Tucker’s Great “La Juive” Reissued At Last

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HALEVY: La Juive (Highlights) / Richard Tucker, tenor (Elezear); Martina Arroyo, soprano (Rachel); Juan Sabaté, tenor (Prince Leopold); Anna Moffo, soprano (Princess Eudoxie); Lesley Fyson, baritone (Ruggiero); Bonaldo Gioatti, bass (Cardinal de Brogni); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Antonio de Almeida, conductor / RCA Red Seal/Sony Opera 886446206530

Poor Ed Rosen! The famous New York City-area opera maven, “pirate” live performance issuer, friend of Richard Tucker and his family, died on December 21, 2016, just a few weeks before this legendary recording was finally reissued after languishing in the vaults for 40 years. Did I say 40? Yes, I did. After it was cut from the RCA Victor catalog around 1977 as an LP, it never resurfaced, either as an LP or as a CD issue, until just now. Even after Dick Tucker’s death, the fates laughed at and mocked him and his Elezear.

Of course, there’s a back story to this recording. Nearing age 60, Tuckers really wanted to perform this at the Metropolitan Opera, just as Caruso had done near the end of his Met career. But Rudolf Bing detested Ja Juive, calling it a boring opera, so as long as he was there, no Juive. In 1972 Bing retired; his chosen successor, Goeran Gentele, tragically drowned before taking the helm, and thus the new general manager was Schuyler Chapin, whose two main assets were begging for money and then not spending much of it on new productions. I still recall the “production” he mounted for Montserrat Caballé in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani: Two big round cylinders with a staircase on an otherwise blank, dark stage. Those of us who went to see the production referred to it as the “Esso tank Vespri.” (For those of you who don’t know, Esso was the early name for Exxon Oil.) But surprisingly, Chapin was open to the idea of Tucker singing La Juive. He just wanted to see if it would draw an audience before he committed to it.

So Tucker approached RCA Victor with the idea of recording it. If the recording did well enough, he reasoned, Chapin might give him the production. RCA initially agreed to do so if he could actually perform it somewhere and drum up some business. Thus, in March 1973, Tucker and conductor Anton Guadagno slapped together a hastily-rehearsed, stripped-down version of the opera (a little over two hours, roughly half the length of the full score) in a concert performance in London’s Royal Festival Hall. The supporting cast was good but not great (Yasuko Hayashi sang Rachel and David Gwynne was Brogni); Guadagno didn’t conduct at his best; and to compensate, Tucker oversang and over-emoted. It got pretty good reviews anyway, so RCA agreed to record it.

But once again, I Vespri Siciliani got in the way. Victor committed to recording the opera complete with Martina Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and conductor James Levine, and like Juive, it was a four-LP package. The cost overruns from Vespri made the RCA brass think twice about following it up with a complete Juive, which would also run four LPs. As Tucker later told a disappointed fan who asked him to sign a copy of this single LP of highlights, RCA thought about recording a two-LP version of the the chopped-down version Tucker had sung in London, but then just agreed to this 49-minute single disc of highlights.

Listening to the recording when I first purchased it on LP, I was absolutely swept away. I got the impression that La Juive was one of the most interesting and exciting French grand operas ever written. Why? Because every single singer on this recording, and conductor de Almeida, perform it at white heat. They’re all in good voice, they all suit their roles, and they pour their hearts out without slopping the music or over-emoting. If you live to be 100, you will NEVER hear a La Juive as great as this one. Not ever. Even Martina Arroyo, the possessor of a drop-dead gorgeous voice who only seldom gave much emotion in performance, is keyed up to a fever pitch in her duet, “Lorsqu’a toi je me suis donnée” with a superb second tenor I’ve never hear of before or since, Juan Sabaté. Anna Moffo was a bit past her prime by the time this recording was made—she really had to be recorded close to the microphone in order to be heard below the staff—but she still sings the “Bolero” with fine intonation and great intensity. Basso Bonaldo Gioatti is at his best as Cardinal de Brogni, and Arroyo is also on fire in her duet with Eudoxie (Moffo), “Ah, que ma voix plaintive”—as is conductor de Almeida.

Yet this is still primarily Tucker’s show, and it’s a crying shame that RCA didn’t record the confrontation scene between Elezear and Brogni that immediately precedes “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” Happily, they did record that aria complete, including the recitative “Va prononcer,” and they also recorded the famous Passover Scene. Seldom did the great tenor give so much of himself without over-emoting as he does here, and for one of the few times in his career his voice was recorded perfectly so that the brightness of his upper register could be heard. (For whatever reason, many of Tucker’s commercial recordings, particularly his early RCA opera recordings like La Traviata and La Bohème with Moffo and Madama Butterfly with Leontyne Price, made his voice sound dull and gray in the upper range, which is absolutely was not.)

An epilogue: the album sold like hotcakes, particularly in the New York area, so well in fact that RCA began to rethink its position and planned to record it complete (I would hope with the same cast and conductor). Even more surprisingly, Chapin called Tucker on January 1, 1975 and told him that he was going to approve a production of La Juive for the following season. Sadly, Tucker suddenly died of a heart attack a week later, January 8, 1975, at age 61, while on a concert tour with his friend and colleague, baritone Robert Merrill. Without Tucker, there would be no complete Juive, of course, and disappointed fans, having already sent this LP through two pressings, didn’t need to replace it, so by 1977 or ’78 it quietly went out of print, never to be seen again until this year. Yet another reason to hate record companies.

We who bought this album back in the mid-‘70s bitterly regretted what was missing then, and we can do the same today, but thank goodness this classic recording—I’d even call it a benchmark for this opera—is out on CD at last. Get down on your knees and bow to its unchallenged greatness; you shall never hear its like again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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