Josephine Barstow sings Opera Finales
If hats were worn these days we'd be taking them off, for this really is a splendid achievement. The conception itself—four last scenes, in different languages, strongly contrasted but alike in their intensity—has a certain grandeur, and its realization is as complete as most human endeavours are likely to be. The principal limitation cannot be ignored, for it lies in the present condition of the distinguished soprano's voice, but though her tone can be described neither as completely steady nor ideally opulent there is a surviving, if intermittent, beauty of sound and a strong, pervasive radiance of spirit and intelligence. The work of the Scottish Opera Orchestra and its conductor is also deeply impressive: a great wealth of skill and energy is concentrated here, and the four memorable scenes are performed with conviction from first note to last.
The first and last notes are in fact among the most effective. The programme begins with the fearful, edgy hush of Salome's listening: the weird dripping blackness and the pecking of exposed nerves are taut, intent presences here. The strained senses, the fright and excitement, sensuality and (in ''geheimnisvolle Musik'') a soft, girlish hugging to herself of a private inner world, are all caught in the great expressive range of Barstow's tones. The flesh creeps horridly in darkness at ''ich habe deinen Mund gekusst'', the residual little-girlishness recoiling at the bitter taste of dead lips, the grown woman reasserting herself with contemptuous power before the culminative affirmation. The voice, it's true, cannot quite blaze with the hard gemlike flame of a Nilsson or a Welitsch, but the heart of the matter is here even so.
As for the last bars in the programme, they provide the glorious, long-awaited and henceforth surely to-be-insisted-upon proper finale to Turandot. Hearing it now, it passes belief that the thing was suppressed in the first place, that it remained unperformed for 56 years and that even then another eight elapsed before the appearance of this first commercial recording. Briefly: Puccini's sketches for the final scene of the opera he did not live to finish were worked upon by Franco Alfano, whose version was reduced by about a third for the premiere in 1926 and never heard in its true form till 1982. The full version makes much better sense of Turandot's 'conversion', and much better music of the finale: a richer fabric of sound altogether, with Waltonian trumpets, splendid harmonies and exactly that touch of new inspiration which the bare blare of the famous tune in the normally performed score conspicuously lacks.
Again Barstow and the orchestra give an admirably convinced, imaginative performance—there is a breathtaking moment, for instance, when she cries ''So il tuo nome'' (''I know your name'') with such deadly triumph that for a moment we think the opera is going to have a different ending to the story as well as the music, and her quiet silken ''Padre augusto'' is a thing of silvery moonshine magic. In addition there is a first-rate performance of the The Makropulos Affair scene, possibly the part in which this versatile artist is most at home and best suited. The Medee needs a fuller voice, yet there are remarkable passages here too—the great cry of ''Arrete'' for instance, and the irony of ''Va, fidele epoux''. In the last bars of all, the farewell to Jason (''See you in Hell''), one can hardly fail to sense the price exacted of the voice: and indeed the whole programme here is a fearsome one. Among the other singers who bear a small part of the burden mention should be made of Graham Clark, a vivid, incisive Herod. The chorus do well too, and (though we tend to take such achievements for granted these days) it is quite a notable feat on the part of the whole company that they can carry off the Janacek with such conviction in the original language.'