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CD Review

Vocal Masterworks from Sony

Famous Opera Arias

Ileana Cotrubas, soprano
Philharmonia Orchestra/John Pritchard & Georges Prêtre
Royal Opera House Orchestra/John Pritchard
London Symphony Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
Sony SMK60783 70:48 Recorded in 1976 and 1977
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Song Recital

Regina Resnik, mezzo-soprano
Richard Woitach, piano
Columbia Chamber Orchestra/Jorge Mester
Sony SMK60784 69:45 Recorded in 1967 and 1968
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Italian Songs

Carlo Bergonzi, tenor
John Wustman, piano
Opera Orchestra of NY/Eve Queller
Sony SMK60785 57:52 Recorded in 1977
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Plaisir d'amour

Beverly Sills, soprano
Columbia Symphony Orchestra & NY Philharmonic Orchestra/André Kostelanetz
Sony SMK60576 48:26 Recorded in 1961 and 1975
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Sony has begun to ransack their vaults for notable recordings from the 1960s and 70s, bringing them out in excellent transfers in a "Vocal Masterworks" series at mid-price. The first four releases, featuring distinguished singers who have retired in recent years, are all attractive and interesting.

I'm not sure whether the Romanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas (b 1939) is still singing, but if not, it is a real loss. She made her debut in Vienna in 1964 and has sung at important opera houses around the world, though I believe not at the Met. This disc is her only recorded recital and includes staples from operas by Donizetti, Mozart (sung with great style), Puccini, and Verdi, a group of excerpts from Elisir d'amore with a robust Geraint Evans and a youthful Plácido Domingo, and a charming rendition of "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. She has a strong lyric-dramatic voice, capable of exciting coloratura effects, but she is at her best in roles requiring pathos (Mimi, Violetta), where she conveys an appealing vulnerability rather like Claudia Muzio in an earlier age. Her focus is more on beautiful sounds than on the words, but her gift for characterization is evident, for instance in "Caro nome" (from Rigoletto), which she sings not as the usual display piece but as a slow and sweet song of love. A thoroughly enjoyable disc.

Regina Resnik (b 1922) started out as a soprano, making her Met debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore in 1942, and then, after 1955, sang mezzo-soprano roles like Carmen and Clytemnestra. This disc contains her only recorded recital; she says in the program booklet that her goal was to provide "a palette of colors, languages, and styles that made each song a special moment for myself and the public," and that is what we get. The disc includes groups in French (Rameau, Spontini, Martini, Gaveaux), Spanish (Turina), Russian (Tchaikovsky and Prokofieff) and German (Mahler), plus an extraordinarily dramatic rendition of one of Madame Flora's arias from Menotti's The Medium. Her voice was strong and steely, never beautiful, but it always reflected her acute musical intelligence and skill in characterization, particularly evident here in the four Mahler songs. Richard Woitach's piano accompaniment is sometimes a bit obtrusive but generally effective. There is some unevenness of production and often a considerable wobble can be heard, and if you're looking for sweet sounds, you won't find them here, but her interpretations are consistently compelling and worth hearing.

Carlo Bergonzi (b 1924) seems to have slipped from memory more rapidly than he deserves. He made his debut as a baritone in 1948 and thereafter turned to the tenor repertory, singing at the Met from 1956 to 1974, mostly but not exclusively in Verdi roles. He had a beautiful voice, well-trained, smoothly delivered and well defined, always tasteful and elegant. Here he presents a recital of Italian art songs by balladeers like Denza, Donaudy, and Tosti and by composers better known for their operas, like Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi; the only opera aria is from Puccini's little-known Edgar. Other Italian tenors turn songs like these into an orgy of sentimentality, but not Bergonzi; he takes them seriously and sings them naturally and expressively, with warmth and affection but also with restraint and refinement. John Wustman provides workmanlike piano accompaniments, and the disc offers a hour of great charm.

Beverly Sills (b 1929) seems to be cheerfully ubiquitous on public television these days, but of course she is best known for her bel canto exploits with the NY City and Metropolitan Operas. She had an imperfect voice, often shrill at the top, sometimes uncertain in placement, and with a vibrato that got more pronounced as she aged, but her warm and ingratiating personality is as evident in this recital as in her operatic roles. Her selections include French songs by Bizet, Delibes, Poulenc, and others and a Spanish group by Granados, Ponce, and Castellaños, all sung with clear diction and infectious zest. She says in the program booklet that she was ill when she recorded the French group in 1975, but you wouldn't know it from the youthful vigor of the result, and the Spanish songs (recorded in 1961) are even more effective. There are other recordings of this material that are more subtle and more idiomatic, but these performances are certainly enjoyable.

Copyright © 1999, Alexander J. Morin