This four disc set gathers together the five recital albums Leontyne Price made under the title Prima Donna. Each one followed a similar pattern, starting with an aria from the Baroque and finishing with something from the twentieth century. Volumes one, two three and five are presented in the order they were originally released, but, inexplicably, volume four is broken up and its contents scattered randomly amongst the others. The LPs were recorded in 1966 (volumes one and two), 1970 (volume three), 1978 (volume four) and 1980 (volume five), by which time Price would have been fifty-three. The voice changed quite a bit over this fourteen year period, and the first three discs make for much more comfortable listening than the last two, by which time the voice had thickened, with the middle range more occluded, diction smudged and top notes beginning to sound strained. Having so many of the arias from volume four placed side by side with arias from the first three only serves to accentuate this fact. Having a strained performance of Turandot’s In questa reggia from 1978 follow hot on the heels of her 1966 recording of Depuis le jour, which is lovely, if not particularly idiomatic, only goes to empahasise the point.
It goes without saying that there is some glorious singing in this set. At its peak, which is when the first three volumes were made, the voice was an absolutely gorgeous instrument, secure throughout its range and flexible in fast moving music. The selection of music is also interesting, with well known arias rubbing shoulders with some heard less often, especially in recital.
Price once said,
It’s terrible but you know I just love the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I simply move myself to tears. I suppose I must be my own best fan. I don’t care if that sounds immodest – l feel that all singers must enjoy the sound they make if they’re to have others enjoy it too.
Well it’s an interesting point. Callas famously was the opposite. She hated listening to her own records, because she could only hear the faults. She was always striving for the impossible. Price, on the other hand, sometimes gives the impression that she went into the studio, poured out the glorious sounds, declared herself satisfied and left it at that. There is little that is specific to the music she is singing. Though the musical range is vast the interpretive range is not. There isn’t really that much difference between the way she approaches Purcell and Puccini, Handel and Verdi. This is even more pronounced in the final volume, which is, in any case, the least recommendable of the five. Gilda’s Caro nome is placed next to Isolde’s Liebestod, but Caro nome is laboured with no sense of the young girl’s first awakening to love and the Liebstod has no transfiguring rapture. They have the same voice character and just sound as if the singer had strayed into the wrong repetoire, which indeed she had. This final volume also has on it an ill-advised Casta diva, an aria which, in isolation, she might have made a good stab at in 1966, but which, by 1980, is beyond her. The most successful, and surprising, item on volume five is Queen Elizabeth’s Act I Scene and Prayer from Britten’s Gloriana, on which Price certainly has the requisite regal grandeur, but there is nothing else on volume 5, that I would really care to listen to again.
The first three volumes are a different matter and, if few of the performances are particularly revelatory, there is much to admire in both the singing and the voice we hear here, with volume three to my mind being the most successful.
Highlights would include Selika’s Sur mes genoux, fils du soleil from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine and Do not utter a word from Barber’s Vanessa from volume 1, Paolo, datemi pace from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and La mamma morta from Andrea Chénier from volume 2, Se vano il pregare from I Lombardi, Dis-moi que je suis belle from Thaïs and Mes filles, voilà s’achève fom Les Dialogues des Carmélites, from volume 3.
Though she was known for her Fiordiligi and Donna Anna, Mozart fares less well. Or sai chi l’onore certainly brims with outrage and drama, but, though Non mi dir is beautifully poised, the fast section is laboured and the voice, even in 1970 sounds an unwiledly instrument for this music. Elettra’s D’Oreste d’Ajace, from volume 4 recorded in 1978, suffers even more from a lack of mobility.
Still, we should be thankful for what we have. The first three discs showcase one of the most ravishing voices to have ever graced the operatic age. I used to own volume 3 on LP, which had always been one of my favourite opera recitals, and I was very excited to hear the complete set. If my expectations were not quite fulfilled, I am nonetheless happy to have it in my collection.