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On the Aisle



CD & DVD Reviews: Berlioz: Cantatas (Naxos), Bizet: Carmen (Naive), de Séverac: Piano Music, Massenet: Manon (Cohen, 1928), Dvorak: Rusalka (TDK DVD), Massenet: Manon (TDK DVD)

By Philip Anson / March 4, 2004
On the Aisle

Hector Berlioz: Cantatas
Jean-Claude Casadesus / Orchestre National de Lille
Naxos 8.555810 (60.45)
4 stars $

An excellent concept to group Berlioz’s Prix de Rome Cantatas on one CD. The native French singers all do justice to these difficult sustained declamations written to fit the academic requirements of France’s top music composition competition. French soprano Michèle Lagrange is dramatic and passionate in the “lyric scene” Herminie (1828). Beatrice Uria-Monzon brings a colourful, plush mezzo to La Mort de Cléopatre (1829). French tenor Daniel Galvez Vallejo applies a cloudy but powerful voice to the “monologue and bacchanale” La Mort d’Orphée (1827) and to the surviving 5-minute fragment of the cantata La Mort de Sardanaple (1830). Recorded in 1994-1995, the Orchestre National de Lille plays with requisite detail and drama. Slight audio problems - buffeting the microphone, the conductor’s grunting and huffing - lose this project one star. Notes and artist bios in English, German. Song texts in French, English.

Bizet: Carmen
Seiji Ozawa / Orchestre National de France
Decca 289 470 417-2 (3 CD)
3 stars $$

This all-star 1988 Carmen (captured on CD and video) demonstrates the danger of casting by fame alone. Most of the singers on this disc were household names or at the height of the powers, but not all were ideal for the roles they were given. Jessye Norman’s Carmen is controversial. She has a gorgeous instrument but her diction is precious and every syllable in the vocal line is manipulated. Her torchy inflections and menacing stamping would suit a Salomé equally well. Yet there is something fascinating about such shamelessly affected artistry. Mirella Freni’s Micaëla is remarkably fresh for a 53-year old, but still her age tells, the voice frays around the edges, and one regrets a younger voice wasn’t employed. Simon Estes’s Escamillo is better than most, but sounds a bit hollow and old. Neil Shicoff’s Don José is impassioned, not to say overwrought. The core of the voice is thrilling, but he wallows in emotion. His and Freni’s spoken French is stilted. The rest of the cast (Jean-Louis Courtis, Nicolas Rivencq) are more confident. Ozawa’s conducting is slow and lush in Shicoff’s and Norman’s arias, but brisk in ensembles and choruses. The Orchestre National de France is marvellously responsive. The Chœurs de Radio France is exemplary, clear and pointed. The packaging of Decca’s mid-price Compact Opera Collection is problematic. It eliminates the paper booklet but offers libretto and 4 language translation on the “enhanced” cds via one’s computer. But of course you can’t read the libretto while playing the cd on the stereo. Decca gives you the option to print the libretto, but the cost of paper and ink, not to mention the inconvenience, negates the mid-price savings. Spreading the opera over 3 CDs (one per act) is extravagant.

Bizet: Carmen
Alain Lombard / Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine
Naive V4964 (2CD)
2 stars $$$

This disappointing Carmen was recorded in Bordeaux in 1994. The cast is weak. French mezzo Beatrice Uria-Monzon has a light, pleasant instrument but she lacks personality (her “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” is blandly subdued). Tenor Christian Papis’s Don José is clunky and unidiomatic. His “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” is creaky and feeble. Romanian soprano Leontina Vaduva is miscast as Micaëla. Her Slavic sound is too thick and sharp for the ingenue role. Vincent le Texier’s Escamillo is a cipher. His “Toast” aria sounds geriatric. Lombard’s conducting is not bad and the band plays well, but without a cast, what’s the point?

Déodat de Séverac: Piano Music
Jordi Masó, piano
Naxos 8.555855 (67.58)
5 stars $

French composer Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921) was born in southwest France and studied at the Schola Cantorum in Paris with d’Indy, Magnard, and later with Albéniz. His thematic homeland is the arid Mediterranean coast of Provence and Cataluña, and the Franco-Spanish borderlands of the Pyrenees. In “Cerdaña: Five Picturesque Studies” (1908-11) and “En Languedoc” (1903-4) one savours Déodat’s pastoral Impressionism, evocative of the glittering light and shade, emotional gaiety and mystery of Debussy, as well as the more calculated keyboard winsomeness of Ravel. Spanish pianist Jordi Masó limns these musical oils and aquarelles with grace and sensitivity. The 2001 recording is studio perfect. Highly recommended.

Jules Massenet: Manon
Elie Cohen / Opéra-Comique, Paris (1928-1929)
Naxos 8.110203-04 (2 CD-141.34)
5 stars $

Recorded between December 1928 and March 1929, this is a delicious memento of golden age French opéra-comique singing. The Franco-Belgian cast sets a standard for clear and pointed diction. The ensembles are tight and spirited and every word is intelligible. Soloists are exceptionally good. Germaine Féraldy is a pert, fresh-voiced Manon. Though her “Petite table” aria is perfunctory compared to the way divas milk it today, she has feather-light coloratura and a real trill. “Je march sur tous les chemins” is capped with an incredibly pure high note. The rest of the cast is strong: Georges Villier’s Lescaut, Emile de Creuse’s Guillot, and Franco-Ukranian tenor Joseph Rogatchewsky’s bright, clear, personable-sounding Des Grieux. This is one of the best-preserved opera recordings of the era, almost free of surface noise, with only brief distortion in loud ensembles. Ward Marston’s restoration is excellent. Despite about 20 minutes of cuts, this opera is highly recommended for all lover’s of fine singing.

Dvorak: Rusalka
James Conlon / Opéra National de Paris
TDK DVUS-OPRUS (2 DVD- 155 min)
5 stars $$$

American soprano Renée Fleming remains a great Rusalka, to judge by this new DVD recorded at the Paris Opera (Bastille) in June 2002. Her smooth, plummy voice has an oblique, cloudy tone which suits the opera’s mysterious atmosphere. Her slightly lumpen acting fits a nymph struggling to survive on land for the first time. The other star of the show is Russian mezzo Larissa Diadkova as the sexy camp Jezibaba. Also fine are Franz Hawlata as the paternal Water Spirit, Sergei Larin as the Prince, and Eva Urbanova as the Foreign Princess. The production by Canadian-born Robert Carsen is a slick, gorgeous, Freudian updating of the mythological fable. Carsen replaces ponds, forests, and lily pads with crisp, Art Decoish interiors. The characters are linked with elements (Ruslaka-Water, Jezibaba-Fire, Prince-Earth). Rusalka’s story is revealed as an allegory of a pubescent girl’s coming of age, a rite of passage from innocent pastoral chidlhood into adult sexual knowledge. Instead of gazing from the outside at the Prince’s chateau, Rusalka longs to enter his bedroom. She licks the life-changing “potion” from Jezibaba’s bloody knife - a symbol of menstruation and loss of virginity - prefigured in the moon imagery and the famous aria. When Rusalka falls in love with the Prince, her loss of voice symbolizes woman’s oppression in marriage. Carsen is a master of stagecraft, using reflections, mirror-images, and the shadows of rippling water in beautiful, fascinating ways. James Conlon’s conducting is assured and passionate. The audio and video quality is top notch, as one expects of a François Roussillon production originally filmed for French TV. Highly recommended.

Jules Massenet: Manon
Jesus Lopez-Cobos / Opéra National de Paris
TDK DVUS-OPMANON (2 DVD - 164 min)
4 stars $$$

This DVD, filmed at the Opéra de Paris (Bastille) in June 2001 as a co-production with French television, represents a contemporary audience’s ideal Manon. The raison d’être and selling point is American soprano Renée Fleming in the title role. Unfortunately, when the camera zooms in, there is no mistaking the 42-year old American for a teenage French nymph. As for characterization, I prefer Manons who are fun-loving and basically innocent, at least at the start. Alas, Fleming’s Manon is a cunning tart from the get go, half-Lolita, half Mae West. In the Cours-la-Reine scene, her “Profitons” aria sounds like the advice of an old auntie, not the effusiuon of a “jeune fille en fleur” actually enjoying her existence. On the bright side, the ballet is a splendidly costumed and bewigged evocation of Louis XIV’s courtly pageants. Marcelo Alvarez is a chubby, smooth-voiced Des Grieux who seems uncomfortable in his peruke and breeches. Jean-Luc Chaignaud is a strong, serviceable Lescaut. The veteran Michel Senechal is a funny, decrepit Guillot de Mortefontaine. The 1997 Deflo production serrves its purpose, with space-defining minimal elements of stage furniture and splendid period costumes. Conducting by Jesus Lopez-Cobos is fine, despite gum-chewing musicians in the pit. Audio and video capture and editing by Francois Roussillion are excellent. Fleming fans and anyone not obsessed by historical recordings and authentic style will be happy with this quality product.


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001 and Philip Anson