Lafont is expressive and charming, especially during his one aria. The role does seem to lay a bit high for his gentle-sounding bass. Lucia Popp’s Djamileh is the real treasure here. It is essentially a role for a high mezzo of the Frederica von Stade variety. Ms Popp is not one who comes immediately to mind for French roles but she gives an admirable stab at French style and she brings to this role a ravishing luminescent tone. Her sad little aria could easily be over-emoted by the singer but she provides instead a miniature portrait that approaches perfection. Bizet created much lovely writing for the orchestra especially the woodwinds and percussion sections. Gardelli leads everything with a sure but gentle hand and the Bavarian Radio orchestra respond to him beautifully. The sound is luxuriously spacious and well-suited to the Middle Eastern perfumed atmosphere that wafts over Bizet’s orchestration.

Anton Dvorak’s Armida is a rarity that is definitely worthy of the name. The first production in 1904 was not successful, it is almost never performed even in the Czech Republic ( Czechia to use its new official shortened name). Dvorak combined with librettist Jaroslav Vrchlicky to rework the old tales of the sorceress Armida, which had been used in nearly 50 previous operas of which Handel’s, Haydn’s and Rossini’s versions are the most well known today. Recently Cristophe Rousset has added Salieri’s Armida to the growing list of recordings of works from that composer. Vrchlicky chose to combine the familiar story with other episodes from the separate tale of Tancredi and Clorinda so that in this opera Armida dies in a sword combat with her lover as Clorinda does. Dvorak apparently used Wagner’s Tannhäuser as a model for his score but the music he has provided seems to me to be much closer to Massenet’s Esclarmonde than it does to Wagner. Dvorak’s music also is unable to separate itself from its essential Czech atmosphere; therefore it is no more successful in conjuring up a sound world for 12th century Damascus than was Handel or Rossini. Still there is much lovely music here and the orchestration is particularly impressive. This recording, in excellent sound, was made at during a live concert in Prague, although there is little sign of an audience being present other than hearing applause at the end of each Act. The heroine is sung with a gleaming soprano tone by Joanna Borowska. Dvorak’s Armida is a less nefarious girl than Handel’s and Borowska’s passionate delivery of her music gives a good representation of the lovelorn sorceress. As the Christian Knight Rinald, Wieslaw Ochman sometimes sounds alternately choked in the lower register or overly piercing in the upper range. In his big Act Four “mad scene” his voice emerges more freely than it does elsewhere which serves to redeem his portrayal of the heroic Knight. Many of the other roles are sung by voices of only adequate quality and there are wobbles to contend with in many of these singers. The librettist even made room on stage for that well known medieval nutcase Peter the Hermit. He is given an imposing performance by Miroslav Podskalsky. Gerd Albrecht gets some really splendid playing from the Czech Philarmonic on this occasion; the brass section is in especially good form for the many fanfares that emerge throughout the work.

Zeděnk Fibich’s heroic opera Šárka can certainly claim to be every bit as much of a rarity as Dvorak’s Armida is. From the long list of rare or never performed operas that I have stumbled upon over the years, this is the one work that has the most to offer to those who are willing to become acquainted with it. The opera is strikingly reminiscent of Wagner’s mythic works and I rather think of it as the Czech Siegfried, albeit one with a female hero. The story is a rather strange tale of a war that breaks out between the sexes after the death of the Prophet Queen, Libuše. The opera is based on a tale from Czech mythology and picks up after Smetana’s opera concludes. The men of the Czech lands rebel against being ruled by women and a race of Valkyrie-like warrior maidens rise up in the wilds of the forests to wreak havoc against the men. Their leader, Šárka is a warrior-girl with a heart of gold, and she secretly falls for the leader of the men, Citrad. This creates all sorts of complications for the two lovers which is brought to head when Sarka, haunted by the ghosts of her slain companions, throws herself off a cliff in a storm. Fibich responded to this story with music of the most amazing passion and drama. There is a long passage in the second Act that is the Czech equivalent to the Forest Murmurs scene in Siegfried. Fibich creates a perfect balance between dramatic tension and sheer beauty that is truly stunning. The first Act can seem a bit episodic but from the moment the second act begins Fibich takes us on a wonderfully wild ride and for once the Third Act of an opera is a carefully built up conclusion to what has gone on before it.

The recording is taken from a single live concert in the Vienna Konzerthaus. The sound stands up well to the current standards. Eva Urbanová sings the title role with a sometimes white sounding tone. She encompasses the demands of the title role with power and beauty nonetheless, and she is utterly fearless in her attack of the musical lines. As Citrad, Janez Lotrič sounds a bit lighter of voice than the heroic tenor Fibich composed the role for, but he makes a real impression through some warmly romantic singing and the sheer beauty of his tone. Dalibor Jenis sings the role of the widowed King Přemysl with a soft-grained baritone that sounds rather like the beautiful voice of Thomas Hampson. Ida Kirilová’s multi-coloured voice begins the opera with a bit of unsteadiness but she warms up as the evening progresses and gives an impassioned account of her plea for women’s justice. In Act One I did not feel that Sylvain Cambreling had fully responded to the Czech folk aspects, but soon the opera’s music that paintsthe beauty and wildness of the Czech forests take over and by the time Act Two begins he is fully in command. He sails through all of the calm and stormy passages of this remarkable score with passion and dignity. This issue is worth the full cost of this box set and one would not feel cheated by it.

Jules Massenet’s 1907 opera Thérčse was the one opera that I was rather looking forward to hearing from this collection; however it turned out to be the most disappointing CD in the box. Not for the recording itself, or the fine cast, but because I found the composer’s inspiration to be rather thin and meandering in this work. Thérčse strikes me a distinctly less interesting work musically than Chérubin from two years earlier. The story of this work is rather similar to the love triangle found in Werther, but set against the backdrop of the reign of terror. The sense of danger all around is more palpable in the second act, which makes it rather more interesting than the first. Orfeo, in association with Fonit-Cetra, fielded a superb cast for this recording. Agnes Baltsa who was at the zenith of her career in 1981 uses her seductive, resin-tinged voice admirably as Thérčse. Her singing is consistently involved and tonally striking. Francisco Araiza as her love Armand sings with great passion and superbly firm tone. The grainy flickering quality of his tenor has never sounded more beautiful than on this recording. George Fortune was an American baritone who spent most of his career working at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. He did not receive much exposure on recordings, but on the evidence of his confident and sensitively sung André he certainly should have had a few more opportunities. Conductor Gerd Albrecht certainly finds more in this score than I did; it appears that he tried to talk several opera houses into producing it as well as getting this recording off the ground. His direction of the RAI forces is passionate and loving. There are at least two other recordings of Thérčse out there, neither of which I have heard. Despite the fact there is not a single native French singer in this cast I think it would be fairly difficult to top the excitement of the group assembled here. Still, while I was listening to it, I could not shake the thought that the cast was rather wasted on the material and what an amazing recording of Werther they all could have made instead.

The final opera in the set is Leoncavallo’s La bohčme. Leoncavallo wrote his own libretto for this opera which proves to be strikingly well written. One could be forgiven for thinking that because of its lack of popularity that it is an inferior work to Puccini’s but this is not the case. Leoncavallo takes a slightly different look at the group of artists and their friends. His first two acts present their mostly comic helter-skelter life which then evolves in the final acts to his focusing in on the poverty behind the laughter and the toll it takes on their lives and relationships. Where Puccini shamelessly twists the heart strings to manipulate the listener’s emotions, Leoncavallo keeps things at a slight distance and presents an ultimately much more believable group of bohemians. Leoncavallo’s music is no less beautiful than Puccini’s although the arias seem to be shorter as the action trundles by. Mimi’s death is no less touching in Leoncavallo’s opera than it is in Puccini’s and Leoncavallo is every bit the master orchestrator that Puccini is.

Lucia Popp will likely go down in history as the only soprano to have ever made commercial recordings of Mimi in both Puccini’s and Leoncavallo’s versions of the opera, although her excellent recording of the Puccini is in a German translation. Here, she is in glorious pearlescent voice with only one strained high to be heard in Act One. Her Mimi is in turns playful and grave as the action demands and her assumption will likely not be surpassed for a very long time. Alan Titus as Schaunard gets much to do in the Leoncavallo version. Titus’ warm, ingratiating tone completely justifies the extra stage time he is allotted. Alexandra Milchelva surprised me by her singing of Musetta; previously I had only heard her voice interpreting the Slavic repertoire and wasn’t expecting much from her in an Italian role. My mistake; her rich velvet textured voice makes her into a most seductive sounding Musetta. She is a far more rounded character than she is in Puccini and Milchelva fulfills every aspect of the role. She also manages to lighten her tone quite convincingly in the first act. Bernd Weikl gives what was likely his best showing on record as Rodolfo. His dark chocolate tone beguiles the senses to the degree that one doesn’t miss the fact that he is not a tenor. Franco Bonisolli gets a couple of passionate arias as Marcello which he delivers with thrilling tone but some unsubtle phrasing, something not uncommon for this singer. Sofia Lis as Eufemia, another working companion of Mimi’s, brings her charming mezzo sound to the smaller vingette of the young ironer. Heinz Wallberg conducts with care and feeling but doesn’t try to draw undue attention to the podium, a temptation that some conductors of the verismo repertoire seem unable to resist. The Bavarian Radio sound engineers have captured the proceedings in a warm, enveloping sound that adds an audible sense of luxuriousness to the score.
To sum up, despite the documentation omissions this is an excellent bargain for the price which offers a group of six unusual operas that are rendered uncommonly well by all the participants. Prospective buyers should not find any disappointments here.

Mike Parr
Giuseppe GAZANIGA (1743-1818)
Don Giovanni (1787) opera in once act [102:58]
Don Giovanni – John Aler (tenor)
Pasquariello – Jean-Luc Chaignaud (bass)
Donna Elvira – Pamela Coburn (soprano)
Donna Anna – Eva Steinsky (soprano)
Maturina – Julie Kaufmann (soprano)
Donna Ximena – Margit Kinzel (soprano)
Il Commendatore – Gunter von Kannen (bass)
Duca Ottavio – Robert Svensen ( tenor)
Biagio – Anton Scharinger (bass)
Laterna – Anton Rosner (tenor)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Munchner Rundfunkorchester/Stefan Soltész
rec. 25 May – 06 June, 1990, Studio 1 Bayerischen Rundfunks , München
Previously released as C214902H

Georges BIZET (1830-1875)
Djamileh: opera in one act (1872) [65:11]
Haroun – Franco Bonisolli (tenor)
Djamileh – Lucia Popp (soprano)
Splendiamo – Jean-PhilippeLafont (bass)
Merchant – Jacques Pineau (spoken)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Munchner Rundfunkorchester/Lamberto Gardelli
rec. 28 May – 03 June, 1983, location not identified.
Previously released as C 174881A

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Armida: opera in four acts (1904) [152:00]
Armida – Joana Borowska (soprano)
Rinald – Wieslaw Ochman (tenor)
Hydraot – Pavel Daniluk (bass)
Ismen – George Fortune (baritione)
Gottfried von Bouilion Vratislav Kříž (baritone)
Peter – Miroslav Podalský (bass)
Gernand – Milan Bürger (bass)
Dudo – Richard Sporka (tenor)
Ubald – Zdenek Harvánek (bass)
Sven – Jan Markvart (tenor)
Roger – Valdimir Necházel (tenor)
Muezzin, Hlastel – Roman Janál (baritone)
Siren – Monika Brychtová (soprano)
Prague Chamber choir; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Gerd Albrecht
rec. 22 May, 1995, Rudolfinum, Prague
Previously released as C404962H

Zeděnek FIBICH (1850-1900)
Šárka: opera in three acts op. 51 (1897) [133:00]
Šárka – Eva Urbanová (soprano)
Citrad Janez Lotrič (tenor)
Přemysl – Dalibor Jenis (baritone)
Vlasta – Ida Kirilová (mezzo)
Libyna – Simona Šaturová (soprano)
Svatana – Adriana Kohútková (soprano)
Mlada – Klaudia Dernerová (soprano)
Radka – Hana Minutillo (mezzo)
Hosta – Marta Beňačková (mezzo)
Castava – Adriana Hlasová (mezzo)
Vitoraz – Vladimir Kubovcik (bass)
Vienna Concert Choir; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sylvain Cambreling
Rec. 08 May, 1998, Konzerthaus Vienna, Austria
Previously released as C541002H

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Thérčse - an opera in two acts (1907) [78:00]
Thérčse – Agnes Baltsa (mezzo)
Armand de Clerval – Francisco Araiza (tenor)
André Thorel – George Fortune (baritone)
Morel – Giancarlo Luccardi (bass)
Un Officier – Gino Sinimberghi (tenor)
Un Officier/Un Officier municipal – Eftimios Michaelopoulos (bass)
Coro della RAI, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma RAI/Gerd Albrecht
rec. 10-14, February 1981 Auditorium del Foro Italico,
Previously released as C387961A

Ruggero LEONCALLO (1857-1919)
La bohčme: opera in four acts (1897) [135:48]
Marcello – Franco Bonisolli (tenor)
Mimi – Lucia Popp (soprano)
Rodolfo – Bernd Weikl(baritone)
Musette – Alexandra Milcheva (mezzo)
Schaunard – Alan Titus (baritone)
Barbemuche – Alexander Malta (bass)
Visconte Paolo – Jörn Wilsing (baritone)
Gustavo Colline – Raimund Grumbach (baritone)
Gaudenzio – Friederich Lenz (tenor)
Durand – Norbet Orth (tenor)
Il signore del primo piano – Albert Grassner (tenor)
Eufemia – Sofia Lis (mezzo)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Munchner Rundfunkorchester/Heinz Wallberg
rec. 11 – 22 November, 1981, Studio 1 Bayerischen Rundfunks, Munich
Previously released as C023822H

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