When I think of Régine Crespin I tend to think of suave sophistication, intelligence and cool reserve, qualities that make her the perfect interpreter of the songs of Debussy and, especially, Poulenc and Ravel. But of course it was a large, refulgent voice and not one to be confined to the recital platform. The operatic stage would also seem to be its natural home.
Unfortunately too much of this French sang froid creeps into her performances of Verdi here. This Amelia is only slightly perturbed to find herself at the gallows at midnight, this Aida only mildly conflicted between loyalty to her lover and her fatherland. One feels that she wouldn’t want to get too upset in case she mussed her dress and beautifully coiffed hair, so just shrugs and walks away. In this she is the very antithesis of Callas who, famously, listened to this performance of Ritorna vincitor in a break during tense recording sessions of her final Verdi disc. Callas was so insensed at a performance that went against every grain of her dramatic being that she decided to sing it there and then, though the aria hadn’t been planned, and the result was a performance of blazing intensity a million miles from what we get here. Aside from being far too slow, Crespin never really gets to grips with Aida’s torment and anguish.
Of course Crespin’s singing is always musical, intelligent and well considered, the voice firm and well supported, but, for me, there is a lack of passion, a sense of detachment that doesn’t go well with Verdi. The best item is Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene, though it is taken unconscionably slowly. Her tone well captures the feel of a woman walking and talking in her sleep, and there are some fine details of interpretation. She takes a lower option at the end rather than attempt the top D fil di voce, and we note that the top of the voice can be unwieldy, steely and just under the note, as it is at the climax of Amelia’s Ecco l’orrido campo from Un Ballo in Maschera. In that respect Eboli’s O don fatale suits her better, and she does at last inject a bit more passion here, but the aria should be thrilling and it just isn’t.
Paradoxically Elisabetta’s great Act V aria from Don Carlo is taken rather too fast, and I also wonder why she didn’t sing it in French. In consequence the grand opening statement feels rushed, as does the end, and the aria loses its shape. This might have more to do with Prêtre than Crespin, whose speeds can be a bit hit and miss, and nowhere does he seem the right conductor for Verdi. It is interesting to note that, though he was a great favourite of Callas, she retained the services of Nicola Rescigno for her 1960s Italian recitals, using Prêtre only for the French recitals and her Carmen and second Tosca.
In general the Wagner items suit her better, though here too I would prefer to hear Schwarzkopf or Grümmer in the Lohengrin arias. Crespin convincingly conveys Elsa’s deam-like state, but she is far less personal with the text. There is no quickening of the pulse at the approach of the knight, and, yet again, it feels as if she were on the outside looking in. Her singing is tasteful, intelligent, musical and yet I don’t feel she is truly involved.
We get more propulsive singing for Sieglinde’s Eine Waffe lass’ mich dir weisen, and of course she recorded the role in Solti’s Ring. She also makes a suitably seductive Kundry in the short extract from Parsifal.
That said, none of this is material I would choose to hear her in. For that I would turn to her superb performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade with Ansermet (though not her Nuits d’Eté which also suffers from a lack of passion), to her singing of songs by Poulenc, Debussy and Satie and to some of the operettas of Offenbach that she recorded, music that responds better to her equivalent of the arched eyebrow.