Both of these reasons apply to the recording here, from a performance at Covent Garden on May 18, 1961. We get to hear Régine Crespin
singing a role that she never recorded commercially, and at the peak of her
vocal voluptuousness and steadiness. She was Mme. Lidoine (the new Prioress) in
the first recording of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites (1958).
In the early 1960s she made a still-classic recording of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’ÈtÈ and Ravel’s Shéhérazade and
contributed a magnificent Sieglinde to the Solti/Culshaw Ring Cycle.
What we get here is, as we had reason to hope, an immensely artful blending
of vocal plenitude, nuanced phrasing and dynamics, and alert moment-to-moment
clarity of characterization. Crespin now leaps to the top of recorded Floria
Toscas, next to my, and many people’s, two favorites: Maria Callas (the mono
recording, conducted by De Sabata) and Leontyne Price (two great recordings:
with Karajan and with Mehta).
The Cavaradossi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, sounds very involved in certain solo
moments but distracted or routine in interaction with other characters. The
voice is wonderfully sweet at times, but it can become tight—almost like
a comical “character tenor” (e.g., the landlord BenoÓt in La
Bohème)—when it has to contend with a full orchestra.
Much more convincing is the Scarpia of Czech-born Otakar Kraus. The voice is
well controlled and used to good dramatic point. Kraus’s burly singing over the
chorus and orchestra at the end of Act 1 is stunning and scary, and the singer
shows his ability to be manipulatively lyrical in his negotiation with the diva
in Act 2. This Kraus (not to be confused with tenor Alfredo) recorded very
little. He is not so much as mentioned in the Metropolitan Opera Guide to
Recorded Opera. He sang the roles of Nick Shadow in the first production
of The Rake’s Progress and of Tarquinius in the first Rape of
Lucretia. That first (live) Rake is available on CD, but
reportedly the performance as a whole is somewhat helter-skelter and the sound
quality pale. Is there more Otakar Kraus in the archives and decently
The conducting is first-rate: brisk but always ready to bend to make a
point. The Covent Garden orchestra is ultra-responsive, with only a few
momentary slips in intonation. The clarinet introduction to “E lucevan le
stelle” is done in the modern international manner: vibrato-free and
eloquent. The conductor, by the way, is not the Edward O. D. Downes who used to
host the Metropolitan Opera Quiz. This Edward Downes was English-born and
renowned as a Verdi conductor; he rose to become Associate Music Director of
Covent Garden and Principal Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic.
The booklet contains only a tracklist and an apology for imperfections in
the original tapes. My ears found nothing to complain of, beyond the
predictable limitations in a mono recording of a complex opera. Indeed,
offstage sound effects generally register well and in good balance with the
onstage singing and the playing from the pit. My one complaint: very soft
singing is occasionally covered by the orchestra.
Perhaps several mikes were used and artfully mixed at the moment of
recording? Was this performance originally broadcast on the radio? I wish that
certain record companies would reveal a little more about the origins of their
archival releases. YouTube has a recording of the same opera made four years later with the same soprano and tenor, but with a marvelous Giuseppe Taddei as Scarpia (though a
bit weak on the low end), from the Teatro ColÛn in Buenos Aires, under Bruno
Crespin still sounds vital and detailed; Di Stefano’s
voice is in further decline. The winds are often out of tune with each other,
and the recording lacks the opening minutes. YouTube also has several
recordings of Crespin singing “Vissi d’arte” (including a
and a video in which Crespin enjoys retelling (in
French) two different mishaps in the scene in Act 2 where she needs to grab a
knife and murder Scarpia.
Ralph P. Locke
Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of
Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has written extensively on opera
and symphonic music and on the relationships between music and society. His
most recent two books are Musical
Exoticism: Images and Reflections and
Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both
Cambridge University Press).
The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in
Guide and appears here by kind permission.
product_by=Régine Crespin (Tosca), Giuseppe di Stefano (Cavaradossi), Otakar Kraus (Scarpia), Forbes Robinson (Sacristan); David Kelly (Angelotti), David Tree (Spoletta), Victor Godfrey (Sciarrone, jailer), John Pyle (shepherd). Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, conducted by Edward Downes.
product_id=Myto 00311 [2CDs]