OP3316. LE PROPHÈTE, Live Performance, 29 Jan., 1977, w.Henry Lewis Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Marilyn Horne, Renata Scotto, James McCracken, Jerome Hines, etc. (Canada) 3-St Laurent Studio stereo YSL T-859. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“One might wonder about the wisdom of St. Laurent Studio issuing this live broadcast performance of LE PROPHÈTE when essentially the same cast recorded the opera for Columbia (now Sony) around the same time, except that the studio recording opened most of the cuts employed in the staged performance. (The timing of the Sony is almost a half hour longer.)
Listening to both, one is again reminded of the advantage in energy and forward motion that we frequently get in live performance recordings. All of the principals are more dramatically involved, more believable, here than they are on the studio set. It is true, however, that there are some points where the singing is cleaner in the studio recording. Perhaps the biggest difference is on the podium. Henry Lewis seems more engaged and rhythmically incisive here than he is in the Sony set.
As for the singing, the star is Marilyn Horne. Fidès is a role that suits her perfectly, and she throws herself into it. She sings with abandon, astonishing technique, and steady, gleaming tone at all extremes of her wide range. Renata Scotto is beset by a bit of shrillness at the upper edge of her range, but for the most part she was still singing beautifully in 1977, and she always sang with intelligence and dramatic conviction. In no passage do we ever get the sense that the singer is coasting, waiting for the next ‘big moment’. Rather, every single line has meaning to Scotto and as a result to us. James McCracken was a true heroic tenor, but here he is singing a role that wants more than that. In the Opera’s big moments, McCracken is triumphant. His hefty tone and explosive manner make an impact, but he becomes tiresome after a while. Soft singing requires something besides mere force, and his soft singing is often falsetto, or an unsupported croon. Make no mistake, this is by no means a poor performance; in fact it can justifiably be described as good. But there are two others on discs that are preferable (more in a moment).
Jerome Hines and Morley Meredith are splendid as the two lower-voiced males in the cast. Both were Met stalwarts over long careers, and one can hear why. Hines in particular sings with resonance and dramatic specificity. The Met chorus and orchestra perform very well, even though this was new music to all of them; the last Met production of LE PROPHÈTE was in 1928!
There are two recorded performances (both live) that are far better representations of Meyerbeer’s opera, which is a work that still merits exposure. Meyerbeer was an extraordinarily successful composer in his day, and if he lacked the ultimate inspiration of the best of his contemporaries, particularly Rossini, his works were triumphs with audiences. Heard today, we can recognize that Rossini, at his best, achieved a level of orchestration and imagination beyond anything Meyerbeer accomplished, we can also admit that Meyerbeer’s works are still capable of giving much pleasure. To be successful they require great singing and committed, sympathetic conducting….Henry Lewis conducts similarly in the RAI performance. The biggest difference is in the title role, where Nicolai Gedda gives McCracken a lesson in appropriate French style. He [Gedda] uses all dynamic levels but never resorts to falsetto or purely head tones, and he sounds much more comfortable with the French language. I simply find Gedda’s timbre more appropriate to Meyerbeer’s vocal writing and more to my taste.
As usual, St. Laurent Studio gives us a good-quality transfer.
On balance, even if it isn’t a first choice there is much to be said for this Met broadcast. Although McCracken is not faultless in his approach, there is something undeniably exciting about the throbbing intensity of his singing at the most dramatic moments. Also, Scotto brings much more to the role of Berthe than does Margherita Rinaldi on the Turin performance, Lynette Tapia in Essen, despite Tapia’s cleaner singing. If you are interested at all in Meyerbeer’s work, this performance gives a vibrant example of it. As usual, St. Laurent Studio gives us a good-quality transfer.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Miss Horne is the 11th mezzo to sing the role of Fidès at the Met, a fact that might surprise most operagoers, to whom LE PROPHÈTE is a ‘completely unknown quantity'. Although the opera has not been given by the company since 1928, it was a repertory item ever since the Met's first season in 1883.
Over the years, its casts boasted such golden age singers as Caruso and Martinelli as Jean, the prophet and, as his mother, Fidès, Louise Homer, Ernestine SchumannHeink, Margarete Matzenauer and Karin Branzell. Measuring up to that formidable array of mezzosoprano precedents, all of whom left impressive recordings of the opera's arias, would be enough to intimidate any present day interpreter of the part.
‘It takes a terrific amount of intensity and stamina just to get through the darn thing’ Horne stated. ‘Vocally, the range runs from high C to a low F sharp - there's even a fortissimo low G! - and the fioritura is often as complex as Rossini's. In addition to this, there is the dramatic tension that must be sustained. Fidès is an extremely demanding role in this respect, unlike anything in opera up to the time it was first performed in 1849. She really is the prototype for all the later Verdi mezzo parts, like Azucena and Amneris, only twice as difficult. The combination of the vocal and the dramatic thing - this is the real challenge of the role, and what makes it so unique. A singer has to combine everything she knows about bel canto singing with complete dramatic commitment'.”
- Peter G. Davis, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11 Jan., 1977