Some New Opera Recordings

Bizet’s Carmen is the universal opera in much the same sense that Beethoven’s Fifth is the universal symphony. It is one of those rare works admired equally by musicians who know composition and by audiences who know what they like. As operas go, it has everything — excellent literary antecedents, a credible and concise libretto, a score that is superficially brilliant and profoundly subtle. Season subscribers love it for its tunes, academicians for its technique, singers for its juicy roles. It has a great tenor part, the most famous baritone aria ever written, an appealing ingenue role, and a title role to which nearly every prima donna aspires, be she soprano, mezzo, or contralto.

And yet the typical performance of Carmen in most of the world’s great opera houses is drastically unlike the opera that Bizet himself knew. It is almost invariably presented in bad French by singers who are alien not only to the language but to the style, and it is weighted down by sung recitatives with orchestral accompaniment which were added after Bizet’s death by another composer named Ernest Guiraud.

Unfortunately this is also the kind of Carmen which is represented most extensively in the record catalogues. And it is the kind that has just been recorded anew by London (OSA1368, stereo; A-4368, monaural: three records). For sheer internationalism, this Carmen outfaces all others. Its participants include an American, Regina Resnik, as Carmen; an Italian, Mario del Monaco, as Don José; an Australian, Joan Sutherland, as Micaela; a Finn, Tom Krause, as Escamillo; and a Swiss orchestra, the Suisse Romande, led by an American, Thomas Schippers. Not a Frenchman in the house!

The shortcomings of this set involve more than matters of language and style. Regina Resnik’s Carmen is dramatically placid and musically mild; Joan Sutherland is a perfunctory Micaela; Fom Krause is lacking in the suavity and elegance inherent in Escamillo’s music. The minor parts are done without distinction, and Thomas Schippers’ conducting is concerned more with surface sheen than with what lies beneath. Most grievous of all is Mario del Monaco as Don José, for not only does his mixture of the French and Italian languages (one is tempted to call the resultant tongue “del Monégasque”) verge on the ludicrous, but he sings in such a fiercely strangulated manner as to torment the music as well.

In view of London’s experience with its cast, it is interesting to observe that RCA Victor is planning to produce later this year another recording of Carmen with Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Robert Merrill in the leading parts. No Carmenophile, least of all this one, would dream of prejudging a recording; but there is surely some cause for unease in the facts that Carmen is a role hitherto unfamiliar to Miss Price, that Corelli is the current epitome of the Italian-tenor type, and that Merrill’s abundant vocal virtues do not include fluency in French musical styles. Victor’s new Carmen may astound everybody; but it will astound no one if it doesn’t.

So far as this listener is aware, there exists only one Carmen recording that approximates the opera Bizet had in mind. It was made in Paris shortly after World War II and was released in the United States in 1948 on the Columbia label, only to be withdrawn when sales proved scanty. It has just reappeared on the American market as part of a new series of imports being handled by Capitol, and is well worth the attention of anyone whose interest in Carmen extends beyond the “Habañera” and the “Toreador Song.”

The cast is that of the Opéra Comique, with Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin. Martha Angelici, Michel Dens, and André Cluytens conducting (Pathé FCX 101-103, monaural only: three records). Of these, only Jobin, a Canadian who sang with success at the Metropolitan Opera, could be described as a singer of international standing, but Michel, Angelici, and Dens all won wide followings in France, and it was their Carmen which one was likely to hear on a good night at the Opéra Comique some fifteen years ago. Their recording adds up to what Carmen seldom becomes in a performance outside France — a triumph of ensemble. Michel’s voice, far from being the femalebaritone type so often associated with Carmen, is a light and flexible mezzo; Angelici makes for a Micaela who is appealing without being sentimental; Jobin combines robust tenor tones with perfect French diction; and Dens demonstrates how much vocal characterization can be brought to the role of Escamillo.

But excellent as they are individually, it is their combined efforts that shape the performance, for this Carmen emerges as a continuous musical drama rather than a succession of songs. The mountainpass encounter between José and Escamillo, the two rivals for Carmen’s love, becomes as sharply etched a musical scene as the “Toreador Song”; such minor roles as Zuniga, Morales, Remendado, and Dancairo turn into little masterpieces of characterization; and a powerful climax is achieved at the conclusion of the third act when, for the only time in the opera, the voices of all four of the main characters are simultaneously present.

This Carmen dispenses with the recitatives that Guiraud concocted to replace the original spoken lines for a production in Vienna after Bizet’s death in 1875. His object was to turn Carmen into a grand opera, and he succeeded, but at the cost of drastically altering its profile. His recitatives, though they are often drawn from Bizet’s themes, slow down and impede the dramatic and musical course of the work, giving it an unnatural stiffness. When Carmen is heard instead with spoken dialogue (drawn largely from Prosper Mérimée’s short story) between the musical numbers, the pace is swifter, the motivations clearer, the characterizations sharper, the music more effective. Pathé’s Opéra Comique set, with its lack of great voices and its pre-stereo sound, may not stand unchallenged forever, but it is a genuine and unadulterated Carmen and, for the moment at least, the only recording extant worthy of being called the “perfect opera.”

Saint Saëns’s Samson et Dalila is, by contrast, anything but a perfect opera. It is static and stately, an array of individual arias and choruses, with one voice seldom so impolite as to intrude upon another. But it contains three sumptuous showpieces for mezzo-soprano, an orchestral bacchanale that for all its faded voluptuousness can still be played excitingly, and occasional touches of Old Testament grandeur. And on records, its lack of scenic action is hardly missed.

A new Angel recording of Samson et Dalila infuses life and vigor into the score, makes it seem, in fact, a rugged and powerful work. It is performed by the Paris Opera Orchestra under Georges Pretre, with Rita Gorr as Delilah, Jon Vickers as Samson, Ernest Blanc as the High Priest, and Anton Diakov doubling as Abimelech and the Old Hebrew (Angel (S) 3639 C/L, stereo; 3639 C/L, monaural: three records). Vickers has the power and lyricism requisite for Samson, and Gorr brings vocal opulence to Delilah’s role, though her high notes are less graceful than her low, Prêtre, who seems to head up the rising generation of French conductors, paces and shapes die music beautifully, from the delicate sensuousness of the dances that accompany Delilah’s “Printemps qui commence” to the clangors of the destruction of the Temple of Dagon. For all the fun that has been poked at it over the years, Saint-Saëns’s biblical opera is filled with brilliant and exotic orchestral music, and vocal writing that is as well shaped as his heroine. And stereo adds a cubit or two to its grandeur.

Another French opera is Massenet’s Hérodiade, which has just been recorded in excerpt form on one record (Angel (S) 36145, stereo; 36145. monaural). Massenet’s musical account of the story of Salome and John the Baptist seems to have lost whatever toehold it once possessed on the operatic stage, leaving behind it two isolated arias, “Il est doux. il est bon” for soprano and ”Vision fugitive” for baritone. These are the arias, expertly sung, which remain the high spots of this record. The remaining excerpts seem rather mechanical and empty despite the valiant efforts of a Paris Opéra cast including Régine Grespin, soprano; Rita Gorr. mezzo; Albert Lance, tenor; Michel Dens, baritone; and Jacques Mars, bass; with Prêtre once again conducting.

Whatever qualities it may or may not possess, this Hérodiade collection gives some encouraging signs of a renaissance in the art of French singing. It represents what has become a rarity in recent decades — a French opera recording sung entirely by French singers (Miss Gorr, to be strictly accurate, is Belgian by birth). If the trend continues, the French may soon be able to look after the task of enregistering their operatic legacy on records, a cause that has been served only indifferently by others.

Régine Crespin is also represented by two new solo records issued by Angel (36144, monaural only) and by London (OS 25799, stereo; 5799, monaural). Both contain the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello, but the rest of the repertory on the Angel record is largely French (Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust) and German (Wagner’s Tannhäuser), while on the London disc it is strictly Italian (Verdi, Puccini, Ponchielli. Mascagni). Miss Crespin has her virtues as both a Wagnerite and a Verdian, but at the moment they seem less important than her ability to impart vigor to her native French repertory.

There remains, finally, Maria Callas. Two years ago this American singer of Greek descent made a recording for Angel of French operatic arias which created something of a sensation: it included excerpts from Carmen and Samson et Dalila sung with a near-contralto richness and an idiomatic French style such as Miss Callas had never before displayed. Now she has made a second album called Maria Callas in Pans (Angel (S) 36147, stereo; 36147, monaural) which includes arias by Gluck, Berlioz, Bizet, Massenet, and Gounod. If the impact of this record is less stunning than the first, it is largely because the repertory here lies more in the soprano than in the mezzo-soprano range, and the higher Miss Callas ranges these days, the less comfortable are the results. The upper reaches of the “Jewel Song” from Faust give her trouble. But in an aria like “D’amour l’ardente flamme” from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, her singing is vocally rich, musically expressive, and dramatically apt. If and when a stereo Carmen emerges that is as authentic as it is exciting, it will be no surprise to find Maria Callas playing the central role.

Record Reviews

Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, “the Great,”Fugue in G Minor, “the Little,”Preludes and Fugues in F Minor, C, and G

Albert Schweitzer, organist; Angel COLC-89 {monaural only)

Albert Schweitzer made these recordings in 1935 on the organ of All Hallows Church, Barking-by-theTower, London. They were issued in 1936 by the Bach Organ Music Society and brought many into touch for the first time with the music of the remarkable physician-missionary-humanitarian. After nearly thirty years these sonorous but lucid performances speak directly and powerfully to the listener. Schweitzer’s music is only part of his legacy, but it remains a rich and noble part. The sound, incidentally, is astonishingly good for its age.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No, 14 in C-sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”: No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 13 “ Pathétique”; No. 23 in F Minor, Opus 57, “ Appassionata”

Rudolf Serkin, pianist; Columbia MS6481 (stereo) and ML-4881

That ancient commercial custom of coupling a popular work on a record with a composition relatively unknown to, and undesired by, the customer has very largely gone out of existence, and good riddance to it. Here we have a record bringing together no fewer than three prime Beethoven sonatas played by one of the day’s most commanding pianists. Moreov er, Serkin’s performances are among his finest, from the evenpaced and deliberate first movement of the Moonlight to the brilliant climax of the Appassionato. In quality, content, and playing time (just under one hour), this is a generous record.

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in O Minor, K. 550; Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504, “Prague”

Bruno Walter conducting Columbia Symphony Orchestra: Columbia MS-6494 (stereo)

Bruno Walter first recorded Mozart’s G Minor thirty years ago, and it was one of the works he chose to play in what turned out to be the final series of recording sessions of his life. It might be an exaggeration to say that his concept of this music underwent no changes throughout his long life. But this last recording shows a basic warmth and affection for the music that never wavered. Perhaps this kind of Mozart seems romantic and oldfashioned according to today’s styles, but it breathes a deeply human spirit. One may be forgiven for saying that his G Minor symphony and the “Prague” symphony on the reverse seem lit by the sunset glow of Walter’s last years.

Vivaldi: Concerto for Flautino in C; Concerto for Cello in C Minor; Concerto for Principal Violin and Echo Violin in A; Concerto for Viola d’amore, Lute, and Muted Orchestra in D Minor

Wolfgang Hofmann conducting EmilSeiler Chamber Orchestra, with HansMartin Linde, sopranino recorder; Klaus Storck, cello; Susanne Lautenbacher and Ernesto Mampaey, violins; Emil Seiler, viola d’amore; and Karl Scheit, lute; Archive ARC 7321S (stereo) and ARC 3218

If Deutsche Grammophon’s scholarly Archive division were inclined to frivolous titles, it might have elected to call this record “The Variety of Vivaldi.” There are few more delectable examples of the inventive and experimental genius of this eighteenth-century master. The bubbly Flautino Concerto — played here on a sopranino recorder that sounds like a lyrical piccolo — is particularly delightful; and in the twoviolin concerto in A, it is astonishing to hear how much charm Vivaldi could extract from the device of having one violin echo another from a distance — with stereo heightening its effectiveness more than two hundred years later.

Come for to Sing

Eric von Schmidt, Carolyn Hester, Jackie Washington, Jack Elliott, and Rolf Cahn, folk singers; Pathways of Sound POS-1033 (monaural)

Grizzly bears, boll weevils, sailing ships, and railroad trains chase each other through the grooves of this amiable and well-varied record of American folk songs. With five singers alternating, the pace and mood undergo gentle changes as the program moves through twenty songs ranging from “John Henry” and “Rock Island Line” to “Hush Little Baby” and “Froggie Went Courting.” All the performers have youth, skill, and enthusiasm, and the arrangements are restrained and tasteful without being dull. In a cast so uniformly excellent it is unfair to single out individuals, but mention ought to be made of the purity with which Carolyn Hester sings “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and of the gusto Jack Elliott brings to “The Car Song.” Concurrent with the record, Houghton Mifflin has issued an attractively illustrated book also entitled Come for to Sing, which contains the words and music of the twenty songs.

Sor: Twenty Studies for Guitar

John Williams, guitarist; Westminster WST-17039 (stereo) and XWN-19039 Fernando Sor lived from 1778 to 1839 and wrote as enchantingly as anyone ever has for the guitar. Twenty of his études, ranging in duration from forty-eight seconds to nearly five minutes, might seem to add up to an unvaried diet, but Sor knew how to mix his tempos, rhythms, moods, and sonorities. Mr. Williams is a twenty-two-year-old Australian who plays his instrument with facility, feeling, and enjoyment. Andrés Segovia has pronounced him “a prince of the guitar,” and he will meet no contradiction here.

Shakespeare: Hamlet

Directed by Howard Sackler, with Raid Scofield, Jena Walker, Diana Wynyard, Ronald Culver, Charles Heslop, Edward De Sousa, and others: Shakespeare Recording Society SRS 232 (stereo or monaural): four records

Paul Scofield’s Hamlet is clearly and crisply spoken, and underplayed rather than overacted in its emotion. On a stage it might seem aloof and abstract, but it has just the proper weight and intensity for a recording. The rest of the cast is, for the most part, similarly responsive to the microphone’s needs, although there is an occasional excess of distracting crowd murmurings and difficult-tounderstand whisperings. The play is performed complete, in an authoritative text by G. B. Harrison; but it does seem the height of pedantry to have Hamlet say, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” instead of the familiar “your.”

Sir Winston Churchill: First Honorary Citizen of the United States

Bud Greenspan, producer; David Perry, narrator; Colpix PS 2000 (monaural): two records

This album of Churchill speeches is marred by obtrusive background music and a sententious narration. But the wartime oratory it presents remains undimmed in its eloquence and in its power to stir the listener. Here is Churchill rallying his countrymen to battle, heaping scorn on Hitler and Mussolini, pledging ultimate liberation to the captive nations. Not the least moving of the speeches are several addressed to the French amid the disasters of 1940, including an appeal in Churchillian French: “Français! C’est moi, Churchill, qui vous parle!” The voices of Chamberlain, Hitler, and Roosevelt are also occasionally heard, adding historical perspective to the album. But, oh, that endless music!