With the festive season upon us, it’s time for some highly prized CD recommendations as suggested gifts for music-lovers. Thanks to the current vicissitudes of our South African postal service, I finally got to sample two remarkable new Opera Rara albums this week that were released in the UK back in September. Titled Espoir and Écho, these two companion discs mark the debut recital albums respectively of two widely-admired young international stars, the maverick American tenor, Michael Spyres, and the magnificent Lebanese-Canadian soprano, Joyce El-Khoury.
The pair sang the romantic leads in Opera Rara’s prize-winning 2014 recording of Donizetti’s four-act French grand opera, Les Martyrs, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (reviewed in this column), and they are scheduled to team up again in another Donizetti rarity, L'Ange de Nisida, to be recorded by Opera Rara in July next year, also under Elder’s baton.
Both Espoir and Écho offer superbly curated programmes of mainly French repertoire, rarely heard these days, from the 1830s and 40s. Each disc celebrates a trail-blazing singer of the period. Spyres, who has wowed audiences in recent years with the superlative extended top range of his exciting tenor voice, has dedicated his disc to the memory of the legendary Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806 – 1896).
It was Duprez who re-wrote the annals of opera by becoming the first tenor to sing his clarion high notes in full voice, as we are accustomed to hearing them sung today, off the chest, instead of moving into the head register, and rendering them with an effete-sounding semi-falsetto, as had been the prior practice.
Spyres, in essaying his daring selection of arias by Rossini, Donizetti, Halevy, Auber and Berlioz, has a field day in dispatching a triumphant succession of high C’s, D’s and even an astounding top E-flat. But this is no crass exhibitionist, but a true stylist who commands a becoming sense of elegance and musicality in his phrasing to off-set the visceral allure of his bravura singing.
El-Khoury, too, with her appealingly distinctive soprano sound, deserves the wide acclaim her debut recital disc has garnered in the international press. Dedicating her release to the soprano, Julie Dorus-Gras (1805-1896), the choice items to be heard in Echo reflects the roles espoused by El-Khoury’s illustrious musical forebear. Besides two famous extracts from Lucia di Lammermoor, her fascinating programme features arias by Meyerbeer, Rossini, Halevy, Herold, and Berlioz.
Spyres and El-Khouri appear in duet tracks with each other on their two discs, which are accompanied by the Halle Orchestra conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Each has a well-documented information booklet with English translations of the recorded tracks.
Delving into some back-catalogue items, I recently acquired two thrilling Harmonia Mundi releases by the Belgian former-counter-tenor-turned-conductor, Rene Jacobs. I could not be more delighted with these purchases. Even after half a century of collecting opera recordings, I find that Jacobs' approach to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with its sublime young cast, combines deeply informed musical scholarship with challenging interpretive savvy, enabling one to listen to Mozart's last masterpiece as if for the first time. Another triumph from the ever-remarkable Maestro Jacobs is his recording of Haydn’s last oratorio. His reading of The Seasons sweeps the boards, and is clearly in a class of its own. In the hands of Jacobs and his team, each of the successive arias and trios in this superlative recording carries the listener along with an interpretive life force that matches the veteran composer's own white hot creation. Stupendous.