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Royal Mezzo
Barber: Andromache's Farewell
Berlioz: La mort de Cléopâtre
Ravel: Shéhérazade
Britten: Phaedra
Jennifer Larmore, mezzo soprano; Grant Park Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, conductor

Review By Joe Milicia
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  Three tragic queens — two from Greek mythology, one historical but hardly less mythic — come together in a program of dramatic scenes, with Jennifer Larmore and Chicago's summer-festival Grant Park Orchestra, led by their principal conductor, Carlos Kalmar. To lighten the mood and fill out the program, Larmore and Kalmar add Ravel's ravishingly languorous song cycle Shéhérazade. Larmore is well known to opera-goers and CD collectors for the diversity of her repertoire, from baroque to contemporary; here, singing in French and English, she displays her considerable vocal and dramatic strengths in works that also show off the orchestra rather spectacularly.

Samuel Barber wrote Andromache's Farewell in 1962 for the soprano Martina Arroyo, the New York Philharmonic and conductor Thomas Schippers. The English text, taken from Euripides' Trojan Women, could hardly be more anguish-laden, as Hector's widow must relinquish her young son to the conquering Greeks, who will cast him from the high walls of Troy. The music anticipates Barber's soon-to-come (and still much under-valued) opera Antony and Cleopatra, with echoes of his Medea ballet. It's a compact and powerful work, unmistakably Barber from the first bars of the orchestral introduction, featuring a 4-note theme that will become the melody of Andromache's first words, "So you must die…." A later section, preceding the words "Oh dearest embrace," features one of those great heartbreaking Barber oboe melodies. Though "officially" a mezzo soprano, Larmore has the necessary high notes to command the role, and emphasizes the anger the part calls for, as well as the grief and the regal bearing: the words "not for Greeks to slaughter" are practically spit out in a parlando style.

To be sure, Arroyo's premiere recording of 1963 (originally paired with William Schuman's Eighth Symphony with Bernstein) is pretty formidable, and easily available at bargain price on Sony Classical: either the "Masterworks Heritage" CD devoted to Schippers conducting instrumental works of Barber and a few others or, truly unmissable (though no texts are provided), a "Masterworks Portrait" CD of classic performances of Barber works  for voice: Knoxville Summer of 1915 with Eleanor Steber, Dover Beach with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Julliard Quartet, and Hermit Songs with Leontine Price. Arroyo, a dramatic soprano who shared with Price some repertoire (e.g., a number of Verdi heroines) and an emotional intensity, is more of a tender mother, less of an outraged queen, than Larmore, but her high notes are thrilling and the low ones quite strong enough. Arroyo is more impressive in a vocal swell from soft to loud on the first syllable of "nothing," but Larmore matches her in a similar moment in the phrase "come close." Both singers reach the final climax on the word "son" with stunning force and accuracy. As for the orchestras, Sony's restored sound is overall excellent for its vintage; true, the New York Philharmonic's strings sound a bit thin and metallic, but the winds—especially oboe, clarinet and English hor n— are supremely moving, in part thanks to closer miking. Cedille's recording blends the winds more into the overall fabric — somewhat unfortunately, I would say—but Kalmar leads his Chicago forces in a strong, nuanced performance.

The young Hector Berlioz' Death of Cleopatra was written in 1829 (a year before he achieved notoriety with his SymphonieFantastique) in competition for the Prix de Rome. The academic committee who rejected the piece must have found it strange indeed, from its unusual harmonies to its very graphic conclusion with fading heartbeat and death rattle in the strings, as the asp's deadly poison takes hold of the suicidal queen. Today's new listeners will more likely be startled by the nostalgic melody heard when Cleopatra sings of her glory days on her barge, "on the bosom of the waves, comparable to Venus": it's more familiar to most of us as a tune Berlioz later used in the Roman Carnival Overture and the opera Benvenuto Cellini. (Another part of this cantata showed up in Lélio, the "sequel" to the Symphonie Fantastique.)

Though a rarity before the LP era, La mort de Cléopâtrehas been recorded by quite a few major artists in more recent times: Jennie Tourel with Bernstein, Jessye Norman with Barenboim, Janet Baker with Colin Davis, Olga Borodina with Gergiev. I tried a 1977 LP of Yvonne Minton with Pierre Boulez and the BBC Orchestra for comparison. Minton is superior in giving dramatic weight to individual words: the scorn and disgust projected through every syllable of l'esclavage (enslavement) is just one example. But Larmore's low notes are more powerful, and her overall command of the role makes up for a lack of fine details of characterization. Kalmar's conducting is as dramatic and sensitive to the work's dark harmonies as Boulez's, and Cedille's sound is far superior in every way.

It's quite a leap from the solemnity and bitterness of Berlioz' Cleopatra to the languid sensuality of Ravel's 1903 Shéhérazade, a setting of three poems by Tristan Klingsor that provide some pretty ripe examples of what is now called Orientalism: e.g., in "Asia," the first poem, "I'd like to see beautiful turbans of silk above dark faces with shining teeth... I'd like to see merchants with shady looks [regards louches]... pot-bellied mandarins under umbrellas and princesses with slender hands…smiling assassins...." Larmore, Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra — including the unnamed flutist in "The Enchanted Flute" — are admirably sensitive to the colors and sinuosity of the music, and reach a fine climax in "Asia" on "I'd like to see dying from love — or from hate." For yet more gorgeous orchestral and vocal sound and spellbinding merging of text and music, one will have to go back to another classic recording: RegineCrespin with Ernest Ansermet and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (1964; now paired with music of Debussy and Poulenc as well as the original Berlioz).

To complete the program, Larmore and Kalmar offer Phaedra, which Benjamin Britten adapted from Robert Lowell's translation of Racine's Phèdre, about the compulsive and fatal attraction the wife of Theseus feels for her stepson Hippolytus.  Britten wrote it near the end of his life for Janet Baker, who premiered and recorded it in 1976 with Stuart Bedford and the English Chamber Orchestra. Britten emphasizes both the lunatic passion of Phaedra and her chilling resignation to death after the destruction she has brought: her appeal to Hippolytus is a miniature mad scene, full of wild melisma, and her address to Theseus, as the poison she has swallowed takes effect, is partly in a monotone. The composer, following some of the practices of the baroque solo cantata but with his own completely distinctive style, uses a reduced orchestra of strings, percussion (chimes, cymbals, kettledrums), and a solo harpsichord and cello as a continuo of sorts.

I haven't heard the Baker version (it's currently available on multiple-disc sets or MP3 download), but Larmore/Kalmar compare very favorably with a 1986 Felicity Palmer/John Whitfield and the Endymion Ensemble CD. Palmer certainly delivers a performance full of character — more the crazy lady — but Larmore, more desperate than demented, is incisive and queenly as she negotiates some breathtakingly difficult music. And here, Kalmar and his orchestra are absolutely superb, powerful and razor-sharp in response to the shifting moods of the piece. Shockingly, the excellent harpsichordist — who does sound demented but utterly in control in following the wandering mind of Phaedra — is unnamed.

Fans of Jennifer Larmore — or of the Grant Park Orchestra — will of course want this CD, and while there are distinguished alternate versions of each piece, one is not likely to find another disc with this fascinating combination of works. Andrea Lamoreaux's extensive program notes plus full texts and translations are a welcome bonus.

 

 

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