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OPERATIC ICONS, GEMS AND RARITIES (article first published : 2006-12-30)

Renee Fleming takes on the shades of the past with her new disc for Decca, Homage. Subtitled The Age of the Diva, this essays a gallery of signature roles of great sopranos of the 19th and 20th centuries, sung in five languages. Some are familiar others are discoveries for many listeners, this writer included.

The three Italian arias are all well known, Poveri fiori from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Tacea la notte from Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Tosca’s great plea, Visi d’arte. Each benefits from Fleming’s seamless legato, passionate dramatic commitment and lustrous tone. Some may feel she over-eggs the cake in her treatment of the latter aria, but fans will be in raptures nonetheless.

The soprano’s reputation rests as squarely on her German and Czech roles as her Italian repertoire, and here we can sample her easy command of extended terrain in extracts from Smetana’s Dalibor (a rarity) and Janecek’s Jenufa. The latter displays the singer’s rare ability to penetrate the core of a role. Her authority in the late German Romantic style is virtually unequalled today, and here finds voice in extracts from Richard Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae (another rare item on disc) and Korngold’s Die Katharin (ditto).

More rare gems emerge from the treasure casket with arias from Tchaikovsky’s Oprichnik and Rimsky Korksakov’s Servilia. The singer’s large French repertoire is dazzlingly represented by Gounod’s Mireille (the celebrated ‘Waltz Song’) and Massenet’s Cleopatra, delivered with Fleming’s trademark voluptuous line. For those who treasure the soprano’s recordings of Thais, Rusalka, Daphne and Capriccio, there’s plenty to drool over here. Valery Gergiev conducts the Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre in grand style.

In the tenor stakes these days, few names have caught on with as much of a blaze as Mexican wonder, Rolando Villazon. One is always tempted to recall some of the greats of the past in assessing newcomers. Domingo springs to mind, both as a voice type and as a mentor, but Villazon is very much his own man. We have extracts from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana, Fedora, Martha, Eugen Onegin, Der Rosenkavalier, U ballo in maschera, Don Pasquale, La Favorita, Les Pecheurs de Perles, Carmen and Ernani.

Each is given an indelible make-over, none more so than the Pearl Fishers extract. A bonus DVD accompanies this Virgin Classics release, capturing moments of the recording sessions. This unveils the tenor’s astonishing ability to make his mark in one item after another.

If Villazon is new to you, you may wish to acquire his spell binding portrayal on DVD of Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, recorded live last year by Virgin at the Vienna State Opera with Anna Netrobko as Adina. Pure magic! - William Charlton-Perkins




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