Alagna & Gheorghiu in Roméo et Juliette

51gy9j5xyvl

I first saw Alagna, when he sang Roméo in a new production of Gounod’s opera at Covent Garden, one year before he made this recording. There was a real sense of excitement in the house on that occasion, and a sense that maybe we had at last found a successor to the big three (Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras). That initial promise was never entirely fulfilled, though, in my opinion, he continued to be at his best in French opera and he makes a superb Roméo in this excellent recording, fresher and younger sounding than the stylish, but aging, Alfredo Kraus on Plasson’s first recording of the opera.

His Juliette on the occasion of the Covent Garden performances was the girlish Leontina Vaduva, but here she is replaced by Angela Gheorghiu, the other half of what was at the time the golden couple of opera. There is no denying the beauty of the voice, but she sounds, to my ears at least, a mite too sophisticated in the opening scenes. That said she rises superbly to the challenge of the poison aria in Act IV, which is often omitted by lighter voiced sopranos.

José Van Dam and Simon Keenlyside as Frère Laurent and Mercutio are both excellent; Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Stéphano not so much.

The performance is note complete, even up to the ballet music, and Plasson has an even better grip on the score than he had in his first recording with Alfredo Kraus and Catherine Malfitano.

A clear first choice for this opera, I’d have said

Karajan’s Second Studio Carmen

r-12243334-1531591154-5519.jpeg

I saw Baltsa and Carreras in Carmen at Covent Garden shortly before this set was issued, and it remains one of the most thrilling performances (of anything) I’ve ever seen. Consequently I was very excited when this set was issued and snapped it up immediately.

Unfortunately, it proved something of a disappointment, the fault for which must lie squarely on Karajan’s shoulders. By this time measured tempi were becoming the norm for him, and it is evident how much he loves this score, but he rather loves it to death. For all the beautiful playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, it lacks completely the wit and elegance of Beecham, or the swift visceral excitement of Prêtre.

Having taken the decision to record the version with spoken dialogue, it seems totally perverse to then use actors to speak it. They sound nothing like their singing counterparts and are recorded in a totally different acoustic, which makes it hard to become involved when the differences are so profound. It’s like listening to two different productions at the same time, and does the most harm to Baltsa and Carreras, who were so involving and communicative live at Covent Garden. Indeed neither of them really settles down to a real performance until the final duet, which is thrillingly powerful, as it should be.

What on earth prompted Karajan to think that Ricciarelli, a singer I often admire could be perfect as both Micaëla and Turandot, which she also recorded with him? She is suited to neither, whereas Barbara Hendricks, who had a particular affinity for French music, and who sings a wonderful Liu on that Turandot he recorded the previous year would have been perfect.

Van Dam is a fine Escamillo, as he was for Solti and there are some good performances among the supporting roles, but it just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole.

I keep the recording for the contributions of Baltsa and Carreras, and often listen to the final duet, but listening to the whole recording is a curiously frustrating experience, and I mostly longed to be back chez Callas, Gedda and Prêtre, which remains my favourite recording of the opera, for all that it uses the now discredited Guiraud recitatives.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann from the Salzburg Festival 1981

71svq0cjidl._sl1200_

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.