Unlock Locke’s List for 2020

Scene from Paisiello’s Le gare generose

in which he shares some major discoveries and pleasant diversions encountered in recorded opera and other vocal music, as well as a ballet to a scenario by Arthur Schnitzler.

What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March.

My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines (notably Bill Marx’s Boston-based The Arts Fuse).

BMInt has kindly offered to let me share my discoveries from the past year or so this, in my fourth annual round-up of operatic and other vocal recordings. (The others can be found by clicking here: 2017, 2018, 2019.) I’ll move in rough chronological groupings because I tend to think historically (as I suspect that many BMInt readers do).

Either you love Baroque opera, or you don’t even want to read about it, much less listen to it. But, if the latter, I suspect that you haven’t heard many truly splendid recordings of that kind of music. This year brought us four of the most vivid and engaging such recordings I have ever encountered.

Handel’s Agrippina is brought to life by today’s reigning Baroque mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, who shows (as she did in the Met’s HD transmission of the same work, shortly before the virus shut all movie theaters down) how a truly great singer who is also a remarkable actress can make an operatic role specific and captivating. She is surrounded by equally remarkable performers, including another Met regular, baritone Luca Pisaroni, as Agrippina’s husband Claudio. The thick booklet is a model of its kind, including a first-rate essay by David Vickers plus the full libretto and a fine translation.

Other High Baroque operas that wowed me this year include Gismondo re di Polonia, by Leonardo Vinci (I call him “no-da Vinci” to distinguish him from the famous painter) and Telemann’s Miriways. Both received first-rate performances, with such notable early-music stars as Max-Emanuel Cenčić (in Gismondo) and Robin Johannsen (in Miriways). The Gismondo is the latest offering from the Cenčić-run Parnassus Arts Productions (Vienna), a full-service organization that hires and coaches singers and arranges for them to participate in productions and recordings of early opera. The vocal excellence of the entire cast suggests that there are advantages to having a great singer at the head of an opera company.

Telemann wrote over thirty operas, but only eight survive. This one is particularly fascinating because it is based (very freely) on events in Persia that had made newspaper headlines a mere six years earlier. It is thus unusual among serious operas of the Baroque era (which are mostly set in the distant past, e.g., ancient Greece) and anticipates, in a way, certain operas of our own era, such as Jeanine Tesori’s award-winning Blue (about police brutality against African-American males).

Late 17th and 18th-century French opera has its own sophisticated charms. You can savor them in a new recording of Lully’s Isis, conducted by the remarkably perceptive Christophe Rousset (featuring the astoundingly beautiful tenor voice of Cyril Auvity as Apollo and two other characters), and in an anthology CD of brief excerpts from French operas of the Baroque and early Classic eras by nine composers, from the great Jean-Philippe Rameau to the near-forgotten Pancrace Royer (a storm scene, with spiffy choral expressions of horror). Throughout the latter release, the featured soprano, Chantal Santon-Jeffrey, is capable, if a bit unvaried. A native French-speaker, she pronounces the words beautifully and is elegantly and airily supported by a Hungary-based early-music ensemble under György Vashegyi.

Before we leave the Baroque behind, I should mention two CDs from early-ish in the Baroque era. The period just after Caccini and Monteverdi (e.g., the 1650s) saw an explosion of operatic energy and experiment, especially in Venice (which had multiple public opera theaters) and also in certain Italian courts. The leading Italian opera composer was the Venice-based Francesco Cavalli, who specialized in solo numbers that are still quite flexible in structure, not yet showing the da capo form (ABA) that would become more or less standard around 1700 in operas by such composers as Alessandro Scarlatti, Handel, Vivaldi, Vinci, and Telemann.

Just how wonderfully such works can come across is clear from a 2002 recording, now released for the first time, of Cavalli’s L’Ipermestra (named after Hypermnestra, a character in the Jason and Medea story). The small but immensely colorful musical forces are led by Dutch lutenist Mike Fentross. The recording preserves a single onstage performance—audio-only, but a few photos help us imagine the spare but powerful and era-appropriate staging. Several of the singers have, in the intervening two decades, gone on to major careers, notably the tenor Marcel Beekman, who, in the comic role of Ipermestra’s nurse Berenice, manages expertly the balance between “funny-voice” singing (mainly in more recitative-like passages) and straightforward, beautiful vocal production in his more aria-like solo numbers.

Around the same time, Barbara Strozzi became a notable and much-published composer. Strozzi’s Op. 8, part 1, is now recorded: short secular cantatas (or, really, extended songs or arias), with, on a wonderful new CD, accompaniment by a lute rather than, say, harpsichord. The amazing performers are soprano Elissa Edwards and lutenist Richard Kolb. The latter sometimes plays the theorbo: a super-lute with a long, long neck and a mellow, resonant tone. The more closely you follow the texts in the accompanying pamphlet, the more you’ll appreciate the many sophisticated nuances that this duo bring to the task. Or just put start the disc playing to create an environment for your daily routine!

Or, for that matter, do without a disc entirely: like most or all of the recordings mentioned here, the Strozzi is available through various subscription streaming services. YouTube (the free version) has each track from the Strozzi CD by itself, such as this marvelous one: “E pazzo il mio core.” The one hitch is that you won’t get the booklet and libretto. (You generally will, though, if you subscribe to Naxos Music Library, which offers many of the recordings mentioned here, not just the ones on Naxos’s own label.)

Nothing particularly remarkable by Haydn or Mozart crossed my path this year, but I can heartily recommend Grétry’s Raoul Barbe-bleue (1789), starring the aforementioned Chantal Santon-Jeffrey, who is much more animated and specific this time, perhaps thanks to excellent coaching from the stage director (who was assisted by a professional mime instructor!). The work combines the grim and the comical. The plot is about the attempt of Bluebeard (a French nobleman) to woo and kill one more wife. (Don’t confuse him with Blackbeard the Pirate, as people sometimes do.) The corpses of her predecessors are stuffed into a locked room, to which he gives her the key with explicit instructions NOT to use it. This sets up a great solo scene for the heroine, who has trouble containing her curiosity.

The comedy is mainly confined to two tenor roles: the hero, who must try to save his beloved from the clutches of the count and does so by dressing as a woman (and singing in falsetto); and the count’s aged servant Osman (presumably a Turk). All the roles here are taken splendidly, including Matthieu Lécroart as the creepy Bluebeard and Manuel Nuñez Camelino as his often-shuddering servant. This video gives a sense of how effective the staging and acting must have been. Martin Wåhlberg conducts the responsive and colorful early-instrument ensemble Orkester Nord (which is based in Norway).

Two other once-renowned opera composers of the Classic era displayed their comic side this year: Galuppi in L’amante di tutte (1760) and Paisiello in Le gare generose (1786). Both works delight us in playful and sometimes trenchant characterizations of human desire and human folly. The cast members—all native Italian-speakers—keep the fun bubbling by attention to the humorous situations and sung words.

Ah, Beethoven! This year we were treated to wonderful new recordings of his short oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (conducted by the marvelous Simon Rattle, with splendid soloists Elsa Dreisig and Pavol Breslik) and of the first version (1805) of his opera Fidelio. That version is always called Leonore to avoid confusion with the composer’s own substantial revision (1814), which has long been standard in opera houses and on recordings.

The Leonore performance has as its glowing core Marlis Petersen, whose remarkable rendition of Leonore’s big aria “Abscheulicher!” was highlighted in a New York Times article about arias that will make one love the soprano voice. The aforementioned Robin Johannsen is glorious and bouncily naïve as Marzelline, and Maximilian Schmitt is light-voiced yet steady and, finally, touching in this revelatory recording, accompanied by René Jacobs and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. (Jonathan Blumhofer got to review it for The Arts Fuse. I’ll write about it elsewhere soon.) I was privileged to catch a staged production of Leonore by Opera Lafayette (at Washington’s National Opera), and am now persuaded that the 1805 version has its own validity and even surpasses, in a few respects, the revised 1814 Fidelio. Opera Lafayette videorecorded one of the performances for future release on DVD, using the same sets and costumes, and many of the same singers, as in their 2018 DVD of Pierre Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal, the work whose libretto served as the starting point for Beethoven’s opera.

With Johann Simon (or Giovanni Simone) Mayr, as with Beethoven, we have a composer whose work bridges over from the Classic era to the Romantic. I have previously admired recordings of his serious operas (Telemaco, Medea in Corinto, and I Cherusci) and was delighted this year to learn what he could do in a more comic vein, as demonstrated in Le due duchesse (1814), a “semiseria” (like, say, Rossini’s La gazza ladra). The performance, much as in the Galuppi and Paisiello works mentioned above, profits from having singers—though in this case, none is Italian by birth—who can make the most of the often-amusing situations. Here, for example, a noblewoman requires her handmaiden to pretend to be the noblewoman when the king arrives and holds a wolf hunt; the modest servant tries to avoid revealing her simple background by expressing herself in empty (and, in the circumstances, puzzling) platitudes.

Yet another “bridge” figure is Gaspare Spontini, best known for grandly scaled serious operas that inspired Meyerbeer, Halévy, and (in Les Troyens) Berlioz—works such Olimpie (one of my favorite items in 2019). His early operas are mostly lost, but I metamorfosi di Pasquale has resurfaced in recent years (in a chateau in Belgium!) and proves to be a delightful comic work. The central figure is a braggart who thinks he knows all the angles but gets repeatedly bested by other characters. Again, an international cast manages to put the quicksilver Italian silliness over quite effectively.

From the Romantic era (ca. 1815 to the end of the century) we were treated to new recordings of splendid works, some of them little-known yet easily as fine as ones that are better known. The 1826 version (for a Paris production) of Rossini’s Zelmira brings pleasure after pleasure in its first appearance on CD. The work features two highly contrasting tenor parts, taken here with splendid vividness by Mert Süngü (from Turkey) and Joshua Stewart (from the USA). (An equally remarkable DVD of the 1826 version has already been available for a few years, featuring the incomparable Juan-Diego Flórez.)

Attila (1846), about Attila the Hun’s conquest of the Italian peninsula, reminds us how skillful a musical dramatist Verdi could be, five years before the first of his “middle-period” operas, Rigoletto. Standouts in the admirable cast are Met Opera stars Liudmyla Monastyrska (Odabella) and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (in the title role). As the Italian patriot, George Petean (from Romania) evokes the glories of such baritones of the past as Lawrence Tibbett and Sherrill Milnes. Ivan Repušić conducts with precision and flair.

Before “leaving” early 19th-century Italy, I should mention an amazing recording of opera fantasies on tunes by Bellini (including the imperishable Norma) and Verdi (Ernani) by Liszt, Thalberg, and others. The gasp-inducing pianist is Marc-André Hamelin.

Antônio Carlos Gomes’s Lo schiavo (The Slave; 1889) may be the best opera by a Brazilian composer, even more effective than his Il guarany, which Plácido Domingo revived and recorded in the 1990s. Composed, like most of Gomes’s works, in Italian, it is heard in an energetic yet generally well-controlled performance by an international cast under Gomes authority John Neschling (who also led the Il guarany recording).

For a vivid taste of Italian opera in the several generations from Verdi and Gomes to Puccini (plus some marvelous Massenet), ya gotta hear the wonderful Albanian-born soprano Ermonela Jaho in an aria disc, conducted vividly by Antonio Battistoni. In fact, you can try out the opening of each track here. The disc is entitled “Anima Rara,” and indeed one senses something rare (precious, in the good sense) in the specific anima (soul) that Jaho evokes for each heroine represented here. Two of my favorite moments come from Leoncavallo’s opera La Boheme, based on the same French novel that led to Puccini’s more famous work. 

French comic opera is a vast repertory waiting to be rediscovered. The biggest barrier is its reliance on extended spoken scenes, which barely register in our vast modern opera houses. Also, quick repartee in French can sound ungainly in the mouths of non-native singers. The best solution is probably to translate a work into the language of the singers and audience. One can get a sense of this from recently re-released recordings of two masterpieces of the genre by Auber: Le maçon and Le cheval de bronze, both done in German by native German-speakers. The recordings were made for radio broadcast in Austria and originally contained connecting narration (omitted here).

But hearing such a work in French, by French-speakers, of course carries special authenticity. So I give a doubly warm welcome to the world-premiere recording of an earlyish but already immensely skillful comic opera by Jules Massenet, Don César de Bazan (1872, rev. 88). This Offenbach-like work is set in Spain and, three years before Bizet’s Carmen, is already strongly tinted with Spanish folk flavor (e.g., the “Jota aragonesa” tune). A cast of fresh young singers plus the veteran baritone Laurent Naouri (a Met regular) dish it up with style. Only a few bits of spoken dialogue are included, but all of the dialogue is printed in the libretto, so you can create a full performance of the work (with friends, or in your mind). Alas, the libretto provides no translation, a special problem in works that are unfamiliar and for which no translation can be found online.

Offenbach’s little-known but no less delightful Maître Péronilla (1878) is likewise drenched in Spanish “local color.” The new (world-premiere) recording is just as expert, with the renowned Véronique Gens—one of the current opera world’s great tragédiennes—showing an unsuspected gift for comic singing and acting. Plenty of spoken dialogue is retained, so you’re really encountering the whole work. And the dialogue is delivered briskly and wittily. The printed libretto includes a good English translation. The scholarly essays that come with the recording are first-rate.

Few 19th-century German operas other than Wagner’s (plus Beethoven’s Fidelio and Weber’s Der Freischütz) get performed nowadays. So I was happy to discover a delightful comic work by Joachim Raff, entitled Benedetto Marcello. Amusingly, the four characters are based on real figures from what is often called the Baroque era: Marcello (still known for a few concertos), Johann Adolf Hasse (a major opera composer, active at the court in Dresden), Faustina Bordoni (a brilliant singer who married Hasse), and Rosana Scalfi (who married Marcello). The plot, invented by Raff, imagines a rivalry between Hasse and Marcello for the hand of Faustina. Raff’s libretto and music are deeply humane, causing me real regret that Raff never got to hear the work performed. The performance captured here (from 2002) was, astonishingly, the work’s world premiere. Fortunately, it is of a high standard, under the keen baton of Grzegorz Novak.

Two important Russian operas have reappeared on disc in recordings from the 1950s-60s featuring such marvelous singers as Tamara Milashkina, Irina Arkhipova, and Evgeny Nesterenko: Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Rimsky-Korsakov’s 71-minute-long Kashchei the Immortal. They are done with energy and conviction, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for librettos and translations.

As we enter the twentieth century, we again discover numerous operas that haven’t quite “made the cut” for whatever reason yet are fascinating and often deeply satisfying. I was glad to get to know Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge (in a re-released recording led by Gerd Albrecht) and Jakov Gotovac’s opera Ero the Joker (in a recording by native Croatians, clearly relishing the humorous situations). Both are based on folk-like tales, but of very different types. Zemlinsky’s opera is deeply philosophical, with a confused “searcher” (Dreamy George—his nickname is the opera’s title) going through a kind of Rake’s Progress series of life experiences. Gotovac’s is more straightforward: a distinctly humorous portrayal of village life in, along the lines of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Zemlinsky’s music at times resembles Mahler’s; Gotovac’s has the heartiness of Orff’s Carmina Burana (which would not be performed until a few years later).

Since I mentioned Mahler, let me draw attention to two recordings redolent of that era. First is an astonishing recording of some of his best songs, including the five that use Rückert poems. The singer, Christiane Karg, is accompanied with color and sensitivity by Malcolm Martineau. But the truly special experience comes in the final two tracks, where Karg sings along with piano rolls made by Mahler himself in 1905, including “Das himmlische Leben” (also known as the finale of the Fourth Symphony). Mahler hauls the tempo about, and Karg keeps up the pace—is this how we should always perform his music?

The other Mahler-era item is a ballet score by the Hungarian-born composer Ernst von Dohnányi: Der Schleier der Pierrette (Pierrette’s Veil; 1910). OK, it’s not an opera, and indeed has no vocal parts. But it is quite operatic in feeling, and I didn’t want to leave it out! Der Schleier is based on a scenario by the nervy novelist and playwright Arthur Schnitzler, who is today best known for his play Reigen—or La ronde—and for his Dream Novel. This short ballet (officially called a pantomime) involves a classic love triangle, but played out among commedia dell’arte clowns: Pierrot, Pierrette, and Arlecchino. The music is tuneful, full of emotional contrasts, and gorgeously orchestrated. The alert conductor is new to me: a Frenchwoman named Ariane Matiakh.

Simon Rattle has already recorded Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen in an English translation; now he has released a recording (from a semi-staged performance directed by Peter Sellars) in the original Czech, featuring some remarkable singers, notably Lucy Crowe, Sophia Burgos, and, as the Forester, Gerald Finley. The orchestral contribution comes through with particular clarity and specificity, but some listeners will still prefer any of several available recordings that feature native Czech singers, who tend to characterize their roles more sharply and humorously.

I also got to know Hans Werner Henze’s much-praised Der Prinz von Homburg (1960, rev. 1991), though the new recording uses singers who tend to force the voice and wobble. The oldish DVD (featuring baritone François Leroux)—apparently out of print, but copies can be found—remains a better way to get to know this somewhat grim work.

If our opera companies are going to get back on their feet (after the pandemic ends!) and bring audiences back into the halls, one way to do this is to put on operas in our own language. There is a vast advantage in having an English-speaking cast sing in English to an audience consisting largely of native English-speakers. Of course, they can do this by singing Mozart or Debussy (for example) in translation. But there’s something special about operas that were composed directly to an English libretto: we’re hearing exactly the words, with all their specific implications, that the composer had in his or her mind.

This past year brought me recordings of five such works: Norman Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Richard Alwyn’s Miss Julie, Gunther Schuller’s The Fisherman and His Wife, and Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players. Each is based on a pre-existing story, often rather well known—a fact that likewise helps the audience connect to what they’re seeing and hearing. The Dello Joio reenacts the trial of Joan of Arc, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco uses an efficiently condensed version of Oscar Wilde’s most famous play (a witty comedy), the Alwyn is based on an intense and once-renowned play by August Strindberg, the Schuller relies on a Grimm Brothers tale of marital discord and reconciliation, and Floyd’s opera derives from a play that also gave birth to a widely discussed movie, Compleat Stage Beauty (about a seventeenth-century British actor who was forced, by new government regulations, to make the switch from female roles to male ones).

All five works are enormously effective, each in its own way. The Dello Joio, Castelnuovo-Tedeco, and Schuller are all brought to us by Boston’s Odyssey Opera (and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project), under the indefatigable Gil Rose. The Carlisle Floyd comes from Florentine Opera (and the Milwaukee Symphony), under William Boggs. The Alwyn was recorded soon after a concert performance in London’s Barbican center. Nearly all the singers on these recordings put their lines across effectively while maintaining a beautiful, steady vocal line. Taken together, these five releases gave me hope for a future rebirth of operatic activity and creativity in our vast and varied land—and in the wider world with which the USA is, of course, closely interconnected.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His reviews appear in various online magazines, including The Arts FuseNewYorkArts, Naxos Musicology International (accessible to individuals who subscribe to Naxos Music Library or whose library does), and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.