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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)

Libretto by François Benoit Hoffmann
Recitatives added by Franz Lachner
Sung in Italian to the translation by Carlo Zangarini
Medea - Leonie Rysanek (soprano)
Jason - Bruno Prevedi (tenor)
Glauce - Lucia Popp (soprano)
Creon - Nicolai Ghiuselev (bass)
Neris - Margarita Lilowa (mezzo soprano)
Captain - Reid Bunger (baritone)
1st Maid - Edita Gruberova (soprano)
2nd Maid - Laurence Dutoit (soprano)
Argonaut - Ewald Aichberger
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Horst Stein (conductor)
Recorded live by Austrian Radio (ORF) on 31 January 1972
RCA RED SEAL 74321 79595 2 2CDs [117.46]

Cherubiniís opera was first performed on 13 March 1797, one of the few stage works written during the French revolution and still performed, albeit rarely, today. After only twenty performances it was not performed in France until the mid-20th century, but it seemed to strike a more popular response in Germany, where the dialogue was replaced by recitatives composed by Franz Lachner in 1855 and this became the standard form until the 1980s (in other words even after the date this recording was made). Most of the composers who were said to admire the opera were Germans, Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms (the last-named commenting that this opera Ďis a work we musicians recognise amongst ourselves as the highest peak of dramatic musicí). England heard it in 1865 for the first time (Therese Tietjens in the title role) at Her Majestyís Theatre in London, with recitatives supplied by Luigi Arditi, and at Covent Garden five years later. Italy had to wait until 1909 before it was staged at La Scala in Carlo Zangariniís translation (the combination of Lachner recitatives and Zangarini translation featured here). Again indifference seems to have been the order of the day as it was not done again until 1953 when Callas sang it at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Buxton and Covent Garden have reverted back to both French and dialogue versions during the 1980s.

Mention of Tietjens and later Callas firmly place this opera among those with a pivotal dramatic soprano part of fiendish virtuosity, later developed by the likes of Bellini et al, and sure enough the star of this show has to be, and is the late Austrian soprano Leonie Rysanek (1926-1998). She was one of the most exciting singing actresses, initially in Wagner and Strauss roles, latterly also in Janacekís operas, and this recording was made, when she was in her forties, just at the time her middle range was developing, ĎI have two things by nature,í she once modestly remarked, Ďan extremely good top and extremely easy pianissimoÖand fortissimo up there, from the G upí. She was not best judged by recordings, you needed to see her elemental, raw-nerved acting to complete the picture, and she often needed to warm up before getting into top gear. She is best remembered for her portrayals of Sieglinde, Kundry, the Empress (Frau ohne Schatten), Senta, Elisabeth, Chrysothemis and Lady Macbeth, but there were a host of others as well as those she preferred to leave to her great contemporary and rival Birgit Nilsson (Turandot, Isolde, Elektra and Brünnhilde). The mouth-watering cast list also has a luxuriant Lucia Popp singing the role of Dircé (described on this CD as its German equivalent Glauce), making sure she gets the audienceís plaudits in her Act one aria before Rysanek appears. This Czech-born but Austrian-based soprano who died too young of a brain tumour (1939-1993) is in golden voice, for this was the time her voice was developing from the dramatic coloratura Queen of the Night through the heavier lyrical Pamina, gathering a bloom to the sound, before entering the repertoire territory of the more powerful spinto voice. She was one of operaís most intelligent interpreters, gifted with a voice of extraordinary natural beauty. But notwithstanding Popp, the excellent singing of Margarita Lilowa as Medeaís accolyte and, in her Vienna debut year, the emerging 26 year-old coloratura soprano Edita Gruberova in the small cameo role of First Maid right at the start of the opera, from the chilling moment of Rysanekís first entry as the vengeful Medea everyone else is overshadowed as she pleads, implores, simpers before she finally murders her rival and goes on to wreak carnage on her children to revenge herself on her faithless husband.

Of the men, both Prevediís ringing tones (albeit occasionally flat it must be said) in the role of Medeaís husband Jason and Ghiuselevís imposing bass as Creon give stylish performances, with Prevediís Verdian quality underlining the 19th century Italian style of the recitatives. Lachnerís pastiche replacement of the original dialogue does not go back far enough to 1797 - the year of Schubertís death and with Beethoven about to come into his own - for each time we hear another pure Cherubini set aria or ensemble the time machine changes gear. Horst Stein, conducting the house orchestra and chorus (in 1972 he was a principal conductor at the Vienna Opera and about to take over the Hamburg Opera as General Music Director) paces it all dramatically, phrasing the music with both elegance and care, and there is fine playing from the VPO. It must have been quite a night thirty years ago, and itís a pleasure to be able to relive it in this series of releases of momentous occasions over the past half century taken from the archives at the Opera House on the Ringstrasse. The transfer is highly satisfactory with audience applause, though not the mixed reception of cheers and boos apparently given to the productionís design team at the final curtain call, but to compensate thereís the occasionally audible contribution from the prompter, or rather souffleuse, all adding to the atmosphere of a memorable recording. This is not Cherubiniís Medea, it is the glorious Rysanekís.

Christopher Fifield

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