Berlioz in Opera News

I have a piece on Berlioz’s operas in the new issue of Opera News. You can read it online here. It was fun to write — I didn’t know Benvenuto Cellini well, and didn’t know Béatrice et Bénédict at all. Was very surprised to find out that B&B is a dud, in spite of a ravishing duet at the end of the first act. (Which has nothing to do with the plot — one sign of the things that make the opera a dud, at least for me.)

Among the many delights I had was listening to the first Colin Davis recording of Cellini, which I think is one of the great opera recordings of all time, even if the piece isn’t one of the great operas. (Except for the second act finale, which combines, if you can believe this, Rossini with a foretaste of Petrushka.) One highlight of the recording is Nicolai Gedda, just about perfect in the title role, dashing and a little silly, with that fabulous voice and perfect control of amazing high notes, all the way up to D flat, which he plays with, the way somebody might stroke a kitten. (Well, after walking out on a ledge 500 feet above the ground; it’s not easy to sing high D flat, or the C sharp, equally caressed, that Gedda sings in the love duet in the Davis recording of La damnation de Faust.

The second Davis Cellini, a live performance with the London Symphony, is negligible. The singing doesn’t come within miles of the first recording.

Also perfect: Jules Bastin as Mephistopheles on the Faust CDs. Though overall the old Charles Munch recording, from the 1950s, is more powerful, with a better Marguerite and a tremendous Faust (David Poleri, a tenor who started out brilliantly and then fizzled). Though there are two disappointments. One is Martial Singher, the Mephistopheles, a reigning French baritone of the era, who should have been perfect, but was running a fever when the recording was made. And you can hear it. (He told me this himself, when I studied voice with him, while I was in high school.)

The other disappointment is the chorus. Munch, music director of the Boston Symphony back then, made Berlioz recordings in Boston — Faust, the Requiem, and L’enfance du Christ — using student choruses from Harvard, Radcliffe, and the New England Conservatory. I don’t remember minding those choruses when those recordings were new, and I had them, but now the choral singing sounds thin, and just won’t wash, in an era when recordings are mostly made with professional choristers.

Ssee how much I love classical music, when I’m not fed up with the classical music business? My criticisms, I’ve come to understand, are the complaints of a lover who wants his beloved to be better.

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  1. Bill says

    I don’t agree with you about the Munch recording. I feel that Poleri has a tendency to yell his high notes, which ARE cruelly high. Danco is fabulous, and the BSO under Munch has an inimitable sheen and glow. I think the choruses are pretty good–my only gripe with them is using Ciceronian Latin pronunciations in the “Iam nox stellata” section of the student/soldier chorus (I mean, “Weini, Weedi, Weeki?). I was not aware that Singher was under the weather, obviously he was. Even so, I love the sound of his light, Gallic baritone. Too often, I think that we hear heavier, darker bass-baritones today. (Maybe an allusion to Gounod’s devil?) Singher makes Mephistopheles into a suave, elegant devil, with hints of the darker powers underneath. And, in the “Voici des Roses,” he give hints that he has real powers over nature and the physical world. To me, Berlioz devil is much more elegant, and much more dangerous, than Gounod’s crasser, cruder Prince of Darkness.