OP3297. LOUISE (Charpentier) [nearly complete], recorded 1935 & Live Performance, 20 Feb., 1943, w.Ninon Vallin, Georges Thill, Ezio Pinza, others (fusion of 1935/1943) Bigot and Beecham cond. Also Carpentier Songs by Germaine Feraldy, Jean Planel & Joseph Lanzone. (Canada) 2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1103. Notes by Richard Caniell. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Elaborate Edition features numerous lovely photos & beautiful 58pp booklet. – 644216109821
“This is another release in Immortal Performances’ Heritage Series, where producer Richard Caniell assembles what to him comes close to an ideal performance from different sources. In this instance, the result is glorious.
LOUISE is an opera that I find deserving of much better treatment than it has been given by history, and that includes how it has been treated on records. The first recording was a 1935 abridgement for French Columbia, under the ‘supervision’ of the composer, with an ideal combination of soprano and tenor, but weak bass-baritone (André Pernet) as Louise’s father, a crucial role. Even worse, Columbia abridged the opera, eliminating approximately half of the music.
Also of interest is a 1943 Met broadcast released by Naxos, conducted by Thomas Beecham, with Grace Moore, Raoul Jobin, and Ezio Pinza. Moore is satisfactory in the title role, but no more. She doesn’t seem able to vary the color and intensity of her voice. However, the existence of that Met broadcast gave Richard Caniell the opportunity to create a conflation that put the extraordinary Pinza into the 1935 recording, in place of the ineffective Father portrayed by Pernet. Caniell’s Heritage Series is quite open about the substitutions it makes, and he has received what I consider to be deeply unfair criticism for assembling casts that did not actually record the opera together. It is a complaint that I don’t understand, simply on the grounds that he is upfront about what he does, and if you don’t like the idea you won’t buy the discs. You aren’t being tricked in any way. For me, the idea needs to be judged on how successfully it has been executed, and as is usually the case with Caniell, the execution is remarkable.
Pinza was one of the very greatest singers of the 20th century, and this was a role he sang often at the Met. What Caniell has done is to take Pinza from the Met recording and replace Pernet with him. What surprises is that Eugène Bigot and Thomas Beecham seem to have such a similar view of the score that one really cannot sense where the edits are between the two recordings, even in scenes between Louise and her father that switch back and forth often. In addition, Caniell took the Act III prelude from a 1930 recording conducted by Gustav Cloëz. That prelude was omitted on Columbia’s original recording, a particularly stupid decision since it leads right into the opera’s most famous aria ‘Depuis le jour’, and perfectly sets the mood for it. I don’t know why Caniell chose the Cloëz reading over the Beecham, but it is a perfect match and he joins it into the introduction for the aria perfectly. Throughout I was amazed by the seamlessness of transitions, not only between different recordings but even the side-breaks from the original 78s. This has the flow and unity of an actual performance, and a great one at that.
This Heritage conflation offers most of the opera sung by what would be an ideal cast. A bit over a half-hour of music is missing, most of it from the third act, including some the ‘Coronation of the Muse’ scene (edited by Charpentier for the original Columbia recording) and the final portion where Louise’s mother convinces her to return home to her ill father (which was not recorded in the original). What is clear from this set is that no soprano who has recorded the title role comes close to Vallin, musically or dramatically. The evenness of vocal production, seamless from bottom to top of her range, is one remarkable asset. The steadiness of tonal emission is a second. But most impressive is the way in which she inhabits the character. Hers is a performance distinguished by its dramatic sweep and urgency. There is not a single phrase that seems just note-spinning. Her third act duet with Julien leaps out of the speakers, and she reflects through specificity of color and inflection Louise’s inner conflict, rebelling against the conventional upbringing from her parents while at the same time feeling love for them.
Georges Thill’s Julien is a vivid demonstration of the reasons for the tenor’s fame. Thill is sometimes criticized for being boring, but that is surely not the case here. Certainly much of his success is due to a remarkable technique and a strong, solid tenor produced in the French manner with almost unsettling ease. And while some of his aria recordings do seem too straightforward and lacking in the injection of a personal touch, that is not the case here. The ecstasy of the big second act duet with Louise could hardly be exceeded while remaining faithful to the score. His sound manages to combine the virtues of the heroic and the lyric tenor in perfect balance.
The principal triumph of this set is the insertion of Pinza into the cast. As you listen you know, intellectually, where the edits must be that inserted him in place of Pernet, and you are sure you are going to be able to hear the edit. But you cannot. One cannot imagine the work involved in matching pitch, tone quality, recorded sound, but the result is so natural that if you didn’t know better you would swear this was all a single recorded performance. Pinza is, as you would expect, a miracle of vocalism and dramatic force. His singing of the lullaby in the last act can be used by voice teachers as a demonstration of cantabile and legato, while at the same time conveying the love of father to daughter. Equally powerful is the scene at the end of Act I, where Louise’s Father tries to soothe her and make clear to her that he and Louise’s mother have only her best interests at heart. It is an extraordinarily powerful and telling depiction of the intense emotions that underly the moment. And, of course, his is a voice of authentic presence and impact, whether at fortissimo or pianissimo. Pinza’s association with LOUISE went back to 1923-24 at La Scala where Toscanini conducted the first French language performances ever produced there, these with Fanny Heldy and the great French basso Marcel Journet. After a few performances Journet left the cast and Toscanini chose Pinza to replace him.
The six bonus tracks contain six songs by Charpentier in recordings conducted by the composer. Two feature the well-known soprano Germaine Feraldy, three a lesser-known but fine French lyric tenor in Jean Planel. The remaining one features an also lesser-known baritone, Joseph Lanzone. He too is of more than passing interest.
The sound quality is up to the high level established by Immortal Performances in the past, and no one with a tolerance for ‘historic’ recordings should find anything to object to here. I was able to compare what Caniell has achieved here with the sound on the original 78s, and he has actually improved the balance and orchestral color from the original. The booklet offers more than 50 pages of superb notes by Caniell, covering the opera itself and the details of the recording he has assembled. The booklet is, in fact, a major achievement in itself. He writes intelligently about the opera and the culture from which it sprung, and he includes wonderful photographs of the principal singers performing their roles as well as of Paris around the time of LOUISE (1900). Big commercial record companies do not produce booklets as informative and attractive as this. What comes across is his passion for LOUISE, a passion that I have always shared but which has been inflamed even more by this stunning compilation. Charpentier’s score combines some of the essence of the French style we know from Gounod and Massenet with an almost Wagnerian weight. The orchestra plays a more important role here than it does in most French opera of the period, and the conducting of Bigot and Beecham is riveting in intensity. This is recommended with enthusiasm.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE