Duets from Semiramide (Rossini), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Norma (Bellini), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach), Aida (Verdi), Madama Butterfly (Puccini) and La Gioconda (Ponchielli).

The 1960s and 1970s were halcyon days for opera on disc. New recordings of both repertoire and rediscovered works appeared on an almost monthly basis, alongside recital records by major artists. Duet recitals, though not as frequent, were also a feature of this time, and could sometimes provide more variety in the juxtaposition of two different voices.

This 1969 duet recital finds both singers at the height of their vocal powers and provides a feast of great singing. It doesn’t quite get off to the best of starts however, with a performance of Serbami ognor from Rossini’s Semiramide in which Caballé’s scale passages are less than perfect, and which does not erase memories of Sutherland and Horne in the same music.

Vocally the duet from Anna Bolena is much better, and Caballé is here very touching in the section beginning Va, infelice where Anna forgives Giovanna; maybe not as moving as Callas with Simionato, but then, who is? Their voices blend well in the Norma duet too, and it is good to have the duet from Aida as Verrett never got to record Amneris in a complete recording, but, again neither duet is as thrilling as you’d want.

The principal pleasures of both the Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly are primarily vocal, and it is certainly wonderful to bask in the sheer beauty of two such gloriously rich voices in full bloom. The disc finishes with the great combative duet from La Gioconda, but yet again it’s a little underpowered and not a patch on Caballé’s recording of it with Baltsa in the complete set under Bartoletti.

This is a good memento of two singers, recorded before Caballé’s top notes started to harden and before she began to overindulge her penchant for floated pianissimi. This is also, to my mind, the best period for Verrett, when she was definitely a mezzo and before the move to soprano roles started to compromise the glorious individuality of that voice. A shame that it’s all a bit low key.

Edit: 24/03/2023

I listened to this duet recital again today and found it just a little dull. The voices are both beautiful, the singing itself accomplished, but somehow nothing really takes off and the emotional temperature is a bit tepid throughout. It got me wondering how much difference a conductor can make. Guadagno, a favourite of Caballé’s, is serviceable, no more. If you compare, say, the duet from Aida with the same duet from the Muti complete recording, where Caballé sings with Cossotto, it is to find that she is much more alive to the drama, much more emtotionally committed, and if you compare the conductng in the Anna Bolena duet to that of Gavazzeni for Callas and Simionato, to Serafin in the Norma, or even Bonynge in Semiramide, it is to find Guadagno rather lacklusre and faccid. He does best in the Barcarolle, where all he has to do is set a nicely flowing tempo and let the two gorgeous voices do their work. Even Verrett, who is usually an exciting and dramatically involved singer seems to be operating at a much lower voltage than usual. I am convinced this disc would have been a lot more satisfactory with a stronger hand at the helm.

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