GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2018
Bernarda Fink contr �Geneviève Elias Mädler treb �Yniold Joshua Bloom bass �Doctor/Shepherd London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle LSO Live S (d Í + Y) LSO0790 (165’ • DDD/DSD • DTS-HD MA5.1 & stereo) Recorded live at the Barbican, London, January 9 & 10, 2016 Includes synopsis, libretto and translation
This is a takeover from Berlin of a Peter Sellars platform staging of Debussy’s opera. Sellars’s directing of the cast (identical in London to Berlin) has sorted out clearly motivation and mood. It has also, by virtue of his stage layout’s resiting of parts of the orchestra, brought new focus to the dramatic intentions of Debussy’s scoring (listen especially to the heartbeat timpani’s contributions).
Rather like the opera’s potential audience, conductors of Pelléas tend to divide into fanatics or absentees. Previous performances have clearly identified Rattle as one of the former. He negotiates a fine balance between the score’s intentional moments of stasis – often moments of the richest orchestral imagination – and the drama of a story whose characters’ continual refusal to see or face realities justifies Sellars’s allusions to an Alfred Hitchcock film. (In Act 4, remember, just before his death, Pelléas is still saying that he cannot see anyone when an evidently hostile Golaud is right behind him and Mélisande.)
Rattle maintains both a clear pulse in individual scenes and a through line which positively celebrates Debussy’s and Maeterlinck’s radical intercutting of scenes of varied physical and emotional locations in the central acts. He uses a broad and detailed orchestral palette but, again, the balance is very well made between the score’s wide range of dynamics – nicely observed too by Ernest Ansermet on his early and not to be ignored Decca recording – and unnecessary Romantic weight, an indulgence which Karajan (Warner), who often seems to be treading a similar path to Rattle, does not avoid. The obvious influence of Parsifal on the interludes is clearly felt but not laboured. Rattle’s tempos are also attentive to the natural pace and rhythm of conversation rather than throwing up abstract musical climaxes on their own. The LSO’s playing throughout is at a high level of virtuosity – try, for example, the fastmoving accompaniment to Golaud’s pulling Mélisande around by the hair in Act 4 scene 2.
Aside from the Montreal-born Gerald Finley there are no natural French speakers in the cast – but don’t worry. The language side, an annoying glitch on some rival recordings, has been fully taken care of. The French of the German Pelléas and Arkel is especially well studied. Both Gerhaher and KoΩená are good at not over-egging the pudding of their confusions and naiveties, or indeed flirtatiousness, which fixes even more attention on the words. Finley manages to make Golaud’s rages frightening without the ‘evil’ melodrama that bigger, darker voices have brought to the role. And the older generation are clearly – and again, simply – focused on what they are saying, Selig’s Arkel moving in his defence of the dying Mélisande in Act 5.
Pelléas has been lucky on disc. Aside from the first Ansermet – which has a sense of wonder when every page is turned – there is the famous old Désormière, an impeccable if slightly cool mainline version in inevitably dated sound. Irresistible – and distinctly different in approach – are the Haitink/French Radio version (beautiful conducting, very sad and perhaps his finest opera recording to date) and Pierre Boulez, the dedicatee of the present recording. The latter is remarkable for a no-nonsense black-andwhite statement of the notes which makes the score sound even more contemporary than it was.
If we are talking competition, this new version (which, as I have already hinted, sounds exceptionally clean and fine) scores high up the list and is highly recommended – an early jewel in the crown of Simon Rattle’s assumption of the principal conductorship of the LSO. Mike Ashman Selected comparisons: Ansermet (5/52R, 4/93R) (ELOQ) ELQ480 0133 Désormière (8/88R) (EMI/WARN) D 345770-2 Boulez (4/92R) (SONY) D 88697 52722-2 Haitink (4/02) (NAÏV) V4923
Handel Ottone, re di Germania Max Emanuel Cencic counterten �Ottone Lauren Snouffer sop �Teofane Pavel Kudinov bass-bar �Emireno Ann Hallenberg mez �Gismonda Xavier Sabata counterten �Adelberto Anna Starushkevych mez �Matilda Il Pomo d’Oro / George Petrou Decca M c 483 1814DHO3 (3h 23’ • DDD) Includes synopsis, libretto and translation
Premiered at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in January 1723, Ottone was the first Handel opera to pair his star draws of the 1720s: the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, making her London debut as Teofane, and the castrato Senesino in the title-role. Both were singers with attitude. But they met their match in Handel, who reputedly threatened to throw Cuzzoni out of the window until she agreed to quell her prima donna’s vanity and sing Teofane’s simple and touching opening aria ‘Falsa imagine’. Ironically, the aria made Cuzzoni’s London reputation as a soprano without equal in the ‘pathetic’ style. Centring on the attempts of the scheming matriarch Gismonda and her unlovely son Adelberto to prevent King Ottone from marrying the Byzantine Princess Teofane and assuming his rightful throne, Ottone’s pseudohistorical libretto is often hopelessly confused. This evidently mattered not a jot to Handel’s audiences. The combination of Senesino, Cuzzoni and Handel’s melodic fertility (Charles Burney reported that many of the arias soon became ‘national favourites’) made Ottone an instant success. With a total of 36 performances over five seasons, it was eclipsed in popularity only by Rinaldo during his lifetime.
These days Ottone ranks well down the Handel pecking order, not least because of the plot’s muddles and absurdities. On CD, though, it has fared relatively well, with two period-instrument versions appearing in quick succession from Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 3/93) and Robert King (Hyperion, 7/93). Both do the opera fair justice. But this new version, recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of the Villa San Fermo in the Veneto, easily surpasses them in consistency of casting and dramatic flair. Without pressing the tempos unduly (except when dancing on hot coals in the Overture’s fugue), George Petrou draws rhythmically animated, sensitively coloured playing from the crack Italian band. Abetted by an alert, unfussy continuo, recitatives are lively and naturally paced, though not even Petrou and his singers can save the final denouement from blink-and-you-miss-it perfunctoriness.
The cast is uniformly strong. Ottone is more mooning lover than strutting hero, always ready to buckle in a crisis. But Max Emanuel Cencic, with his unusually powerful, sensuous countertenor, rescues him from self-regarding wimpishess. He sings his tender opening siciliano and
28 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2018
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