GHCD 2305/06 – LA TRAVIATA – Verdi – Shumskaya – Kozlovsky
Chorus and Symphony of the USSR State, Alexander Ivanovich Orlov – Conductor, Yelizaveta Vladimirovna Shumskaya – Ivan Semyonovich Kozlovsky – Pavel Gerasimovich Lisitsian
Fanfare September/October 2005
After World War II, the state-owned Soviet recording industry launched an ambitious, longterm project to capture an disc as many of the Bolshoi’s Standard repertoire operas as possible. This was serendipitous, for the Bolshoi was still experiencing a Golden Age of singing that would continue for another couple of decades. “Golden Age” is not a phrase 1 lightly toss around, but the Bolshoi’s tenor and bass contingents during that period justify the label, with an over-abundant wealth of top-flight talent that recalls the major opera houses of Western and Central Europe and the US back at the turn of the 20th century.
Although homegrown composers received pride of place, this Melodiya effort also included a selection of popular operas, primarily from France and Italy: Delibes’s Lakme, Gounod’s Faust and Romeo et Juliette, Puccini’s La bohème, etc. Everything was recorded in Russian, following a Bolshoi performing tradition of many years. (Native-language performances of foreign operas remain an established tradition in at least a few major European opera houses to this day.) Linguistic purists will therefore want to avoid the 1947 La traviata under review. For everybody else, however, it should comprise a singular treat.
Or rather, four treats. The first is the conducting. Alexander Orlov was one of those rare instances of White Russian royalty thriving long into the history of the new Red regime. A prince under the old regime, Orlov pursued his love of music and became a conductor with the Moscow RSO from 1930 onwards. Among the active Soviet conductors of his period, he was the most oldfashioned, indulging in frequent string portamentos and highly elastic tempos that were already old of style back then. But Orlov knew how to make it all work, and his musical indulgence somehow seems fitting in this, Verdi’s most intimate of operas.
The tenor lead is Ivan Kozlovsky, arguably the greatest Soviet lyric tenor of the last century. His White voice strikes some people as unpleasant, much as Heddle Nash’s once did; but for poetic Interpretation, he remains untouched. At a time when any of a down rivals among his countrymen sang this repertoire with convincing beauty and ease, Kozlovsky stood above them all by virtue of his clear enunciation of text, and in-depth study of each role he assumed. At times, this last led hem astray: his performance of “Vladimir’s Song” in the complete Prince Igor recorded by Melodiya is a case of simple material dissected slowly under a microscope. But in roles such as Werther, Lensky, Lohengrin, or Count Almaviva, Kozlovsky reigned supreme. Each came to life not merely in the music, but as a character. His Alfredo is a poet of great sensitivity, as a rapt but passionate “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” illustrates: no bearish thug of a lyrico spinto, this. His fluent coloratura also gets a rare and spectacular outing in the sometimes cut cabaletta, “Oh mio rimorso!”
Yelizaveta Shumskaya was another example of a great artist whose voice evokes mixed reactions. Like Kozlovsky, she had all the requisite vocal gifts, and subordinated them to a profound analysis of character and music. Her Violetta comes alive in a way that many merely pretty renditions by vocally blessed sopranos don’t. “Ah, fors’è lui” is delicate and musing, etched in numerous introspective tints; while her voice in “Addio del passato” shifts perfectly from a bleak foreknowledge of death to the rich desperation of love, and back again. Like Kozlovsky, too, there’s no Sense in her of holding anything back at inappropriate moments. Shumskaya’s “Sempre libera” isn’t a careful rendition, but one that properly mirrors a Spirit recklessly tossing responsibility to the Winds; and she has the voice and training to make it work. It’s true that she lacks a trill, and the figurations in thirds slur; at times elsewhere in this opera, the voice under pressure sounds hard and unyielding. But it is unquestionably a major assumption of Violetta by a performer with a unique, well-conceived interpretation.
Giorgio Germont is sung here by Pavel Lisitsian, who died just a few months ago at the age of 92. Lisitsian wasn’t a detailed Interpreter of text such as Kozlovsky and Shumskaya. Nor was he a complete slouch in this department, as the extended act-I Germont/Violetta duet reveals; but Lisitsian is primarily remembered for his musical (as opposed to theatrical) Imagination, and for having one of the most beautiful and distinctive baritone voices ever put an disc. It was a bright, warm Instrument with a faster than average vibrato, supported by phenomenal breath control. (1 used to feature his recital recording of “Ombra mai fu” an my radio holidays special, years ago. Its first syllable seems to swell and diminish over a period measured in timeless hours, not seconds.) His “Di provenza” is a wonderful study in dynamics, and an example of just how affecting this war-horse can be when sung by a Performer of this caliber. Adding value to this release, the producers have included three other arias by Lisitsian in Verdi, and an act-III excerpt from the 1953 Aida accompanied by the somewhat tremulous Natalia Sokolova.
The recording is in generally good shape, though from the occasional ticks it’s clear that LPs supplied the original transfer. The original surfaces were very clean in any case, with good, forward vocals and slightly tinny sound. (The Soviets almost certainly used tape recorders “liberated” from – German studios at the end of the war.) One odd glitch occurs in “Sempre libera,” jumping forward a couple of seconds in the music; and a second CD Set 1 acquired showed the same flaw. It is not in the originals, since my own LP copy has no such problem.
Larry Friedman supplies impassioned liner notes about the cast and a synopsis of the action. There are no texts, but if you know La traviata, that won’t bother you. And if you know La traviata, and already have an Italian version at hand, you really owe it to yourself to get this recording as well.
International Record Review, April 2005
Opera an Record identifies the Bolshoi’s Russian-language Traviata as a 1954 performance, but the reissue’s CD booklet indicates that it might also have been 1947. The conductor, Alexander Ivanovich Orlov, died in 1948. He frequently displays decidedly old-fashioned grandeur, beginning with the immensely spacious and expressive Prelude. Tempos do vary in effectiveness, however: a leaden ‘Un di felice’; a splendidly graceful pizzicato accompaniment for Alfredo’s aria; an exceedingly sensitive traversal through the soprano-baritone duet; a mechanical Second Act finale; and a dreadfully slow reading of the heroine’s ‘Prendi, quest’e l’immagine’.
Elisaveta Shumskaya’s Violetta is vinegary and over-vibrant at the start but she soon blossoms into greater appeal. Even when under no pressure the voice tends towards sharpness but she remains a musical singer, with true loveliness in ‘Dite alla giovine’. She has dignity throughout and ultimately proves quite touching. That’s more than can be Said of Ivan Kozlovsky’s Alfredo, perhaps the most maddening of his recorded portrayals. He seems in a completely different expressive world from his colleagues and often sings too languidly by half (he also commits the unpardonable sn of joining Violetta at the climax of ‘Amami, Alfredo!’). What a contrast with the full-toned, utterly unmannered delivery of Pavel Lisitsian (Germont). The great britone is, as ever, not exactly the ultimate in interpretative specificity, but one senses that emotion is actually built into the very timbre of his voice.
The recorded sound betrays some distortion at climaxes, with voices placed too far forward. The CD booklet offers three times as much Information an Kozlovsky as the other two leading Bingers. The bonus material, however, is all Lisitsian: Ballo and Trovatore arias plus the Aida-Amonasro duet (with Natalia Sokolova, excessively light-voiced), each a prime example of impeccably vocalized and sensitively shaped Verdi baritone singing
Kozlovsky has an agreeable light, slightly nasal, tenor voice but this is only for collectors interested in the vocal traditions of Russia. Others can be assured that they are missing no fantastic vocal or interpretative revelations. …
In this latest in Guild’s The Russian Legacy series Larry Friedman extols the virtues of the tenor Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-1993). He further suggests that he is young-sounding for his age suggesting uncertainty as to whether the recording was made in 1947 or 1954 (p.5 of the booklet). Incongruously, a few lines later, he notes that the conductor, Alexander Orlov, originally a White Russian prince, died in 1948! Given the normal exemplary standards of accuracy of the Guild booklets, I hope my reading of that is correct and not a sign of old age on my part.
Certainly, Ivan Kozlovsky has an agreeable light, slightly nasal, tenor voice. His careful phrasing in Un di felice (CD 1 tr. 5), soft singing and even tone are welcome virtues in any tenor. However, his reedy tone and tendency to near parlando the odd phrase are more questionable. So too is his tendency to abbreviate the ends of phrases (CD 1 tr. 12). The high note of Oh mio rimorso! is squeezed rather than ringing. As his Violetta, Yelizaveta Shumskaya (1905-1908) is a lightish lyric voice with some coloratura skills and with the virtue of dramatic vibrancy. In Violetta’s great act 1 scene (CD 1 trs. 6-8) there is not enough colour in her voice in É strano! Whilst she also tends to swell on the note, spoiling any smooth legato. Her diction is good.
As Germont pére Pavel Lisitsian (b.1911) doesn’t show much variation of tone but uses his voice expressively. His confrontation with Violetta (CD 1 tr. 14) brings out some of Yelizaveta Shumskaya’s best singing. Lisitsian’s Di Provenza (CD 1 tr. 20) is not impressive. He reaches for the high notes and his tone is rough. His singing of four Verdi baritone arias, (CD 2 trs. 20-23) also shows his rawness of tone and lack of legato, at least to my ears. It may be that he is not helped by singing in Russian whose glottal nature can be inimical to those virtues when transferred from their own genre to translations, particularly of the Italian and French repertoire. Although Eri tu (CD 2 tr. 21) appears to have been recorded at the same session as the previous Alla vita, the sound is distinctly thinner with the voice more recessed.
The overall recording quality is fair for its vintage. Given that listening to La Traviata in Russian is several steps beyond listening to it in English, in terms of how the voice sits on the music, this issue is only for collectors interested in the vocal traditions of Russia. Others can pass by, assured that they are missing no fantastic vocal or interpretative revelations.
Robert J Farr