Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

Les Troyens (abridged) conducted by Georges Prêtre

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This live recording,  seemingly from a radio broadcast of a concert performance, is chiefly interesting for the contributions of  three great singers, Marilyn Horne, Shirley Verrett and Nicolai Gedda.

The score is heavily cut, and Prêtre whizzes through it with unseemly haste with no sense whatsoever of the piece’s structure. I just felt that he lacked any real understanding of the Berlioz idiom, of his originality and individuality, which is a pity because he has some excellent principals, though the supporting roles are less well filled. Veriano Luchetti appears as a rather too muscular Iopas.

Horne has no problems with the difficult tessitura of Cassandre’s role, her voice shining out in the high passages but with plenty of power in the lower regions. However she doesn’t quite convey Cassandre’s crazed zeal, though Prêtre’s fast tempos hardly help. Robert Massard is a fine Chorèbe.

Gedda, a lyric tenor, is surprisingly successful as Enée, a role usually sung by more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner. His French is, as you might expect, excellent, and he never forces the voice, nor does he have any trouble with the top C in his big aria Inutiles regrets. He doesn’t quite erase memories of Vickers, but his French is much more natural, and this might actually be more like the voice Berlioz would have had in mind. A great performance to set beside his Benvenuto Cellini and Faust, and it is a great shame he never appears to have sung the role again.

As Didon, Verrett is in splendid voice, perhaps one of the most richly endowed singers to have sung the role on disc, and she is, as always, dramatically involved, but again Prêtre tends to rush her, and I find myself wondering what she might have achieved with a Davis at the helm. I’m delighted to have heard her in the role, but I find I actually prefer Veasey on Davis’s first recording, who, in turn, cedes place to Janet Baker, who unfortunately only recorded the final scenes under Sir Alexander Gibson in 1969, shortly after singing the role for Scottish Opera. There exists a complete recording of a performance from Covent Garden at which Baker deputised for an ailing Veasey. Despite the fact that she is singing in English, whilst the rest of the cast sing in French (Scottish Opera were performing the opera in English, and Baker didn’t have time to learn the French text), she makes a profound impression. It is a great pity she wasn’t engaged for the studio recording.

I enjoyed hearing this for the singing of the principals, but Prêtre all but ruins it for me, and both Davis, in either of his two recordings, and Nelson are much more recommendable versions of the opera.

Nelson’s Les Troyens

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I love this opera, though I’ve never actually seen it staged. The first time I heard it live was in two halves at a couple of Proms concerts in 1982. It was conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and starred Jessye Norman as Didon, Felicity Palmer as Cassandre and Richard Cassilly as Enée. I didn’t know the opera as well then as I do now, but I remember even then I loved it. People often moan that it is too long, hence why it is often split into two parts, but it’s no longer than some of Wagner’s operas (and shorter than one or two). Subsequently I heard it twice at the Barbican under Sir Colin Davis, for whom Berlioz was something of a lifelong passion. Indeed without him it is quite possible that Berlioz would still be underappreciated today. I’ve also long enjoyed both Davis’s first pioneering recording for Philips, with Josephine Veasey and Jon Vickers, which was based on performances at Covent Garden, as well as his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at concerts at the Barbican, with Ben Heppner, Petra Lang and Michelle DeYoung.

It is a magnificent score, Berlioz’s greatest achievement, and it is a terrible shame he never got to hear it performed in its entirety. According to the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns, it is

an opera of visionary beauty and splendour, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention… it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world.

As always with Berlioz, the orchestration is superb and he writes brilliantly for major and minor characters alike, one of the most haunting moments in the score being given to the young sailor Hylas, as he laments for his homeland at the beginning of Act V.

This recent set has garnered some great reviews, so I was keen to hear how it measured up to the Davis recordings. From an orchestral point of view it is certainly very fine, but the singers are all a little light of voice for my taste. I heard Michael Spyres singing Berlioz’s Faust at the Proms not so long ago, and I found him a wonderfully musical and intelligent singer. I wonder though whether his voice might be a tad too small for Aeneas. There were times at the Proms that I thought his lyrical voice a little too small even for Faust. Maybe I’ve become too used to more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner, but the role of Enée was in the repertoire of the great Georges Thill, who also had a rather more beefy voice than Spyres. Lemieux is also a light voiced Cassandre, though she’s a great improvement on Lindholm, who is on the first Davis recording. I wouldn’t prefer her to Lang on the second Davis recording, nor Deborah Voigt, who sings Cassandre on the less successful Dutoit recording and also on a live Met recording, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon.

DiDonato is probably the most successful of the soloists. Some find her vibrato distracting, though it doesn’t bother me unduly, and she is thoroughly inside the role. However she doesn’t evince the sort of innigkeit you find in Janet Baker, who can be heard in incomparable versions of the final scenes conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and also in a couple of live performances under Davis, nor of Hunt Lieberson, who can be heard in the live Met performance under Levine, mentioned above. That said, I don’t know of anyone else around today who could sing it better.

Nor do I wish to be too picky about a recording that is a considerable achievement for all concerned. It gets a cautious thumbs up from me; certainly the best since Davis I and II, with my preference still being for Davis I.

Karajan’s Fidelio

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Recorded October and December 1970, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Wolfgang Gülch

The first time I ever saw Fidelio (and the first time I’d ever heard it) was back in 1974 when Scottish Opera brought the opera to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Helga Dernesch as Leonore. Though all the singers were very good, Dernesch was in a class of her own. I well remember her entry into the Canon in Act I, which was like a shaft of sunlight coming through the gloom. This was around the same time she made this recording with Karajan and the effect is exactly the same here. Famously Dernesch started having problems with the top of her voice and took time out, returning as a mezzo, though there is precious little sign of any strain in her voice here. Throughout she is a gleaming, radiant presence and this is arguably the greatest recording she ever made.

She is not the only reason I treasure this recording. Karajan’s reading is bitingly dramatic and the whole cast one of the best ever assembled for the opera. Certainly I’m not sure anyone has ever equalled Vickers’ searing intensity as Florestan. Ridderbusch and Kéléman are superb as Rocco and Pizarro and Van Dam luxury casting as Don Ferando, as is Helen Donath as Marzelline. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and superbly delivered by the singers (thankfully no separate cast of actors).

I’ve lived with this recording for around forty-five years and it’s still my favourite. When I was moving from LP to CD, I bowed to popular opinion and bought the Klemperer, but was profoundly disappointed, finding it less thrilling, less dramatic. It wasn’t long before I bought the Karajan again.

Sutherland and Pavarotti in La Fille du Régiment

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Recorded straight after a run of terrifically successful performances at Covent Garden in 1968, La Fille du Régiment has long been considered one of Sutherland’s best studio recordings, and the role of the tomboyish Marie certainly suits her well. As you’d expect she tosses off the coloratura and high notes in spectacular fashion, but also has the ability to convey a deeper vein of pathos when required. Pavarotti is also at his best, and he executes the top Cs in Pour mon âme with delightfully insouciant ease. Monica Sinclair, who sometimes overplays the comedy, and Spiro Malas provide excellent support and Richard Bonynge’s conducting is alert and nicely sprung.

I do have a couple of cavils, though. There is absolutely nothing authentically French about the enterprise, and, where this might be of less importance in Donizetti than Offenbach, I do miss a genuine French accent. Sutherland’s diction, though better than on some of her recordings, still leaves a great deal to be desired. On the other hand Pavarotti’s diction is so good you can hear just how bad his French is.

I’m assuming this will matter less to most people than it does to me, so I will finish by saying I really rather enjoy this set. It has the feel of a real performance, and it is a pleasure to hear two such great singers at the top of their game. In any case, if you want a complete recording in French, this is a much more polished performance than the Campanella with June Anderson and Alfredo Kraus and is easily top choice for the opera.

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.