Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites: part 4

There are those operas that you just can’t spoil and Les Dialogues des Carmélites is one of them. For Poulenc, melody is the centre of the universe. His music is so poignantly beautiful and his composition so expressive that you don’t really need a director.

The opera’s themes are sacrifice, martyrdom, revolutions and ideologies, but those are just the side lines, because the main theme is an all-devouring fear that makes it impossible to live or die: “Fear is a terrible disease. I was born of fear, in fear I live and in fear I shall die. Everyone despises fear, so I am condemned to be despised.

Paris, 2013

You just never know with Olivier Py, though I have to say that, apart from the awful Romeo et Juliette in Amsterdam, most of his productions are usually excellent. So too his Dialogues des Carmélites, recorded in Paris in 2013.

Patricia Petibon is a singer with a tendency to exaggerate, but here she is perfectly matched as Blanche. Watching her, I involuntarily get visions of Edith Piaf. Which of course suits the role very well: a small, skinny, frightened bird.

Her timbre is close to that of Denise Duval, but she lacks her carrying power and – mainly – her lyricism. Still, there is no denying that the role of Blanche is more or less tailor-made for her.

Sophie Koch is a strange choice for Marie. She looks far too young and lacks the confident superiority and power of persuasion so characteristic of the role. And the contrast with Lidoine (a wonderful Veronique Gens) is not great enough. Rosalind Plowright is an excellent Croissy and Sandrine Piau a delightful Constance.

Py uses the orchestral interludes to showcase religious scenes, including the evocation of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Sometimes a little “too much”, but the last scene, with the dark starry sky, brings a lump to my throat (Erato 0825646219537).

Here is the trailer:

Film adaptation

Did you know that the story of Dialogues des Carmélites was filmed in 1960? In the film you can see, among others, Jeanne Moreau as Mère Marie and Pascale Audret as Blanche.
Below is the last scene:

Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites: part 3

There are those operas that you just can’t spoil and Les Dialogues des Carmélites is one of them. For Poulenc, melody is the centre of the universe. His music is so poignantly beautiful and his composition so expressive that you don’t really need a director.

The opera’s themes are sacrifice, martyrdom, revolutions and ideologies, but those are just the side lines, because the main theme is an all-devouring fear that makes it impossible to live or die: “Fear is a terrible disease. I was born of fear, in fear I live and in fear I shall die. Everyone despises fear, so I am condemned to be despised.

Hamburg, 2008

The opera came to Hamburg in 2008, it was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. His Blanche, Alexia Voulgaridou, is very much like Liu: sweet, scared but steadfast and very impressive.

Kathryn Harries as Madame de Croissy is even more impressive than Anja Silja. She acts not only with her whole body but also with her perfectly used voice. Her fear is physically palpable and her death scene cannot leave anyone unmoved.

Unfortunately, Gabrielle Schnaut’s Mère Marie is not of the same calibre. With the remnants of the once so imposing voice, she only causes irritation: not one note is pure and her terrible wobble feels like torture to your ears. How different then is warm and sweet Madame Lidoine, here sung incredibly lovely by Anne Schwanewilms!

The staging is very simple and there are hardly any sets, which is not at all disturbing. And the final scene is almost better than Carsen. (Arthouse Musik 101494)


Munich, 2010

Munich would not be Munich without its ‘high-profile’ new productions that will cause scandals over and over again. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Dialogues des Carmélites from 2010 was therefore not well received by everyone. I myself find the production very exciting, although his vision sometimes goes a little too far for me.

First of all: forget about the nuns, there are none. There is a community of women, locked up in a glass house. They have left the outside world, but that world can still see them and interfere with them. Claustrophobic.

Blanche, phenomenally sung and acted by Susan Gritton, clearly has mental problems. Her heroic act at the end stems from the same emotions as her fear. Two extremes of the same problem.

The contrast between a resolute, here caricatured a bit as a butch kapo, Mère Marie (a fantastic Susanne Resmark) and the sweet, clearly striving for a different course, Madame Lidoine (Soile Isokoski at her best) could not be greater.

And oh yes: also forget about the guillotine, because it’s not there either. Tcherniakov also changed the ending.

By the way: the chance that the DVD is still for sale is small. The Poulenc heirs thought that Tcherniakov had allowed himself too much freedom and they went to court (BelAir BAC061).

Below the trailer:

Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites. Part one

Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites: part 2

Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites: part 4

Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites: part 2

There are those operas that you just can’t spoil and Les Dialogues des Carmélites is one of them. For Poulenc, melody is the centre of the universe. His music is so poignantly beautiful and his composition so expressive that you don’t really need a director.

The opera’s themes are sacrifice, martyrdom, revolutions and ideologies, but those are just the side lines, because the main theme is an all-devouring fear that makes it impossible to live or die: “Fear is a terrible disease. I was born of fear, in fear I live and in fear I shall die. Everyone despises fear, so I am condemned to be despised.

Vienna, 2008 and 2011

In 2011, Oehms released a ‘Zusamennschnitt’ of performances of Dialogues des Carmélites, recorded live at the Theater an der Wien in January 2008 and April 2011.

Sally Matthews is a very moving Blanche, girlish but with just enough personality to give her character a bit more body. Occasionally whiny too – Blanche to the full.

Deborah Polaski is irresistible as Madame de Croissy and Michelle Breedt is a more than impressive Mère Marie. Just because of her fantastic achievement it is regrettable that this performance (the wonderful Carsen production!) was not released on DVD!

The ORF Orchestra under Bertrand de Billy plays the stars from the sky. Firm, where necessary, and whisper-soft when needed. (Oehms OC 931)

Milan, 2004

Speaking of Robert Carsen: for me, his production of Dialogues des Carmélites is one of the absolute highlights in the history of De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam.
In February 2004, the production was filmed at La Scala but I am not entirely happy with it. My disappointment mainly relates to Dagmar Schellenberger’s performance as the lead role.

Admittedly, it is not easy to emulate the unforgettable Susan Chilcott (she died in 2003 of breast cancer, only 40 years old), and Schellenberger indeed cannot not do it. In the beginning  her strong tremolo and her not always pure notes are irritating.. But as the opera progresses, she gains a great deal of credibility, and through her brilliant acting and complete abandonment, she makes the development of her character very tangible. And almost as a matter of course, her singing also becomes more beautiful and softer.

The role of Madame de Croissy is played by one of the best singing actresses of our time, Anja Silja. Her performance is truly breathtaking, and even though her voice is not that steady anymore – it suits the character of an old and mortally ill prioress very well. Her death struggle makes for unprecedentedly thrilling theatre, and it is a great credit to Carsen (and the rest of the cast) that the scenes that follow do not make us lose interest.

Muti conducts with verve and knows exactly how to strike the right tone. He really succeeds in translating the spectre of the revolution and its excesses into sound. He is at his very best, however, in the lyrical, contemplative scenes, and  in his hands the chilling ending reaches a truly blood-curdling climax. Make sure you have a big bag of Kleenex within reach, because you really won’t keep it dry (Arthaus 107315).

Below is the trailer:

Part one
Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites. Part one

Almost all about Les Dialogues des Carmélites. Part one

There are those operas that you just can’t spoil and Les Dialogues des Carmélites is one of them. For Poulenc, melody is the centre of the universe. His music is so poignantly beautiful and his composition so expressive that you don’t really need a director.

The opera’s themes are sacrifice, martyrdom, revolutions and ideologies, but those are just the side lines, because the main theme is an all-devouring fear that makes it impossible to live or die: “Fear is a terrible disease. I was born of fear, in fear I live and in fear I shall die. Everyone despises fear, so I am condemned to be despised.

Milan, 1957

The world premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites took place on 26 January 1957 at La Scala in Milan, in an Italian translation. The cast reads like a ‘who’s who’ in the opera world, because, ask yourself: were there any bigger names in those days?

Blanche was sung by Virginia Zeani, a singer with a full, large and dramatic voice, that was suitable for both Violetta and Tosca. Marie was played by Gigliola Frazzoni, one of the best Minnies (La fanciulla del West) in history. And Madame Lidoine was given to Leyla Gencer.

With Fiorenza Cossotto, Gianna Pederzini, Eugenia Ratti and Scipio Colombo in the smaller roles, the opera sounded less lyrical than we are used to nowadays, almost veristic even. But that made the dramatic effect even more poignant.

Virginia Zeani and Francis Poulenc, Milano 1957

In The Operatic PastCast, Virginia Zeani talks about Poulenc, the influence the opera has had on her life, her colleagues and the production in Milan.
The entire performance from Milan, fantastically conducted by Nino Sanzogno, is on YouTube. Do not miss it!

Paris, 1957

The Paris premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites followed six months later. On 21 June 1957, the opera, now in French, was presented at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra.
Blanche was sung by Poulenc’s beloved soprano Denise Duval. Duval’s voice (girlishly naive, light, almost ethereal) fitted Blanche like a glove.
The rest of the cast, including Régine Crespin as Madame Lidoine and Rita Gorr as probably the best Mère Marie ever, was also chosen by Poulenc himself

Régine Crespin (Madame Lidoine) in “Mes chères filles”:

The orchestra was conducted by Pierre Dervaux and I can be very brief about him: there is no better. Full stop. (Warner 08256483211)

Between Gina Cigna and Renata Scotto, forty years of Norma in a mini-discography. Part 2

It is perhaps superfluous, but I have to get it off my chest: there is no such thing as objective music criticism. Of course there are criteria, but it is not science: after all, you listen to music not only with your ears, but also with your soul and your heart, and you cannot switch them off. Therefore, do not consider my mini discography as an absolute truth and, as far as possible, listen and judge for yourself.


Joan Sutherland, like Callas recorded Norma twice (officially). Her first recording from 1965 (Decca 4704132) caused a real sensation. It was the very first recording of Bellini’s complete music, without any cut. Moreover, it was the first recording in the original key (Bellini composed his opera in G, but before the premiere he changed it to F).

In those days, Sutherland was considered the belcanto specialist par excellence. Her voice knew no limits and seemed to be made of elastic. High, higher, highest, and with coloraturas that sound almost inhumanly perfect.

Adalgisa was sung by Marilyn Horne, Sutherland’s alter ego in the mezzo voice. The result is dazzling, but it lacks the necessary drama, all the more so because John Alexander (Pollione) has a beautiful but insipid voice.

The orchestral playing is excellent, however, and if you like pure singing, high notes and and if you like pure singing, high notes and coloratura, this recording is the best choice.


Twenty years later, Sutherland recorded the role again, this time with Montserrat Caballé (Adalgisa) and Luciano Pavarotti (Pollione). Let’s call it a mistake, although Caballé’s Adalgisa is at least interesting. It’s a pity it wasn’t thought of sooner.


Caballé is a kind of cross between Callas and Sutherland: wonderful top notes, incredibly beautiful legato arches, perfect trills, and moreover a pianissimo that none of her colleagues could match. She was a much better actress than Sutherland, moreover she had great charisma. She never went to extremes like Callas or (later) Scotto, but her performances were always very convincing.
In 1973 she recorded the role for RCA and the result was very decent (GD 86502). Her Pollione, a very young Plácido Domingo, was vocally crystal clear and sounded like a bell. However, he lacked dominance, making him sound far too young for the role.

Fiorenza Cossotto in her role of Adalgisa looked more like Azucena than a young girl, but her singing as such was flawless. Unfortunately, the orchestra sounds uninspired and hurried, which must surely be blamed on the conductor, Carlo Felice Cillario.

In 1974 she sang Norma in the Roman amphitheatre in Orange (Provence). It was a very windy evening, and everything blew and moved: her hair, veils and dresses. A fantastic sensation, which added an extra dimension to the already great performance. It was filmed by French television (what luck!), and has now appeared on DVD (VAIV 4229).

Caballé sings ‘Casta Diva’:

Caballé was in superb voice, very lyrical in ‘Casta Diva’, dramatic in ‘Dormono etrambi’ and moving in ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’. Together with Josephine Veasey, she sang perhaps the most convincing ‘Mira , o Norma’ – of all, at least in a complete recording of the opera. As two feminists avant la lettre, they renounce men and transform from rivals into bosom buddies.

Jon Vickers (Pollione) was never my cup of tea, but Veasey is a fantastic (also optically) Adalgisa and Patané conducts with passion. Of all the recordings on DVD (and there are not many), this is definitely the best.


Scotto sang her first Norma in 1974, in Turin. To my knowledge, there is no recording of it, at least not of the complete opera.

Casta Diva’ from Turin:

A pirate did record the 1978 performance in Florence (Legato LCD 203-2). It should have been an ideal Norma, but unfortunately the performance was marred by a no more than adequate Ermanne Mauro as Pollione.

Margherita Rinaldi (finally a soprano again) sounds young as Adalgisa and Scotto is, according to many critics, the first Norma, after Callas, who seems to know what it’s all about. Orchestrally, this recording belongs to my top three, but the sound is unfortunately not really great.

Scotto in ‘Dormono entrambi’ in 1978:

In 1980 Scotto recorded the opera in the studio (Sony SM2K 35902), conducted by James Levine. I cannot find  much negative to say about her performance, although the ‘steel’ in her voice is sometimes particularly painful. The Adalgisa (incredibly beautiful Tatiana Troyanos) is also absolutely top-notch. But Giuseppe Giacomini (Pollione) is not great at all and Levine conducts far too heavily and overdramatically.

From Gina Cigna to Renata Scotto, forty years of Norma in a mini-discography. Part one

From Gina Cigna to Renata Scotto, forty years of Norma in a mini-discography. Part one

It is perhaps superfluous, but I have to get it off my chest: there is no such thing as objective music criticism. Of course there are criteria, but it is not science: after all, you listen to music not only with your ears, but also with your soul and your heart, and you cannot switch them off. Therefore, do not consider my mini discography as an absolute truth and, as far as possible, listen and judge for yourself.

Norma is considered the pinnacle of bel canto, but at the same time, this is a tremendous musical drama that leaves Verdi’s early works quite behind and carries with it the promise of a ‘Tristan’. And although it is a love story and both protagonists die a kind of ‘Liebestod’ at the end, love is not the heroine’s only motivation. She is also a mother, a priestess, a patriot, a daughter and a friend, and to be able to express all these aspects of human feelings, you need to be more than a ‘singer’.

The role of Norma was created by Giuditta Pasta, originally a mezzo, who had trained her voice upwards. Pasta was an exceptionally intelligent singer with a great stage personality and a great voice range but her technique was not optimal, which caused her voice to deteriorate very early in her career. Pauline Viardot (one of the most famous mezzos of her time) once said about Pasta: “She looks like ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci – a ruin of a painting, but it is still the greatest painting in the world”.

Giulia Grisi as Norma

The first Adalgisa was sung by Giulia Grisi, a soprano who also created the roles of Elvira (I Puritani) and Giulia (I Capuletti e i  Montecchi), and who would later become a great Norma herself.

Gina Cigna

In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, Norma was only rarely performed. Opera history mentions only two memorable performances: in 1926 at the Metropolitan Opera (with Rosa Ponselle and Lauri-Volpi) and in 1936 at La Scala, with Gina Cigna.

In 1937, the very first (almost) complete recording of “Norma” was made: with Gina Cigna, Ebe Stignani and Giovanni Brevario, conducted by Vittorio Gui (various labels). the sound is still quite good, although obviously not optimal.

In the opera world there is a general opinion that most (Bel canto) singers before Callas were light, like canaries. This is not true. Just listen to Cigna’s full, dark timbre and to her sense of drama.

Cigna approaches the role from the verist tradition and plays it heavily. There are no coloraturas, but her technique is phenomenal and her top notes firm and pure. However, she is not a real actress, thus her interpretation is far behind that of Callas (among others).

Adalgisa is sung here by the young Ebe Stignani: a beautiful, warm mezzo, much more convincing here than in all her later recordings. Giovanni Breviario is an inferior Pollione, but orchestrally this recording is, together with those of Serafin (Rome 1955) and Muti (Turin 1974), one of the three finest Normas. Partly because of this (and the particularly moving sung ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’) it is well worth listening to.

Gina Cigna and Giovanni Breviario in ‘Deh! non volerli vittime’:


One thinks Norma, one says Callas. Rightly so, because like no other La Divina has left her mark on this role. Between 1950 and 1964, she was undeniably the best Norma. Perhaps she was the best Norma ever. She sang the role more than 90 times and recorded it twice in the studio, both times under Tulio Serafin.

The first dates from 1954 (Warner Classics 0825646341115). Callas was then at her best vocally, yet this recording does not really captivate me. I find Serafin’s accompaniment downright boring, Filippeschi, despite his beautiful voice, is no Pollione of weight, and Stignani simply sounds (too) old. I also have some comments on Callas’ acting. Her ‘Casta Diva’ seems much more a love aria than an ode to the moon goddess, which it actually should be. But her singing is phenomenally beautiful, with wonderful heights and good trills.

In the autumn of 1960, Callas insisted on recording the opera again. It is claimed that she wanted to make her comeback with it (due to all sorts of scandals, Callas had not sung for nine months). This is possibly true, but it is also very likely that her views on the role had changed so much that she wanted to record it again.

Anyway it is fortunate that she did, because her second ‘official’ Norma (Warner Classics 0825646340842) is in all respects superior to the first. Franco Corelli is probably the best Pollione ever: a real warlord with a very masculine voice. Certain of himself and his appearance, resolute, macho, but also loving and very, very sensual and sexy. No wonder, then, that a young priestess would fall for him. And no wonder that a woman like Norma – strong, beautiful and powerful – continues to love him, despite his betrayal.

Adalgisa is sung by a young Christa Ludwig. Not really Italian, also (for me) a bit too dark in timbre, but with so much empathy that it doesn’t really matter. Callas herself is past her vocal peak and here and there she lets out a painful note, but as an actress she is absolutely unequalled. Here, too, she occasionally wants to “make believe” (the scene with her children, for example), but her intense involvement, her complete understanding and surrender – it is unique. Serafin, too, is clearly much more inspired, although I occasionally have trouble with his tempi. 

Next to these two studio- recordings there are half a dozen radio- and pirate-recordings made from her live- performances. They are from London, Milan and Rome. One of them I will discuss here, because for me, this is the greatest Norma of them all! It is a registration of a performance on 29 june 1955 in Rome (amongst others on Opera d’Oro 7003).

Callas, in wonderful voice, never misses a (top) note, nor a gasp or a nuance. From pianissisimo to forte and back again, from dark to light and open, from glissando to portamento she goes on and on and all this with a great feeling for style and a deep understanding of the text. This is dramatic Belcanto singing pur sang; this is what Bellini must have had in mind.

Mario del Monaco sings a dream of a Pollione. sometimes a bit loud, but he is allowed, because he is a warrior after all. In ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdisti’ he is audibly moved and falling in love again. Their voices melt together in the ultimate love duet which can only lead unto death.

Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco in ‘Qual cor tradisti’:

Serafin conducts it all with feeling for both drama and lyricism and if Stignani still does not convince me, it is only because I want to hear a soprano in that role.

L’Africaine. How loving Vasco da Gama proved fatal for an African queen

Settings for the 1865 premiere of a L’Africaine (press illustrations). The stage designs for Act I (Council Scene) and Act II (Dungeon Scene) were created by Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon; for Act III (Sea Scene and Shipwreck) and Act IV (Hindu Temple), by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph-François-Désiré Thierry; for Scene 1 of Act V (Queen’s Garden, not shown), by Jean Baptiste Lavastre; and for Scene 2 of Act V (The Machineel Tree), by Edouard-Désiré-Joseph


Shrirley Verrett (Selika)and Plácido Domingo (Vasco da Gama) in San Francisco

Vasco da Gama (yes, the Vasco da Gama) loves Inès, but when his own life is in danger, he takes refuge with the African queen, Sélika. Poor Sélika! She loves him wholeheartedly, but as soon as Inès reappears on the scene, she has to step asie. She does so literally; by smelling a poisonous flower.

Of course, much more happens in the opera, especially in the music. I wonder why it is that the opera is performed so little.
Is it due to the weak male lead, who mainly pursues fame? In any case, Meyerbeer gave him a magnificent aria, probably one of the most beautiful ever: ‘Pays merveilleux/Oh paradis’:

Domingo has always had faith in the opera and he has sung da Gama several times. It is also thanks to him that the opera experienced a minor revival in the 1970s.

There is a pirate recording on CD (Legato Classics LCD-116-3), starring Shirley Verrett and a truly brilliant Norman Mittlemann as Nélusco. It is from 1972, but there is no mention of where it was recorded. But since Verrett sang a series of performances that year, in San Francisco, it is actually quite clear.

The sound quality is poor, but not to worry: the opera was later also recorded for television, so that we can now enjoy it to the full on DVD (Arthaus Music 100217).

The truly wonderful production was created by Lotfi Mansouri (direction) and Wolfram and Amrei Skalicki (stage and costumes). Inès is sung by a (literally) beautiful, light coloratura soprano Ruth Ann Swenson and Justino Díaz does his best to convince us that he is scary. You should really watch it!


In 1977, the opera was recorded at the Teatre Liceu in Barcelona, again with Plácido Domingo as da Gama. But should I really recommend this recording? Probably not. Montserrat Caballé is a fine but unconvincing Sélika, Juan Pons has seen better days and Christine Weidinger is a merely decent Inez (Legato Classics LCD 208-2).


In November 1977, L’Africaine was recorded live in Monaco with a fine Martina Arroyo in the leading role. The textbook says it is probably the most complete performance of the score ever recorded. Unfortunately, Giorgio Casellato-Lamberti is a weak Vasco da Gama, but Sherrill Milnes’ superb Nélusco makes up for a lot (Myto 3MCD 011.235).

Umberto Giordano and his Fedora

How many opera lovers know Umberto Giordano and his operas? Many know Andrea Chénier (for me one of the best and most beautiful operas ever), but that’s it. Unless you are a fan of verism, in which case there is a good chance that you have heard of Fedora. And if you do go to opera houses in countries other than the Netherlands, you may even have seen the opera. Otherwise, you are left with nothing but the CD and DVD recordings.

Admittedly, Fedora does not reach the level of Andrea Chénier, which is mainly due to the libretto. The first act has a hard time getting started and the third is a bit drab. But the music! It is so incredibly beautiful!

The play on which Arturo Colautti’s libretto is based comes from the pen of Victorien Sardou and, just like Tosca, it was written for the greatest tragédienne of the time, Sarah Bernardt. The opera therefore offers an amazing opportunity for the best singing actresses. Magda Olivero, for instance, is without doubt one of the greatest performers of the role.

Below Magda Olivero, Doro Antonioli and Aldo Protti in the third act of Fedora, recorded in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam 1967:

And with Mario del Monaco in Monte Carlo 1969:

No wonder then that in 1970, when there was serious talk of a comeback for Maria Callas, she was proposed to sing Fedora with Domingo as Loris. Unfortunately, nothing came of it: Callas did want to return, but only as a Norma or a Violetta.

When she was sixty, Mirella Freni included Fedora in her repertoire and she gave a series of performances in Italy and Spain, finally coming to the Met in 1996. It became an enormous success. No wonder, because La Freni’s voice was extraordinary. I have never before seen her act with such intensity; it is a performance of the highest level.

Domingo also portrays a perfect Loris: tormented and oh so charming!

Ainhoa Arteta is truly delightful as the flirtatious, spirited Olga; her performance provides the necessary comic note. As the Polish pianist, Boleslao Lazinski, the real piano virtuoso appears: Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Not only can he play the piano very well, but throughout his performance he convinces as a real primadonna, it is very entertaining to watch.

The staging is conventional, with lavish, larger-than-life sets and real snow behind the stage-sized windows. It is just beautiful (DG 0732329).

In 2008, DG (4778367) recorded the opera on CD. Alberto Veronesi is a fine, lyrical conductor. He is less dramatic than his colleagues, so that the opera loses something of its ‘verism’.

Domingo is now an aging Loris, but he still sings with passion and in the third act he is simply irresistible. Angela Gheorghiu is a fine, slightly understated, Fedora and Nino Machaidze is a truly fantastic Olga.

Vespri siciliani/Les vêpres siciliennes. A bit of a discography (but not really)

Sicilian Vespers (1846), by Francesco Hayez

Les vêpres siciliennes was Verdi’s first French ‘grande opéra’, which, after much insistence by the Paris Opera, he composed on a libretto by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duyverier. It is one of his longest operas, thanks in part to the lengthy ballet in the third act, which was compulsory for the Paris of the time (no less than half an hour!).

The story is set in Palermo in 1282, during the French occupation of Sicily. The young Sicilian Henri is in love with Hélène, a young Austrian duchess, who is being held prisoner by Guy de Montfort, the French governor of Sicily. When de Montfort turns out to be Henri’s father, the complications are incalculable, and by the end just about everybody is dead.
The premiere in 1855 was a fiasco and a few years later, Verdi adapted the work into the Italian I vespri Siciliani, which was much more successful. However, the opera never became a real box-office hit.


Les vêpres siciliennes
was the third release in Opera Rara’s series of ‘original versions’, following earlier releases of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra. It had already been recorded live at The Camden Theatre in London in May 1969 and broadcast by the BBC in February 1970, but the CD was not released until 2004.

The performance, starring Jacqueline Brumaire, Jean Bonhomme and Neilson Taylor, is fair to good, but as a document it is of extraordinary importance (ORCV303).

In June 2002, our unsurpassed Saturday Matinee staged Les vêpres siciliennes concertante. It is a great pity that the recording has never been released on CD, because the performance (with, among others, Nelly Miricioiu, Francisco Casanova and Zeljko Lucic) was really good.


If you want the Italian version of the opera, the choice is a bit greater, but to say the market is flooded with them?

To be honest, I only know of one studio recording of the work (once RCA RD 80370). The cast includes Martina Arroyo, Plácido Domingo, Sherill Milnes and Ruggiero Raimondi. It is well worth seeing, especially as the music is virtually complete.

For the rest, we have to depend on (admittedly, in most cases very interesting) pirate recordings. Highly recommended is a recording with Montserrat Caballé and Plácido Domingo from Barcelona 1974 (SRO 837-2).

The same recording on another label (SRO is no longer available):

Don’t forget La Divina (with Boris Christoff and others), recorded in 1951 during the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Testament SBT 21416).

Fantastic is also the version with Renata Scotto, Gianni and Ruggiero Raimondi from La Scala 1970
The entire opera:

And then there are a few recordings with Cristina Deutekom
This one is from Paris 1974:

And Leyla Gencer.
Recording from 1970:

Please note: most recordings have been (greatly) shortened. Check the internet just to be sure, because these pirate labels come and go and the difference in price can be enormous.


In the 1980s, the American Susan Dunn was immensely popular. She was seen as the ultimate Verdi soprano. In her ‘Bologna years’ she became the favourite singer and protégé of Riccardo Chailly, the chief conductor there at the time. She made many CD recordings with him. Apart from Verdi also Mahler, Schoenberg and Beethoven, and they also recorded opera performances for video.

Elena in I vespri Siciliani was one of her star parts. She sang it, with enormous success, for the first time in 1986 (Warner Music Vision 504678029-2). Luca Ronconi’s production is quite traditional and the decors are true to nature. It feels like being among the cacti on a very sultry Sicily. The costumes also leave nothing to be desired, but the whole performance is rather static.

The audience clearly loves it. One open curtain follows another and the singers gratefully accept all the applause. Even though none of the protagonists are great actors – which may also be due to the director – their singing is of a very high level. And there is a surprise too: Anna Caterina Antonacci in the small role of Ninetta.

Below, Susan Dunn sings “Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core”:

Der Rosenkavalier op cd’s: kleine selectie

Lisa Della Casa

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Risë Stevens, Hilde Güden, Ralph Herbert & Lisa  Della Casa | Play on Anghami

Della Casa is één van mijn geliefde zangeressen, zeker in het Duitse ‘fach’. Haar mooie, romige stem met een vloeiende hoogte en een zeer sensuele ondertoon maakt haar tot één van de beste vertolksters van de muziek van Strauss. Haar ‘Vier Letzte Lieder” vind ik zelf het allermooist van allemaal.

Zo ook haar Marschallin. Voor mij heeft ze alles, wat de wat ouder (nou ja, ouder, zij is pas 34!) wordende vrouw ook voor een jonge jongen aantrekkelijk maakt. Zelfbewust en toch enigszins kwetsbaar. Koninklijk en speels. Vrolijk en melancholisch.

Della Casa was een zeer mooie vrouw, zeer elegant ook. Het is daarom echt jammer dat haar Feldmarschallin voor zover ik weet niet is vastgelegd op dvd. Er zijn diverse cd-opnamen met haar verkrijgbaar, allemaal live en in de meeste gevallen niet in een optimale geluidskwaliteit.

Ik wil even stilstaan bij de productie die op 18 januari 1956 werd opgenomen in de Metropolitan Opera (Walhall WLCD0313). De geluidskwaliteit is zeer pover en scherp, wat niet wegneemt dat er zo ongelofelijk veel valt te genieten!

Het Met-orkest onder leiding van Rudolf Kempe klinkt ouderwets mooi: zoetig en weemoedig. Wenen ten top. Af en toe moest ik ook aan oude films denken – toch geen straf.

Della Casa is onweerstaanbaar en zo is ook haar Octavian, Risë Stevens. Tel daar de onnavolgbare Hilde Güden als Sophie bij op en dan weet je wat voor hemel je in de ‘Hab’mir’s gelobt’ kunt verwachten.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Review | Gramophone

Nu ga ik mij op glad ijs begeven. De Karajan-opname uit 1956 ((Warner Classics 5099996682425) heet legendarisch te zijn. Maar ik houd niet van Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: ik vind haar zingen vaak gemaniëreerd en haar nadrukkelijke dictie maakt dat ik mij vaak ongemakkelijk voel. Ook haar glansrol, de Marschallin, vind ik te geaffecteerd en bovendien zeer onderkoeld.

Von Karajan kan mij hier ook moeilijk bekoren. O ja, het orkest onder zijn leiding speelt werkelijk fenomenaal, maar ik vind er te weinig ‘Weense bonbons’ en te veel ‘Pruisische dril’ in. Maar wellicht ligt het aan mij?

Christa Ludwig is echter een wonderschone Octavian en Teresa Stich-Rendall een Sophie in de beste Mozartiaanse traditie. Otto Edelmann is een heerlijke baron Ochs.

Montserrat Caballé

Der Rosenkavalier CD (Glyndebourne 1965)

Onlangs bereikte mij een cd-opname uit Glyndebourne 1965. Het is een in alle opzichten merkwaardige voorstelling geweest: de rol van de Marschallin werd toen gezongen door niemand minder dan Montserrat Caballé.

Wij kunnen het ons nu niet meer voorstellen, maar toen was het volstrekt voor de hand liggend. Caballé is haar carrière in Duitsland begonnen en heeft zelfs een prachtige Salome op haar repertoire staan. Er is ook helemaal niets op haar Duits aan te merken. Ze is een mooie, jonge en kruidige Marschallin, die de rol ‘op z’n Caballés’ verrijkt, met de mooiste pianissimo’s en legato’s.

Teresa Zylis-Gara is een verrukkelijk licht klinkende Octavian en Edith Mathis een als een vijftienjarig meisje klinkende Sophie. Otto Edelmann (Ochs) completeert de fantastische opname (GFOCD 010-65).


Claire Watson

Rosenkavalier Kleiber

Net als voor zijn vader Erich, was ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ een paradepaardje van Carlos Kleiber, een van de meest charismatische dirigenten van de laatste 50 jaar.  In 1973 werd de opera live geregistreerd tijdens het Münchner Festival en een jaar of twee geleden op Orfeo (C 581 083 D) uitgebracht.

Bij de enthousiast ontvangen première een jaar eerder werd de Marschallin gezongen door Gwyneth Jones (er bestaat een DVD-opname van), nu werd ze vervangen door Claire Watson, jarenlang het boegbeeld van het Münchense ensemble. Watson is een wat rijpere Marschallin, weemoedig, bitterzoet en niet gespeend van humor. Ik vind het mooi.

Karl Ridderbush is werkelijk kostelijk als Ochs: lomp en over alles heen walsend, maar in zijn walsjes klinkt hij toch oprecht ouderwets melancholisch. De Sophie van Lucia Popp is onnavolgbaar: kwikzilverig, flirterig en kwetsbaar. Haar pure meisjesachtige sopraan smelt in perfecte harmonie met de donkere mezzo van Brigitte Fassbaender, twee stemmen die daadwerkelijk verliefd op elkaar zijn geworden.

Maar het mooiste is het orkest. Kleiber ontlokt de beoogde ‘zilverklank’ en vervlecht het natuurlijke sentiment met ironie en een zekere hang naar vroeger.

De opname werd al eerder op verscheidene piraten-labels te koop aangeboden, maar nu kunnen we hem eindelijk in een goede geluidskwaliteit beluisteren.

Anna Tomowa-Sintow

Tomowa-Sintow behoorde tot de lievelingszangeressen van Herbert von Karajan. Begin jaren zeventig haalde hij haar naar Salzburg, waardoor ze internationaal kon doorbreken. Zij heeft ook veel opnamen onder de maestro gemaakt, voornamelijk Mozart en Strauss. De Marschallin had ze onder zijn leiding al in 1984 voor Deutsche Grammophon opgenomen, maar ik ken die opname niet.

Wel een andere, op 3 maart 1995 live opgenomen in Covent Garden (Opus Arte OA CD9006). In 1995 was ze al een rijpe vrouw en zo klinkt ze ook. Maar haar vertolking is meer dan roldekkend: ze zingt niet alleen doorleefd maar heeft ook allure.

Ann Murray (ach! Wat een zangeres!) is een verrukkelijke Octavian en Barbara Bonney een wellicht niet voor de hand liggende, maar wel een heerlijke Sophie.

De walsjes zijn onder handen van Andrew Davis heel erg luchtig, wat ook de hele opname een opvallend milde toon geeft.