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Joel Kasow
Fanfare, October 2009

…this is a noteworthy release showing the versatility of conductor Riccardo Muti. Only the Poulenc has not previously been reviewed in Fanfare, so that one can dispatch the two other operas relatively quickly. I enthusiastically reviewed the Donizetti [Don Pasquale] in 31:2, Nov./Dec. 2007, and am still appreciative. The production is traditional in the best sense of the word; Muti’s affection is clear and he is surrounded by an excellent cast. As I wrote at the time, “Ferrucio Furlanetto is not the dodgy geezer but a sprightly 70-year-old, as Pasquale himself admits. Lucio Gallo’s Malatesta makes a better job of his coloratura than most other baritones today…Nuccia Focile sings up a storm and plays her role(s) to perfection.” Gregory Kunde was at his best in 1994 to our delight, while the Scala forces are at their best. Patrizia Carmine’s filming is unobtrusive.

Manon Lescaut was last reviewed by Bob Rose in 29:3, Jan./Feb. 2006, when this same performance was given a passing note. I would be more enthusiastic, finding Muti an energizing force, while José Cura is devastating as Des Grieux. I am less enthusiastic about Maria Guleghina’s Manon, with memories of Renata Scotto in a Met DVD with Domingo and conducted by Levine circulating in my mind’s eye and ears. Once again, a traditional production staged by Liliana Cavani (also responsible for the filming) allows us to appreciate the work in its own right, unlike the Chemnitz aberration I reviewed in March 2009.

Dialogues des Carmélites is one of the 20th century’s most successful operas…Muti provides one of the most dynamic readings of the score I have heard, but also lets the poetry through to full effect. The cast is to be commended for the clarity of their French, almost entirely comprehensible without subtitles—astounding, considering the heterogeneousness of the cast. Dagmar Schellenberger’s Blanche projects the fear, the faith, the simplicity of the character. Laura Aikin…is the soubrette Constance, whose faith is undiminished to the end. Anja Silja’s First Prioress is an astounding portrayal dramatically, far more mobile than is customary…Gwynne Geyer’s Second Prioress is not entirely the homespun personality of the libretto, but her singing of the two arias that devolve to her is most moving. Barbara Dever’s Mère Marie is a total success astride the difficult vocal writing (a cross between Tosca and Amneris). Gordon Gietz and Christopher Robertson as Blanche’s brother and father function on the same level as the women.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, June 2009

Don Pasquale is the gem of the set, magnificent to look at and to listen to.  Like the others, the production is safely traditional, but with some lovely touches.  The costumes are well realised and the scene changes are managed with outstanding skill, down to the scene in the kitchen with the hilarious servants poring over their steaming pots, strings of sausages dangling from the ceiling.  The singing is really outstanding, each artist inhabiting their role and drawing good acting as well as great singing.  Feruccio Furlanetto dazzles in the title role.  In this country we are more used to him in serious roles like Verdi’s Fiesco or Philip II and it is easy to forget that he cut his teeth as a buffo baritone.  Seeing him here marks him out as one of the true greats in this repertoire.  He is comical in expression and quite marvellous in the quick-fire patter numbers, but there is an overarching authority and even sympathy to his role so that this Pasquale is not a ridiculous, bumbling oaf but a three-dimensional character with feelings.  Norina’s slap in the first scene of Act 2 is a real turning point, after which he seems truly humbled.  Focile herself is a close-to-perfect Norina.  Her bright, clear soprano is ideally suited to the register and she masters the coquettish style that makes her so winning in her first aria.  She isn’t averse to portraying Norina’s cruel side either, particularly as she takes over the household in Act 2.  Lucio Gallo is a roguish, appealing Malatesta with an exciting, virile baritone that oozes tongue-in-cheek humour in a very winning way.  Likewise, Gregory Kunde is a revelation as Ernesto: his warm, honeyed tone marks him out as one of the most mellifluous of bel canto tenors, providing a uniquely distinctive contribution to the ensemble passages.  He turns on the pathos for his lament at the start of Act 2, but is all sensuous abandon in Act 3.  In fact, the garden scene is the highlight of the performance: Com’é gentil is beautifully smooth, drifting in from a well-placed acoustic, and the two lovers’ voices blend delightfully in Tornami a dir.  The ensembles crackle along delightfully and Muti’s control of the orchestra is flexible and warm rather than dictatorial.

This Manon Lescaut is—I presume—the same performance released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.  It was not well received when it was released, but I found this performance very enjoyable and it scores above the CD on several accounts.  For one thing the CD was criticised for its poor balance which favours the singers while drowning out the orchestra, but that is broadly solved with DTS sound.  Furthermore Liliana Cavani’s production is a delight to look at, solidly traditional with sumptuous sets and period costumes.  Geronte’s house in Act 2 is a feast of Baroque furniture and fashion, while Act 3 is presided over by an enormous hulk of a prison ship.  This lack of “interpretation” is quite refreshing, and I really enjoyed the performances too.  True, Maria Guleghina’s massive voice is rather short on vulnerability, and during Act 1 it sounds as if the part is being sung by a trainee Isolde, but she rises to the drama of the great duet in Act 2, and I found her very moving in the death scene.  Similarly, Cura will get few marks for subtlety, but he scores high on romantic ardour.  His dark tenor is quite well suited to the part of Des Grieux, particularly during his reproaches in Act 2, and his performance in the Act 3 roll call scene is storming.  Lucio Gallo, always excellent, is a beautiful sounding but roguish Lescaut who you clearly wouldn’t trust an inch, and Luigi Roni’s Geronte is quietly malicious.  The smaller roles, especially the cameos of Act 2, are all taken very well.  The orchestral playing is top notch too and Muti seldom takes his foot off the pedal: the climaxes in Act 4 sound positively nuclear!  This may not stand up to some of the great performances on CD, but don’t dismiss it out of hand as there is plenty on the DVD to enjoy and a great deal that is very valuable indeed.

The performance of Carmelites is significant and very strong without quite being great.  The opera was premiered at La Scala in 1957 in Italian and Robert Carsen’s 2004 production is clearly set in the revolutionary period while also managing to hint at abstraction.  Costumes are traditional and there is no scenery whatever: instead each setting is suggested with a few subtly placed items of furniture, though the sparseness definitely lends raw muscle to the most powerful scenes, such as the death of the old Prioress—on a camp bed surrounded by a circle of prostrate sisters. It also applies to the final execution with nuns dressed in white, dancing symbolically, cut down one by one by the invisible blade.  There are some very striking images too, such as the line of black-veiled nuns that divides the stage in two for Blanche’s Act 2 meeting with her brother, so visually there are no complaints and plenty of things to praise.  On the whole the ensemble of singers is very good indeed.  The nuns blend beautifully, and in the corps there is no stand-out, which is quite appropriate given the context.  Mother Marie and Madame Lidoine radiate authority in quite different ways, but the standout performance is Laura Aikin’s Sister Constance who sings with rapt, visionary passion and simple beauty.  She has great acting to match.  Great acting is also the chief virtue of Anja Silja’s performance as the Old Prioress.  She commands the stage with an adamantine presence from the moment she walks on stage until the final throes of her agonising death scene.  In 2004 the voice still had some heft—something sadly missing from her recent turn as the witch in Covent Garden’s Hansel and Gretel— and a good deal of secure vocal tone. That said, she was in her decline, as evidenced by some slightly shaky top notes and an unpleasant shrillness that runs throughout her register.  Dagmar Schellenberger’s Blanche is, alas, also rather shrill.  She has the measure of the character’s insecurity and, often, blind panic, but she cannot quite connect with her serenity and the beauty of much of the writing.  Her appearance in the final scene was fine, but there was none of the exaltation that this moment should surely induce.  Muti conducts like he is trying to set off a bomb under the score: the climaxes are thrustful and exciting while some of the more mellow moments sound distinctly un-French.  Still, I enjoyed this disc a lot and it’s definitely one to set alongside Nagano’s fantastic CD recording from Lyon.

So some good performances in good surround sound at a very attractive price.  A good choice if you want any of these operas, and it’s cheaper than purchasing them all separately.

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