Aureole etc.

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Faure songs
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Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893) – Roméo et Juliette
Juliette - Eide Norena (Soprano)
Stephano – Gladys Swarthout (Contralto)
Gertrude – Henrietta Wakefield (Contralto)
Romeo – Charles Hackett (Tenor)
Tybal – Angel Bada (Bass)
Benvolio – Max Altglass
Mercutio – Giuseppe de Luca (Baritone)
Paris – Millo Picco
Gregorio – Paolo Ananian
Capulet – Louis d’Angelo
Friar Laurence – Leon Rothier (Bass)
Duke of Verona – Arthur Anderson
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Louis Hasselmans
Recorded from broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York on 26th January 1935. Remastered by Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.110140-41 [79.16+70.02]

It is a truly remarkable thing, that Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’ never had a complete recording on 78s. Unlike other staples of the French repertoire which were enshrined in recordings which have become classics (such as the early version of Massenet’s ‘Manon’, the Vallin/Thill ‘Werther’), ‘Roméo et Juliette’ had to wait until the post-war period for its recording. So this set, taken live from the Metropolitan Opera in 1935, is a valuable record. The cast, though perhaps not completely vintage, is never less than interesting. One can regret that we have no complete version from some of the other great names associated with the work, particularly the Francophone ones such as Heldy, Feraldy and Thill.

The cast is led by the Norwegian, Eide Norena. From 1928 she was based in Paris and was well known for her stylish performances in the French language repertoire. She has a luminously silvery soprano, in the Melba mode which is entirely suitable for the traditional version of ‘Roméo et Juliette’. (Gounod originally envisaged the role sung by a more dramatic voice, but the original Juliette persuaded him to add the famous waltz song and drop the big aria in Act IV, Scene 1). Unfortunately, she was over 50 when the recording was made. Though her voice is of the type which ages well, it is regrettable that we cannot hear her younger self singing the role.

The Romeo is Charles Hackett, a rare American tenor in an age of baritones. He sang Romeo to Melba’s Juliette at her farewell. So it is not inappropriate that he should be accompanying the silvery tones of Norena’s Juliette. A very stylish singer, he does not have a huge voice and I could imagine the role being sung more ardently, in a more Mediterranean manner. Norena and Hackett combine beautifully to give us some wonderfully flexible performances of the duets for which the opera is famous. But they do seem to be a little influenced by the cool winds of the North rather the warm breezes of the South though, faced with such stylishly singing (and stylish French too), some people might think this just a quibble.

The supporting cast includes some near legendary singers. Angelo Bada, who plays Tybalt, had come over from Italy in 1908 and was nearly 60 when the recording was made. Mercutio is played by Giuseppe de Luca, a fine all-round baritone who had sung at the Met since 1915. He too was approaching 60 at the time of the recording, and sadly I must admit that his version of Mercutio’s Ballad of Queen Mab, is rather effortful. Friar Lawrence is played by Leon Rothier. A bass who had been at the Met since 1910, he was just over 60 (which is perhaps acceptable for Friar Lawrence). He is a stylish singer and his Act III scene with the two lovers is one of the highlights of the set.

Gladys Swarthout gives a shapely account of her aria which leads into the episode which ends with Romeo being banished. Notwithstanding some fine solo contributions, this crucial dramatic scene never quite manages to evoke the youthful passions so necessary to articulate this drama. Hackett’s Romeo is at a slight disadvantage here, as he lacks that last ounce of power to make his elegant tenor dominate the ensembles.

The conductor, Louis Hasselmans, was a Frenchman of Belgian extraction. He was actually a close friend and colleague of Fauré (he conducted the first Paris performance of Fauré’s ‘Pénélope’). He conducted at the Met for 15 seasons doing in total 378 performances of 14 French operas. His ‘Roméo et Juliette’ is not necessarily the last word in style, but he produces a notable performance with a good ear for the flexibility necessary to make this rather declamatory piece work.

The sound does take a bit of getting used to. Ward Marston has done an amazing job of re-mastering the recording which was originally taken off air from a live broadcast. Inevitably, there is still quite a bit of surface noise and distortion. In addition, we have the announcer’s on-air narrations between the scenes. These are striking period pieces in themselves, but hardly make the opera ideal listening.

This is certainly not a recording with which to begin an exploration of this lovely opera. But, recorded when the Met could still be thought of as a French house, this rare survival gives us a glimpse of a performance style now almost completely lost.

Robert Hugill

See also review by Robert Farr


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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