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Bel Canto
Saveio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
Virginia: Icilio…lo t’amo! (1866) [4:12]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Maometto II: Giusto ciel, in tal periglio (1820) [3:25]
Semiramide: Bel raggio lusinghier…Dolce pensiero (1823) [6:47]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Magic Flute (1791): O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn [4:55]: Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen [2:54]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma: Casta diva (1831) [6:38]
Adelson e Salvini: Dopo l’oscuro nembro (1825) [5:11]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Betly: In questo semplice, modesto asilo (1836) [5:52]
Linda di Chamounix (1842): Ah! Tardai troppo…O luce di quest’anima [5:03]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Masnadieri: Dall’infame…Oh, ma la pace (1847) [8:50]
Attila: Santo di aptria indefinite amor! (1846) [5:33]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Sì dolce è ‘l tormento (1624) [4:04]
Simone Kermes (soprano)
Concerto Köln/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
rec. January 2013, Stollberger Str.3, Cologne
SONY CLASSICAL 88765 455042 [63:27]

The thrilling soprano Simone Kermes, whose recordings of the Baroque repertoire have proved so consistently alluring and have been so often accompanied by technical and expressive elevation, now embarks on a different kind of animal altogether: bel canto. Hers is not a voice one would think suitable for this literature. Its crystalline quality and relative smallness, with limited vibrato - elements that make it so persuasive in, say, music written for Farinelli and Caffarelli - are not obvious candidates for music colonised by heavier-voiced operatic denizens. Her virtuosity is assuredly an asset and she can get around any vocal impediment, but the first consideration must surely be: is this a suitable voice for the repertoire?
 
I can understand what she is trying to do. Moving from the Baroque realm forward is to do no more than many singers do in reverse. Routinely singers who specialised in nineteenth-century music would slip back into the Baroque with results that varied wildly. One of the great sports in historically informed performance on disc was to hear ascetic, vibrato-less strings accompany battleship-vibrated sopranos. So if Kermes wants to take on the bel canto rep, I don’t see why she shouldn’t.
 
I have to say, though, regrettably, that the results are consistently disappointing. Her aria from Mercadante’s Virginia has a lot of divisions and there are brocades of difficulty, and with her firmly-centred tone she responds with gleaming insistence. When we turn to Rossini, concerns present themselves. She sings her aria from Maometto II - one commends her ability to seek out rarer repertoire - with a strangely disembodied tone, and the lack of tonal body tells almost immediately. One senses that she is bringing to the character an excess of characterisation to try to make up for this lack of breath and heft, but it sounds strange in this role, despite the use - again, unusual - of Concerto Köln, which plays on instruments of the time. Her Magic Flute extracts are decidedly underpowered - textually elegant, technically impressive, but lacking requisite authority and vehemence. The softness and yielding qualities that are so much a part of her Norma (Casta diva, inevitably) are on their own terms admirable but it’s an effect very much at odds with the obvious lodestars in this kind of role. I suppose this seeming disconnect - between voice and repertoire - is at its most marked in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix; passionate repertoire sung with a studied vocal neutrality.
 
She does much the same in Verdi, again stylistically very much at odds with current practice, not least in the Attila aria. Whilst her lovely legato and feeling for phrasal line is on show in Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini much of the recital is put into perspective by the last piece, which is - significantly - Monteverdi’s Sì dolce è ‘l tormento, and hardly an example of bel canto as such. I wonder why she chose to end thus: it shows a strange lack of confidence in the core repertoire she is here espousing. Surely she can’t be aligning or co-opting Monteverdi with romantic opera. Surely, too, she can’t be saying: this is the real Kermes, and this is my central repertoire. That, however, for me, is the effect.
 
Christoph-Mathias Mueller directs competently, but in the end I’m left wondering about the point of the disc. Is Kermes suggesting that her kind of background and vocal production are historically relevant in the bel canto repertoire? The disc suggests that for all her formidable skill - and there are few singers in her natural metier I like more - she is here seriously miscast. 

Jonathan Woolf
 


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