At a time when new releases of classical recordings have dwindled to a comparative trickle, one sector seems to be flourishing as never before: This fall has seen a remarkable outpouring of albums by female opera singers. The majority of them, as it happens, are not sopranos but mezzo-sopranos; we’re living in an age when, curiously, many of the most interesting female voices belong not to the leading ladies who impersonate the tragic heroines around which most operatic plots creak, but to a powerful group of slightly lower-voiced women who rival, and frequently outstrip, the prima donnas for vocal charisma. In listening to the following five disks, I was struck by not only the range of distinctive charm among the voices, but also by the physical beauty of each of these singers. These women belie the stereotype of the diva as a creature who looks as though she could fell a forest with one ax-swing.
A new album by Renée Fleming is as unexpected as a sunny day in L.A., and Renée Fleming by Request (Decca) is mostly a greatest-hits affair of famous arias and songs recorded during the last 10 years. Nonetheless, how good it is (as I remark in an essay for the album’s liner notes) to note the splendid consistency of the American soprano’s output during her ascendancy, from a scorching “Come scoglio” of 1994 (from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte ) to a wondrously expansive “You’ll Never Walk Alone” of 2003. Ms. Fleming has been criticized for caring more about the sumptuousness of her sound and the seamlessness of her phenomenal technique than about giving an individual, dramatic sense to the words. She’s also knocked, in certain quarters, for indulging in jazz inflections derived from her youthful worship of Sarah Vaughan (witness the overworked “Summertime”). But skip to her quietly ecstatic singing of “Mariettas Lied” from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and you’ll find yourself borne aloft on what is unquestionably the most glamorous voice of our time.
It’s instructive to listen next to a young Russian soprano, Anna Netreb-ko, whose dark-eyed beauty and outspoken exuberance in interviews have already made her a celebrity in publications such as W . Like Ms. Fleming, Ms. Netrebko is a full lyric soprano with a gleaming edge, and on her debut album for Deutsche Grammophon, she tackles, among other things, several of the older singer’s most celebrated arias, including “Song of the Moon” from Dvorák’s Rusalka . Ms. Netrebko’s sound is throatier and more covered than her American counterpart’s, more soulful in that slightly strangulated way that Slavic singers have. If she lacks the American singer’s incandescence, she seems to have a more natural gift for pathos, especially in her “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni , which conveys Donna Anna’s plea for understanding with tremendous dignity.
The vocal album of the year has to be that of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s pairing of the Bach cantatas “Ich habe genug” (“I have enough”) and “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (“My heart swims in blood”), on the Nonesuch label, with the Emmanuel Music Orchestra, conducted by Craig Smith. The American mezzo-soprano performed these works two years ago in a controversial staging by Peter Sellars that required her to sing the first cantata wearing a hospital gown complete with dangling medical tubes, and the second wrapped in a blood-red sash. The sentiments of these devotional masterpieces are penitential yet joyous, and this great dramatic singer makes the journey from torment to spiritual release riveting, drawing on all the emotional colors in her radiantly melancholic palette to mark each harrowing step of the way. Perhaps no singer since Callas has cut so deeply to the heart of the matter. In the case of Ms. Hunt Lieberson, she takes you in with a natural intimacy that is all-enveloping.
Among American mezzos, Susan Graham is the sunshine girl to Ms. Hunt Lieberson’s dark lady, and the live recording of a greatly admired recital she gave at Carnegie Hall last April with the pianist Malcolm Martineau (Erato) brims with elegant, Texas-style warmth. (Ms. Graham grew up amid the oil rigs of Midland.) As usual, she takes special delight in the French art song. Her Debussy shimmers like velvet. She brings a cockeyed worldliness to the boulevardier whimsies of Poulenc and Messager. And she sings “To Chloris,” a neo-classical pastiche by Proust’s good friend Reynaldo Hahn, with breathtaking simplicity. In “Sexy Lady,” a number written specially for her by a friend, Ben Moore, she addresses, hilariously, the mezzo’s burden of cross-dressing in all those trouser roles, from Cherubino to Octavian-vowing, despite her height of six feet, to “sing it all.”
What Cecilia Bartoli, in earlier recordings, did to dust off little-known arias by Vivaldi, Haydn and Gluck with her trademark ferocious panache, she now does for a composer who was previously best known as Mozart’s murderously jealous nemesis in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus . The Italian mezzo’s The Salieri Album (Decca) reveals Antonio Salieri, who wrote more than 40 operas, to have been a composer who absorbed all the styles of his age and spat them out with formidable proficiency-a talent that may not have elevated him to the first rank but which, nonetheless, helped some of his pupils (Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt) reach the heights. In the florid, fast-churning pieces of storm-tossed fury so dear to composers of that age, Ms. Bartoli’s throaty coloratura borders on the huffy-puffy, but her never-say-die zestfulness doesn’t desert her. She’s the singer par excellence of the CD age, achieving in the close-up recording medium a directness and a subtlety that her small-scale, perfectly pointed voice sometimes loses in a concert setting.
Ms. Bartoli’s attempt to rescue Salieri-abetted by the superlative early-instrument ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Adam Fischer-isn’t completely successful: Too much of the music on this album is reminiscent of Salieri’s betters. On certain tracks, however, in several exquisitely attenuated passages of intense yearning-notably, in the achingly beautiful aria “Vieni a me sull’ ali d’oro” (“Come to me on golden wings”) from Amida -we discover a composer capable of the sort of immaculate, buried passion one finds in the sculpture of Antonio Canova. The great, unruffled Canova was an almost exact contemporary of Salieri, and his caressingly chiseled nudes are appropriately on display in the booklet of this fascinating album.