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Divas Of Mozart's Day

Arias by Mozart, Righini, Salieri, Martín y Soler, Storace and Cimarosa

Patrice Michaels, soprano; Classical Arts Orchestra, Stephen Alltop, conductor

Review By Joe Milicia
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Divas Of Mozart's Day

CD Number: Cedille CDR 90000 064 


  Cedille's CD is as delightful in concept as it is satisfying in execution. Its program of 13 arias has been arranged around the careers of five sopranos who created major Mozart heroines: the first Constanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, the first Susanna and Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, and the first Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Coś fan tutte. Patrice Michaels, rather than singing the well-known arias from these operas, tackles relatively obscure pieces by Mozart and other composers, written expressly for the unique vocal talents of each woman.

The concept behind the album is that of musicologist Dorothy Link, who also provides detailed program notes on both the divas and the music. Six of the arias were world premiere recordings at the time of this 2002 CD's release, as were two Mozart recitatives: one (discovered in 1999 by Link herself) for his own "Vado, ma dove," one for a Cimarosa aria.

Consider the choice of music devoted to Nancy Storace, the first Susanna. We get a concert aria written by Mozart for her farewell recital ("Non temer, amato bene," famous for its piano obbligato and perhaps the best-known piece on this CD); an aria from Vicente Martín y Soler's Una cosa rara (a huge hit in Vienna for both the composer and the soprano); a comic aria by Salieri, Mozart's "infamous" rival; and an English air by Storace's brother Stephen (the siblings were half English, half Italian), originally inserted in an opera by Paisiello at its London premiere. These four pieces suggest that Storace must have had quite a range of capabilities: melting lyricism, comic wit, dazzling virtuosity.

Equally enlightening are the three selections saluting another soprano, Catarina Cavalieri, for whom Mozart devised the fiendish coloratura of "Martern aller Arten" in The Abduction from the Seraglio. It is absolutely fascinating to hear other arias designed to exploit her distinctive talents: an aria by Mozart composed for an oratorio he threw together for a charity benefit; a rarity by Vicenzo Righini; and an aria in German by Salieri. Link argues that Mozart used the last as a model for "Martern aller Arten," written a year later--and indeed, any listener familiar with the Mozart showpiece will immediately hear a resemblance.

Of course, such a musical program presents a huge challenge for any soprano: not merely to sing very difficult music very well but to make us conscious of the vocal personalities of each of those five "absolute" prima donnas of their day. Put the challenge this way: how many sopranos of any era could embody Susanna and the Countess equally well, not to mention Constanze and both sisters of Coś? Patrice Michaels is primarily a concert soloist, though she has appeared on many opera stages as well, specializing in music of the baroque and classical ages. Her voice is light and agile, certainly capable of the music on this program, if more rarely displaying a diva's flair and audacity.

It may be unfair, but I could not resist comparing her renditions of certain arias to those of a true diva of our day, Cecilia Bartoli, who recently (on her Salieri Album for Decca/London) "covered" two of the three Salieri arias on the Cedille disc. Besides having a plummier voice in general, Bartoli has chest tones that allow the lowest notes to ring out in a way that Michaels cannot match. She also "acts" with her voice — perhaps excessively for some listeners' tastes. In an aria from La cifra, in which a shepherdess laments her love for a nobleman, Bartoli's lass rages against her fate rather than simply bemoaning it, and in the last line, where the text refers to sighing (sospirar), her voice deliberately, almost startlingly, quavers. In a comic aria from La grotto di Trofonio, in which a sorcerer turns a serious young lady into a giddy jokester, Bartoli acts out every La ra la (translated in the booklet as "Tra la la") as if she were drunk. In both these pieces, Michaels' more neutral style might satisfy some listeners more: though her lover's lament is less varied in mood, it is a lyrical outpouring that lets the music speak for itself, and much the same might be said for the comic aria.

Much of the same contrast can be discovered by a listener in possession of the 1999 broadcast tape of the Met production of The Marriage of Figaro.  Here Bartoli sings, in place of Susanna's melting Act IV "Deh vieni, non tadar" (written for Storace), a bravura aria Mozart substituted in a 1789 revival to suit the talents of Adriana Ferrarese, another of our five divas. Bartoli's choice was very controversial at the time, for the aria, especially as she displays it, is truly a showstopper, in both the good and bad senses. Surely, as a rare treat, the choice was justified. In any case, Michaels' version on the CD is, if not dazzling, satisfying, and the unusual scoring, featuring basset horns and French horns, plus pizzicato strings at one point, projects clearly, thanks to Cedille and conductor Stephen Alltop.

In short, Michaels' more generalized style allows us to focus on the arias themselves and their place in musical history, rather than upon what the diva herself is doing with the music to make it her own. There are a few selections — notably Mozart's aforementioned concert aria "Non temer, amato bene," a sort of double concerto for voice and pianoforte with orchestra — where a lack of brilliance seems a disservice to the music; but in other cases, especially the Cimarosa aria that concludes the disc, Michaels has a vocal command that more than meets the occasion.

Among the incidental pleasures of this CD is the discovery of how much excellent vocal music besides Mozart's was being written in Vienna in the 1780s. (Except for one 1781 aria, all the music here is dated between 1785 and 1790.) All three of the Salieri pieces are memorable, but the same could be said for almost anything on the recital, not least an aria by one Vincenzo Righini, with its clarinet obbligato. (That instrument, relatively new in the 1780s, clearly was a favorite of others besides Mozart: it's prominent in quite a few arias on the disc.) Although Alltop plays the pianoforte in "Non temer" with less flair than one would like, he is a more than able conductor of the Classical Arts Orchestra, which acquits itself admirably on what I assume are period instruments. A final incidental bonus is the presence of Peter Van De Graff, best known as the voice of late-night classical radio, who proves equally mellifluous as a singer. He contributes only a few brief lines to "La ra la," but plays Leporello to Michaels' Zerlina in the seldom-performed Duettino of Don Giovanni (inserted for Luisa Laschi, the original Countess), in which the outraged country girl ties the Don's reluctant henchman to a chair.





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