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Massenet: Werther

Kent Nagano's rapid reading of Massenet's retelling of Goethe offers a no-nonsense approach to what is sometimes the ultimate in tear-jerkers. The restraint pays off in a powerful reading in which the conductor is pre-eminent. The Lyons forces once again show that they are capable of a wide variety of orchestral color suitable to what once might have been considered mutually exclusive corners of the repertoire. Jerry Hadley in the title role displays little of the vocal distress to which he was prone at the time of the recording: there is almost nothing for which he might be subject to reproach in terms of obedience to a score, but it is difficult to feel a character behind the notes. Anne Sofie von Otter's Charlotte is perhaps a bit too controlled at the start, which may be one approach to the role, but once she lets loose in Acts 3 and 4 the effect is overwhelming. Dawn Upshaw's Sophie rounds out a trio of non-French principals with a performance that captures the adolescence of the character without cloying. One might wish for a more dynamic Albert than the reticent Gérard Théruel, but the remainder of the cast is excellent. The recording is very much of the "in your face" school so that my normally impervious cats jumped up at the start.

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Rimsky-Korsakov: The Maid of Pskov (Ivan the Terrible)

Once again the Kirov comes to the rescue with an up-to-date recording of a rare Rimsky opera: The Maid of Pskov was originally written at the same work table at which Mussorgsky composed Boris Godunov, but was later subjected to two revisions. The character of the music retains the austere quality associated with Mussorgsky even in the version presented here, the 1895 revision. Gorchakova is in better shape than on recent recordings, explained by the fact that the opera was taped at live performances in 1994. Galusin is in good voice, properly heroic, but the timbre may not be to everyone's liking. The matter-of-fact Ognovienko as Ivan the Terrible is efficient, but not particularly flamboyant in a role that calls out for excess. Let us not forget that it was one of Chaliapin's vehicles (and Ivan only appears in two out of six scenes). Valery Gergiev elicits all that is in the score for our benefit, supporting the large cast and at the same time in control of the vast choral scene that terminates Act 1. The influence of each of the composers on the other is manifest at the close of Act 1 with the pealing of the bells, though Rimsky's are to summon the populace. While we may prefer the composer in his folkloric excursions, this is definitely a work worth investigating.

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Puccini: Arias

The new tenor sensation's first recording offers reassurance that exciting voices are still to be found, but at the same time offers matter for concern with the tenor's tendency to "puff up" his voice in the middle range to give it more body, something already noticed in live performance: (Il Cosaro). This curiously assembled disk of tenor arias and short fragments allows Cura to display a carressing pianissimo when appropriate but also ringing high notes. Domingo at the helm is a guarantee of sympathetic accompaniments. Recommended for lovers of Puccini or of exciting tenor voices.

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Renée Fleming Great Opera Scenes

Renée Fleming was duly honored by the late Georg Solti who offered to conduct a recital disc for her, something usually shunned by conductors of his stature and which he had never previously done (other than a Chicago Opera gala now reissued on Decca). In largely congenial material, most of which she has sung on stage, Fleming demonstrates an artistry of which few listeners have been in doubt. Tatiana's Letter Scene is preceded by the dialogue with Filipievna (but why not that after the aria as well?), expressively sung by Larissa Diadkova who also supplies Emilia's few remarks to Desdemona. Personal favorites are the Rusalka aria - a Fleming calling card - which benefits from a sumptuous voice, the Otello scene and Ellen's aria from Peter Grimes, rarely encountered in similar circumstances. Despite quibbles in various publications about the slow tempi in the first aria of the Countess, it is no slower than many other versions preserved on disc. The only selection in which the soprano seems not to be entirely at home is the sole opera she has not yet sung on stage, Daphne's transformation. Solti's direction is loving but forceful.

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Pergolesi: Stabat Mater

Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" may be one of the more recorded works of its period, and is available in all sorts of versions from those with modern orchestras to period orchestras to chamber formations like that on hand. Gérard Lesne's approach might be qualified in some circles as "fussy", but to these ears it sounds appropriate for his small-scale reading. Véronique Gens has her own style but blends ideally with Lesne in the many duets. Lesne's "Salve Regina" is sung in the same style but manages to be devout at the same time. A Sinfonia a tre fills out the disc, enabling us to hear some of the music utilized by Stravinsky in Pulcinella.

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Ravel: L'enfant et les sortilèges; L'heure espagnole

Two classics return to the catalogue in bargain format, fleshed out with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" and Stravinsky's "Song of the Nightingale" (guess which work is paired with which opera). Ravel's Spanish hour has rarely been as well served as here by the conductor, singers and recording technicians. Earlier versions now show their age, despite some remarkable performances, but this performance combines the best of all possible worlds. Colette's excursion into childhood has also fared well on disc, but again the gods were present, though some might feel that other versions are slightly more poetic despite their more antiquated sound. For those Ravelians who are feeling flush, the Ansermet performances have both been reissued in France as part of Decca's Opera Rouge et Noir series (2 for the price of 1), coupled with substantial extracts from Debussy's St. Sébastien.

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