A clutch of Decca Toscas

For this comparison, I have chosen five different recordings of Tosca, all available from Decca Classics.

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First off I revisited the 1984 Solti Tosca but have to say I got bored before the end of Act I and then just tried various bits in the other two acts. The sound is great. Apart from that the best thing in it is Aragall, though I wouldn’t prefer him to Di Stefano, Domingo, Carreras or Bergonzi, all of whom appear on other more recommendable recordings. Nucci is a dead loss and Te Kanawa out of her depth as Tosca. Solti’s conducting has little to commend it either, too slow in places and too fast in others. It just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole, and considering it was all recorded piecemeal, that’s hardly a surprise. I remember this set was originally issued in a blaze of publicity, but it didn’t sell well and was quickly remaindered. A totally forgettable performance. 

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Where I found the Solti a bit of a bore, this 1966 set is quite interesting, but often for all the wrong reasons. First of all Maazel’s conducting is fussy beyond belief. He can hardly let a phrase go by without pulling around the tempo or trying to bring out some detail in the score. There is no lyrical flow or sweep and untilmately Puccini gets lost on the altar of Maazel’s ego.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Scarpia is, as you would expect, intelligently thought out, but it never sounds idiomatic. He is an artist I admire in the right repertoire but Puccini was not for him. Corelli is, well, Corelli. He is definitely the best of the three principals, but he emphasises the heroic at the expense of the seductive. Nonetheless, as always, there is much to enjoy in the sound of the voice itself.

Then there is Nilsson. Well the top notes are fabulous of course, but this isn’t really a good role for her. She often overdoes the histrionics, as in her first scene with Scarpia where she adds a surfeit of sobs. She can also be a little clumsy in the ligher sections and Non la sospiri la nostra casetta is clumsy and unpolished. Ultimately, like Fischer-Dieskau, she sounds as if she had strayed into the wrong opera.

For all that I found this more enjoyable than the Solti, which is just plain dull. At least all the singers here have a personality.

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So I’ve moved on to the 1978 Rescigno in this mini challenge and there’s little here to detain us. In fact I’d be tempted to place this below the Maazel, which at least has interest value. Rescigno was a favourite of Callas’s, recording many of her recital albums and delivering at least one great performance in the live 1958 Covent Garden Traviata but his conducting here is just plain dull. Like Te Kanawa, Freni is completely out of her depth, the voice just too light even at this stage of her career. I expected Milnes to be more interesting, especially when you think of his Jack Rance, but for some reason his Scarpia just isn’t nasty enough. Which leaves Pavarotti, who sounds out of sorts vocally. The velvet has gone from his voice and he often sounds plain whiney. Not surprisingly his Vittoria! is very small scale when set beside Corelli’s. And small scale is what personifies the whole performance, but that’s not what Tosca needs.

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At last a real Tosca voice! Aside from at the very top of the voice when she can be a bit shrieky, Tebaldi fulfils almost all the demands the role asks of her. I say almost, because she doesn’t quite have Callas’s flexibility and lightness of touch in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, but then few do. The beauty of the voice is well caught and she is a convincing Tosca. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, from any of the singers, but they do all have splendid voices of the requisite size and weight. Del Monaco is much better than I remembered, though he still bawls from time to time and his arias lack poetry. George London is the best of the Scarpias so far, his voice dark and threatening.

What lets this set down is the routine conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. He is a good accompanist, nothing more. Still, worth hearing for the three lead singers. The 1959 recording sounds good for its age.

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So I’ve come to the end of my mini Decca Tosca challenge and what a difference the conductor makes. This 1962 recording is in an altogether different class from the others and the chief reason for that is Karajan’s elastic conducting, which is incredibly controlled without being rigid. Where Maazel’s conducting draws attention to itself because of the way he fusses with the rhythms, Karajan’s rubato is entirely natural. He has at his disposal a cast as well nigh perfect as any other assembled on disc. Taddei’s Scarpia is the best I’ve heard since Gobbi, sounding equally dangerous but in a completely different way. You feel this man could lash out viciously at any second. Gobbi’s Scarpia would be unlikely to get his own hands dirty, but you feel Taddei’s not ony would but would enjoy doing so. Di Stefano is in slightly fresher voice for De Sabata but he is still an excellent Cavaradossi, and I actually prefer him to both Corelli and Del Monaco. He fulfils all aspects of the character, artist, lover and revolutionary, finding the poetry in his arias and an almost crazed fervour in his cries of Vittoria. He brings more “face” to his character than anyone. Truly this was one of his very best roles.

Which leaves us with Price and here I have a feeling I might be treading on controversial ground. The voice is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, her characterisation sensuous and feminine, and her singing is deeply felt (Vissi d’arte is really lovely). She is a good deal preferable to Nilsson, Freni or Te Kanawa, but I would still place Callas and Tebaldi ahead of her in the Tosca canon. The Callas/De Sabata I know so well that it tends to play in my mind’s ear whenever I hear the opera, but I had also just listened to Tebaldi in the role and she sounds more like a natural for it to me. It’s hard to put my finger on what is missing, but I’d no doubt be perfectly happy with her Tosca if I hadn’t heard Callas and Tebaldi in the role. Nonethless she is one of the best Toscas on record and in very good company.

So now having heard all five of these Decca recordings, my final ordering would be

1. (by a fair margin) Karajan
2. Molinari-Pradelli (the only other really worth hearing, mostly for Tebaldi’s Tosca and London’s Scarpia)
3. Maazel
4. Rescigno
5. Solti

The De Sabata would still be my ultimate first choice, but the Karajan has also stood the test of time and anyone wanting an audio Tosca would be happy with either. If stereo sound is a must, then Karajan is the obvious first choice.

 

Pappano’s Aida

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Recorded Sala Santa Cecilia Auditorium, Rome February 2015

Producer: Stephen Johns, Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen

This recording of Aida was issued five years ago now in a blaze of publicity, so how does it measure up now the dust has settled?

Presentation of this studio recording (a rarity in itself these days) harks back to the old days. A nice hard back book, acts I and II given a CD each, with the last two acts on the final CD. Full text, translations and notes in three languages are included, with copious photos of the sessions, and all at a very reasonable price. Warner have put a lot of faith in the enterprise, and I hope it succeeded, though it doesn’t seem to have precipitated any more studio recordings of opera.

So what of the performance? Well, to my mind, the two stars are Kaufmann and Pappano. Kaufmann fulfils all the requirements for strong heroic tone and lyrical poetry. The ending of Celeste Aida is one of the best I’ve heard, hitting the top Bb mezzoforte, then making a diminuendo to a truly ppp morendo close. He is every inch the noble warrior, the tender lover, and the tormented man torn between the two. Admittedly his tone isn’t what you’d call Italianate, and it doesn’t have that squillo up top that you hear in such tenors as Corelli or Del Monaco, but his musical manners are infinitely better. It is a considerable achievement and one of the best Radames we have had on disc.

Pappano’s shaping of the score is excellent and in the best Italian tradition, less self conscious than Karajan I, less apt to push the orchestra into the foreground than Karajan II and far preferable to the bombastic Solti. His balancing of the score’s public and private elements is just about perfect, and his Santa Cecilia orchestra play brilliantly for him. The sound too is very good, achieving an excellent balance between orchestra and singers, who are never drowned out as they are in Karajan II.

The rest have all I think been bettered elsewhere. Best of them is Ludovic Tézier’s Amonasro, a baritone with a good solid centre to his tone, and an almost Gobbi-like grasp of the role’s dramatic demands. I have heard much firmer basses in the roles of Ramfis and the King than Erwin Schrott and Marco Spotti and neither of them makes much of an impression.

Of the two women, Ekaterina Semenchuk has all the notes and power for Amneris, just missing out on a really individual response to the words. I’m afraid I found her performance all a bit generalised and she doesn’t eclipse memories of Simionato, Baltsa or Barbieri. As for Harteros, I have equivocal feelings. There are times when the role taxes her to the limit, and the ascent to top C in O patria mia is hard won, the final note thin, acrid and not quite in tune. She is easily outclassed by Caballé here. However she does use the words  well, and is thoroughly inside the role. My problem is that, though more responsive to the text than, say, Price or Tebadi, I find the voice itself somewhat anonymous. In some ways she reminds me of Freni, also a singer on the light side, and who also sings well off the words, but Freni makes the pleasanter, more individual sound and her singing is a good deal more secure.

So a worthy addition to the Aida discography, if not the last word in Aida recordings. I won’t be throwing away Muti, Karajan II and certainly not Callas under Serafin (also now on Warner). I also enjoy the thrilling live 1951 Mexico performance with Callas, Dominguez, Del Monaco and Taddei, though the incalcitrant sound makes listening rather a trial, and I note that, since I bought this Pappano set in 2015, it tends to be the last one I think of pulling down from the shelves, when I want to listen to the opera.

Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

Les Troyens (abridged) conducted by Georges Prêtre

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This live recording,  seemingly from a radio broadcast of a concert performance, is chiefly interesting for the contributions of  three great singers, Marilyn Horne, Shirley Verrett and Nicolai Gedda.

The score is heavily cut, and Prêtre whizzes through it with unseemly haste with no sense whatsoever of the piece’s structure. I just felt that he lacked any real understanding of the Berlioz idiom, of his originality and individuality, which is a pity because he has some excellent principals, though the supporting roles are less well filled. Veriano Luchetti appears as a rather too muscular Iopas.

Horne has no problems with the difficult tessitura of Cassandre’s role, her voice shining out in the high passages but with plenty of power in the lower regions. However she doesn’t quite convey Cassandre’s crazed zeal, though Prêtre’s fast tempos hardly help. Robert Massard is a fine Chorèbe.

Gedda, a lyric tenor, is surprisingly successful as Enée, a role usually sung by more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner. His French is, as you might expect, excellent, and he never forces the voice, nor does he have any trouble with the top C in his big aria Inutiles regrets. He doesn’t quite erase memories of Vickers, but his French is much more natural, and this might actually be more like the voice Berlioz would have had in mind. A great performance to set beside his Benvenuto Cellini and Faust, and it is a great shame he never appears to have sung the role again.

As Didon, Verrett is in splendid voice, perhaps one of the most richly endowed singers to have sung the role on disc, and she is, as always, dramatically involved, but again Prêtre tends to rush her, and I find myself wondering what she might have achieved with a Davis at the helm. I’m delighted to have heard her in the role, but I find I actually prefer Veasey on Davis’s first recording, who, in turn, cedes place to Janet Baker, who unfortunately only recorded the final scenes under Sir Alexander Gibson in 1969, shortly after singing the role for Scottish Opera. There exists a complete recording of a performance from Covent Garden at which Baker deputised for an ailing Veasey. Despite the fact that she is singing in English, whilst the rest of the cast sing in French (Scottish Opera were performing the opera in English, and Baker didn’t have time to learn the French text), she makes a profound impression. It is a great pity she wasn’t engaged for the studio recording.

I enjoyed hearing this for the singing of the principals, but Prêtre all but ruins it for me, and both Davis, in either of his two recordings, and Nelson are much more recommendable versions of the opera.

Nelson’s Les Troyens

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I love this opera, though I’ve never actually seen it staged. The first time I heard it live was in two halves at a couple of Proms concerts in 1982. It was conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and starred Jessye Norman as Didon, Felicity Palmer as Cassandre and Richard Cassilly as Enée. I didn’t know the opera as well then as I do now, but I remember even then I loved it. People often moan that it is too long, hence why it is often split into two parts, but it’s no longer than some of Wagner’s operas (and shorter than one or two). Subsequently I heard it twice at the Barbican under Sir Colin Davis, for whom Berlioz was something of a lifelong passion. Indeed without him it is quite possible that Berlioz would still be underappreciated today. I’ve also long enjoyed both Davis’s first pioneering recording for Philips, with Josephine Veasey and Jon Vickers, which was based on performances at Covent Garden, as well as his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at concerts at the Barbican, with Ben Heppner, Petra Lang and Michelle DeYoung.

It is a magnificent score, Berlioz’s greatest achievement, and it is a terrible shame he never got to hear it performed in its entirety. According to the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns, it is

an opera of visionary beauty and splendour, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention… it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world.

As always with Berlioz, the orchestration is superb and he writes brilliantly for major and minor characters alike, one of the most haunting moments in the score being given to the young sailor Hylas, as he laments for his homeland at the beginning of Act V.

This recent set has garnered some great reviews, so I was keen to hear how it measured up to the Davis recordings. From an orchestral point of view it is certainly very fine, but the singers are all a little light of voice for my taste. I heard Michael Spyres singing Berlioz’s Faust at the Proms not so long ago, and I found him a wonderfully musical and intelligent singer. I wonder though whether his voice might be a tad too small for Aeneas. There were times at the Proms that I thought his lyrical voice a little too small even for Faust. Maybe I’ve become too used to more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner, but the role of Enée was in the repertoire of the great Georges Thill, who also had a rather more beefy voice than Spyres. Lemieux is also a light voiced Cassandre, though she’s a great improvement on Lindholm, who is on the first Davis recording. I wouldn’t prefer her to Lang on the second Davis recording, nor Deborah Voigt, who sings Cassandre on the less successful Dutoit recording and also on a live Met recording, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon.

DiDonato is probably the most successful of the soloists. Some find her vibrato distracting, though it doesn’t bother me unduly, and she is thoroughly inside the role. However she doesn’t evince the sort of innigkeit you find in Janet Baker, who can be heard in incomparable versions of the final scenes conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and also in a couple of live performances under Davis, nor of Hunt Lieberson, who can be heard in the live Met performance under Levine, mentioned above. That said, I don’t know of anyone else around today who could sing it better.

Nor do I wish to be too picky about a recording that is a considerable achievement for all concerned. It gets a cautious thumbs up from me; certainly the best since Davis I and II, with my preference, marginally still being for Davis I.

Karajan’s Fidelio

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Recorded October and December 1970, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Wolfgang Gülch

The first time I ever saw Fidelio (and the first time I’d ever heard it) was back in 1974 when Scottish Opera brought the opera to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Helga Dernesch as Leonore. Though all the singers were very good, Dernesch was in a class of her own. I well remember her entry into the Canon in Act I, which was like a shaft of sunlight coming through the gloom. This was around the same time she made this recording with Karajan and the effect is exactly the same here. Famously Dernesch started having problems with the top of her voice and took time out, returning as a mezzo, though there is precious little sign of any strain in her voice here. Throughout she is a gleaming, radiant presence and this is arguably the greatest recording she ever made.

She is not the only reason I treasure this recording. Karajan’s reading is bitingly dramatic and the whole cast one of the best ever assembled for the opera. Certainly I’m not sure anyone has ever equalled Vickers’ searing intensity as Florestan. Ridderbusch as Rocco and Kéléman are superb as Rocco and Pizarro and Van Dam luxury casting as Don Ferando, as is Helen Donath as Marzelline. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and superbly delivered by the singers (thankfully no separate cast of actors).

I’ve lived with this recording for around forty-five years and it’s still my favourite. When I was moving from LP to CD, I bowed to popular opinion and bought the Klemperer, but was profoundly disappointed, finding it less thrilling, less dramatic. It wasn’t long before I bought the Karajan again.

Sutherland and Pavarotti in La Fille du Régiment

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Recorded straight after a run of terrifically successful performances at Covent Garden in 1968, La Fille du Régiment has long been considered one of Sutherland’s best studio recordings, and the role of the tomboyish Marie certainly suits her well. As you’d expect she tosses off the coloratura and high notes in spectacular fashion, but also has the ability to convey a deeper vein of pathos when required. Pavarotti is also at his best, and he executes the top Cs in Pour mon âme with delightfully insouciant ease. Monica Sinclair, who sometimes overplays the comedy, and Spiro Malas provide excellent support and Richard Bonynge’s conducting is alert and nicely sprung.

I do have a couple of cavils, though. There is absolutely nothing authentically French about the enterprise, and, where this might be of less importance in Donizetti than Offenbach, I do miss a genuine French accent. Sutherland’s diction, though better than on some of her recordings, still leaves a great deal to be desired. On the other hand Pavarotti’s diction is so good you can hear just how bad his French is.

I’m assuming this will matter less to most people than it does to me, so I will finish by saying I really rather enjoy this set. It has the feel of a real performance, and it is a pleasure to hear two such great singers at the top of their game. In any case, if you want a complete recording in French, this is a much more polished performance than the Campanella with June Anderson and Alfredo Kraus and is easily top choice for the opera.

Janet Baker as Maria Stuarda

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Mary Stuart – Dame Janet Baker
Queen Elizabeth I – Pauline Tinsley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – Keith Erwen
George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury – Don Garrard
Sir William Cecil – Christian Du Plessis

English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus – Sir Charles Mackerras

This is not the same as the Chandos (originally EMI) recording of Maria Stuarda with Dame Janet Baker, which was recorded at performances of the revival in 1982, and was also filmed. This Ponto release was taped at a performance of the original production in 1973, and aside from Dame Janet and Sir Charles Mackerras, all the principals are different.

Pauline Tinsley, who here plays Elizabeth, was a much loved British soprano, well known for the dramatic intensity of her performances. The voice, as recorded, can tend to the wiry, and doesn’t fall so easily on the ear as Rosalind Plowright, who sings in the 1982 version, but quite a bit of that dramatic intensity comes through, and she is an excellent foil for Baker’s Maria. She doesn’t quite eclipse memories of Shirley Verrett, who sings the role on another live recording (from La Scala) with Caballé as Maria.

Dame Janet herself is in fabulous form, the voice fresher and more compact than it is in 1982. Superb though she is in 1982, she is bettered by her younger self here, and, despite the fact that the opera is sung in English translation, this has been my go to version for many years now. Easily encompassing all its vocal demands, she reveals character and emotion through the music with uncanny ability. As such, her portrayal is closer to Sills than, say, Sutherland or Caballé, but she also has the vocal grandeur that Sills’ voice lacks. The confrontation scene, with Baker and Tinsley spitting fire at each other, is possibly the most thrilling on disc. However, as you may expect, there is much more to Baker’s Maria than thrills and the final scenes are infinitely moving. Baker has an uncanny ability to hone in the emotional crux of each scene, whether it be in a line of recitative or a whole aria. In this she reminds me of Callas for all that their vocal methods are so different. So complete is her identification with Maria’s tragedy that it becomes no surprise to remember that it was one of the roles she chose to sing in her final year on the operatic stage. (If you recall, the others were Alceste at Covent Garden, and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne. We don’t necessarily associate Baker with bel canto opera, but she actually made her US debut in Anna Bolena (as Smeton) and recorded a superb Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ei Montecchi on disc. Of all the roles she sang with the English National Opera, it is no surprise to find that she chose this one for her farewell to the company.

Keith Erwen is hardly in the Pavarotti class, but is a strong Leicester nonetheless, and the lower voices are in the capable hands of ENO stalwarts Don Garrard and Christian Du Plessis.

Mackerras paces the score with a sure sense of the drama, knowing exactly when to relax and when to push forward.

So pleased I bought this when it first came out. Copies are selling for around £100 on Amazon UK at the moment.

Alagna & Gheorghiu in Roméo et Juliette

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I first saw Alagna, when he sang Roméo in a new production of Gounod’s opera at Covent Garden, one year before he made this recording. There was a real sense of excitement in the house on that occasion, and a sense that maybe we had at last found a successor to the big three (Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras). That initial promise was never entirely fulfilled, though, in my opinion, he continued to be at his best in French opera and he makes a superb Roméo in this excellent recording, fresher and younger sounding than the stylish, but aging, Alfredo Kraus on Plasson’s first recording of the opera.

His Juliette on the occasion of the Covent Garden performances was the girlish Leontina Vaduva, but here she is replaced by Angela Gheorghiu, the other half of what was at the time the golden couple of opera. There is no denying the beauty of the voice, but she sounds, to my ears at least, a mite too sophisticated in the opening scenes. That said she rises superbly to the challenge of the poison aria in Act IV, which is often omitted by lighter voiced sopranos.

José Van Dam and Simon Keenlyside as Frère Laurent and Mercutio are both excellent; Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Stéphano not so much.

The performance is note complete, even up to the ballet music, and Plasson has an even better grip on the score than he had in his first recording with Alfredo Kraus and Catherine Malfitano.

A clear first choice for this opera, I’d have said

Khaikin’s Eugene Onegin

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Khaikin’s wonderful 1956 recording of Eugene Onegin may not have the best sound but in all other respects it’s as close to ideal as you can get. There is something so intrinsically right about Khaikin’s handling of the score, his pacing absolutely perfect, his control of his forces absolutely stunning. He brings out so much detail in the score but the result nevertheless sounds completely spontaneous.

His cast is also pretty much unbeatable, its chief asset being the young Galina Vishneskaya, whose girlishly impulsive and totally adorable Tatyana, almost passionately erotic in the Letter Scene ( a young girl alone giving in to the passion in her heart) grows to full maturity in the final scene.  Belov is suitably reserved and sardonic in the opening scenes but despairingly intense in the finale. Lemeshev is caught a little late in his career as Lensky (he would have been 54 at the time of the recording) but sings with finesse and style and Petrov makes a strong impression in Gremin’s beautiful aria.

Had the recording always been more readily available in the West, I have no doubt that it would enjoy the same elevated status as De Sabata’s Tosca as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.