Sylvia Sass – The Decca Recitals

 

Sylvia Sass shot to stardom at the age of 25 after singing the role of Griselda in a 1975 Covent Garden production of Verdi’s I Lombardi which also starred José Carreras. Decca were quick to sign her up and her first recital LP (one side of Puccini, one of Verdi) followed in 1977. A further opera recital followed in 1979 and finally in 1981 a recital of songs by Liszt and Bartók, in which she got to sing in her native Hungarian. She also appeared on Solti’s recordings of Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira) and Bluebeard’s Castle and on the Philips recording of Stiffelio. She was hailed as the new Callas and, like others saddled with the epithet before her, her international stardom was short-lived, though she continued to sing in opera (though mostly in Hungary) until 1995 and made many records for Hungaraton.

From the very first notes of Turandot’s In questa reggia it is clear that this is a singer with a personality, always aware of the dramatic possibilities of the music. The voice can caress, but equally it has bite and power and the top can glare when singing at full tilt. The four Puccini heroines given here (Turandot, Tosca, Manon and Butterfly) emerge as distintinctively different characters, which isn’t always the case in a Puccini recital. There is also much that is fine in the Verdi items, the Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth being particularly good, but here we notice a tendency, also evident in the Puccini items, for there to be too great a gap between her loud and soft singing, where the loud singing can take on a strident, squally edge that contrasts too greatly with the almost disembodied purity of her soft singing.

By the time of the second recital this tendency to veer from ultra soft to ultra loud has become more pronounced, even more noticeable when singing live. I remember seeing her as Norma at Covent Garden in 1980 and you could hardly hear her when she was singing quietly. Not that the second recital doesn’t have its attractions. Lady Macbeth continues to be impressive, and there are some lovely moments in the Il Trovatore aria, with its spectacularly floated high D.

The 1981recital of Liszt and Bartók songs, with András Schiff at the piano, is rather impressive. Sass brings vivid personality to and drama to a song like Liszt’s Die Loreley, as well as a beautiful, comforting quality to Kling leise, mein Lied. She also makes musical sense of Bartók’s sometimes angular vocal lines, brilliantly supported by Schiff’s superb playing of the difficult piano accompaniments.

It is a great shame Sass never really fulfilled the promise of her early successes, but these discs serve to remind us why people found her so exciting when she first burst onto the scene and receive a qualified recommendation from me.

Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno – 2 recordings

The reason I ended up with two recordings of Verdi’s early, unsuccessful comedy, is that one day I was browsing in Gramex in Lower Marsh, Waterloo – a haven for those of us still attached to CDs. Amongst the stash of CDs I was buying that day was the RCA recording of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, which led Roger, the owner to ask me if I was a Verdi fan. I answered that indeed I was, whereupon Roger thrust the Simonetto recording of Un Giorno di Regno at me, telling me I must have it. I said that I already had the Philips recording, but he insisted that I took it away and wouldn’t accept any payment.

Verdi’s second opera was not a success at its premiere at La Scala, though five years later (as Il Finto Stanislao) it was something of a triumph at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice, a theatre with a strong tradition in comedy and opera buffa.

Whilst not according it the same merit as Donizetti’s great comedies L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale, which were clearly Verdi’s model, it is brim full of lively tunes and very enjoyable in its own right. It may never become a repertory opera, but it is definitely worth the occasional revival.

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The Philips recording is of course in excellent 1970s stereo sound, has the Ambrosian Singers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in splendid form under the experienced hand of Lamberto Gardelli, and a starry cast, and I must say I was very happy with it, but, after hearing the Simonetto, it now all sounds a bit dull and heavy, and the women at least are, I think, miscast.

Cossotto, a dramatic mezzo, doesn’t sound in the least bit comfortable with the light soprano role of the Marchesa. She tries to lighten her tone and style, but she doesn’t have the charm and clear voiced mastery of Lina Pagliughi, who is pure delight on the Cetra. Jessye Norman, who sings the mezzo role of Giovanna, also sounds a mite too heavy, and, though a soprano, her voice too sounds heavier than Laura Cozzi on the Cetra. The two buffo roles, sung here by Vincenzo Sardinero and Wladimiro Ganzarolli are also a trifle heavy handed when set beside the experienced buffos Sesto Bruscantini and Christiano Dalamangas on the Cetra. Renato Capecchi also sounds more naturally right as Belfiore than Ingvar Wixell.

The one role I prefer on the Philips is that of Edoardo, sung by the young Jose Carreras with honeyed tone and youthful charm, not that he totally eclipses Juan Oncina on the Cetra, but his tone is definitely more ingratiating.

Simonetto conducts with a sure sense of Italian opera buffa style, and the whole set comes to life in a way that the Philips doesn’t quite. The Cetra is a totally joyful experience , fizzing and popping like a good prosecco. His orchestra and chorus, the Orchestra Lirica e Coro di Milano della RAI, may not be as accomplished as their British counterparts, but they play with enthusiasm and dash at Simonetto’s more jaunty tempi.

Admittedly there are cuts, and the Cetra plays about 10 minutes shorter than the Gardelli. Well, this isn’t Falstaff, and losing a few notes doesn’t bother me that much, so I would have no hesitation in granting the palm to the 1951 Simonetto recording, despite ancient sound.

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