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Gramophone Awards Shortlist 2016 Opera

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Donizetti Les martyrs Joyce El-Khoury sop �Pauline Michael Spyres ten �Polyeucte David Kempster bar �Sévère Brindley Sherratt bass �Félix Clive Bayley bass �Callisthènes Wynne Evans ten �Néarque Simon Preece bass �A Christian Rosalind Waters sop �A Woman Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Sir Mark Elder Opera Rara F c ORC52 (3h 28’ • DDD • S/T/t)

The knotty gestation of Les martyrs, explained in impressive and patient detail in Opera Rara’s characteristically excellent documentation for this release, has traditionally been seen having left the work as neither one thing nor the other: too Italian for Paris, too specifically Parisian in form to have had a lasting wider appeal. When Poliuto failed to get past the Neapolitan censors, Donizetti reworked it into Les Martyrs, expanding its three acts into four and recomposing all the recitatives – Eugène Scribe, no less, was on hand to adjust the text, returning to the same Corneille source used by Salvadore Cammarano’s Italian libretto. At its (much delayed) 1840 premiere, the Parisian critics complained it wasn’t French enough and it more or less sank without trace – living on briefly only in Italian translation. Poliuto, meanwhile, achieved a modest toehold of its own in the repertoire, not least in the 1960 La Scala production starring Callas, Corelli and Bastianini, variously available on disc.

Here Opera Rara has restored Les martyrs to its original splendour, Mark Elder conducting the new critical edition of the score in full, and with his love of the music shining through in ever bar. Indeed, the conducting and playing are arguably the recording’s greatest glory. The OAE’s sound is wonderfully sparkly and transparent, everything beautifully balanced – listen to the playing in the three dances of the Act 3 divertissement to sample the sheer quality on display.

The wind soloists are wonderful, taking the spotlight in several aria introductions. Elder’s conducting is limpid and flexible, the rubato natural and seductive; I wondered only if he might have submitted more completely to the dramatic momentum as the Act 2 finale gathers a head of steam.

One can understand why Berlioz called the piece a ‘Credo in four acts’, though, and in its plot, the story of the Christian convert Polyeucte martyring himself in ancient Armenia, doesn’t provide much scope for character development. Polyeucte’s position is too fixed, while I pity any director trying to stage convincingly the almost comically swift eleventh-hour conversion of his beloved, Pauline – or, for that matter, their subsequent throwing to the lions. The most  interesting character is probably Sévère, the proconsul in love with her but  also determined to save him. But while the grand opéra set pieces are magnificent and the ensembles stirring, there are no arias to match, say, Léonor’s ‘O mon Fernand’ in the contemporaneous La favorite.

There’s no faulting the commitment of the singers here, however. As Polyeucte, Michael Spyres offers plenty of bel canto style and beautifully schooled phrasing – plus a remarkable top E. Joyce El‑Khoury’s tone can become a little occluded and is not flattered by the close‑ish balance but her performance as Pauline is hardly less remarkable, and tireless in bringing the character to life. Similarly, David Kempster can sound a little woolly of tone as Sévère but he sings with nobility and finesse. There’s fine support from the basses Brindley Sherratt and Clive Bayley, and the tenor Wynne Evans; the Opera Rara Chorus is on terrific form, too. Doubts remain about the work itself, then, but there’s little doubting Opera Rara’s achievement in letting us hear it sound so thrillingly fresh. Hugo Shirley

Mascagni . Leoncavallo

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Mascagni Cavalleria rusticana Liudmyla Monastyrska sop �Santuzza Annalisa Stroppa mez �Lola Jonas Kaufmann ten �Turiddu

Ambrogio Maestri bar �Alfio Stefania Toczyska mez �Lucia

Leoncavallo Pagliacci Maria Agresta sop �Nedda Jonas Kaufmann ten �Canio Dimitri Platanias bar �Tonio Tansel Akzeybek ten �Beppe Alessio Arduini bar �Silvio Salzburg Festival Children’s and Theatre Choir; Salzburg Bach Choir; Saxon State Opera Chorus; Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann Stage director Philipp Stölzl Video director Brian Large Sony Classical B b ◊ 88875 19340-9; F Y 88875 19341-9 (161’ • NTSC • 16:9 • 1080i • DTS-HD MA5.0, DTS5.0 & LPCM stereo • 0 • s)

This new Cav and Pag is doubly treasurable. Not only – as the label’s blurb loudly but rightly proclaims – does it capture Jonas Kaufmann singing both Turiddu and Canio for the first time in this 2015 Salzburg Easter Festival production, but the tenor also sings them fabulously well. Once we get beyond Tiriddu’s song to Lola, delivered instrospectively but – in the context – effectively on stage, there’s none of the self-regarding overinterpretation that for me can mar Kaufmann’s performances in the theatre (although many prize his mezza voce more highly than I do). Instead we have plenty of the thrilling, untrammelled and ringing sound that the tenor is capable of at his best, with no loss of sensitivity in terms of musicianship or acting.

Happily, Kaufmann’s outstanding central performances are well matched, both musically and scenically. Philipp Stölzl’s production captures something of the expressionist feel and period of early German cinema – and in so doing also underlines the parallels between that stylised aesthetic and that of commedia dell’arte, exploited in Leoncavallo’s work. He directs everyone skilfully and makes ingenious use of a compartmentalised design in each work – six boxes, three across and two down, that can function independently, sometimes to have filmed close-ups projected onto them. It’s an


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