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.

Janet Baker as Monteverdi’s Poppea

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One wouldn’t do Monteverdi like this now of course, but one has to remember that it was Raymond Leppard’s realisations of these pieces that largely put Monteverdi, and other operas of the period on the map. Leppard also changed the pitch of some of the roles, so we get a tenor Nero, a baritone Ottone, a female alto Arnalta and a tenor Page to Ottavia (the excellent John Brecknock, whose diction is so perfect you can hear every single word).

Remembering all that, this is an excellent performance and well worth investigating if you can get past the use of a modern orchestra and Leppard’s romanticised orchestrations. The opera is sung in (very clear) English. Would that more of today’s singers could sing with such natural, unforced diction. One hardly needs to follow along with the libretto, which is provided (yet another rarity these days).

It might come as a surprise to find the great Dame Janet Baker as Poppea rather than Ottavia, but she is wonderfully scheming, kittenish and manipulative, the voice character she creates a million miles away from the suffering Ottavia she sings in recorded extracts.

Unsurprisingly none of the other singers is quite on her level of inspiration, but all are expressive and more than adequate. Would that the ENO could provide such a cast nowadays.

My favourite recording of the opera is the quite recent la Venexiana recording of the Naples version under Claudio Cavina, but this Live ENO performances is worth listening to, both as a reminiscence of a bygone age and for the inestimable singing of Dame Janet Baker.