The first disc in DG’s survey begins with Handel arias, with the Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Abravanel, from 1957-58. Still a student, she already had an instantly recognisable voice. ‘Father of Heaven!’ from Judas Maccabaeus is superbly confident. She sounded like a full contralto then and had the opera stage not beckoned she could have made a career in oratorio.
Her first European recording was Decca’s 1961 Messiah, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, made just after her Bayreuth debut as Venus. The contrast between ‘He was despised’, and the brief extract from the Tannhäuser-Venus duet, recorded a year later, shows how quickly she developed, and began to build her stage repertory.
Bumbry’s first operatic recitals already mixed soprano and mezzo arias. The three extracts from Carmen have not yet the detail and character she would bring to later recordings (on film for Karajan, in the studio for Frühbeck de Burgos); similarly, Lady Macbeth’s three arias, excellent though they are – especially the Sleepwalking Scene – would later have even more of the she-devil quality that Verdi asked for.
As Lotte Lehmann’s star pupil, Bumbry had already become an accomplished Schubert and Brahms interpreter. She follows Lehmann as one of the few female singers to tackle Der Doppelgänger, fully conveying the ‘saddened amazement’ at ‘doch steht noch das Haus’. As Alan Blyth comments in his notes, these large-scale dramatic songs suited her. Erik Werba is the accompanist for the earlier sessions from 1962, which also include Liszt’s Es muss ein Wunderbares sein, beautiful in its simplicity. All the Brahms Lieder are successful; indeed the Zigeunerlieder, with Sebastian Peschko at the piano, must rank as one of the best versions of this cycle; it might have been composed with a voice such as Bumbry’s in mind.
In two shorter groups by Wolf and Strauss, it is the introspection of ‘Schlafendes-Jesuskind’ from Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder, and the sad, nostalgic Die Georgine by Strauss that bring out the best in her. Again, one is struck by the remarkable sophistication and confidence. The latest items, from 1965, are solos from Maazel’s famous Berlin recording of Falla’s El amor brujo, again music that sounds as if it were composed specially for her.
Just after her 40th birthday in 1977, Bumbry found the courage to take on the title-role in Norma. The live recording from the Itria Festival, now issued for the first time, is another indication of how much Bumbry was able to delve into a role. It is a very fine ‘first effort’. I don’t think she managed to sing the part very often – she swapped Adalgisa for Norma for just two nights at Covent Garden the following year.
The recording is called ‘Original version’, implying that the voice types are what Bellini expected, with a lighter soprano for Adalgisa, and a heavier mezzo-ish voice for Norma. Bumbry isn’t helped much by the plodding tempi adopted by Michael Halász and the recording, although in fairly clear sound, is poorly balanced; Bumbry sometimes drowns out Lella Cuberli as Adalgisa. In the trio at the end of Act 1, when Norma rounds on Pollione with her furious ‘Tremi tu?’, the ensemble almost falls apart at the climax. Giuseppe Giacomini, who recorded the role shortly afterwards for James Levine, is a reliable Pollione.
The scene when Norma plans to murder her children goes well, but it is not until the last act, with ‘In mia man’, and then the great closing ensemble, that Bumbry really finds her best form. As a recommendable recording of Norma, this is just an also-ran but as a bit of operatic history it has a certain fascination.