Cher Public

Steal me, sweet thieves

All the recent buzz about Maria Callas should have brought to mind Luigi Cherubini whose most famous opera provided the diva with one of her fieriest heroines. However the composer probably wouldn’t have recognized the version she sang and might have also wondered why this week’s “Trove Thursday” offering is sung in Italian. Ali Baba ou Les Quarantes Voleurs continues straight-tone September with Teresa Stich-Randall (not pictured) as its heroine while Alfredo Kraus scales the heights with another Nadir. 

Though born in Florence, Cherubini composed his most important works in France. An important transitional figure between classical and romantic styles, he seems mostly forgotten and unperformed today, other than fairly frequent productions of Médée. Riccardo Muti has been his sometime champion programming his sacred music and reviving Lodoïska at La Scala in the early 1990s with Mariella Devia, a production recorded but now out of print.

Montserrat Caballé who sang “Medea” in Spain also appeared several times as Dircé in Démophoon, Cherubini’s first tragédie lyrique. Her performance from Rome 1985 co-starring Veriano Luchetti, Giuseppe Taddei and Margarita Castro-Alberty was shown on Italian television.

Despite its swashbuckling title, Ali Baba to a libretto co-authored by Eugène Scribe is also termed a tragédie lyrique and was Cherubini’s final opera. Forty-five years after Démophoon, it premiered in Paris just two years before Bellini’s I Puritani would take the city by storm. Panned by Berlioz and shunned by the public, Ali Baba pretty much disappeared until this 1963 performance.

Mozart specialist Stich-Randall tiptoes into the early 19th century more successfully here than in her campy bel canto recordings from around the same time; her occasionally wordless Puritani “Vien diletto” makes an irresistible “party” record.

On the other hand, Kraus’s sterling achievements in many early ottocento operas are deservedly well-known.

Orianna Santunione who sang all the big Italian dramatic soprano roles in the 70s and early 80s (though never in the U.S.) appears in the seconda donna role of Morgiane which was created by Cornélie Falcon who lent her name to a unique soprano/mezzo vocal type. Falcon and Adolphe Nourrit (Cherubini’s first Nadir) went on to create Rachel and Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive and Valentine and Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots several years after Ali Baba.

Médée has been often done in the inauthentic 1909 reconstruction by Carlo Zangarini with recitatives composed in German by Franz Lachner in 1855 then translated into Italian. Surprisingly in an era marked by “historically informed performance,” the Wexford Festival opens next month with that “Medea” mash-up starring young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen. She made a big splash this summer at Glyndebourne as Ariadne and will soon repeat that role for her debuts at the Vienna Staatsoper and Aix-en-Provence Festival but not before she torments the Giasone of rising Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky in Ireland.

After many years, La Scala again revives Ali Baba in Italian in September 2018 featuring members of its academy program.

Cherubini: Ali Baba ou Les Quarante Voleurs (in Italian)
La Scala
15 June 1963

Delia — Teresa Stich-Randall
Morgiane — Orianna Santunione
Nadir — Alfredo Kraus
Ali Baba – Wladimiro Ganzarolli
Aboul Hassan — Paolo Montarsolo
Ours-Kan — Lorenzo Testi
Thamar — Agostino Ferrin
Calaf — Piero de Palma
Phaor — Virgilio Carbonari

Conductor — Nino Sanzogno


Three more “Trove Thursday” blasts from the past:

  • Jonas Kaufmann sings his only (ever?) Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz
  • Smetana’s Dalibor, the Czech Fidelio, is idiomatically conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Felicia Weathers and Sándor Konyá
  • Some of the era’s biggest Soviet stars—Galina Vishnevskaya, Irina Arkhipova, Zurab Andzshaparidze and Yuri Mazurokappear in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama from a guest appearance by the Bolshoi at Montreal’s Expo 67.

Ali Baba, last week’s Adriana and the previous week’s Attila (just one more A opera to go!) can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

More than 90 other “Trove Thursday” podcasts also remain available from iTunes, or via any RSS reader.

  • Christopher: I’d never heard that Stich-Randall Puritani. Um, it is interesting.

    Thanks for the reminder about the Pikovaya Dama. I believe I listened to it when you first posted it a couple of years ago. I’m happily returning to it today.

    • rapt

      I should clarify that when I praised Sutherland’s early Puritani recording for being out of this world, I didn’t mean that it sounded as if it came from Mars….

    • Luvtennis

      Lol! She makes up the music as she goes. It’s like a fantasia on a theme by Bellini. And the coloratura veers wildly between fluent but unstylish to aspirated and approximate.

      I recall better performances from her in Mozart. But this is strange.

      • Daniel Swick

        It’s wretched.

    • Daniel Swick
      • MWnyc

        It’s too bad she was born about a dozen years too early to be involved with the period-instrument movement.

  • Armerjacquino

    I love Stich-Randall, I’ve always thought she’s bafflingly underrated, but in the last few years I’ve noticed that she’s routinely patronised, too. Just don’t get it.

    • rapt

      Hi AJ--

      I didn’t mean my own comment to patronize Stich-Randall (though she’s not, for me, a favorite), but only to express my view of this particular performance--the technique spectacular but the ornamentation seeming far out of style (though I suppose I really mean out of the style I’m familiar with) and the lack of words that CC notes troubling.

      • southerndoc1

        I remember in an old High Fidelity review, someone wrote to that effect that TSR had everything needed for a great career except an attractive voice.

        • Armerjacquino

          See, I could imagine that the other way round- someone saying she was all voice and no temperament- but I just can’t understand why anyone would find her voice unattractive.

      • Armerjacquino

        Hey, rapt, I wasn’t talking about anyone in particular- it’s kind of universal. It’s something I’ve found weird for a while, because she sings so beautifully in everything I’ve ever heard her do (including the PURITANI aria above)

      • MWnyc

        Anyone know what the oldest surviving recording of Puritani, or even a soprano aria or two from it, is? I have a feeling it would sound closer to Stich-Randall than to Sutherland.

    • fletcher

      AJ -- any recommended recordings beyond the one here? I can only think of that Karajan Rosenkavalier and the Toscanini Falstaff, neither of which are my go-tos.

    • The only complete role in which I’ve heard Stich-Randall is her Sophie for Karajan. She sings virtually all her delicate high music softly and vibrato-less. She does this very well and coaxes the notes beautifully. But it gets repetitive after a while. In long, lyrical passages, like the Presentation of the Rose or the final duet, I want to say: “Oh, just sing out already”. But then comes the climax of the trio when her forte high B comes at one like a blunt object and ruins the spell of the piece. Anyway, she’s a lovely Sophie and the basic vocal timbre is very beautiful. But the soft, vibrato-less singing grows tedious.

      I will say that Ludwig is a “gentleman” and pares down her singing so as not to overwhelm S-R’s relentlessly pianissimo singing.

      • Daniel Swick

        And let’s be honest: HVK probably insisted she sing like that.

        • Hmm… I don’t know. I’m sure he asked her to sing like that because he heard what she sounded like when she put pressure on the voice.

          • Daniel Swick

            I only make that comment because I know that HVK loves to micromanage his singers.

  • Porgy Amor

    Johannes Brahms greatly admired Cherubini. He referred to him as “the great master from whom everything had proceeded,” and to Médée as an opera a musician would recognize as the height of dramatic music. Cherubini already was neglected in Brahms’s time, and Brahms, another great craftsman, feared similar treatment by posterity.

    • fletcher

      I knew Beethoven was a fan, so it’s interesting to know that Brahms was as well. I’m not as familiar with Médée as I’d like to be (listened to the Serafin/Callas a few times through) but I LOVE Gorr’s singing of the final scene on her French arias disc -- wild, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat singing.

  • Camille

    Coming home from the Norma and listening, out of curiosity, to the Démophoon was indeed very interesting, as a direct link to this older classical and highly serious style was immediately apparent. I tend not to think of Bellini’s antecedents other than the obvious Rossini, and would have to read more about what his influence was for Norma.

    Cherubini and Berlioz had back history which was not entirely harmonious, shall we say, so I don’t know whether to trust Hector on this one.

    There are some pictures somewhere of Cornélie Falcon in costume as Margiane, I think Nourrit as well. I don’t know where right now, but just poke around on the ‘net.

    As it happens, and much to my own dismay and incredulity, the performance of (Demofoonte featured above was one which I was highly privileged to have seen in person. I had never knowledge it was being filmed by RAI.

    Looking back at it now--I realize what an ignorant little Puccini-loving ninny I was, for, although I had some appreciation for what was being presented, I was largely bored, EXCEPT by the presence of Giuseppe Taddei, then 69 years young, and recently returned to the stage. Why? As it was explained to me ‘He got bored’. I have never forgotten HIS performance and felt exceptionally lucky to have heard it. Now, while looking back at the singing, Caballé and Luchetti were both far, far better than in next year’s rarity, Agnese di Hohenstaufen. A real belated wake up call. Sitting in that glittering audience and listening to this opera in that wonderful house was an extraordinary experience: only if I had not been so preoccupied with my personal melodramma and had more appreciation for the style--it would have been an infinitely more rewarding and enriching experience.

    It’s funny about time and perception, isn’t it?

    I’ll give a spin to this work, too, as I’m always interested in Falcon and Nourrit, that fabulous, legendary, and ill-starred duo. What really happened?

  • Sanford Schimel

    Not sure what the straight tone in the title refers to as Stich-Randall has an incredibly fast fluttery vibrato. I found the Puritani interesting as I’ve never heard those embellishments before. But I never need to hear them again. She was my first Countess in Nozze, in the perf from Aix-En-Provence, with Rita Streich, Pilar Lorengar (Cherubino!). A glorious perf it is, too.

    • MWnyc

      I think that, to many opera lovers, “straight-toned” really just means “a narrower vibrato than I’m used to.”

    • I appreciate the distinction between a very fast vibrato and straight-tone. I will say that, on the HvK Rosenkavalier, she does do some straight-toned singing up high. I didn’t find any straight-toned singing in the Puritani clip.