Celebrated portrayals captured live from the stage
Vincent Lau | 11/29/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"These remarkable live recordings, amongst the first to be made at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, captured excerpts from a performance of Verdi's OTELLO on 17th June, 1926 and a performance of Gounod's FAUST on 22nd June, 1928. For lovers of historical vocal recordings, they preserve the celebrated portrayals of Giovanni Zenatello's Otello and Feodor Chaliapin's Mephistopheles taken directly from the stage. Some of the tracks on this release by Pearl are rare unpublished recordings, and thereby making this release even more treasurable.Zenatello was, together with Leo Slezak, the leading Otello in the first quarter of the 20th Century, reigning between the decline of Tamagno and the rise of Martinelli. Some eminent voice critics have dismissed Zenatello as merely a useful and sturdy tenor. However, from the evidence of this recording, despite the fact that Zenatello was already fifty at the time and that his career was by then gradually drawing to a close, he still makes a huge impression as the Moor of Venice. Many of his top notes are glorious and thrillingly placed and while his interpretation may not be as poetic or searingly poignant as that of Martinelli (Zenatello's "Dio, mi potevi scagliar" as captured here is somewhat spoilt by fast tempo and imprecise declamation), there is still considerable intensity in his obviously seasoned portrayal of the difficult part. He sings very well, too, and with considerable artistry. It is not at all difficult to appreciate Zenatello's greatness in his signature role from these half-hour excerpts. Beside him, Giuseppe Noto, while not being a famous international name, sings with some character as Iago even though the voice itself is not of distinguished quality. One regret here is that the singing of Lotte Lehman, the Desdemona of the performance, has not been captured owing to contractual reasons.Chaliapin was already in his mid-fifties in 1928. Yet, his Mephistopheles in Gounod's opera is still a most memorable assumption, even though some of his vocal mannerisms are more obvious by this stage. One "sees" the great Russian bass as possessing the "face" of the character just by listening to his singing, which, at its finest moments, is of magisterial quality and is, above all, hugely charismatic. The title role here is taken by Joseph Hislop, who, apart from some minor lapses of intonation in Act I (which is given complete on this CD), provides some strong lyrical singing. In fact, his "Salut demeure chaste et pure" would probably compare quite favourably with many of the finest tenors of this generation. The orchestra in FAUST is flowingly conducted by Eugene Goossens and the chorus sounds very much alive here as in the Verdi.Given the age of the recordings and the circumstances of their creation, the sound on this release can be said to be quite amazing, for there's not too much surface noise and the voices come across vividly. The orchestral contributions are also rather good for the period and musical balances, while far from being ideal, are at least not too seriously distorted. Happily, Pearl has promised that this will be the first volume of a series of live recordings from Covent Garden and lovers of vocal music will have much to look forward to."