BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (sung in Russian)
Victor Nechipailo, bass (Don Fernando), Alexai Ivanov, baritone (Don Pizarro), Georgi Nelepp, tenor (Florestan), Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano (Leonore), Nikolai Shchegolkov, bass (Rocco), Irina Maslennikova, soprano (Marzelline), Pawel Tchevin, tenor (Jaquino). Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexander Melik-Pashayev, Conductor. (Plus excerpts from Jules Massenet’s Werther)
GALA GL 100.597 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:19:42

GOUNOD: Roméo et Juliette (sung in Russian)
Ivan Kozlovsky, tenor (Roméo), Elizaveta Shumskaya, soprano (Juliette), Ivan Burlak, bass (Mercutio), N. Sokolova, soprano (Stéphano), Maxim Mikhailov, bass (Frère Laurent), Ivan Petrov, bass (Capulet). Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexander Orlov, Conductor.
GUILD GHCD 2264/5 (2 CDs) (M) (AAD) TT: 2:16:17

These recordings of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette date from 1957 and 1947, respectively. For a number of reasons neither recording would qualify as the preferred version of the opera. Both are in monophonic sound—Fidelio, quite fine, Roméo, more compromised. Neither release contains a libretto, only essays on the works and the performers. And finally, these German and French operas are performed in Russian translation. Still, despite all of these caveats, I urgently recommend the purchase of both recordings, as they document some of the finest performances on disc of the respective title roles.

In the case of Fidelio, the Leonore is soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in spectacular, youthful (31years old) voice. In commenting on her interpretation of Leonore (Fidelio), Vishnevskaya observed: “I played a very energetic young girl, very romantic, very much in love.” That sense of energy and passionate love is clear in every bar of Vishnevskaya’s performance. Couple that beauty and intensity with extraordinary technical accomplishment in such fiendishly difficult music, and you have a performance for the ages. There is certainly a Slavic edge to Vishnevskaya’s voice that might not be to all tastes. But I found the performance both compelling and beautiful on every level.
It’s fortunate that Vishnevskaya’s Leonore is surrounded by excellent singers in all of the principal roles. Pride of place goes to the great Russian spinto tenor, Georgi Nelepp, as Florestan. Like Vishnevskaya, Nelepp sings his demanding role with a combination of dramatic intensity, technical ease, and handsome vocal quality that places his Florestan near the very top of the list among recorded interpretations. I also very much enjoyed the conducting of Alexander Melik-Pashayev—propulsive, but never rushed, and in fine accord with the singers. The contributions of the Bolshoi Chorus and Orchestra are admirable as well.

The recording includes dialogue, but no interpolated Leonore Overture No. III. The sound is in good, clear mono, perhaps just slightly below the quality of studio recordings from that era. The Gala release also includes as an appendix excerpts from Act III of Massenet’s Werther, again sung in Russian, with Vishnevskaya and the wonderful lyric tenor, Sergei Lemeshev, in the title role. A fine bonus to an exciting release, which, at budget price, is not to be missed.

Equally superb, but perhaps more controversial, is the Roméo of tenor Ivan Kozlovsky, as documented on a 1947 recording of Gounod’s Shakespeare opera, reissued by Guild. Kozlovsky possessed a unique vocal timbre that has been described by various critics as “white,” “nasal,” or “androgynous.” Additionally, Kozlovsky was not beyond stretching a phrase, interpolating his own dynamic effects, or holding a high note well beyond its written value. There is no question Kozlovsky lacked the kind of classic vocal warmth of such great Romeos as Georges Thill, Jussi Bjoerling, and Alain Vanzo. On the other hand, Kozlovsky used his voice with such technical and vocal mastery that the end result is, for me, quite affecting and beautiful. And I find Kozlovsky’s occasional liberties with the written score a welcome throwback to a time when singers were expected to imprint their personalities onto the music at hand.

In any event, I can’t think of a better representation of Ivan Kozlovsky’s art than this 1947 Roméo. He is in sterling form, with a pliable, even production of tone that extends all the way to a brilliant high “C” at the conclusion of Act III. Kozlovsky sculpts the music with extraordinary sensitivity and skill, using his phenomenal breath control to great effect. And, perhaps more than any other Romeo on disc, Kozlovsky uses a remarkably wide palette of vocal colors to convey the various dramatic situations. Compare, as just one example, the gentle sound of Kozlovsky’s voice as he attempts to appease Tybalt, as opposed to the steely anger when Mercutio is slain. All in all, this is a masterful performance both from the perspective of singing and acting, one that I would place ahead of Bjoerling and Vanzo, my other two favorite Romeos from complete recordings. Again, the supporting cast is quite good, with Kozlovsky’s longtime singing partner, Elizaveta Shumskaya, an accomplished and sympathetic Juliette. Two superb Russian bassos, Ivan Burlak and Ivan Petrov, make welcome appearances as Mercutio and Capulet. There is a long and rich tradition of performances of French grand opera in Russia. Conductor Alexander Orlov and the forces of the Bolshoi Theater provide sensitive and idiomatic collaboration to the excellent solo efforts.

The sound of this 1947 recording is marred by some brief pitch unsteadiness at the very beginning, and a somewhat muffled acoustic throughout. A friend of mine who has an LP issue of this performance tells me the CD remastering is not ideal. Nonetheless, it is more than sufficient to enjoy a fascinating and, in the case of Kozlovsky, essential recording. The brief appendix is a 1939 piano-accompanied recording of the Act I duet for Romeo and Juliet, featuring Kozlovsky and Antonina Nezhdanova.

K.M. (March 2004)