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Verismo Arias & Duets
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
1. Pagliacci: Recitar!...Vesti la giubba [3:30]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
2. Cavalleria rusticana: Mamma, quel vino è generoso* [3:19]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
3. Andrea Chénier: Colpito qui m’avete … Un dì all’azzura spazio* [4:30]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
4. Tosca: Recondita armonia* [2:26]
5. Tosca: E lucevan le stele [2:26]
6. Turandot: Non piangere Liù* [2:01]
7. Turandot: Nessun dorma!* [2:37]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
8. Aida: Guardie! Radames qui venga [7:15]
9. Otello: Già nella notte densa [9:58]
Georges BIZET (1835-1875)
10. Carmen: Je vais danser en votre honneur [12:32]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
11. Samson et Dalila: Un dieu plus puissant que le tien [14:40]
James McCracken (tenor); Sandra Warfield (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Lamberto Gardelli (tracks 1-7)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Edward Downes (tracks 8-11)
rec. August 1964, Kingsway Hall, London (duets); August 1967, Accademia di Santa Cecilia (arias)
*First release on Decca CD
ADD stereo
DECCA ELOQUENCE 482 0284 [65:51]

This album comprises of a compilation from two recording sessions of duets recorded in London by James McCracken and his wife, Sandra Warfield in 1964, and of five arias he recorded three years later in Rome as an adjunct to his complete recording of “Pagliacci”, released here for the first time on CD. Everything in this Eloquence release finds him in finest voice; he was never the subtlest artist and he has a few vocal mannerisms which some find irksome, but the sheer heft, passion and commitment of his singing seem newly striking after a lapse of fifty years and the continuing dearth of his vocal type: a voluminous, somewhat tight, metallic tenor capable of thrilling projection and ringing top notes.

McCracken’s relentlessly hectic delivery of text runs the risk of sounding hammy on record; lots of sobs, gasps and glottal interruptions breaking the line are very “old school” and will undoubtedly irritate listeners who prefer a more restrained, classical style, even in verismo arias. McCracken is almost invariably full on and gung-ho, only occasionally softening his tone and singing piano. An unfortunate example of that occurs at the beginning of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” and perhaps explains why he did not often resort to attempting that peculiar kind of mixed falsetto. At times his voice can sound “ingolato”, too, yet his top B flats on “Je t’aime” in the “Samson et Dalila” duet and on “Trahison!” at its conclusion are really splendid. Perhaps it was the extreme individuality of his timbre which failed to engage Met General manager Rudolf Bing’s ear and caused the McCrackens to try their luck in Europe before he returned in triumph to the Met in 1963 to sing Otello – a role he eventually sang over 200 times. His tone is not especially warm or Italianate and always sounds as if it is being produced under a high degree of tension but it has plenty of “face” and the vocal excitement he generates cannot be denied. The dramatic impact of his singing is heightened by his very open, Italianate diction, even if subtleties are few.

So it is all the more of a pity that his wife and partner, Sandra Warfield, cannot match him in vocal artistry; in truth, her contribution to the duets constitutes something of a liability. I had previously encountered her Marcellina as the weakest link in Erich Leinsdorf’s otherwise highly recommendable recording of “Le nozze di Figaro” and I am afraid that nothing she does here causes me to reassess her standing. She simply hasn’t the quality of voice to convey the voluptuous sensuality of femmes fatales such as Amneris, Carmen and Dalila; for that you need singers of the calibre of Callas, Verrett and Dominguez, with whom she cannot compete, emerging as more of a harridan than a seductress. Her tone is frequently coarse, her top notes hollow and her lower register weak and hoarse. Throughout the extended Act II excerpt from “Carmen”, technical frailties in her singing abound, such as in the blurred articulation of Carmen’s “la-la-las”, and some painful lapses in intonation in the “Otello” duet combined with an absence of the poised purity of tone needed to carry off the role successfully mean that her Desdemona is no more successful: her phrasing is gusty, the top G of “Amen risponda” tremolo-ridden and “Tarda è la notte” thin and unsteady.

The stereo sound here is ideally warm, detailed and “cushioned” with excellent balance between the orchestra and the voices, although there is an ugly splice at 2’49” in the “Carmen” excerpt where the acoustic changes dramatically. Despite some dodgy tuning in the orchestra just after “Guardie! Radames qui venga”, the playing is otherwise red-blooded and top rate, as is the direction of both conductors, as you might expect given their pedigree. I wonder why no-one could be found to sing Mamma Lucia’s few phrases in the “Cavalleria “ aria, which finds Turiddu answering a non-existent question with “Oh! nulla”, but let that pass.

This is valuable as a souvenir of a great American tenor in his prime, making it all the more unfortunate that McCracken is not more worthily partnered.

Ralph Moore



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