Domingo’s first recording of Otello

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Quite aside from the recent sexual misconduct revelations, Domingo seems to come in for a lot of flak these days, but it is salutary to remember that this, his first recording of a role he became particularly associated with, was made over forty years ago. Towards the end of his career he turned to baritone roles (with qualified success, admittedly), but, by any standards, the man has had a long and illustrious career.

He made two further studio recordings of the role (one of them used for the soundtrack to the Zeffirelli film), and their are at least three official videos of him performing the role on stage, and a number of unofficial live accounts. This recording finds him early in his conquest of this signature role, but it is already well sung in. Records cannot of course capture his superb acting and powerful stage presence, but his Otello is still, even at this early stage of his career, a great performance. Some, and I am probably one of them, would prefer a voice with a bit more squillo on top. My favourite Otello remains Vickers, who has musicality, dramatic intensity and squillo, but I prefer Domingo to Del Monaco, whose singing can indeed be thrilling, but who tends to let volume compensate for a lack of real dramatic awareness.

There are other reasons to enjoy this recording. Levine’s conductiing, which derives from long stage acquaintance with the opera, is definitely one of his best Verdi recordings (though the recording itself is a tad congested in the climaxes) and Milnes is also caught at something close to his best, a suave, guileful and conniving Iago. Scotto, though she may not have Tebaldi’s beauty of tone, is a much more communicative and moving Desdemona, and this is one of her most succesful performances on disc. The voice occasionally spreads on top when under pressure, but her pianissimo singing is exquisite and her phrasing wonderfully musical.

Despite reservations about Rysanek’s Desdemona, the Serafin set with Vickers and Gobbi remains my favourite studio recording. That said, I would always want one of Domingo’s studio recordings as well. Though Domingo himself may be even more moving in his later two recordings and many, I know, would go for his last recording under Chung, with Studer and Leiferkus, I still prefer this early one. I’ve never been a big fan of Studer and Leiferkus sounds unidiomatic to me, for all his intelligence and dramatic acumen. The Maazel is let down by some weird recording balances and Diaz’s well sung but anonymous Iago, though Ricciarelli is also an affectingly touching Desdemona. So the Levine emerges as the winner for me.

Renée Fleming – I Want Magic

 

 

 

Renée Fleming was at her peak when this recital was recorded and this is, without doubt, one of her most successful records. The programme is a varied one too, with familiar items like Gershwin’s Summertime and Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay rubbing shoulders with items from more rarely performed works like Hermann’s Wuthering Heights and Floyd’s Susannah. The inclusion of Anne’s No word from Tom from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress rather stretches the subtitle American Opera Arias a bit, but is possibly justified as Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky were all resident in the US at the time of its composition.

The disc opens with a short extract from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, which was written in 1943 but never staged in Herrmann’s lifetime. In fact it was only premiered in 1982 by Portland Opera, but with the ending changed to one Julius Rudel had proposed several years earlier. It wasn’t performed in full until 2011, by Minnesota Opera. I have dreamt, lusciously sung here by Fleming, woud suggest the opera might be worth further investigation.

The excerpts from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Menotti’s The Medium are both lovely in every way, but the Gershwin items from Porgy and Bess suffer from a lack of spontaneity. Fleming introduces all sorts of jazzy slides and glottal attacks which simply sound affected. Leontyne Price sings this music much more simply and allows it to blossom on its own.

The considerable difficulties of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are tossed off with ease and here she captures the irony in the piece marvellously. It’s a piece that, unsurprisingly, many opera singers have added to their repertoire but few of them challenge the original interpreter, Broadway star Barbara Cook, who created the role and whose diction is a good deal more clear. To be honest, the only “operatic” version I’ve heard that does is Dawn Upshaw’s, but Fleming’s is certainly amongst the best.

Next we have two pieces from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which brought back happy memories of seeing Fleming in the role at the Met shortly after she recorded these exceprts. She is at her considerable best here, flooding the gratefully lyrical lines with gorgeous tone, but also capturing the character’s longing for adventure in the first, her loneliness in the second.

Finally we have a reminiscence of her Anne Trulove, which she sang at the Aspen Music Festival in 1987 and a taster of her Blanche Dubois in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she premiered soon after making this recording. She has a richer voice than most Annes, but negotiates its complexities with ease and her Blanche is simply hors concours. The aria I want magic was an obvious high spot when she sang the role in London with the LSO, but I rather wish they had also included the final aria, I can smell the sea air, which had a huge effect on me each time I heard it whilst waiting in the wings to make my entrance as the doctor. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

Sandwiched between the Stravinsky and the Previn we have Vanessa’s passionate Act I aria from Barber’s opera, which left me wondering why nobody had thought to revive the opera with Fleming in the title role. It would have suited her perfectly.

If I have any reservations, aside from those I mentioned about the Gershwin pieces, I’d have to say that her diction could be clearer. Other than that, this is an absorbing and rewarding programme stunningly sung and beautifully executed. Don’t hesitate.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann from the Salzburg Festival 1981

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I was keen to hear this set after it was the reviewer’s first choice for the opera in BBC’s Building a Library programme, and it is very good indeed, though the sound of this live recording, made at the Salzburg Festival in 1981, rather lets it down. The solo voices are well recorded, but the sounds becomes boomy and congested when orchestra and chorus are at full tilt. Furthermore there are quite a few bangs and thuds associated with live performance.

That said the performance itself is thrilling with Domingo in superb voice and even more inside the role than he is on the Bonynge set. That of course has Sutherland in the female roles and it has to be said that Malfitano doesn’t command her beauty of tone. On the other hand, she is a much more convincing vocal actress. For all that Offenbach intended the roles to be sung by the same singer, the demands of each are quite different, and I often prefer to hear them sung by different singers as they are in the superb John Schlesinger Covent Garden production with Domingo again as Hoffmann, but with Luciana Serra as Olympia, Ileana Cotrubas as Antonia and Agnes Baltsa (a mezzo) as Giulietta. Malfitano rises to the challenge superbly however and reconciles me to the casting of the same singer.

The rest of the cast is also excellent with Ann Murray superb in the dual role of Niklausse/The Muse and Van Dam perfection in the roles of the four villains, vocally more resplendent than Bacquier on the Bonynge recording. Rémy Corazza is also excellent in the comic roles, if not quite erasing memories of Hugues Cuénod on the Bonynge set.

James Levine, whom I sometimes find too bombastic in Verdi, surprised me, his conducting both exciting and lyrical and the Vienna Philharmonic play superbly.

The Bonynge profits from superb Decca sound of course, but, in all other respects, I think I prefer this one.