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Stephanie Blythe - Handel & Bach Arias

4.8 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Audio CD, November 6, 2001
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Editorial Reviews

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This is a lovely recording. Stephanie Blythe's voice must be one of the most beautiful to be heard today: smooth as silk, warm as velvet, pure, dark, almost masculine at times, even in quality across a big range down to F-sharp. She can spin out endless phrases without strain. Her intonation is impeccable, her expressiveness heartfelt, simple, and direct. The program is a string of priceless jewels, opening with the famous "Ombra mai fu" from "Serse" (better known as Handel's Largo) and closing with the Agnus Dei from Bach's B minor Mass. However, with the exception of Juno's furious outburst of jealousy from Handel's Semele, the dramatic "Where shall I fly?" from his Hercules, and one fast, light aria from Giulio Cesare, everything is slow and primarily mournful. This seems to be in the nature of the contralto repertoire, but it does generate a certain sameness despite all attempts to create variety.

One of the highlights is the heartrending mother-son duet between Cornelia and Sesto from Giulio Cesare with the splendid countertenor David Daniels, but Blythe includes both Cornelia's and Cesare's arias, fulfilling a wish no doubt cherished by many great contraltos, but impossible to realize on stage. She seems more at home in Handel's worldly arias than in Bach's sacred ones, some of which--notably the "Erbarme dich" from the St. Matthew Passion--sound a little too operatic. The violinist who plays the wonderful obbligato here is not named (and often inaudible); the fine wind soloists in the St. John Passion are also unidentified. The orchestra is good but rather stiff, the rhythm pedantic, the style, with normal tuning, semi-baroque. This is underscored by the truly baroque gamba solo in St. John. However, the beauty of the singing triumphs over all misgivings. --Edith Eisler

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Product Details

  • Performer: Stephanie Blythe, David Daniels, Emmanuelle Haim
  • Orchestra: Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
  • Conductor: John Nelson
  • Composer: George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Audio CD (November 6, 2001)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Alliance
  • ASIN: B00005A9NK
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #249,923 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joy Fleisig on September 4, 2002
Format: Audio CD
I had the great fortune to be in the audience for two Metropolitan Opera performances of `Giulio Cesare' which featured, among others, Jennifer Larmore and superstar countertenors Brian Asawa and David Daniels. However, it was the young American contralto Stephanie Blythe who managed to steal the show from all of them as Cornelia, becoming an overnight sensation. Actually, I had already been following Blythe's career for several years - from a 1995 Berta in 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia' (where, admittedly, she sounded a bit too big and `divaish' for a comic comprimaria), she impressed me mightily. She was then a member of the Met's Young Artist Program, and went on to such roles as Auntie in 'Peter Grimes', Antonia's Mother in `Les Contes D'Hoffman', Madelon in `Andrea Chenier', and Baba the Turk in 'The Rake's Progress'. You could call these Cornelias her `graduation present'. She recently was a splendid Dame Quickly in `Falstaff', and this season she will sing Mere Marie in `Dialogues of the Carmelites' and reprise Baba. Bluntly, Blythe is probably the finest American singer of the current generation before the public today.
Nearly everybody who has reviewed Blythe has stated that she is the heir to the throne of Marilyn Horne, and I agree. In fact, she is one of Horne's `babies', who did some of her earliest work as a recitalist for the Marilyn Horne Foundation, and she often sounds uncannily like her. Blythe has not only Horne's power, richness, and huge lower register, but also a gentleness and vulnerability that one almost never hears from Horne. Her voice is warm and womanly, and, surprisingly for a contralto, young-sounding. She is equally adept at machine-gun coloratura and silken legato. She has beautiful control of dynamics, especially messa di voce.
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This CD comes on the heels of critical success in Handel, Wagner and Rossini in performances all over the world. Blythe's voice recalls (and invites inevitable comparison to) the legendary Marilyn Horne and indeed, in some ways, she is even better. While her singing is not as intensely spectacular as Horne's, her voice, while similar, is intrinsically more beautiful, full and moving. In fact, the voice may be too beautiful and it is easy to get lost in the sound. However, Blythe is a better actress than Horne and truly makes the roles she performs come to life. A must have for anyone who laments the lost "golden" age of singing. Hopefully they'll start recording her in the virtuoso mezzo repertoire soon.
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I was browsing through the classical section of one of my favourite record stores when, to my utter amazement and delight, an extraordinary version of "Ombra mai fu" poured out from the speakers. Bear in mind that I, a countertenor and Baroque repertoire aficionado, already *own* several versions of said aria (by Scholl, Mera, Taylor, and Daniels). So when I heard this one I was completely captivated. Who was this enchanting new countertenor whose voice I had never heard before?
When I was told it was Stephanie Blythe, a contralto, I was more than a bit surprised, something more like shocked. The only other contralto I'd heard performing Handel works was Ewa Podles. I was in a record store in Quebec at the time, and when I heard Ewa's version of "Cara sposa" from Handel's Rinaldo I was a little put off. Her voice seemed to be lacking the delicacy of the countertenor tone, although she did perform with great passion and gusto. It was a much more fiery voice, earthy and heroic, perfect for a character such as Rinaldo. Blthye's voice, in contrast, performed the song "Ombra mai fu" as a more pastoral song, much more gently and passively.
I was tempted to buy the CD, but the song that *made* me do it was my favourite Baroque religious song "Erbarme Dich" by Bach. I own two other versions of that as well (Scholl and Taylor) and I thought that I'd never hear anyone sing it more beautifully. But Stephanie's voice is something so like a countertenor's: velvety smooth, dark, mysterious, melancholy, and pure. My quest for the perfect voice extended to countertenors only--until Stephanie Blythe. There is something so magical in that voice type that I am powerless in its wake.
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Contralto Stephanie Blythe has a warm, fluid voice that reminds me immediately of countertenor David Daniels, especially since she sings more accurately in the mezzo-soprano range. What they have in common is an artful blending of male and female vocal characteristics that produces a strong sound, rich and seductive. Dramatically she is not quite at his level yet, but it is a tribute to her interpretative talents that she can convincingly sing both Cesare and Cornelia in "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" in the four beautiful arias here. The disc's high point is in fact, a mother-son duet performed with Daniels, "Madre!...Son nata a lagrimar". Their voices meld together wonderfully. What I find intriguing is how his higher, more nuanced voice brings out the dramatic intensity of the piece, while Blythe's superb lower register brings out a lovely contrast since her voice dips deeper than Daniels'. It is as perfect a match as you'll hear in the Baroque world.

The remainder of the Handel arias displays her exceptional range, especially the plaintive "Ombra mai fù" from "Serse" and the vocal agility she displays in "Iris, Hence Away" from "Semele". The second half of the disc features four arias from Bach's "Passions", all more spiritual in tone than the Handel pieces but not as interesting dramatically. She still sounds lovely, but a certain monotony creeps into the last half-hour since these arias seem to create the same dream-like atmosphere and consequently do not require her to utilize her interpretative skills fully. John Nelson conducts the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris effectively, and perhaps to embody the spirit of the Bach pieces, the disc was recorded in a church, the Eglise Notre Dame du Liban in Paris. It is an impressive recital debut and makes one look forward to Stephanie Blythe's next work.
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