Il Pastor Fido
La Nuova Musica
Harmonia Mundi HMU907585/6 (CD)
Conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Sony/CBS Masterworks 42535 (CD)
Conducted by Carlos Kleiber
There’s been considerable excitement among fans of early music over the appearance on CD of a recording of an early Handel work, the first version of his opera Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd). It dates from 1712, but this is its first ever recording. The artists responsible are the UK’s La Nuova Musica, an ensemble created by the counter-tenor David Bates. The freshness of their version of this nearly forgotten work is certainly impressive.
Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido was one of the most famous books of late 16th-century/early 17th-century Italy. It tells the story of a woman in love with one man but under pressure to marry another (thus prefiguring many later operas from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to Bellini’s I Puritani). The soloists and instrumentalists on this new CD appear to be all in their 20s, and this of course fits well with a tale of young love. Handel, too, was only 27 when he wrote it. It was a relative failure and he redrafted it 22 years later to better suit London tastes. But this recording of the original version obviously says a lot about his earlier stylistic ambitions.
The greatest operas, by contrast, keep being re-filmed and rerecorded so that eventually you’re almost spoilt for choice. Strauss’ Rosenkavalier is a case in point. A recent version on DVD with Renee Fleming, Sophie Koch and Diana Damrau, with Christian Thielmann conducting the Munchner Philharmoniker, certainly has its enthusiasts. Jonas Kaufmann, flavor of the month as far as tenors go, makes a cameo appearance as the Italian singer in Act One, though having him dig into a plate of spaghetti seems less than a good idea. Much use is made of mirrors, and on a bonus track all the principals praise Strauss’ and librettist Hofmannsthall’s achievement without ever managing to say anything new about it.
Fleming is the star attraction, though she manages to look if anything too young for a role in which consciousness of aging plays such a crucial part. In the final analysis, though, this pair of DVDs can’t begin to compare with Carlos Kleiber’s classic 1979 rendering, which appeared on DVD in 2005. Kleiber conducted two versions, the other one in 2004 (reviewed in Taipei Times on March 17, 2005), but the earlier one is in almost every way superior.
It has Gwyneth Jones as the Marshallin, Brigitte Fassbaender as Octavian (the most successfully manly-looking Octavian I’ve seen) and Lucia Popp as Sophie. Manfred Jungwirth is Baron Ochs. It seems impossible to better, having all the romantic and comic dimensions in perfect balance. It remains one of the great opera DVDs, and can be recommended unreservedly. It’s also included in Deutsche Grammophon’s 111 boxed set of some of their most famous DVDs (some of the contents of which were reviewed in Taipei Times on June 6, 2010).
But then, out of the blue, comes a new product on BluRay, released in October by Park Circus. It’s of an even older production, dating from 1962, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marshallin, and conducted by Karajan at the Salzburg Festival. Critics have been ecstatic about it, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly the Karajan/Schwarzkopf combination in this opera on CD has long been a celebrated item, and is often cited as one of the finest classical recordings of all time.