18 Nov 2007
Jan Neckers on Recently Released Reissues and Historicals
The first opera performance I consciously attended while being definitely hooked to the genre due to records, was Guillaume Tell more than 40 years ago.
The first opera performance I consciously attended while being definitely hooked to the genre due to records, was Guillaume Tell more than 40 years ago.
It confirmed three wisdoms I thought I knew about thanks to voracious reading. The sets and the actors clearly told me that it was a Swiss medieval drama and not the second Arab intifadah against Israel. The singers and especially Tony Poncet, the legendary last of a line of French fort tenors, exactly sounded live like their (his) singing on record; big voices and blazing top notes. And, confirming operatic lore, the house came down after ‘Asile héréditaire’ and of course Poncet encored the aria. Little did I presume I witnessed a moribund tradition. Most composers wouldn’t recognize their own works if they didn’t hear the music. A small voice like Bartoli’s sounds like Simionato or Cossotto. And in al these years of opera going this was the first and the last encore I ever got in a house (The Verona arena where Bergonzi and Domingo often encored and Corelli twice caused an uproar by refusing doesn’t count in my opinion as a regular theatre). At the end of the performance the Ghent Opera was on its feet.
This long introduction just serves to tell that I learned my Tell in the original language while, contrary to many especially Anglo-Saxon critics often unable to order a cup of coffee in French, I have no problem at all with an Italian version in general and this one in particular. Especially as I find back in this recording the generosity of delivery, the enthusiasm and the size and sound of extra-ordinary voices also present in the long ago performance. I possess and like the French language version on EMI (and it has an extra aria for Jemmy as a bonus) but Gardelli, Bacquier and Gedda are not in the same class as Chailly, Milnes and Pavarotti. The tenor, at the time only 45, was in his best voice. The sound is strong, not too subtle (after all he is promising vengeance to his death father) and typical of Pavarotti in his best years .He has the necessary ardour in his big duet with Milnes (reminding me of the classic Martinelli-De Luca recording) but the sweetness and lyricism as well in his love duets with Freni. Moreover Pavarotti and Freni’s voices blend so well. Gedda, for all his qualities, was essentially an non-Mediterranean tenor and for my ears he sounded too white , especially near partners like Callas, Freni or Caballé on the EMI-set. Freni, 45 too, is still her eager youthful self, pouring out beauty of tone in each note. And we get the often cut second Arnold-Mathilde duet. Milnes indeed sings somewhat too straightforwardly. He has not got the subtlety of Bacquier (and not the insight and mezza-voce Gobbi delivers in his famous 78-recording) but he brings with him the big sound, obviously lacking in Bacquier, to show off the rage of Tell. All other roles are cast from strength. Ghiaurov is a noble Melchtal and Mazzoli sounds the appropriate ruffian as Gessler. Della Jones is even a de luxe Jemmy and so is Elizabeth Connell as Edwige. When the set first appeared Chailly was accused of driving his forces unmercifully, making Rossini sound somewhat like middle Verdi. Indeed the conductor has a tendency to hurry up, especially in the first Arnold-Mathilde duet ( One admires the breathing capacities of tenor and soprano.) but it still suits the opera. This is not Barbiere anymore but a genuine new style for Rossini. It was his first French Grand Opéra though he didn’t invent the genre as Auber’s La Muette de Portici is one year older. But the style of composing with its stress on dramatic accents is closer to Verdi’s Oberto (only nine years younger) than to other Rossini’s operas. What a pity the revolution of 1830 killed Rossini’s contract for five operas as the second one after Tell would have been Faust.
Common wisdom has it that a critic should always trust his own ears and not repeat along what others have said before. But common wisdom is often scarce in music criticism. When early 2005 the soprano died after a tragic life (a whoring gambling husband, one son who died young and another one mentally retarded) I wrote a long obituary for a Dutch magazine, telling that De los Angeles had to sing for money into her old age (true) with a thread (not true and repeating others) of what was once a luminous voice. The first Schumann songs on this CD initially confirm my lines; just a light and somewhat colourless voice. But by track 4 Der Nussbaum the voice has warmed up and once again there is that sweet sound, full of feminine charm; so very much like the young De los Angeles even at 70 (and sad to say, the photo proves that her tragedies have taken its toll as she is almost unrecognizable). She has wisely chosen songs (or has them transposed) that lie safely in her middle voice but wasn’t she always somewhat weak above the stave ? Some of these songs she recorded in her heydays and the differences are not very marked. But the sum of this recording is more than the separate part and it is the whole package that counts: a much beloved older lady who still proves she has the goods and who shares them with an appreciative public.
Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena.
Joan Sutherland (Anna), Samuel Ramey (Enrico), Susanne Mentzer (Giovanna), Jerry Hadley (Riccardo), Bernadette Manca di Nissa (Smeton), Giorgio Surian (Rochefort), Ernesto Gavazzi Hervey).
Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera conducted by Richard Bonynge.
Decca 475 7910 6 [3CDs]
When Decca signed up Elena Suliotis in 1965 she got a contract for 4 complete operas. The reviews for the second one (Norma) were devastating, partly due to producer Erik Smith’s opinion that “some of the stage music could be omitted with advantage” and that “Oroveso’s scene holds up the great dramatic sweep”. The decision was made by Smith in advance and the missing scenes are not in Decca’s vaults as I was told myself by Silvio Varviso, the conductor. When two years later Decca recorded Anna Bolena Varviso and his team were encouraged to leave nothing aside. As a result the set was almost of Wagnerian proportions: 4 LP’s and rather expensive. The reviews were not better as critics wrote that in the few years since the Nabucco recording the voice of Suliotis was rapidly declining and her capacities for bel canto were small. Decca then waited 17 years before they once again recorded the opera as Joan Sutherland preferred to tackle the score in the house first. At Covent Garden scenery, costumes and the outpouring of love for their own prima donna made their due impact but on record visual and emotional elements don’t play a role. Therefore this recording made in 1987 simply came ten years too late. From the outset and till the last bar the voice of the soprano sounds a little bit fragile. There is even a permanent little wobble. There is still some silver in the sound but one may not compare it with that firm sure-footed voice of the sixties. The moment Dame Joan launches into a cabaletta the cleanliness and surety of attack is lacking. One hears the careful way she handles the notes and the aplomb of earlier recordings is absent. As a result the madness scene at the final comes out with the best results as here one ‘could’ argue that the lack of poise is wilfully introduced. By the end of the eighties the Bonynges lacked the clout they once commanded at Decca and as a consequence they couldn’t commandeer other and more worthy partners. John Alexander in that first Decca attempt was not everyone’s dream of a great tenor but at least he had style, easy topnotes and a well rounded though somewhat indistinct voice. Jerry Hadley is simply out of his league in this role. His white bleat, his overblown small voice (lot of help from the Decca engineers) and thick and difficult top is unsuitable. He was a good operetta tenor but by the time he started his career classical operetta and musical almost had died and therefore he could only earn his pay checks by singing opera. Of course Riccardo Percy would have been an ideal vehicle for a younger Pavarotti but at that moment in his career the gentleman would sooner have ended it than study a new role for a recording. Nor is mezzo Susanne Mentser a substitute for Marilyn Horne. A vibrato fan like myself likes her fresh, youthful and very believable assumption of the role though her top thins rather quickly but a quick vibrato is not to everyone’s taste. Best of the lot is Sam Ramey at the height of his powers. Though the voice never rolled along with the majestic volume of Nicolai Ghiaurov in the first recording, Ramey is the far more interesting artist. At times venomously, thundering, charming he puts forward a full portrait of the English king. Richard Bonynge doesn’t indulge his wife overmuch. Of course he takes care not to overwhelm her or to ask for impossible quick tempi which she can no longer follow but he still succeeds in giving us the flow of the music without making things too easy for the star. But a missed and over late opportunity this recording is and we are still waiting for one worthy of the music. The Callas-Simionato recording is fine for the fans of the two ladies but almost an hour of music was savagely cut by Gavazzeni. Sills in the 72-set is a few years past her absolute prime and so is Gruberova in the 94-recording. So we still have to wait for another generation and a new attempt.
Richard Strauss: Die Schweigsame Frau.
Kurt Böhme (Sir Morosus), Donald Grobe (Henry), Reri Grist (Aminta), Martha Mödl (Haushälterin), Barry McDaniel (Barbier), Benno Kussche (Vanuzzi).
Chorus and Orchestra Bayerischen Staatsoper conducted by Wolfgang Sawallich.
Live performance of July 14th 1971.
Orfeo 2CD 516 992 I
There’s a chapter in Christa Ludwig’s autobiography called ‘Die Schweigsame Frau’ and written by her son. It doesn’t deal with the opera and in it he tells us how much dialogue ‘a silent woman’ is able to hold with just her eyes popping out and talking with her hands on a day of a performance. I cannot say that silence is a quality of this opera but for once I’m grateful for the conductor’s scissors. Strauss’ version on the same theme as Don Pasquale is long winded, noisy and in my honest opinion utterly boring till the composer finally finds some inspiration in the second and third act. I remember reading critic William Mann’s (an unrepentant priest of the Strauss cult) furious diatribe in the Festival issue of Opera Magazine back in 1971. He called the performance ‘a national disgrace’ because Sawallisch probably had the same feelings about the score as I still have. Mann had a point. Either you like the music and then you perform it in its entirety during a festival or you despise it and you leave it alone. But cutting the score by one third doesn’t seem to me to be the right decision. Therefore people who want ‘to enjoy’ it should purchase the Janowski version on EMI which lasts a full hour longer. Others who are less puritan should tackle the Böhm version on DG. Only half an hour cut but the glorious cast of Prey, Hotter, Gueden and Wunderlich will probably never be bettered. Not that the recording under review is badly sung. Kurt Böhme has a fully rounded authentic bass and is equal to his rivals on other recordings and Reri Grist is her charming sprightly self. But Donald Grobe and his somewhat artificial sound is no match for Wunderlich and Barry McDaniel hasn’t the sense of humour and the brilliance of sound which Prey shows in his every utterance. So I fear this recording is redundant.
Gaetano Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore.
Giuseppe Di Stefano (Nemorino), Hilde Gueden (Adina), Fernando Corena (Dulcamara), Renato Capecchi (Belcore), Luisa Mandelli (Gianetta).
Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.
Bonus: Giuseppe Di Stefano and Rosanna Carteri in Grandi Duetti d’amore.
Urania 2CD URN 22.301
How badly informed can a recording firm be ? If one looks at the cover of the jewel box one recognizes the well-known Decca performance of 1955. Fans of Di Stefano will probably own either the original set or the re-issue on CD and leave it well alone. But if one picks it up and looks at the back there is that sentence in small print mentioning a bonus recital by the tenor and Rosanna Carteri, first issued in 1958 and republished a few times on LP. Let me tell you from the outset that this recital alone is worth the purchase and then a complete set of Elisir as a bonus is quite good value for the money. I’m not going to repeat all clichés on Di Stefano at that time of his career. The too open throated sounds, the thickening of the voice above the stave etc. are well known and true. But so is the exemplary and clear diction, the beauty of the middle voice and the utter conviction he brings to every duet on this record. The voice was too light for an Otello in the house (but still more apt than Pavarotti’s) but is deliciously lyrical in the love duet. Compare Domingo’s fine but all-purpose Osaka in the complete Iris-set with Di Stefano’s far more expressive phrasing in this second act duet. When the record first appeared Dutch critic Leo Riemens wrote he was so immersed in it he almost expected the opera to continue on the second side of the LP. Di Stefano is more than ably partnered by recently rediscovered lyric soprano Rosanna Carteri (magnificent historical DVD’s of Rondine and Traviata). Iris is a little too heavy for the voice but as Desdemona, Micalea, Leila and Marguerite she proves that Renata Tebaldi of the mellifluous sound was not the only outstanding lirico in Italy during the fifties.
The qualities of the Elisir set are well-known. Di Stefano is less the country bumpkin than Pavarotti or Bergonzi made him in their recordings. He may be simple but he is not a simpleton. The well-focused voice is splendid notwithstanding the vocal faults. He can start a phrase with such a purity of sound, such an easiness of emission that one indeed gets a little angry when he strains for more decibels than necessary. Hilde Gueden sings charmingly though in my opinion she sounds a little too ‘Wienerisch’, not really an Italian soprano. The skittishness of operetta is always lurking behind her singing. I don’t agree with other critics who think Capecchi not suited to the role of Belcore. The voice is still a firm baritone and not the bass-baritone of later years. He has the rolling sound for the role though indeed there is not the smoothness in the sound that ideally belongs to a fast talker as Belcore. For me the fly in the ointment is Fernando Corena. He was considered to be the best buffo in the world during the fifties and there were few Decca recordings without his contribution. But Dulcamara too is a real belcanto role and Corena’s gruff delivery, without any real legato in his phrasing, only makes a cheap clown of the good doctor. Dara, Capecchi and definitely Taddei would later show how wonderfully human Dulcamara can be sung. After all it is a role that reminds me a lot of Burt Lancaster’s classic and sympathetic assumption of the title role in ‘The Rainmaker’. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli is a little too much of a routinier in this repertoire. He was not a belcanto conductor (who was at the time ? ) and he doesn’t encourage his performers to add a little ornamentation. So indeed this is Donizetti sung and conducted as Puccini. And Molinari is responsible for the cut of maybe the most beautiful concertato of the opera in the last act.