Roberta Peters’ Forgotten Recital

Peters cover

ROBERTA PETERS IN RECITAL / J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: I follow with gladness. Ich hatte viel Bekümmerus Seufzer, BWV 21. HANDEL: L’Allegro ed il Penseroso: Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly. A. SCARLATTI: Io vi miro ancor vestitle, H. 664. SCHUMANN: Liederkreis: Mondnacht. Röseliein, Röselein. Frühlingsnacht. STRAUSS: Morgen. Amor. DEBUSSY: Apparition. Fleur des blés. RAVEL: L’Enfant et les Sortilges: Arrière! le réchauffe les bons / Roberta Peters, soprano; George Trovillo, pianist; unidentified flautist / originally issued as RCA Victor LSC-2379, available for free streaming at Internet Archive

The late soprano Roberta Peters burst onto the American musical scene in the early 1950s, already a finished artist at a very young age. She was as much admired for her sober, conscientous acting style and her impeccable musicianship as she was for the brilliance and accuracy of her voice and her attractive, petite presence. Naturally, New York being New York, there was no thought of putting her in contemporary works in which her voice and presence might have actually “sold” a reactionary audience on more modern music. Oh, no, we can’t upset the people who like Tunes and Arias. And so Peters sang the standard “coloratura soprano” fare: Rosina, Lucia, Gilda, Norina etc. with an occasional Euridice in Gluck’s opera thrown in for interest. And of course she sang the Queen of the Night. Don’t they all?

But Peters in recital eschewed this stunt music in favor of real, meaty works, pieces she had come to love during her years of intense study under William Pierce Herman, a strange, eccentric vocal coach who taught his pupils to produce their voices via intercostal breathing rather than diaphragmmatic pressure. Herman ruined most of the voices he worked on, but somehow or other Peters blossomed under him. Perhaps her very small physiognomy had something to do with it, but although she had to give up the notes above high D-flat once she gave birth to her twins, she maintained her voice for nearly 40 years, quite unusual for a soubrette. I heard her twice in person during the latter part of her career: once as Zerlina in Don Giovanni opposite Sherrill Milnes (Edda Moser was the Donna Anna), and once in recital, in Cincinnati, during the mid-1980s. I was astonished at how well she had kept her voice.

This album, recorded in 1960, gives us the best of both worlds: Peters’ earlier, fresher voice and her already well-developed sense of artistry. Her performance of the well-known Handel showpiece Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly is one of the crown jewels of this set with its perfectly-articulated runs and trills (although not as rapidly tossed off as Nellie Melba had done in the early years of the 20th century). But so too is her performance of I follow with gladness from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, her splendid lieder performances, and the French material by Debussy and Ravel. What a pity that the Met never saw fit to stage Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with Peters in the cast; she’d have been outstanding in it.

In the softer lied, particularly Schumann’s Mondnacht and Strauss’ Morgen, Peters faces the same challenge that Elisabeth Schumann had. Their voices were penny-bright, which made it hard for them to float tones in songs that required a more opaque sound. Both sopranos compensated by lightening their breath pressure somewhat. If the effect here is not quite as magical as when these songs were sung by soft-grained male singers, such as Leo Slezak or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, they are effective performances nonetheless. Peters is predictably good in Schumann’s Röselein, Röselein and Debussy’s Apparition. Pianist George Trovillo accompanies her sensitively, and the sadly anonymous flautist is also very good.

So what happened to this recital? It went out of print, as all such albums did in those days, although perhaps quicker than the Red Seal recitals by Cesare Valletti or the highly popular Mario Lanza. By the late 1960s it was forgotten, although it did turn up livingstereobanner2now and then in New York’s used LP stores for a pretty penny. Then, in 2005, it was issued on CD for the first and only time as part of Sony Classical’s 60-CD set, The Living Stereo Collection, a hodgepodge including both vocal and instrumental discs made between 1957 and 1964, the peak years of this technology. (Ironically, this reissue omitted the 1957 Monteux-conducted Orfeo ed Eurudice featuring Risë Stevens and Peters.) And then, just like that, the album disappeared again. Forever.

And so, in the spirit of providing my readers with great art that does not deserve to be lost, I’ve posted a liink to the sound files of this superb album. And where did I get them? Why, from Sony’s “Freegal” system of (and I quote) “free and legal downloads,” provided to me by my local library. All I needed to acquire them was my library card number and a passcode. If I can get them for free, so can anyone else with a library card. So here it is, complete and intact, for your enjoyment.

You’re welcome.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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