Alban Berg's feverish opera "Lulu" may not be the ideal way to make the acquaintance of American soprano Laura Aikin, but it is the way that is currently most available. Aikin sings the opera's enigmatic title role -- a femme who is literally fatale until her own bloody, untimely end -- in a hard-hitting, sex-saturated production that has just been released on an RM Associates DVD with Franz Welser Most conducting the Zurich Opera. Aikin's performance, the best I have heard since Evelyn Lear stopped singing the role, is helped enormously by acting skill that takes all of the role's excesses and ambiguities in stride and a voice that makes the stratospheric high notes seem easy and natural. She handles Berg's spiky modern idiom with an ease developed in a decade of collaboration with Pierre Boulez.
Berg died before finishing this opera, but he left a provisional conclusion, mimed to the accompaniment of orchestral music, in which Lulu is killed by Jack the Ripper. A standard operatic conclusion has been composed, despite opposition by Berg's widow and the Alban Berg Foundation, using Berg's notes and sketches, but this production ends the work, with a lot of blood, the way the composer left it.
Angelich's Liszt, to Go
Those who missed Nicholas Angelich's performance of Franz Liszt's three "Annees de Pelerinage" last week at the Kennedy Center, or those who heard it and want a souvenir, will welcome his recording on the Mirare label (three CDs). The music's subject matter (a chronicle of Liszt's travels in France, Switzerland and Italy) generates a lot of mood-and-scene painting and some technical challenges that pose no problem for Angelich.
A First From Michael Hersch
Michael Hersch, a young native of Washington (b. 1977), is making a name for himself as a composer on the international scene. His first recording, "Chamber Music" (Vanguard), features him as a pianist in three solemn, spare-textured works. String players of the Berlin Philharmonic perform in his Octet (at 31 minutes the most substantial work on the disc) and "After Holderin's Halfte des Lebens," a deep, philosophical dialogue for viola and cello. Hersch is a very serious, richly talented young man and definitely a composer to watch.
Houston Opera's Local Voice
The recording of the Houston Grand Opera's production of Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men" has a special interest for Washington opera lovers. The recording resembles the Washington Opera's presentation of the same production with one major exception: The Houston recording has Gordon Hawkins giving a terrific performance in the leading role of George, friend and protector of the dimwitted Lenny. Hawkins, a Washington native, did not sing in the Washington performances, but the Houston recording allows us to enjoy his art.
A Poet in Operatic Measure
Robert Frost's longish, psychologically probing poem "The Death of the Hired Man" has been set to music for soprano and piano by Andrew Violette (who is now working on an opera based on "Paradise Lost"). On an Innova CD, soprano Sherry Zannoth and the composer-pianist explore every nuance of the work.
They are joined by tenor Brad Cresswell in "The Love Duet," which uses some intensely erotic verses of Walt Whitman.
Handel Duets, Rarely Heard
Some of Handel's most beautiful music was written as duets for female soprano and male (castrato) mezzo-soprano. Most of this music is seldom heard today, perhaps because of a shortage of castrati. But a fine sample is on "Amor e Gelosia: Handel: Operatic Duets," with soprano Patrizia Ciofi and mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato accompanied by a baroque ensemble. It is one of the most beautiful records I have heard in a long time.
Angela Gheorghiu, 'Diva'
At this point in her career, soprano Angela Gheorghiu has not quite mastered the commanding presence that might justify the title of her latest CD, "Diva" (EMI). Still, her voice is pleasant and reliable, and her program is impeccably chosen, from "Casta Diva" to "O Mio Babbino Caro."
Alagna Gets a 'Berlioz' Workout
Tenor Roberto Alagna's latest CD, "Berlioz" (ENI), looks into the works of a composer who is generally respected but too seldom performed. The music gives some healthy exercise to the heroic capabilities of Alagna's voice.