John Charles Thomas in Opera & Song
These additions to Nimbus’s Prima Voce series are both new issues deriving from Victor originals, the artists being household names in America though known mostly by records and hearsay elsewhere. Lucrezia Bori, Spanish by birth, became one of the most highly valued artists at the Metropolitan from her debut in 1912 till retirement in 1936. John Charles Thomas joined the Met in 1933 but by then had gained a following as a concert singer and continued to enjoy success in that field after retiring from opera. Bori never (to my knowledge) sang in England. Thomas did once: in 1928 he won an ovation at Covent Garden singing Valentin’s aria in Faust. Waiting in the wings for Mephistopheles’ entrance was Chaliapin who (they say) but for managerial restraint would have had his hat and coat on and been off home in five minutes.
Recommendation can follow – but in each case with a warning attached. Thomas’s voice is one of the most ample, wide-ranging and evenly produced baritones on record. Hear him in the first track, the well known air from Leoncavallo’s Zazà, and you will understand instantly why it could be cited, as a voice, along with Caruso, Ponselle and Pinza. But then there is nothing new to learn: his “Di provenza”, which follows, is expressionless and unvaried. Not till one of the last items, an unpublished recording of Percy Grainger’s solo arrangement of the shanty Shaller Brown, does there come anything which conveys real feeling or individuality. So what, one wonders, became of the singer whose Mah Lindy Lou (on Nimbus’s earlier Thomas recital) is among the most magical and imaginative song recordings of all?
With Bori the warning has to do with quality of recorded sound. These are all electrical recordings and known to be “difficult”. I had hoped that the Nimbus method would come up with more generous results but I still find quite a lot that is too squeaky or otherwise impaired in sound for comfort. She herself is one of the irreplaceables: utterly personal, delicate, subtle and with reserves of strength, vocal and emotional. Her Violetta, Mimì, Mignon and Susanna (both Mozart’s and Wolf-Ferrari’s) can be sampled and there are Spanish songs, including some previously unpublished. These are recordings to handle with loving care; but they respond.