LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
PERFORMER: Frederica von Stade, Samuel Ramey, June Anderson, Dawn Upshaw; Munich Radio Orchestra and Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera/Pinchas Steinberg and Udo Mehrpohl (chorus master)
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 60593-2 DDD
Like several of Massenet’s later operas, Chérubin dispenses with a tenor lead – bad for box-office, no doubt, yet highly appropriate for what amounts to the éducation sentimentale of Mozart’s page, susceptible as always and still given to jumping from great heights and getting in everybody’s way. Who better to impersonate him, therefore, than Frederica von Stade, with innumerable Cherubinos to her credit?
True, a slightly darker voice might have set his moments of anger in sharper relief, as well as distinguishing him from the admirable Ensoleillad of June Anderson in their love duet of Act II, arguably among Massenet’s finest. But let us remember that the original Chérubin was the soprano Mary Garden, creator of Debussy’s Mélisande, who, alive in Aberdeen until 1967, could have told us much about the opera’s rapturous premiere at Monte Carlo, had she not remained firmly uncommunicative to interviewers (‘Och, I cannae remember…’).
Clearly in 1903 the composer’s granary of attractive melodies was still well stocked, if none are as memorable as those of Manon or Werther; and the elegant, colourful, at times Spanish-inflected score retains much of its appeal today.
Nor is it unworthily served here. Samuel Ramey exploits his smooth sonority to splendid effect as the sententious yet comprehending Philosophe. Among the lesser vignettes Michel Sénéchal’s Duc is outstanding.
The revelation, however, is Dawn Upshaw: sweet-toned, infinitely touching, as Nina, the girl to whom Chérubin eventually turns. But is it for keeps? Not if you believe the opera’s cynical curtain line. Julian Budden