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Leona Mitchell - Sings Favourite Soprano Arias
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro: E Susanna non vien … Dove sono;
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) La Bohème: Si, mi chiamano Mimi; Madama Butterfly: Un bel di, vedremo; La Rondine: Il bel sogno di Doretta;
L’Amico Fritz: Son pochi fiori;
Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro; Turandot: Tu che di gel sei cinta;
Gioacchino ROSSINI
William Tell: Selva opaca;
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Ernani: Ernani! Ernani, involami
Leona Mitchell (soprano)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Herbert Adler
Recorded in 1980. No venue given.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 466 903-2 [45:12]


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The first time I became aware of Leona Mitchell was when Decca released their recording of Porgy and Bess in the mid-1970s. She was Bess and she got rave reviews. Edward Greenfield in Gramophone wrote “Gorgeous”, also quoted in the booklet notes for the present recital, which originally appeared in 1980, Here it is released on CD for the first time. Why Ms Mitchell never had a great recording career is hard to know and after listening to this recital I would say that this must have been one of the worst A&R miscalculations over the last three decades. It is interesting to note that the other soprano find on that Porgy and Bess recording, singing the much smaller role of Clara, was Barbara Hendricks; we all know what a successful recording artist she became. It may have something to do with personality, with an immediately recognizable timbre. At a blindfold test I would have no difficulty at all picking out Barbara Hendricks with her quick vibrato and plangent tone, while Leona Mitchell could be any one of a number of wonderful voices. Long and close acquaintance with a voice in the end means that one learns its characteristics and we have few opportunities to hear Leona Mitchell.

What is beyond doubt is that this is indeed a gorgeous voice, recorded here when she had just turned thirty. No doubt it filled out even more during the following decade, since she went on to sing Turandot, while she here has exactly the right size and type of voice for Liù. Taking two well-known sopranos from an earlier generation who both sang this repertoire, recording almost all the arias here, she is somewhere between the lyrical Victoria de los Angeles and the lirico-spinto Renata Tebaldi. Picking one item at random, Mimi’s aria from La Bohème, she has the girlish quality that made de los Angeles’ Mimi so enchanting and vulnerable but also with the extra power of Tebaldi in reserve for the big outburst. But Tebaldi never sounded frail and girlish, hers was a decidedly matronly approach. The same difference, even more pronounced, can be noted in the Butterfly aria, where Tebaldi could never be mistaken for a teenager. On the other hand de los Angeles and Mitchell have a natural youthfulness.

Leaving aside her great predecessors and possible comparisons, Leona Mitchell sings very well indeed in Countess Almaviva’s Dove sono. The voice is beautiful, there is fine pianissimo singing and she has a trill. Despite this one gets the feeling that she is just a bit uninvolved. She identifies much more readily with Mimi. Mi chiamano Mimi is a fine portrait of the little seamstress. Adler could be more flexible but together they build a magnificent climax from Ma quando vien lo sgelo (But when spring comes) and the concluding parlando phrases are sensitively done. Un bel di, vedremo from Madama Butterfly actually begins a few bars before the aria proper, which gives more relief to the portrait. There is some really glorious vocalism here in the spinto mould but also much sensitive singing. The aria from La Rondine with its piano prelude is beautifully sung on that thin thread of tone that Puccini prescribes, though with some unnecessary bulges marring the line – surely inserted for expressive reasons, but the melody is so expressive in itself.

Suzel’s flower aria from L’Amico Fritz is the odd number out here. It’s a fine piece of music, memorably recorded by Mirella Freni in the complete recording with Pavarotti. It shows that Mascagni was more than the blood and thunder of Cavalleria rusticana. Just listen to the string writing of the postlude, where the National Philharmonic really show their capacity. The aria is affectionately sung and Leona Mitchell can stand comparison even with Freni.

Back with Puccini and Gianni Schicchi where the loving daughter is finely delineated in the famous aria, sung with golden tone and in the final bars the voice has a slight flutter of emotion. That Liù was a favourite part with Ms Mitchell is easy to imagine when hearing her in the tragic second aria, sung just prior to Liù’s suicide and practically the last thing that Puccini completed. Mitchell made her debut in this role on the occasion of Birgit Nilsson’s final performance as Turandot and later sang it with Caballé and Pavarotti.

Mathilde’s great aria from William Tell, sung in Italian as has long been common practice, is here preceded by the quite lengthy recitative, which is just as important as the aria. This is another affectionate and inward reading with exquisitely shaded dynamics. The final item, from Verdi’s “galley years”, takes us to more florid territory, once the gloomy prelude and recitative is over. Sutherland’s recording from the superb Paris-made 1959 album has always been the touchstone, and Ms Mitchell doesn’t quite belong in this league – but who does? Still she has fluency and the high notes and in the cabaletta she has a good trill and negotiates the runs and roulades with convincing ease.

Playing time is short – 45:12 according to the booklet, 44:53 according to my display. However this is what Decca had in their archives and at the asking price there is no reason to complain. The Nat Phil, regular recording orchestra in those days, play immaculately as always and the sound quality is OK. It is analogue although by 1980 Decca were already employing the new digital technique for other projects. The booklet has a short appreciation about Leona Mitchell by Cyrus Meher-Homji but no notes on the music and no texts.

After listening through this recital I am convinced that Leona Mitchell would have been a valuable member of the cast on many complete recordings in the 1980s. It is to be regretted that this was to be her only solo album. Readers who own the original LP should take the opportunity to upgrade to CD, and those unfamiliar with this impressive singer should run to the store or place an order at once.

Göran Forsling




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