Friday, April 22, 2011

In which your intrepid reporter helps out a friend

That doyenne of the opera world, La Cieca, recently issued a call for help in the overwhelming task she faces with reporting on the innumerable CDs and DVDs she is sent.  We all know how kind La Cieca is, and how eager to give, but her schedule of one glamorous opening after another leaves her little time to serve her cher publique.  I felt it my duty to offer my humble services.  Imagine my delight when, due to La Cieca's kindness, I found a package in my box!

But imagine my confusion when I found inside two CDs--Jane Archibald's recording of Haydn arias on ATMA Classique (with Thomas Rösner conducting the Orchestre Symphonique Bienne), and Julia Lezhneva's recoding of Rossini arias on Naïve (with the Sinfonia Varsovia under Marc Minkowski).  

Cover photo  John Rennison
Miss Archibald is a very fine young soprano.  She has sung at Covent Garden, Wiener Staatsoper, Bavarian State Opera (Munich), Opéra National de Paris, and other world-class houses, with a long list of roles that includes Zerbinetta, Lucia, Konstanze, and Sophie.  She has a clear, bright sound, an impressive range, and dazzling coloratura.  She made her Met debut in May of 2010, on very short notice, singing Ophélie in Hamlet.  The internet is full of her praises.

Alas, I can't say I'm in love with the CD.  You'll recall Papa Haydn's opera audiences were not the sort to hang on every word and delve into twelve layers of meaning, like opera queens afficionados of our age.  Arias were usually not meant to advance the action, but rather to contemplate or remark upon the action.  And, to be honest, to showcase the singers' talents.  Ms. Archibald sings these arias very well, capably conveying contrasting emotions within the arias and accomplishing all the fireworks and lyrical singing required of her, but to my ear, it all seems wasted.  The recording includes ten arias and three overtures from five Haydn operas.  It almost seems as if there were thirteen orchestral pieces, each performed quite well, with Miss Archibald as an extremely agile wind instrument.

The liner notes by Chris Walton make the statement "Commentators have long complained that Haydn, for all his genius, did not posses the same dramatic spark as did his younger contemporary Mozart.  This is hardly fair--after all, who else in music history did?"  Exactly. I love Haydn's music, but I don't hear the drama, the spark, in these arias.  I want magic and I'm not getting it.  For that I don't fault Miss Archibald.

Cover photo: Franck Juery
Julia Lezhneva's recording of Rossini arias presents an interesting question.  She is labeled by one and all as a coloratura soprano, but listening to her beautiful singing, I hear a lyric mezzo.   Or do I?  The arias are from roles sung today by both mezzos and sopranos.  They include "Tanti affetti" from La donna del lago and "Nacqui all'affanno" from La Cenerentola on the mezzo side and "Sombre forêts" from Guillaume Tell and "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Semiramide on the soprano side.  (I've found recordings of "Bel raggio lusingher" by Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce DiDonato, however.)

I have to praise Miss Lezhneva's singing.  She has a beautiful sound some might call dusky, precise coloratura, and an expressive sense of legato and phrasing. Listening to the beautiful line in "Ils s'eloignent enfin...Sombre forêts" and "Assisa a'pie d'un salice" from Mr. Rossini's Otello is a delight.  In fact, although her coloratura passages are extremely well executed, listening to these long, sustained passages is the real joy in this CD.  I had to listen to the Willow Song several times before moving on.  Miss Lezhneva is young, and her biography lists far more concert performances than operatic.  One hopes the opportunity to see her sing some of these Rossini roles on stage will present itself.

I will confess that I listened to the Rossini disc before the Haydn disc, and then again afterward.  Listening to the Haydn made me appreciate the Rossini more.  Both of these young women are fine singers.  One can see a promising future for both of them.  Both of them sang the arias on their CDs very well.  But alas, one CD left me cold.

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