Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Favorites of 2013: Music

Happy New Year! I'd like to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new with the final installment of my Favorites of 2013: Music.

Live performances

Tales of Hoffmann, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, June 5:

Christian Van Horn in Tales of Hoffmann (Photo: Weaver/SF Opera)
This is exactly what I'd love to see more of at the San Francisco Opera: A striking production of an uncommon opera (Hoffmann was last performed at SFO in 1996) with a superb cast. Laurent Pelly's visually arresting staging of Offenbach's late masterwork employed the recent critical edition of the score edited by Michael Kaye. Kaye's edition restores much material in this frequently cut and rearranged opera—particularly in the prologue and epilogue, making the Muse's transformation into Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse and back much more dramatically coherent.

The cast was virtually flawless: it featured tenor Matthew Polenzani as an ardent Hoffmann, thrillingly sinister bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the four villains, the lovely (and lovely-voiced) mezzo Angela Brower as the Muse/Nicklausse, the (almost literally) stratospheric Hye Jung Lee as the doll Olympia, and Natalie Dessay as the tragic Antonia. It's difficult to imagine a more compelling production of this dark, eerie, and beautiful work. (See my full review here.)

Teseo, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Herbst Theater, April 11:

Dominique Labelle and Valerie Vinzant in Teseo (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Speaking of superb casts in rarely-performed works, this semi-staged version of Handel's 1713 opera was a delight. Dominique Labelle was a standout with her fierce performance as the sorceress Medea (yes, that one), but the rest of the cast was also very fine, especially the women: Amanda Forsythe as the heroic Teseo (Theseus, a role originally written for the castrato Valeriano Pellegrini), Céline Ricci as the flirtatious Clizia, and Valerie Vinzant as Teseo's steadfast lover Agilea. (Vinzant was such a last-minute substitute that our programs only named the soprano originally scheduled for the role—there wasn't even an insert—but she was so assured that you would never have known.) The cast and orchestra under the leadership of Nicholas McGegan gave a vividly rewarding account of this unjustly neglected Handel opera.

Missa Salisburgensis
, American Bach Soloists, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 13:

This mass of celebration composed by Heinrich Biber for the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the archbishopric of Salzburg is, well, massive. It has 53 parts for voices and instruments, divided into eight groups plus continuo. Given its sheer scale, it's no wonder the mass is so rarely programmed. American Bach Soloists' performance of the work, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, practically lifted us out of our seats. This rehearsal video recorded by the San Francisco Classical Voice will give you a sense of what we experienced (especially if you boost the volume a bit):


Vivaldi: Ercole sul Termodonte. Rolando Villazón (Ercole), Joyce DiDonato (Ippolita), Vivica Genaux (Antiope), Romina Basso (Teseo), Patrizia Ciofi (Orizia), Diana Damrau (Martesia), Philippe Jaroussky (Alceste), Topi Lehtipuu (Telamone). Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi, conductor; Virgin Classics.

Talk about luxury casting: all the roles on this amazing recording are taken not only by first-rate singers, but by major international stars. And while this opera may not quite have the emotional depth of, say, Handel's best works, it is filled with scintillating, virtuosic music, brilliantly realized by the cast and Europa Galante under the direction of Fabio Biondi. Now if only some enterprising opera company would consider getting these singers together onstage and not just in a recording studio...

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin. Thomas Allen (Onegin), Mirella Freni (Tatiana), Anne Sofie von Otter (Olga), Neil Shicoff (Lensky). Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon.

This operatic version of Pushkin's narrative poem may be Tchaikovsky's greatest work. In my full-length posts on the Letter Scene and the Duel from this opera, I wrote "Levine's lush, passionate approach is highly effective, and the cast is excellent (even if none of the principals is Russian)."

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater. Julia Lehzneva and Philippe Jaroussky. I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis, conductor; Erato.

Composed by Pergolesi in the final months of his tragically short life, Stabat Mater has become his best-known work. If you are not already familiar with this gorgeous music (and even if you are), I recommend seeking out this new recording. The voices of Lezhneva and Jaroussky blend beautifully, and Fasolis' tempos are well-judged. Here is the opening duet, which imagines the grieving Mary standing at the foot of the cross:

Arias for Caffarelli. Franco Fagioli. Il Pomo d'Oro, Riccardo Minasi, conductor; Naïve.

For the soundtrack of the film Farinelli (1994), the voice of the famous castrato was approximated by electronically combining the voices of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and coloratura soprano Ewa Godlewska. Had Franco Fagioli been available, the filmmakers could have spared themselves the trouble. On this album of pieces written for Farinelli's chief rival Caffarelli, Argentinian countertenor Fagioli displays an astonishingly wide range and can sing coloratura with an almost Cecilia Bartoli-like intensity.

Also like Bartoli, Fagioli will be an acquired taste for some. When I first heard his voice, I compared it to an Islay single malt scotch for its smoky, dusky quality in the lower range. Decide for yourself: here is the opening track from his Arias for Caffarelli album, "Fra l'orror della tempesta" from Johann Hasse's Siroe:

I applaud Fagioli's decision to seek out works by lesser-known composers such Cafaro, Sarro, and Manna. Interestingly, he does not include arias by either Handel (Caffarelli created the title role in Serse (1738)) or Gluck (he sang Sextus in that composer's La Clemenza di Tito (1752), to the same libretto later set by Mozart). Arias for Caffarelli is a wonderful album, and we'll definitely be watching for Fagioli in the future.

Stephen Sondheim: Company. Book by George Furth; direction and musical staging by John Doyle. Image.

This DVD records the 2006 revival of Sondheim's groundbreaking musical, and was originally broadcast on PBS as part of the Great Performances series. As he did in his 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, director John Doyle strips down the musical accompaniment and has the actors playing instruments onstage—which heightens the intimacy of this ensemble work. Up until this year I had known Company only from a cassette tape I was given in college of the original Broadway cast album, which has received hundreds of plays over the years. Seeing the show onstage made me realize for the first time how formally inventive and funny it is. Raúl Esparza gives a strong performance as Bobby, the 35-year-old protagonist who resists his married friends' attempts to fix him up, but still yearns for connection:

Incidentally, three of my five favorite recordings from 2013 were gifts—many thanks again to the givers (you know who you are)!

More Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood, Contemporary Bollywood, Movies, Books

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