Firebirds of Paris: French and Belgian Singers in Russian Opera and Song

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Firebirds of Paris: French and Belgian Singers in Russian Opera and Song. (1) Marston 51008-2 (79.18 min).

Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird, starring Karsavina, was a huge success at its Paris premiere in 1910. The Russian upper classes had long been Francophiles, and Paris became a haven for many of them in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Civil War. The exiles included famous artists and singers, such as Chaliapin and Kouznetsova, who were already well known to Parisian audiences from their earlier appearances under the auspices of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The French, in turn, became fascinated with Russian music around the beginning of the 20th century.

For this CD Ward Marston has assembled 30 vocal records of Russian opera and songs made between 1928 and 1948. Naturally, all the selections are sung in French. Local European opera companies seldom, if ever, performed foreign operas in their original languages at that time. (German houses were still doing Verdi and Puccini in German translation well into the 1950s.) French singers gave foreign-song recitals in French translation for their French-speaking audiences.

The collection opens with excerpts from Boris Godunov. Vanni-Marcoux, a lyrical Boris, offers the Tsar's soliloquy from the "Coronation Scene" with his usual perfect articulation of the text. The most impressive performances of this music, however, are by Andre Pernet and Jean Aquistapace. Pernet delivers a chilling account of the "Clock Scene;" Aquistapace and chorus sing the "Farewell and Death of Boris" impressively. Albert Huberty performs a vigorous "In the Town of Kazan."

The Belgian mezzo, Livine Mertens, gives an expressive version of Pauline's rarely recorded Romance from Queen of Spades. Charles Friant displays bright top notes and elegant style in Levko's aria from May Night. He does not, however, in the least remind me of the Ukrainian (not Russian) tenor, Ivan Kozlovsky, as the liner notes suggest. I am a fan of Ninon Vallin, but was not impressed with her version of Lel's song (Snow Maiden); for me, it missed the spirit of this fairy tale. Her subsequent performance of the "Georgian Song" by Balakirev is altogether more effective. Georges Thill's account of the Indian Merchant's song in Sadko--in the proper tenor register--is alone worth the price of this CD. There is not likely to be its equal in a language other than Russian, and--perhaps Smirnov's or Jadan's aside--I cannot offhand recall a really superior version in Russian. …