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Royal Opera Gala
Various soloists and conductors
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, UK, June 1958 (CD 2: 5-9, 11); May 1960 (CD 2:10); July 1967 (CD 1:2); February 1968 (CD 1:12, CD 2:1-4); March 1968 (CD 1:1, 3-5, 7, 8, 11); May 1968 (CD 1:9); June 1968 (CD 1:6); July 1968 (CD 1:10)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0952 [79:46 + 79:40]
Experience Classicsonline

Royal Opera Gala
CD 1 [79:46]
Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
1. Prelude to Act I
Sir Georg Solti
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 - 1848)
La Fille du Régiment
2. Par le rang … Salut à la France [9:00]
Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Richard Bonynge
Hector BERLIOZ (1803 - 1869)
Les Troyens
3. Je vais mourir [6:55]
Josephine Veasey (mezzo)
Rafael Kubelik
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 - 1881)
Boris Godunov
4. Da zdrastvstvuet Tsar Boris … Skorbit dusha! [9:42]
Joseph Rouleau (bass); John Lanigan (tenor)
Sir Edward Downes
Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Der Rosenkavalier
5. Da … Herr Kavalier! [4:59]
Yvonne Minton (mezzo); Michael Langdon (bass)
Sir Georg Solti
6. Allein! Weh, ganz allein! [10:44]
Amy Shuard (soprano)
Sir Edward Downes
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
A Midsummer Night's Dream
7. Helena! Hermia! Demetrius! Lysander! [5:27]
Delme Bryn-Jones (baritone); Kenneth McDonald (tenor); Elizabeth Robson (soprano); Anne Howells (soprano)
Sir Georg Solti
Billy Budd
8. O beauty, handsomeness, goodness [5:59]
Forbes Robinson (bass)
Sir Georg Solti
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905 - 1998)
King Priam
9. O rich soiled land [5:46]
Richard Lewis (tenor)
John Williams (guitar)
Sir William WALTON (1902 - 1983)
Troilus and Cressida
10. How can I sleep? [6:00]
Marie Collier (soprano); Sir Peter Pears (tenor)
Sir William Walton
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Le nozze di Figaro
11. Dove sono [6:50]
Joan Carlyle (soprano)
Sir Georg Solti
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)
La bohème
12. Addio, dolce scegliare [5:21]
Elizabeth Vaughan (soprano); Maria Pellegrini (soprano); Jean Bonhomme (tenor); Delme Bryn-Jones (baritone)
Sir Edward Downes
CD 2 [79:40]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
1. Fuoco di gioia … Inaffia l'ugola [7:50]
Tito Gobbi (baritone); John Lanigan (tenor); John Dobson (tenor)
Sir Georg Solti
2. Eh! Taverniere … Mondo ladro [6:37]
Sir Geraint Evans (baritone)
Sir Edward Downes
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
3. Mir ist so wunderbar [5:03]
Elizabeth Robson (soprano); Dame Gwyneth Jones (soprano); John Dobson (tenor); David Kelly (bass)
Sir Georg Solti
Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Das Rheingold
4. Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge [5:28]
David Ward (bass)
Reginald Goodall
Giuseppe VERDI
La traviata
5. Prelude Act I [3:26]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 - 1868)
L'italiana in Algeri
6. Overture [7:17]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 - 1880)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann
7. Entr'acte (Barcarolle) [3:58]
Giuseppe VERDI
La traviata
8. Prelude Act III [3:27]
Gioacchino ROSSINI
9. Overture [11:16]
Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893)
10. Ballet Music [15:51]
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 - 1886)
La Gioconda
11. Dance of the Hours [8:44]
5-11: Sir Georg Solti
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, UK, June 1958 (CD 2: 5-9, 11); May 1960 (CD 2:10); July 1967 (CD 1:2); February 1968 (CD 1:12, CD 2:1-4); March 1968 (CD 1:1, 3-5, 7, 8, 11); May 1968 (CD 1:9); June 1968 (CD 1:6); July 1968 (CD 1:10)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0952 [79:46 + 79:40]

'This Covent Garden Anniversary Album, as it was originally called in its LP incarnation, was created to mark the company's entry into its third decade' writes Anthony Clarke in his liner notes to this issue. It made me first wonder what was the subject of the anniversary: the opera company or the record company? But the Covent Garden Opera was started in the 18th century and Decca started in the 1920s. However, a search on Wikipedia told me that 'the Royal Opera is London's and the United Kingdom's most famous and most wealthy opera company, which, as the Covent Garden Opera Company, began in 1946.' So that's the answer. At the same time I learnt that Karl Rankl was its first Music Director (1946 - 1951), Rafael Kubelik held the post 1955 - 1958 and from 1961 to 1971 Georg Solti was at the helm. Edward Downes began his association with the company in 1952 as assistant conductor to Kubelik and remained for seventeen years/ Thus it's appropriate that those three are represented on these recordings, Kubelik only in one number, from Berlioz's Les Troyens, but this was on the other hand his greatest success in the house. Reginald Goodall also conducted a lot there and was Rankl's assistant in the late 1940s.

Anthony Clarke stresses in his notes that during the period represented here Covent Garden was an ensemble company with lots of homegrown singers as well as 'Colonial' girls and boys: singers from Australia who made Covent Garden their home. We need only mention Joan Sutherland and Yvonne Minton. The first named's recording of the Salut à la France is the only item not recorded specifically for this album. It was culled from the complete recording of La fille du Régiment, made in 1967. All the other vocal items, plus the Carmen prelude, were recorded from February to July 1968 in Kingsway Hall which lends a sonic consistency to the album. And it should be pointed out that the quality of the sound is mostly superb, apart from some overload distortion in a few places. There is depth and clarity and dynamic width throughout and, most amazing of all, the orchestral items that fill out the second CD were recorded in 1958 and 1960. One could believe they were recorded last year. The chorus and orchestra are also magnificent. The infectious playing of the Carmen prelude sets the tone for the whole programme and the chorus excel in the Coronation scene from Boris Godunov and a lively Fuoco di gioia in the first act of Otello.

Some ensemble scenes are, rightly, included. The quartet from early in act III of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the loveliest scenes in this enchanting opera with its outdoor atmosphere. In the quartet finale from La bohème, Elizabeth Vaughan is a strong Musetta opposite Jean Bonhomme's rather weak Rodolfo, while the Fidelio quartet is more evenly balanced, but is marred by some distortion. The same goes for La fille du Régiment, where Sutherland is technically stupendous with perfect trill and effortless top notes, but the occluded enunciation …! Quite different is Josephine Veasey in Dido's Je vais mourir from Les Troyens, singing magnificently with silvery tone. She also took the part in Colin Davis's pioneering first complete recording of the opera for Philips shortly after this. The aria is among the most beautiful ever written.

Canadian-born Joseph Rouleau had a long career at Covent Garden, singing many of the great bass roles. I saw him as the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, almost 25 years ago, a production that is also available on DVD. Seventeen years earlier he was steadier and presents a beautiful bel canto Boris Godunov. Michael Langdon is also a bit scaled down compared to many performers of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, and it isn't unbecoming. Yvonne Minton's Annina twists him round her little finger with seductive tones. The following year she recorded a complete Rosenkavalier in Vienna - also with Solti - but then she was Octavian, and very good too. Rosenkavalier and Elektra are separated in time only by two years but musically they are worlds apart. The bleak, hard-hitting Elektra is one of the most horrifying operas, also for the almost super-human demands Strauss calls for. Amy Shuard's reading of the final scene is deeply involved and vocally among the best. Inge Borkh's recording with Fritz Reiner for RCA of excerpts from Elektra and Salome, may be even more spine-chilling and I have a weakness for Birgit Nilsson as well.

In British repertoire a third stalwart in the bass department, Forbes Robinson gives a nuanced reading of Claggart's aria O beauty, handsomeness, goodness. On Britten's own recording it was Michael Langdon who sang the part. Richard Lewis's plaintive tone is well suited to O rich soiled land from King Priam and John Williams accompanies discreetly and accurately. Marie Collier sings beautifully in the excerpt from Troilus and Cressida and we also get a glimpse of Peter Pears's characteristic tone - a different plaintiveness from that of Richard Lewis.

Joan Carlyle is best remembered today, I think, for her Nedda in Karajan's Pagliacci for DG, but she was obviously a fine Mozartean too and her Dove sono is a fine portrayal of the Countess's nobility, solitude and longing.

So far we have met regular members of the ensemble. On the first track of CD 2 a famous guest appears: Tito Gobbi as the malevolent Iago in Otello. Always a superb actor he delineates the character almost visually and he is in exceptionally fine voice. He was also a great Falstaff but Covent Garden's own Geraint Evans was just as accomplished and his palette of vocal colours is almost richer than Gobbi's. No wonder the Italians regarded him as their own.

After the Fidelio quartet that I have already mentioned we hear a fourth great home-bred bass, David Ward as a sonorous and warm Wotan. The sometimes wilful Reginald Goodall builds up an impressive orchestral climax, not as blatantly punchy as Solti, rather subdued and architectural.

The bonus tracks, a full LP plus nearly sixteen minutes of gorgeous ballet music from Faust, conducted with flair and customary precision by Solti, adds to the value of this issue. Not remembering hearing these recordings before it was a surprise to have Solti in two Rossini overtures. I can see before me Solti smiling joyously during the L'italiana in Algeri overture, while he is grandiose in Semiramide. I know that some pundits frown at the sweet harmonies and seductive melodies of the Faust ballet but one has to be a sourpuss indeed not to enjoy the rhythmic and melodic riches, especially when played like this - and Solti doesn't sugar them unduly.

Lots of riches on these two well-filled discs. Maybe the appeal is greatest for those who went to Covent Garden forty years and more ago and saw and heard all these artists in the flesh, but even I who started going regularly to London far too late to have heard more than a handful of them still found a lot to enjoy. 

Göran Forsling


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