barstow final scenes decca

Josephine Barstow (soprano)
Final Scenes

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Salome (1905)
Luigi Cherubini (1780-1843)
Médée (1797)
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Věc Makropulos (1925)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Turandot* (1924)
Scottish Opera Chorus & Orchestra/John Mauceri
rec. 1989, Glasgow Town Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
*first recording of the complete Alfano ending (1926)
DECCA 430 203-2 [77]

The publication of my friend and colleague Lee Denham’s review of the new recording on the Warner label of Turandot conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and his extensive survey of the same opera prompted me to re-visit this recital, as it features the first recording of Alfano’s completion which was rejected by Toscanini but used by Pappano for the first time in a complete recording. It does not appear to have been previously reviewed on MusicWeb, although passing references have been made to it and Lee’s praises the account of that final scene here as superior: “[I]t is Mauceri who captures the greater sense of blazing discovery with his standalone recording…”.

Dame Josephine Barstow had just turned 49 at the time of this recording and was thus still at the height of her powers. The theme and range of this very-well-filled recital are satisfying and well balanced, too: the finales of four operas, each in a different language, with supporting casts and chorus and lasting about twenty minutes. Renowned as a “singing actress”, Barstow certainly invests Salome’s ongoing commentary with great drama while still managing to sound young, and her characterisation borders on the frenzied and hysterical rather than the cool and calculated – which works; it suggests that this obsessive young woman is psychotic rather than evil. The observation was always made that Barstow’s voice was never “conventionally beautiful” and she herself was content to place dramatic impact before sustained beauty of tone – but that does not mean that her singing is ugly; indeed, her top notes are secure and her emission very steady, and the combination of superlative playing from the Scottish orchestra, Mauceri’s energised conducting and her powerful singing is highly engaging. When she declares “du hättest mich geliebt!” (you would have loved me) we believe that she believes it, and her crooned and whispered delivery of the final outrage “Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan!” (Ah! I have kissed your mouth, Jokanaan!”) is chilling – as is Graham Clark’s neurotic, biting-voiced Herod.

I find the excerpt from Médée less convincing. Much of it consists of high-powered declamatory recitative which lies in the centre of Barstow’s voice where it is least attractive and often sounds a bit croaky; it also reveals a certain weakness in her lower-register; you have only to listen to Callas, Rita Gorr or Sylvia Sass to hear how much more power and venom they inject into Médée’s imprecations. Mauceri’s direction is taut and there is no lack of impetus but I just don’t think this is a good fit for Barstow. The chorus is terrific but John Treleaven is a dull, unheroic Jason, without much ring to his tenor.

I will come clean and confess that I have never got on with Janáček’s operas and the excerpt here holds few charms for me. I can hear, however, how vividly Barstow impersonates the ageless siren Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos – even if some of her vocal acrobatics are rather wrenching – and her co-singers are equally adept. Mauceri again conducts vividly and the dénouement is as striking orchestrally as it is vocally.

For many the main interest will rightly lie in the novelty of hearing the Alfano ending to Turandot and the same energy which characterise Mauceri’s conducting in the previous three extracts spills over into this last, climactic finale, making the strongest possible case for it; it is demonstrably superior to the truncated version imposed by Toscanini. Tenor Lando Bartolini is a bit stolid and four-square – hardly erotically charged – but he has a strong, virile voice and the text makes up for any deficiency in passion with lines like “I seni tuoi di giglio ah! treman sul mio petto!” (Your lily-white breasts – ah! – quiver on my breast!) – Ooh, matron! Barstow finds considerable pathos in her portrayal of the Ice-Princess and even arouses some sympathy with “la mia gloria è finita” (my glory is over). Whether she would have had sufficient stamina to sing an entire performance is debatable but she certainly finds the heft and intensity to carry it off here, singing really heroically; “il suo nome è… Amor!” (His name is…Love!) on a great B-flat and the ensuing top notes – D-flat, C and B – in combination with the resplendent brass in the climax are enough to give any listener goosebumps.

This is still available on CD and as a download. The recording quality is outstanding. Texts and English translations are provided. Peculiarly, there are essays in French and German about Barstow but none in English – but there is an essay in English only about the Alfano completion. Go figure the logic behind that.

Ralph Moore

Other performers
Graham Clark (tenor) – Herod
Claire Livingstone (mezzo-soprano) – Herodias
John Treleaven (tenor) – Jason
Clare Shearer (mezzo-soprano) – Néris
Věc Makropulos:
Jason Howard (baritone) – Prus
Steven Page (bass-baritone) – Kolenatý
Anne Williams-King (soprano) – Kristina
Graham Clark (tenor) – Albert Gregor
Alasdair Elliott (tenor) – Vítek
Lando Bartolini (tenor) – Calaf

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