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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 – 1842)
Medea (1797) (sung in German)
Tomislav Neralic (bass) – Creonte, Re di Corinto; Stina-Britta Melander (soprano) – Glauce, Figlia di Creonte; Ludwig Suthaus (tenor) – Giasone, condottiero degli Argonauti; Inge Borkh (soprano) – Medea, sposa di Giasone; Sieglinde Wagner (mezzo) – Neris, ancella di Medea; Leonore Kirschstein (soprano) – Prima Ancella; Ursula Gust (mezzo) – Seconda Ancella; Roland Kunz (baritone) – Un capo; Anton Metternich (bass) – Un capo delle guardia del Re
Orchestra and Chorus of the Berlin State Opera/Vittorio Gui
Live recording from the State Opera, 7 October 1958
Bonus Tracks
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)

Vier letzte Lieder (1849)
Inge Borkh (soprano)
Orchestre Symphonique de Vichy/Ferdinand Leitner
No venue and recording date given
PONTO PO-1010 [70:29 + 73:37]


Luigi Cherubini was Italian by birth but spent most of his life in Paris. He was highly regarded during his lifetime. Beethoven counted him as the greatest; next to himself, of course. He composed in most genres and his church music has been revived in recent years, not least thanks to Riccardo Muti’s recordings for EMI. Of his many operas, Medea, or Medée as it was in French, may be his best work. At least it is the one that is performed now and then, even though it has never been fully established as a standard. One reason may be that it isn’t very dramatic or theatrical; much of the music is closer to oratorio style. It was originally composed as an opéra-comique - with spoken dialogue. The composer himself made changes and quite extensive cuts for further productions. When it was performed in Frankfurt in 1855, Franz Paul Lachner changed it further and composed recitatives in a Wagnerian style. It is in this format that it has been performed until quite recently but normally in an Italian translation of the German libretto. During the 20th century it was practically unheard until Maria Callas dug it out for performances in May 1953 during the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and later the same year at La Scala. There exists a recording from La Scala in 1955 with Bernstein conducting. A few years later Callas made a studio recording with Serafin. There are a couple of later recordings: Decca set it down in 1967 with the young Gwyneth Jones in the title role and Pilar Lorengar, Fiorenza Cossotto and Bruno Prevedi in other roles. Lamberto Gardelli conducted and the same conductor also lead a Hungaroton recording with Sylvia Sass as Medea and Veriano Luchetti as Jason. The rest is silence.

The story is set in ancient Greece. Jason (Giasone) has had an affair with the sorceress Medea which resulted in two children. Then he abandons her to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creonte, King of Corinth. The first act takes place on the eve of the wedding. Medea appears and claims Jason. Creonte orders her to leave Corinth within a day. The children will stay in Corinth. In the second act she tries in vain to get Jason back but is promised that she will see the children one last time before she leaves. As revenge she sends a poisoned robe to Glauce, who dies in the third act, whereupon she also kills the children and sets fire to the temple. Not for the faint-hearted!

The present version was recorded at the opening performance of the new production at the Berlin State Opera. It is sung in German. What makes it of special interest is the conducting of Vittorio Gui, who is sadly under-represented on records. Last year I reviewed his Aida very favourably. It was made for Cetra in 1950 ( see review). Here his conducting is also a great asset, especially interesting since it was he who conducted the Callas performances in Florence. The sound is murky but quite detailed. Gui grabs every opportunity to whip up the tension, which isn’t that easy in this opera. For all its high-strung drama it is curiously static for long stretches. The overture is a great piece of orchestral writing, much more symphonic than his contemporaries and Gui gives it an almost frantic reading. The short orchestral opening to act II is again fast and rhythmically alert. Gui makes a powerful build-up of tension in the arc-shaped introduction to act III. The dramatic final scene again shows Gui’s grip of the situation, worthy of any horror movie with the chorus yelling in panic. Elsewhere he does what he can to keep the tension boiling and is well supported by the State Opera orchestra. The chorus under the strain of such consistent intensity does not sing well all of the time. There are too many shrill and wobbly sopranos.

The other participant of special interest is the likewise under-recorded Inge Borkh. On commercial records she made Turandot for Decca and Elektra for DG with Karl Böhm. She also sang Orff’s Antigonae for DG under Leitner but the real classic among her recordings is the RCA Red Seal disc with scenes from Salome and Elektra conducted by Fritz Reiner. This was recently reissued in SACD sound, a disc which drew an enthusiastic review not long ago (see review).

The present recordings were made just a couple of years before the Berlin performance. By then Borkh had lost a deal of her assurance and vocal potency. Maybe the recording is partly to blame but she sounds so much thinner and sometimes unsteady. To begin with the voice is also quite occluded and in the aria Dei tuoi figli (CD1 track 14) the well-known music from this opera, she seemingly fights a losing battle with the high tessitura. It may have sounded better on location. Seeing this actress-turned-singer as well as hearing her was probably something different. Anyway there are ovations from the audience which I felt reluctant to join. Interestingly enough she seems to find her true form after the applause and sings the rest of the act with much more confidence and a glorious ring, approaching the sound I remembered from the Strauss disc. Beauty of tone is the first attribute that comes to mind when talking of high dramatic sopranos and Ms Borkh’s voice is the musical equivalent of a welding flame, blazing through the orchestra with white intensity. The almost tactile identification on the Strauss disc is just as tangible here. One must admire her stamina: there are no signs of fatigue even at the very end. Still I have mixed feelings about her. She doesn’t always feel comfortable with the part, and maybe she shouldn’t. Callas on her studio recording isn’t comfortable either and by that time she had lost much of the - relative - purity of her tone. Gwyneth Jones in 1967 was still a lyric soprano or at best lirico spinto, more at home in Desdemona; she is also over-powered by the part. I haven’t heard Sylvia Sass, but she was also more lyrical. Maybe Birgit Nilsson could have been a Medea of one’s dreams?

The best singing in the whole opera is delivered by Stina-Britta Melander, who sings Glauce with crystal clear voice and perfect coloratura. Her aria O Amore, vieni a me! (CD1 track 3) is as good a version as any and she needs not fear competition from either Renata Scotto or Pilar Lorengar. Interested readers should be reminded of the retrospective 2 CD set with her "From 14 to 80" which I reviewed a few months ago (see review). As Neris, Sieglinde Wagner turns in a fine interpretation, the only problem being that she has a timbre that is sometimes very similar to Borkh’s, although Wagner is of course a mezzo. Her act II aria with the beautiful cello solo Solo un pianto con te versare (CD2 track 2) is warmly and beautifully sung. The completely unknown Tomislav Neralic, more baritone than bass, sings Creonte’s part powerfully and expressively. Sadly Ludwig Suthaus, legendary heldentenor, famous for his Tristan and Siegmund for Furtwängler, is long past his best and although there are glimpses of what he once was, much of his singing is frankly painful to hear.

The bonus tracks, Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, add very little to the picture of Inge Borkh. Certainly it does not upset the prevailing version hierarchy of this oft-recorded cycle. For my money it is Lisa Della Casa who is the reigning queen, closely followed by Schwarzkopf - her first recording, due for re-release on Naxos. Among more recent versions Soile Isokoski and Felicity Lott have much to recommend them. What Inge Borkh lacks, first and foremost, is warmth. Only in the last song, Im Abendrot, does she feel quite at ease but here and elsewhere there is too much strain and unsteadiness. The sound is quite dim but the orchestra is seemingly good and the important instrumental solos are well taken. By the way she sings the songs in the published order, not the order that Flagstad and Furtwängler chose at the premiere in 1950, which also is the chosen order for Della Casa and Lott.

As for a recommended recording of Medea I am torn, having lived with the Callas version for many years and learnt to accept the warts. The Gardelli Decca version may be a safer bet but it is more small-scale. As for his later Hungaroton set, I see in Peter Gammond’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Recorded Opera (Salamander Books, 1979) that it is marked with a star, indicating a specially merited recording. Gui’s version is interesting for the maestro’s white heat conducting, for an intense but flawed reading of the title part and for good singing in some of the secondary parts. There is an informative essay on the opera and on Inge Borkh’s career.

Göran Forsling

Footnote

"Städtische Oper Berlin" as it was then (approx. "The Berlin Municipal
Opera"), later renamed "Deutsche Oper Berlin" opened soon after WW2 and
was led until 1947 by bass-baritone Michael Bohnen and then by Heinz
Tietjen and Carl Ebert (until 1961). Until autumn 1961 they played in
"Teater des Westens" in Kantstrasse and from then in the new opera house
in Bismarckstrasse under the present name. This means that this Medea was
recorded in "Teater des Westens".

It should not be confused with Deutsche Staatsoper in Unter den Linden,
which was in the DDR part of Berlin, where also Komische Oper, founded by
Walter Felsenstein, was located.

We would like to thank Mr John Johnston for raising this on the MusicWeb Bulletin Board.


 

 



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