Cher Public

Royal Hunt

I have been a devotee of Berlioz’s Les Troyens since I first discovered the Covent Garden recording conducted by Colin Davis. Performed by a very strong cast—and one magnificent participant in particular;,the incomparable Jon Vickers—this was for a long time unchallenged as not only the best but  the only complete recording. 

In 1983 we got a televised Met performance with Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos and Placido Domingo, led by James Levine. Even if the sets and costumes were repurposed 1970’s kitsch the singing was outrageously good and still is.

A decade later Charles Dutoit and the Symphonique de Montreal through their hat in the ring with an excellent, if slightly uneven recording. Dutoit’s superbly transparent reading changed the way conductors played the score only for the better and Davis and Levine were all steeling their forces to have at it again.

Davis struck first in 2001, with his private label LSO Live with the London Symphony Orchestra and a concert performance that, I believe, was part of The Proms that year. Banished from Davis’s baton is the Verdian bombast of the 60’s for a much lighter francophile touch. We also got a magnificent new Éneé in Ben Heppner who was brought over to the Met for their new production in the Berlioz Bicentennial year led by Levine.

This matinee radio broadcast of February 22, 2003, the document of that new production, was first released as part of the Levine 40th Anniversary box set. Now the Met has finally decided to start selling these DVDs and CDs separately. This album is only $21.00 for four CDs, or rather, four hours of some of the greatest music you’ll ever hear in your entire life. That alone would be reason enough to recommend it. But this performance is special on a lot of levels and I will try to do them all justice as best I can.

From the beginning the commitment from the orchestra and chorus is almost unparalleled. The sensitivity from the Met Orchestra far surpasses any other of their competitors on the other sets. The clarity of the playing in all of Berlioz’s moments of contrapuntal contrasts, which can come off sounding completely amateurish in the wrong hands, is especially well handled.

The ballet music is very gala in this recording, as well. “The Royal Hunt and Storm” is almost a complete performance in itself with great balance from the offstage chorus. The three-part Pas d’esclaves Nubiennes that follows, also delightful, leads directly into one of the trickiest parts of the score with the little solo by Iopas, segueing into the quintet “O pudeur! …tout conspire” which grows into the longer, hushed, ensemble that preludes to the duet for Didon and Énée, “Nuit d’ivresse” and the finale of IV. Here one is constantly aware of how Levine supports Berlioz’s musical structures, tempi, and his inventive orchestrations.

The Met chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Raymond Hughes, cover themselves with glory. No where is this more apparent than their Act I hymn, “Dieux protecteurs” which shows them at their mightiest both vocally and interpretively.

The cast could hardly be equaled then or now for that matter.  Deborah Voigt who made an exciting, but faceless, Cassandre on the Dutiot set actually knows what her words mean here and proves it. If some of her colleagues get more juice out of the French I still can’t fault her for trying. She’s especially good in the duet in Act I with Chorèbe, Dwayne Croft who is similarly inspired and gives as good as he gets. There’s a small part of me that wishes Ms. Voigt had done a bit more with her parlando phrases in the mass suicide at the end of Act II but it’s quibbling with vocalism this secure and pointed.

When it comes to a tenor who even attempts to sing Énée, many are called but few are chosen. His entrance in Act I is pure vocal hell it’s so ungainly written. I don’t know whom Berlioz had in mind to sing this role when he wrote it but his eventual genetic successor only seems to appear every couple of decades. Heppner makes the concession of losing that flicked at high B in his last act aria and chooses a lower alternative. I forgive him.

I wouldn’t mistake Mr. Heppner for a native French speaker either but he’s correct and he rings out with so many moments of real heroic strength to say nothing of some seriously poetic soft singing in the role that we should be grateful to have this document of his mature interpretation.

The supporting cast is completely gala as well. If Elena Zaremba, as Anna, sounds like Didon’s much older sister and sings with an overly fruity tone she makes up for it by being very strong in the ensembles as does Robert Llloyd as Narbal. I looked at the packaging to see who was the uncommonly, sweet voiced tenor Iopas and was surprised to see Matthew Polenzani that early in his career.

I’ve saved the controversial member of this cast for last. Initially the Didon was to have been Olga Borodina but she had to withdraw as she was in a state of expectation, as they say.  Lorraine Hunt Lieberson strictly speaking had no business taking on Berlioz’s doomed queen of Carthage at the Met, as the voice is a whole size too small for this part.  However, I think it would be a very rare person who appreciates this work and who wouldn’t be moved to the very of core of their being by her performance.

Yes, there’s a flutter on the very top when she’s really pushing for volume. But, I forgive her too. She’s fleet and fluid in her phrasing, a function of her immaculate musicianship.  She sings like an instrumentalist and her imbues every utterance with equal amounts of feeling and precision. Her French is sovereign. She’s not only correct, she’s regal. Ms. Hunt Lieberson is so connected to the text she is the text. Her depth of emotional focus is so preternatural in the last scenes that her performance takes on a messianic quality. I have no higher praise.

Maestro Levine leads an extraordinarily light, for him, and propulsive reading and you can hear him loving every minute of this score and this performance.  Digital mastering is excellent and it’s surprising how good the clarity and balance is between pit and stage with only a minimum of stage noise.  Nifty, cardboard accordion packaging with photos on every panel.  Seriously: 21 bucks ? I spend more than that at the gift shop at intermission.

  • Clita del Toro

    I must admit that just I don’t get LHL. I have listened to the Met Troyens several times and even bought her Bach Cantata CD to listen more carefully. I find her singing lovely and excellent, but when I read this sort of stuff (below), I am totally puzzled. The same “talking points” about her singing always appear in reviews, but I don’t get that at all. She may be all of those things and I don’t say she isn’t. And I have tried for ten years to hear what others hear, but nada!

    “She sings like an instrumentalist and her imbues every utterance with equal amounts of feeling and precision. Her French is sovereign. She’s not only correct, she’s regal. Ms. Hunt Lieberson is so connected to the text she is the text. Her depth of emotional focus is so preternatural in the last scenes that her performance takes on a messianic quality. I have no higher praise.”

    • Nerva Nelli

      I loved many things I heard LHL do, but she was not sovereign in this broadcast, moving as it is to hear it, and only Dwayne really sings notably well. Voigt = zzz here though tolerable in the house ( more than I expect next year), Heppner overburdened…

      • mrsjohnclaggart

        Hai ben raggione, Nerva. I saw the first night. Aside from LHL and the tenori piccoli, I thought the cast mediocre (Dewayne, Debbie) on down (Zaremba). Poor Hep really had to ‘manage’ his top and did so by producing a smallish, white tone, and cracked in the aria. But I did think LHL riveting, despite small problems here and there and what I heard as not always clear elocution.

        My best experiences of her was in Lieder, with my pal Steve Blier (we met at Yale when, at Cutler’s, we grabbed the Furt 1949 Fidelio on MRF at exactly the same second and struggled over it. I won. Never tussle with a woman avec embonpoint! I remember an all Brahms evening that was sublime. She had a superb identification with the musical line but understood that of course she needed to sing not peck, and her vocal shaping was spectacular. I also saw an all recent and new music concert with her and was stunned by her emotional power.

        In opera, I thought she was overwhelming in a role where I have killed in Sumatra, Phedre in Hippolyte et Aricie, the story of my life, with Bill Christie, three times. There, her declamation was almost Boue like in point and intensity and the sound of her voice, thrilling. And her Medee (Charpentier) had a cumulative force, a ferocity and intensity that did call to mind descriptions of Callas in her prime. I adore the DVDs of Theodora and El Nino where I think she is very moving. And there was her thrilling Sesto with a great performance from Drew Minter — still the best Giulio Cesare I’ve ever seen. But yes, elsewhere, the top was an issue, as sometimes was the size of her tone.

        Still, among the greatest recent singers, with as some more sentimental than I would put it, the flaws of a great soul in an all too human apparatus.

        Regine’s various shots at Didon are all cut deformed, though I saw her and Jon stun an audience that expected to be bored in LA (a better pirate than the SF one of the same season). The LP is too heavily cut for my sensibility. 1977 is too late for the creamy enormity of her voice to ride the music as it did earlier. (But for a great ‘adieu’ with recit one MUST have my aunt, Rita Gorr, an incredible piece of singing, with glorious tone and elocution in the great classical tradition).

        Jessye was amazing in that second run where she did both roles and that final act was astounding, wonderfully acted too. It was in the 30 month period where she was a great opera singer (Ariadne, the first Sieglindes, Jocasta — Nonn’ erubescite reges was immense and I fainted at her massive cries of “Oracula! Oracula!”. It matched ME, Martha Never Say Die Moedl in my insane recording.

        Janet did an early EMI recording in what was said to be French of the final scene (her death moans were good). Of the pirates the one entirely in English is probably Jon’s best account of the music.

        But the GREATEST (and one of the few even good) Enee arias is of course George Thill, and no one serious about this opera in sound should be without that, and the Adieu of Georgette Frazier-Marrot (my third cousin) and the somewhat harder to hear but rather amazing Felia Litvinne (1904).

        • Camille

          Your grande tante was Rita Gorr?? Well, THAT explains everything!

          Thank you for the tip about Felia Litvinne, always interesting to hear.

          Grazie, madonna.

        • luvtennis

          I got the chance to know la hunt during her Boston days. She thought of herself as a hard-working professional singer. And she felt lucky and grateful for that- it was pretty competitive in Boston among singers. But Pam Dellal, who competed against her for roles thought she was just a wonderful, lovable person. Speaks volumes for LHL as a PERSON. As a singer, I find her delightful, technically secure, versatile, and completely committed. But the hagiography is a bit much, and I wager that’s she would have thought so too!

        • Podlesmania

          My condoleances for the death of your dear aunt, Mme Gorr, near Valencia in Jan. 22.
          Maybe Mme Gorr included you in her will?

          • mrsjohnclaggart

            Why, thank you for your condolences, Podlesmania. Yes, Aunt Rita DID leave me all she had; mainly, her anti-psychotic medications, and her xxxxl dresses from a brief period when she blew up (they don’t quite fit me). “You need the pills more than I ever did, and I was truly NUTS,” she said on her death bed. I’ve been taking them by the fist full but Bert from Mary Poppins is still visiting me regularly late at night, asking me to dance to Chim Chim Cher-ee and we do — until last night when I feel through the floor. But Aunt Rita still lives, for her voice is soaring through the universe, reaching Alpha Centauri, specifically Proxima, right about now. She was truly amazing for a short but unforgettable time and some of the impact comes across on record — the Herodiade (Flaubert has never forgiven Massenet) highlights, which might be Regine’s very greatest record, is thrilling and so is Aunt Rita’s Ortrud from Bayreuth with the divine Gruemmer (my second cousin). And though the Amneris commercial is wonderful, she and Birgit were literally unbelievable live, and she was a GREAT Santuzza live, toward the end of her prime but she pulled it together.
            And her Mahler, despite the horrendous conducting of Georges Sebastian, is, magnificent and very moving.

    • MontyNostry

      Clita -- I want to get LHL, and do occasionally, but I tend to find her singing sounds a bit spaced-out. The voice is obviously very attractive and well produced, but it doesn’t stay with me.

      • Camille

        Just a suggestion that pops into mind: perhaps try her husband’s Pablo Neruda songs? Those helped me to understand her better. Also, there is some Bach aria singing that is outstanding.

        • MontyNostry

          Camille, I have the CD of the Neruda songs and I listened to them quite a lot, but they helped form my view of LHL. Of course, they were released shortly after she died, so they had a special sad resonance, but all I retain is an impression of mellow melancholy. Maybe I should give them another listen.

  • Simon

    Your alternative recommendations for Les Troyens recordings?

  • I had no idea LHL was controversial in this. Everyone I know who saw it regards it as a thing they will go on about having seen until someone socks them in the jaw. Sorry to throw down the ah-yes-but-in-the-house card, but it was a complete performance. And voice size simply wasn’t an issue, by the way (I was in Family Circle.)

    • Clita del Toro

      I don’t think LHL is controversial in that role or other roles. It’s just that there are always some who are not as enchanted with her singing as others.

      Same goes for all great singers (Callas, Flagstad, Nilsson, VdlA Bjoerling, Warren ,Gobbi, Rysanek) I can name people who don’t especially like those singers.

      • Clita del Toro

        Btw, Leonora da Pin-Yenta is also one who not crazy about LHL.

    • armerjacquino

      I’ll give you one thing, Maury, you’re consistent.

      LHL was, onstage, the spiritual anchor of the piece, and perhaps more so on record she’s the reason it still feels like an event. Among the principals, she’s the only one who wholly belongs in the role she’s been cast in.

      Listening, we can savor (or if you weren’t there, I can taunt you most unsympathetically with) the memory of how she only amplified the tragedy in the singing of the great farewell with an instinctive physicality that found the midpoint between nobility and utter defeat.

      (from maury’s parterre review of this set a couple of years ago)

      • (Maury’s rather less thorough review. Patrick Mack clearly knows the score in a detailed way I don’t.)

    • Nerva Nelli

      I herd two of them in this house and was impressed with her acting, phrasing and management of a not-large voice in dramatic music. Hearing the broadcast, though, in France (!), I was aware of the mismatch of instrument to the music. And though her cult denies it, she often had issues of pitch (check out any of the live Handel recordings with McGegan) and certainly range: above a certain point, it just didn’t “tell”-- for example she could not manage the top of Sesto in the NYCO CLEMENZA.

      A SUPERB artist-- the Serse in Boston and at NYCO was astounding — but not flawless and the Didon was a memorable assumption but IMO not for the ages UNLESS one witnessed it live…

      • You know, I’d love it if the word “cult” were thrown around a little less often on here.

        • Nerva Nelli

          Surely, Maury, in this particular case it’s appropriate, with all the comparisons of LHL to Callas by people who never heard Callas live and proclamations of Universal Genius and so forth? And of course her very tragic early demise coloring the rhetoric.

          Again, LH/LHL was an artist I treasured over many years and venues (Boston, Berkeley, NYC) but everyone has better and less good roles or assignments.

          • Sorry, I’m reacting only in part to you. I like several singers wherein liking for said singer is locally considered evidence of membership in a cult or a cabal. It gets old being told that your tastes are just some kind of group-think.

      • Camille

        I must second Nerva Nelli in re the top of LHL’s Sesto, which I also heard.
        It was evident, at least on the night I heard it, that she was struggling and was overparted in the aria, “Parto, ma tu ben mio”…I remember a distinct disappointment.

        That’s all.

  • oedipe

    I can’t express an opinion about Ms. Hunt Lieberson’s singing in Les Troyens, I have only heard a youtube clip.
    But, “her French is sovereign”? Says who? Says you? I caught less than 10 words on a 7 minute clip! And what does it mean “she is the text”? She sounds foreign to me.

  • peter

    I’m afraid I am one of those crazy LHL fanatics. I heard her on numerous occasions in the Bay Area earlier on in her career. One of the most memorable performances was her Nuits d’ete in a Philharmonia Baroque concert. I went to LA to hear her Serse and NY to hear her Sesto and Didon. It was a gorgeous instrument and there was something about her that I responded to on an almost primal level. I’ve been going to the opera since 1974 and few singers have ever moved me as much. It’s all personal taste and I know many others did not respond to her in a similar way. To each his own and I don’t begrudge anyone for not getting her but I do get annoyed when people trash her as some kind of early music choir singer. The Didon was a special performance for me since I never dreamed that she would ever appear on the Met stage in a role like that. Her voice was perhaps not as weighty as one would expect in the role of Didon but it was plenty big from where I was sitting and the only problem she had were the couple of high notes in a her opening “Chere Tyriennes” (sp.?). I don’t know if her French was authentic but it was beautiful. It was a total performance in terms of her identification with the character and her acting was very natural and organic. It was the last time I flew to NY specifically to see a performer.

  • danpatter

    I still like the old EMI highlights disc with Regine Crespin and Guy Chauvet. I’m afraid the only time I’ve seen TROYENS live was way back in 1974, but the cast was a good one: Vickers, Verrett, Ludwig, under Kubelik.

    • Nerva Nelli

      That was one of my earliest vocal purchases on LP, but it’s TERRIBLY conducted and the cuts are appalling.

      Too bad as Crespin and Chauevt have the right instruments. A better complete recording could have been made a few years before with them and, say, Massard (Chorebe) Berbie (Anna), Arrazau (Ascagne) and Vanzo (Iopas/Hylas) onboard.

      • danpatter

        I agree. There’s nothing like GOOD French singers singing French opera. EMI was awfully conservative about its singers. (Think of all the recordings they COULD have made with Callas that they didn’t. PIRATA, ANNA BOLENA, POLIUTO, VESTALE, MACBETH, etc.) With Crespin in their stable, EMI really should have done a complete TROYENS. The polyglot cast of the Davis recording, while mostly fine, are really French stylists.

        • danpatter

          I meant “NOT really French stylists.” Sorry.

          • armerjacquino

            As Ethan Mordden memorably said, Berit Lindholm enters to inform us that ‘les gretch ont disparu’.

          • MontyNostry

            … and to think that Crespin could have been on that Davis recording. Philips got the hump, apparently, because she had recorded the excerpts for EMI. On the other hand, I can remember what Lindholm sounded like (thick, iron-clad sound), which is more than I can when it comes to Veasey.

          • I really need to listen to the first Davis recording again. I remember liking Jo Veasey’s performance but I don’t necessarily remember anything specific. Brendholm impressed me with the quality of her voice but that was it. The voice didn’t sound terribly responsive and she was interpretatively bland. That set really belongs to Davis and Vickers. Such a shame that Crespin wasn’t on the recording.

            I love the opera and I’m thrilled that it has become much less rare in the last 10-15 years. But I’m sorry that it was considered so rare during the days when we had singers like Crespin, Norman, Bumbry, Ludwig, Troyanos and Verrett to sing Cassandre and Didon.

  • semira mide

    All I knew of Les Troyens before I hear it that memorable Saturday at the Met were wonderful excerpts by Marilyn Horne(Cassandra) and the ballet music.
    I had NO idea who LHL was, and I was disappointed that Borodina would not be singing.

    That afternoon was one of the most memorable of my life -- not just my opera-going life, but more generally.

    The orchestra made Berlioz sound greater than his perhaps is.The chorus was an amazing protagonist. In my opinion, although all the the cast was terrific, LHL imbued Dido with all of the characteristics the role requires. She was simply exquisite. Too small a voice for the role? Perhaps.
    Sometimes the power of the experience overwhelms critical evaluation.

    Matinee audiences are dissed a lot on Parterre, but I cannot imagine a more engaged group of people than were present that afternoon. I don’t have the review handy, but Tommasini wrote something about this being a watershed after 9/11. I remember feeling “safe” like I have never felt before.
    I will always be grateful to James Levine for the experience. BTW the recording, though excellent is only a shadow of what was experienced in the house that day.

  • I saw this production in-house and found LHL to be extraordinary. I agree about the criticisms however. The voice was a bit small for the part, and she can sing flat here and there, and there is that flutter when she pushes her voice. But the overall interpretation of the role was still extremely moving. And much of the emotional power of her performance came through when I heard the radio broadcast, so it wasn’t just an in-house thing for me.

    Didon has an odd recorded history in that there aren’t studio recordings of some of the greatest interpreters of the roles. My two favourites are Norman and Verrett and neither of them recorded the role commercially.

    Norman’s historic Met broadcast (singing Cassandre as well) is magnificent (including a 3-minute ovation after “Aieu, fiere cite”) but her Enee is Edward Sooter who is just terrible. There are a couple of youtube clips of her Didon from London but I don’t know if a complete recording exists.

    Verrett’s live recording from Rome features Gedda as Enee and Horne (!) as Cassandre. Gedda is much better than Sooter.

    I haven’t heard the Crespin highlights disc but I’ve heard that it’s not as good as one might have hoped. It’s a shame because, on paper, Crespin was born to sing the role.

    I don’t think Heppner gets enough credit for just how well he sings a near impossible role.

    • rapt

      Re the Crespin recording, I reluctantly must agree. I adore Crespin, but to my ear she’s much less imaginative, more monochromatic, in this recording than when she’s at her best. I find the recorded Janet Baker excerpts superior (to my own surprise).

      • Hippolyte

        I might mention there are a number of live Crespin recordings of Troyens worth hunting for. There are two of the ridiculously cut version from the 60s where she sang both Cassandre (the entire Prise de Troie is cut down to around a half an hour) and Didon, one is from the Teatro Colon with Chauvet, the other from San Francisco with Vickers, probably the only run where these two sang this music together.

        There is also a complete Troyens a Carthage with Crespin from the 1977 Cincinnati May Festival again with Chauvet and Levine conducting. I believe there might also be a recording of one of the Boston performances under Caldwell but that I have not heard.

        There are also two complete Troyens from Covent Garden with Baker as Didon (both with Vickers and Colin Davis conducting), the more famous one from 1969 where she substituted for Veasey and sang in English while the rest sang in French. There is also a broadcast from 1972 where the entire production was sung in English, with Veasey singing Cassandre.

    • Nerva Nelli

      Horne is actually superb in that (again, cut) RAI set, as are Gedda and Massard; Verrett is on a slightly lower level vocally and interpretively, to my surprise -- and certainly as to French diction. Veriano Luchetti treats the tenorino parts like Mascagni, kind of interesting to hear but…

      • Nerva: I must admit that I don’t remember much of Horne’s Cassandre. Whenever I’ve returned to that recording, it has been for Verrett. I’ll take another listen because of your recommendation.

        • peter

          There’s also a live recording with Ludwig, Dernesch and Chauvet which is not the best set out there but it comes with a bonus CD of excerpts of Josephine Veasey’s Cassandre. I’ve never really warmed up to her Dido but her Cassandre is thrilling.

    • Sempre liberal

      Love the Norman Cassandre/Didon recording.

      Has anyone heard Regina Resnik’s Didon? I once saw a recording of it at Academy CDs, didn’t buy it, and now regret it.

      Re. LHL — amazing performance in the house — luminous, although Michelle DeYoung (who sang a few of the Didos that run) sounded more sensuous. I’m dying to hear this CD -- thanks for the review.

      • Famous Quickly

        I could sing Narbal *tomorrow*; it’s a question of color and tessitura.

        The hillbilly drunk was my Cassandre. And Maestro Lawrence barely knew the score. I was (of course acclaimed), but oh, dear…

        • luvtennis

          I have that recording, DQ (tee hee) and you are very exciting. Not a patch on your siggy tho….

  • armerjacquino

    The only time I ever saw TROYENS was in the run of performances that opened the Bastille (that sounds very glamorous and *in*; in fact I was a 17 year old exchange student sat in the gods for PRISE DE TROIE).

    All I can remember about the performance or cast was that Bumbry was Cassandre, and she was ACE.

    • MontyNostry

      … and wasn’t Verrett Cassandre, except on the night when Grace did both Cassandre and Didon?

      • armerjacquino

        I don’t know if they alternated or what, but I definitely saw Bumbry.

        • Bianca Castafiore

          No, Monty, Bumbry was the Cassandre and Verrett, Didon.

          However, there was one performance in which Bumbry sang both roles, the last one. This was in Verrett’s autobiography. There was a strike, and the last perf. was re-scheduled — by then, Verrett was unavailable for the last date, so Bumbry sang both.

          My recollection from reviews at the time was that Bumbry was praised by the media but not Verrett — but Shirl laments in her book that the reviewers attended the premiere, and not subsequent perf., which she said were much better for her.

          • MontyNostry

            Sorry, Bianca, that was a typo. I knew Shirl sang Didon, not Cassandre. Obviously over-excitement at thought of a total of five hours or so of these two divas de luxe.

  • Will

    I was fortunate to see Lieberson from her earliest days As Lorraine Hunt in Boston in Peter Sears’ productions through to her work in Gatsby and Troyens, then very close to the end in the premiere of Neruda Songs with the Boston Symphony. I heard her in at least two other French roles — Beatrice and Carmen, both in Boston and I suspect the latter was her only go at the Bizet. At no time, and in no venue was she ever inaudible and I thought her French style very good indeed.

    I was at the Troyens matinee in the Balcony. The one moment that I remember as problematic was a high note in her first scene but the rest was really very fine. The singer I just couldn’t take was Zaremba — her performance for me was on a level of miscasting similar to Otraztsova as Adalgisa and largely for the same reasons.

    • Curiously, LHL did sing Carmen -- part of it, anyway -- on at least one other occasion, and at the Met. I saw her sing Act 4 with Jose Carreras in a weird sort of “3 Tenors” gala at the Met (very Volpe, if you know what I mean). It’s bad of me, but that’s the only portion of the evening I really remember. Either Domingo or Pavarotti sang an act of Andrea Chenier (if I were forced to guess, I’d say it was Act 2 with Domingo), and I can’t recall what the other (Pavarotti?) “act” was. Someone else here certainly remembers this? I think it may have been the spring following the Great Gatsby premiere.

  • Hippolyte

    I was lucky enough to have seen Lorraine Hunt Lieberson numerous times over eighteen years: onstage in most of her great roles: Sesto (both Handel’s and Mozart’s), Serse, Phedre, Medee, Didon, as well as Donna Elvira in both of Peter Sellars’s versions of Don Giovanni and in his staging of two Bach cantatas. I also heard her in an all-Handel concert with Orpheus at Carnegie, in a performance piece about Sor Juana de la Cruz by Mabou Mines, as well as in Mark Morris’s great dance piece L’Allegro.

    Needless to say she was one of my favorite singers and this document of the wonderful Didon (which I saw twice) is a must, along with the recordings of the Rameau and Charpentier roles mentioned above, and the sublime DVD of Handel’s Theodora from Glyndebourne.

    It shouldn’t suprise me that there are those who don’t “get” her. Part of it probably is the “you had to be there” phenomenon but any important artist inevitably elicits controversy and disagreement, no?

  • Bianca Castafiore

    I seem to recall seeing LHL live once — a performance of Mark Morris’ “L’allegro, il moderato ed il penseroso”, or whatever that oratorio is called, at BAM (Brooklyn). LHL by then was not famous, and she sang the solo part. Unfort. I don’t recall the singing at all, but only the dancing. Did anyone else remember those?

  • operacat

    I saw the TROYENS later in the Met run of 2003 when Michelle DeYoung had taken over. I thought DeYoung was exceptional (regal, amazonian, lovely and in beautiful voice) I remember saying to people around me that nothing much happens during Act Four except almost an hour of the most beautiful music ever written. Everyone agreed. My partner and I would rush up to NYC to see it again but not with Giordani — we wont even see the HD. That music needs a gorgeous voice.

    • I agree about Giordani. Part of what makes Enee so tricky is that it has high tessitura, requires a heroic sound, but also needs beauty of tone. Vocally speaking, I imagine Botha doing a beautiful job of it.

      • operacat

        I think of Aenee as needing a Mozart singer with a Wagner steel and heft. Hence Heppner and Vickers as the greatest.

        • Will

          One of the problems with casting Aenee in the past has been the concept that it needs a heldentenor and then casting it with a baritonal Wagnerian. The French dramatic tenor for grand opera needs to have a bright, flexible voice with a brilliant top, something that will ride on or neatly slice through the orchestra, not bludgeon its way through. Edward Sooter had precisely the wrong kind of voice; anyone who has to strain up top rather than soar would have the wrong type of voice. Gedda had the right voice for it.

          • Gualtier M

            Georges Thill had the right voice for it but I am not sure he sang the role onstage:

          • decotodd

            Kaufmann is singing the Enee this summer in Covent Garden and though this is a role debut, would seem to be a good fit vocally for the role.

        • oedipe

          Out of curiosity: why do people think Enée (thus Berlioz) needs to sound like Mozart and Wagner?

          • Obviously, the French style is different than either Mozart or Wagner. But I think what OC was trying to say is that the heroic tenor roles of French grand opera need an almost Wagnerian heft combined with an elegance and ability to sing beautifully that one would associate with Mozart.

  • phoenix

    -- Cassandre is a very difficult role to bring off, so I will stay away from that one; I will only say I saw a very good one (Shirley Verrett) as well as another idiomatically successful Cassandre (Françoise Pollet) BUT the only really great Cassandre I ever saw was Régine Crespin.
    -- Thank you so very much Patrick Mack: you are as complimentary to me as you are to the singers in this live CD performance -> I qualify as that ‘very rare person who appreciates this work and who wouldn’t be moved to the very of core of their being by her [Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s] performance.’ I am not going to argue with academic nor self-proclaimed experts over the matter: the mediahype gushingly supported Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (may she rest in peace) to the point where I was given the impression that she was the greatest American musical phenomenon since Louise Homer. Her Dido in Les Troyens was the only time I witnessed a complete performance from her; although I heard her on several radio broadcasts, unfortunately I had to turn them off from sheer boredom with her monochormatic colourless tone. As far as this Met Dido (and I say this with all due respect to her and the promoters who publicized her) Mme. Lieberson’s interpretation was the most mediocre I have ever witnessed -- but that may be because of my lack of intelligence, education and experience: I only saw a small handful of ladies attempt the role of Dido live inhouse: Ludwig, Verrett, Crespin, Norman, Troyanos, Veasey and Ewing.

    • Belfagor

      It surprises me to remember how many performances of ‘Les troyens’ I have seen -- I think there was a spell in the UK in the 80’s, when the piece was being discovered as more than just a one-off gala event -- when people realized it was not as monstrous or as long as legend had built it up to be.

      But I recall a one off concert performance at the UK Portsmouth festival (of all places) with Roger Norrington, with John Mitchinson coping, and Eiddwen Harrhy -- a Welsh National Opera soprano -- quite wrong -- as Dido. Or a complete Proms outing, over 2 nights with la Jessye as both Cassandra and Dido, with improvised conducting from Gennady Rozhdestvensky -- of all people. I vividly remember la Jessonda coming out for the bow, gesturing dismissively at him and even appearing to chew gum (I kid not!) and refusing to acknowledge him -- apparently there had been blood streaming down the walls in rehearsal. I remember that the performance was chaotic. Then Scottish Opera toured a production to Covent Garden, about 1990 I think -- conducted by the prosaic John Mauceri (not a phrase in earshot) redeemed by a rapt and subtle Dido from Kathryn Harries, better in the earlier scenes, a bit melodramatic later. Incidentally, Mauceri once cruised me very blatantly at the luggage claim at Heathrow airport (this was some time ago when I was younger) and i remember being highly mixed up as he was there with a woman and a horde of children -- but that’s by the by…….

      Colin Davis did an earlier series of LSO concert performances than the one that is currently on CD -- it was about the same time as the Dutoit recording -- can’t remember the Aeneas, but Jane Henschel was a boring, hectoring (no pun intended) Cassandra, and the Dido, who had exquisite presence and real gravitas was Markella Hatziano (whatever happened to her?). I saw a recent ENO production d. Richard Jones and have absolutely no memory of the singing.

      But I agree the record companies were caught napping when they could have had -- if not idiomatic French singers like Crespin, who would have been ideal -- then Jessye, Verrett, Ludwig, or more. I don’t like the early Davis recording because the women have neither the style or the grandezza required. I always found Veasey a joyless singer. I haven’t seen the JE Gardiner DVD with Anna Caterina Antonacci -- and is it Anne Sofie von Otter? Any good? It’s also a tragedy that, at the time that Beecham recorded the de los Angeles ‘Carmen’, in the late 50’s he was due to do ‘Troyens’ but it was postponed and he was too old and frail……apparently he wanted Callas for Cassandre………

      Did Rita Gorr ever sing Didon?

    • Belfagor

      ps -- Phoenix -- that is quite a roster of Didos! I would have given my eye teeth to have seen that crowd!

      • phoenix

        You are right -- whatever else went wrong with my life (and plenty did), now I know how very fortunate I was to have seen these great artists. I may yet still have to give up my eye teeth (I’ve already lost 6 teeth) but my eye teeth are still there.
        -- At that time she was still a soprano and I was of the opinion (and I wasn’t in the minority in this opinion) that Crespin’s Cassandre had a greater impact than her somewhat more subtle lyrically regal Dido — but nowadays, Crepin’s Dido of almost 50 years ago would probably be an unmatched revelation.
        -- Verrett was the most dramatically intense & believable of them all. It was a perfect fit for Norman, all of the music lied within reach of the best parts of her voice; although I didn’t like her seemingly constantly covered tone, Norman, like Crespin, was an excellent singer & could be very subtle and lyrical as Dido. The role of Dido, along with Blanche de la Force, were my favorite Ewing performances (I thought Salome was her worst). Veasey was a very gifted singer and her French diction was excellent. Trojanos was the most romantically vulnerable of them all, a very important quality of Dido that singers often do not emphasize enough. The greatest assumption of the role that I have witnessed so far at the Met was Christa Ludwig -- the most personal interpretation I have ever witnessed of the role; it was as if you were right there onstage with her listening to her tell you the story. She was not as regal as Crespin nor as dramatically 3-dimensional as Verrett, but the sheer humanity in Ludwig’s beautiful voice -- her incredible interpretation was very much like her Kundry -- all Dido’s thoughts were transparently clear, traceable in her tone constantly all throughout the performance; she had a bright tone very well supported from below which through modulation successfully enabled her to give the impression of the greatest intimacy of communication; most astounding was the desperation and anxiety vocally she conveyed in the final scenes -- more so than anyone else I ever heard. Too bad the Met didn’t put out a CD (or at least a Sirius rebroadcast) of Ludwig’s Dido with Vickers & Verrett, but the conductor was Kubelik, not Levine… and it wouldn’t bode well with the powers that be at the Met… Kubelik’s Trojens was far superior to the CD reviewed at the top of this thread.
        -- I regret that I did not see Michelle de Young. She is superb on the 2nd Colin Davis recoding from London. My late best friend went to see her Dido at the Met and told me she was one of the greats.

  • I was at this evening of “entertainment” which consisted of two hours of intermissions arranged around about 50 minutes of music.

    Metropolitan Opera House
    May 11, 2000
    Pension Fund Benefit


    Maddalena……………Daniela Dessì
    Andrea Chénier……….Plácido Domingo
    Carlo Gérard…………Nikolai Putilin
    Bersi……………….Wendy White
    Mathieu……………..Paul Plishka
    Incredibile………….Anthony Laciura
    Roucher……………..Kim Josephson
    Conductor……………James Levine

    CARMEN: Act IV
    Carmen………………Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
    Don José…………….José Carreras
    Escamillo……………Gino Quilico
    Frasquita……………Emily Pulley
    Mercédès…………….Jill Grove
    Zuniga………………Richard Vernon
    Dancer………………Maria Benitez
    Conductor……………James Levine

    Turandot…………….Jane Eaglen
    Liù…………………Patricia Racette
    Calàf……………….Luciano Pavarotti
    Timur……………….Roberto Scandiuzzi
    Ping………………..Haijing Fu
    Pang………………..Michael Forest
    Pong………………..Richard Fracker
    Conductor……………James Levine

    The only thing I can remember about the evening is that Carrerras got a huge hand on his entrance after a 13 year absence from the Met, and that a few minutes later in the Carmen scene Hunt Lieberson gave him not a very hard shove per the stage directions and he completely lost his balance and nearly fell over.

    These Volpe mystery meat evenings were low points even in his tenure.

    • phoenix

      Do they still give those Pension Fund Galas at the Met nowadays? In addition to the Pension Fund Galas, if memory serves me correctly Volpe seemed to put on more of these variety show celebratory galas during his tenure than his predecessors did. My memory is failing me in old age, but I distinctly remember two Pension Fund Galas, many years apart, that I did enjoy very much:

      Metropolitan Opera House
      March 1, 1975
      Benefit sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild
      for the Benevolent and Retirement Funds


      Un Ballo in Maschera: Act II, Scene 1

      Amelia………………Elinor Ross
      Riccardo…………….Luciano Pavarotti
      Renato………………Louis Quilico
      Samuel………………Paul Plishka
      Tom…………………James Morris

      Conductor……………Henry Lewis

      Production…………..Günther Rennert
      Designer…………….Ita Maximowna

      In Concert

      La Favorita: Act IV

      Baldassare…………..James Morris
      Fernando…………….Luciano Pavarotti
      Leonora……………..Mignon Dunn [best performance I ever heard from her]

      Conductor……………Henry Lewis

      La Bohème: Act I

      Mimì………………..Pilar Lorengar
      Rodolfo……………..Luciano Pavarotti
      Marcello…………….Robert Goodloe
      Schaunard……………Gene Boucher
      Colline……………..Paul Plishka
      Benoit………………Richard Best

      Conductor……………Henry Lewis

      Stage Director……….Patrick Tavernia
      Designer…………….Rolf Gérard

      The other gala was one of the Volpe nights:

      Metropolitan Opera House
      March 24, 1991

      Benefit for the Metropolitan Opera Pension Fund
      sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild

      In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversaries of
      Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Ghiaurov


      Faust: Act III

      Faust……………….Alfredo Kraus
      Marguerite…………..Mirella Freni
      Méphistophélès……….Nicolai Ghiaurov
      Siebel………………Frederica von Stade
      Marthe………………Loretta Di Franco

      Conductor……………James Levine

      Production………….Harold Prince
      Stage Director……….Max Charruyer
      Designer…………….Rolf Langenfass
      Lighting designer…….Gil Wechsler

      Don Carlo: Act IV, Scene 1

      Elizabeth of Valois…..Mirella Freni
      Rodrigo……………..Vladimir Chernov [First appearance]
      Princess Eboli……….Giovanna Casolla
      Philip II……………Nicolai Ghiaurov
      Grand Inquisitor……..Samuel Ramey
      Count of Lerma……….Charles Anthony

      Conductor……………James Levine

      Production…………..John Dexter
      Stage Director……….Paul Mills
      Set designer…………David Reppa
      Costume designer……..Ray Diffen
      Lighting designer…….Gil Wechsler

      Madama Butterfly: Act III

      Cio-Cio-San………….Mirella Freni
      Pinkerton……………Plácido Domingo
      Suzuki………………Wendy White
      Sharpless……………Vladimir Chernov
      Dolore………………Christopher Laciura [Only appearance]
      Kate………………..Sondra Kelly

      Conductor……………James Levine

      Production…………..Yoshio Aoyama
      Stage Director……….Fabrizio Melano
      Designer…………….Motohiro Nagasaka

      Joseph Volpe

    • In theory, these evenings of one-acters could work but they rarely seem to. When you think about it, the ingredients are there for great entertainment — lots of stars, choice parts of favourite operas, and a sense of occasion. But I’m guessing that there isn’t a whole lot of rehearsal time allotted, so the performances never take off dramatically.

      One exception in my memory is the Met’s 25th anniversary at Lincoln Centre. Domingo, Freni and Diaz really created something in Act III of Otello. I must admit that I was still quite new to opera when I watched this gala on TV. I don’t think I owned a recording of Otello yet so watching my VHS tape of the broadcast was how I got to know that act.

  • Buster

    Hunt was a superb Jocasta for Peter Sellars. A small part, but her scenes are all I remember from that performance. I also heard her in recital once, in Ann Arbor, Debussy, Brahms, and spirituals. She had a hippy dress on, and wore sandals. Very cool.

    • Jocasta is what I like to call a “thankful role” (as opposed to those thankless roles). She doesn’t come in until halfway through the piece, has a third of the music that Oedipus has to sing, but if she is strong enough, she can claim the performance as her own.

  • “Je suis reine et j’ordonne. Laissez-moi seule, Anna.”

    I’m sorry (am I?) to be part of the hagiography but this phrase has it all for me, in LHL’s performance. Besides the sheer tonal beauty, the lovely French, the RIGHTNESS (to my instincts) of the phrasing, this is completely believable as an entity. I BELIEVE her regal authority, i GET her desparation, I FEAR for the forthcoming outburst, once she’s alone.

    I think I understand why some people have issues with her. Technically and aesthetically, she came into fame via the HIP movement, and her voice production and legato line are essentially modelled on woodwind aesthetics (despite her training as a violist). Traditional 20th century legato is more inspired by the seamless string tone and line -- not bel epoque singing, sample any Melba (or Patti or Sembrich or Schumann-Heink) coloratura for that matter.

    Technical issues of volume, occasional flatness and ‘pushing’ the top. I hear all of that, and many great singers where not totally blameless in the second and third respects, and in my opinion she was a great singer, a great artist, communicator, whatever.

    Furthermore, there is the elusive question of eloquence, or declamation. I know ever so little about it, but my (perhaps wrong-headed) instincts tell me that LHL got that right. She collaborated a lot with Christie and he knows a thing or two about that lost art. Essentially, besides issues of articulation, I think that declamation necessitates that the consonants be pronounced, assisted by the throat muscles, what I call ‘low’ pronunciation. It is precarious, potentially harmful unless well supported, but gets the right style. Callas used this kind of consonant production in Italian music. That’s why I find her accompagnati so ‘right’. Nowadays Mireille Delunsch has this kind of rightness about her declamation (she also uses the ‘low’ consonant production. Hearing various contemporary singers, who mostly use frontal consonant production, such as von Otter, it sounds ‘wrong’ to my ears, although no doubt easier and healthier for the voice.

    LHL may be one of the very few artists in the 20th-21st centuries to approach Berlioz from the baroque declamation style (Norman, having worked with Gardiner on Rameau, also had this ‘training’). I think Berlioz continues an unbroken chain (Lully, Charpentier, Rameau, Gretry, Cherubini, also occasionally Meyerbeer) of French tragedie lyrique writers and the roles of Cassandre and Didon in Troyens belong to this tradition. LHL understood that and performed the role in this way. That’s why I believe this recorded document to have some importance.

    • One might add Dame Janet.

      Furthermore, I have uploaded LHL’s entire live Nuits d’ete with McGegan. It is most beautiful and touching (IMO perhaps the best of the lot) and I have posted it here a few months ago. Here is the first song and one may go on from here by oneself.

    • C/F: As always, your comments are illuminating and a pleasure to read. Thanks!

      Speaking of Berlioz’s link back to tragedie lyrique, I am usually reminded of Cassandre’s first scene when I hear Diane appearance at the end of Gluck’s Iphigénie.

    • Clita del Toro

      I just listened carefully to the two clips of LHL’s Nuits d’ete and again found them beautifully sung, but felt nothing. I much prefer Crespin’s, Steber or even Baker’s versions. LHL’s singing of the songs is ever so correct and perfect, but something is missing, and i can’t put my finger on what that is. There is an overall dullness to her interpretation, imo. Maybe it’s just me.

      • Clita del Toro


        • Camille

          Mia/o diletta/o Clitissima del Coro!

          No, it is not you, it is me, too, about LHL, that is. I hear it the same way.

          I am sorry to be an old stick-in-the-mud but let’s face it, Regine beats the pants off everyone.

          Still at my Joan Crawford studies seminar on YouTube. Last night I discovered “SADIE MCKEE”, which has that cute song in it, “All I do is dream of you”. Also had a brief look at “The Damned Don’t Cry”—scary, and reminds me of Manon!
          I think I like Joan best in her flapper daze, though. Just wonderful.

          Love you,
          Cammie McKee

  • One more thing -- I tend to disagree with the review above over the question of the chorus. I thought they were absolutely abominable and the ladies almost managed to ruin the 2nd act finale for me. The LSO chorus on the Davis II are absolutely fantastic, all the more so considering that they are amateurs. Monteverdis augmented on the Gardiner DVD are also very good, albeit obviously small in number and sound like it.

  • Andrew Powell

    There are many recordings now …

    1. Kubelík/Shuard/Thebom/Vickers, 1957, live in London, Testament
    2. Kubelík/Rankin/Simionato/del Monaco, 1960, live in Milan, Myto
    3. Lawrence/Steber/Resnik/Cassilly, 1960, live in New York, VAI
    4. Davis-C/Lindholm/Veasey/Vickers, 1969, Philips
    5. Davis-C/Silja/Baker/Vickers, 1969, live in London, Opera Depot
    6. Prêtre/Horne/Verrett/Gedda, 1969, live in Rome, Opera d’Oro
    7. Kubelík/Verrett/Ludwig/Vickers, 1974, live in New York, Opera Lovers
    8. Albrecht/Dernesch/Ludwig/Chauvet, 1976, live in Vienna, Gala
    9. Baudo/Denize/Zimmermann-M/Unruh, VIDEO 1980, Lyon, Lyric Distribution
    10. Levine/Norman/Troyanos/Domingo, VIDEO 1983, New York, DG
    11. Levine/Norman/Norman/Sooter, 1984, live in New York, Opera Lovers
    12. Chung/Bumbry/Verrett/Gray, 1990, live in Paris, Premiere Opera
    13. Dutoit/Voigt/Pollet/Lakes, 1993, Decca
    14. Davis-C/Henschel/Hatziano/Bogachev, 1996, live in Milan, Lyric Distribution
    15. Cambreling/Polaski/Polaski/Villars, VIDEO 2000, Salzburg, Arthaus
    16. Davis-C/Lang/DeYoung/Heppner, 2000, live in London, LSO
    17. Gardiner/Antonacci/Graham/Kunde, VIDEO 2003, Paris, Opus Arte
    18. Levine/Patchell/DeYoung/Heppner, 2003, live in New York, House of Opera
    19. Levine/Voigt/Hunt Lieberson/Heppner, 2003, live in New York, Met
    20. Nelson/Antonacci/von Otter/Streit, 2007, live in Geneva, Premiere Opera
    21. Gergiev/Matos/Barcellona/Ryan, VIDEO 2009, Valencia, C Major
    22. Pappano/Antonacci/Westbroek/Kaufmann, 2012, live in London
    23. Luisi/Voigt/Graham/Giordani, VIDEO 2013, New York

  • Camille

    I find this quite beautiful and moving. As I am entirely unfamiliar with this work, what is the action—well, obviously it is probably after some great tragic demouement, but what exactly?

    Mrs. Hunt Lieberson as MEDEE, M.-A. Charpentier, 1993

    • m. croche

      Quel prix de mon amour, quel fruit de mes forfaits!
      Il craint des pleurs qu’il m’oblige a rependre;

      • m. croche

        Insensible au son le plus tendre
        Dont un coeur ait brule jamais,
        Quand mes soupirs pouvent suspendre
        l’injustice de ses projetsl
        Il fuit pour ne les pas entendre.

        Quel prix de mon amour! quel fruit de mes forfaits!

        J’ay force devant lui cent Monstres a se rendre.
        Dans mon coeur ou regnoit une tranquille paix,
        Toujours promte a tout entreprendre,
        J’ai sceu de la nature effacer tous les traits.
        Les mouvements du sang ont voulu me surprendre,
        J’ay fait gloire de me’en deffendre,
        Et l’oubli des serments que cent fois il m’a faits,
        L’engagement nouveau que l’amour lui fait prendre,
        L’eloignement, l’exil, sont les tristes effets
        De l’hommage eternel que j’en devois attendre?
        Quel prix de mon amour! quel fruit de mes forfaits!

        • m. croche

          Argh -- premature submissions.

          Act III, iii -- the Peripetie, Medee begins to realize that Jason may not Be All That Into Her.

          • m. croche

            … and yes, the work is definitely worth getting to know. More dramatic, more gut-wrenching than Lully. Charpentier could have done more in this vein, but helas, he was kept from the reins of power.

          • Camille

            Why, merci mille et un fois, monsieur croche! Quelle surprise!

            Truly appreciate this information as I feel this Medee is something to know better and this will nudge me in that direction.

            Now, if you could only just get that Monsieur Croche app on the market in time for my husband’s birthday….

          • Camille

            Oui, m. croche, as every woman -- at some point in her existence must realize --
            that the truest object of her obscure and passionate desire does not reciprocate in any commensurate manner.

            Love always goes like Chekhov or Turgenev describe it…A loves B loves C loves D loves A.

    • JackJack

      Camille, thanks for posting this. Beautiful performance by one of the most affecting artists I’ve ever seen.