Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

Sutherland and Pavarotti in La Fille du Régiment

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Recorded straight after a run of terrifically successful performances at Covent Garden in 1968, La Fille du Régiment has long been considered one of Sutherland’s best studio recordings, and the role of the tomboyish Marie certainly suits her well. As you’d expect she tosses off the coloratura and high notes in spectacular fashion, but also has the ability to convey a deeper vein of pathos when required. Pavarotti is also at his best, and he executes the top Cs in Pour mon âme with delightfully insouciant ease. Monica Sinclair, who sometimes overplays the comedy, and Spiro Malas provide excellent support and Richard Bonynge’s conducting is alert and nicely sprung.

I do have a couple of cavils, though. There is absolutely nothing authentically French about the enterprise, and, where this might be of less importance in Donizetti than Offenbach, I do miss a genuine French accent. Sutherland’s diction, though better than on some of her recordings, still leaves a great deal to be desired. On the other hand Pavarotti’s diction is so good you can hear just how bad his French is.

I’m assuming this will matter less to most people than it does to me, so I will finish by saying I really rather enjoy this set. It has the feel of a real performance, and it is a pleasure to hear two such great singers at the top of their game. In any case, if you want a complete recording in French, this is a much more polished performance than the Campanella with June Anderson and Alfredo Kraus and is easily top choice for the opera.

The famous Giulini Don Giovanni

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Like the Karajan Der Rosenkavalier, Warner’s luxury presentation of this latest re-mastering of the famed Giulini Don Giovanni just adds a little more lustre to one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

It seems incredible to think that Giulini was actually a last minute replacement for Otto Klemperer, who was originally scheduled to record the opera with this cast but fell ill just as sessions started. We can be thankful now that he was available, for I can’t imagine that Klemperer could have produced the kind of quicksilver, thrillingly exciting performance we get here. The Philharmonia Orchestra were at that time at the top of their game and the orchestral playing is beyond praise. One of the main attractions of the set is the execution of the recitatives, which are brim full of drama and character, no doubt a result  of Walter Legge’s excellent production, and the whole recording feels like a real performance, with the singers brilliantly interacting with each other.

The cast is, without exception, superb; Sutherland, in her first major recording, a beautiful and technically assured Anna; Schwarzkopf, who adopted, in her words, “a sharp, unfriendly tone” to offset Sutherland’s creaminess, a real firebrand of an Elvira; Sciutti a delectably seduceable Zerlina. The men are hardly less brilliant, with Wächter’s dangerously sexy Don almost the equivalent of a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbank Jnr character and Taddei’s manipulative Leporello nicely complementing him. Cappuccilli is a real bully of a Masetto and Frick a commanding and ultimately terrifying Commendatore. If Alva makes slightly less of an impression, that has more to do with the rather passive character of Ottavio than his singing of Ottavio’s lovely arias.

One of the all time classics, beautifully re-furbished in this new re-master.

Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna

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So what more can one say about this famous two disc recital? It was recorded in 1960, not long after Dame Joan had enjoyed a spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1959, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was already 33 and had been a member of the company since 1952, when she had sung Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the Priestess in Aida. She had sung a wide number of roles there, including Agathe, the Countess, Gilda, Pamina, Eva and even Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, but none of these undertakings had prepared anyone for the spectacular success she would have as Lucia, with Serafin, Callas’s mentor, in the pit. The role became her calling card and shortly afterwards she sang it in Paris, at La Scala and at the Met, performances that put her firmly on the map and paved the way for the direction her career would take. Thereafter she concentrated almost exclusively on the bel canto repertoire and many operas were resurrected specifically for her.

Let us try and listen now with fresh ears, as if, for instance, this was the work of a singer new to us today. First impressions would be of the beauty of the voice, the fullness of tone, the ease on high and the way those top notes ring out with brilliance but without a hint of shrillness. We would also notice the rocketing virtuosity and the stunningly accurate coloratura. She also sings with feeling, but the first impressions are definitely vocal. This is an exceptional instrument used with great technical accomplishment. What I don’t think we quite get is a true impression of the size of the voice, which, according to all who heard her in the theatre, was quite exceptional.

Some of the arias (particularly the opening track, Arne’s The soldier tir’d, Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim and Semiramide’s Bel raggio) have become yardsticks against which all subsequent comers might be judged, and almost all the others would no doubt be considered amongst the best versions available. Vocally she has few limitations, though these might include a relative weakness in the lower register. Nor is she ever likely to suddenly throw into relief a word or a phrase and her diction, though a lot better than it was later to become is not particularly clear. We might also note that characterisation is not her strong point. As one aria follows another there is little to distinguish one character from another. We do not get a gallery of different people, as one would with a Callas or a Schwarzkopf.

For many these reservations will not be a problem and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the purely visceral experience of hearing such a beautiful voice in full bloom tackling with accomplishment a wide range of music. For others, and I would count myself among them, that certain sameness of interpretaion will be a problem and I for one prefer to listen to the recital piecemeal rather than all in one sitting. When listening in sequence, I start out being stunned by the singing but, after a while, my mind starts to wander as one interpretation emerges much the same as the one before. The best arias are, as I intimated above, those in which Sutherland can display her amazing vocal dexterity.

Going back to first impressions, though. There is, as far as I’m aware, nobody singing today who can even approach the accomplishment of what Sutherland achieves here. This two disc set stands as testament to her greatness, before the mannerisms (the poor diction, the mushy middle voice, the droopy partamenti) became apparent and should be in the collection of all those interested in singers and singing.

Joan Sutherland – Grandi Voci

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On 17 February 1959, Joan Sutherland sang her first Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. She had first been engaged at Covent Garden in 1952, singing small parts, such as Clotilde to Callas’s Norma. That same year she sang her first leading role there (Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera), but the administration didn’t at first realise her potential and the roles she sang (Agathe, The Countess, Desdemona, Gilda, Eva, Pamina, Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage) gave no real indication of the direction her career would take. She herself had thought she would be a Wagnerian soprano, but Richard Bonynge, who married her in 1954, eventually convinced her otherwise, and in 1959 Covent Garden gave her the honour of a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Tullio Serafin. Sutherland proved a sensation, and, at the age of 35, she became a star, in demand all over the world for dramatic coloratura roles.

This disc adds to her debut recital, made shortly after the Covent Garden Lucia, two arias from one of her most successful sets The Art of the Prima Donna (Casta diva and the I Puritani Mad Scene), recorded in 1960 and Santo di patria, lifted from another set The Age of Bel Canto, recorded in 1963.

Those who know me will know I am not much of a Sutherland fan. The mannerisms (the mushy diction especially, the droopy portamenti, the weak lower register) that crept in as early as the 1960s irritate me so much I find it hard to listen, and the beauty of the voice is no compensation.

It is good to be reminded, then, that it was not always so, and she sounds quite different here, the voice much more forwardly produced, and, even if she rarely uses the words to suddenly bring a phrase into sharp relief, there is nothing much wrong with her diction in these discs. Maybe this has something to do with the conductors she was working with then, all Italians, Nello Santi for the debut recital, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli for The Art of the Prima Donna, Tullio Serafin at Covent Garden. Interestingly Serafin advised her to study the role of Lady Macbeth, but Bonynge obviously thought otherwise.

The main meat of the disc, however, is that first ever recital made with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under Nello Santi. Lucia’s two big solos were an obvious choice, to which are added Merce, dilette amiche from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, Ernani! Ernani involami from Ernani and O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix.

Throughout the technical command is stunning, as is the beauty of voice, the top notes, of which there are many, one of its greatest glories. Nor is she just a technical machine. Though there is little attempt at vocal characterisation (Norma doesn’t sound much different from Lucia), she is not an unfeeling singer. There is command in Norma’s Sediziose voce, poetic feeling in the recitative to the Ernani aria, breezy grace in the aria from I Vespri Siciliani.

Fresh from the success of the Covent Garden performances, the Lucia arias are predictably best of all. Here not only is the execution vocally stunning, but she is the very epitome of the young Romantic heroine, driven mad by despair. Like Callas, she is a far cry from the piping, doll-like sopranos who had made Lucia something of a laughing stock among opera cognoscenti. Unfortunately already by her first complete recording of the opera made in 1961, the tone has become more occluded, the diction less precise, the vowels begin to be rounded and dulled, and the vitality and immediacy heard here starts to droop.

Though vital and alive in the scene from Verdi’s Attila, conducted by Richard Bonynge, the diction is not as clear as it is on that frst recital, though the recording here does give some indication as to the size and fullness of the voice. Even with that small niggle about the diction, this is still a stunning performance, thrilliingly dramatic, and I’ve never heard it better sung. Deutekom on the Philips complete set is pallid by comparison.

This disc, along with The Art of the Prima Donna are, I would suggest, essential Sutherland, and remain permanent parts of my collection. The rest, personally, I can live without.

Callas sings Norma at Covent Garden 1952

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This recording captures Callas’s debut before one of her most loyal audiences. She returned the following Coronation season, reprising the role of Norma and adding Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore. She was back for Norma in 1957, then La Traviata in 1958,  Medea in 1959, and finally the legendary Zeffirelli production of Tosca in 1964 and 1965, her last ever performance on stage.

Callas sang Norma more than any other role, and is particularly associated with it and there are quite a few extant recordings of her singing it.. Aside from the studio recordings of 1954 and 1960, we have live performances from Mexico in 1950, Covent Garden in 1952, Trieste in 1953, Rome and La Scala 1955, Rome in 1958 (the infamous walk out), and also of her final performances in the role in Paris in 1965.

Though this Covent Garden performance is very good, I would have preferred it if Warner had chosen the La Scala performance of 1955 with Simionato and Del Monaco, a performance in which art and voice find their truest equilibrium, and without doubt the greatest performance of the opera I have ever heard. In its Divina incarnation it is also, apart from some radio interference during the opening of Act II, in much clearer sound than this Covent Garden performance. It is the recording  I turn to most often when I want to hear Norma.

That said, it is a long time since I heard this 1952 set, and I certainly enjoyed listening to it. The sound is not too bad, but not great, and a bit boomy in places, though the solo voices come across reasonably well. The chorus sound a bit muffled. I don’t have any other version I can compare it to though, so can’t tell you if it’s any worse or better than others.

To deal with elements other than Callas first, Vittorio Gui has an excellent grasp of the score, and has the merit of not conducting it as if it were Verdi. His tempi are, for the most part, judicially chosen, and he supports his singers admirably, though very occasionally I felt he hurried things along a little too much.  There are one or two lapses between stage and pit, but, in general, the performance is well prepared and executed.

Giacomo Vaghi is a sonorous, firm voiced Oroveso, and Mirto Picchi, who sings Giasone on Callas’s studio recording of Medea a welcome surprise as Pollione. He doesn’t have Del Monaco’s or Corelli’s heroic sound, nor their clarion top Cs, but he is a good deal more stylish than Mario Filippeschi, the Pollione of Callas’s 1954 studio recording.

The Adalgisa is Ebe Stignani, one of the most acclaimed mezzos of her age, who was much praised at the time. She has a voice that is seamless from top to bottom, firm and beautifully produced, but she was twenty years Callas’s senior, and to my ears at least, doesn’t sound in the least the giovinetta Norma refers to. We should remember that, though Adalgisa takes the lower line in the duets, the role was originally created by the soprano Giulia Grisi, who, by all accounts, had a lighter voice than Giuditta Pasta, who created the role of Norma. Also, though reasonably flexible, she doesn’t execute the florid music with quite Callas’s accuracy. In the duets (both sung down a tone) it is only when Callas sings that you can hear when Bellini separates descending scales into duplets. Stignani also ducks some of her high notes. The downward transpositions were presumably made to accommodate her, as they are not used when Simionato plays Adalgisa to Callas’s Norma. Apparently it used to annoy Callas that critics never noticed that Simionato sang them in the right keys.

Clotilde is sung by a young Joan Sutherland, and it is interesting to hear what she had to say about what it was like to appear alongside Callas in these performances.

[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine. It was a bigger sound in those earlier performances, before she lost weight … It was thrilling. I don’t think that anyone who heard Callas after 1955 really heard the Callas voice.

Callas’s voice does indeed sound huge in these performances (“colossal” Sutherland referred to it elsewhere), but, maybe because of that, her Norma here is more the warrior, whereas at La Scala 1955, her singing is more subtle, with more of the woman emerging. What is remarkable is how this large voice gets round the notes, the fastest of coloratura passages holding no terrors for her whatsoever. The top of the voice is also absolutely solid and the top D that ends Act I, held ringingly and freely for several bars, is an absolute stunner.

Her Norma here is vocally stunning, her voice flashing out in anger with scalpel-like attack in the Act I finale, powerful and commanding in her public scenes with the Druids, but in 1955 at La Scala she is infinitely more moving in the private scenes and in the finale. Furthermore in 1955 her voice still had power and security at the top.

This Covent Garden performance is a great memento of her London debut, but it is still the 1955 La Scala performance I will listen to most often. The cast (Simionato, Del Monaco and Zaccaria) is just about as good as you could get at the time. Votto, who conducts, is not Gui’s equal, but he does at least understand the score and knows how to support his singers. I’d say it’s one of those rare occasions in the opera house where everything went right.