Sutherland’s “Euryanthe” Gets the Nimbus Treatment

Euryanthe cover

WP 2019 - 2WEBER: Euryanthe / Kurt Böhme, bs (King Ludwig VI); Joan Sutherland, sop (Euryanthe); Marianne Schech, sop (Eglantine); Frans Vroons, ten (Adolar); Otakar Kraus, bar (Lysiart); Beryl Hatt, sop (Bertha); Lloyd Strauss-Smith, ten (Rudolf); BBC Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Fritz Stiedry, cond / Naxos NI7969 (live: London, 1955)

This famous live radio broadcast of Euryanthe, though cut (and lacking the soprano’s most dramatic aria), has had a wealth of circulation over the decades solely due to the presence of Joan Sutherland in the title role. Among its previous CD issues were ones on Andromeda, Ponto and Celestial Audio (an Australian pirate label), and all of them have had ragged sound—and small wonder. The original source for most of these issues has been the original 1967 LP release by (drum roll, please!) the infamous Eddie J. Smith, whose discs always seemed to be made of black limestone rather than vinyl and had a sound quality akin to a late-1920s broadcast full of static and played back with a steel needle on a wind-up gramophone.

This performance is also uploaded complete on YouTube, and here, too (they do not identify their source) the sound quality is rough, but listenable. I would suggest that it might be the Andromeda release; in general, they do try to clean up their old broadcast recordings to some degree. But here we have the whole thing on Nimbus Prima Voce, a company known as much for trying to get the best sources as for doctoring their releases of old 78s by playing them into a nineteen-foot (six meter) horn with an immense (8 feet high) aperture at the end into a large room and then record them. Once in a blue moon, as in the case of their collections by Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Conchita Supervia, their enhancements actually do work and add much-needed ambience around the extraordinarily dry acoustics of the original records, but more often than not you end up with recordings swimming in reverb.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of this performance and its sound quality, let’s go over Joan Sutherland. She always had a large and somewhat plummy soprano and she always had a rather generic approach to interpretation. The former I liked; the latter I hated. Working with her accompanist, amanuensis and later husband, Richard Bonynge, she was able to extend her upper register by almost an octave, making her a large-voiced “coloratura” soprano, but in gaining those upper notes she sacrificed diction. In this early live performance, as in all of her recordings and broadcasts through 1956 or early ’57, you can hear her singing consonants. By 1959, the consonants were a hit-or-miss affair, as in her famous recording as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni under Giulini. By 1963, you couldn’t understand a damn word she sang. Everything was funneled into a sort of goopy tunnel sound, all vowels, with nary a consonant in sight. The only time she sang consonants after that was, shockingly enough, in her mid-1970s recording in the title role of Turandot, but in regaining her consonants her tone sounded a bit raw, her open tone exciting but lacking beauty. She was not one of my favorite sopranos by a long shot.

Here, she exhibits a bit of unsteadiness in her entrance but warms up within a couple of minutes. She surely isn’t the most exciting Euryanthe on records, but she is pretty good compared to what we got out of her later on. Marianne Schech, singing the secondary soprano role of Eglantine, had one of those “typical” German soprano voices of the 1950s: solid, well-schoooled, but just a bit dry with a very Germanic sound, but she’s Kirsten Flagstad compared to Rita “Rooter” Hunter, the most God-awful dramatic soprano in history, on the 1974 Marek Janowski recording.

Dutch tenor Frans Vroons, woefully under-recorded even in his own country (the Philips label started out as a Dutch company, and recorded him in a few arias, but not much else, and he was Iopas in Sir Thomas Beecham’s boxy-sounding 1947 recording of Berlioz’ Les Troyens), had a slightly dry but powerful lyric spinto voice, and he is easily the best Adolar on records. Yet the real standout here is German basso Kurt Böhme, a noted Fafner in Wagner’s Ring, as King Ludwig VI. Despite a slight unsteadiness in sustained notes (not quite as bad as Josef Griendl at his worst), his rich, powerful voice dominates every scene he’s in, as well it should.

A real surprise, to me, was the exciting conducting of Fritz Stiedry, at that time a repertoire conductor at the Metropolitan Opera who virtually ruined every Italian opera he led (including the Don Carlo of Rudolf Bing’s opening night in November 1950). His Italian performances were stodgy, leaden, lacking any sweep or forward momentum, but he was a vain and jealous man who, along with other veterans at the Met, blocked the career of Rumanian conductor Jonel Perlea, a Toscanini favorite whose 1955 Aida recording remains in many ways the benchmark performance even today. Here, however, in a German repertoire item, Stiedry is surprisingly taut and exciting, rivaling Janowski (the best-conducted Euryanthe on records despite the poor singing of Gedda and the awful squalling of Hunter) for drive and excitement. A shame he didn’t at least include the great Act III soprano aria, “Schirmender Engel Schar”; if he had, I could have lived with all the other cuts.

The good news is that, by some miracle, Nimbus has managed to greatly improve the sound (gone are the occasional static crackle and congested vocal moments) without adding too much ambience, and what they have added helps the sound immeasurably. No longer does it sound like a boxy horror. Except for the very first chord of the overture, which still retains a small trace of distortion, the sound opens up and has real sheen, not only in the orchestra’s string section but also with the chorus and singers. Indeed, it particularly helps tenor Frans Vroons, whose voice was warm and powerful but a bit dry in the midrange.

Although the music of Euryanthe is clearly among Weber’s very best—it influenced both Schumann’s Genoveva and Wagner’s Tannhäuser—it has been a virtual stranger in the opera house due to the idiotic libretto, which one critic opined “makes the libretto of Il Trovatore Pulitzer-Prize-winning material,” but in this case we have Weber the blame. His librettists tried to make a more interesting and coherent story out of it, but the composer, fearing censorship, insisted on their making it weaker and less sensible. Yet Mahler said of one of its writers, Helmina von Chézy, that she was “a poetess with a full heart and an empty head.” The lead role is clearly no strong woman or an Einstein, but a sappy romantic woman loved by two men who only occasionally has real dramatic moments. In this performance, as in many given nowadays, the spoken dialogue has thankfully been eliminated, allowing us to appreciate the superb score all the better.

There is no question, however, that on balance this is the BEST performance of Euryanthe. The only three complete stereo commercial recordings—conducted by Janowski, Gérard Korsten and Leon Botstein—suffer from deficient singing in principal roles, the latter two almost consistently awful. So I say, go for it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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