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 Recording of the Week  New Verdi releases from Jonas Kaufmann and others

Having been somewhat eclipsed by fellow birthday-boys Wagner and Britten earlier in the year, Verdi is finally getting a look-in this autumn, so here’s the pick of September’s bicentenary tributes.

Jonas Kaufmann
Jonas Kaufmann

Jonas Kaufmann begins his association with Sony with a survey of his past, present and future Verdi roles: the recital opens with a virile Duke of Mantua so powerfully sung that one can’t imagine him being cast in the role on stage these days, and ends with Otello, a role which Kaufmann already has in the diary (though he’s coy about precise details!). Before listening, I wondered if his very subtle brand of artistry would appear to best advantage in this repertoire, but as with his earlier Verismo disc there’s just the right amount of greasepaint – and ample opportunity for him to display his massive dynamic range and superhuman command of diminuendo (try the final note of ‘Celeste Aida’, so often just belted out as long as the singer has breath!). Excerpts from Aida and Un ballo in maschera in particular whet the appetite for full productions, but the real high point is that foretaste of Otello, the role which many consider him born to sing. This is where Kaufmann’s gift for nuanced psychological drama really comes home to roost: witness the numb, bleached-out sound as he struggles to process Desdemona’s infidelity, or the terrifying exultation with which he contemplates his ‘double revenge’. He’s an operatic tragedian par excellence, and even a seven-minute glimpse of his ‘Moor of Venice’ provokes pity and terror in spades. Wherever and whenever he debuts the full role, I’m going!

Kaufmann is also one quarter of the luxury solo line-up in Daniel Barenboim’s visceral new Requiem, with Anja Harteros, Elīna Garanča and René Pape completing the dream-team: what a thrill to hear four such exciting voices announce their arrival one by one in those first electrifying entries in the Kyrie. If Harteros – who actually sounds relatively light in such big-voiced company – is stronger on ethereal tenderness than on blood-and-thunder, it’s all to the good: the notorious soft high B flat in the last movement surely rivals Caballé! The chorus and orchestra are on rip-roaring operatic form, not least in a properly apocalyptic ‘Dies Irae’, complete with sinister sibilance that chills the blood and percussion-playing to rouse the dead. Terrific.

Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni
Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni

There’s also a splendid Simon Boccanegra out today, recorded live in concert in Vienna last year. Plácido Domingo has become so ubiquitous in the title-role of late that it’s almost a shock now to hear it sung by a true lyric-dramatic baritone, and here Thomas Hampson is superb: lithe and youthful as the swashbuckler of the Prologue, audibly care-worn and conflicted in the opera proper - and the recognition-scene with his daughter will make your eyes prickle.

Kristine Opolais’s cool-toned Amelia/Maria takes a while to relax into her opening aria, but really feeds off Hampson and Joseph Calleja’s warmth in their subsequent scenes together. Calleja, who brought the house down in this role at the 2010 Proms, sounds as golden and impetuous as ever, and Luca Pisaroni (Hampson’s son-in-law!) oozes subtle, uncaricatured menace as the treacherous Paolo: surely there’s more Verdi to come from this charismatic young Italian. But the real dramatic lynchpin is the orchestra, particularly in the deceptive calmness of the first scene, the manic, oppressive jubilation as the newly-bereaved Boccanegra is crowned Doge and the blood-curdling moment when Paolo is forced to curse himself in the Council Chamber.

Top-notch celebrations for the great man’s 200th birthday next month, then, from some of his finest advocates of the day!

Verdi: Requiem

Anja Harteros (soprano), Elīna Garanča (mezzo), Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), René Pape (bass), Orchestra e coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Daniel Barenboim Also available on (Download not yet available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Thomas Hampson (Simon Boccanegra), Joseph Calleja (Gabriele Adorno), Kristine Opolais (Amelia/Maria), Carlo Colombara (Fiesco), Luca Pisaroni (Paolo), Wiener Symphoniker & Wiener Singakademie, Massimo Zanetti (Download not yet available in all countries)

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC