18 MAY 1962, Page 15


Seen and Heard


SONICSTAGE, the new 'wide screen' process which Decca's engineers have used in their recording of Salome, has not been received without a certain canny suspicion: did the composer really intend so much of his score to be heard? Does not this remorseless articulation of the printed page actually go against his wishes by individualising sounds which are only meant to contribute to a general sonority? I expected to be up there among the canniest and most suspicious, enthusiastically identifying the mark of the beast. But I was wrong. The record- ing seems to me, musically as well as technically, an unqualified achievement. In the first place it has a sense of continuity and organic growth that is now rare in opera recordings. Secondly the dazzling clarity of the orchestral texture, so far from going against Strauss's intentions, makes it plain why he said that Salome was `like Mendelssohn—fairy music'; he was not simply being provocative, he meant it. The Decca performance (excellently conducted by Solti) rightly emphasises the Mahlerian more than the Wagnerian influences behind the score. We will not, of course, have heard the last of the 'rich carpet of sound' favoured by many Strauss conductors and critics in Salome; but this superb recording, the most serious ad- vance in the field since the Decca Rheingold three years ago, is a yardstick to measure how little the notion does justice to the true character of the work.

Birgit Nilsson, who sings Salome with an astounding mixture of ease and freshness and orchestra-subjugating horse-power, is the Amelia on a new Un Ballo in Maschera, also conducted by Solti and recorded by Decca, but With the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, not the Vienna Philharmonic. Miss Nilsson's grasp of Verdi's melodic style is surer than when she sang the part here with the Stockholm company a few Years ago; but, judged by her own •finest standards, it is still not sure enough. Marvel- lously pure and true and brilliant though her high notes are, beautifully though she judges the style and mood of certain passages (for in- stance, Amelia's wonderful `Va, Riccardo' in that love duet which is almost as moving as the penultimate scene of Don Carlos), grandly though some of the phrases stride their immense breadth, a slight impression of conscious effort remains, a hint of vocalisation, which spoils it. She tries too hard; it is not quite natural. This is what I feel about the whole performance. There are splendid things in it, but it does not Convince. Solti, with his intense conscientious- ness, is all the time finding vivid and glowing detail and pointing out the significance of this or that figure pr phrase or chord; but the score, in his hands, lacks larger movement and spontaneous high spirits. It is too significant : the big chords crash too dynamically, the long singing melodies draw excessive attention to their own cantabile, the conspirators' staccato is emphasised to the point of caricature.

Joan Sutherland, like Birgit Nilsson, figures on two recent issues; and, again, one is much better than the other. I could summon up no enthusiasm for the Rigoletto (Decca). For a conductor as good as Nino Sanzogno the per- formance is astonishingly listless in pulse and flabby in rhythm. Cornell Macneil, a pleasant but unexciting Renato in the Masked Ball re- cording, makes Rigoletto a dreadfully dull dog, Renato Cioni is miles from the incisive ruthless- ness of the Duke's character, and Siepi lacks the deep, black bass for Sparafucile. La Stupenda soars above them all, and in the last act crowns the ensembles with a line of magnificent radiance, but for the most part 4 is one of her 'stricken' impersonations, 'suggesting, in the words of the Times, 'a despairing clairvoyante.'

In Lucia, the source of so many of her roles, Miss Sutherland is in her sad, cosy element. I hope it is not merely the British sporting instinct rally- ing to a woman in distress which persuades me that she has never sung better. Except for an occa- sional exaggerated drawing-out of an unimpor- tant phrase, which I find irritating, this seems to me a flawless performance—the style noble in its dreamy exaltation, the tone beautiful, the virtuosity calm and effortless, and the whole quickened by the naive delight with which the singer seems to revel in her own mastery. John Pritchard conducts admirably with both strength and tact and gets lively work from the Santa Cecilia chorus and orchestra. Cioni is a spirited and melliflUous Edgardo, Robert Merrill a vigor- ous Enrico, and though Siepi, as that grotesque character the Chaplain, is in poor voice for his duet with Lucia in the second act, he is at all other times adequate. As for the work, try as I will I cannot take M seriously. A correspondent who writes regu- larlY, under the name of Fortinbras Q. bogberry (which, as Sir Watiqn Bassett would say, I strongly suspect to be an assumed name) is always scolding me for my attitude to Doni- zetti. But it is just because he can write beauti- fully that his lapses into the conventional trivi- alities of his age and genre are so intolerable. In Lucia lie will begin a scene with promising material, then fritter it away—the big scene between Edgardo and Enrico, for example. Certain phrases and, in the second half of Act 2, whole passages are worthy of Verdi, but they lack the setting of suspended disbelief that could give them dramatic life The . characters are shadowy emanations of old armour and jigsaw- puzzle turrets and weeping ruins who never com- municate with each other. Lucia's high jinks in the Mad Scene could have a heart-rending pathos in a truly dramatic context but we have decided, soon after the opera began, that it was all a lot of more or less splendid nonsense. To the end Donizetti is always rising to eloquence just when one had finally despaired of him, but it is not enough. Edgardo's last sorrowful evoca- tion of Lucia—'O bell' alma innamorata'—moves you with its slightly faster heartbeat and the beautiful rise and fall of its melody from sad- ness through anguish to resignation—until you realise that it would do just as well for Nemorino clasping his floppy hat to his stomach and com- plaining that he has failed to win the girl even with the aid of Dulcamara's infallible elixir. When people start describing Lucia as a sacred masterpiece and the wicked baron as 'almost an lago' (see the sleeve note) one can only pray to St. Joseph P. Kerman for the salvation of their souls.