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The Vocal Retrospective
July 2021

Ralph Moore Mike Parr

A series of monthly musings by two members of the MusicWeb International review team who share a deep fascination with opera and vocal music in general. Each month we shall take a glance back at something of interest that appeared on commercial CD from the accumulated history of classical vocal recordings.

Summer Opera Festivals: Aix-en-Provence

Mike: For this month’s retrospective I have been pondering about the possible loss of a second year of performances at the major European summer opera festivals due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. At the point I am writing this, it is not clear that any of the festivals will be able to take place, or if they will have to go ahead in rather reduced circumstances. This has prompted us to take a look at recordings that came out of the abundance of really fine opera stagings from Festivals in the past. Beginning alphabetically, we start with the Aix-en-Provence Festival which, according to its website, is planning to go ahead with performances of Le nozze di Figaro, Falstaff, Tristan und Isolde, and Le coq d’or.

The Aix Festival began in 1948 thanks to its founder, Countess Lily Pastré who underwrote all of the expenses for the first year. Concerts and a single opera, Così fan tutte, were performed at various venues around the city, but chiefly in the courtyard of the archbishop’s residence which was renamed the Théâtre de l’Archevêché.  From the beginning, the musical standards were quite high especially considering that France was going through a long period of recovery from the destruction of WWII.  It was the Vox Company followed by Pathé/EMI who were the first labels to become interested in making commercial recordings from Aix in the mid-1950s. Since then, complete opera recordings have appeared occasionally over the years on various labels; the most recent one is the 1999 live recording of Don Giovanni conducted by Daniel Harding for Virgin Classics. Interestingly, in the age of opera on home video, the number of works filmed live at Aix far exceeds that of audio-based releases. There is quite a treasure trove to experience in one’s home.

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Le nozze di Figaro
Mike: First up is a CD set released by Walhall of the French Radio transmission of a live performance of Le nozze di Figaro from July 1955. This was also the basis of a studio recording that derived from Aix when the Vox label took the entire cast into the recording studio that summer. The rights for the Vox studio recordings were eventually acquired by EMI and released on CD, most recently as a five CD box set that includes the 1956 Don Giovanni, EMI 367733.

Ralph: Fresh from the delights of Rosbaud's Così recorded two years later than this but also at the Aix Festival, I was looking forward to hearing this recording and was far from disappointed. This is one of the most beguiling live performances I know, despite its being in rather brittle mono and having the usual cuts of Marcellina's and Basilio's arias - hence the two CD format. Were it a studio recording which retained its liveliness, it would rival Solti et al, both for its exuberance and the sheer quality of the singing.

Mike:  I find the sound to be a bit frustrating in Act One. Despite the small stage area at Aix some of the performers are at a disadvantage to the microphones. Rita Streich doesn’t register much in the first act but then suddenly in Act Two she becomes much more audible. I put this down her positioning on the stage.

Ralph: Panerai is superb as Figaro: clean and agile of voice with that fast, flickering vibrato, easy top notes and incisive delivery of the Italian text. Rita Streich is the most charming Susanna I know - and that includes some formidable rivals such as Lucia Popp.

Mike: I agree with you about Panerai, he has everything that makes a great Figaro. Streich has a delicate soprano with impeccable musicianship that she demonstrates in her pert and lively account of “Venite, inginocchiatevi” and the escape duettino with Cherubino.

Ralph: Stich-Randall is in pure, affecting voice, infinitely touching and vulnerable as the Countess and singing without the slightest affectation or artifice.

Mike: Stitch-Randall’s pure flute-like tone is really lovely but I sometimes find it doesn’t convey emotional range as naturally as do some other sopranos. I did find her to be a nice blend of elegantly poised but demanding in her Act two confrontation with the Count.

Ralph: Pilar Lorengar is just lovely as Cherubino, somehow more boyish through not attempting to sound butch.

Mike: This was one of the very earliest exposures of the young Lorengar. She was a touching singer who emerged from dreadful poverty to become a passionate, shimmering lyric soprano of rare expressive capacity. Here, I find in her youthful sound that there is barely a hint of just how much it would develop into.

Ralph: It's a pleasure to hear Marcellina's music - especially the duelling duet with Susanna - sung by a younger, firmer-voiced mezzo instead of the usual old bag. Cortis is rather too light for Bartolo, as he is for Don Alfonso in Cosi, but he sings nimbly and Hugues Cuénod is ideal as a piping, oleaginous Basilio.

Mike: I found Cortis to be a bit out of tune in the vengeance aria but he does the patter section very well indeed.  Cuénod is not only ideal, he is the gold standard for all Basilios; a role which has been sung very well on recordings over the years.

Ralph: Some have found Heinz Rehfuss less than ideal as the Count: he has a dark, beautiful, menacing voice, with the attractively quick pulse common to so many singers of that era, is at home in Italian being a multi-lingual Swiss, and to my ears embodies very successfully an essentially rather unattractive character, earning enthusiastic applause from the audience.


Mike:  Hans Rosbaud was just entering the big international phase of his career at this time. He suddenly became in huge demand after he took on learning Arnold Schoenberg’s impossible score for Moses und Aron with only eight days’ notice to save the world premiere in Hamburg in 1954. I found that I rather liked his pacing of Figaro. I was impressed by the menacing tint he gives to the Fandango near the end of Act three. Unfortunately, there are some places where I find the musicians of orchestra a bit lacking, in particular a badly out of tune oboe near the end of Act Two.

Ralph: Rosbaud was surely the most natural of Mozart conductors; everything is ideally paced and his orchestra - surprisingly, for a festival band? - is virtuosic, immediately blitzing the scurrying passages in the overture and playing throughout with great precision and alertness.

Mike: Those who are curious can also check out the commercial recording which can be streamed; also, several of the arias can be experienced free on You Tube.

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Mike: I chose Mireille for several reasons. First because I like the opera even more than I do Faust. I find the little touches of authentic folk colourings that Gounod infused his score with help to redeem its rather sentimental story. The opera was based on an actual event from that region which inspired the poet Frédéric Mistral to write his most important work Mirèio, which in turn inspired Gounod to write his most colourful opera. The other reason for choosing this recording is that it was the very first Aix opera to be taken into the studio, capturing what was a very unique performance in the history of the Festival. Mireille takes place in the area of Provence where the festival is located. The management decided to make use of the local scenery to stage Mireille where an important scene occurs in the “Crau” desert area of the “les Baux” rock formations. It was a single performance that sold over 10,000 tickets. There were no seats so attendees were required to arrange themselves as comfortable as was possible within the rock formations.  A Google search using the words “Gounod, Mireille, Les Baux” will produce some old photos of the audience which I cannot include here.

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Ralph: I admit to approaching Mike’s choice of Gounod’s Mireille with modified rapture for three reasons: I find much of Gounod’s music charming but trivial and conventional – I don’t hear “sadness and dark foreboding” in the overture and first Act celebrated by Reynaldo Hahn; I could add that the plot, and especially its conclusion, is sentimental but that is hardly an accusation confined to this opera, so let that pass. However, I cannot say that reacquaintance has rekindled much enthusiasm on my part, either for this recording or the opera itself. I do not find the music memorable; typical of the work is Taven’s tripping, folksy “Voici la saison, mignonne” which belongs to the world of light opera, not tragic opera. It all bowls along cheerfully, if inconsequentially.

Mike: The CD booklet does not indicate where in Aix it was recorded. Likely it was done at the Archbishop’s Palace but perhaps it was recorded from the specially built stage at Les Baux.

Ralph: The mono sound is rather distant, reverberant and uninvolving.

Mike: Gedda’s star quality is immediately apparent, as Vincent and he sounds the ideal romantic French tenor despite being from Sweden.

Ralph: Despite my respect for his career, I have never responded warmly to what I hear as the nasal, bleating and constricted tenor of Nicolai Gedda, for all that he has legion fans. His youthful tenor voice here is, I concede, best suited to the lyric French repertoire, and of course he was superb linguist whose French is indistinguishable from a native singer.

Mike: Another unusual thing about this recording is that the lead female singer was totally unknown. Janette Vivalda was a young soprano whose work had been mostly in the chorus when the festival organizers selected her to take on the principal soprano role in the kind of thing that only happened in old Hollywood musicals.

Ralph: To my ears, she has a typically slightly shrill and edgy soubrette style of French soprano, which is pretty but lacks body.

Mike: I find that her voice is rather monochromatic in the same way that Mady Mesplé’s was. Still, I think her vocalizing is enormously assured for her first major solo role. She is truly abandoned at times such as the Crau scene and in the “Mon Coeur ne peut changer” aria from Act Two. She does have to force her tone a bit to crank out the lower regions of the role. In point of fact, her least accomplished singing is in the silly waltz song that is given as an appendix because it wasn’t performed at Aix.  It is either under-rehearsed or she is just not up to the coloratura demands.


Ralph: Nor do I much like many of the other voices here. The first soloist we hear is Christiane Gayraud as the witch, Taven; she has a strange, plaintive, lugubrious tone with a tremulous, unsteady vibrato and she always sounds slightly under the note; Michel Dens’ light baritone is more pleasing, but his voice lacks the body, heft, amplitude and resonance of José van Dam or, even better, Robert Massard, in the role of Ourrias; he hasn’t their command and menace. I find more satisfaction in the supporting roles: Marcello Courtis makes a neat job of Ambroise’s aria and André Vessières is a fine Ramon.

Mike: I liked Gayraud’s interpretation of Taven. She apparently hated the doing the role but even so, she injects a nice balance of light and shade to the character of the Witch.  I also liked the fine focused tone that Michel Dens displays as Ourrias and he sings very stylishly. His fight scene with Gedda is superbly done and one of the best excerpts from the recording.

Ralph: Cluytens’ conducting is, of course, always wholly reliable and admirable; he clearly makes the best case possible for the work and never lets proceedings drag. To be fair, the opera gains more weight and interest and the story unfolds and there are some striking dramatic highlights, especially Act 3 with the fight between Vincent and Ourrias, the latter’s remorse and his death by drowning when his boat piloted by a mysterious ferryman founders in the Rhône. Having said that, the music in which Ourrias expresses his rage and loathing is far too jolly and the supernatural element is hokey – although I like the added reverberation in the ferryman scene.

Mike: For me, Cluytens was more in tune with the Provençal folk elements of Mireille than he was with the faux medieval atmosphere of Faust.  His Farandole in the scene at the amphitheatre in Arles has such gusto that it threatens to overtake the limits of the mono recording. He finds the right charm for the lovely “Chanson de Magali” which is sung by Gedda and Vivalda with ideal delicacy and taste.

Ralph: Like Gounod’s Faust, which was once the most performed in the world, Mireille’s appeal has dramatically waned. This makes sense as tastes have changed. I have to say that ultimately I do not find Gounod’s music very interesting. If you want a recording, the stereo, studio versions conducted by Jésus Etchéverry in 1962 and Michel Plasson in 1979 with superior casts and sound are in my judgement far better options.

Mike The recording of Platée came upon the heels of the first modern revival of the work at the 1956 Festival. It was brave of Pathe/EMI to take on the sessions but thankfully they did which made it the only available recording of the opera for over 20 years. The first stereo recording came along in the late 1970s, a poorly received effort for CBS from Jean-Claude Malgoire.

Ralph: I first heard this recording on the back of auditioning the joyless and poorly sung Minkowski recording of this "comédie-ballet", so it was a relief to turn to this classic version from 1956. Here, Rameau is done proper justice, his music given both its stately grandeur and whimsical charm.

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Mike: To those who are accustomed to hearing Rameau played on authentic instruments this version may sound like an auditory shock with the heavier sound provided by an orchestra of modern instruments. One thing that I do like about this recording is that Rameau’s parody of musical styles becomes even clearer to my ears than it does when leaner period instrument ensembles play it.

Ralph: At the heart of this is Michel Sénéchal's beautifully sung and rather touching marsh-nymph, even though we are meant to mock and despise her; he makes the character far more than just a tenor-in-drag travesty and sings so much more elegantly than Minkowski's Gilles Ragon.

Mike: The young Sénéchal has the sound of a true haute-contre and he sings the role more ravishingly than anyone since.  Platée became rather a special role for him and he sang it in several productions. Gedda on the other hand attempts to lighten his voice to mimic the sound of an haute-contre but with only partial success. His voice was simply growing larger by this point.


Ralph: The whole cast is packed with light, bright, clear, very Gallic voices whose sound is devoid of constriction and always falls gratefully on the ear; for me the exception is a young Nicolai Gedda, the only non-native singer but of course singing in impeccable French - but I do not much care for his squeezed sound.  Janine Micheau is predictably fine as La Folie but Christian Castell also makes a great impression as Juno, especially in the joyous finale. Cithéron is sung by a famous Pelléas, Jacques Jansen, no longer youthful of timbre and labouring a bit, but stylish. Jupiter is sung by a typically French bass, Huc Santana, with a quick vibrato and neat divisions. Nadine Sautereau is an especially pure, bright and charming Clarine. Somehow, the quality of the singing and the mood engendered by the performers lifts the whole entertainment from the rather grubby spectacle it emerges as in Minkowski's sorry recording, such that modern listeners can enjoy the fun without dwelling on the intrinsic cruelty of the plot.

The orchestral playing under the still under-rated Rosbaud is first class, full of verve and attack, especially in the splendid storm music opening and closing Act I. This is bold, confident music which is often strikingly modern in its affect despite being so identifiably French baroque.

The sound was originally mono but was reprocessed remastered into electronic stereo in 1988, is good despite the tinkering, but still sounds to me like clean mono with a little added depth and the vocal ensembles are rather hollow and reverberant, making words mushy. If you prefer, there is also a 1999 remastering of the mono original.

Mike: Amazingly, I find myself in complete agreement with Ralph’s comments and don’t need to add anything to although I am not quite as put out by the Erato Minkowski set as he is. I won’t be trading in my copy of the Aix-en-Provence CDs but it is likely that most people will want to opt for a stereo version of this opera. For that, I would recommend the Arthaus DVD of a performance from Paris, still with Mark Minkowski who leads a much preferable cast those on the CD set.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Le nozze di Figaro (1786)
1955 (live, mono) 2 CDs [152:00]
WLCD 0167
L’Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris/Hans Rosbaud
Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur
Figaro - Rolando Panerai
Susanna - Rita Streich
Conte Almaviva - Heinz Rehfuss
Contessa Almaviva - Teresa Stich-Randall
Cherubino - Pilar Lorengar
Marcellina - Christiane Gayraud
Bartolo - Marcello Cortis
Basilio - Hugues Cuénod
Curzio - Gérard Friedman
Antonio - André Vessières
Barbarina - Madeleine Ignal

This recording is available for downloads from the Presto Classical Store . The CDs are no longer generally available. Streaming is also available from various sites such as Naxos Music Library. Other streaming services appear to offer only the EMI studio version.

Charles Gounod
Mireille (1864)
1954 (studio, mono)
EMI 2 CDs [134:09]
L'Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris/André Cluytens
Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur
Mireille - Janette Vivalda
Vincent - Nicolai Gedda
Taven - Christiane Gayraud
Ourrias - Michel Dens
Vincenette - Madeleine Ignal
Maître Ramon - André Vessières
Ambroise - Marcello Cortis
Clémence - Christiane Jacquin
Le passeur - Robert Tropin
This recording is no longer available on CD or for downloading. There is an album of excerpts which can be streamed from the Naxos Music Library and Spotify

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Platée (1745)
1956 (studio, stereo)
EMI 2 CDs [167:00]
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris /Hans Rosbaud
Choeurs du Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
La Folie - Janine Micheau
Clarine - Nadine Sautereau
Thalie - Nadine Sautereau
Junon - Christiane Castelli
L'Amour - Monique Linval
Platée - Michel Sénéchal
Thespis - Nicolai Gedda
Mercure - Nicolai Gedda
Citheron - Jacques Jansen
Jupiter - Huc Santana
Momus - Jean-Christophe Benoit
Un Satyre - Robert Tropin

This EMI CDs of recording are no longer available on. It is available for download from other labels from the Presto Classical Store or via the  Qobuz Store. Streaming is also available from various sites such as Naxos Music Library or Spotify.


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