Frederica Von Stade – French Opera Arias

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This 1976 recital was, I believe, Von Stade’s first recital disc. In 1970, at the age of 25 she had secured a comprimario contract at the Met, debuting there as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte, and international acclaim followed in 1973, when she appeared as Cherubino at Glyndbourne in a Peter Hall production that was also televised. Von Stade’s winningly boyish Cherubino catapulted her to stardom alongside Kiri Te Kanawa and Ileana Cotrubas, who played the Countess and Susanna. I remember seeing it on TV, and the impression they all made.

Though American born, Von Stade spent a good deal of her youth in Europe, and later spent some years in France, and so is completely at home in the French language. Indeed French opera and song became a staple of her repertoire though, at this early stage of her career, she doesn’t always use the words to her advantage, and some of the arias could be more clearly characterised. That said, the voice itself, a clear lyric mezzo, is always beautiful and her use of it unfailingly musical. She is best at winning charm and bittersweet sadness, and the least successful item here is Charlotte’s Va, laisse couler mes larmes from Werther, which doesn’t compare to what she achieves in the complete recording under Davis (recorded in 1980).

My favourite performances are of Mignon’s Connais- tu le pays?, which captures to perfection Mignon’s wistful longing for her homeland (I always think it a pity that Von Stade wasn’t the Mignon on the Almeida recording, on which she plays Frédéric) and the aria from Cendrillon, and it is no surprise to find that she went on to have a great success in the complete role. Her natural charm also comes across well in the Offenbach arias and in Urbain’s aria from Les Huguenots.

The aria from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict for the most part goes well, though her responses are a little less vivid than Janet Baker’s on the complete Davis recording, and the Allegro lacks a little in joyfulness. Her natural plaintiveness is more suited to Marguerite’s D’amour l’ardente flamme, though, here too, there is a sameness of vocal colour which misses the urgency of the middle section.

A very enjoyable recital disc then, the beauty of the voice and her winning personality well caught, if with the proviso that she doesn’t yet quite convey the complete range of emotions required by the music. Nevertheless it always a pleasure to hear such beautiful and musical singing.

Dame Janet Baker – Philips & Decca Recordings 1961 – 1979

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Dame Janet Baker is without doubt one of the greatest singers of the latter part of the twentieth century, known throughout the world from her recordings and international recitals. Though her range was quite wide, taking in operatic roles from Monteverdi to Richard Strauss, and even embracing the Verdi Requiem and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, she was never tempted to sing outside her fach and retired, first from the operatic stage and then from recital work, whilst still at her peak, so that we never saw the slow vocal decline we often hear from great singers. Her Yorkshire firmness of mind and pragmatism also meant that she refused to join the international operatic circus, and in fact only once sang in opera outside the UK (when the Royal Opera took their hugely successful production of La Clemenza di Tito to La Scala, Milan).

This 5 disc set brings together some of the recordings Dame Janet Baker made for Decca, Argo and Philips during the 1960s and 1970s. Though contracted to EMI (and Warner have a pretty exhaustive twenty disc box set of her work for that label, called The Great Recordings), she made a few recordings for Decca/Argo (including her famous recording of Dido and Aeneas) in the early 60s, and then a tranche of recitals for Philips in the 1970s. The range of material here is not quite as wide as that on the aforementioned Warner set, but takes us from 17th century arie through to Britten.

Disc 1 is a selection of what most vocal students would know as Arie Antiche (called here Arie Amorose), accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. Whilst the somewhat souped-up arrangements can sound somewhat anachronistic today, Baker’s wonderfully varied singing brings each song winningly to life. The disc is rounded off with a couple of arias from Cavalli’s La Calisto recorded shortly after her great success in the role of Diana/Jove at Glyndebourne.

Some of Baker’s greatest early successes were in Handel and Disc 2 is mostly taken up by a superb 1972 Handel recital she made with the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard. How brilliantly she charts the changing emotions in the cantata Lucrezia and also in the arioso-like Where shall I fly from Hercules,but each track displays the specificity of her art, the way she can express, on the one hand, the despair in an aria like Scherza infida and, on the other, the joy in Dopo notte, both from Ariodante. The disc is rounded off by a superb 1966 recording of Bach’s Vergnügte Ruh and her incomparable When I am laid in earth from her 1961 recording of Dido and Aeneas.

Disc 3 has excerpts from a 1973 Mozart/Haydn recital and a 1976 Beethoven/Schubert disc, both made with Raymond Leppard, with the addition of arias from her complete recordings of La Clemenza di Tito and Cosí fan tutte under Sir Colin Davis. The two Haydn cantatas (one with piano and one with orchestra) are very welcome, but we do miss her stunning performance of Sesto’s two big arias from La Clemenza di Tito, and her gently intimate performance of Mozart’s Abendempfindung. Fortunately these have been included in a superb selection taken from the same two recitals on the Pentatone label, which includes all the missing Mozart and Schubert items. This disc also includes her recording of Beethoven’s Ah perfido!, a little smaller in scale than some, but beautifully judged none the less. It doesn’t have Callas’s ferocity, it is true, but it is much more comfortably vocalised.

Disc 4 is of music by Rameau (excerpts from her 1965 recording of Hippolyte et Aricie, which well display her impassioned Phèdre), Gluck (arias for Orfeo and Alceste taken from her 1975 Gluck recital) and Berlioz (1979 performances of Cléopâtre and Herminie and Béatrice’s big scene from Davis’s complete 1977 recording of Béatrice et Bénédict). The biggest loss here is of the majority of the Gluck recital, which included many rare items, though the complete reictal was at one time available on one of Philips’s budget labels. Baker is without doubt one of the greatest Berlioz exponents of all time, and the two scènes lyriques are especially welcome. These are fine examples of her dramatic intensity and the range of expression in both is fully exploited.

Disc 5 is of late nineteenth and twentieth century French song and Benjamin Britten; the whole of a disc of French song made with the Melos Ensmble in 1966, excerpts from the composers own recordings of The Rape of Lucretia and Owen Wingrave and the cantata, Phaedra, which was composed specifically for her. The Melos disc includes Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses and Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle and Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous and is a fine example of Baker’s felicity in French chanson, particularly ravishing in the wordless melismas of Lahore from Quatre poèmes Hindous. The Britten excerpts remind us of her sympathetic portrayal of Lucretia and her unpleasant Kate in Owen Wingrave. The Britten cantata is a great example of her controlled intensity.

Remarkable throughout is the care and concentration of her interpretations. Nothing is glossed over, nothing taken for granted, and she was one of those artists who could bring the frisson of live performance into the studio. Nor do I think she ever made a bad record. I heard her live on many occasions. Hers was not a big voice, but it was one that coud carry to the furthest recesses of a large hall, even when singing pianissimo. Furthermore there was a concentration, and intensity and a gift of communication, vouchsafed to just a few. One of my all time favourite singers.

Callas a Paris

Callas never sang a role in French on stage, and only one complete role (Carmen) on record, but as can be heard on these two discs, she had a natural affinity for the language. She spoke it fluently (though tellingly refused the role of Carmen in the Beecham recording, “because my French isn’t good enough yet”) and of course made Paris her home in her last years. Previously she had sung only Ophelia’s Mad Scene in French on the Mad Scenes recital disc and Louise’s Depuis le jour in recital in 1954.

Two years separate the recording of these two discs, and it is alarming to hear the marked deterioration in Callas’s voice in such a short period of time, a voice that was already showing signs of stress in the first recital recorded in 1961. These were also the last records of hers to be produced by Walter Legge.

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Recorded May 1963, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Despite her vocal problems, and despite the fact that she is evidently having to tread carefully, there are, however, still treasures on the second disc. Leila’s Comme autrefois doesn’t really come off, nor does Manon’s Je marche sur tous les chemins, which, without the ensuing gavotte, ends somewhat inconclusively. Manon’s Adieu, notre petite table, though, is a different matter; maybe a tad too serious, but, as always her phrasing is exemplary, and she makes the aria work supremely well out of its context. She sounds strained to the limits by the Gluck, and it can make for uncomfortable listening. Even so her grasp of the classic style and her command of legato never falters.

For the rest, we are vouchsafed three great performances. Gounod’s Margeurite comes as a total surprise, Callas finding here a lightness of touch that one might have thought was beyond her by this time. In the Ballade she meticulously differentiates between Marguerite’s thoughts and the strophic song she sings, carefully placing Marguerite’s simplicity before us. Her innocent rapture when she opens the casket of jewels is brilliantly caught. There is charm here (a trait which often eluded her in the past) and femininity, the text clearly enunciated, the runs deftly executed. She is defeated only by a watery top B at the end, which detracts from, rather than caps, what had been a beautiful performance.

Berlioz’s Margeurite is superb. Alongside Janet Baker’s performance on the Pretre recording and one by Shirley Verrett (on a rare recital record), this is one of the greatest performances of the piece put down on record. At the beginning of the aria, Callas perfectly mirrors the tone of the cor anglais with her first words, then beautifully lightens her tone, putting a smile in the voice for Sa marche que j’admire (and note how we hear the separation of the duple quavers in de sa main, de sa main la caresse, without once disturbing her impeccable legato). Her mounting rapture at Je suis a ma fenetre find its release in a cathartic O caresses de flamme, which she achieves again without once upsetting the long musical line. “Who would not wither in the flame of her genius?” asked the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns. Who indeed? I can only imagine what she might have done with the roles of Cassandre and Didon, and why not Les Nuits d’Ete too? Can you not imagine Callas singing the words O grands desirs inapaisees?

And finally to Charlotte’s great Letter Scene, arguably the most dramatic piece on the album, which brings out the best in her. How brilliantly she differentiates between Charlotte’s thoughts and Werther’s own words, particularly noticeable when she repeats the phrase Ne m’accuse moi, pleure moi, as their significance dawns on her. Unerringly, she captures Charlotte’s mounting panic as she reads the letters. So vividly does she bring this scene to life, that I can now just read through the text, and Callas’s voice and inflections come to my mind’s ear. Like many of her performances, it spoils me for all others.

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Recorded March & April 1961, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Though there are still a few wild and insecure notes, the first disc is one of the classic recital discs of all time, and one I would never be without. Whole tomes could be written about Callas’s psychological insights, her realisation of the composer’s intentions; every aria is like a new discovery. There isn’t a single dud on the recital, though the rather empty coloratura of Philine’s Je suis Titania would hardly seem worth her effort. She manages it remarkably well, the filigree beautifully executed, with a lovely lightness of touch, magically lightening her tone. She sounds a different singer from the Carmen and Dalila, which precede it, but it’s still my least favourite piece on the disc.

Everything else is pure Callas Gold. The Gluck arias sung with passion, but retaining their classic contours, Orphee’s J’ai perdu mon Eurydice emerging as a true lament. Note the appeal in the voice at the words C’est ton epoux, ton epoux fidele, the blank, despairing tone at Mortel silence and the suffering that truly tears at the heart (dechire mon coeur). Alceste’s great entreaty to the gods is hardly less affecting. Though the top notes are driven here, they are not intrusive, and Callas again finds a wealth of colour for each intercession, for each recurring statement of Divinites du Styx, with a lovely softening of her tone at Mourir pur ce qu’on aime.

Carmen’s arias are best seen as a preparation for the complete set, but the Habanera is seductive and playful, and the Segeudille full of humour, lightly and playfully sung. Dallila’s arias are even better. In Printemps qui commence she sounds “like a young tigress, flexing her claws in the sun.” I wish I could claim that simile for my own, but I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere else. Try as I might, though, I can’t find the original source.The danger lurking under that seductive surface is unleashed in Amour viens aider ma faiblesse, and then she gives us a real siren, when she sings the famous Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. Incidentally, always a stickler for the composer’s intentions, Callas here sings exactly what Saint-Saens wrote, which is that Ah reponds a ma tendresse should be sung in one breath. Most singers add an extra Reponds, which gives them a chance to snatch an extra one. In the second statement, she does indeed take a (perfectly justifiable) breath at Verse moi, verse moi l’ivresse (there is a comma here after all), but this might have been the reason why she refused to allow the aria to be released when the record first came out. It wasn’t issued until the disc was reissued after her death. In any case I doubt any of these arias has ever been done better, and they are enough for Alan Blyth to name Callas as Dalila in his dream cast for Samson et Dalila in his comparative review in Opera on Record.

Juliette’s Waltz Song is a miracle of lightness and elegance. Though the tone is mature, Callas suggests better than anyone the joy of the young girl, but note too the change of colour, when a veil of sadness comes over her voice at Loin de l’hiver morose. Callas gets more meaning out of this seemingly innocent tune than any other singer I know. Chimene’s glorious Pleurez, mes yeux has a dark, tragic beauty, her chest tones uniquely telling, her legato superbly eloquent.

Finally we come to Louise’s apostrophe to love and life. There are some alarming flaps on high notes here, and we note that even in 1954 the aria never quite worked for her in toto, but the quiet intensity of her intent is never in doubt. Has any other singer, before or since, captured quite so unerringly Louise’s mounting rapture, or sung quite so erotically the words je tremble delicieusement? So her voice doesn’t always do quite what she asks of it. Who cares, when she realises the fundamental truth at the root of this aria, which is actually about a young girl’s sexual awakening? When this recital was first reissued, Richard Osborne wrote, “Records like this change people’s lives.” It certainly changed mine