They are all strong enough musically to not need the paraphernalia of being staged, for each creates a theatre for the imagination – your mind’s eye can deal with costumes and decor, and singing actors also leave one in little doubt of the storyline – although rest assured that Chandos provides the libretto/translation, a synopsis, and background for each stage-work, and the respective recordings are superb.
Jules Massenet’s Thaïs (1892-4/98) is luxuriously romantic and atmospheric, beautifully melodious, dramatic where necessary, and with character-painting in abundance, the orchestra offering descriptive brushstrokes. It is done proud by Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony, and boasts a fine cast including Erin Wall (in the titular role), Joshua Hopkins and Andrew Staples. I have listened more than once to Thaïs the opera very successfully as an oratorio. In context the famous violin ‘Méditation’ doesn’t turn up until halfway though Act II, and when it does it is most-sensitively essayed by TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow. CHSA 5258 [2 SACDs].
Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner, 1949) was originally a radio opera, so has even more reason to communicate a narrative without the aid of visuals, which it does with Expressionist leanings and edgy or aphoristic orchestration. It was first staged in Florence conducted by Hermann Scherchen, 1950, and ten years later reached New York, Stokowski at the helm. The Prisoner makes and leaves a big impression in this vibrant account with five fine singers; Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Danish National Concert Choir & Symphony Orchestra. CHSA 5276 [SACD].
William Alwyn’s Miss Julie (1973-76, after Strindberg, libretto by the composer) – set in a Count’s Swedish country house on Midsummer Night – bares its teeth from the off, dripping decadence and eeriness. It’s a great piece, suspenseful: like a Hitchcock movie you know some sort of trouble is brewing, the atmosphere is chilling, the word “crazy” oft-heard, a measure of the singers’ clarity of diction (cast as illustrated). Sakari Oramo’s belief in this opus is palpable throughout its close-on two hours’ duration. CHSA 5253 [2 SACDs].
I now hand over to Classical Source colleagues to take these operas further.