A True Operatic Rarity, a Major Masterpiece Masterfully Realized, and Something Truly New

Three recent releases from the Naxos family, each uniquely compelling


Charles Gounod: La nonne sanglante (Naxos DVD)

Mention Gounod and at once Faust, and probably Romeo et Juliette come to mind. What…he wrote another dozen operas? Yes, and the story behind how La nonne sanglante came and got buried so quickly is fascinating; better still, now that we have a full performance on DVD, we can thoroughly a work that should establish at least a minor foothold in the French operatic repertoire.

For the bicentennial of Gounod’s birth, the Opera Comique and Francois Roussillon et Associes co-produced this rarity. Premiered at the Opera Comique in 1854, the opera was off to a great start, with a lavish production making money after eleven performances, and good reviews. Then the new company director declared that “such trash” would no longer be seen at his house, and Gounod, despite being ready to edit the work, soon turned to Faust, and La nonne sanglante truly became history.

It is of course a Gothic tale of a murdered nun who traps an unsuspecting man into vows that prevent him from marrying his true love…who was betrothed to his brother in order to end a long-standing feud between the families. I think you get the picture—which in this production is strikingly black and white, so to speak. Everyone looks washed out, while the Nun glows ethereally, her white garment all the more stark against the occasional splashes of blood which appear now and then.

More importantly, there is some fine music here; I found myself thinking on more than one occasion that the orchestra writing was more engaging than many stretches in Faust and Romeo et Juliette. The principals in this 2018 performance (filmed by Naxos at the Opera Comique) are strong, particularly Michael Spyres as the entrapped Rodolphe. His true love, Agnes, is brought to winsome life by Vannina Santoni, and Marion Lebegue gives La Nonne a truly haunting sound with her deep mezzo. The video disc is well worth a look.




Schubert: Die Winterreise

Ian Bostridge and Thomas Ades (Pentatone CD)

Let me start by saying that, although I first heard (and loved) Schubert’s masterful song cycle some 45 years ago, I am no expert on the work. Not only that, I am totally unfamiliar with Ian Bostridge’s two earlier recordings (1994 with Julius Drake now on YouTube, and a 2004 collaboration with Leif Ove-Andsnes). So if you want to nit-pick go ahead; this is a “generic” rave review, and I’ll leave it to the aficionados to champion other performances (I probably first heard Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, certainly no slouches!).

But when I heard the first two or three notes of the first song issuing from Bostridge’s throat, it felt overwhelmingly pregnant with all the angst and despair that follows—even though Bostridge wrote about this song that it is a little ambiguous compared to where the cycle will take us. I was stopped in my tracks (or rather, I stopped my CD in its tracks) on Nos. 15 “Die Krohe” and 18 “Der sturmsiche Morgen”. The former is taken much more slowly than usual, and Bostridge seems to use his voice in ways that go beyond typical classical lieder singing. Likewise, 18 reveals all of Bostridge’s ability (and long experience in the work) to subtly inflect the savagely emotional text.

The Pentatone team, which recorded the performance live in Wigmore Hall, is up to their usual impeccable standards. In short, whether you are new to the work, or are always in search of new depths of interpretation in this multi-layered masterpiece, start here.




Derek Bermel: Migrations (Naxos CD)

The demands of my work schedule (translation: I don’t have near enough time to listen to, let alone write intelligently about, a fraction of what I’d like to!), have led me to develop a questionable habit: I will frequently pop a CD into my car’s player without even reading the liner notes. I hope it goes without saying that, if the performance intrigues me, I’ll go back and do a focused listening with all the requisite “homework” any self-respecting critic should do! I tell you this now because this is what I did with the Bermel disc—any my initial reaction was so different than what I experienced after establishing some context for the second hearing. Don’t worry: context aside, this is music that grabs you by the ears, and virtually demands one’s attention.

The opening work is “Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra”; the 2006 is a Wynton Marsalis commission. The five-movement suite, about a half hour in length, is colorful to say the least—in my first “cold” hearing, the muted brass almost seemed to take on a life as cartoon characters. Let me hasten to add that I was self-chastened when I looked closely and listened again: the movements bear titles such as “After a Lynching” and “Riots and Moon Shine.” The Juilliard Jazz Orchestra is vivid in its playing, and Bermel, a clarinetist himself, is featured in extended sequences.

David Alan Miller is the conductor on the disc, and the other two works are played by the Albany Symphony. “Mar de Septembro” is another five-movement piece, based on texts by Eugenio de Andrade, and voiced with luminously by Luciana Souza. The closing work is the 2009 “A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace,” and contains moods found in both the first two works, albeit strictly instrumental once more. Bermel clearly is a contemporary composer of unique voice, and I look forward to studied hearings of more of his work.

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