Alibi V.13 No.2 • Jan 8-14, 2004 

Blue Note

The Top Classical Vocals of 2003

I would be guilty of gross falsification were I to pretend that I am able to audition more than a fraction of the classical releases that arrive weekly chez Serinus. I therefore abandon all pretence to inclusiveness, and instead focus on the vocal issues that have led me closest to the gates of heaven these past 12 months.

Montserrat Caballé Bellini: Norma at Theatre Antique d'Orange, 1974 (Vai DVD/Video)

Captured in stunning voice, soprano Caballé is in absolute command from her first note. Her "Casta Diva" is exquisite. Alternating between forte phrases devoid of bluster and breathtaking shimmering pianissimi, she fills the aria with nuance, her final highs spun out to lengths designed to drive devotees to distraction. The diva's unequalled breath control enables her to deliver one mesmerizing phrase after another. With acting remarkably graceful and convincing, this is a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Josephine Veasey is nearly Caballé's match as Adalgisa. I personally think Jon Vickers sounds like a cross between a used car salesman and a bully, but those who appreciate him will enjoy his portrayal of the despicable Roman consul. (If the pagan Norma is a barbarian, then George Bush must be the Second Coming). Giuseppe Patanè provides perfect support. The outdoor setting is thrilling, and the mono sound sufficiently doctored to satisfy. Do not miss this!

Canteloube Songs of the Au Vergne, Karina Gauvin, soprano (CBS)

Joseph Cantaloube's 30 Chants d'Auvergne, published between 1923 and 1955, are among the most instantly likeable atmospheric creations of 20th century song. Usually heard with full orchestra, they are here supported by a 16-musician chamber ensemble that fully captures Canteloube's romance with southern France's Auvergne. Soprano Karina Gauvin delivers gorgeous renditions distinguished by soft, heartfelt singing of the deepest intimacy. Though certainly less "folky" sounding than the classic 1963 version by soprano Netania Devrath, Gauvin's authenticity arises from her core. If one could wear out CDs, I'd already be on my second copy. The sonics are of demonstration quality.

Metropolitan Opera and Chorus featuring Karita Mattila and Ben Heppner Beethoven's Fidelio (DG DVD/Video)

Recorded in 2000, this performance stunned PBS audiences when broadcast earlier this year. Mattila, easily our finest living Leonore, is vocally and visually stunning. Her gorgeous soprano creates a virtual catalogue of emotions, her 6 ft. frame surprisingly convincing when suited in male attire. Heppner's Florestan sounds like he never experienced a vocal crisis, his tone powerful and gleaming. The other principals -- Robert Lloyd (Don Fernando), René Pape (Rocco), Matthew Polenzani (Jaquino), Falk Struckmann (Don Pizarro) and Jennifer Welch-Babidge (Marzelline) -- are equally convincing, with Pape an especial standout. Levine's conducting remains a singer's dream.

Elly Ameling The Artistry of Elly Ameling (Phillips)

The radiant freshness of Ameling's soprano remains unequalled to this day. Of paramount importance, this collection includes many performances never before available on CD. Selections extend from a Bach cantata recorded in 1964 (when Ameling was a fresh-voiced 31) to songs set down at the peak of her vocal and interpretive maturity. The prize is 11 Brahms lied from 1977 and 19 Wolf songs from 1970, all with Dalton Baldwin. (I waited years for the Brahms). Those privileged to attend Ameling's recent Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory witnessed first hand her ability to spin out phrases with a caressing understatement that faithfully illuminated the text. Available at discount price (albeit without translations).

Vienna Philharmonic featuring Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior Wagner's Die Walküre (Naxos)

Naxos earns bouquets for bargain restorations of Caruso, Gigli, Tauber, Teyte, Melba, Schumann, and Acts I and II of this unforgettable Walküre. Begun in 1935 with Lehmann, Melchior, List and the Vienna Philharmonic under Walter, it was finished in 1938 with other forces after Lehmann, List and Walter had fled Germany. The ecstatic Lehmann sings with naked intimacy, Melchior is unquestionably the greatest heldentenor on record, and Walter conducts to the manner born. Of supreme importance is Hans Hotter's first attempt at Wotan. Act I has been on more "Top 10 Opera Recordings" lists than there are items for sale on Ebay; only Callas' Tosca and Sutherland's Art of the Prima Donna have received equal accolades. (Search for the sonically compromised but nonetheless breathtaking recording of Act II with Lehmann, Melchior and Flagstad under Reiner live from San Francisco 1936 if you dare step even closer to Valhalla.)