, February 2009
As usual, I set out first to test the claims made in the blurb on the rear insert, that this is ‘an important and entertaining…opera [which] abounds in melodious, often ravishingly orchestrated, music.’ More crucially, do the performances do justice to the music?
Certainly the music is very attractive—listen to track 28 of CD1 Ricordati, ben mio (‘Remember, o my beloved’) for some of the finest baroque music—though the opera has its moments of longueur and there is no doubt that posterity has been correct in preferring Telemann and Handel. If you have already become familiar with their music, however, Fredegunda is well worth trying.
The opening Sonata goes with a real swing in this performance; there’s no stodginess here, but rather the kind of abandon at the start which I associate with modern Italian performances of baroque music. On the other hand, there’s enough contrast between the sections to avoid the problem of having everything too hurried…
Dora Pavlíková as Fredegunda begins her opening recitative in fiery mood, too: at first she sounds almost too fiery to hit the notes securely, but soon settles down, especially in the aria Du verlachtest die Tränen (‘you mocked my tears’, CD1, track 3). After all, Fredegunda is a fiery character and she is chiding Chilperich for preferring Galsuinde—she opens the recitative by referring to him as Grausamer, ‘awful man’, and ends the ensuing aria by referring to his undoing their relationship mit deiner falschen Hand ‘with your faithless hand’.
Tomi Wendt’s Chilperich comes over as penny plain to Pavlíková’s twopenny coloured Fredegunda—I might have preferred him to be a little more sonorous and her a little less squally, but, again, this is not inappropriate to their roles—Chilperich is something of a wimp at this stage. By the time that we come to Fredegunda’s arias on tracks 20, (Ihr reizende Blicke, ‘your ravishing looks’) and 22, (Schließet euch, ihr holde Kerzen, ‘be extinguished, dearest candles’) Pavlíková is in much more mellifluous voice and Wendt’s Chilperich much firmer-toned. By track 24 (Zur Rache! ‘Revenge!’) both the character and Wendt’s voice have come much more to life.
The first notable aria is Galsuinde’s Lasciami piangere, ‘let me weep’ (CD1, track 7), and Bianca Koch sings it well. I might have preferred her to bring out its beauty a little more lovingly; it is, of course, a lament, but laments don’t have to be entirely squally. Galsuinde has some of the finest music—and the aria Ricordati, ben mio (CD1, tr.28), to which I have already referred as some of the finest baroque music, is sung by Koch in a manner which could hardly be bettered.
Michael Kranebitter as Sigibert, too, sings attractively, if a little too forthrightly: in his recitative Ich kann ja wohl die Zähren nicht verdammen (‘I cannot condemn the tears’, track8) he almost seems to have two different registers, one more attractive than the other. His diction is not exactly ideal: so keen is he to bring out the drama of his words that he sometimes fails to enunciate them perfectly. His aria Ich muß schweigend von dir gehen (‘I must be silent and leave you’, track 16) did not affect me as it should…
Katja Stuber as Bazina also has an attractive voice; in her first scene (track 9), however, she is slightly out-sung by Tomo Matsubara as Hermenegild. His voice has an attractive timbre, though his diction, too, is not perfect—he is not a native German-speaker. His aria Eine stolze Hand zu küssen (tr.11) illustrates both the attractiveness of his voice and his comparative failures of enunciation. If Stuber is a little reticent here, she is certainly in fine and powerful voice by track 30, giving Fredegunda as good as she gets in Du drohest und rasest (You threaten and rave). By this point, too, Kranebitter’s Sigibert has also warmed up somewhat; though I still found him a little too droopy in Ach betrachte doch die Wangen (tr.35 ‘Just look upon her cheeks’), his account of Mich schrecket kein Eifer, ich achte kein Drohen (tr.37, ‘Your overbearing threats do not frighten me’) is just right.
Tobias Haaks as Landerich is perhaps a little too forthright in the recitatives but he sings Ach, ich will viel lieber sterben (tr. 44, ‘Ah, I would much rather die’) in such a way as to make it one of the highlights of the first CD, almost at its close. If, as I suspect, the Chilperich-Fredegunda duet Vieni, o cara, o mio Tesoro (tr.48, ‘Come, my dear, my treasure’) which closes CD1, is meant to outshine Landerich—the few arias in Italian are some of the highlights of the music—it doesn’t succeed here: their singing sounds merely very decent by comparison, though they round off the act and the disc stylishly enough.
Matters are much the same on CD2, which begins quietly with the duet of Galsuinde and Bazina, Sanfte Lüfte (‘Gentle breezes’). There is some intrusive stage noise here—much than on CD1—and in the ensuing scene. Bazina’s aria Ein Sklav’ ist mehr beglückt (tr.3, ‘a slave has greater fortune’) is a little underpowered. If Kranebitter is the weak link on CD1, he atones somewhat in Sigibert’s duet with Galsuinde (tr.5), though he is still a little too lugubrious and Koch’s Galsuinde still a little shrill.
Pavlíková’s Fredegunda, too, is just a little too shrill for my taste in Vieni a me (tr.7, ‘Come to me’) by contrast with the delicate accompaniment. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but she does seem to tone down the shrillness for the repeat of this aria (tr.11).
Wendt’s Childerich is in much better voice than he was on the earlier part of CD1. His aria threatening to react with slaughter of his foes, Con le stragi (tr.13) goes with quite a bang, as does Haaks in Landerich’s Da voi fieri guerrieri (tr.15, ‘Your beauteous eyes, proud warriors’). Both these Italian arias are among the high points of the opera, and both receive good performances.
Fredegunda’s invocation of Hecate (tr.17) is another high spot and here Pavlíková is in almost ideal voice despite some unusually intrusive stage noise. Yet she is able to achieve real tenderness a few moments after this outburst in Ach, nenne mich doch nur noch einmal Königin (tr.19, ‘Oh, let me just once more be called the queen’).
Matsubara really manages to convey Hermenegild’s indecision (tr.21, Ach nein, ich kann nicht entscheiden, ‘Ah. No, I cannot decide’) and does so with fewer problems of diction than before. Paradoxically, Kranebitter’s diction in Su’l mio crine (tr.23, ‘I shall be crowned with love’) is less than ideal.
Wendt, in Childerich’s aria bidding fortune do its worst, Weich immerhin zurück (tr.25) is affective, though not entirely tonally secure. Koch is equally affective and in better voice in Felice moriró (tr.30 ‘I shall die happy’). The whole opera is rounded off by a suitably jubilant performance of the short fifth act.
This, then, is not a ‘Sunday-best’ cast but it is a good, often very good, workaday one. It’s certainly good enough for me to predict that I shall return to it—and I shall follow with interest the careers of these singers, mostly still in their twenties.
Christoph Hammer’s direction is secure; his own solo keyboard performances have clearly prepared him well to lead the Munich Neue Hofkapelle. Though founded in 1992 to specialise in historically informed performances, their playing offers baroque music without any of the excesses which sometimes spoiled period performances in earlier days and still sometimes intrude where one least expects it—on Jordi Savall’s rather strident, but still enjoyable, version of Biber’s Missa Bruxellensis (AV9808) for example. Some of the accompaniment here is really sensitive, as in the case of Fredegunda’s aria Vieni a me (‘Come to me’, CD2, tr.7).
Apart from some very minimal stage noise and applause at the end of each CD, there is little to indicate that the recording was made live. That it was so helps in part to explain why some of the singers are a little slow off the mark at the beginning—in a studio performance, of course, there could have been retakes to round off some of the slightly rough edges. The recording itself is neutral in the best sense of the word.