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This is a wonderful recital disc and a great example of the art of Shirley Verrett, dating from 1967, before she ventured into soprano territory.

It starts with a stunningly virtuosic rendering of Orphée’s Amour, viens rendre à mon âme from the Berlioz edition of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Verrett maintains a true appreciation of the classical style, the chest voice used more sparingly than in Verdi, vibrato kept to a minimum. She also gives the piece a properly heroic dimension. Orpheus is after all srengthening his resolve at this point.

The two Donizetti items showcase her facility in bel canto, though with so many French items in the recital, it’s a shame she sings the aria from La Favorite in Italian. The short scene between Giovanna and Enrico from Anna Bolena gives us the chance to hear her engagement with the text in recitative, her legato line in the cavatina and her felxibility in the cabaletta. The aria from La Favorita also goes well, again displaying her deep legato in O mio Fernando, and her thrilling dramatic thrust in the cabaletta.

She is even better in the French items, giving us a beautifully restrained performance of Premiers transports from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, and one of the best versions I have heard of Margeurite’s D’amour l’ardente flamme, one of the composers greatest inspirations. Verrett’s responses to the text are just that bit more vivid than those of Von Stade, whose eary French recital I listened to recently, with a much greater range of colour. Only Callas surpasses her in creating an atmosphere of utter forlorness and longing, though it has to be admitted that by the time she recorded it her actual tone couldl sound somewhat frayed and thin, where Verrett is firm and rich throughout.

She is grandly eloquent in the aria from Sapho, and wonderfully alive to the many changes of emoton in the Letter Scene from Werther, briliantly charting Charlotte’s mounting anxiety. This too is one of the greatest performances you will ever hear of the scene, and it is a great pity she never recorded the complete role.

It is also nothing short of tragic that she never recorded the role of Dalila, one of her greatest stage successes, and her beautiful reading of the famous Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix closes the recital proper. Disappointingly she follows regular performance practice, by splitting the phrase in Ah, réponds à ma tendresse in order to snatch an extra breath. It is so much more effective when sung, as Saint-Saëns indicated, in one long breath, though Callas is one of the only singers to do it that way. Aside from that one slight cavil, her comparative restraint is welcome and all the more seductive for letting the music speak for itself.

The Verdi pieces at the end are taken from complete recordings of the two operas. She is wonderfully vivid as Preziosilla and darkly commanding as Ulrica.

In all Verrett’s superb musicality is evident, and I often wonder why she recorded comparatively little, given the flurry of opera recordings made in the 1970s. That her superb Carmen was never committed to disc is little short of criminal.

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