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Arlo Mckinnon
Opera News, November 2012

This Naxos release is a studio recording of the opera, featuring composer Salerni on keyboards, performing as a member of the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble Salerni founded in 2007.

Salerni’s music is enormously flexible and varied in its stylistic references. He moves fluidly from verismo and bel canto through pop and funk…Salerni is convincing and adept in all of these genres. The juxtaposition of so many disparate styles very effectively conveys the clash of the aesthetic beauty of classical music pitted against the station’s rapacious marketing mentality…

This performance of the opera is blessed with a strong cast. Notable performances are offered by Phoebe Fennell as the ghost of Maria Callas, Alison Tupay as the ghost of Tony’s mother and Patricia Risley as the mysterious Dark Woman…Greatest praise, however, is reserved for Eric Fennell in the title role. He brings Tony Caruso to life. Fennell’s charismatic interpretation puts us directly in contact with Tony’s soul. Fennell’s characterization lingers on in the listener’s memory. Jung-Ho Pak leads the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra with energy and precision.

Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast is a strong, heartfelt work… © 2012 Opera News Read complete review

David DeBoor Canfield
Fanfare, July 2011

Normally, I don’t like to review a CD after I’ve already read a review of it by a colleague, but in this case I had read the review by Phillip Scott in Fanfare 34:4 before I found out that I was to also review the same recording. At least I gained one small advantage: I saved myself a couple minutes’ work by copying and pasting the headnote from the earlier review! I will do my best not to retread the ground that colleague Scott has so ably walked, but I will immediately concur in his assessment that this short opera is a lot of fun.

Paul Salerni, whose music I am only becoming acquainted with in the CD under review, is currently the NEH distinguished chair in the humanities and professor of music at Lehigh University, where he teaches composition and theory. He also directs the Lehigh University Very Modern Ensemble, and is founder and artistic director of the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra. He earned his Ph.D. in composition at Harvard, where he studied with Earl Kim, whose music has become a specialty of his. Salerni has received commissions recently from the Cape Cod Symphony, the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, the New Haven Symphony, and the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, so he is obviously a busy fellow who wears several hats successfully.

Since most readers will still have access to Fanfare 34:4, in which the plot of Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast is summarized, I won’t rehash that here, but confine my comments more to the style of the music. Salerni comes out of a long line of American composers who have written accessible and tuneful music. Consequently, I hear strong echoes of any number of his predecessors—composers such as Douglas Moore, Jack Beeson, and Gian Carlo Menotti, to name a few. In the jazz-influenced sections of the present work, Scott hears a kinship to Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. I hear that, too, but I also am reminded of the scene from Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe in which Horace Tabor’s young daughter, Silver Dollar Tabor, is foreseen as becoming what was then known as a woman of ill repute.

I also hear a lot of the pathos present in the music of Menotti at his most serious (e.g., The Medium or The Consul) in this opera, but I am not suggesting that Salerni does not speak with his own voice. He does, and skillfully weaves together a work from a number of musical styles. In his interview with Henry Fogel (also in 34:4), Salerni stated that it was a challenge to do so, but his adroitness in writing in all of these divergent styles has made it come off. Dana Gioia’s libretto has also helped in this regard, as various parts of it easily lend themselves to being set to varying styles of music. The collaboration between composer and librettist has been a productive one, having already generated several works, with others planned. Who knows? We may eventually witness a collaboration that will prove as fruitful as that between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Scott found the singers to be first-rate, and so do I. They sing with such clarity of diction that a libretto is scarcely necessary. The ensemble also plays impeccably, and I would guess that the present recording of this work will be the standard for the foreseeable future. The economy of orchestration that Salerni employs (only 23 players) is hardly noticeable due to his skill in using his forces. This, then, is a work with memorable tunes, colorful and imaginative orchestration, and an interesting storyline that should appeal to anyone with the slightest interest in tonal American opera.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, March 2011

Though by no means a comedy, Paul Salerni’s one-act opera from 2004 is a lot of fun. Enjoyment comes from the neat working out of ideas, both dramatic and musical, the unfolding of the action, the deft way that universal issues are made personal, and the panache with which all this is achieved by Salerni and the forces listed above. Immediate mention must be made of Dana Gioia’s exceptionally tight and well-constructed libretto.

Antonio “Tony” Caruso was a child with a heavenly voice who “never did much with it.” Now, many years later, he is a frustrated opera singer turned radio announcer who fronts a long-running show called Opera Lover. Sadly, the radio station has changed management and the new owners are scrapping Tony’s show to replace it with mindless soft rock. During his final broadcast, the distraught Tony is visited by three ghosts: his mother (“You had a gift from God”), Maria Callas, and ultimately a Dark Woman who entices him to sing with her (namely, the figure of Death). Against this scenario of the dumbing-down of popular culture—an issue near to the hearts of Fanfare readers, no doubt—the opera deals with a time-honored theme of American drama from O’Neill through Sam Shepherd reaching even to the television program Glee: personal failure versus the American Dream of success.

Tony declares himself happy with his job at the radio station, but in a moment of introspection it is revealed that his life has been a litany of missed opportunities. When the ghost of Callas appears to him and invites him to sing with her—his lifelong wish—he dithers. (“Give me a moment. I’m not ready yet.”) Callas describes the difficulties and responsibilities of stardom in a terrific mock-bel canto cantina and cabaletta, but she haughtily leaves Tony to his (literally) fatal indecisiveness.

Callas’s aria is just one of the smart set pieces in Salerni’s opera. Another involves a female trio of Marketing Managers, who sing about how “old hat” the classical repertoire is (“Classical music’s gotta go. / All the surveys tell us so. / Brahms is boring, Bach is dreary,” etc), and claim people would rather tune in to mellow soft rock when they are driving or “scoring.” This lyric encapsulates the currently accepted belief that music is merely an accompaniment for doing something else—a mind-numbing soundtrack to our trivial lives. Interestingly, the Marketing Managers’ music is not in the mellow idiom they are praising. Instead, Salerni gives them an up-tempo, jazzy, close-harmony sound reminiscent of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. I think he does so because this style is more aggressive, but also he ironically points up the ephemeral nature of popular music: Fads come and go, while Bach, Brahms, and company remain constant and fresh.

In a distinctly American way, this work molds a tragedy of operatic proportions out of contemporary issues. A beautiful final duet brings long-awaited transfiguration for Caruso, and again Salerni is shown to have made the right choice in casting Death as a mezzo-soprano: Her warm tones are particularly apt here.

Booklet photographs show the singers taking part in a production, but this 2009 recording was made in a studio. In any event, their stage experience tells. Not only is this performance well sung by everyone—especially tenor Eric Fennell as Tony—it is convincingly acted with all the dramatic points made and words clear. The band is top-notch under Jung-Ho Pak’s confident direction, sound is excellent, and a full libretto is supplied. And, if that weren’t enough, Fanfare reviewer Henry Fogel makes a cameo appearance as the station announcer. I could listen to his dulcet tones all night long.

Ralph V Lucano
American Record Guide, March 2011

The performances are fine, especially Eric Fennell as Tony Caruso…everyone deserves praise, conductor and orchestra included. A very nice way to spend an hour.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Parterre Box, February 2011

I’ve found myself procrastinating endlessly over this review. I’m always excited by the chance to hear recently composed operas, and have a weak spot for the American repertoire.

So I had overly high hopes for Paul Salerni’s Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast. At first listen, I found myself underwhelmed, slightly off put by the blending of genres without a strong commitment in any particular direction.

At repeated listens, however, I found a lot to admire in this delicate score, which is intricately crafted despite some major flaws. Jung-Ho Pak leads the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra in a clear and concise reading. Like many Naxos recordings, the cast is mixed, but overall the voices are strong, the singers young and committed, and the English diction commendable.

Salerni bridges gaps between jazz, opera, and musical theatre, creating music that is decidedly tonal, although never lingering in one genre for very long. This is one of Salerni’s trademarks as a composer, but it makes this work feel a bit unfocused, and it feels hard to digest the piece as whole. The parlando sections come across as the strongest for me, both in the singing and the composition, and where the light orchestration reveals a steady hand. The arias are more mixed, and the singers often fall short.

As Tony Caruso, Eric Fennell veers between extremes. His first aria “I never chose this show” is pitchy and blustery, but his dialogue throughout the opera is clear, the voice youthful and beautiful. The more freely written aria at the end, “Memories of love are midnight’s poison,” shows him in strong form. Throughout the opera he manages to create a convincing portrait of a man looking back at his life. The classical radio station he is working for has been sold, and the new producers will be switching the programming to easy listening and soft rock.

As he presents his final broadcast, he has visions of his mother, Maria Callas, and a mystery woman. Yes, the plot closely resembles A Christmas Carol, as well as the (then unreleased) Prairie Home Companion film. The framework is thin, but is sturdy enough to support librettist Dana Gioia’s journey through Caruso’s psyche.

The most memorable music goes to the marketing trio (Vicki Doney, Val Hawk and Nancy Reed). Drawing on jazz themes and performed by jazz singers, the similarity to Trouble in Tahiti is striking. As they gleefully break the old classical records, riffing on a few big symphonic melodies, their energy threatens to steal the show. There is something odd to me about giving the villains of the piece the most fun and memorable music, but they offset the morose tone of the piece nicely.

The most interesting moments come from singers with tiny parts. Jacquelyn Familant stands out as the Intern, and Jan Opalach manages to convey a complete character in a few short lines. Their dialogue opens the opera, and sets up the premise, musical tone, and major themes. In another sequence presenting Tony’s childhood, a Nun (Disella Larusdottir) and a priest (Keith Phares) discuss the boy’s future.

Many years later, they chat again about the grown Caruso’s stunted singing career, leading into the hymn “Help us bear this load of sorrow.” The radio station crew eventually join in, and finally the marketing trio. This is the only moment in the opera where various voice styles and genre types seem to blend seamlessly, and we get a sense of human struggle, rather than the isolated regrets of a washed-up singer.

Alison Tupay’s easy mezzo makes an easy fit for Tony’s doting mother, although she never has enough Italianette in her voice to convince us that she comes from the old country. Her duet with Tony is a clever bridge between the dramatics of Mascagni and the thinner textures of Claude-Michel Schönberg. The scene ends with a fascinating display of temporal illogic, placing Tony’s vision of his mother, the radio program, and the commentary of the marketing trio all into the same moment.

The only really sour note is Phoebe Fennell as Maria Callas. Asking any singer to sing Callas is perverse, and seems destined for failure. Here we get a dictionless mess, and the role veers into parody with an overly darkened voice and an exaggerated attack (she seems to be channeling the opening of Callas” “In questa reggia”). Gioia’s libretto gives us some rather standard lines about the courage needed to be performer, and Salerni’s deconstruction of the bel canto aria never builds to anything substantial.

Patricia Risely does better as The Dark Woman, a combination of  “every woman that you”ve ever loved.”  Her dark mezzo is particularly lovely in the lower ranges, but the dramatic high notes come out a bit forced. She and Tony sing “Now is the moment,” a lopsided Viennese waltz about the regrets of the past. After she convinces him to give up his past fears and take her as his lover, they close the opera with a fragilely beautiful duet “Only us and only now.”   I can”t help but notice the nods to Bernstein and Glass in these final moments, but Salerni creates a depth that is purely his own.

Even at first listen, I could tell that this would make for a fun night at the theatre. Gioia’s libretto is unusually open to staging possibilities, floating through temporal spaces and dreams. The three female visitors have the potential to form a complex psychological narrative—on a CD they are simply three singers. Opera is obviously not solely an aural art form, and this recording exemplifies the emptiness felt by taking away the visual elements, particularly in a modern work. With abundant female soloists and a scaled down orchestra, Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast seems a natural choice for conservatories and small opera companies.  Naxos has done a real service by creating a clean studio recording, although it will be of most interest to singers, directors, and producers. Go see this one in the theater.

Donald Rosenberg
Gramophone, December 2010

A modern parable about the clash between high art and popular culture

It may have been Tony Caruso’s worst luck to have been born with that surname. He’s a tenor, naturally, who can’t possibly live up to any expectations, and now he’s about to become a dinosaur as a radio announcer. Welcome to Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast, a one-act opera with music by Paul Salerni and libretto by Dana Gioia.

The piece is a commentary on the collapse of sophisticated culture, as classical music radio programmes are replaced by pop formats. Gioia’s text tracks the demise of Caruso and his world in 10 scenes of intriguing psychological interplay. Caruso has visions of his mother and a mysterious woman, as well as an encounter with Maria Callas, who can’t convince him to sing a duet with her.

Salerni’s score is a skillful musical stew, with flavours ranging from bel canto and funk to big band and other styles. With Gioia, the composer has created a series of affecting and stinging episodes, including one in which Supremes-like marketers hail the ringing in of the new (soft rock) at the expense of the old (“Schubert’s a nerd. And once is too much for Beethoven’s Third”).

The recording is generally fine, with strong input from Alison Tupay as Tony’s mother, Jan Opalach as the Engineer and Vicki Doney, Val Hawk and Nancy Reed as the marketing trio. As Tony, Eric Fennell uses his beefy tenor to vibrant effect, though the voice sometimes sounds pushed. Phoebe Fennell’s Callas is shriller than the real singer ever was. Jung-Ho Pak leads the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra in a taut reading of the score.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

A new one-act opera that treads the familiar paths of long established opera traditions from the American composer, Paul Salerni. Running very much in parallel with the American film, A Prairie Home Companion, it tells the story of the failed opera singer, Tony Caruso, who has managed to make a living as the radio presenter of Opera Lover. Now the studio is to be taken over by a popular music show, and tonight he must face the fact that this is his final programme. During the three hours the show lasts, he hallucinates, at first imagining his mother is in the studio, her presence filling in the story of his past. Then the ghost of Maria Callas arrives to sing a duet with him, but when given that chance he does not have the nerve to do it. Finally, The Dark Woman arrives - it is a woman in white in the film - and it is she who takes him finally out of the studio. Even the fact that a ‘pop’ group advertising the new station are on hand to space out the action, the opera lasts for not much more than fifty minutes. It calls for ten solo singers, a vocal ‘pop’ trio and a chamber orchestra, and was given its world premiere in Los Angeles in 2008. Born in the States in 1951 Salerni was a pupil of Earl Kim, and presently works as a lecturer, conductor and pianist. His style is in the mainstream of modern tonality following in line with the Samuel Barber era. The two major scenes come with big arias from Eric Fennell as Tony and Phoebe Fennell who gives a passable impression of Callas. Salerni proves too good at writing ‘pop’ music for the good of his story, the group, 3Spirit, being one of the highlights of the performance.

Stephen Eddins, November 2010

Paul Salerni’s Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast won the National Opera Association Chamber Opera competition in 2007. The libretto by poet Dana Gioia sets the opera in a radio station scheduled to drop its classical programming for an easy listening format and depicts its final classical show, Opera Lover, hosted by Tony Caruso, a tenor with a failed career. The opera addresses the tragedy of being forced to look back on a life of promise unfulfilled, opportunities missed, and possibilities squandered; in short, the nightmare that just about every human over a certain age has pondered to at least some degree, if not to the agonizing extent that Tony Caruso does. Much of the opera is devoted to Tony’s revisiting painful memories and to fantasies that torment him, but he achieves a kind of redemption at the end by embracing death in the form of a woman who seductively calls to him to abandon life and all its grief. In spite of the grim theme, the composer and librettist treat it with a light hand, and the message that comes across most strongly is that things may be unbearable now, but at least there is the hope that death will bring blessed relief. Salerni’s eclectic score is essentially neo-Romantic, but it also encompasses varieties of jazz, lite rock, bel canto opera, and Latin chant. Some of the most engaging music is for an irreverent women’s jazz trio that functions something like the trio in Trouble in Tahiti, and the closing music with Tony and Death has a lyrical Romantic sweep. The opera is strongly and originally constructed, and it should be of interest to companies looking for contemporary one-act pieces. It receives solid if not spectacular performances from a cast led by tenor Eric Fennell in the title role and the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra, led by Jung-Ho Pak. Naxos’ sound is detailed, with good separation, but the singers sound a little distant.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group