The names of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper and Kansas-born tenor James King may not resonate for younger music lovers, but they sure do for folks my age. Harper was the glowing, nimble soprano in Colin Davis’s renowned 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah and in Davis’s top-flight recording (ca. 1978) of Britten’s Peter Grimes, featuring Jon Vickers. James King was a steady, sturdy singer, though less magical in sound than Harper. Among his memorable recordings are Das Lied von der Erde (with Fischer-Dieskau, Bernstein conducting) and Solti’s Ring Cycle (in which he sang Siegmund to Régine Crespin’s utterly lovable Sieglinde).
Otakar Ostrčil was a prominent Czech composer who has fallen into obscurity. His dates, 1879-1935, span a key moment in the history of Central Europe, for it was in 1918 that the Czech lands became part of the new country of Czechoslovakia, independent of Austrian rule. In the preceding decades, Czech writers and artists had often attempted to define a national identity for themselves, as can be heard in many works of Smetana and Dvořák.
We normally think of operas as being serious or comical. But a number of operas—some familiar, others forgotten—are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams. One of the best such works is Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges(which might be freely translated as “The Boy Who Meets Objects and Creatures that Magically Begin to Speak and Dance”), which has recently been blessed by two astounding new recordings (conducted by, respectively, Stéphane Denève and Mikko Franck).At the present site I have recently reviewed a very engaging Czech opera by Otakar Ostrčil, based on a quasi-folktale by Tolstoy, in which the Devil seeks to seduce three brothers into serving his own destructive ends.
Over the past year or so (2017), an unusually large number of fascinating and rarely performed operas were made available, mostly for the first time ever, on CD.
NewYorkArts/Berkshire Review for the Arts has asked me to share some of my delighted discoveries from this flood of new arrivals, as well as—in separate articles—my (rather lengthy and detailed!) reviews of two contrasting operas that seem to me particularly worthy of discovery:
This past year, I was privileged to get to review a flood of wonderful CD releases of little-known operas. I summarize my impressions of fifteen of these in a separate article here. But I feel that two of these unfamiliar works deserve special discussion because the quality of the music—and its dramatic applicability—so surprised me: the recent adaptation of the beloved novel Jane Eyre, by a composer I had never heard of, John Joubert; and, the work discussed below: Bellini’s first opera, composed during his last year as a conservatory student and already showing remarkable mastery.
Indeed, there were not one but two big discoveries for me in this CD recording: Bellini’s first opera (here receiving its first fully adequate recording) but also and Enea Scala (seen at left in the photo above), a splendid, heroic high tenor who can perform the extensive coloratura fluently.
I had never heard a note by John Joubert (1927- ) before. Critics have often praised his works for organ and for chorus. Several of his hymns and carols are widely known. Joubert, I have now learned, was born in South Africa but received his training in England and has made his long and continuing career there, mainly in Birmingham. (His last name comes from a French Huguenot ancestor.)
The two works on this CD make an apt and welcome pair. First we have Ravel’s sumptuous three-song cycle about the mysteries of love and fantasies of exotic lands. Then we have his one-act opera that takes place in a land that, to French people at the time, was beckoningly exotic, and whose title might be freely translated “The Nutty and Delightful Things That Can Happen in Spain in Just One Hour.” The opera presents some quick-moving events in the lives of a clockmaker’s wife and the four wildly different men with whom she is variously involved (one being her husband). The CD is officially vol. 4 of a series covering Ravel’s “orchestral works,” a phrase that here clearly means “works with orchestra.” (The two piano concertos and Tzigane are presumably scheduled for some future volume.) The Stuttgart orchestra plays very capably throughout, but the star of the CD is mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac.
Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the most renowned Wagner conductors who ever lived. His recordings of Parsifal, especially, are near-legendary among confirmed Wagnerians. It was thus with some excitement that I opened a new 3-CD set from Orfeo, consisting of the first release ever of any performance of Lohengrin conducted by the conductor sometimes known among musicians and opera-goers as “Kna.”