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An embarrassment of divas

As if last week’s survey wasn’t enough, a few more recent diva-recital disks remain worthy of attention particularly since they arrive from five front-rank singers: Anne-Sofie von Otter, Daniela Barcellona, Simone Kermes, Vivica Genaux and Karina Gauvin.

The veteran Swedish mezzo’s newest CD Sogno Barocco springs from the latest of von Otter’s recent self-reinventions that have also included surprising excursions into singing Waltraute and Brangäne.

Focusing on 17th century Italian music by Monteverdi, Provenzale, Cavalli and Luigi Rossi, Naïves release represents a less dramatic step than Wagner, particularly since von Otter has been hailed in the past in Monteverdi’s masterpiece L’Incoronazione di Poppea as both Nerone and Ottavia.

As fine as her Nerone is, her Ottavia is even more impressive as I witnessed in a smashing Paris production by David McVicar, conducted by René Jacobs, and starring Anna Caterina Antonacci as her errant husband Nerone and Patrizia Ciofi as the ambitious Poppea. Despite that lustrous pair, von Otter stole the evening with her ruthless, anguished portrait of the abandoned empress.

Her continued mastery of Monteverdi’s dramatic recitative in Penelope’s devastating opening monologue from Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria closes this new CD which also includes a return to Nerone in two duets where she is joined by the exquisite Poppea of Sandrine Piau—not just the inevitable “Pur ti miro” (which probably isn’t by Monteverdi anyway), but also the less frequently excerpted but equally sensuous “Signor, oggi rinasco.” These duets, along with one for Diana and Endimione from Cavalli’s La Calisto, are among the disk’s high points.

Otherwise, the emphasis on long monologues might make the disk heavy-going for the even the devoted von Otter fan—the more than ten-minute “Lamento de la regina di suezia” by Rossi is particularly challenging despite the singer’s evident commitment. Von Otter’s diminished resources may also prove disappointing; after nearly 30 years at the top of her profession, the voice can be alarmingly threadbare, yet it’s a canny decision to turn where her fine musicianship counts for more than vocal opulence.

She’s bracingly accompanied by young Argentinian conductor Leonardo Garcia Alarcón and his Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea, although I’m put off by some of his jazzier accompaniments, yet another example of the malign influence of Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata. Particularly rambunctious is a long piece by Francesco Provenzale, “Squarciato appena havea,” though von Otter is clearly having a good time with it. Alarcón also inserts several instrumental pieces from Cavalli’s Elena previewing the work’s upcoming modern premiere which he conducts at next summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Mezzo-soprano Barcellona remains best known for her Rossini, particularly his trouser roles, but she has also sung both Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo in Italy, and I attended what was probably her New York (if not her US) debut in 1997 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in in Vivaldi’s La Senna Fesstegiante. Yet despite an important world-wide career, Barcellona had not recorded a solo CD until she released a collection of opera arias by Alessandro Scarlatti several years ago.

Presumably Deutsche Harmonia Mundi was pleased enough with volume 1 of The Baroque Project that a sequel has now appeared featuring works by Pergolesi (a project likely conceived to commemorate the 2010 tricentenary of the short-lived composer’s birth). Barcellona is again accompanied by Marcello de Lisa and his “Concerto da’ Cavalieri.”

Although occasionally called a contralto, Barcellona is clearly a mezzo, and her ample, mellow voice retains its impressive flexibility although there are now more pronounced register breaks than I recall before, descents into the lower voice sound forced and the top notes thin out. Despite recently expanding her stage repertoire to include Berlioz’s Didon and Verdi’s Eboli and Amneris, Barcellona still sounds at home in the early 18th century.

Yet my response remains equivocal—she comes across as hard-working but rarely exciting or inspired—perhaps this is why she remains oddly off-the-radar for most lovers of bel canto singing. One is always pleased to have heard her, yet it’s hard to imagine going out of one’s way to search out her live performances.

And unfortunately neither this program nor the earlier Scarlatti makes an irresistible case for either the composer or his enthusiastic proponent. Part of the difficulty is the absolute predictability of both CDs: for each of the six Scarlatti operas, the overture is followed by exactly three short arias.

The same dull scheme is mirrored in the Pergolesi, albeit for only four operas: L’Olimpiade, Il Prigionier superbo, La Salustia, and Adriano in Siria. The marked preference for “up-tempo” arias grows tired too—no slow pieces are included. Despite the rare chance to hear excerpts (often accompanied by brilliant writing for trumpet) from Pergolesi’s fine neglected opera seria, this well-intentioned collection fails to persuade.

Dramma, a collection of rare arias written for famed castrati during the 18th century, is the latest release on Sony Classical by everyone’s favorite baroque-diva-to-hate, German soprano Kermes. It’s unfortunate that she has become a walking punch-line for so many (due mostly to her own inexplicably bizarre antics) because—on her best behavior—she remains a fascinating interpreter of this music.

Despite her frequently frustrating mannerisms—squeezed “expressive” high notes; “exotic” Italian; exaggerated dynamics—Kermes proves again to be far less self-indulgent in the recording studio where her distracting wardrobe choices and irrepressible compulsion to frug along with music can’t distract from her genuine flair for baroque music.

Her hunger to explore the repertoire is impressive: on her most recent three solo CDs alone, she performs music from 30 operas by 11 composers, providing intriguing morsels of still under-recorded exemplars as Porpora (seven operas) and Hasse (five operas).

Building on Lava (arias from Neapolitan operas) and Colori d’amore, this latest disc, featuring La Magnifica Comunità and led by Isabella Longo, continues Kermes’s restless search through under-explored areas of the high baroque. Aside from “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, presumably Sony’s idea to include at least one familiar piece, the CD features eight world premiere recordings, including arias from utter rarities like Porpora’s Germanico in Germania and Leo’s Zenobia in Palmira!

Although Kermes seems surprisingly subdued in Dramma, compared to Colori d’amore (her best, most exciting CD, the one I’d recommend to anyone interested is discovering just what she can really do)…

…her virtues do shine through here, especially her dazzling coloratura, as well as her equally impressive gift for spinning out long quiet arias as in a superb “Alto Giove,” the well-known aria written for Farinelli from Porpora’s Polifemo.

For better or worse, we seemed destined to hear Kermes only as a solo artist these days; rumor has it she’s a difficult colleague and is thereby rarely cast in stage productions or complete opera recordings—witness her abrupt departure a while back from Alan Curtis’s regular stable of artists. Clearly she’s an artist who does what she believes in: who else would sing “Surabaya Johnny” as an encore at an all-Vivaldi concert as she did in 2007 at (Kurt?) Weill Recital Hall?

Yet, she’s about to get a big chance in mainstream opera: for the upcoming Die Zauberflöte, the Berlin Philharmonic’s first opera at Baden-Baden’s Easter Festival since abandoning Salzburg’s, Sir Simon Rattle has chosen Kermes to be his Astrofiammante. I pray she behaves, but I fear otherwise—I just listened to a broadcast of a recent all-Handel concert, and she was spectacularly bad—willful, unmusical, downright ugly!

One of Kermes’s earlier CDs La Diva sprang from an increasingly common phenomenon in recitals of 18th century music: the “singer tribute.” She programmed music written by Handel for one of his most important singers, Francesca Cuzzoni. Likewise, Philippe Jaroussky has recorded arias composed by Porpora, Gluck, Graun, Hasse and Handel for the great castrato Carestini, and Theodora Gheorghiu’s debut focused on Arias for Anna de Amicis.

Even singers of the French baroque have gotten into the act (unusual since that repertoire was far less devoted to star singers) in Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s tribute to the artistry of Jélyotte, one of Rameau’s most important haute-contres. But the most important trendsetter was Vivica Genaux’s Arias for Farinelli released over a decade ago.

Now Genaux has returned for another—A Tribute to Francesca Bordoni—just out from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

With Andres Gabetta conducting his eponymous “Capella Gabetta,” Genaux explores arias by Handel and, most importantly, Hasse written for one of the baroque era’s greatest divas. Faustina no doubt could expect grateful arias from Hasse, as they were married in 1730 after the end of her tumultuous London career with Handel and just before she and Hasse took up residence in Dresden where they reigned over one of Europe’s most important musical capitals for nearly two decades.

I’ve discussed my mixed feelings about Genaux on this forum before, so I won’t repeat those qualms again except to say I made an interesting discovery while listening to her latest CD: the Alaskan mezzo sounds much better through speakers than on headphones.

I was particularly impressed by the CD’s first track, Rossane’s fetching “Lusinghe più care,” the very first aria Handel wrote for Faustina’s London debut in Alessandro, but then I listened to it again with headphones, and that closer listening experience exaggerated all the faults that often drive me crazy about Genaux’s singing. So if you partake in this portrait of La Nuova Sirena (Faustina’s nickname), do it on your home stereo, not on your mp3 player!

Genaux has long been a proponent of Hasse perhaps dating back to Solimano in 1999 with René Jacobs. However, I often find her taste in his arias puzzling; I’ve heard more than a dozen Hasse operas, and they’re full of appealing, exciting pieces, yet those featured on both this and her previous Hasse recording strike me as pleasant but unremarkable examples of Hasse’s art, not at all representative of the composer’s best: Simone Kermes displays better “Hasse-taste.”

There is one lovely, extraordinarily long piece (it last nearly fourteen minutes)—”Piange quell fonte” from Numa Pompilio–that beautifully shows off Genaux’s formidable technique. However, including three Hasse overtures imbalances a program of just eight arias, particularly since they’re far less interesting than the vocal pieces.

After four sometimes erratic divas, we arrive at a singer at her peak and nearly ideal for this repertoire: French-Canadian soprano Gauvin. Her latest release, Prima Donna, another of those singer tributes, salutes one of Handel’s most important muses, Anna Strada del Pò. ATMA’s CD features the Arion Orchestre Baroque conducted by harpsichordist Alexander Weimann.

With the exception of two short arias by Vinci and Vivaldi, the CD is Handel, although there is a disappointing lack of variety in the works chosen. Strada was remarkable in creating thirteen Handel operatic roles, in addition to singing in eleven revivals of earlier operas (when oftentimes he wrote new arias for her).

She also appeared in the English oratorios—she was the first Deborah and the first Josabeth in Athalia—yet Gauvin only includes music from six Handel works, operas only, including four arias from Alcina alone. While it seems churlish to complain about having Gauvin in a great role for which she is perfectly suited, but how much more interesting would the disk have been if more works from Strada’s extraordinary collaboration with Handel had been included?

Yet Gauvin’s near-unrivalled primacy as a baroque singer today—the golden voice; the absolutely sure technique; the subtle, yet deeply felt expressivity—shines through in those superb Alcina excerpts…

…along with “Scherza in mar la navicella,” a dazzler from Lotario, and Angelica’s heartbreakingly lovely “Verdi piante} from Orlando. One wishes, however that Weimann and his band were fuller partners in the enterprise—often their modest accompaniments threaten to fade into the background. As with too many of her recordings, one wishes that Gauvin would collaborate more often with today’s leading period conductors. This summer she did an Alcina with Christophe Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques at Versailles (with Ann Hallenberg as Ruggiero)—now that would have been a performance to preserve on CD!

Gauvin doesn’t always have the best luck on her recitals—in fact, her 2008 Handel CD also on ATMA and conducted by Weimann is a surprisingly uneven enterprise with gorgeous excerpts from Alexander Balus, Hercules, Rinaldo, and Solomon, alongside astonishingly ill-considered renditions of tenor arias from Semele and Jephtha along with a baffling “Iris, Hence away” (a famous Marilyn Horne vehicle), also from Semele.

Her 1999 Analekta disc dedicated to just Agrippina and Alcina (only Alcina’s Ombre pallide appears on both it and Prima Donna) with Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik in an entirely happier affair.

Despite its unfortunate failure to fully explore the legacy of Strada, Prima Donna, proves, along with her superb Porpora recital, indispensable to all Gauvin fans.

And this flood of CDs shows little sign of receding: Deutsche Grammophon releases Enchanted Forest with soprano Anna Prohaska singing Cavalli, Handel, Purcell, etc. early next year, and the divine Roberta Invernizzi gets her own shot at Faustina’s legacy (including arias by Bononcini, Mancini, Vinci and Porpora, in addition to Hasse) on the Glossa label. And a long-awaited all-Handel disk is from the great Ann Hallenberg promised (finally!)—perhaps by the next holiday season!

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