We began the evening with a work that I believe is one of the real treasures of the opera world. Der Rosenkavalier is a comic opera in four acts by Richard Strauss, using a libretto by Strauss’s regular collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal that was based on an idea of Harry von Kessler’s. It was premiered in January 1911 in Dresden, and enjoyed immediate and long-lasting success. It is one of the few operatic work that makes use of waltzes, which helps create a unique and interesting contrast in terms of how the music feels, with Strauss using 20th century harmonic techniques in the midst of waltz tempos. The opera is also notable for Strauss’ use of the female voice, with three female lead roles that often engage in duets and trios that are quite extraordinary. Numerous performances and recordings of the opera have featured the best female voices in opera.
Tonight’s recording is considered one of the best existing recordings of this masterpiece, a 1956 recording (with great sound quality) with legendary singers Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, (one of the great sopranos of the 50s and ’60s, who was noted for her interpretation of the Marschallin role), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano, who was equally noted for her many “trouser roles”) and Teresa Stich-Randall singing the lead roles, along with Otto Edelmann and Eberhard Wächter, and the legendary Herbert Von Karajan leading the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Our second work of the evening is a wonderful recording of Handel’s 1718 opera Acis and Galatea. Composed while Handel was the house composer at Cannons in Middlesex to a libretto by John Gay, and using a story that he had used in a 1708 serenata, the work was revised and adapted by Handel on several occasions over the years. For a number of years it was his most popular dramatic work, and his only work for the stage that never left the general repertory (Mozart made an arrangement of the piece in 1788). While most performances use a modified arrangement, including some Handel arias that were not written for the piece, tonight’s recording uses “the Original Cannons Performing Version of 1718″.
The recording, a lovely package that offers an SACD layer as well as standard stereo, was a finalist in the Baroque Vocal category in the 2009 Gramophone Awards, and also won an Opus d’Or. It makes striking use of smaller vocal and instrumental ensembles, with the soloists also forming the choir (quite unusual these days), and features Susan Hamilton, Nicholas Mulroy, Thomas Hobbs, Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Brook; the Dunedin Consort and Players was directed by John Butt.