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The Vocal Retrospective
November 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.

Teresa Żylis-Gara: In Memoriam

We honour the artistry of Teresa Żylis-Gara to mark her passing on August 28, 2021. 

 

Mike: To commemorate the recent passing of Polish soprano Teresa Żylis-Gara, we have chosen this month to take a look back at two long-unavailable recital CDs that document her art.

Ralph: Recently, I remarked in my brief obituary of her how I have retained such fond memories of an open-air concert I heard her give in a Provenįal courtyard nearly fifty years ago and these two recitals remind me of her special gifts. There's a lovely, rounded, bell-like purity to her tone, especially in the middle and top of the voice; a little more heft in her lower register would sometimes be nice but I am nit-picking.

Mike:  She was one of the first opera singers whose voice I fell in love with when I turned 16 and was just getting into classical music. Although I never got to encounter her in a live performance I vividly recall my reaction to the first time I heard her voice on the radio during a Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Manon Lescaut during the winter of 1981. The beautiful spun quality of her voice sent shivers down my spine and it still does so all of these years later.

Ralph: The two recital albums certainly demonstrate some of the breadth of her repertoire, ranging from Czech and Russian composers to Mozart, Verdi and even Mercadante, although the second CD offers predominately Puccini – eight of the thirteen arias.

  [image]  

Mike:  She was most remembered as a Mozart and Strauss singer but when I began listening to opera I would encounter her mostly in Puccini and Wagner roles. I do recall that the only role that I heard her in more than once was as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

Ralph: The Slavic album recital album begins enticingly with one of the most enchanting of opera arias: Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”, which she sings adopting a more demonstrative, “heart-on-sleeve” emotionalism rather than the chaste, ethereal interpretation some sopranos choose.

Mike:  When I listened to this aria again the one thing that struck me aside from the beauty of her voice was that I don’t remember ever noticing before how much the soprano’s vocal line is doubled by a muted trumpet which on this recording sounds quite prominent.

Ralph: In the aria from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, the same warmth of characterisation and amplitude of tone is heard.

Mike:  I did find myself wishing that they had chosen to record her in Marenka’s magnificent third act aria rather than this earlier one from Act One.

Ralph: The qualities of her lyric soprano make her an especially convincing as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin; her extended scene is for me the best thing on the disc. She is warm, youthful and vibrant – full of voice without sounding too mature. I do not speak Russian but hers sounds convincing to me. She colours key words, such as in the desperate outburst “Drugoi!” (Ꚁругой! Another!) and her timbre is unfailingly beautiful throughout its range.

Mike:  I really think that this aria should have been chosen to conclude the CD rather than being placed in the middle of it. She has a quality of vulnerability that shines through her radiant tone. She conveys an especially haunting sense of fragility at “Bit mozhet, eto vsyo pustoye” (Maybe this is all an empty dream).

  [image]

as Fiordiligi in Cosi Fan Tutte
 

Ralph: Two arias from Pique Dame/The Queen of Spades are of a similarly high standard – and sound as if they are from a live performance, as the acoustic is different and there is some background noise. The orchestral accompaniment is alert and nuanced. The second aria is tragically powerful, heralding Lisa’s imminent suicide, and includes some touching soft singing and long lines in that special vein of melancholy mined so tellingly by Tchaikovsky. I cannot imagine it better sung.

Mike:  With the two arias by Stanislaw Moniuszko we enter much less familiar territory. The aria from the very rarely heard Paria Is lushly Romantic and she caps it off with an utterly glorious sounding high B. This makes me long to listen to more of this opera, except that I have heard the recent complete recording not that long ago and none of it was as good as this one track of Żylis-Gara’s.

Ralph: The aria from  Halka is another comparative rarity to Western ears. Both it and the one from Paria are fairly conventional but are sung here with full-voiced commitment and given the best possible advocacy. The aria concludes with a big top B-flat and it is punctuated with effective stretto passages. The conducting is deft and fluid and the orchestral accompaniment pleasing, if a little distantly balanced with the voice.

Mike: The second album we are looking at is the 1986 Portrait Album which definitely derives from two different performances that are unidentified by Rodolphe. The two excerpts from Mercadante’s Il Giuramento are most certainly taken from a complete concert performance of the complete opera for Radio France that was given on October 27, 1975.

Ralph:  You hear straight away in the first track the amplitude, nobility and sensitivity of her voice as a Mozartian in her portrayal of the Countess. She gives a very slow, stately account of “Dove sono”.

Mike: In that first aria the voice is obscured a little by a cavernous acoustic that envelops the voice a little too much, but as always when she sang Mozart her voice exhibits that wonderful spinning quality that would seem to disembody itself and float outwards away from her.

  [image]

as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni
 

Ralph: Her Tosca is similarly large, lush and leisurely, and her Italian is good.

Mike: She never forces her voice beyond its natural limits in order to achieve more volume consequently even in the heaviest of phrases its beauty of tone remains intact. I did note that in “Vissi  d’arte” she and conductor Kazimerz Kord are not entirely together on the final phrases.

Ralph: She easily encompasses the demands of the two Madama Butterfly arias and sounds youthful without being shrill – and the orchestral postlude is especially good. The opening of “Un bel dė” is as poised and steady as you could wish; time and again you prize the rounded beauty of soprano. And she has all the technical command required, deploying portamento judiciously and never sounding short of breath.

Mike: Once again the big phrases of Butterfly’s Death Scene are dispatched with a really touching projection of personal vulnerability. She was so good at achieving that although in “Un bel di” she is just a little bit under the note on the climatic high note.

Ralph: Her Manon Lescaut is meltingly enticing and the distancing of her voice at the close of “In quelle trine morbide” is a nice touch. That contrasts effectively with the companion aria from the opera “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” but despite her lovely singing, I could do here with greater desperation and attack - more in the verismo mode which in fact Żylis-Gara also successfully embraced, so she could have injected more passion into her singing of this most dolorous of arias.

Mike: As much as I loved her singing she is not always technically perfect , for example in her vocally gorgeous account of the aria from Turandot once or twice she indulges in a bit of scooping up to her notes.

Ralph: The famous bon-bon from Gianni Schicchi is sung with ideal sweetness and Italianate warmth and Mimė’s calling-card aria is equally charming; Żylis-Gara lightens her tone to enhance Mimė’s naïve charm, singing with great delicacy until she allows her voice to swell and bloom in the great passage beginning “Ma, quando vien’ il sgelo”.

Mike: The two Verdi arias make me wish there were more examples of her Verdi singing. I recall that one of the most memorable broadcasts in which I heard her was an almost ethereal Leonora in Il trovatore.

  [image]

as Desdemona in Otello
 

Ralph: In many ways, the two Verdi items, however, are my favourites here. I am struck by how the exceptional beauty of her voice elevates their appeal; the music seems to sit right in the sweet spot of her voice and her floated top B at the end of “Morrō, ma prima in grazia” is spine-tingling. “Ave Maria” from Otello is another live item and is similarly captivating, suffused with tears and supplication; once again the conducting and orchestral plating are ideal and her final pianissimo high A flat hangs steady and glowing in the air like a flare.

Mike: With the inclusion of the two arias from Il giuramento we are reminded that although she did not spend a great deal of time singing bel canto roles, she was an occasional visitor to them and she certainly had acclaim in Rossini (Mosč and Guglielmo Tell), Donizetti (Anna Bolena), and the Mercadante.

Ralph: The two arias from a live performance of Il giuramento present another comparative rarity in recital programmes. As with the two Moniuszko arias in the Slavic album, they rather serve to illustrate the difference between the melodic genius of Puccini and Verdi and the pleasant competence of Mercadante - but Żylis-Gara could not give them better advocacy; the final duet between soprano and solo oboe is especially engaging, with much of the appeal of arias found in early Verdi – I am in particular reminded of Lina’s aria “Ah dagli scanni eterei” from Stiffelio.

Mike: As one might suspect from my reactions to hearing these tracks again this has been a wonderful trip down memory lane for me with an artist that I deeply admired. I will certainly miss her whom I have long spoken of as “My beloved Z.G.”

Ralph: Listening to these two albums has given me a new appreciation of Żylis-Gara’s artistry; frequently her delivery and vocalisation remind me of other favourite sopranos yet she also emerges as a uniquely gifted artist in her own right.

Airs D’Operas Slaves
1984 (studio, stereo) 
Rodolphe/ Harmonia Mundi 1 CD [44:45]
RPC 32402
Teresa Żylis-Gara  (soprano)
The National Philharmonic Orchestra of Poland/Kazimerz Kord
This recording is no longer available on CD; all the tracks can be heard on YouTube.

Portrait
1986 (Live; stereo)
Rodolphe/ Harmonia Mundi 1 CD [55:20]
RPC 32472
Teresa Żylis-Gara (soprano)
The National Philharmonic Orchestra of Poland/Kazimerz Kord
L’orchestre Radio-Lyrique de Radio France/Maurizio Arena
This recording is no longer available on CD; all the tracks can be heard on YouTube.

 



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