De Los Angeles in La Traviata

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Victoria De Los Angeles has long been a favourite singer of mine and her Violetta satisfies on so many levels. She is a little strained by the tessitura of the first act, but the voice is generally clear and beautiful, her singing always musical and deeply felt. As in everything she did, the sensitivity and sincerity of the performance are most affecting and she is without doubt one of the best Violettas on disc. What I miss is that sense of desperation and impulsiveness inherent in the character. Her Violetta is touching, but not overwhelmingly tragic as it is with Callas, who does tend to spoil me for all comers.

She has a good supporting cast with Carlo Del Monte a manly and forthright Alfredo and Sereni a sympathetic Germont, as he is in Callas’s Lisbon performance.

I sometimes feel Serafin’s virtues are rather underestimated. He paces the score brilliantly, particularly good in the choruses, which can sometimes outstay their welcome. If I’m honest, I rather prefer his approach to the more interventionist Kleiber. The cuts traditional at the time are observed, so no cabalettas to Alfredo’s and Germont’s arias.

If Callas, particularly in London, remains my yardstick for this opera, this is nevertheless one of my favourite studio sets and I might even place it just above Cotrubas/Kleiber.

Leontyne Price – The Ultimate Collection

In many ways this is an infuriating compilation, not because of anything to do with Mme Price herself, but because of the shoddy presentation, which does her, and her colleagues on this disc, no service whatsoever. The skimpy booklet lists the arias on the discs, bit not one word about their provenance, who is conducting, what year the record was made or indeed anything at all to place them in context. Even Manon Lescaut is spelled wrongly on the front cover. All we get is a puff about her career and the unhelpful information on the back of the disc that the compilation was issued in 1999. Texts and translations are hardly to be expected these days, but I do like to at least know a bit about the date of the recording, the orchestra, conductor and other singers who appear.

There is a good chance of course that I am not the target audience. Maybe most people who buy the set are happy just to put the discs on, sit back and let the gorgeous voice pour out some familiar tunes, which, for the most part, is what we get, the least well known piece here being the excerpt from Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

At least the selection concentrates mostly on her strengths, so we get fine examples of her Aida, both the Leonoras, her Carmen and a liberal sprinkling of Puccini arias, which are beautifully sung if not particularly specific in character. The weakest items here are the Mozart arias and Dido’s Lament, regally voiced but impassively emotionless. However there are some very impressive performances here, particularly those taken, I assume, from complete performances of Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino and Aida, roles for which she was well suited. The voice was certainly one of the glories of its age, with a dark plangency particularly suited to the melancholy of characters like Aida and Leonora.

That said, I would have to say that, personally, I find this hotchpotch kind of compilation, which concentrates on the singer rather than the music, completely unsatisfactory. As it happens, I am, at the moment, also working my way through the Janet Baker twenty disc Great Recordings box, which I suppose one could also legitimally call a hotchpotch. If I am finding this a much more rewarding listening experience, it presumably has something to do with the better, more logical programming, and also the greater specificity of Baker’s art.

Dipping in and extracting arias here and there from this set will proabably afford the most pleasure and maybe that is what one is supposed to do with a compilation like this.

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.

Callas sings Verdi Arias (Revisited)

 

By 1964 Callas had all but retired from musical life. In 1961 she recorded her first disc of French arias, sang in performances of Medea at Epidaurus in Greece and at La Scala and made a single concert appearance in London. In 1962, she did even less; a short concert tour, taking in London and cities in Germany, plus a couple of arias for a BBC TV appearance. 1963 saw more concerts in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, London, Copenhagen and Paris, plus more recording sessions of French arias at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year and at the beginning of 1964 she embarked on more intensive recording activity, possibly in preparation for her upcoming return to the operatic stage in Tosca and Norma. Three discs were issued in 1964, one of classical arias by Mozart, Beethoven and Weber, one of arias by Rossini and Donizetti, and one of Verdi arias, with more of the Verdi sessions being released in 1972, shortly after she emerged from self-imposed exile to teach a series of masterclasses at the Juilliard School in New York. Though more of these sessions, plus some made in 1969, were eventually released after her death, these were the only ones she agreed to.

Though all three of the discs issued in 1964 revealed some pronounced vocal problems, the Verdi disc is by far the most successful. She seems less preoccupied with her vocal problems, more engaged with the material and consequently the singing has a freedom that is lacking in the other two discs, though this does mean we also get quite a few squally notes above the stave.

Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria might be considered an uncharacteristic piece for Callas, but she is alive to every shift of mood. As it rarely strays above the stave it also presents her with the least problems vocally. It is a great pity EMI didn’t think to employ someone to sing Emilia’s lines, but Callas skillfully uses a different tone for the comments to Emilia from the one she uses for Barbara’s song. Throughout one feels Desdemona’s anxiety, which erupts with a sudden passionate outburst when she bids Emilia goodbye. The Ave Maria profits from her deep legato, the final Ab spun out in the best tradition.

Both of the Aroldo arias are thrilling, especially Mina’s Act III solo, a superb piece which Callas fills with drama and significance, bringing the cabaletta to a rousing conclusion.

Elisabetta’s Non pianger mia compagna from Don Carlo doesn’t really come off. Though her legato is still excellent, she sounds strained here and she can’t float the climactic phrases as she should. Eboli’s O don fatale, though, is another matter entirely. The whole aria brims with contrast and drama, and one registers each change of expression. She vehemently launches into the opening section, spitting out the words ti maledico, but then moulds rather than sings the o mia regina section, her legato line superb, her rich lower register digging deep into its melancholy. Finally as she realises she still has time to save Carlo, she brings the aria to an ecstatic close. OK, so there are a couple of off centre high notes, but they fade into insignifance next to the thrilling commitment of the singing.

When I reviewed all three of these 1963 recitals here back in January 2017, I mentioned that my wobble tolerance could vary from listen to listen. Sometimes I find the acidulous tone and stridency hard to take; on others I barely notice them as I get wrapped up in the musical imagination. It’s safe to say that on this occasion the latter reaction was in play.

Montserrat Caballé – Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi Rarities

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Rossini: Arias from La Donna Del Lago, Otello, Stabat Mater, Armida, Tancredi and L’assedio di Corinto
Donizetti: Arias from Belisario, Parisina d’Este. Torquato Tasso, Gemma di Vergy
Verdi: Arias from Un Giorno di Regno, I Lombardi, I due Foscari, Alzira, Attila, Il Corsaro and Aroldo

These two discs bring together the three LPs of bel canto Rarities Montserrat Caballé recorded shortly after she rocketed to stardom singing Lucrezia in Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in 1965, a last minute replacement for an ailing Marilyn Horne. Each record was devoted to a different composer. The first two, Rossini and early Verdi, were recorded in Italy in 1967 with the RCA Italiana Chorus and Orchestra and the Donizetti with the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus in 1969. Carlo Felice Cillario was the conductor for the Rossini and Donizetti, Anton Guadagno for the Verdi and the luxury presentation included other singers in the various comprimario roles.

The material was even rarer back then than it is now as vary few of the works represented had ever been recorded, Caballé herself being one of the singers who spearheaded the bel canto revival that occurred after Callas had opened the doors to this repertoire in the previous decade.

These were the years of Caballé’s absolute peak and the voice is in superb condition, without a trace of the hardness that coud afflict her loud high notes in later years. Her breath control is prodigious, but she doesn’t over-exploit her fabulous high pianissimi, which she tended to do in later years, and her singing has an energy and attack which you might find surprising if you only know her from her later recordings, when she tended to slow everything down until it practically came to a halt. If she has a fault, it is that her trills are a little sketchy and occasionally one hears the slight suspicion of an aspirate, but the singing is surpassingly beautiful throughout its range, her legato excellent and the voice even from top to bottom. Characterisation might not be her strong point, but she is always alive to the dramatic situation and her singing is both involved and involving.

The arias on each disc are well chosen and the whole enterprise exudes class. I really can’t think of any singer today who could match her in this repertoire, maybe DiDonato in the Rossini and Donizetti, though she lacks Caballé’s arrestingly beautiful sound. As for Verdi, well we do seem to be experiencing a dearth of good Verdi singers today.

These two discs are a superb memento of a great singer at the height of her powers and should be in the collection of any vocal connoisseur. This particular release comes with full notes, texts and translations which are hardly to be taken for granted these days. Highly recommended.

Tito Gobbi – Heroes

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“Heroes”, the title of this disc proclaims, though in honesty only two of the characters represented here (the Marquis de Posa and Simon Boccanegra) might be considered to fall into that category. The rest (Figaro, Enrico, Rigoletto, Germont, Renato, Tonio, Scarpia, Iago and Falstaff) hardly qualify, and some of them are downright villains.

What we do get however (and this is not always evident in compilation or recital records) is eleven sharply differentiated voice characters. Like Callas, Gobbi, though his voice is always recognisable, was adept at the art of vocal make-up and there is a world of difference between his genial, but venal Figaro and his blackly evil Ernesto, which follows. Gobbi’s may not always be the most beautiful voice you will hear in his chosen repertoire, nor the most graceful (though he could indeed sing with both beauty and grace) but it is the one I often hear in my mind’s ear in the roles I have heard him sing. To the characters included here, I could add his Amonasro, his Michele and Schicchi, his Don Giovanni and his Nabucco.

All but Iago’s Credo on this compilation are taken from complete recordings of the operas, and we also hear the voices of Victoria De Los Angeles in the duet from Simon Boccanegra and Callas in part of the Act II duet from Tosca from La povera mia scena fu interrotta, both a locus classicus of Gobbi’s art.

The last item here is Falstaff’s Honour monologue, and I can do no better than quote here John Steane in The Record of Singing

Play, for example Falstaff’s Honour Monologue in a succession of recordings (Scotti, Ruffo, Stabile, Fischer-Dieskau, Gobbi) and Gobbi’s is quite markedly the most satisfying, partly because he attends to what Verdi has written and sees the point of it. The phrase ‘voi coi vostri cenci’ is marked with a crescendo on the first word, followed by three staccato syllables. Scotti takes no notice, Ruffo and Stabile take little; Fischer-Dieskau observes the markings, as ever, but it is Gobbi who sees the pictorial force, the crescendo carrying a comical menace and the staccatos punching or flapping at the despised company as with a broom handle.

Steane’s prose is as ever quite pictorial itself, but he also understands that, as with Callas, Gobbi’s genius is not just to execute the notes, but to understand the point of [them].

That said, isolated excerpts don’t really represent Gobbi at his best, and really one needs the complete sets from which these excerpts are taken.

The Essential Angela Gheorghiu

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Is it churlish to point out that, though this collection includes much that is desirable, there is also a great deal of material one might consider “essential” on EMI, for whom Gheorghiu recorded for the lion’s share of her career? First contracted to Decca, she soon switched to EMI in order to be with the same label as her husband, Roberto Alagna, with whom she made many now well known complete opera sets. However it was Decca who first signed her up after her sensational debut as Violetta at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and here they pay tribute to her with a well filled disc of excerpts from the few recordings she made for the label before she left them.

There are two excerpts from that 1994 Covent Garden La Traviata, a reflective Ah, fors è lui, technically assured Sempre libera and an affecting Addio del passato. Solti’s conducting is, as always in Verdi, a bit rigid but it is easy to understand why Gheorghiu had such a success in the role.

Next chronologically are five arias from her first recital disc made in 1995; Wally’s Ebben? Ne andro lontana, Marguerite’s Jewel Song from Faust, Il est doux, il est bon from Massenet’s Hérodiade and Vive amour qui rêve from his Chérubin. The Wally piece is beautifully sung, though she doesn’t quite capture its aching loneliness and the Jewel Song sparkles lightly as it should. The Aubade from Chérubin is also lovely, and I am reminded that I first saw her in the secondary role of Nina in the production of the opera which the Royal Opera, Covent Garden mounted with Susan Graham in the title role. She made quite an impression too. Probably the best of all these selections is the aria from Hérodiade, which is both gorgeous and gorgeously sung.

From the 1996 Lyon production of L’Elisir d’Amore we have Adina and Nemorino’s Chiedi all’aura lusinghietta, in which I find her, as I did in the theatre, just a mite too sophisticated.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme that Chailly’s 1999 recording with Gheorghiu and Alagna is quite often forgotten, which is a pity as it’s actually very good indeed. From this set we have Gheorghiu’s touchingly sincere Si, mi chiamano Mimi through to the end of the act, and also her moving rendition of Donde lieta usci.

Perhaps most impressive of all are the items taken from her Verdi recital with Chailly. She might not quite match the breezy insouciance of Callas or Sutherland in Elena’s Merce, dilette amiche, but she seems almost perfectly cast as Amelia in her Come in quet’ora bruna. Both Leonoras are beautifully sung too, and there is a dark loveliness to her tone, which reminds me, surprisingly perhaps, of Leontyne Price.

The disc finishes, fittingly enough, with the fifth take from her first album, a piece from Romanian composer George Grigoriu’s Muzika, slight in musical value, but charmingly delivered.

Rosa Ponselle sings Verdi

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Rosa Ponselle is known for having one of the most extraordinary voices ever to be recorded. Along with Caruso and Ruffo, she was one of Serafin’s “three miracles” and had a voice of unparalleled richness and power. According to Walter Legge, the voice was “majestic, enormously rich in overtones. Her legato was perfect with a breath control that only makes the listener breathless with amazement.”

Her career was not long, and she retired relatively early at the age of 40. Some say her withdrawal from the stage was precipitated by adverse criticisms for her Carmen, but it could just as well have been put down to her shrinking top register. The rest of the voice remained admirably secure and rich however, and recordings made at her villa in the 1950s reveal it still to be firm as a rock, though she hadn’t sung in public for many years.

Her first recordings were acoustics made for Columbia, but she switched to Victor in 1923, when from 1925, her recordings were made using the electrical process, and all the recordings here have been produced by Ward Marston. The collection gathers together just one recording of every Verdi extract Ponselle recorded, so there are no duplications and, where she did record an extract twice, Marston has chosen whichever he considered to be the best, regardless of whether it was acoustic or electrical.

If we are to think of the ideal Verdi soprano, then Ponselle is undoubtedly the voice to which one would turn, its timbre rich and velvety with ample reserves of power, admirably firm but flexible, limpid and responsive. If there are any faults, they tend to be attributable to the recording process and the strictures of side lengths, thus the recitative to the Ernani aria is somehwat perfunctory and rushed where Callas is incredibly detailed with a much greater range of tone colour.

I wonder too about pitch. Ponselle was known to occasionally employ downward transpositions, so would D’amor sull’ali rosee (recorded acoustically in 1918) be sung at pitch, gven the fact she opts for the optional high Db? It is a lovely performance, the high notes poised and beautifully integrated into the line, so maybe questions of pitch don’t really matter, though they would affect the sound of the voice itself.

Nevertheless all the performances here could be considered models of Verdi style, not only the arias, but the duets with Martinelli, Pinza and Stracciari and the final trio from La Forza del Destino with both Martinelli and Pinza, surely one of the greatest versions of ths scene ever committed to disc. Other favourites for me would be the Miserere (with Martinelli) which exploits her gloriously rich lower register and La vergine degli angeli from La Forza del Destino, her legato perfect and the line spun out on a pure, firm thread of sound the likes of which you will not hear from any other singer.

Of course Ponselle was much more than a Verdi soprano, as we know from recordings of excerpts from Norma, La Gioconda and L’Africaine, as well as songs, but it is good to have here a collection of Verdi arias sug by arguably the greatest Verdi soprano of the twentieth century.

Renée Fleming – Great Opera Scenes

 

If we are to say goodbye to Renée Fleming the opera singer, then now might be a good time to be reminded of this, one of her most successful recital discs, recorded in 1996, when Fleming was at the height of her powers, and before the tendency to indulge in jazzy slides and swoops had become too pronounced.

All but one of the roles represented here were part of her stage repertoire at the time, and she would in fact go on to sing Strauss’s Daphne in 2005.

The programme is both varied and interesting. We start with both of Countess Almavivas arias from Le Nozze di Figaro, sung with ideal poise and beauty of tone, before plunging into the romantic imaginings of Tchaikovsky’s lovelorn Tatyana. Fleming plays the ardently impulsive young girl to the life. She yearns indwardly In Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, and I doubt I have ever heard Ellen’s Embroidery Aria from Peter Grimes sung with such superb control and feeling. Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria crops up on many recitals, but Fleming does not suffer at all by comparison with such well known interpreters as Rethberg, Ponselle or Tebaldi.

I suppose the two cornerstones of Fleming’s repertoire have been Mozart and Strauss, so it is fitting that, having started with Mozart, we should finish with Struass, a suitably ecsatic version of the closing scene from Daphne.

The recital is beautifully presented with Larissa Diadkova contributing as Filipyevna and Emilia and Jonathan Summers as Balstrode. The London Symphony Orchestra under Solti provide excellent support.

The voice itself is stunningly beautiful, but Fleming doesn’t rely solely on beauty of voice. Her interpretations are intelligent and musical, and she presents us with five very different characters. The only criticism I would have is that her diction is not always as good as it might be, but in all other respects this is a classic recital disc.

 

The Young Domingo

 

These days, with Domingo’s sometimes less successful forays into the baritone repertoire, it is easy to forget just how amazing his career was, not to mention how long it has lasted. This two disc set is a composite of three recitals made in 1968, 1971 and 1972 when Domingo (27 at the time of the first disc) was already an experienced artist, having first appeared on stage at the age of sixteen and singing his first major role (Alfredo) in 1961 at the age of 20.

The earliest of these recitals, which was given the title Romantic Arias heralded the arrival of a major artist, not only a tenor but a musician. The repertoire is wide ranging, taking in music from Handel to Mascagni and he sings in Italian, French, German and Russian. I can’t think of many tenors, even from the golden age of 78s, who could sing Puccini and Mascagni with so much passion and yet give us a wonderfully accomplished Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, the longest run sung cleanly and accurately and not only spun out in a single breath but phrased through into the next statement of the opening tune. The only other tenor I’ve come across who manages it as well is John McCormack. In all, whether it be in Lohengrin’s Narration or Lensky’s aria, sung in Russian, his singing is musical and immaginative. If we were to nitpick, it might be to note that, especially in the Italian items, there is a lack of excitement, of real intensity. Both are qualities he later added, along with his fine acting that served to make him the best Otello to be heard for many years. So he may not thrill in the manner of a Franco Corelli, but could Corelli have ever embraced such a wide range of differing music styles with such musicality and sensibility? I dount it very much. So let’s be grateful for what we have.

The second disc entitled Domingo sings Caruso is less wide ranging, most of the arias more well known, though it does include an aria for Marcello from Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème, and the third La Voce d’Oro, an apt description of the golden tone that pours forth. Again one might note that his singing can be a little generic, but his musical sensibilities are always evident. Nor does he ever indulge in the vulgar mannerisms of some who preceded him. His singing is always tasteful, his musical manners impeccable.

To the three recitals, BMG have added two Leoncavallo arias (another from La Bohème and one from Chatterton) which were originally included as fill-ups for his recording of I Pagliacci under Nello Santi. Both are attractive pieces, wonderfully sung by Domingo.

Looking at Domingo’s website I see his calendar is still pretty full, with engagements, both singing and conducting, booked up to November next year. It is a remarkable achievement for a man approaching his eighties. There is no doubt the promise of these early recitals has been not only fulfilled but surpassed. Now that we have said goodbye to Domingo the tenor, now might be a good time to go backto these early recitals and remember just how good he was.