Written by: Alexander Campbell
Sony Classical’s mining and re-release of its (CBS’s) back catalogue of operatic performances on its Opera House label contains many enticing goodies. Whether an adventurous new collector or someone hoping to plug the gaps in one’s collection, there is much to entice, and at budget price. Some of the recordings re-released have only had fleeting availability on compact disc, and there are some real plums here. What follows has been a long and often engrossing listen, touched with the occasional bout of nostalgia. (Click on the catalogue number to purchase through Amazon.)
Mussorgsky‘s Boris Godunov with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado – what better place to start. Essentially we have here the revised 1874 version of the opera, but with interpolations from the original 1869 score incorporated into the final act – meaning one has the scene outside St Basil’s Cathedral with Boris attempting to calm the restless crowd, but without the Simpleton’s lament for the fate of Russia that occurs at the end of the final Kromy Forest scene. This solution gives the best of all versions, and this recording is a strong contender. Abbado’s reading is strong on orchestral colour and on vocal quality, and allows the drama to register in an unforced way with a luxury cast populated with Russian or Slavonic singers. In the title role Anatoly Kocherga is a wonderfully noble and black-voiced Boris, and what he lacks in sheer aural extroversion he makes up for with a subtle and rather understated and thoughtful portrayal. He may not squeeze every drop of emotion but it is a gripping presentation of a man haunted by a past event and losing his grip over the present. Samuel Ramey is a warm and humane chronicler, even if he does not sound so ‘old’. Philip Langridge is the sly and dangerous intriguer Prince Shuisky, and Gleb Nikolsky is vividly roguish as Varlaam. Best of all is the conclusion of the Polish Act with Marjana Lipovšek as a coolly seductive and ambitious Marina, Sergei Larin as a charismatic Pretender and Sergei Leiferkus as the most insinuating and malevolent Rangoni yet recorded. The transfer is excellent and as atmospheric as the original release.
Wagner‘s Lohengrin is one of many live recordings of this opera emanating from Bayreuth. Woldemar Nelsson takes a pretty brisk view of the score, but the orchestra is on blazing form, and that special acoustic registers here; Lohengrin is one of the early operas of the Bayreuth canon that really benefits from this. There is a deal of stage-noise but one quickly learns to ignore it. The cast was a good one for the time, but more vivid and balanced teams are certainly to be found elsewhere. Peter Hofmann was a natural for the eponymous hero, with his blond hair and matinee-idol looks. At this time his singing was more reliable and beautiful than it later became, although he does suffer from an occasional wobble. He is better at being heroic than romantic, and in any case he was an artist always better experienced live as he was a strong actor. Karan Armstrong was not a natural for Elsa in terms of vocal quality, and her singing lacks allure, finesse and, occasionally, steadiness. Fatally, she is not very lovable. Elizabeth Connell is a viscerally exciting Ortrud, her precise and gleaming high notes even then indicating that she was destined to take the pathway towards the dramatic soprano fach. Yet her lower registers are rich and full. She is partnered by the underrated Leif Roar – a noble Telramund. Siegfried Vogel is a straight, forthright Heinrich and Bernd Weikl a sterling herald – it is a great part and he makes much of it. The Bayreuth chorus, as ever, is thrilling.
In the Italian bel canto section there is a remarkably complete Beatrice di Tenda with Monte Carlo forces and a Czech chorus recorded in 1986 under the assured Alberto Zedda. It is an enjoyable performance, though the whole is recorded in a rather cavernous venue. Zedda keeps the pace going and bring out the colours of Bellini‘s writing. Lighter passages and sprightly; there is no lack of fire when needed. The cast is a good one, although not all are consistently at their absolute best. Piero Cappuccilli, a Karajan favourite, starts off rather gustily at his first appearance, but later settles to provide some singing that demonstrates his famously expansive breath control, and security of tonal beauty throughout an impressive range. Mariana Nicolesco is a decent Beatrice. This is a hard role to bring off, not least as Beatrice herself takes some time to enter the action. She does get some grand scenas to show off her florid coloratura technique and also chances to sing more dramatic music. Nicolesco has the technical ability though her tone is not always ingratiating and she lacks that ability to ‘dazzle’. This Beatrice is more forceful than others, and in dramatic terms this is preferable to just a display of vocal fireworks. In Stefania Toczyska the set provides a nicely fiery Agnese del Maino, and if there is an element of strain at the very top of the stave one can easily live with it (there is tough competition from Josephine Veasey in the Bonynge/Sutherland recording on Decca). She was always a compelling performer dramatically. Vincenzo La Scola has a nice plangent quality to his tone, and better suited to the Bellini and Donizetti roles he undertook.
There is Rossini and Donizetti, too. Riccardo Chailly’s Il barbiere di Siviglia would not be a top recommendation, as more stylish and consistently cast sets are to be found elsewhere. Marilyn Horne is perhaps too dominant a Rosina, though her technical ability is indisputable and her legion of fans will no doubt want this complete interpretation. Leo Nucci is a rather relentless and aggressive Figaro. Best is Samuel Ramey’s superb Don Basilio (an exemplary ‘La Calumnia’ with real dynamic control) and Enzo Dara’s classic Bartolo, though he is heard in fresher voice in the same role on Abbado’s recording.
Sir John Pritchard’s Covent Garden-derived L’elisir d’amore boasts a winning Adina in Ileana Cotrubas, with the playful and pathos sides in excellent balance, and Sir Geraint Evans’s then-classic Dr Dulcamara. The humour is probably a little broad-brush, though it is certainly as infectious as Evans’s singing is ripe. As Nemorino we have Plácido Domingo, though he did not appear in the stage-performances on which the recording was based. What a shame neither José Carreras nor the under-recorded Luis Lima, who sang in the original performances, were not invited to record their interpretations then.
There is other Italian fare in the releases of Verdi, represented by fine performances of Don Carlo and Aida with Metropolitan Opera forces under James Levine. Don Carlo is essentially what used to be the standard five-act Italian version, however it follows the Met’s tradition of incorporating the choral scene with the woodcutters and labourers of the Fontainbleau forest receiving alms from Elisabetta. The cast is a strong one with Michael Sylvester giving an attractively lyrical performance in the title role and Vladimir Chernov presenting a virile Rodrigo. Ferruccio Furlanetto is a slightly rough and not-that individual a Philip (his interpretation of the role has deepened immeasurably since). Samuel Ramey is a noble-sounding Grand Inquisitor. Aprile Millo is a strong Elisabetta and convincingly projects the young woman’s inner unhappiness and her moral strength. She sings the role well, although the microphone occasionally catches a slight wavery quality to her tone when under pressure. Dolora Zajick is a formidable Princess Eboli, very much in the Cossotto mode. Sometimes it feels a little unremittingly forceful, but the role can be played successfully that way, and she has the technique for the ‘veil song’ as well as the dramatic bite needed for the ‘garden scene’ and for ‘O Don fatale’. Levine’s interpretation is most idiomatic and assured and his orchestra plays beautifully.
As it also does in Aida. This is a very exciting performance, and the similar team of principals mean the parallels between the two works are even more evident. Millo is lovely in the title role – one of her strongest assumptions, and Zajick provides the vocal guns as a headstrong Amneris – her Act Four scene with Radames and then with the priests is powerful stuff. Those who have seen her scenery-eating performance live will not need persuasion! Domingo’s Radames had developed by this time into an extremely subtle portrayal and he lavishes much care on Verdi‘s dynamic and expressive markings. Ramey gives us an implacable Ramfis and James Morris a bluff Amonasro that could do with just a little more individuality. The lesser roles are only adequately cast.
Puccini is served by Lorin Maazel’s account of Il trittico. For many years these recordings were considered a strong contender for the best all-round stereo recordings of the three operas, and it is good to report they wear their age well. Il tabarro boasts a strong cast with the gritty timbre of Ingvar Wixell’s voice depicting the latent jealousy and violence of Michele. Domingo is a lyrical Luigi, perhaps slightly overdoing the ‘romantic tenor lead’ approach, and Renata Scotto is certainly a strong dramatic presence as Giorgetta, though her voice has signs of wear-and-tear and had developed a distinct beat. She uses the text to great effect. The same is very much true of her performance in the title role of Suor angelica – but there is no denying this is an extremely intense and rewarding interpretation, and this Angelica emerges as a more feisty nun than one might expect. To have Marilyn Horne as a terrifyingly implacable Zia Principessa is luxury casting that pays dividends, ensuring that the pivotal confrontation between the two retains credibility. In the smaller roles the unmistakeable timbre of Ileana Cotrubas as a sympathetic Sister Genovieffa is immediately recognisable.
Cotrubas reappears as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi to sing the famous ‘O mio babbino caro’ somewhat over-breathily and perhaps too knowingly. Domingo as Rinuccio makes much of his short aria praising Florence, and in the title role there is Tito Gobbi as a ‘classic’ Schicchi. The humour is there as in his earlier recording under Santini, but here it is rather more broadly played and the impersonation of Buoso more eccentrically voiced. And that sums up the trio as a whole. Maazel too often seems to be determined to spotlight Puccini‘s effects, and his casts seem to have been encouraged to adopt a similar approach, so there is sometimes a lack of spontaneity and subtlety about the presentation. Presentation is less than ideal here, too, with Suor angelica and Gianni Schicchi having two tracks apiece and Il tabarro only one. Given that there are no librettos provided with these sets it makes following of the action difficult for those unfamiliar with the works.
The lack of a libretto might be considered a disadvantage for some of the rarely performed operas. This is a particular disappointment for some of the French operas. The return of Antonio de Almeida’s account of Thomas‘s Mignon is to be welcomed, although the over-reverberant and sometimes-enhanced acoustic detracts. The score is a lovely one and Almeida certainly makes a persuasive argument for it. There are some fine performances, too. Marilyn Horne perhaps sounds a little mature of voice for the young girl of the title-role although she sings most seductively, and with her absolute surety of line impressing at moments such as the most famous aria (‘Connais-tu le pays’). That underrated French tenor Alain Vanzo is a stylish Wilhelm Meister and Frederica von Stade delights the ear in the relatively minor trouser-role of Frédéric. Ruth Welting brings both charm and necessary dazzle to the technically difficult music written for Philine – ‘Je suis Titania’ is a real highlight. Only Nicola Zaccaria’s inconsistent Lothario mars the vocal line-up, but even this blemish cannot detract from consistent pleasures to be found in this account of an attractive opera.
Under Georges Prêtre the New Philharmonia Orchestra gives a delightful account of Charpentier‘s Louise. The title role is persuasively sung by Cotrubas; she brings the pathos and strengths of the girl attracted to the bohemian lifestyle and the sensual attractions of Paris yet restrained by her devotion to her blinkered parents. Domingo is credible as her young lover Julien, and Jane Berbié and Gabriel Bacquier are most characterful as the forceful and somewhat unsympathetic narrow-minded parents. The huge supporting cast and the orchestra help enliven the depictions of the bustle of Paris.
The recording here of Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande is the famous one conducted by Pierre Boulez set-down in tandem with a celebrated production and set of performances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Mélisande is sung by Elisabeth Söderström, who convinces as the enigmatic timid heroine found in the forest and who catches her brief blossoming as she experiences the awakening of her love for Pelléas. This role is here sung by a tenor, rather than the high baritone more frequently encountered, and George Shirley makes a persuasive argument for this choice: his distinctive voice does have a tinge of the baritone about it. Donald McIntyre’s jealous Golaud is one of his finest recorded assumptions. His voice was then in its absolute prime, and his French is excellent – as is that of the rest of the cast. (By this stage he was entering into a long collaboration with Boulez in the centenary Ring cycle at Bayreuth in the Chereau production.) In the smaller roles of Arkel and Geneviève, David Ward and Yvonne Minton make their mark. Minton’s singing of Golaud’s letter is warm and sympathetic and establishes the queen’s nature at once. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House plays as if inspired by Boulez, whose attention to the colours of Debussy‘s music is predictably precise, and he does not over-indulge the romantic passages to their detriment. This was an engrossing re-encounter.
There are two Massenet recordings that fill gaps in the catalogue. Domingo and Grace Bumbry, the latter in resplendent voice, are in strong form under Eve Queler’s direction, in an exciting live performance of Le Cid – now a real rarity. This performance was in 1976, the recording the first of the piece, and it wears its years very well indeed, and it is unlikely that a record company will invest in another for some time.
There is also a San Francisco-based Hérodiade under Valery Gergiev, one of his earliest operatic recordings, with a starry cast that includes the omnipresent Domingo (for sheer range of recorded roles he really is unsurpassed), a young and vocally lustrous Renée Fleming as Salome, and Dolora Zajick in the title role. One recalls that when this was originally released there was another version released on EMI that boasted an even stronger cast – but this is perfectly acceptable account for those wishing to get to know one of Massenet‘s more dramatic scores.
There is some good Mozart, too. An engaging Le nozze di Figaro under Zubin Mehta, originating from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, though it is not the most insightful interpretation. The principals are fine, with Karita Mattila’s lustrous singing as the Countess blending beautifully yet contrasting effectively with the rich but bright tones of Marie McLaughlin’s sparky and humane Susanna – always one of her best parts. Lucio Gallo and Michele Pertusi perhaps sound a little alike as the Count and Figaro respectively (though that helps in the final act, of course), and it is a continual pleasure to hear these two macho voices singing off the Italian text as well as they do here, and indeed the cast as a whole make all the recitative very sprightly. Vocally some of the smaller roles are less remarkable as vocal personalities, although Angelo Nosotti makes a ripe and almost youthful sounding Dr Bartolo, and Ugo Benelli’s Don Basilio is full of wit.
Levine’s Die Zauberflöte will not be to all tastes, as from the start his tempos tend to be on the ponderous side, making the lighter aspects of the work suffer. The Vienna Philharmonic plays delectably, of course. The dialogue is included and its delivery is often a bit staid, too, and might irritate on regular listening. However, there are some good contributions from Ileana Cotrubas as a lovely Pamina, her distinctive vocal quality always adding that tint of pathos to the interpretation. She is slightly taxed by ‘Ach, ich fühls’, but turns this to an advantage given the dramatic context. Eric Tappy is a pleasant enough Tamino, though his tone is not the most honeyed. I like the geniality of Christian Boesch’s echt-Viennese Papageno, and he has the singspiel idiom. One can really sense that this character alone has dialogue with the audience. José van Dam shows how to make the most of the small but absolutely crucial role of the Speaker, Martti Talvela sings wonderfully as Sarastro – but does not impose himself dramatically – and Zdislawa Donat’s catches the duplicity of the Queen of the Night as well as blending bright tone and fluid, formidable accuracy up high.
Lorin Maazel’s Don Giovanni is marred by a cavernous acoustic that muddies detail. This is a rather speedy and impetuous reading from Maazel, and it was recorded for the Losey film of the work which perhaps explains the tempos, in that it seems restless and almost cinematic. It does match Ruggero Raimondi’s rapacious and arrogant Giovanni – here is a singer who really captures the insincerity as well as the allure of the character. José van Dam sings a detailed and likeable Leporello, but one sometimes wants a little more vocal contrast between him and Raimondi. Edda Moser recovers from a slightly frenetic and breathy first appearance to give a Donna Anna full of poise, and the Donna Elvira of Kiri te Kanawa is a creamily sung and vivid account of one of her most convincing assumptions. Maazel cast the distinguished mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina. It sort of works dramatically, but she is not ideally free of voice at the top of the range. Malcolm King makes a fine Masetto and John Macurdy an imposing Commendatore. Kenneth Riegel’s Don Ottavio is simply not in the class of the others.
Handel gets three recordings (Partenope, Serse and Tamerlano), but, being honest, all are surpassed by later releases. It is more a case of case of advances in both scholarship and the contemporary presentations of these baroque works that now make these recordings sound a little dated. It is a shame as some of the individual vocal contributions are impressive – for example Helga Müller-Molinari as Rosmira in Partenope, and both Carolyn Watkinson and Barbara Hendricks in Serse. There is also René Jacobs in his countertenor days in both Tamerlano and Partenope, but others have more finesse, not to mention variety of tone.
Leonard Bernstein’s account of Richard Strauss‘s Der Rosenkavalier is reissued, and finely though the Vienna Philharmonic plays for him the tempos are too erratic and indulgent to give consistent pleasure – it becomes rather indigestible. The cast is also not ideally matched. Christa Ludwig’s Marschallin is detailed and as intelligent as one would expect, but her interpretation is to be found on other releases with more-idiomatic conductors. Lucia Popp was always a lovely Sophie – such as her performance (now on DVD) under Carlos Kleiber with Fassbaender as the perfect foil as Octavian reveals. The recording here seems to emphasise the brightness of her distinct sound. On that DVD the Marschallin was sung by Gwyneth Jones, who here is Octavian. She is not in best voice: her singing is ungainly and not always attractive. Although at this time of her career she had not taken on the really heavy Wagner and Strauss roles that became her calling-cards, there is evidence that even then she may have pushed her voice a little too far too early. Walter Berry is an endearing Baron Ochs, but others have brought more detail to their recordings. Ultimately it is Bernstein’s ‘loving the score too much’ approach that kills this performance.
American opera, old and new, is provided as well. Dimitri Mitropoulos was long a champion of Samuel Barber‘s Vanessa, and the recording here the oldest of these releases, recorded in 1958. It sounds remarkably well, and Barber’s distinctive musical palette and effects are clearly and spaciously present, despite the forward placing of the voices. The cast is a classic one with Eleanor Steber fine in the title role and Rosalind Elias pulling all the punches necessary as Erika. Nicolai Gedda has the entire swagger needed for Anatole, and if Regina Resnik is rather youthful-sounding as the Old Baroness she is very characterful. Mitropoulos has a very persuasive way with the score and keeps the momentum going. By the way, one simply has no need for a libretto here as the entire cast get every word across.
Modern American opera is provided in the form of Christopher Keefe’s New York City Opera account of Philip Glass‘s Satyagraha, still the only complete recording available, and therefore a must for any Glass enthusiast. Though there are no big names in the cast the ensemble is well balanced, and the various episodes based on the life of Ghandi are brought to vivid life.
Which brings us back to verismo opera. Muti’s orchestral account of Spontini‘s La Vestale is the best part of that opera’s recording, but the work itself is uneven and at times the inspiration flags. The singing is hampered by Karen Huffstodt’s rather unevenly sung Julia – her tone is not as rich as one would hope for and she sounds taxed by some of the writing, and therefore is not as appealing as she should be. There is no denying the quality of Denyce Graves’s voice when she appears as the High Priestess, and Anthony Michaels-Moore makes an impression as Licinius.
James Levine’s recording of Cilea‘s Adriana Lecouvreur rather surprised on re-listening after many years. The work has its longueurs, and Cilea certainly and frustratingly both overuses and under-develops his more attractive thematic material, and yet in Levine’s hands the work is strangely persuasive. Renata Scotto is a wonderful Adriana, intense, theatrical and where needed over-the-top and melodramatic. If her singing sometimes verges on the squally it always seems apposite to the situation. The arias are deftly handled, although more luscious accounts are to be found on recital records. Domingo has the swashbuckling matinee-idol Maurizio to a tee, and Sherrill Milnes makes a operatically theatrical four-course-meal of Michonnet’s part. Looking at the small roles one finds Ann Murray and Lillian Watson as the two young actresses – there is casting! Remembering when I first bought this recording, and finding Elena Obraztsova’s singing being the big drawback, I was expecting to find it so again. However, when that massive voice thundered out of my speakers at the start of Act Two for ‘Acerbe Volutta’ I was pinned to my seat! You certainly know what this jealous princess is about! Unashamedly, I loved it!
With Tchaikovsky‘s Pique Dame we come back to Russia. Seiji Ozawa’s Boston Symphony Orchestra-at-Tanglewood set boasts a fine Lisa in Mirella Freni. Although she came late in her career to Lisa and Tatiana her voice always sounded pristine, and by the time of this recording its darker colours were more prominent. Her Lisa is convincingly put upon and neurotic. Maureen Forrester is a vivid Countess, and Vladimir Atlantov’s full-throated metallic tenor is exciting and reveals why his Hermann was very much in demand at the time. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sergei Leiferkus stand out as among the most suave and likeable of Yeletskys and Count Tomskys, respectively. Ozawa’s conducting is very fine, too.
The pick of a rather good bunch? Abbado’s Boris, Levine’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Prêtre’s Louise and Ozawa’s Pique Dame return to more prominent positions on my shelves again. The Mignon and Le Cid are also very collectible, and Horne and Scotto sparking off one another in Suor Angelica should be heard. Boulez’s Pelléas et Mélisande is also very fine as a record of a classic performance of its time, and of importance.