Cavalli: La Didone / Biondi, Mcfaddon, Staveland, Domenech, Custer

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CAVALLI La Didone Fabio Biondi, cond; Claron McFadden ( Didone ); Magnus Staveland ( Enea ); Jordi Domènech ( Iarba/Corebo ); Manuela Custer ( Cassandra/Giunone/Damigella ); Marina de Liso ( Ecuba/Mercurio/Ilioneo ); Donatella Lombardi ( Creusa/Anna/Damigella ); Isabel Álvarez ( Ascanio/Amore/Fortuna ); Antonio Lozano ( Anchise/Sicheo/Eolo ); Gian Luca Zoccatelli ( Acate/Pirro ); Filippo Morace ( Sinon Greco/Un Vecchio ); Maria Grazia Schiavo ( Venere/Iride/Damigella ); Roberto Abbondanza ( Giove/Nettuno/Un Cacciatore ); Europa Galante DYNAMIC 537/1-2 (2 CDs: 141:11 Text and Translation) Live: Venice 9/2006

Although nowhere mentioned on this jewel box, it’s actually the sound part of Dynamic 33537, a DVD version of La Didone . Recorded in 2006 and released some time ago, it escaped coming up for review in Fanfare . I’ve found some stage productions Dynamic issues to be better heard than seen, as in Leo’s L’Alidoro (Dynamic 588/1-2), a victim of maladroit direction based on the belief that the audience won’t sit still for arias. Here, on the other hand, we have a case where the DVD’s visual direction and lighting were imaginative and excellent, the costuming functional, the sets minimally constructivist and evocatively tuned to the story. The CD set necessarily misses all of this, save for the sound of frequent stage movement, and the loss of studio accuracy and poise in favor of live-on-stage communication.

Not that this is a simple dichotomy. It isn’t. Yet the point generally holds about the tradeoff between error-free performances in studios, and the greater measure of dramatic involvement on live stages. The degree to which accuracy is sacrificed while achieving vivid theatricality is what I find problematic in Didone . Magnus Staveland is a decent tenor with a bright sound, but his method of displaying passion involves a disdain for the niceties of exact intonation, as well as a willingness to speak at least a few of his sung lines. Nor is he alone in this. Several other members of the cast err on that side, too, supplementing (or ignoring) the use of color, accents, dynamics, phrasing, and rhythm, while employing a widely quivering pitch and half-spoken or spoken phrases to score emotional points. Are the results exciting? Some are. Given what we know from a multitude of archival recordings that this hyper-theatrical approach to operatic singing arose with verismo , are they anachronistic? Yes, they’re that. I find it all far less distracting when witnessing the same performers in motion on stage, and admit that in any case I would prefer the outsized, out-of-the-singing-line melodramatics of rustic chivalry and jealous, murder-bent clowns to remain in their own place. You may feel otherwise, of course.

Yet there are several things in Didone that are enjoyable purely on their vocal merits. Chief among these is Claron McFadden. The soprano has a veiled, aristocratic tone, and a chaste attention to the musical line that doesn’t preclude expressiveness—as witness her foiled suicide (“Porgetemi la spada dei semideo troiano”). Good in this latter respect, too, is Jordi Domènech as Corebo, with far more attention to the words, their enunciation, and meaning than in Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula (Ambroisie 133). Maria Grazia Schiavo’s pert tone doesn’t quite make for an ideal goddess of love and beauty, but her voice is agile, and there’s her usual musical intelligence at work.

Best of all is Fabio Biondi. He finds plenty of vitality in the score—as well as a reasonable sense of pacing to the recitative based upon stage effectiveness—but there’s an awareness, too, of the value of sentiment. Where several of Biondi’s fellow Italian conductors in the early-music field are willing to treat slow, emotive numbers as unnecessary speed bumps in a race to the finish, he recognizes both the general need for contrast, and the opera’s strong use of internal contrasts to mirror life. His own solo playing is of course excellent, as is that of his expert ensemble, Europa Galante. His “critical revision” of the score will annoy some, but it bears remembering that opera composers in the 17th century displayed a willingness to accept both stage and major orchestration changes to fit the needs of the moment.

In short, those elements I enjoy on this album are on the DVD as well, while the DVD at least minimizes somewhat the negative points in the performance. My recommendation is to check out that DVD, and if the staging doesn’t suit you, then consider this recording above all for Cavalli, McFadden, Domènech, and Biondi.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: DYN-CDS537

  • UPC: 8007144605377

  • Label: Dynamic

  • Composer: Pier Francesco Cavalli

  • Conductor: Fabio Biondi

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Europa Galante

  • Performer: Claron McFadden, Donatella Lombardi, Isabel Alvarez, Jordi Domènech, Magnus Staveland, Manuela Custer, Marina De Liso