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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Leopold STOKOWSKI conducts scenes from Samson and Dalila and Eugene Onegin
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Samson et Dalila, (Dalila, Risé Stevens, (Mezzo); Samson, Jan Peerce, (ten); High Priest, Robert Merrill, (bar)
Act 1 scene 1 Arrêtez ô mes frères!
Act 1 scene 6 Printemps qui commence
Act 2 scene 1 Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!
Act 2 scene 2 La victoire facile
Act 2 scene 2 Se pourrait-il?
Act 2 scene 3 Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix
Act 3 scene 1 Vois ma misère
Act 3 scene 2 Bacchanale
Act 3 scene 3 Gloire à Dagon
The Robert Shaw Chorale. The NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Recorded September 1954. New York
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Eugene Onegin, Tatiana, Licia Albanese, (sop)
Act 1 scene 2. Tatiana’a Letter Scene
Leopold Stokowski Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski
Recorded February 1951. New York
Reissued with the sponsorship of The Leopold Stokowski Society
CALA CACD0540 [76.35]

 

This is the second Stokowski Society operatic recording issued by Cala to come my way. In the first, extended scenes from Boris Godunov, and an orchestral arrangement of Act 3 of Parsifal, I noted that the English-born Stokowski (1882-1977) was not renowned for his work in the opera pit. Despite that I found his conducting of Rimsky-Korsakov’s refulgent orchestration of Mussorgsky’s original, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s singing, thoroughly recommendable. ( LINK) On the present disc Stokowski chooses composers who, whilst better known for their orchestral compositions, also composed several operas. Saint-Saëns’ works include twelve operas of which Samson et Dalila (the disc cover and text uses the English form ‘Delilah’) of 1877 is the only outstanding example which is played today. Of Tchaikovsky’s nine completed operas, Eugene Onegin (1879) and The Queen of Spades (1890) (LINK) have maintained a place in the repertoire. Outside Russia The Maid of Orleans (1881) and Yolanta (1892) also make occasional appearances. Of Tchaikovsky’s other operas several are available in recordings derived from performances in Russia.

The Samson and Dalila extracts on this disc are derived from RCA copy-master-tapes whilst the Tchaikovsky is from an HMV LP. In both cases the sound is of a very acceptable standard. The booklet gives all words with English translation. I am, however, more equivocal regarding the conducting and the singing. The role of Samson requires a heroic tenor voice. Jan Peerce, a stalwart of the Met in the lyric tenor repertoire, never sang the role of Samson on stage. Whilst his voice has some heft he lacks the weight of tonal colour the role ideally requires and he sounds stretched at times (trs. 1 and 7). Robert Merrill has the necessary weight of tone for the High Priest but his singing lacks expressive nuance and his French is questionable (tr. 4). Risë Stevens sang Dalila at the Met in 1940, 1941, 1953 and finally in1958. An admired Carmen her French is far superior to that of her compatriots. She brings a wealth of stage experience in the role to Dalila’s two great solos in the opera, Printemps qui commence and Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse! (trs. 2 and 3) and the duet with Samson Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix where Peerce phrases well and is suitably ardent (tr. 6). Whilst Risë Stevens’ lower register isn’t as refulgent as that of Rita Gorr on the 1962 stereo recording (EMI) or Olga Borodina on the more recent Erato issue, her smooth legato, sensuous phrasing and characterisation shine through. Stevens’ understanding of her role is not matched by Stokowski’s conducting which is neither illuminating or vibrant with a rather flaccid Bacchanale (tr. 8).

The Tchaikovsky fares somewhat better in the conducting stakes if not the singing. Stokowski shapes the composer’s phrases and supports his singer, something not all predominantly orchestral conductors do. The Italian-born Licia Albanese is just not into the role. I was not surprised to read, in the brief booklet note, that she had never sung the role before this recording and learnt the Russian for it.

When first issued these performances were well received. Since that time many recordings of the complete works, and recitals, have placed them in more realistic perspective. Stokowski enthusiasts will welcome this perspective and rare examples of his conducting in this repertoire. Others more interested in the contents should look elsewhere.

Robert J Farr



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