Over the past year or so (2017), an unusually large number of fascinating and rarely performed operas were made available, mostly for the first time ever, on CD.
New York Arts/Berkshire Review for the Arts has asked me to share some of my delighted discoveries from this flood of new arrivals, as well as—in separate articles—my (rather lengthy and detailed!) reviews of two contrasting operas that seem to me particularly worthy of discovery:
The most exciting recent development in recorded opera, for me, is Opéra français, a series of CD recordings of little-known late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French-language operas, mostly (though not all) by French-born composers. Opéra français is a product of the Center for French Romantic Music, which is located in the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice. The Center has, in previous years, brought forth first-rate recordings of operas by well-known composers (e.g., Johann Christian Bach, Gounod, and two works by Massenet) and by near-forgotten ones (Victorin Joncières). Perhaps the most unexpected success in the series was the superb recording of Herculanum (1859), a grand opera by Félicien David that held the Paris stage for a decade, then vanished until the Opéra français series recorded it in 2014 and released it a year later, to widespread acclaim. (I wrote a long review of it myself, including in it some links to online excerpts.) A well-cast and imaginatively directed stage production quickly followed, in Fall 2016, at Wexford (Ireland) Festival Opera. (I was asked to provide a program-book essay for the Wexford performances; one can read it at New York Arts by clicking here.)
This year, the Center has matched its Herculanum highpoint and perhaps surpassed it with four releases: La Jacquerie, by Edouard Lalo and Arthur Coquard (1895; Lalo completed only the stirring Act 1 before his death), Hérold’s superb opéra-comique Le pré aux clercs (1832; once a favorite of French and German audiences), Étienne-Nicholas Méhul’s Uthal (1806; based on famous poems that were supposedly written in ancient Gaelic by Ossian, Son of Fingal), and Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine (1887; a stylistically alert evocation of shenanigans among the wealthy during the Italian Renaissance). The recordings are all made in the studio or recorded at an “in concert” performance and feature such major performers as soprano Véronique Gens and tenor Michael Spyres. Each recording comes with a small book packed with essays, primary documents, and a libretto, all in French and English. The recordings are issued directly by the Palazzetto, but are often described in the press and on commercial websites (confusingly) as coming from Ediciones Singulares, which is simply the firm that prints up the accompanying book. In any case, once one knows the name of composer and work, one can usually locate the item easily online, thanks to Boolean searching.
Other venues and organizations have brought us some Italian operas that are equally vital and, again, are ones that most of us wouldn’t have known otherwise. The Valle d’Itria Festival (in Martina Franca, Italy) mounted Medea in Corinto by Donizetti’s main composition teacher, G. S. Mayr (1813), plus two superb comic operas: Giovanni Paisiello’s La grotta di Trofonio (1785, shown in the illustration above) and Nicola de Giosa’s Don Checco (1850). The De Giosa work uses spoken dialogue rather than recitatives, a very unusual feature in Italy that makes the work feel instantly familiar to lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan or Broadway musicals. (All three operas are on the Dynamic label.)
The Rossini Festival in Wildbad (Germany) mounted productions of two spiffy serious operas from Rossini’s most productive and inventive years: Adelaide di Borgogna (1817) and Sigismondo (1814), and both got released on the Naxos label, as did a studio recording of an opera by G. S. Mayr that is much earlier his Medea and therefore more Haydnesque in basic style: Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797).
The opera company in Graz (Austria), in conjunction with the Oehms CD firm, brought us a long-awaited second recording (the first one had its problems) of the first version of Bohuslav Martinů’s The Greek Passion (1954-57), a colorful and dramatic work based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, author of the famous book from which the film Zorba the Greek derived. The Greek Passion deals with profound and still-timely questions about refugees and the lands that reject them. It was commissioned in the 1950s for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but was then, to the composer’s dismay, rejected. Martinů reworked The Greek Passion substantially, and the second version has been ably recorded (under Charles Mackerras), but the original version (for London) is more vital and inventive, as the new recording reveals.
Europe’s radio-station vaults continue to reveal their treasures. One of these is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love, based—like Verdi’s Falstaff—on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. There have been two studio recordings in fine stereophonic sound, but both are, in some ways, put in the shade by a monophonic but well-miked radio broadcast from the BBC studios in 1956, featuring the baritone Roderick Jones in the title role (which he had sung in the first professional production, ten years earlier). April Cantelo, with her voice alone, makes Anne Page sound savvy and much sexier than Nanetta, the equivalent character in Falstaff.
Another vault-treasure—this one from the Czech Radio studios in Communist-controlled Prague, 1954—is an alternately amusing and philosophical fairy-tale opera by the noted composer-conductor Otakar Ostrčil: Honzovo království (Jack’s Kingdom) (1933), about the Devil’s attempt at creating havoc on earth by striking a deal with three brothers, one of whom (the Jack—or Johnny—of the title) turns out not to be the malleable dolt that the Devil thought.
And a real surprise from the 1960s: another fairy-tale opera, this one by a prominent German-Swedish composer named Laci Boldemann (1921-69). Boldemann died prematurely (from complications of surgery), four years after this opera received its premiere, superbly performed, at the Royal Swedish Opera. Boldemann’s work is entitled Svart är vitt—sa Kejsaren (Black Is White, Said the Emperor), and pokes fun at all kinds of authority figures, including governmental and medical. The CD recording preserves the opera’s opening night, and everybody is already in total control of the work’s bubbly good humor and sharp jabs. Boldemann’s Black Is White (which one can hear entire on YouTube) is one of the few recent operas that are tuneful enough to appeal to children as well as adults: I would love to see someone translate the libretto into witty English and give the work an imaginative stage production. It would seem perfect for the able young singers of one of our major music schools or conservatories, such as the Eastman School of Music or Juilliard.
In the meantime, I urge opera lovers to get to know this delightful work, indeed any or all of the fifteen that I have summarized above. The operatic repertory could use refreshing, as many have observed. One important way is to commission new works. But another is to let us become acquainted with worthy, indeed often first-class works from the past that have, for whatever reason, fallen out of favor and are well worth discovering. And, in the meantime, one can, thanks to the miracle of the Compact Disc, stage a production in one’s own head, as one listens while reading the libretto. Such power!
The present article first appeared, in slightly different form, as the first section of an extended article in Boston Musical Intelligencer and appears here by that magazine’s kind permission.