have written mezzo in the heading, because the
record company says so. In reality Eileen Farrell was
a soprano – the
repertoire on this disc is firmly in the soprano department – even
though late in the career she sang in a lower range,
notably when she recorded The Sound of Music for Telarc,
where she was Mother Abbess, Her singing of Climb
Mountain still gives me goose pimples for her warmth
and intensity. But that was in December 1987 and she was
67. She had indeed a long career: born in Connecticut in
1920 she moved to New York in 1939 and within months had
a job in the chorus of CBS Radio. Only a few months later
she was regarded as too loud for the chorus and got a programme
of her own, Eileen Farrell sings. From then
on she was busy in a wide range of repertoire from opera
to popular songs. She even had a bestseller in I’ve
got a right to sing the blues and Over the rainbow.
She filmed with Louis Armstrong and made herself a name
as an opera singer as Marie in Wozzeck (1950).
It was another decade before she had her belated debut
the Metropolitan in 1960, singing Gluck’s Alceste. This
disc, recorded a year prior to this debut is a worthy
memento of that occasion since an aria from that opera
Her Met career lasted only five years but she appeared
as guest in Europe and the US and she recorded extensively.
In her recorded legacy there is another opera recital
with a typically wide scope of repertoire (Gluck, Weber,
Ponchielli, Tchaikovsky, Massenet, Debussy and Menotti – I
have it on a Seraphim LP in mono and there is no information
about recording dates). She made only one complete opera
recording, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, where she
was Elisabetta against Beverly Sills in the title role.
present offering in Sony Classical’s new Great Performances series
is a pairing of two LPs, one of them an all-Puccini recital,
the cover of which now adorns the CD booklet. On the
LP cover the conductor’s name is spelled ‘Rudolf’; in the
booklet and on the back of the jewel-case it is ‘Rudolph’.
Moving freely between genres it comes as no surprise
to find her in such a variety of roles, from O mio babbino
caro (Gianni Schicchi) - light, lyrical, suave and
lovingly phrased – to Turandot’s In questa reggia.
Initially she still sounds like a lyrical soprano. Listen
to her in Liù’s aria. “This is no icy princess”, one thinks
but then her tone gradually hardens, the steel gleams through.
When she comes to the big climax her fortissimo is hefty
enough to cause some distortion. It is a glorious reading.
I recall an RCA LP from about the same time where she,
with the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch, sang Isolde’s
Love Death just as stunningly. In between these extremes – Lauretta
and Turandot – she goes through most of Puccini’s great
female portraits and manages to put a stamp of personality
on most of them. Her Musetta is glittering and teasing,
her Mimi is warm, though sad in the second aria, her
Tosca is proud and in Vissi d’arte broken-hearted. Though
her Butterfly can hardly be mistaken for a teenage girl
it is still a youthful sound.
The ‘fillers’ further
enhance the value of the disc with an exquisitely beautiful Alceste aria,
with high-strung drama in the Beethoven pieces, where she
in Ah perfido! contrasts inward self-pity with
vengeful wrath. Her readings of these two testing pieces
can stand on their own against almost any other latter
day soprano. The two Freischütz arias bring the
recital to a warm conclusion, delicate, beautiful.
Rudolf was an experienced operatic conductor and he is
lenient to the soprano when needed – the wilful Musetta
gets her rubatos – but otherwise he paces the music admirably.
with other discs from the same period in this series
the stereo image is very wide, the Steinway in the introduction
to Doretta’s dream booming right out from the left hand
speaker. The instrumental balance is good though CBS
produced more sophisticated sound a few years later.
None of this
need deter anyone from acquiring this disc with one of
the truly great sopranos of the last fifty or so years.