'Tis the season to hear divas

Updated: 2009-12-17 14:55
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LONDON – 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 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.

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 speak for themselves.

Following is a roundup of some recent releases:

DIANA DAMRAU - "COLORaturaS" Virgin 519313 2 2 - 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") from Gounod's "Romeo and Juliette." Two tracks later, though, she dives into one of the most demanding of coloratura 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." 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."

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. 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. 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.

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 elegant, honey-toned, golden voice singing Puccini's plaintive "Si. Mi chiamano Mimi" ("Yes, they call me Mimi"), from "La Boheme." 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"). 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.

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