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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Roméo et Juliette - Opera in five acts (1867) [142.40]
Roméo – Raoul Jobin
Juliette – Janine Micheau
Le Duc de Vérone/Grégorio - André Philippe
Le Comte Pâris – Camille Rocquetty
Le Comte Capulet – Charles Cambon
Gertrude – Odette Ricquier
Tybalt – Louis Rialland
Mercutio – Pierre Mollet
Stéphano – Claudine Collart
Frère Laurent – Heinz Rehfuss
Chorus and Orchestra of the Théàtre National de l’Opéra/Alberto Erede
rec. 1953. Paris , location not specified, ADD
Presto CD
DECCA 443 539-2 [75:40 + 67.00]

Decca’s 1953 recording of Gounod’s opera of star crossed lovers has long been viewed as something of a token representative. I note that High Fidelity magazine reviewed the set in 1954 with the conclusion that it would do until something better came along. This new Presto CD release gives me the opportunity to re-evaluate its relative merits and shortcomings.

The first surprise is that Italian maestro Alberto Erede was selected to conduct a French opera. It seems a curious choice when looking back from this vantage point. Erede was a quite eloquent conductor of late romantic and verismo repertoire. I recently had the opportunity to review Pristine Audio’s spruced-up edition of his 1951 recording of La bohème (review). Erede shows himself to be a master of this type of repertoire. Gounod however; does not appear to bring out any special insight or affection from his baton. Generally he takes a rather heavy-handed view of this sweeping score. There is not very much that is executed with any sense of style and the Paris opera forces simply goes through their motions serviceably, with no real distinction or drive. Ensemble is frequently loose, and demonstrates how much better the musical standards are at the Paris Opera today. When the chorus gets its big chance for the great Act Four chorus “O jour de deuil” Erede puts the breaks on so completely that it nearly falls apart. To his credit Erede suddenly comes to life in the more tragic duets of Act Four and Five but it is rather late in the game to save things. Incidentally, the Act Four duet is given absolutely complete; this is something of a rarity, and remains so today. I begin to wonder if the reason Erede was chosen to lead this recording is that he was under contract to Decca at the time and perhaps stepped in at a late stage in the planning.

Decca did assemble a great cast, on paper, for their first complete French opera recording. Raoul Jobin was in his prime and still very much a star name in 1953. At this point in his career his voice had grown in size and amplitude that while I was listening I kept thinking that he should be singing Samson rather than Romeo. His appealingly bright timbre occasionally overloads the microphones which must have caused no end of worry for the Decca engineers. The basic colour of his voice is very attractive although he does tend to overwhelm Romeo’s impetuous contributions to the first two duets. He certainly delivers an exciting conclusion to the third Act where he builds his vocal line very impressively.

Janine Micheau’s delicate-toned Juliette is all airy lightness from her first entrance. She sings her waltz song with freshness and abandonment, and in general she is a decent Juliette. In the heavier music however; her voice comes across as being out of its depth. It is a good thing then that the potion aria was always cut from performances in those days because it would have been a case of the potion swallowing Juliette rather than the other way around.

From among the rest of the cast the Swiss bass Heinz Rehfuss is a really distinguished Frère Laurent. Although born in Cologne, Rehfuss grew up in Neuchâtel so his ability to sing in French is virtually that of a native born citizen. He contributed an exceptional Golaud, to Ernest Ansermet’s first recording of Pelléas et Mélisande. Here he delivers the little potion aria with a velvet carpet of sound and an aristocratic sense of line. To my ears, he is the finest exponent of the role on a commercial recording, with José van Dam coming a close second. Equally distinguished is the virtually forgotten Swiss-Canadian baritone Pierre Mollet as Mercutio. His suavely elegant rendition of the Queen Mab aria is sung with gorgeous, mellow tone and exquisite phrasing. He too was paired with Rehfuss as a truly outstanding Pelleas in the Ansermet’s recording.

The older tradition of having a light soprano rather than a mezzo cast to sing the role of the Page Stephano is shown here in the bright voice of Claudine Collart. Her aria is sung with sweetness and charm with a voice that bears some resemblance to that of coloratura soprano Mady Mesplé. Bass Charles Cambon contributes a very solid sounding voice to the role of Capulet although he mostly galumphs his way through the music.

While this recording of Romeo should not be the only representative of the opera in one’s collection, there are some good reasons to make acquaintance with it. I shall certainly pull it down again to hear what Jobin, Mollet, Rehfuss, and to a lesser degree, Micheau do with Gounod’s still engaging music. For first choices, either the Plasson or Cambreling recordings on EMI are preferable.
Mike Parr

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