My post on Je crois entendre encore has had a lot of views since it first appeared. I recently received the comments below from Tom Herz of San Francisco. I found them so insightful that I thought they deserved a post of their own. NK
Seeing as how you posted this over 2 years ago, what I have to share may be somewhat ‘old hat’ but if you don’t mind, I would like to give you some of my impressions of the aria’s performances and my opinions for some of the preferences that I have.
As I noted, I think this is one of the most moving, poignant and magical arias in the repertoire. What I find guides me toward or away from certain renditions are both the music as I understand Bizet intended it as well as the context in which it is set — the dreamlike quality of the images and the rhythmic pulse reflecting the flow of the tide and waves that is embodied — as it were — in the orchestration of the aria.
Given these essential elements, I tend to find the recordings of the great Italians of the past (Gigli, di Stefano, and Tagliavini — particularly Gigli) fraught with way too much rubato that detracts from the flow of the tide — the gentle but forward movement of the piece. The lingering on certain notes way too long — while perhaps intriguing on first hearing — gets tiresome and annoying for me on repeated hearings — beautfiul as the voice(s) may be.
Jussi Bjorling, while I think he was one of the greats — sounds like he is forcing or pushing those high notes in that penultimate line of each verse – ‘Folle ivresse’ — and this vocal approach I feel diminishes the beauty and makes a jarring change in the mood. Bjorling is not the only singer who resorts to this approach and I think it mars the performance of whoever takes that road.
Much as I love Richard Tucker, I don’t think this is an aria by which to remember him. Not that it is a bad performance; I just do not find it particularly memorable.
Now Nicolai Gedda is another story — here we agree. His rendition is absolutely gorgeous for all the qualities that you describe. His pacing is right, he does not linger too long over any notes, his fluidity and dynamics are in superb taste.
I am familiar with the version from The Man Who Cried and found it really made me truly fond of the movie where I might not have been absent the Bizet.
One of the best all around versions by many peoples’ taste is by Alfredo Kraus the link to it is below; a 1975 performance:
As you noted, we are so used to hearing the addition of tenor singing beyond what Bizet wrote, that when it is performed true to the original it catches one off guard. You may also find that Kraus does not repeat the last two words of the aria up in the high range. He goes back a little further — listen carefully!
But, we do not need to go back over a century to hear the aria as Bizet wrote it and certainly we don’t need to hear it in Russian to get the desired effect. There are at least two versions on Youtube that capture it in the original French and by singers of the first calibre.
The most recent is by Rolando Villazon. I noticed that Jacob Taylor posted a comment on your page referring to his rendition as well. Notice that in the first verse, rather than forcing the ‘folle ivresse’ as noted above, Villazon tries to follow Bizet’s dynamic marking of pp (pianissimo).
Now I have saved my favorite for last, Alain Vanzo who recorded the complete opera many years ago with George Pretre conducting and whether it was Vanzo or Pretre or they both agreed — they set a tempo that truly captures the dreamlike quality of the text as well as keeping the tidal movement of the sea flowing throughout. These two artists seem intent on following Bizet’s directions — truly making that first ‘folle ivresse’ the pianissimo it deserves and I find it convincing that Bizet knew what he was thinking.
Vanzo has a smooth, melting quality throughout that meshes with the text. And I think when he goes into his head, it is done as artfully and musically as humanly possible. For me, this is a rendition that I can come back to again and again and feel totally satisfied that the muse was well served. The link below displays the score as Vanzo sings the aria.
Below is another recording of the aria by Vanzo in which he incorporates the added tenor phrase at the conclusion of what Bizet wrote that has become a common performance practice.