Janet Baker as Maria Stuarda

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Mary Stuart – Dame Janet Baker
Queen Elizabeth I – Pauline Tinsley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – Keith Erwen
George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury – Don Garrard
Sir William Cecil – Christian Du Plessis

English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus – Sir Charles Mackerras

This is not the same as the Chandos (originally EMI) recording of Maria Stuarda with Dame Janet Baker, which was recorded at performances of the revival in 1982, and was also filmed. This Ponto release was taped at a performance of the original production in 1973, and aside from Dame Janet and Sir Charles Mackerras, all the principals are different.

Pauline Tinsley, who here plays Elizabeth, was a much loved British soprano, well known for the dramatic intensity of her performances. The voice, as recorded, can tend to the wiry, and doesn’t fall so easily on the ear as Rosalind Plowright, who sings in the 1982 version, but quite a bit of that dramatic intensity comes through, and she is an excellent foil for Baker’s Maria. She doesn’t quite eclipse memories of Shirley Verrett, who sings the role on another live recording (from La Scala) with Caballé as Maria.

Dame Janet herself is in fabulous form, the voice fresher and more compact than it is in 1982. Superb though she is in 1982, she is bettered by her younger self here, and, despite the fact that the opera is sung in English translation, this has been my go to version for many years now. Easily encompassing all its vocal demands, she reveals character and emotion through the music with uncanny ability. As such, her portrayal is closer to Sills than, say, Sutherland or Caballé, but she also has the vocal grandeur that Sills’ voice lacks. The confrontation scene, with Baker and Tinsley spitting fire at each other, is possibly the most thrilling on disc. However, as you may expect, there is much more to Baker’s Maria than thrills and the final scenes are infinitely moving. Baker has an uncanny ability to hone in the emotional crux of each scene, whether it be in a line of recitative or a whole aria. In this she reminds me of Callas for all that their vocal methods are so different. So complete is her identification with Maria’s tragedy that it becomes no surprise to remember that it was one of the roles she chose to sing in her final year on the operatic stage. (If you recall, the others were Alceste at Covent Garden, and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne. We don’t necessarily associate Baker with bel canto opera, but she actually made her US debut in Anna Bolena (as Smeton) and recorded a superb Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ei Montecchi on disc. Of all the roles she sang with the English National Opera, it is no surprise to find that she chose this one for her farewell to the company.

Keith Erwen is hardly in the Pavarotti class, but is a strong Leicester nonetheless, and the lower voices are in the capable hands of ENO stalwarts Don Garrard and Christian Du Plessis.

Mackerras paces the score with a sure sense of the drama, knowing exactly when to relax and when to push forward.

So pleased I bought this when it first came out. Copies are selling for around £100 on Amazon UK at the moment.

Alagna & Gheorghiu in Roméo et Juliette

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I first saw Alagna, when he sang Roméo in a new production of Gounod’s opera at Covent Garden, one year before he made this recording. There was a real sense of excitement in the house on that occasion, and a sense that maybe we had at last found a successor to the big three (Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras). That initial promise was never entirely fulfilled, though, in my opinion, he continued to be at his best in French opera and he makes a superb Roméo in this excellent recording, fresher and younger sounding than the stylish, but aging, Alfredo Kraus on Plasson’s first recording of the opera.

His Juliette on the occasion of the Covent Garden performances was the girlish Leontina Vaduva, but here she is replaced by Angela Gheorghiu, the other half of what was at the time the golden couple of opera. There is no denying the beauty of the voice, but she sounds, to my ears at least, a mite too sophisticated in the opening scenes. That said she rises superbly to the challenge of the poison aria in Act IV, which is often omitted by lighter voiced sopranos.

José Van Dam and Simon Keenlyside as Frère Laurent and Mercutio are both excellent; Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Stéphano not so much.

The performance is note complete, even up to the ballet music, and Plasson has an even better grip on the score than he had in his first recording with Alfredo Kraus and Catherine Malfitano.

A clear first choice for this opera, I’d have said

Khaikin’s Eugene Onegin

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Khaikin’s wonderful 1956 recording of Eugene Onegin may not have the best sound but in all other respects it’s as close to ideal as you can get. There is something so intrinsically right about Khaikin’s handling of the score, his pacing absolutely perfect, his control of his forces absolutely stunning. He brings out so much detail in the score but the result nevertheless sounds completely spontaneous.

His cast is also pretty much unbeatable, its chief asset being the young Galina Vishnevskaya, whose girlishly impulsive and totally adorable Tatyana, almost passionately erotic in the Letter Scene ( a young girl alone giving in to the passion in her heart) grows to full maturity in the final scene.  Belov is suitably reserved and sardonic in the opening scenes but despairingly intense in the finale. Lemeshev is caught a little late in his career as Lensky (he would have been 54 at the time of the recording) but sings with finesse and style and Petrov makes a strong impression in Gremin’s beautiful aria.

Had the recording always been more readily available in the West, I have no doubt that it would enjoy the same elevated status as De Sabata’s Tosca as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

Sawallisch’s Capriccio

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Richard Strauss’ final opera can sometimes seem wordy and long-winded, but in a performance such as this it is anything but boring.

This luxury cast is just about as perfect as any you are likely to hear, all the singers giving due attention to the words. The Countess Madeleine was always one of Schwarzkopf’s best roles, and she steers a perfect course between sophistication and elegance, between playfulness and tender affection. It is one of her greatest achievements for the gramophone, her radiant singing of the gorgeous closing scene a perfect rounding up of the whole opera. If the opera asks the question, “which should come first, words or music,” there is no doubt which side Strauss himself comes down on. The male voices – Gedda as the dreaming composer Flamand, Fischer-Dieskau as the more impulsive poet Olivier, Wächter as the flirtatious Count, and, last but not least, Hotter as the harassed theatre director La Roche are all wonderfully characterised. Ludwig is a superb Clairon and we even have the young Moffo as the Italian Singer. Sawallisch is a marvellously experienced Strauss conductor and presides over a recording that has become a classic of the gramophone.

The recording was apparently planned in stereo, but technical problems meant it ended up being recorded in mono, which no doubt pleased Walter Legge, as he mistrusted stereo.  Nonetheless it is wonderfully well balanced with the voices as they should be, especially in a conversational piece like this, firmly in the foreground.

Karajan’s Ariadne auf Naxos

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My first encounter with Ariadne auf Naxos was a scenically splendid Glyndebourne Touring Opera production, which I saw in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1971. I’d never heard a note of the music before, but enjoyed it immensely.

However it was quite some time before I bought a recording, and this classic brilliantly cast 1954 recording was my choice. The years haven’t dimmed its lustre and I simply cannot imagine a better all round performance.

Has there ever been a more impetuously ardent Composer than Seefried? I doubt it; and it’s good to hear a soprano in the role, as Strauss indicated. Schwarzkopf’s Ariadne is not only gloriously sung, but, as always with this artist, with due attention to the words, and she does a fine parody of herself in the prologue. Streich’s adorable Zerbinetta manages to be both sparkily flirtatious and sympathetic, and the accuracy of her coloratura is stunning. Rudolf Schock’s dryish tenor might not offer quite the same sensual delights, but he also sings with intelligence and attention to the text.

The supporting roles are all superb too, especially Karl Dönch’s Musicmaster, Hugues Cuénod’s Dancing Master and the young Hermann Prey’s Harlequin. One should also mention Alfred Neugebauer’s laconic Major-Domo.

Karajan has the full measure of the score and the Philharmonia play brilliantly for him. Mono of course, but wonderfully well balanced recording. I’ve never felt the need to look elsewhere.

The Sawallisch Arabella

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Arabella is one of Strauss’s most performed operas and there are quite a few complete recordings available, the most famous probably being the Decca set with Lisa Della Casa, who, for many years, was renowned for her portrayal of the leading role.

The main problem with that studio recording, though, is Solti’s hard driven, perfunctory conducting. I think I read somewhere it was his first complete opera recording for Decca, and even his greatest fans admit that he sounds as if he had little sympathy for his task, whereas Sawallisch’s conducting on this set is one of its principal glories, as is the wonderfully warm digital sound.

There are other reasons to treasure the performance here however, not least the performances of Julia Varady as Arabella and Helen Donath as Zdenka. Varady’s husband, Fischer-Dieskau was in his mid 50s at the time of the recording, and it has to be admitted that he does sound a bit over the hill at times, with an occasional tendency to bark. Nonetheless he makes a sympathetic Mandryka, without exactly eclipsing memories of Josef Metternich, who sings Mandryka on a superb excerpts disc with Schwarzkopf as Arabella, which I reviewed as part of the Schwarzkopf Recital box in May last year (what a shame they didn’t record the full opera).

The opera still has its problems, it seems to me. Invariably Zdenka emerges as the more sympathetic character, as she does here, despite Varady’s gorgeous, creamy Arabella. I remember that  my first encounter with the opera was the film with Janowitz as Arabella, and my sympathies were all with Matteo! The Fiakermilli music always seems pointless and empty to me too, and there are quite a few places where my attention wanders. Maybe Schwarzkopf was right just to record excerpts.

Still, if you enjoy the opera, this is a very fine recording.

A Merry Widow for all time

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Oh what bliss! From the first moment of the orchestral introduction, which captures brilliantly that sense of expectation when sitting in a darkened theatre before the curtain rises, this famous recording is pure joy. Brilliantly cast and produced, it has a real whiff of the theatre, and yet you would be hard pressed to ever hear a performance of such class there. Principal among its delights is Schwarzkopf’s gloriously sung Hanna Glawari, singing with the same sort of care she lavishes on Mozart and Strauss. Indeed the moment she realises that Danilo is still in love with her (Allein liebt er mich, nur allein! ) in the finale of the second act is sung with such gloriously refulgent tone that it would hardly sound out of place in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

This was Schwarzkopf’s second recording of the opera, and, as in the first, Legge chooses a baritone for Danilo, rather than the usual tenor. However Wächter’s high baritone has no problems with the higher lying passages that Kunz (on the first recording) had to transpose down. Furthermore he sounds younger and more dashing. Gedda and Steffek make an excellent pair of lovers, the Pavillion duet in the second act a properly erotic affair, and the rest of the cast could hardly be bettererd with excellent contributions from Josef Knapp and Kurt Equiluz. Fabulous playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Lovro von Matacic.

Yes, there are fuller versions of the score around, but, frankly I couldn’t care less. I doubt this wonderfully stylish, fun packed recording will ever be bettered. Indeed only a couple of months ago, it was the reviewer’s top choice for the operetta on BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library porgramme and, having heard excerpts from all the other top contenders, I can but agree.

Karajan’s 1955 Die Fledermaus

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Oddly enough, my previous post referred to an opera (Massenet’s Cendrillon) where a female breeches role was given to a tenor and the same thing happens here, though not quite to such detrimental effect. Where Gedda’s Prince Charming sounds all wrong, Rudolf Christ’s languidly effete Orlovsky almost reconciles me to the change and this  is my only slight quibble about a superb, classic recording, which I happen to prefer to Karajan’s later effort for Decca.

Though recorded in London with the Philharmonia, cast and conductor bring an echt Viennese quality to the whole enterprise, the judicially edited dialogue delivered in sparkling fashion. You don’t really need to speak German to understand what’s going on.

Schwarzkopf is a superb Rosalinde, none better, singing her Czardas with appropriate dash and swagger, the voice gloriously rich and firm; Streich a delightfully pert and flirtatious Adele; Gedda a properly tenor Eisenstein, with a fine line in comedy, especially when impersonating Blind in the final scene; Kunz a genially scheming Falke. Excellent contributions also from Krebs as Alfred, Dönch as Frank and Majkut as Blind. This really is a fabulous cast and Legge’s superb production ensures that the recording sounds like a real performance.

Karajan’s conducting is perhaps on the swift side, but the whole performance fizzes and pops like the very best brut champagne that the operetta celebrates and is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Massenet’s Cendrillon

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A lovely recording of a gorgeous score, which is all but ruined by a monumental piece of miscasting. Massenet wrote the role of Le Prince Charmant for a mezzo-soprano (performed at the premiere by Marie-Louise van Émelen), but here it is given to the tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Stylishly though he sings, he cannot disguise the fact that he is singing in the wrong octave and the substitution seriously damages the sound of the duets. The booklet actually states,

In order to suggest the prince’s youth and grace, and to enhance the tender, ethereal quality of his love scenes with Cendrillon, Massenet composed the part for a falcon, …. Moreover, to prevent fashionable prime donne of the buxom kind from being miscast in the part, Massenet also stipulated in the score that the falcon should possess an appropriate physique du costume.

This makes the substitution doubly puzzling.

On the other hand the role of Cendrillon might almost have been written with Frederica Von Stade in mind, radiant of voice and charming of manner. Her performance is reason enough to have the set, but Ruth Welting makes a delightful Fairy and there are characterful performances from Jane Berbié as Madame de la Haltière and Jules Bastin as Pandolfe, as well as Teresa Cahill and Elizabeth Bainbridge as the step sisters.

Julius Rudel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus.

De Los Angeles as Manon

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Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped,

I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange

He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer.

This classic  1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better.