GHCD 2273/74 – SAMSON ET DELILA – Saint-Saëns – Metropolitan Opera – 1936

Metropolitan Opera, Chorus & Orchestra, Maurice Abravanel – conductor, René Maison, Gertrud Wettergren, Ezio Pinza, Emanuel List

To the CD in our Shop

Schweizer Musikzeitung April 2006

Qualifie de soporifique, statique, de dramaticalement inadéquat, d’antiquité, il est probable que l’opéra de Saint-Saens n’ait pas toujours connu ni mises en scène heureuses, ni distribution idéale. Pourtant, après le grand Tamagno, Charles Dalmorès et Paul Franz ont su reprendre le rôle exigeant de Samson. On imagine volontiers aujourd’hui un Alagna défendant ce personnage. Dans cet enregistrement historique, c’est René Maison qui chante le héros chevelu. Sa voix à la fois héroique et souple possède toutes les qualités requises. De plus, malgré la qualité médiocre d’un enregistrement live de 1936 (au Met), le ténor a une diction impeccable. C’est d’autant plus heureux que l’on ne trouve aucune trace de livret dans la pochette du CD.

Ezio Pinza, dont an connaît bien la «vocalitá» italienne, est très à l’aise dans la tessiture difficile du grand prêtre. Pinza possède une puissance incroyable dont il n’abuse jamais.

Ces deux solistes masculins sont étonnament modernes : point de sanglots, un vibrato ni serrè, ni envahissant.

Gertrud Wettergren n’a pas ce que l’on attend habituellement d’une Dalila. Aujourd’hui, ce sont des voix plutôt lourdes qui déféndent le rôle. La cantatrice est un mezzo lyrique léger qui conduit sa Dalila avec intelligence, mais dont la sensualité reste bien en decà des grandes tenantes du rôle.

Nous sommes heureux que le choeur du Metropolitan ne sonne plus ainsi aujourd’hui, ces dames se plaisant à porter chaque intervalle par un glissando sublimement kitsch. Le manque de largeur hertzienne de l’enregistrement ne permet pas de se faire une juste opinion de l’orchestre de l’opéra new yorkais conduit par Maurice Abravanel. Quelques petits soli de bois nous font constater que les modes sonores changent très vite, mais nous font regretter l’epoque des ècoles nationales oú l’on reconnaissait immèdiatement la provenance des musiciens. S’agitil d’un enregistrement indispensable? Pour les amateurs de raretés certainement.
Thierry Dagon

American Record Guide 2005

This has long been regarded as Toscanini’s finest contribution to the recorded repertoire and remains, probably, the most authoritatively conducted performance of the work.

Although rarely absent from the catalogs, it is an especial pleasure to have this issue in what may well prove the finest sound likely to be encountered. Richard Caniell has returned to the original source and by minimum interference has presented us with a truly thrilling auditory experience. Indeed, it almost lifts one from one’s chair and must surely more nearly correspond with what that original audience heard.

So muck has been written about this performance, it is unnecessary to eulogize further here. Suffice to say that almost no other recording matches this magisterial account. Nevertheless, whilst admiring Vinay’s artistry and commitment, it is difficult to consider his voice ideal for this role. He was certainly a most compelling artist an stage when the lack of heroic metal in his thick tones was less noticeable. His Desdemona, an the other band, seems always to have been underrated but offers many fine moments that some contemporary exponents of this role could learn from. As for Valdengo, he requires no special pleading, for he stands comparison with the very finest exponents of the part. All the remaining singers are excellent, with Nan Merriman an exceptional Emilia.

A third disc gathers together some orchestral and vocal rehearsals, which preceded the broadcast of the final acts. Despite imperfect sound owing to a tracking defect in the original masters, it is instructive and fascinating to overhear the Maestro singing the vocal parts and the way he brings the various strands of the big concerted number together. Not for frequent hearing perhaps, but a most useful adjunct to the complete work.

First class notes with a comprehensive Synopsis (no libretto) and absorbing comments from the transfer engineer ensures this edition maintains Guild’s high standards. This must now be considered the issue of choice for this seminal recording.

International Record Review   December 04

More briefly, two further Guild sets, neither of them specially meritorious: a Samson et Dalila from 1936 from the Met has tremendous conducting from Maurice Abravanel, one of the most underrated of opera conductors, and rather a distinguished cast. But Gertrud Wettergren, though rich of voice, doesn’t manage to sound seductive. Her big scene with Samson generates little heat. Rene Maison is admirably suited to Samson, though surely even a blinded hero wouldn’t sound quite so lachrymose. Pinza is a magnificently imposing High Priest. More valuable is the filler: excerpts, mainly unpublished, of Act 2 scene 3 and the Mill Scene, with the immensely impressive César Vezzani and the adequate Marie Duchêne -it’s always well worth looking to see what such labels as Guild fill the last disc of a set with, since it’s often the thing that makes it most desirable (Guild Historical GHCD2273/74, two discs, 2 hours 35 minutes).

Saint-Saëns considered the role of Dalila so central to the plot that he is said to have thought of calling the opera after her. Her two arias from Act 2 had been heard in private performance five years before the staging of this the composer’s first opera. Samson and Dalila was first conceived, in the 1860s, as an oratorio. However, it was championed in Germany as an opera and received its first performance, sung in German, on December 2nd 1877 conducted by Liszt. The Paris premiere was given at a minor theatre in 1890 and met with great success,. It was introduced to the more prestigious ‘Paris Opera’ two years later and garnered over one hundred performances in the following five years. It was anticipating its five hundredth airing at the time of the composer’s death in 1921 (booklet note pp.5-6). Following concert performances in New York it was first presented at the ‘Met’ in 1895. The theatre opened its 1915-1916 season with a new production featuring Caruso as Samson. The performance on these discs features the conducting of Maurice Abravanel making his Met debut at the age of 33, then the youngest conductor in the company’s history. However, he only conducted at the theatre for two seasons finding the restrictive rehearsal times inimical to the realisation of his musical vision. His interpretation as represented here is musical and well shaped, giving both lyrical and dramatic impetus. Some commentators (p.12) have found his interpretation to be the most persuasive and vibrant on disc. Given the relatively thin orchestral sound I would not be so definitive. After all, the work has drawn interpretations from several notable conductors in the past forty years or so, and their superior sound gives far greater impact to the work’s often heavily-scored and complex music.

Of the singing, the most distinguished comes from Ezio Pinza as the High Priest. A baritone normally sings this role, but I must say that Pinza’s steady, sonorous, tightly focused singing (CD1 tr. 22) gives the part the importance it deserves. When the High Priest taunts Samson to sing to the Philistines of his lover (CD2 tr. 16) he is particularly effective. I do not find René Maison’s Samson all that vocally appealing. As one would expect of a Belgian-born singer his French is excellent and his diction is such as to express the nuances of the words. However, his dramatic tenor does not lay easily on my ears. He has a tendency to squeeze the note as he puts pressure on the voice (CD 1 tr. 29). Elsewhere he becomes unduly lachrymose. Much of what Maison lacks in style and tone can be heard in the singing of César Vezzani in the appendix which includes Act 2 scene 3 and the ‘Mill Scene’ from Act 3 (CD 2 trs. 22-32 and particularly the last three). The comparisons can be extended to that between the lyric mezzo of the Swede Gertrud Wettergren and the fuller-toned Marie Duchêne. Certainly Wettergren embarks on ‘Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (CD 2 tr. 2) steadily and with appealing phrasing, but there is no great sense of the meaning of the words. The same is true whether she is tempting Samson (CD 1 tr. 17) or haggling with the High Priest. At the end of the day her voice lacks the ideal weight of tone and sexual sensuousness that is essential to the role.

The booklet note by London Green is interesting but not up to the standard I have come to expect in this series. Likewise the track-related synopsis is somewhat terse. Richard Caniell is open regarding the interpolation of missing words at disc breaks in the originals and also groove defects that are audible in the passage succeeding the Act 3 ballet. I have not been able to compare the generally acceptable sound here with that on the Walhall issue of the same performance. This issue is recommendable for Pinza enthusiasts or collectors drawn to the complete Act 2 scene 2 sung by César Vezzani and Marie Duchêne. It is claimed (p.22) to be the first time this has been available on LP or CD.