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Recordings

Myto 00311
09 Jul 2017

A Resplendent Régine Crespin in Tosca

There have to be special reasons to release a monophonic live recording of a much-recorded opera. Often it can give us the opportunity to hear a singer in a major role that he or she never recorded commercially—or did record on some later occasion, when the voice was no longer fresh. Often a live recording catches the dramatic flow better than certain studio recordings that may be more perfect technically.

Régine Crespin (Tosca), Giuseppe di Stefano (Cavaradossi), Otakar Kraus (Scarpia), Forbes Robinson (Sacristan); David Kelly (Angelotti), David Tree (Spoletta), Victor Godfrey (Sciarrone, jailer), John Pyle (shepherd). Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, conducted by Edward Downes.

Myto 00311 [2CDs]

€ 12.99  Click to buy

Both of these reasons apply to the recording here, from a performance at Covent Garden on May 18, 1961. We get to hear Régine Crespin singing a role that she never recorded commercially, and at the peak of her vocal voluptuousness and steadiness. She was Mme. Lidoine (the new Prioress) in the first recording of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1958). In the early 1960s she made a still-classic recording of Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été and Ravel's Shéhérazade and contributed a magnificent Sieglinde to the Solti/Culshaw Ring Cycle.

What we get here is, as we had reason to hope, an immensely artful blending of vocal plenitude, nuanced phrasing and dynamics, and alert moment-to-moment clarity of characterization. Crespin now leaps to the top of recorded Floria Toscas, next to my, and many people's, two favorites: Maria Callas (the mono recording, conducted by De Sabata) and Leontyne Price (two great recordings: with Karajan and with Mehta).

The Cavaradossi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, sounds very involved in certain solo moments but distracted or routine in interaction with other characters. The voice is wonderfully sweet at times, but it can become tight—almost like a comical “character tenor” (e.g., the landlord Benoît in La Bohème)—when it has to contend with a full orchestra.

Much more convincing is the Scarpia of Czech-born Otakar Kraus. The voice is well controlled and used to good dramatic point. Kraus's burly singing over the chorus and orchestra at the end of Act 1 is stunning and scary, and the singer shows his ability to be manipulatively lyrical in his negotiation with the diva in Act 2. This Kraus (not to be confused with tenor Alfredo) recorded very little. He is not so much as mentioned in the Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera. He sang the roles of Nick Shadow in the first production of The Rake's Progress and of Tarquinius in the first Rape of Lucretia. That first (live) Rake is available on CD, but reportedly the performance as a whole is somewhat helter-skelter and the sound quality pale. Is there more Otakar Kraus in the archives and decently recorded?

The conducting is first-rate: brisk but always ready to bend to make a point. The Covent Garden orchestra is ultra-responsive, with only a few momentary slips in intonation. The clarinet introduction to “E lucevan le stelle” is done in the modern international manner: vibrato-free and eloquent. The conductor, by the way, is not the Edward O. D. Downes who used to host the Metropolitan Opera Quiz. This Edward Downes was English-born and renowned as a Verdi conductor; he rose to become Associate Music Director of Covent Garden and Principal Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic.

The booklet contains only a tracklist and an apology for imperfections in the original tapes. My ears found nothing to complain of, beyond the predictable limitations in a mono recording of a complex opera. Indeed, offstage sound effects generally register well and in good balance with the onstage singing and the playing from the pit. My one complaint: very soft singing is occasionally covered by the orchestra.

Perhaps several mikes were used and artfully mixed at the moment of recording? Was this performance originally broadcast on the radio? I wish that certain record companies would reveal a little more about the origins of their archival releases. YouTube has a recording of the same opera made four years later with the same soprano and tenor, but with a marvelous Giuseppe Taddei as Scarpia (though a bit weak on the low end), from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, under Bruno Bartoletti.

Crespin still sounds vital and detailed; Di Stefano’s voice is in further decline. The winds are often out of tune with each other, and the recording lacks the opening minutes. YouTube also has several recordings of Crespin singing “Vissi d’arte” (including a made-for-TV video), and a video in which Crespin enjoys retelling (in French) two different mishaps in the scene in Act 2 where she needs to grab a knife and murder Scarpia.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has written extensively on opera and symphonic music and on the relationships between music and society. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press).

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

   

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