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.

Lorin Maazel’s Il Trittico

Excellent performances of Puccini’s tryptich, though, of the three, only Suor Angelica would be my absolute top choice.

A word first about the presentation of this budget release. These days I suppose we have become used to not getting texts and translations, but documentation n this reissue is really of the minimum, and tracking of the CDs is a ludicrous; just one track for Il Tabarro, and two each for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.

Nothing really wrong with Maazel’s conducting. I sometimes find him a fussy conductor, who draws attenttion to himself rather than the music, but I enjoyed these performances. His conducting is spacious and warm throughout, though I’d have to admit he misses some of the high spirits of Gianni Schicchi.

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Despite the excellent performances of Scotto and Domingo in Il Tabarro, I still prefer the old mono recording conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza, which is dominated by Gobbi’s darkly menacing, but troubled Michele. It is one of his greatest achievements on disc, and, good though Wixell is, he doesn’t begin to match Gobbi in emotional range. Scotto and Domingo are far preferable to their counterparts on the older recording, but Gobbi is irreplaceable.

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In Gianni Schicci, Gobbi is up against himself in an earlier recording, conducted by Gabriele Santini with a degree more urgency than we get here. Gobbi is as sharply characterful as ever, but the other soloists on that earlier recording are a tad more individual than those on this one, and it just generates a bit more fun and high spirits. Domingo, expertly lightening his voice, manages Rinuccio surprisingly well, but it’s still a bit like getting a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and Ileana Cotrubas is a charming Lauretta, if not quite eclipsing memories of Victoria De Los Angeles on the earlier recording.

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When it comes to Suor Angelica, I would have to admit that Scotto’s top notes can be afflicted with hardness and unsteadiness, but that she presents the most intense, most psycholgically penetrating traversal of the role I’ve heard. Between them Scotto and Maazel turn what is often a piece of quasi religioso sentimentality into a mini psychodrama about the effects of repression, almost echoing some of the themes in Powell and Pressburger’s darly intense movie Black Narcissus. Much as I like recordings featuring De Los Angeles and Ricciarelli, this one is much more gripping as drama. It’s defnitely the prize of the set.