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Luca Francesconi: Ballata / Kazushi Ono, La Monnaie Orchestra & Chorus

Francesconi / Monnaie Sym Orch / Ono
Release Date: 08/09/2011 
Label:  Stradivarius   Catalog #: 57012   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Luca Francesconi
Conductor:  Kazushi Ono
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Brussels Théâtre de la Monnaie OrchestraBrussels Théâtre de la Monnaie Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 21 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

FRANCESCONI Ballata Kazushi Ono, cond; Marco Beasley (Ancient Marriner) ; Anders Larsson (Young Marriner) ; Ildiko Komlosi (Life in Death) ; Eberhard Francesco Lorenz (Death) ; Woo-Kyung Kim (Steerman) ; Laure Delcampe (Page/3rd Wedding Guest) ; Donal J. Read more Byrne (1st Wedding Guest) ; Stephan Loges (2nd Wedding Guest) ; Susanne Schimmack (Moon) ; Silvia Weiss (1st Siren) ; C and O of the Monnaie, Brussels STRADIVARIUS STR 57012 (2 CDs: 140:52 Text and Translation) Live: 2002

What a risk-taking, creatively fertile theater the Opéra de la Monnaie is. Although much remembered for Antonio Pappano’s reign (during which Britten operas were introduced to Brussels, along with new works by the likes of Philippe Boesmans), just after Kazushi Ono took over in 2002, Brussels blazed ahead with experiments like Luca Francesconi’s Ballata, in a coproduction with the Leipzig Opera . Ballata (ballad) is an adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an unlikely choice for an opera, faithfully told but expanded in Umberto Fiori’s superb libretto.

Although it is mainly in an Italian translation (most of the poetry has been well rendered), characters drift in and out of English, a Verfremdungstechnik very fitting to this trippy Flying Dutchman -style romantic legend of the cursed sailor. Adept at writing for various multimedia genres, Francesconi, a pupil of Stockhausen and Berio, has concocted a kaleidoscopic score to set Fiori’s text. Electronic effects, wailing, whispers, and swelling, dissonant chords are all part of a busy, atonal score. There’s a slight maritime air in some of the writing, with Francesconi even giving the mariner a jaunty sea shanty for “The ice was here, the ice was there,” but otherwise it is a tense collage of high-pitched, icy violin lines and repeated rhythms. The wandering, deranged mariner is scored for singing actor, delivering his tale of maritime doom and albatross shooting in a guttural stage whisper, whereas in the flashbacks to his tale, the young mariner is sung (superbly by Anders Larsson) by a baritone. The sirens that taunt the guilt-ridden sailor are played by a four-group female chorus, using a battery of vocal noises effectively. The macabre humor of the original poem is also well conveyed, with the dice game between Death and Life-in-Death being particularly deranged. Ildiko Komlosi, better known as a Verdi mezzo, is a very old-school voice for a work like this, but she is fitting with Francesconi’s sheer range of different styles and techniques on display. Overall, though, it is very declamatory writing, where any moments of beauty or introspection come from the orchestral writing.

Ultimately, it doesn’t sustain its length very well, for all the individual nightmarish brilliance of certain scenes, and even then, that is chiefly due to Francesconi’s imaginative scoring and cleverly woven-in electronic effects. Sadly, Ballata suffers from that old pitfall of much contemporary music: ungrateful vocal writing. It is a fine, very committed cast, but predictably it is the agile, light baritone of Lieder singer Stephan Loges that copes best getting the text out. What’s strange is that Francesconi is not incapable of being lyrical. In fact there’s more than a hint of musical-theater vocalism, especially in the English-language passages, like the Mariner’s seven days, seven nights recollection. Otherwise the talented cast is subjected to the usual tortuous vocal leaps and wails, with little benefit to the text.

I know this makes me sound like a tonal-only prude, but the fact is, Francesconi has a knock-out libretto to work with and it only fitfully comes across. Orchestrally it is a different matter, with strong feel for color and rhythmic drive from the Brussels team. Oddly, Kazushi Ono is credited only inside the booklet, and it is very unclear whether this is a recording of the premiere or later in the run. Otherwise Stradivarius treats us to full text and translations, with very good notes. Sound is full-bodied and spacious but is rather overbalanced in favor of the orchestra, so diction from the singers is therefore rather cloudy, especially in the English passages. But then, the best of this imposing work lies in the orchestral writing and, although his inexperience as a stage composer shows, this disc showcases Francesconi’s talent as a vivid creator of sound tapestries.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
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Works on This Recording

Ballata by Luca Francesconi
Conductor:  Kazushi Ono
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Brussels Théâtre de la Monnaie Orchestra,  Brussels Théâtre de la Monnaie Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1996-1999; Italy 
Date of Recording: 10/29/2002 
Venue:  La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium 
Length: 4 Minutes 4 Secs. 

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