Saturday, July 20, 2013

Zanaida, or How an interesting recording project goes astray

Some record companies release very interesting recordings on a regular basis. As far as early music is concerned the French label ZigZag Territoires is one of them. They often present little-known repertoire, and many performances are very good. Unfortunately the production is not always of the same standard. The recent release of a recording of the opera Zanaida by Johann Christian Bach is a good example.

Let me start with the merits of this recording. Johann Christian Bach was an important composer in his time and widely admired, not the least by Mozart. He was especially active as a composer of operas, first in Italy and then in England. However, today his music is still underestimated, and that certainly is true for his operas. Some of them have been recorded, but they don't belong to the standard repertoire of today's opera houses and even arias from his operas are seldom included in recital discs. That makes the release of a recording of Zanaide, his second opera performed in London, most welcome. It is a live recording, but fortunately one doesn't get applause after every aria which is a great relief. One can only make compliments to the audience which attended these performances. The orchestra plays period instruments. However, that hardly needs to be noticed, as that seems to be the standard these days. Three cheers for that.

That is where I have to stop singing the praise of this production, I'm afraid. This release has a number of features which are greatly annoying. Nearly all the soloists are affected by the vibrato virus. That makes listening to this performance not exactly an unqualified enjoyment. Otherwise it is almost impossible to assess the performances of individual soloists.

First of all, the libretto in the booklet is hard to read. The letters are in bleak grey on a white background. The indications of the characters is such that it strains the eyes if one wants to know exactly who sings when and what. Secondly, the record company has done those who don't understand Italian a particularly bad service. The booklet includes two translations of the libretto, in French and English respectively. However, these are printed separately which makes it impossible to follow the original and the translation simultaneously. One has to leaf back and forth constantly, and that simply doesn't work. One could decide to concentrate on the translation, at least for the recitatives. However, that is not unproblematic either. I used the English translation, and I didn't recognize much from what I heard, not even names. I soon found out that the original recitatives were severely cut. That is mentioned nowhere in the liner-notes or anywhere else.

This is a pretty bad habit in live performances, although for some reasons it never happens in, say, Mozart or romantic operas. As there is not much chance of hearing an opera by Johann Christian Bach anyway, we probably shouldn't complain too much. The problem is that the English translation doesn't indicate the cuts. In fact, we get the complete libretto instead, and that makes it virtually impossible to follow what happens as the original and the translation are consistently out of sync. As if that is not bad enough, the translation of the arias is very imprecise. It seems more a kind of paraphrase than a translation. Moreover, we seem to get here the translation of the performances in Bach's time, and these are rather hard to understand.

I simply don't get this. One can have different opinions on matters of interpretation, and some music lovers don't care about the vibrato of singers in an opera production like this. There can be little difference of opinion about the sloppiness of this production, though. It is sad that an important project like this goes astray because some people in the production department didn't care enough to make sure that the music can be fully appreciated.

Johann Christian Bach, Zanaida
Sara Hershkowitz (Zanaida), Chantal Santon (Roselane), Vannina Santoni (Osira), Julie Fioretti (Silvera), soprano; Mirina De Liso (Tamasse), Majdouline Zeran (Aglatida), mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey Thompson (Gianguir), tenor; Pierrick Boisseau (Mustafa), baritone
Opera Fuoco Orchestra/David Stern
Recorded Feb 10 & 11, 2012 at the Theatre of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
ZigZag Territoires ZZT312