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New faces

Mr. Ian Rosenblatt is a London solicitor and patron of charitable causes in Britain primarily focused on classical music. In 1999 he stepped in to fund a concert by José Cura and the Philharmonia Orchestra when the sponsor withdrew at the last moment. Since then his foundation, Rosenblatt Recitals, has underwritten over 130 concerts with an eye on rising stars who haven’t been presented in London as yet.  

The vocal recital, and keeping its repertory alive, is an important part of our musical heritage and has increasingly become a rarity. The extension of this program onto the Royal Opera’s in-house label Opus Arte is a very welcome thing indeed. The first two in the series offer the interesting pairing of Italian tenor Francesco Meli with works of Britten and Liszt (and some rather hoary operatic filler) and then the Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina in songs by Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.

Mr. Meli has been before the public from the tender age of 22 when he first trod the boards as Verdi’s Macduff in 2004. He’s already familiar from quite a few plum recordings including partnering Natalie Dessay in Sonnambula on CD just two years later and more recently as Percy on the DG Anna Bolena with Anna Netrebko from Vienna. He’s also made quite a few contributions to the Tutto Verdi video series from Parma, but I don’t hold that against him.

Benjamin Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was the first song cycle he wrote for his partner Peter Pears and the feeling of love they convey is fresh still. From what I can tell Mr. Meli may well be the first native Italian speaker to record these pieces and from that vantage alone his interpretation is important. He does a fine job with these uncommonly beautiful settings of poetry which sound, at times, like a very economic Strauss with Italian flavoring. The passion just rolling to a boil. But it always makes a big difference when someone was born with the words in their mouth.

The Petrarch Sonnets of Franz Liszt which close the program are beautifully etched in German Romanticism and find Mr. Meli once again comfortably in his native tongue. Written over a very wide vocal range the microphone seems a bit close in when he ascends to the the very top of the voice and there’s some hardness there around the B-B flat. Yet in both pieces he displays an attentiveness to diction and a willing mezza voce—surprising considering his Parma outings. His technical skills are good but not great and there’s a hint of insecurity in a few phrases above the staff. Youth could be a factor in that as well but, I quibble. He should be commended for his fine work on both these cycles.

The filler between these two loaves is not quite as interesting. Arias from Manon and Romeo et Juliette include some peculiarities of pronunciation that will forever ensure the tenor’s being asked for proper documentation at the French border. A happier group of Tosti songs and two by Rossini including La Danza (which none of us have heard for minutes) follows. Then an aria each from Verdi’s I Lombardi and Donizetti’s Le duc d’Albe conclude the operatic offerings and they’re all given thoroughly competent performances but really no more than that. It’s a strong, serviceable voice and, what with the dearth of Italian tenors, not unwelcome.

His accompanist, Matteo Pais, does a very fine job in the Britten and Liszt. Bringing special highlights out of the piano part and offering keen and insightful support so that it really does seem like a collaboration in these pieces.

Ekaterina Siurina had her first professional engagements while still studying in Moscow in 1999. I recognized her voice immediately from the Salzburg Idomeneo from 2007 where she was a luminous Illia in a production so musically magnificent and dramatically misguided it’s my favorite thing to watch with the TV off. I’d call her a full soubrette with lyric leanings. It’s a lovely voice and she is the mistress of her instrument. There’s a big difference between being able to sing and being a singer.

Right from the first track, Verdi’s Stornello, she’s captivating. Even though her vocal birthmark is Slavic she has the proper chiaroscuro in her tone to pass for Italian and if her language isn’t “echt” it’s more than simply correct. She’s got a come hither trill and during the first of the Rossini group, La Pastorella dell’Alpi. she fires off some stunning staccatos and echo effects.

She’s beautifully communicative throughout while still holding the bel canto line and displays magnificent control in mezza voce and piano. She sings a lot of these pieces straight and resists the temptation to turn herself into a vocal kaleidoscope so that her interpretations resist the saccharine.

The highlight for me was the Verdi Ad una stella which finds her in a perfect nocturnal reverie and the underlying heartbreak in the poem just shimmering on top of the vocal performance. As close to perfection as one could want and the voice captured in a gracious acoustic alongside the piano. Her accompanist is the redoubtable Ian Burnside and his easy support is notable for it’s elegance and charm.

Three Donizettis close the program and the first, Amor marinaro, finds her dabbling briefly (and charmingly) with the Neopolitan dialect. The last, La zingara, is very brilliant but ends with a oh-so-slightly miscalculated high note that should have either been dropped or given a do-over. Then again, nothing should be perfect.

Excellent packaging for both discs with biographies of the participants, concise and informative notes on the music presented and full English translations. Ian Burnside even gets a color photo inside the booklet. It was like time travelling back to the 1960’s when those luxuries were actually commonplace!

My one quibble is that since this is supposed to be a recital series why not give us the actual recitals? With the exception of the operatic offerings on Mr. Meli’s disc all of the tracks are studio recorded and therefore hot house tomatoes. I’d much rather enjoy the live experience, warts and all.  I’m very fond of Ms. Siurina’s album and she’s a talent to watch for but fans of either of these singers won’t be disappointed in the slightest.

6 comments

  • armerjacquino says:

    Smashing reviews of two fascinating-sounding releases*. You really do have a terrific turn of phrase: ‘some peculiarities of pronunciation that will forever ensure the tenor’s being asked for proper documentation at the French border’ and ‘so musically magnificent and dramatically misguided it’s my favorite thing to watch with the TV off’ made me hoot (the latter applying, alas, to most of Mozart 250…).

    (*but this is parterre, so I’ll chuck in some gall to go with the sweetness. You’ve got a misplaced apostrophe in there.)

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    I really enjoyed this review too and will be getting the Siurina disc.

  • Camille says:

    Thank you, PM, and I quite agree with armerjay above re your felicitous turns of phrases, to which I always look forward in your reviews. The one about the “Tutto Verdi” series being my fave herein.

    This album particularly interested me as I am perfectly wild over those Petrach Sonnets, which I only discovered a few years ago. It is a bit off putting to hear that even a fairly high and lyrical ttenor would have problems with that crazy and unwieldy tessitura, so I would perhaps sample this one before buying.

  • Batty Masetto says:

    Since we’re favoriting phrases here, I vote for “come hither trill.” Always enjoy reading Patrick’s reviews.

    (You can read the preceding sentence as either an elided first person singular or an imperative. They’re both valid.)

  • Regina delle fate says:

    Patrick -- are you sure these are the first two issues? This series has been appearing for a while now, though possibly not on the RO’s Opus Arte label. There was certainly a Larry Brownlee recital a few years back. An excellent read though. Meli is singing Manrico to Netrebko’s Leonora in Salzburg this year. And he’s sung Riccardo in Ballo for Pappano in Rome. I think quite recently he was Muti’s Ernani at the Teatro dell’Opera.