LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The love affair has lasted more than a century and began with the woman in question having her way -- entirely.
When the Gramophone Company wanted to record soprano Adelina Patti in 1905, the then 62-year-old diva insisted it truck its equipment hundreds of miles to her castle in Wales. The resulting 17 78-rpm shellac discs broke all sales records for an industry then in its infancy.
Recitals by opera sopranos have been a staple of recording ever since, and though the industry is now in its dotage, with one foot in the grave, the love affair with the diva carries on, like a John Donne poem.
The December holidays are prime diva season and this year sees a crop of offerings from some of the best, including Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli, and others whose names may not be as well known to casual listeners, but whose voices, well, speak for themselves.
Here's a roundup, but by no means an encyclopedic one, of some recent releases:
DIANA DAMRAU - "COLORaturaS" Virgin 519313 2 2 - Ignore the daft title and Damrau's dress that looks like a patchwork quilt after a head-on collision with a paint factory. The German-born Damrau, a rising star on the opera and recital circuit, brings the bubbly spirit and charm she exudes in the opera house and concert hall to this wide-ranging disc that may bother purists for cherry-picking the repertoire, but Damrau's gameplan is more serious. She starts in a light-hearted vein with Juliette's "Ah, je veux vivre" ("Oh, I want to live" which, of course, in the end, she doesn't) from Gounod's "Romeo and Juliette." Two tracks later, though, she dives into one of the most demanding of coloratura (it refers to a singing style replete with rapid runs and trills) arias, "Grossmachtige Prinzessin" ("High and Mighty Princess"), which the coquettish Zerbinetta delivers in Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos." A little later and she's deep into that most haunting, and challenging, of 20th-century arias, "No Word from Tom," with words by Auden, from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." Damrau may not erase memories of Dawn Upshaw from a 1990 recital disc, but she's in the ball park. She wraps up with a wicked, witty version of Bernstein's "Glitter and be gay," itself a highbrow take on "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," or perhaps a parody of Gounod's "O Dieu, que de bijoux...," from "Candide." Warning: do not listen to this while driving, you may laugh yourself off the road. Fun for all ages, tastes and connoisseurs of technicolor fashions.
JOYCE DIDONATO - "Rossini: Colbran, the Muse" Virgin 6945790 6 - No one can accuse DiDonato, the American mezzo, of anything but full-bodied commitment to her Rossini, in this album, and this past season at Covent Garden in London where she took the famous dictum "break a leg" too literally on the opening night of "Barber of Seville" and sang the remainder of the run from a wheelchair. The CD, in which DiDonato sings repertoire that Rossini wrote for his wife and muse Isabella Colbran, shows off her crystal-clear voice, born and bred in the American Midwest, to its very best advantage. There may be some listeners who think 72 minutes of Rossini, unlike a similar quantity of Mozart, which is always pure bliss, might get tiresome outside of an opera context, but DiDonato mixes it up and the orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Eduardo Muller, are never less than superb accompaniment, with wonderful recorded sound. It all leads up to a "Se al mio crudel tormento...gode quest'anima" from "Armida" to blow the roof off -- all the better to let Santa in.
RENEE FLEMING - "Verismo" Decca 478 1533 - Another term from the music dictionary, meaning "extravagant realism" and usually denoting late Romantic music by Puccini, Leoncavallo and the like. They're both here, including Renee with her incredibly elegant, honey-toned, golden voice singing Puccini's plaintive "Si. Mi chiamano Mimi" ("Yes, they call me Mimi"), a case of vocal overkill if there ever was one for the signature tune of the consumptive seamstress in "La Boheme." But there is method to the madness: ever on the hunt for something old that's new, Fleming a track or two later sings Leoncavallo's version of the same thing, from his "La Boheme." She also gives us the "other" aria from Catalani's "La Wally" (the "famous" one from the rarely performed opera was a hit tune for Maria Callas and featured in the 1981 French cult film "Diva"). Fleming's, and Bartoli's new disc "Sacrificium," also on Decca and featuring tunes made famous by castrati, have been described by one reviewer as being "like graduate seminars dressed up as recitals." Well, if this is higher education, bring it on. It would take an ear of stone not to revel in the lush, beautiful vocal sound that Fleming brings to this disc, not to mention the fine support she has from the Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, with Marco Armiliato conducting. It even features a near-Disney experience for the finale, "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso" ("I drink to your lovely smile") from Puccini's "La Rondine" with tenor Jonas Kaufmann doing the male -- and of necessity, on a diva disc -- supporting role.
Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, eat your hearts out.
Editing by Paul Casciato