La Damnation de Faust - Boulez, Vol. XVIII;  Jessye Norman, Riegel & Diaz (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-881)
Item# C1737
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La Damnation de Faust - Boulez, Vol. XVIII;  Jessye Norman, Riegel & Diaz (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-881)
C1737. PIERRE BOULEZ Cond. NYPO, w. JESSYE NORMAN, KENNETH RIEGEL, JUSTINO DIAZ & WILLIAM PARKER: LA DAMNATION DE FAUST (Berlioz) (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-881, Live Performance, 12 May, 1977, Avery Fisher Hall. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“For his last weekend series as music director of the New York Philharmonic in May 1977, Pierre Boulez chose a composer he had conducted and recorded masterfully. No one, however, expected this to be a warm sendoff after six frosty, contentious seasons in the job. There were ceremonial presentations at the Thursday evening concert captured here. Boulez, not to mince words, commented that his tenure had been a game to see who was more stubborn, him or the recalcitrant New York audiences, and to underline the barb, he invited thirty contemporary composers to be his guests at the concert. Afterwards, Harold C. Schonberg in THE NEW YORK TIMES panned Boulez’s LA DAMNATION DE FAUST as ‘restrained, matter-of-fact, and relatively colorless’.

It was a badge of honor for great musicians to be panned by that notorious critic, and I felt eager anticipation at this release by St. Laurent Studio….Boulez never made a studio recording of Berlioz’s FAUST, so this is a significant addition to his discography. To allay any doubts, it is a great performance in which Boulez and everyone concerned give of their best. The Philharmonic, which Boulez had brought to a level of excellence it would not regain for more than a decade, plays wonderfully. Boulez had a great ear, and the balances he achieves in Berlioz’s orchestration couldn’t be improved upon. As an interpretation, every phrase is deeply considered, and within a few minutes of Faust’s entry, you can’t tear yourself away.

This was a time when Boulez’s fearsome reputation for his championship of contemporary music pursued him, masking his remarkable ability as a conductor. Here his feeling for drama and pace is riveting. This won’t be obvious, however, if you judge by the measured Rákóczy March and restrained chorus in Part I on the plains of Hungary. Boulez has in mind Faust’s despair, and by setting the mood at a melancholy pitch, the sudden irruption of Méphistophélès on the scene is all the more dramatic. There is no end of intensity in this performance, but Boulez is at pains to give the score more than one dimension, and whenever he is slow or reflective, there’s a musical purpose at hand.

Among the soloists, Kenneth Riegel makes for an absorbing, continually expressive Faust. Riegel never quite became an international opera star, and because he sang during this period at the New York City Opera rather than across the plaza at the Met, he was underrated. There is some effortful singing at first, and Riegel’s timbre isn’t glamorous, but he’s so totally involved and musical that I must count him a standout - we’d be thrilled to hear a tenor of his caliber in the role today.

The Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Diaz had a major career at both City Opera and the Met, and his Méphistophélès is strongly sung with secure tone and a powerful delivery. Having a commanding singer in the role is no small thing, so I can forgive Diaz for missing the slyness, wit, and malice in the character. Jessye Norman brings star power to Marguerite’s solos, even if she is the opposite of a fragile maid. None of the soloists sings in idiomatic French, but if it was good enough for Pierre Boulez, it is more than good enough for me.

This isn’t a singer’s DAMNATION OF FAUST, even though everyone here is very fine. The real marvel is Boulez’s conducting, and even when he is accompanying an aria, the delicacy and finesse of the orchestral part is captivating. The choral forces are superb, and my only complaint is that the solo voices are miked very closely, making them a little overbearing at forte. St. Laurent Studio doesn’t reveal where it gets its source material, but the sound here is so good I can only suppose the source was either the NYPO’s archives or an outstanding broadcast recording made off air.

On an ironical note, another New York critic who attended the matinee concert the following day overheard a group of ladies ‘eagerly nattering on about the good times ahead when Zubin Mehta comes to redeem the orchestra’. The future turned out otherwise, and I am grateful that this release allows us to hear what great music-making the Philharmonic enjoyed under Boulez, no matter that it fell on too many deaf ears.

Needless to say, I can give this release the highest recommendation. As a bonus we get the ceremonial remarks made by the chairman of the orchestra board, Aaron Copland, and Boulez. There are no notes or libretto, but that’s a small drawback in such a well-known work.”

- Huntley Dent, FANFARE

“Jessye Norman, the majestic American soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles at the Metropolitan Opera and houses around the world, who also found acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage, was one of the most decorated of American singers. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

In a career that began in the late-1960s, Ms. Norman sang the title role in Verdi’s AIDA, Wagner’s heroines, characters in Janacek, Bartok and Strauss operas, and Cassandre in LES TROYENS by Berlioz, in which she made her Met debut in 1983. She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, on Monday called her ‘one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage’.

A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Ms. Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss. In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of THE NEW YORK TIMES likened her voice to a ‘grand mansion of sound’. ‘It defines an extraordinary space’, he wrote. ‘It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse’.

As an African-American, she credited other great black singers with paving the way for her, naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price, among others, in a 1983 interview with THE TIMES. ‘Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice’. In her memoir, StanD UP STRAIGHT AND SING! (2014), she recounted meeting instances of racism. ‘Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?’ she told THE TIMES in 2014.

Ms. Norman was born into a musical family on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist; her father, Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker. Jessye especially enjoyed visiting her maternal grandparents, fascinated by one particular piece of furniture. ‘My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one - a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium - right there in their house’, she wrote in her memoir. ‘It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults’.

She began listening to opera on the radio as a child. ‘I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after’, she wrote. ‘For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already’.

Appearances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and other major opera houses followed, and she quickly became one of the busiest opera divas on the scene, a fixture of galas and benefits. An accomplished recitalist, she made records of vocal works by Mahler, Debussy and Strauss. She also ranged backward in time to the Baroque, displaying a remarkable command of a broad range of styles. She was famous for saying ‘pigeonholes are for pigeons’.

It was not until 1983 that she made a belated Met debut, opening the company’s centennial season singing the role of Cassandre in a starry revival of Berlioz’s LES TROYENS. By all accounts she stole the show, winning over ‘Monday night’s audience and Tuesday morning’s critics’, as THE TIMES reported in its account of her ‘triumph’. She rose early the next day to appear on NBC’s ‘Today’ show. ‘The only person in my family who couldn’t come on Monday was my mother, who is ill and at home in Georgia’, she said at the time. ‘I wanted to give her a look at me’.

Her imposing stage presence and large, voluptuous voice made her ideal for certain parts. When she sang the title character of Richard Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, one of her defining roles, John Rockwell described her in THE TIMES as ‘one of our most musicianly singers’ and added: ‘She has just the right voice for this role: a smoothly knit-together soprano that reaches up from plummy contralto notes to a powerful fullness on top’.

In a sign of her international stature, Ms. Norman was tapped to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day - which she did, in dramatic fashion, at the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde before an array of world leaders, wearing a grand tricolor gown designed by Azzedine Alaïa. She also sang at the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

She became a major recording artist at the dawn of the compact disc era, leaving a rich catalog of opera, lieder, spirituals and recitals. One of her most acclaimed recordings was a classic account of Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, backed by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. ‘Her generous heart, dignified manner and noble voice seem ideally suited to Strauss’ valedictory utterances’, GRAMOPHONE wrote in its review.

In person she cut an imposing figure, dressing dramatically and speaking with a diva’s perfect diction. When she entered a room, heads turned. And even after she left the opera stage she remained a restless, probing artist. She was socially engaged. In 2003, Ms. Norman and the Rachel Longstreet Foundation created the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school arts program in her native Augusta for underserved students. That city will rename a street Jessye Norman Boulevard in October; she had planned to attend the ceremony.

Among her final projects was ‘Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name!’, a tribute to Jones, who in 1893 became the first African-American woman to headline a concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall - and who had bristled at her stage name, ‘the Black Patti’, which compared her to the white diva Adelina Patti. ‘Thirty years out of slavery for African-Americans in this country, here she was on the stage of Carnegie Hall’, Ms. Norman said in an interview last year.

In her memoir, Ms. Norman recalled one of her own earliest stabs at singing opera in front of an audience. She was in junior high school when, at a teacher’s urging, she performed the aria ‘My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice’ from Saint-Saëns’ SAMSON ET DALILA. She had been singing it in English at church functions and supermarket openings, but for the school performance her teacher had her learn it in its original French. ‘I do think that if you can stand up and sing in French in front of an assembly full of middle-schoolers’, Ms. Norman wrote, ‘then you can do just about anything’.”

- Daniel J. Wakin & Michael Cooper, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30 Sept., 2019

“At the end [of last night’s LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN at the Met], the entire cast came out together for their first curtain call, and Mr. Riegel [singing from the pit] stood out in his cotton blue slacks, open pastel checkered shirt and blue blazer. Mr. Lewis continued the performance, but Mr. Levine sent word that Mr. Riegel was to pick up Hoffmann's part when Miss Malfitano finished Olympia's Doll aria. The audience gave him a huge ovation, redoubled when the two tenors came out alone together, grinning and embracing. Backstage afterward, good cheer reigned.

‘It was like singing with Charlie McCarthy’,' said Miss Malfitano with a big smile. ‘Bill [Lewis] was attentive and wonderful: without Bill and Ken [Riegel], there would not have been a HOFFMANN tonight’.'

Mr. Rudel had the last word. Referring to the fact that the soprano roles are usually sung by several singers, while Hoffmann is always supposed to be the same tenor throughout, he said: ‘This is probably the first time that HOFFMANN has had only one soprano but three tenors’.''

- John Rockwell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 26 Sept., 1984

"Justino Diaz is a Puerto Rican operatic bass-baritone. In 1963, Diaz won an annual contest held at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, becoming the first Puerto Rican to obtain such an honor. On 29 March, 1963, Diaz won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, becoming the 'first' Puerto Rican to obtain such an honor. As a consequence, Diaz made his Metropolitan debut in 1963 in Verdi's RIGOLETTO as Monterone. Among the opera houses in which Diaz has made presentations are La Scala, Paris Opéra, Vienna Staatsoper, Salzburg, New York City Opera, Spoleto Opera, Rome Opera, The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, the Zarzuela Theater of Madrid, Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu and others. In 1966 he helped to inaugurate the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center by starring in the opening night performance of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by Samuel Barber."

- Z. D. Akron