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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Le Prophète
Jean - John Osborn
Fides - Marianne Cornetti
Berthe - Lynette Tapia
Jonas - Albrecht Kludszuweit
Mathisen - Pierre Doyen
Zacharie - Tijl Faveyts
Graf von Oberthal - Karel Martin Ludvik
Aalto Theatre Opera Chorus
Essener Philharmonic/Giuliano Carella
rec. live, Aalto-Musiktheater Essen, Germany, April-May 2017
OEHMS OC971 [3 CDs: 214:49]

This recording is only the second official recording of Le Prophète (it can’t quite be called a studio recording as it was recorded over several live performances), the previous one under Henry Lewis having been made over 40 years ago. It also uses the text of the 2010 critical edition of the score, so it is an important set. Much is made in the booklet of the edition used, but in all honesty the differences are fairly small, as is suggested by the fact that it is less than 15 minutes longer than the Lewis recording. There is a “Prière” for Jean at the end of Act 3 lasting about four minutes and a short death scene (it is too brief and musically fragmentary to be called an aria) for Berthe, but little else of real significance. The essay in the booklet also says, regarding cuts made before the 1849 premiere to the role of Jean, that “Some of these cuts were included in this recording, thus making them premiere recordings” implying that others were not, so it would appear that it is not actually a complete recording of the new edition; certainly there is a chorus at the start of Act 5 which is in the Lewis recording but not in this new one. Whatever its shortcomings, we must certainly applaud the Aalten-Musiktheater in Essen for putting on these performances.

The problem for this set is the comparison with the Lewis recording, which has recently been re-issued at budget price. The opera is quite unusual in that there are only three main roles, and in two of the three the Lewis recording is markedly better. Lynette Tapia is up against Renata Scotto as Berthe. Scotto was not a singer particularly associated with this repertoire, but she sings beautifully. Tapia can have a rather screechy, shallow timbre and the voice sometimes sounds very much “in the throat”, especially on loud high notes. Her fioritura is quite well-defined and accurate, and her enunciation is good. She can be very effective in quieter, reflective parts such as “Pour gardez à ton fils” in Act 4, but is not really up to the more strenuous ones.
Marianne Cornetti has the even greater disadvantage of having to compete with Marilyn Horne. Cornetti’s is a perfectly reasonable voice, and she is also at her best in the less vocally demanding parts such as Act 4’s “Donnez pour une pauvre âme” which she sings with sensitivity and some nice dynamic shading. However her tuning can be approximate, her high notes regularly being just under the note to a rather distressing extent, for example in “Ah ma fille, ô Judith nouvelle” in Act 4 and “Comme un éclair précipité” (the cabaletta to “O prêtre de Baal”) in Act 5. Her fioritura is similarly vague both in pitch and articulation. For me, even more annoying is her very poor enunciation of the text, which is at times utterly incomprehensible. Several times I needed to look away from the libretto to make a note about some aspect of the performance, but on going back to it I simply could not find where she had got to - she was singing little more than a set of vague vowel sounds. Marilyn Horne has an unusual vocal timbre to which not everyone responds favourably, but the technical and dramatic accomplishment of her singing, the sheer “size” of her performance, knocks Cornetti out of the ball park.

The singer who is not a simple “also ran” is John Osborne as the eponymous Prophet, Jean of Leyden. By the end of the 19th century, the part of Jean had become associated with big-voiced tenors (Tamagno and Slezak, for example), but when the opera was written it was only ten years since Duprez had given the “ut de poitrine” (top C from the chest) to an astonished world in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and I think it highly likely that Gustave Roger (who came from the Opéra Comique to sing the role in the premiere) used the voix mixte technique for high notes. It is therefore probable that John Osborn is closer than Lewis’s James McCracken to the sort of voice for which Meyerbeer would have written. I have never been a fan of McCracken; indeed I think his Otello in the Barbirolli recording is one of the worst performances of any complete role on record. Osborn is vastly more musical in every way. You only need to listen to Jean’s first aria, “Pour Berthe”; Osborn sings with a fine line and introspective feeling as he tells us how Berthe is everything to him. The tempo is gentle and the high notes are taken dolce. McCracken is far faster, the line is choppy and lacking legato and the high notes are loud and juddery - it’s a real relief that he only gets to sing one verse of the aria whereas Osborn sings both. Even in “Roi du ciel” where one might expect McCracken’s more heroic voice to win some points, the juddering vibrato makes enjoyment difficult and Osborn is again the winner. The newly-discovered Prière “Dieu puissant” which precedes it (and to which, really, “Roi du ciel” is the cabaletta) is sung with considerable sensitivity. Osborn is the primary reason for buying this set.

The smaller roles are all well-taken and Carella conducts with a real sense of momentum and style, more so than Lewis, in fact. The recording is very successful, and is a considerable improvement over its predecessor, which was very over-reverberant. Whilst we should undoubtedly be grateful in this day and age to have the full French libretto included in the booklet, it is irritating that only a German translation is provided; there is not even an internet link to an English one. The track index is simply absurd; the track titles are just words like “recitative”, “cavatine” or even “scène” which makes finding a particular piece very difficult - who on earth could have thought this was a useful way to construct an index?

This set is very much a curate’s egg, but definitely worth considering for Osborn and the more comfortable recording. It is also good to have the newly rediscovered bits, even if they aren’t as revelatory as the producers would have us believe. Listening to the set has certainly further increased my appreciation of Meyerbeer’s achievement; there really is some very fine music here. It is long past the time when the old jibes such as “effects without causes” should have been consigned to the dustbin and a proper reappraisal of Meyerbeer’s work be underway.

Paul Steinson



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