HANDEL, MOZART, ROSSINI, BELLINI, BOITO, MONTEMEZZI: arias. Samuel Ramey, bass, with Donato Renzetti conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosia Chorus. Philips 420 184-2 (1 CD). Ramey, the most glamorous basso of the day, commands a big, dark, pliant voice that rings with exceptional freedom at the top and tends toward fuzziness at the bottom. He revels in the surface theatrics of Boito's Mefistofele, masters the heroic coloratura of Handel's Argante, spins a splendid legato in Bellini's "Va ravviso." The vocal fervor is most spectacular in Archibaldo's great monologue from "L'amore dei tre re." Ramey's well-sung "Madamina," on the other hand, lacks Mozartean wit (this is Don Giovanni masquerading as Leporello), and, in general, the recital is more notable for plangent tone than for probing drama.
VERDI: REQUIEM; OPERATIC CHORUSES. Susan Dunn, Diane Curry, Jerry Hadley, Paul Plishka, soloists, with Atlanta Symphony and Chorus conducted by Robert Shaw. Telarc 80152 (2 CDs). This dark-horse recording easily eclipses the recent Muti/Scala effort. Shaw does not command stellar forces, but this hardly prevents him from realizing the sweep, the grandeur and the majesty of Verdi's masterpiece. The scale is heroic, the dynamic nuances are sensitive, and the dramatic impact is momentous (this conductor even dares make generous use of the old-fashioned Luftpause ). The quartet is dominated by Hadley's sweet tenor (worthy of comparison in this music with Bergonzi and Gigli) and by Curry's burnished mezzo (worthy of comparison with Jessye Norman and Ebe Stignani). Dunn sounds properly ethereal, despite a tendency to approach top notes from below in the Caniglia manner; Plishka exudes dignified strength. Because the choral singing is passionately virtuosic, the five added opera ensembles serve as a welcome bonus.
A GILBERT & SULLIVAN GALA: arias and ensembles sung by Valerie Masterson, Sheila Armstrong, Robert Tear, Benjamin Luxon; Bournemouth Sinfonietta under Kenneth Alwyn, Northern Sinfonia under Richard Hickox. Angel/EMI 7477632 (1 CD). The sweet Savoyard love music probably has never been recorded with comparable bel-canto elegance. Masterson's limpid soprano is invariably exquisite, and her way with the demure texts is charming. Armstrong, though less dazzling technically, is never less than pretty. Tear sings Sullivan as if he were Peter Pears singing Britten--not a bad idea at all--and Luxon may just muster the neatest, wittiest, most musical "John Wellington Wells" in the catalogue. The only problem involves sloppy and/or inconsiderate annotation: unless one happens to recognize the voices, there is no way of telling who is singing what. The orchestral accompaniments are spiffy.
RICHARD STRAUSS: "Arabella." Kiri Te Kanawa, Gabriele Fontana, Helga Dernsech, Gwendolyn Bradley, Franz Grundheber, Ernst Gutstein, forces of Royal Opera, Covent Garden conducted by Jeffrey Tate. London 417623-2 (Three compact discs). Strauss' uneven but often wondrous exercise in post-"Rosenkavalier" nostalgia provides Te Kanawa with one of her most congenial roles, and, she sounds generally radiant (the high climax of the love duet does provide a momentary problem). Fontana complements her as a lustrous Zdenka, and, despite a few strained top notes, Grundheber introduces a passionate yet sensitive Mandryka. Dernesch and Gutstein offer colorful character studies as the heroines' parents, and Bradley yodels the Fiakermilli fioriture as deftly as one has a right to expect. Somewhat inflexible, Tate luxuriates in the slow passages, gets stodgy in agitated transitions. London's annotation ignores biographical sketches of the singers which, in the cases of the little-known Fontana and Grundheber, is ridiculous.