Topic: 006) Prophete, live 1970
When Radio Turin presented Le Prophète in 1970, it was the first time this Meyerbeer opera had been heard in Italy in 60 years. The precedent had been set in 1962 with La Scala's revival of Les Huguenots in 1962 and the Florence staging of Robert le diable in 1968, completing a Meyerbeer minirenaissance of sorts. (I reviewed that Florence revival for Fanfare's previous issue.) As for this Le Prophète (the only one of the three operas to be sung in the original French), it formerly appeared on LPs on the EJS label; this release is its first CD incarnation.
Hector Berlioz attended the opera's premiere in 1849 and gave this summation in one of his letters: "The score contains some very fine things side by side with feeble and detestable ones. But the splendor of the show will make everything pass muster." That seems like a fair appraisal, though "detestable" sounds rather strong for the opera's numerous admittedly less inspired pages. There is plenty of bombast and banality in Le Prophète 's music, and Scribe's libretto provides an abundance of improbable contrivances. But there is also evidence of Meyerbeer's novel and frequently ingenious touches of orchestration, and even more of his indisputable mastery of vocal writing. That latter element is far better served in the MYTO set than it was in CBS's complete recording of the opera, also featuring Marilyn Horne and the late Henry Lewis, which followed six years later.
The crucial difference between the two sets is Nicolai Gedda in the title role of Jean de Leyde, an historical personage whose story is considerably embroidered here by Scribe's fanciful imagination. Gedda displays an astonishing mastery of voix mixte effects (a mixture of head and chest resonances in the high register) that was beyond the reach of CBS's earnest, capable, but miscast James McCracken. The role of Jean has its heroic moments (the aria "O roi des cieux," for one), but it also calls for a whole array of high pianissimo shadings that emerge from Gedda's throat with remarkable grace and refinement. The crucial role of Fides (created by the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia) finds the 1970 Marilyn Horne in her element. She ranges high and low with equal bravura and emotional commitment, and her opulent tones are under firmer control than they are in the CBS set. Margherita Rinaldi, in the taxing role of Berthe, is absent from the opera's central episodes, but brings a virtuoso flair to her opening Cavatina and to her dramatic reappearance in act IV. The three Anabaptist conspirators — Meyerbeerian villains of despicable character, yet not without a measure of opéra comique irony — are quite good, particularly basso Robert El Hage.
Henry Lewis conducts with authority and precision, bringing vitality to the opera's rather effective ballet sequence (mandatory in the "grand operas" of the period). The chorus, too, contributes significantly. Within its somewhat restricted dynamic range, the recorded sound is quite enjoyable.
Henry Lewis, conductor; Marilyn Horne (Fidès); Nicolai Gedda (Jean de Leyde); Margherita Rinaldi (Berthe); Robert El Hage (Zacharie); Fritz Peter (Jonas); Boris Carmeli (Mathisen); Alfredo Giacomotti (Oberthal); RAI Torino Orchestra and Chorus