Candide – Glitter and Be Gay
Lakmé – Où va la jeune Indoue (Bell Song)
Martha – The Last Rose of Summer
Lucia di Lammermoor – Ancor non giunse … Regnava nel silenzio … Quando rapito in estasi
I Capuleti e i Montecchi – Eccomi in lieta vesta … Oh! quante volte
Roméo et Juliette – Dieu! Quel frisson court dans mes veines … Amour, ranime mon courage
Hamlet – A vos jeux … Partagez-vous mes fleurs … Pâle et blonde … La sirène passé et vous entraine
Le Contes d’Hoffmann – Les oiseaux dans la charmille (Doll Song)
Deh! Torna, mio bene (Theme and Variations)
Now Touch the Air Softly
The Love of the Nightingale – The Nightingale’s Song
Emma Matthews (soprano) with Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo
Recorded 16-20 September 2008 in Auditorium Rainier III, Monte Carlo
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: September 2010
CD No: DG 476 3854
Duration: 77 minutes
Time was when the arrival of a gifted coloratura soprano would cause excitement throughout the operatic community and be headline news in the musical press; indeed it would probably cause waves well beyond that. Thus the sensational overnight breakthroughs of Joan Sutherland at Covent Garden in 1959 and Beverly Sills at New York’s City Opera in 1966 made an impact among a wider public. Later Maria Callas became a household name; though it was not immediately clear that she was a coloratura diva (early post-war appearances included Wagner). Perhaps the lack of acclaim for Emma Matthews is symptomatic of the declining status of these queens of (bird)song.
On the evidence of this release Matthews certainly appears to have both the vocal allure and the florid technique to make an international career as a soprano leggiero but she seems to have slipped in under the radar: her Covent Garden debut in March 2010 was in “The Cunning Little Vixen”. Like the Sutherland and Sills, Matthews has served a long apprenticeship: she has been a member of the Australian Opera, now known as Opera Australia, since 1993, carefully building a repertoire through the soubrette and lyric regions to the demanding bel canto heroines. This DG issue is a showcase for one of the most promising operatic talents to emerge in recent years.
To judge her technical ability minus interpretation I began with the Proch Variations. In the first of them she displays her scales, arpeggios and staccatos, in the second her command of the trill and steep descents through the registers and in the third her fluency of movement above the stave. All tests are passed with aplomb; it becomes immediately apparent that this is a vocal high-achiever.A halfway house between vocal exercises and characterisation is the role of Olympia. In this performance the doll is even more mechanical than the composer envisaged. Matthews divides the repeated legato phrase (“charmille” and “du jour”) to emphasise her lack of humanity. In the second verse she adds a number of staccato upward leaps; this Spalanzani has been even more ambitious in programming his robotic invention! This is by no means a rewarding role but Matthews approaches it with some imagination. Possession of a gift, however rare, is not enough to turn a singer into a star. A coloratura needs to demonstrate the ability to convert demanding notes into a convincing dramatic representation of a character, something where Beverly Sills did supremely well despite a rather brittle voice.
Matthews’s choice of operatic selections contains some surprises. One might have expected her to offer the ‘Mad Scene’ from “Lucia di Lammermoor” but it is the Act One ‘Cavatina’ which represents that opera. The recording, with voices forward and some reverberation noticeable, emphasises the body in Matthews’s instrument but the singing impresses for fastidiousness of style. The experience is less aural spectacle than limpid tone and brisk, agile movement. She decorates the repeat of “Quando rapito” and crowns it with a top D but it is the handling of the vehicle rather than the power of the engine or the raw speed that stands out. She gets strong support from Catherine Carby, a mezzo who shows promise of her own.
In her performance of Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant pastiche of a display aria Matthews shows her ability for direct communication. She delivers Cunégonde’s lament about her moral humiliation with just the right degree of knowing irony and turns into an archetypal Viennese operetta heroine as she chortles her way entertainingly through the list of compensations which go along with her fate. The scintillating vocalises, upward scales and descending trills are neatly handled, while her vertiginous descent back into misery brings a smile. The application of the coloratura’s tricks of the trade has never seemed more irresistible.
Brad Cohen and his Monte Carlo players are worthy supporters. I have found Cohen a highly gifted conductor of nineteenth-century opera, a fine accompanist of singers who also punctiliously projects vital instrumental detail. He brings these qualities to the repertoire on this disc. The sinuous cor anglais solo in the “Candide” piece vividly speaks its message and the trumpet-and-drum passage is equally colourful. The instrumental playing is throughout is of consistently high standard, the harp solo in Lucia’s scena superb. The clarity of the recording benefits both voice and orchestra throughout.
Not all the music is equally rewarding. The piece from “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” does not represent Bellini’s extended cantilena at its best and Matthews does not bring it to life. Somehow the cardboard Cunégonde seems more real than Thomas’s Ophélie, a frothy, soft-centred creation whose music is merely a coating for paper-thin display. Having said that, Matthews delivers her ‘Mad Scene’ without any hint of pressure, reaching as high as a top F. The singer of the role of Lakmé is required to include in her tone sultry exoticism and bell-like purity. Matthew succeeds in both guises.
Matthews seemingly wants to show her ability in styles which lie on either side of the basic coloratura Fach. As a lyric soprano in Flotow’s “Last rose of summer”, she deploys a warm, rounded timbre with no hint of shrillness. She also lays claim to be one of that even rarer breed, the dramatic coloratura. We can assume that she would excel in Juliette’s ‘Waltz Song’; but it is a surprise to find the Act Four aria programmed, in which Juliette wrestles with herself, alternating between decisive action and hesitant terror, with the trills and high notes sung in full voice. In the event she proves to have the necessary solid chest register and is undaunted by the forceful declamation required in the quasi-recitative passage, though her French enunciation lacks the crispness of a native. She audibly feels the strain when the orchestra lets rip in a role which Sutherland never essayed. The jury is still out on this one.
It is good to have the two premiere recordings, the folksong-like “Now touch the air softly” and the aria from Richard Mills’s opera set in ancient Greece, whose heroine Philomene achieves salvation by undergoing a Daphne-like transformation, in her case into a nightingale. So a recital which should appeal to much more than canary-fanciers ends with birdsong.
This issue is the first fruit of an exclusive contract with ABC Classics and the Australian branch of Universal Music, released in Europe on the Deutsche Grammophon label. I suspect it heralds an international career of performances and recordings for this singer.