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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
La Navarraise (1894) [37:44]
Lucia Popp (soprano): Anita; Alain Vanzo (tenor): Araquil; Vincenzo Sardinero (baritone): Garrido; Gérard Souzay (baritone): Remigio; Claude Meloni (baritone): Bustamente; Michel Sénéchal (tenor): Ramon
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio de Almeida
rec. 1975, EMI Studios, London. ADD
SONY CLASSICAL 19075811262 [37:44]

Massenet was nothing if not versatile and always kept a weather eye out for what the public wanted. This is his loudest and most martial opera, a million miles from “Manon” and squarely in the then newly popular verismo mode, undeniably formulaic but rip-roaring good entertainment. Drum rolls, brass fanfares and gunshots make it the most militaristic of his many operas and the melodramatic story, based on the French play “La cigarette” is decidedly Grand Guignol. It is stuffed with operatic clichés, including the father who won’t permit his son’s marriage to a poor girl without a dowry, and it rarely lets up in intensity, except for the gentle entr’acte and a melancholy aria for the tenor, but there is never a dull moment. There isn’t much in the way of memorable melody beyond variations on one ominous, insistent and oft-repeated, main theme but it builds swiftly over a mere forty minutes to another blood-curdling cliché, the heroine driven mad by grief.

Sony gives the recording date as March 1975 and tout it as the “First Complete Recording of the Opera”, but RCA recorded their own competition less than four months later with an arguably starrier, international cast, headed by the trio of Marilyn Horne, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. They roll their r’s ferociously in comparison to the more refined and Gallic roster here, although Horne lightens her voice well and does not sound out of place as a young woman spunky enough to infiltrate the Carlist camp and stab the leader to death. Lucia Popp’s vibrant, shimmering soprano is lighter and slenderer than Horne’s mezzo, but there is no lack of power. She is arguably more effective than Horne in suggesting right from the start Anita’s instability and hysteria, as Horne’s plusher tone, with a wider vibrato is a more “comfortable” sound. On the other hand, Horne has that dark lower register to enhance her characterisation; I like both, different though they be.

It is a pleasure to hear the grainy tenor of the under-rated Alain Vanzo, obviously more comfortable and idiomatic than Domingo in French, but the young Domingo’s warm, sappy sound is inherently appealing and his soft singing at the end of his brief but impassioned arioso is lovely. Almeida has the advantage of three more native Frenchmen in the cast: Gérard Souzay in a rare operatic appearance in the small role of Remigio, the instantly recognisable Michel Sénéchal as the Captain and Claude Meloni as Bustamente. Spanish baritone Vicente Sardinero, is firm and attractive as Garrido, almost as good as Milnes, if not quite as glamorous of timbre, and singing in good French. Both Sénéchal and Ryland Davies make distinctive contributions as the Captain in their respective recordings.

As such, this first recording is arguably more authentic, but another big difference resides in the pace of the conducting: Almeida is a full ten minutes faster than Henry Lewis, whose direction some find positively sluggish, although I prefer the dreamier, more leisurely pace he adopts in the Nocturne, the one calm interlude in this hectic work, and am not otherwise conscious of proceedings dragging, so, again, am happy with both recordings. Gabriel Bacquier for RCA rather barks his way through the cameo role of the sergeant Bustamente in the rumbustious drinking song and the mellifluous Meloni for Sony is preferable to my ears, but it’s not supposed to be a refined episode. Almeida again takes that passage much faster than Lewis, in a manner rather breathless for a drinking song. The castanets and pizzicato strings imitating the strumming of a guitar are a delight.

It is amusing that in an opera so little recorded, the same orchestra, the LSO, was employed for both sessions in London in 1975. This remastered recording, never before issued on CD, sounds considerably fuller than my twenty-year-old CD of the RCA recording. Massenet junkies will want to own both but if only one is required, the fact that the older RCA CD comes with a slipcase and a French-English libretto could be a clincher for many; the new Sony has us make do with a synopsis.

Ralph Moore

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