ArtsATL > Music > CD review: Strauss scenes from Christine Brewer and ASO, knockout Verdi from Sondra Radvanovsky

CD review: Strauss scenes from Christine Brewer and ASO, knockout Verdi from Sondra Radvanovsky

“Great Strauss Scenes” Soprano Christine Brewer and bass-baritone Eric Owens, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conductor Donald Runnicles. Telarc.

“Verdi Arias” Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, Philharmonia of Russia, conductor Constantine Orbelian. Delos.

The latest disc (or download) from soprano Christine Brewer, conductor Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony — their third CD together for Telarc — has just been released. “Great Strauss Scenes,” recorded in conjunction with live performances in Symphony Hall in February 2009, features hefty excerpts from “Elektra” (the Recognition Scene) and “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (the Imprisonment Scene) and the perverse and sexy final scene from “Salome.”

It is one of the most beautiful “ick” moments in all of opera: “Ah, you would not let me kiss your mouth, Jochanaan,” Salome sings to John the Baptist’s severed head, about to shatter her own sanity. “Well, now I will kiss it!”

Brewer’s instrument is silken, opulent, a mighty force of nature, and she soars (never roars) above the orchestra magnificently in these Strauss roles, showing her radiant control and subtlety. We call her an Atlanta regular: she’s sung with the ASO since the Robert Shaw days, and she’s in demand internationally. With Runnicles, she has sung and recorded quite a bit of repertoire, including a complete “Tristan und Isolde,” Mozart’s Requiem and much else. Yet Brewer’s Strauss is not a model of dramatic characterization. As Elektra, discovering that her brother Orestes has returned to the gloomy castle to avenge the murder of their father by killing their mother, Brewer vocalizes the part as well as any soprano today, although her confession — “I am only the shell of your sister anymore” — doesn’t feel intimate or personal.

The ASO here sounds pure, confidently virtuosic and sonically clean, but too little of Runnicles’ signature sound with the orchestra — a certain weighty plushness — comes through. If you clicked on the radio and heard the orchestral “Dance of the Seven Veils” from this recording, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as the ASO. In all, a substantive and worthy recording that one wishes had a sharper profile and more traction.

In contrast, few recent opera recital discs have given me as much pleasure as Sondra Radvanovsky’s “Verdi Arias,” the American soprano’s new collection on the Delos label.

Radvanovsky is a star at the Metropolitan Opera, with an achingly lovely voice, and much more. In an age when too many singers sound well-trained but bland, Radvanovsky is so emotion-charged and honest that she seems old-fashioned, from the pre-jet set era. What sets her apart is her fusion of glamorous vocalism and crafted storytelling: words matter to her as much as the music, and you believe she’s the character she’s singing.

With crisp diction and anguished lyricism, she’s gorgeous through arias from “Il Travatore” and heartsick longings of “O patria mia” from “Aida,” plus hit arias from less often staged operas such as “I vespri siciliani,” “La Forza del Destino,” “Il Corsaro” and “Ernani.”

Perhaps best of all is her aria “Ecco l’orrido campo” from “A Masked Ball,” where the heroine, Amelia, goes to the gallows at midnight to pick a magic herb that will quell her adulterous longings. At the moment she’s about to snap the plant stem, she catches herself trembling and intones, “Oh! Chi piange, qual forza m’arretra?” (“Oh! Why do I weep, what’s holding me back?”) Almost speaking the line, Radvanovsky makes it a moment of stabbing emotion, of a woman for the first time going inside herself, a glimmer of self-awareness. The soprano is totally in the moment, inside the role.

An ensemble called the Philharmonia of Russia, conducted by Constantine Orbelian, backs her with scrappy energy and abundant charm. (The disc, recorded in Moscow in 2008, comes with minor audio-engineering and program-note problems, although these don’t stand in the way of enjoyment.) Radvanovsky’s voice records well. I’ve heard her a few times on stage, and this CD offers the same frisson to the listener that her voice does in the opera house. This is a disc I’ll be returning to often.

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