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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Roméo et Juliette, Opera in five Acts.
Juliette, Eidé Norena (sop); Roméo, Charles Hackett (ten); Stéphano, Gladys Swarthout (m. Sop); Mercutio, Giuseppe de Luca (bar); Tybalt, Angelo Barda (ten); Friar Laurence, Leon Rothier (bass); Paris, Millo Picco
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera New York/Louis Hasselmans
Recorded 1935. Live broadcast performance
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110140-41 [2CDs: 79.16+70.02]

No recordings of Roméo et Juliette were made in the era of 78s although many leading singers recorded arias from the opera. Indeed, complete recordings from the LP and CD era are sparse. I therefore first of all welcome this issue, despite some limitations of sound and the intrusion of applause, on the basis that it provides opportunity to hear 1930s singing style in this work and serves as a low budget introduction to the work.

The ‘Met’ roster of singers in the 1930s included some of the outstanding artists of the day, often to be heard singing outside what might be considered their usual fach, as is de Luca here. The Saturday afternoon matinee broadcasts commenced in 1931 and provided an opportunity for a wide public to hear the performances. Recordings of the broadcasts were often attempted using pre-grooved discs, with very disappointing results. However, professional studios began recording for archival, and private commission purposes, using aluminium discs with significantly better results. This issue uses such discs, preserved by the son of Charles Hackett who sings the role of Roméo and from which miracle restorer Ward Marston has produced a very listenable performance. Yes, there is surface noise that derives from the corroded edges of the aluminium discs and there are moments of distortion, unfortunately at the start of Juliette’s ‘Waltz Song’, CD1 tr.5. Some potential purchasers might be less tolerant of the intrusion of applause, regularly at the end of arias, but also at the entrance of favorite singers such as for de Luca. CD1 tr. 2. Most infuriating however, at least for me, is the regular narrative, even overlapping the opening bars of an Act, of the broadcast narrator.

Given the above reservations I still welcome this issue for the reasons given, but most importantly for the quality of the performance of the soloists, chorus, and particularly, the conductor. The Norwegian Eidé Norena, a renowned Gilda who lived in Paris from 1928 and was a favorite at the ‘Opéra’, sings Juliette. Despite her 51 years she sounds appropriately young, whilst her vast experience and tonal depth permits generous characterization particularly in her duets with Roméo; CD1 tr.12, the ‘Balcony Scene’, CD2 tr.4, and the ‘Tomb Scene’ CD2 tr.9. Charles Hackett’s Roméo is sung with strong virile tone. He has a touch of metal in the voice that adds an edge in the more violent encounters but he softens his tone as an ardent suitor of Juliette. Generous tone and fine characterization are the hallmarks of de Luca’s ‘Ballad of Queen Mab’, CD1 tr.3. One of the greatest of baritones, he made his debut in 1897 and first appeared at the Met in 1915; he can also be heard on a 1940 Met broadcast of La Bohème as well as innumerable re-issues of 78s singing alongside the likes of Gigli, Pinza, Galli-Curci etc and in solo items. Friar Laurence is sung by Léon Rothier (b.1874). His sonorous, typically French bass voice has the odd unsteady patch but he gives a thoroughly thought-through and impressive interpretation; of note are CD1 trs.12-13 and particularly CD2 tr.6 where Friar Laurence gives Juliette the phial that will induce her appearance of death. All the principals and the well sung minor parts have good clear diction, likewise the vibrant chorus.

The idiomatic conducting of the Paris-born Louis Hasselmans, with his innate feel for French opera, really gives the performance the ultimate quality medal. Act 4 scene 2, including the ballet is omitted. The booklet gives a track listing and synopsis as well as artist profiles, a brief essay on the genesis of the opera and comments on the singers in this performance. Those used to recordings of this period will find this issue to be eminently listenable and the performance captivating.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Robert Hugill

Footnote

Robert Hugill and Robert Farr, in their reviews claim that there was NO complete recording of the opera in the 78-rpm era. Well, if they mean in the electrical era, that's correct. However, there WAS a complete acoustic recording of "Romeo", on 54 sides no less, made by Pathe as early as 1912! It had a pretty starry cast too: Yvonne Gall and Agustarello Affre as the lovers, Marcel Journet as Friar Laurentand Henri Albers as Capulet. It's currently available in a CD transfer on VAI (1064-3). Randy Stewart. RB

 



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