21 December 2009

Record Roundup for 2009: Vocal Recitals

This is not a picture of Vivica Genaux or Joyce DiDonato.
(But he has sung opera.)

Gone are the days when I worked at Opera News and took home dozens of new CDs each year (one of the very, very few perks of that job), and farther still the days when I worked at CBS, and made enough money to walk into Tower Records three or four times a month, and to walk out with a bright-yellow bag stuffed with music. For that matter, gone are the days of Tower Records and a robust recording industry, too, and I’ve been told that I’m an old fogey for continuing to buy discs instead of downloading from the Internet. (In my defense, please note that downloading is grossly unsuited to opera — where are the librettos? — and iTunes and other such sites are managed by nitwits who know nothing of classical music.)

So over the next two days, I offer a roundup of the new albums I’ve enjoyed this year. There are three of them, and they’re very nearly the only new albums I’ve gotten in 2009. I’ll start with the vocal recitals.

VIVICA GENAUX: Pyrotechnics
Vivaldi Opera Arias
Virgin Classics 50999 694573 0 2

Pyrotechnics is the latest album from mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who last week brought a selection of these arias to a concert here in Paris. Vivica looked gorgeous, as always, and I noted that, after a weekend when every Frenchman bitched about the cold, she walked onstage Monday in open-toed shoes. “But it wasn’t very cold up there,” she exclaimed. “I was fine!”

”Yes, but you’re from Alaska!” I pointed out helpfully.

Vivica’s album gathers a sampling of arias from operas by Antonio Vivaldi, and the ensemble Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi, joins the singer. Right off the bat, they announce that this is not going to be another “Pale-White, or Nymphs and Shepherds,” touch-it-with-a-tweezer Early Music performance: Biondi elicits polished fluidity from his players, and Vivica throws herself into each dramatic situation.

The trouble is that the situations aren’t terribly compelling: Vivaldi, an unsurpassed master of choral and orchestral writing, desperately wanted to write for theater, but ultimately was better-suited to the church. These arias aren’t bad, but they lack variety and insight into character. After an album’s worth, you find yourself wishing for Handel.

In compensation, you get the promised pyrotechnics, and plenty of ’em. The notes fly as furiously as snowflakes in a storm (which I have proven scientifically, by playing the album during the wintry weather that descended on Paris as Vivica left town), and her luscious timbre is like a mug of steaming-hot cocoa. The results are exciting, even festive, and you may enjoy the music even more if you forget about the lyrics and Vivaldi’s theatrical ambitions and consider this instead a kind of undiscovered Christmas cantata. (Why not? Doesn’t every one of the Four Seasons sound like sleigh bells?)

JOYCE DiDONATO: Colbran, the Muse
Rossini Opera Arias
Virgin Classics 50999 6945790 6

Richard Wagner (among others) used to complain that Rossini’s music disregarded the libretto: the characters in his operas sang the same way, regardless of circumstance or feeling. Rossini didn’t help his case much by assigning the same aria to different operas, as in the case of “Una voce poco fa,” which Rosina sings to comic effect in The Barber of Seville, but which was originally written as the Queen’s “Quanto è grato all’alma mia” in the melodrama Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. (Yep, that’s Elizabeth I of England.)

In a really good performance, we’re unlikely to notice the disconnect between compositional style and characterization. Singers such as Marilyn Horne or Shirley Verrett wielded such authority, commanded the stage and score so completely, that every note rang true, and you thought, “Of course she’s singing this music at this moment.”

And then you get Joyce DiDonato, who focuses on Rossini the same laser-beam she brought to bear on Handel last year, performing a kind of musical microsurgery that yields the most penetrating psychological insights imaginable. She’s beyond an advocate for Rossini — she comes up with riches that he himself probably didn’t suspect were there. Pyrotechnics galore here, too, but also languorous caresses and quiet melancholy. To Hell with Wagner: Rossini knew his way around a theater, and so does Joyce.

Beyond that superlative combination of study and instinct, Joyce’s interpretations benefit from the particular quality of her voice. Beneath its shimmering surface runs a powerful current of sadness; this vocal chiaroscuro lends emotional complexity to any music. Joyce’s singing reminds us that even great joy is hard-won at great cost — or, more usually in Rossini dramas, doomed to brevity — and it must be seized and savored.

She is abetted by the tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose performance in Rossini’s Semiramide at Caramoor last summer I missed, but whose Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the same venue was one of the most exciting events I witnessed all year. (Unbelievably, it was the first time he’d sung the role; he nailed that sucker.) He and Joyce have sung together onstage many times, and I’m looking forward to a long continuation of this fruitful collaboration.

Edoardo Müller conducts the Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rome.* Some (Wagner-influenced?) conductors balk at bel canto, saying there’s nothing for them to do here, yet Müller makes one feel that he isn’t standing back but creating a space in which the singers can assert their creative forces. I admire that.

And speaking of Joyce and conductors, I draw your attention to the link to the new website of conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who, in addition to his manifold talents and accomplishments, is also Joyce’s husband.

TOMORROW: My Record Roundup for 2009 turns to Pop Music.

*NOTE: And by the way, wouldn’t you love to hear how Rossini would set a phrase such as “Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia di Roma”? A lot of triplets, I’m guessing.

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