Giulini’s Venerable “Iphigénie en Tauride” a Gem

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GLUCK: Iphigénie en Tauride / Patricia Neway, soprano (Iphigénie); Pierre Mollet, baritone (Oreste); Leopold Simoneau, tenor (Pylade); Robert Massard, bass (Thoas); Micheline Rolle, soprano (Diana); Arlette Roche, Ann-Marie Carpenter, sopranos (Priestesses); Georges Abdoun, baritone (Un scythe); Robert Lamande, bass (Ministre de Thoas); Simone Codinas, mezzo-soprano (A Greek); Ensemble Vocal de Paris; Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire Paris; Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor / Profil PH16008

This venerable yet vibrant recording, made after performances at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 1952, has been around the block a bit. It first appeared on Vox LPs in 1953 (PL-7822), reissued by Vox a decade later (OPX-212) before showing up on EMI Electrola (1C 137 1731713). Its first CD incarnation was in 2007 on MDV Classics 800, a release that appears to have gotten absolutely no reviews in the press, and now it is presented to us by Profil. One may well ask why since the only “star names” are Canadian Leopold Simoneau, who had a brief but stellar career as the leading light French tenor of the 1950s, baritone (here singing bass) Robert Massard, and conductor Giulini. Soprano Patricia Neway, known more as a great stage actress who could sing than as a vocalist per se, did not have the most beautiful voice in the world but a dramatic, well-focused tone with a razor-like cut up top, superb diction and even better interpretive skills. In addition to creating Magda Sorel in the world premiere of Menotti’s The Consul, she also sang the Female Chorus in the American premiere of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia as well as in Hugo Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Erwartung in addition to such standard roles as Tosca and Santuzza.

Neway as Magda Sorel

Patricia Neway as Magda Sorel

All the singers here, well known or not (and I doubt if anyone not related to them has ever heard of Micheline Rolle, Arlette Roche, Georges Abdoun or Robert Lamande), give their absolute best in this performance, and in the end this is what lifts it to a truly exalted level despite the boxy 1952 sound. Driving the performance is the surprisingly vivid and exciting conducting of young Carlo Maria Giulini. Giulini distinguished himself in the recording studio with fine performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but here he was asked to do something even more dramatic and responded brilliantly without over-forcing the musical line. One online review that I read of Marc Minkowski’s studio recording of this opera, with Mirielle Delunsch in the title role, claimed that the period instruments used brought out the music better than non-period ones, but listening to this recording—and Riccardo Muti’s equally splendid version with Carol Vaness—I would respectfully disagree. On the contrary, the way many of these orchestras play nowadays with their whiny straight tone actually robs the music of vitality, despite the excellent conducting of such leaders as Minkowski and William Christie (whose DVD of this opera I particularly favor). I find that the greater richness of the modern instruments used here—with, I hasten to point out, reduced vibrato and orchestral size—give the music greater nobility without sacrificing clarity of sound in the least.

But perhaps I should qualify that statement somewhat, because it sounds to me as if Profil, in an effort to reduce the original tape hiss, rolled back the treble end just a bit too much, giving the orchestra and singers a less clear sound profile. I found that by boosting the frequencies from 2400 Hz on up by about 2 decibels worked wonders on opening up the sound and revealing the full clarity of both the voices (solo and choral) and instruments. Despite this, Giulini’s way with the score, the careful way he builds scenes and maintains dramatic tension without ever rushing the beat too much or sacrificing a proper legato, is simply marvelous to hear. Compared to many modern performances, the very opening of the opera’s orchestral prelude may sound a bit slow, but Giulini gradually increases both the tempo and the forward pressure until, as Iphigénie enters, we are swept away in the musical storm. I have long marveled at the audacious chromatic changes that Gluck wrought in this orchestral-vocal prelude, and no matter how many times I hear them they still startle the ear. Here was a true master of drama in music, a man so far ahead of his time that it wasn’t really until the late 1850s that his late operas made any sense to audiences or critics. Both Wagner and Strauss adored this opera and made their own orchestral arrangements, but as great as they were neither one really improved on what Gluck himself wrote.

If nothing else, however, this recording should be used in classrooms around the world as Exhibit A that you do NOT need to use straight-tone strings, choruses or solo singers to make a performance “sound” like the 18th century. Giulini and company do a stellar job of it here, and in addition they have the one element missing from about 95% of such endeavors, and that is heart. I’m not talking about playing and singing loudly or quietly; that we can achieve nowadays; I mean that the singers and instrumentalists sound as if they really care about the music and aren’t just performing it for a paycheck. Of modern performances, only the Minkowski studio recording or the Christie DVD come close, and to my mind Christie both rush the music in places where it doesn’t need to be in order to create “excitement,” which is not quite the same thing as “heart.” This is particularly important of the tenor and baritone, whose extended scenes and duets make up the bulk of this work. If they can’t bring out the fear and sadness the characters are feeling when they sing, there isn’t much point in their performing it in the first place, and this Simoneau and Mollet do very well (particularly the latter, although this is the most involved I’ve ever heard Simoneau sing).

Because of the somewhat dry and boxy mono sound, I can’t recommend this as a first choice—that honor goes to the Muti recording—but it’s so damn good that if you really love Gluck, you have to make room on your shelf for it. It’s a bit ironic that one can find reviews online for 1950s mono recordings of mundane Puccini operas featuring Tebaldi, Callas or Milanov, but not one period review for this stupendous recording. I have a feeling that it never really sold very well, hence the lack of enthusiasm when it was first issued on CD by MDV Classics. Since I reviewed it as a download I don’t know if it comes with a libretto, but the back cover inset doesn’t mention one…but then again, the back cover insert doesn’t tell you who sings the roles of Diana, a Greek, the Minister or the Priestesses, all of which I found online at an opera discography website, so I don’t think it’s a very reliable source of information. Nevertheless, I for one found this an indispensable acquisition, not least for Neway’s consistently involved, distraught Iphigénie and the taut, edgy conducting of young Giulini.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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