It's nice to report that the latest three releases from ROH Heritage – recordings of great performances from the Royal Opera House's past – show a little more imagination than was perhaps the case on previous occasions. Whereas all the other releases came from several decades ago, this time we have a 1962 Un ballo in maschera with Jon Vickers, a 1981 Alceste with Janet Baker and a 1997 Die Meistersinger with John Tomlinson.
Since the Royal Opera's heritage indeed embraces performances from both the recent and more distant past, this is an appropriate selection of recordings, and as it happens, the two more recent performances come off best here.
The Ballo performance from 23 February 1962 has apparently long been a desideratum of collectors, and only now becomes available thanks to the extensive private collection of Lord Harewood. The two most appealing aspects of the recording are the sublime singing of Amy Shuard as Amelia – she is as full-blooded and theatrically-aware as one could possibly desire – and a rare opportunity to hear a full Verdi opera conducted by Edward Downes on record. As far as I'm concerned, the score could not be handled better; whether in the lyrical moments or the chiaroscuro of the final scene, Downes hits the nail on the head in terms of style and expression.
On the other hand, Jon Vickers is far from at his best here: although passionate, he's simply too rough and ready for Gustavo III's aristocratic, classical lines. Better recordings of Ettore Bastianini's Verdi roles also exist, but his rendition of Renato's ‘Eri tu' is suitably compelling. Regina Resnik is superb as Ulrica, but Joan Carlyle's Oscar is far from the most elegant available on record. Smaller roles are well taken, notably Michael Langdon's Horn and David Kelly's Ribbing, and the chorus sings lustily. However, I feel the variable sound quality, plus the fact that a minute-long passage at the end of Act II is missing from the original master, means that this recording is for collectors only; I wouldn't readily give up Pavarotti and Price on Decca or Domingo under Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon in this work.
It surprises me that Bernard Haitink has never made a studio recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, because it was one of the pieces with which he was most associated during his tenure as Music Director of Covent Garden. This recording is genuinely novel, then, and one only has to listen to the Prelude, the ensemble at the end of Act II or the arrival of the Mastersingers in Act III to hear an orchestra and company at the top of its game. The warmth of Haitink's reading is ideal for the piece, and the fact that the recording documents the performance on 12 July 1997, when the Royal Opera House was shutting up shop for two and a half years for renovation and was facing severe financial difficulties, increases the sense of poignancy.
The cast is remarkable, not only in itself but because there are so many British names in the cast for a German opera. At the head stand two truly great role assumptions: Sir John Tomlinson's Hans Sachs and Sir Thomas Allen's Sixtus Beckmesser. Both imbue their roles with enormous humanity, which is especially striking in the case of Allen, who will surely never be bettered in this role. It has been commented that his attempts to woo Eva are so beautifully done as to sound sincere, and I agree. Tomlinson's Sachs is also a wonderful creation, worldly-wise yet sad. In addition, both these singers prove that one does not have to be German to sing a German-language opera with conviction. The rest of the cast is mostly very good, too: Anthony Michaels-Moore is a luxury choice for Kothner, Gwynne Howell's delivery of Pogner's speech in Act I is outstanding, and to have names such as Paul Crook (Eisslinger), Robin Leggate (Balthasar Zorn) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers in the smaller roles guarantees a lively ensemble performance. Gösta Winbergh offers an exceptionally lyrical Walther; by contrast, Nancy Gustafson is emotionally giving but perhaps too rough edged compared to some of her more pure-voiced predecessors in the role. Haitink, too, for all the smooth timbres he creates, fails to achieve maximum clarity in various places, for instance ignoring some aspects of articulation that Mark Elder's recent recording of the Prelude with the Halle brought forward, but on the whole, this is a very respectable Meistersinger for all who love the score, and the sound quality is very good.
Yet for me, the surprise winner amongst these three recordings is that of Gluck's Alceste. When Dame Janet Baker decided to retire in her prime rather than waiting until she was past it, she planned three opera productions with which to make her farewell, of which this Alceste was one. Two of the productions – Alceste and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at ENO – involved Sir Charles Mackerras as conductor and John Copley as director, and Mackerras is one of several reasons why this recording is so magical. One can sense that the audience are on the edge of their seats, mesmerised at the evocative timbres Mackerras produces from the Covent Garden Orchestra. His pacing of the score is immaculate, blending a gravity that is appropriate to the classical theme of the piece with a magical sense of drama. There really isn't a boring moment in the whole thing; even the closing orchestral divertissement, which is often cut, captivates in this visceral reading.
Baker's performance in the title role is a wonderful example of her art, and one which hasn't previously been available on record. Although she still conjures up plenty of the pure tone for which she is renowned, for me it's the vitality of her delivery of Alceste's key moments that makes this such a compelling experience. This isn't, however, a one-horse race. As Admète, Robert Tear is Baker's equal in both dramatic inclination and vocal poise, while John Shirley-Quirk is also captured at his very best as Le Grand Prêtre/Un Dieu infernal. As always, Mackerras has an unerring ability to draw the best out of the orchestra, inclining on the fast side with speeds but never pushing the singers too hard. The string sound is noticeably lucid, while the woodwinds' contributions add spice to proceedings. Overall, the recording really is lovely and a joy from start to finish.
Reviews of previous ROH Heritage releases: