Massenet’s Cendrillon

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A lovely recording of a gorgeous score, which is all but ruined by a monumental piece of miscasting. Massenet wrote the role of Le Prince Charmant for a mezzo-soprano (performed at the premiere by Marie-Louise van Émelen), but here it is given to the tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Stylishly though he sings, he cannot disguise the fact that he is singing in the wrong octave and the substitution seriously damages the sound of the duets. The booklet actually states,

In order to suggest the prince’s youth and grace, and to enhance the tender, ethereal quality of his love scenes with Cendrillon, Massenet composed the part for a falcon, …. Moreover, to prevent fashionable prime donne of the buxom kind from being miscast in the part, Massenet also stipulated in the score that the falcon should possess an appropriate physique du costume.

This makes the substitution doubly puzzling.

On the other hand the role of Cendrillon might almost have been written with Frederica Von Stade in mind, radiant of voice and charming of manner. Her performance is reason enough to have the set, but Ruth Welting makes a delightful Fairy and there are characterful performances from Jane Berbié as Madame de la Haltière and Jules Bastin as Pandolfe, as well as Teresa Cahill and Elizabeth Bainbridge as the step sisters.

Julius Rudel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus.

De Los Angeles as Manon

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Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped, 

I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manonand would think that I had profited by the exchange

He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer. 

This classic  1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better. 

Werther with Gedda and De Los Angeles

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Werther is an opera I like more each time I hear it. I first saw it back in 1970, in a lovely production by Sir Michael Redgrave, when it toured to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Werther was sung by David Hughes, who had enjoyed quite a success as a pop singer before retraining as an opera singer. He suffered from heart problems and sadly died from heart failure the day after collapsing on stage during a performance of Madama Butterfly at the London Coliseum. He was only 47. Looking at the Glyndeboure archives for 1970, I see the role of Charlotte was sung by Yvonne Fuller, who looks absolutely ideal in photographs. I wonder what happened to her.

To be honest I can’t remember all that much about the performance other than that I enjoyed it immensely and it has remiained one of my favourite operas ever since. These days I often hear people berating the character of Werther for being so “wet”, for want of a better word, but surely that is a rather glib reaction, which betrays a lack of understanding of the whole Romantic movement, and especically the Sturm und Drang movement that the original Goethe novel partly inspired. Musically, it is one of Massenet’s best operas and I like it a lot more than some of his crowd pleaser operas, like Esclarmonde and Le roi de Lahore.

Werther has been extraordinarliy lucky on disc, right from its first recording, made in 1931 and featuring Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin under Elie Cohen. Other strong contenders include Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos under Michel Plasson, José Carreras and Frederica Von Stade under Colin Davis and, possibly best of all, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu under Antonio Pappano.

Though the title role has been sung by lyric tenors such as Tito Schipa and Ferrucio Tagliavini, it still needs a fair amount of heft, as was demonstrated when I saw the opera not long ago at Covent Garden. Both musically and dramatically Juan Diego Florez was underpowered and the opera consequently failed to make its usual effect. Gedda was also a lyric tenor, but his essentially lyric voice had a great deal more carrying power than that of Florez and he is an effective Werther, his singing, as always, musical and involved.

By his side is one of the best Charlottes on disc, maybe even the best. Though a soprano, De Los Angeles’s lower and middle voice has the richness the role demands and her characterisation is spot on. Only Von Stade on the Davis recording approaches her for charm and vulnerability. This is a great performance. There is also excellent support from Mady Mesplé as a delightful Sophie and Roger Soyer as Albert.

Prêtre tends to overdo the histrionics and the Cohen, Davis and Pappano are all much better conducted, with the Davis and Pappano also enjoying better sound. Nonetheless this is one of the best recordings of the opera around, and absolutely essential for De Los Angeles’s superb Charlotte.

Tito Schipa – Opera Arias

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This EMI disc collects together recordings from Tito Schipa’s first recording sessions in 1913, recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s and one (Werther’s O, nature) recorded in 1942, when Schipa was 54.

The name of Schipa is most associated with style, elegance and grace (not for him the over-emotional sobbing excesses of Gigli), though the first aria included on the disc (Che faro from Orfeo ed Euridice) is hardly a model in that respect. The unstylish playing of the orchestra is certainly no help, but Schipa too has some lapses in style, with occasional aspiarates marring his legato.

The 1913 recordings tell a different story and reveal a surprising amount of power and squillo, not qualities one normally associates with the singing of Tito Schipa. They also offer so much more in the elegance of the phrasing, the firm line and his wonderful legato, as well as a proper appreciation of character and the dramatic situation. The prizes here are the Duke’s Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi veder le lagrime, from Rigoletto, Tu che a dio spiegasti l’ali from Lucia di Lammermoor and the Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana.

There are treasures too amongst some of the later recordings, even the 1942 Werther aria, which is wonderfully poetic, but the 1934 aria from Manon is also superb.

However I think I derived the most pleasure from the duets. WIth Toti Dal Monti we get a lovely Prendi l’anel to dono from La Sonnambula, and, even better, a gorgeous Tornami a dir from Don Pasquale, which is just about ideal in every way, the two singers blending thier voices and playing with the musical line in perfect synchronicity. Then, probably best of all is the famous Cherry Duet from Mascagani’s L’Amico Fritz, with the charming Mafalda Favero. Throughout he caresses and moulds the line and there is a moment of pure magic when he sings the words sei pur bella on a delciate thread of sound which perfectly expresses Fritz’s shy awakening to love. It is moments such as these which make us turn to these old recordings.

Romantic Opera Duets – Placido Domingo & Renata Scotto

Domingo recorded quite a few duet recitals in the 1970s, with Sherrill Milnes (1970), with Katia Ricciarelli (1972), with LeontynePrice (1974) and this one, with Renata Scotto, in 1978, which is, in many ways, the most successful.  For a start, the material is refreshingly unhackneyed, and, although we are vouchsafed only four excerpts, they are quite long (the shortest 8’52”), which makes for a more satisfying listening experience than lots of shorter pieces. The original LP had the French items, which are no doubt better known on the first side and the Italian ones on the second.

Scotto was at the high watermark of what was often referred to as her second career. In the 1960s she had recorded for EMI and DG, but signed to CBS/Sony in the 1970s appearing on many complete sets and recording recitals of Verdi and verismo. The voice was never a conventionally beautiful one and by this time could turn squally and shrill on top notes, but the compensations were many and included her superb musicality, her dramatic involvement, her attention to the text and her natural, unforced, excellent diction. As you can hear here, her French was less idiomatic than her Italian but you can at least hear the words clearly, and it is the French items I enjoyed most on this recital, though that could possibly reflect my preference for the material in question. I’ve never been a big fan of verismo.

Domingo is his reliable self, the voice in good shape, but at this time in his career his performances could seem a little generic, and there is not much difference between his Roméo and his Des Grieux, his Loris and his Giorgio, however musical his actual singing.

Both singers are attentive to the different styles required of the composers in question, but it is Scotto who is better at vocal characterisation, adopting an appropriately more seductive tone for Manon than she does for the girlishly innocent Juliette.  Her Fedora also sounds more mature and commanding than her Luisa in the Mascagni opera, which is a sort of verismo mirror piece to Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable duet recital, both in terms of the singing and the music tackled, and it is an excellent showcase for both singers.

Maggie Teyte – Chansons Françaises

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The first time I heard Maggie Teyte was when I was just starting to enjoy French song. I was learning Duparc’s Chanson triste and a friend played me her recording of the song with Gerald Moore at the piano. I was absolutely entranced and it has remained my yardstick ever since. First of all the flowing tempo they adopt is aboslutely right (so many take it too slowly) and she responds perfectly to all Duparc’s markings – floating the tone beautifully on the mon of mon amour (it is marked doux by Duparc) an effect I have tried, not too successfully, to emulate myself. Her high A is clear, clean and true, but she takes the lower option on the words de tes bras, dipping down into that gloriously rich lower register she had. As you listen, you feel the song is addressed to you personally and you want to just lie back in the warm embrace of her comforting words. The French christened her L’Exquise Maggie Teyte, and the adjective suits her perfectly.

She was born in 1888 in Woverhampton, but went to Paris in 1903 to study with the famous tenor Jean De Reszke. She made her first public appearanc in 1906, singing Cherubino and Zerlina under Reynaldo Hahn, making her first professional appearance in Monte Carlo the following year. She then joined the company at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and was shortly after chosen to replace Mary Garden in the role of Mélisande, for which she was coached by Debussy himself. She is the only singer ever to have been accompanied in public by Debussy himself, and she is an invaluable link to so many musicians of the past. Despite her early success however, she didn’t really establish herself with the main opera houses, and went into semi-retirement after her second marriage (to Canadian millionaire Walter Sherwin Cottingham) in 1921.

In 1930 she tried to resuscitate her career, but ended up singing in variety and music hall (24 performances a week!) until, in 1930, she made some recordings of Debussy songs with Alfred Cortot, which were so successful that she then became known as the leading French song interpreter of her time. She also sang at Covent Garden in such roles as Butterfly, Hänsel and Eurydice in Gluck’s opera, as well as Manon in English (with Heddle Nash).

The present set concentrates on recordings of French song with orchestra and piano made between 1940 and 1948, making her 60 when she recorded Ravel’s Schéhérazade, not that you would ever suspect it. The voice is still absolutely firm with no trace of wobble or excessive vibrato, top notes pure and true (a thrilling top B flat in Asie), the inimitable lower register gloriously rich.

It starts with a rather hectic recording of Berlioz’s Le spectre de la rose. The fast tempo was presumably adopted so that they could fit the song onto a single 78, but it does remind us that it is in waltz time and she brings a peculiarly intimate touch to the closing lines,which are sung with an ineffable sadness. Absence is sweetly touching.

Occasionally her attention to the meaning of the words can get in the way of the music, and the tempo fluctuations in Fauré’s Après un rêve are just too much, the general speed much too slow, but the accelerando on Reviens, reviens just too much. On the other hand the tempo for his Clair de lune is absolutely spot on with a moment of pure magic as she infuses her tone with warmth at Au calme clair de lune and Gerald Moore switches to a more free flowing style in the accompaniment.

Over the two discs there is scarcely a performance that doesn’t warrant attention, but I single out for special consideration Duparc’s gorgeous Phidylé, which is lazily erotic as it should be (note her telling observation of the diminuendo on baiser – most singers miss it completely) and the aforementioned Chanson triste, the former with the LSO under Leslie Heward, the latter with Gerald Moore on the piano. Also on disc 1 is a superb performance of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, whilst she breathes new life into Hahn’s popular Si me vers avaient des ailes.

In all she remains inimitable and individual, though, it seems these days, only known to connoisseurs. This set is no longer available, nor are the Debussy songs she recorded with Cortot. John Steane says in his wonderful book The Grand Tradition,

But basically the point about Maggie Teyte is the very simple one, that her singing is so good: that is, her voice is so clear, its production so even, its intonation so faultless, its movement in big upward leaps so clean and athletic, and its excellence was so well preserved for so long.

 

Not only is her actual singing so good, but she has something personal to say in all she does, and voice and style are instantly recognisable.

There are other examples of her art more readily available on other lablels but this old EMI set is a treasure and I urge Warner to reissue it along with the Debussy songs with Cortot. It should be in the collection of anyone who is interested in French song.

Shirley Verrett In Opera

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This is a wonderful recital disc and a great example of the art of Shirley Verrett, dating from 1967, before she ventured into soprano territory.

It starts with a stunningly virtuosic rendering of Orphée’s Amour, viens rendre à mon âme from the Berlioz edition of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Verrett maintains a true appreciation of the classical style, the chest voice used more sparingly than in Verdi, vibrato kept to a minimum. She also gives the piece a properly heroic dimension. Orpheus is after all srengthening his resolve at this point.

The two Donizetti items showcase her facility in bel canto, though with so many French items in the recital, it’s a shame she sings the aria from La Favorite in Italian. The short scene between Giovanna and Enrico from Anna Bolena gives us the chance to hear her engagement with the text in recitative, her legato line in the cavatina and her felxibility in the cabaletta. The aria from La Favorita also goes well, again displaying her deep legato in O mio Fernando, and her thrilling dramatic thrust in the cabaletta.

She is even better in the French items, giving us a beautifully restrained performance of Premiers transports from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, and one of the best versions I have heard of Margeurite’s D’amour l’ardente flamme, one of the composers greatest inspirations. Verrett’s responses to the text are just that bit more vivid than those of Von Stade, whose eary French recital I listened to recently, with a much greater range of colour. Only Callas surpasses her in creating an atmosphere of utter forlorness and longing, though it has to be admitted that by the time she recorded it her actual tone couldl sound somewhat frayed and thin, where Verrett is firm and rich throughout.

She is grandly eloquent in the aria from Sapho, and wonderfully alive to the many changes of emoton in the Letter Scene from Werther, briliantly charting Charlotte’s mounting anxiety. This too is one of the greatest performances you will ever hear of the scene, and it is a great pity she never recorded the complete role.

It is also nothing short of tragic that she never recorded the role of Dalila, one of her greatest stage successes, and her beautiful reading of the famous Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix closes the recital proper. Disappointingly she follows regular performance practice, by splitting the phrase in Ah, réponds à ma tendresse in order to snatch an extra breath. It is so much more effective when sung, as Saint-Saëns indicated, in one long breath, though Callas is one of the only singers to do it that way. Aside from that one slight cavil, her comparative restraint is welcome and all the more seductive for letting the music speak for itself.

The Verdi pieces at the end are taken from complete recordings of the two operas. She is wonderfully vivid as Preziosilla and darkly commanding as Ulrica.

In all Verrett’s superb musicality is evident, and I often wonder why she recorded comparatively little, given the flurry of opera recordings made in the 1970s. That her superb Carmen was never committed to disc is little short of criminal.

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.