I was keen to hear this set after it was the reviewer’s first choice for the opera in BBC’s Building a Library programme, and it is very good indeed, though the sound of this live recording, made at the Salzburg Festival in 1981, rather lets it down. The solo voices are well recorded, but the sounds becomes boomy and congested when orchestra and chorus are at full tilt. Furthermore there are quite a few bangs and thuds associated with live performance.
That said the performance itself is thrilling with Domingo in superb voice and even more inside the role than he is on the Bonynge set. That of course has Sutherland in the female roles and it has to be said that Malfitano doesn’t command her beauty of tone. On the other hand, she is a much more convincing vocal actress. For all that Offenbach intended the roles to be sung by the same singer, the demands of each are quite different, and I often prefer to hear them sung by different singers as they are in the superb John Schlesinger Covent Garden production with Domingo again as Hoffmann, but with Luciana Serra as Olympia, Ileana Cotrubas as Antonia and Agnes Baltsa (a mezzo) as Giulietta. Malfitano rises to the challenge superbly however and reconciles me to the casting of the same singer.
The rest of the cast is also excellent with Ann Murray superb in the dual role of Niklausse/The Muse and Van Dam perfection in the roles of the four villains, vocally more resplendent than Bacquier on the Bonynge recording. Rémy Corazza is also excellent in the comic roles, if not quite erasing memories of Hugues Cuénod on the Bonynge set.
James Levine, whom I sometimes find too bombastic in Verdi, surprised me, his conducting both exciting and lyrical and the Vienna Philharmonic play superbly.
The Bonynge profits from superb Decca sound of course, but, in all other respects, I think I prefer this one.