Baritone Simon Keenlyside is a rarity in an era of focus on specific repertoires: a real operatic generalist whose interests and expertise range from the very earliest -- L'Orfeo -- to the newest -- premieres of Adès' The Tempest and Maazel's 1984. Tales of Opera is limited to just a fraction of that span, from the late eighteenth to the very early twentieth centuries. The album's focus on the standard repertoire seems geared to bringing Keenlyside, whose discography, which, with a few exceptions, is weighted toward less familiar works, to the attention of the traditional opera lover. (This is supported by the tone of the program notes, which consist of Keenlyside's personal reflections on these arias, assuming the listeners' prior familiarity with them.) That's a highly appropriate goal for this old-fashioned recital, because Keenlyside's mastery of this stylistically diverse music ought to have strong appeal to the audience, as well as anyone who loves lyrical bel canto singing, and vivid, intelligent dramatic characterizations.
The album includes many of the standard baritone showpieces, and Keenlyside doesn't disappoint in his delivery. The most striking thing about his voice is the way he uses the arsenal of tonal colors at his disposal in the service of creating dramatically delineated characters. His versatile instrument can be warmly enveloping, piercingly incisive, or charmingly silly. The expansiveness and depth of Oh, du mein holder Abendstern is breathtaking; Keenlyside (with Wagner's help) transports the listener into the solitude of a starlit night as surely as a visual image could. With the first notes of the Prologue to I Pagliacci, he is fully convincing in establishing his identity as a small-time, regional theater director peeking around the curtain. His gift of musical humor pops out in Largo al factotum and in Papageno's aria, Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen. In Di provenza il mar, he's meltingly lyrical and achingly poignant. The diversity of roles on the CD leaves the listener eager to hear Keenlyside in a wider variety of complete operas. Ulf Schirmer leads the Münchner Rundfunkorchester in a fully responsive accompaniment. Sony's sound is clean and vibrant, with good balance.