24 Oct 2007
Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals
I doubt many admirers of Leontyne Price will be tempted to buy this issue.
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.
In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.
During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.
Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.
It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive archives.
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
I doubt many admirers of Leontyne Price will be tempted to buy this issue.
After all there are two official recordings made in her prime and there are the widely popular live-recordings made at the Met (Bergonzi-Gorr-Solti); one even made the same year as this Rome-issue and it has the glorious voice of Franco Corelli as a bonus in the tenor role. Still Price-fans will miss out on a treat. She is in fabulous and firm voice: that unmistakably rich smoky sound domineering the whole evening. By the mid-sixties some Price-performances and even recordings were sometimes marred by her not being able or not wanting to produce a homogenous sound. She sometimes sounded as if she was experimenting with different kinds of vocal timbre so that several voices could be heard in one performance, even in one aria; all of them exciting but sometimes somewhat incompatible. She was not above growling parts of her role too. Nothing of that is to be heard in this recording: just an amazing outpouring of one of the most beautiful Verdian sounds to be heard on the scene. Her second aria is truly astounding, capped with an ethereal fine high C. The Roman house comes down and to its regret doesn’t get an encore though not for lack of trying.
None of the other singers come near though they are all interesting and didn’t have a big official recording career. Giorgio Lamberti was still very young at the time, only three years into his career. He has the true Italian sound and a vocal production that is best summed up as ‘trumpet’, reminding me of a legendary singer like Bernardo De Muro. Lamberti doesn’t commit mortal vocal sins like heavy sobbing but honesty compels me to write that he has no sense of the Verdian line, that he is just belting out the notes without any insight into his role: witness his lack of piano in the third act duet where he in has to take leave of Egypt. In the house the voice was probably fine but the unremitting penetrating sound tries the listener. Later on in his career he would have a better sense of legato, and would even succeed in giving us some pianissimi (I often heard him in the flesh; he still lives in my own Flanders) but these qualities were still to come. Mirella Parutto has a fruity mezzo and is a fine and convincing mezzo, as long as Price is not in the neighbourhood. Alas, the American soprano’s middle voice is bigger and more colourful and one hears Parutto pumping up the voice and straining for decibels. Mario Zanasi in one of his rare recordings shows off a big agreeable voice, though still singing in the verismo style in use at the Italian provincial houses. At ‘Dei Faraoni tu sei lo schiavo’ he clings interminably long to his top note, milking the house for applause. Veteran conductor De Fabritiis is fine most of the time, driving on his forces at a good Verdian speed. But now and then, mostly in the cabalettas, he gets a dose of stimulating substances (or he wants to show his singers who is the boss) and then he hurries along at a breakneck speed which must have made the singers curse him.
I’m sure vocal buffs of one of the most beautiful cities in Spain (indeed in the whole of Europe) will be pleased with a worthy souvenir of great historical singers who performed at their long lost beloved opera house of San Fernando. The house was built in the 1840’s and was renowned for the fine singers it attracted, especially just before and just after the first world war. Then it was the long road downhill until its demolition in 1973. Happily for the Sevillanos, the refurbishment of the whole city due to the world exhibition and the awful amount of money put into Spain by the European Union once more gave them an opera house, the Teatro de la Maestranza which opened in 1991. However I’m less sure that vocal buffs outside Sevilla will take up this CD. Famous singers on this CD like Capsir, Battistini, Tamagno, Lazaro, Cortis, Mardones, Fleta, Schipa etc. performed at the San Fernando and are duly incluked but I doubt very much collectors have waited for this CD to sample their voices.All of their recordings are to be found in earlier compilations or on solo albums by Preiser, Romophone, Bongiovanni or Spain’s Aria Recording. And several earlier issues are better pitched; the De Lucia record is a case in question, a tone too high. The redeeming feature of the CD is the introduction of some almost forgotten Spanish singers like Utam, Tabuyo and Granados; not all on the same level as their more famous countrymen and women but still good examples of their art and times. Perhaps a full CD with those and other lesser known performers would have found wider circulation among vocal record collectors.
Richard Strauss: Arabella.
Lisa Della Casa (Arabella), Hilde Gueden (Zdenka), George London (Mandryka), Anton Dermota (Matteo), Otto Edelman (graf Waldner), Ira Malaniuk (Adelaide), Mimi Coertse (Fiakermilli). Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Georg Solti.
Decca 00289 475 7731 [2CDs]
Arabella may be the opera suffering most from surtitles. I remember an astonished lady, finally able to grasp every detail, who commented during the pause of a Ghent performance: “but this is an operetta.” Well, not quite. I doubt Messrs. Lehar and Kalman and Romberg would have accepted some of the sillier aspects of the libretto like the big guy falling in love with a portrait. But the structure of boy meets girl (first act), boy and girl quarrel (second act) and boy and girl nevertheless find happiness is indeed completely derived from Gypsy Princess, Countess Maritza and Naughty Marietta. Georg Solti however with his nervous and dramatic conducting makes the piece less sentimental than it can be and he has at his disposal an astounding cast. Most of them belong to the fabulous post-war ensemble of the Vienna State opera and they are able to sing and to record everything between Mozart and Lehar in a still unsurpassed way. The first thing that struck me was the sound. Though recorded in early stereo in 1958 it is still amazingly warm and fresh after half a century. Therefore nobody can discard this recording in the series The Originals because it sounds old and worn.
Moreover all of the singers are at the height of their powers. Della Casa’s voice in her signature role is shimmering with beauty, youth and freshness. She is strong when she rejects the attentions of unwanted suitors; she is warm and meltingly when she meets or speaks of ‘der Richtige’ and she easily rides the orchestral climaxes. I cannot imagine a better Zdenka than the boyish sound of Hilde Gueden which becomes appropriately sensuous when she once more becomes a girl in love. Solti takes care that she doesn’t linger on or scoop as she often did in her great operetta recordings with less stern conductors. A third rediscovery is the silvery coloratura of South-Africa’s most famous diva Mimi Coertse. She is sparkling and technically proficient and her small role is a plea to Decca to reissue her recitals. The male department is almost as strong. Anton Dermota as Matteo is far better than the average Matteo. It is an ungrateful role but Dermota with his experience of Mozart and his fine un-German somewhat grainy timbre succeeds in creating a sympathetic suitor. And then there is the singer whom many Americans (and others as well) will prefer as Mandryka and whom I have doubts about. For my personal taste the bass-baritone of George London is a bit too gruff, too throaty though he brings warmth to it in the third act. He doesn’t hector as Fischer-Dieskau does but there is less charm too. Mandryka may be rough from time to time but he is a nobleman. For me London is the relatively less than perfect singer in the recording but all in all, this budget issue is unbelievably fine and convincing and maybe the best around.