Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Marilyn Horne Makes Magic as Mignon

Mignon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Marilyn Horne
Wilhelm Meister . . . . . . .. . . . Alain Vanzo
Philine. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ruth Welting
Lothario . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nicolai Zaccaria
Frederic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Frederica von Stade
Jarno . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Claude Meloni
Laerte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Andre Battedou
Antonio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Paul Hudson

Ambrosian Opera Chorus & Philharmonia Orchestra
Antonio de Almeida

Once upon a time, when I was a lad of 18, I used a gift certificate from Columbia House to purchase a 4 LP Box set of Thomas’s “Mignon.” I had never before heard the opera and was wholly unprepared for what came out of that box. Sadly, the records were given away in one of my many post-college moves and has been decades since I listened to it. Happy news when the set was finally issued on compact disc, but then pulled almost immediately causing unrealistic prices in the hundreds of dollars for a “used” copy on eBay and Amazon.

This past week I got a bargain notice from Amazon listing the recording in a reissue in a German pressing (or burning) and for the low, low price of $16.98 American, I received the welcome package within a matter of days. and spent a few joyous hours last night and this morning re-acquainting myself with the ol’ girl.

It’s never been a secret that Alain Vanzo is one of my supreme tenor gods – and though his voice is never far from me, it has been a coon’s age since I’ve heard his Wilhelm and when he began the gorgeous first aria “Oui, je veux par le monde promener” – I fell into the swoon that had been threatening since about 10 bars into the overture. Vanzo’s way with the language, the elegance of phrasing and even when he needs to “hoist” the voice a little on a highflying note mid phrase, he does so with a panache and a grace that never fail to dazzle. I adore this man.

Nicola Zaccaria has a vintage blush to the voice that is ideal as the appropriately named Lothario. He can (and does) wander in-and-out of pitch at times, but this doesn’t bother me as much as it might some others, and he sings with such expression that even the state of the voice at this point can be quite beautiful.

Ruth Welting’s trills are variable – but I mean that in the very best way. They are not (as are most singers’) of a single style but rather this singer possesses that rare ability to spin them at almost endlessly different velocities from elegant turns to sounds to make heads spin like tops. This is an especially nice gift for a singer to give his or her listener particularly when your role calls for roughly eight hundred of the darned things! Despite her perpetually youthful sound, Welting manages to make her perpetually youthful voice sound commanding enough to really give the full measure of Philine’s womanly charms and arrogance without sounding cloying.

One of the chief delights of the entire set (for me) is the performance of the young Frederica von Stade in the trouser role of Frederic, eliciting all the charms of the young worldly student and makes the absolute most of m’y voici!” with elegantly paced trills and a sense of the almost unwittingly droll lad.

Of course no matter how wonderful the rest of the cast is it isn’t worth doing if you haven’t got a Mignon and this recording has one in Marilyn Horne who breathes so much life into the role you can practically see her. Horne starts out marvelously, and even though a mere recording, puts across as good a sense of the character as one could hope for. She is (predictably) excellent in moments like “Connais-tu le pays” where she makes the most of that incredible breath control, holding notes past their “sell by” date and shaping - REALLY shaping phrases with aplomb and style. Jus as excellent – and equally predictable (as well as great fun) is the way she can turn out some of the more florid moments like the Act I duet with Lothario “Legeres hirondells” all of that fine filigree work never sounding fussy or merely ornamental. Horne gives a lesson in how to put across a character many audiences would find difficult to believe today. That is the beauty of what she – and this entire cast – does: they make you believe and love these characters.

It’s almost a crime that this score is so little heard today. It is truly ravishing with all manner of interesting special effects and (not that this is any measure of its greatness) one can almost hum or sing along with the entire thing after a single hearing – or twenty years after last hearing it. The choruses throughout are glorious in their old-fashioned beauty, and to hear Vanzo (typically thought to be small of voice) sailing over the ensembles (particularly in the final act) is enough to make one’s heart explode from the sheer beauty. The entire thing sparkles like diamonds.

While there are plenty of deeply moving numbers, the entire score is the aural equivalent of champagne. Besides nearly every single number marching along almost in “hit parade” fashion, I love the manner in which Thomas’ frequently connects his dots making it all of a piece. At several points, he makes excellent use of melodrama in its truest sense (dialogue spoken over music) that adds immeasurably in propelling the drama along so that nothing seems to be standing still. Ever. Fortunately, in this recording the cast performs these bits as though the most natural thing in the world; spoken text morphing seamlessly into recitative then into melody and sometimes back. Some will denounce this sort of device as old-fashioned (and it is, so what?), but while listening to it I felt astonishment at how not only how well it works. If for no other reason (and I think there are reasons aplenty) than for the sheer novelty and uniqueness I think it’s long past time for Mignon to make it’s long overdue entry back into the repertoire.

The sound quality on this is fresh and natural – and listening through headphones the whole thing came alive with a crispness that matches anything recorded digitally today. (Though when Ms. Welting’s Philine reaches the stratosphere there is (understandably) a bit of flutter to the sound (not from her).

Antonio de Almeida whips the Philharmonia into such a swirling froth of Frenchified delights that at several points I half expected to see Can-Can girls pop from out of my speakers. The Ambrosian Opera Chorus matches the Philharmonia in the sheer sense of beauty, fun and sheer deliciousness of the almost absurdly over-the-top ending. Both alternate endings to Acts 2 and 3 are included.

What a treat it is to return to this score after so long. For anyone needing a winter warm-up I can’t think of anything more fun (and note-for-note affordable) than a dose of this Mignon! Merci!