Although too genial to be a diva ‘” divas are high-strung and high-pitched, not mezzos — Marilyn Horne was the dominant mezzo-soprano of the second half of the twentieth century. Though the Decca two-disc sampler of recordings, “Just for the Record,” is subtitled “The Golden Voice,” “golden” is not an adjective I’d have used for her voice. Her distinctive lower register was burnished and her range extended two and a half octaves. Horne could go from top to bottom or bottom to top without apparent effort and was a superb partner in the bel canto repertoire for “La Stupenda” (soprano Dame Joan Sutherland). Horne was also an important part of the revival of baroque opera (Gluck and Handel). And she did crossover work. Given its popularity, I might include “Carmen” in that, especially since Horne provided the voice for Dorothy Dandrige in Otto Preminger’s movie “Carmen Jones” early in her career. She also performed traditional American songs, including those of Stephen Foster and sang “Somewhere” on Leonard Bernstein’s 1990 operatic recording of “West Side Story” (starring Kiri Te Kanawa and Jos© Carreras)
I didn’t realize that she sang German (Gluck and Handel were German but wrote operas in Italian), Verdi, or verismo. The two-disc “The Golden Voice” provides samples of the range of music she recorded (as well as her voice’s range). I had the good fortune to see/hear her in rehearsal for “Carmen” (on a tour of Lincoln Center) and to see/hear her in two of the operas from which there are excerpts on this sort of greatest hits recording: Gluck’s “Orfeo and Euridice” and Rossini’s “Semiramade.” Of the operas I didn’t see her in, I most regret Rossini’s “”L’italiana in Algeri.”
The first disc begins with the very familiar Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Although “Carmen” was one of her favorite roles, “Mon coeur s’ouvre ta voix “from Saint-Sa«ns’s “Samson Et Dalila” more impresses me (not least in that I have little patience for the opera) with burnished tone and palpable regret.
Then it’s off to the virtuosic bel canto displays afforded by Rossini and Bellini (and an aria from Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”). Three of the four tracks from Bellini’s “Norma” include Dame Joan, and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus contributes to her aria from Rossini’s “La donna del lago.” Horne provides a bel canto rendition of O prªtres de Baal” from Meyerbeer’s “Le proph¨te” (back in French).
Contrasting with its tristesse is the rousing “Iris, hence away,” perhaps my favorite Horne vehicle, provided by Georg Friedrich Handel (from “Semele”). Handel also wrote the heartbreakingly beautiful, slower “Dove Sei, Amato Bene” (from Rodelinda”) for her (OK, he had no idea she would come along, but surely how she sings his music must be what he hoped for!) Horne provides spectacular coloratura in Gluck’s very showy “Addio, I Miei Sospiri” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.”
The first disc is fully deserving of five (or more!) stars in my estimation, though I could wish for some more of Horne’s signature Handel numbers and for something from Vivaldi’s “Orlando Il Furioso.” The second disc is markedly more miscellaneous, even with Bellini and Donizetti (bel canto great hits) tracks.
It begins with a dubiously soung-engineered “Superbo Di Me Stesso” from an opera unknown to me (Lampugnani’s “Meraspe”), and miking that is at least questionable for the Donizetti sample. It rises to four tracks from “Norma.”
The three tracks from one scene of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” seem included more to show Horne with another (other than Sutherland) recurrent costar, Lucianno Pavarotti. Horne sounds like she is still singing Rossini. In that I love her singing Rossini this bothers me less than it bothers Verdians. And she was even less a verismo singer than a Verdi singer, though her rendition of “E un anatema!” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” does not lack drama.
The resources scale back to a piano for Schubert and Schumann lieder (and “Jesus of Nazareth”). Orchestra is back for dreaming from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder (“Tr¤ume”). I prefer Jessye Norman pouring out sound in Wagner, but Horne is certainly not bad.
Probably she is not bad in “I bought me a cat,” but this change of pace between “Shenandoah” and “The Lord’s Prayer” jolts me. I’d have put “Jeannie with the light brown hair” there rather than as an anticlimactic end along with Aaron Copland’s orchestration of “At the river” (is the lugubriouis tempo Copland’s indication or Horne’s or conductor Carl Davis’s? And her final sustained note seems to me to go slightly flat.) Her “Somewhere” is deeply felt and gorgeous and IMHO should have closed the collection.
Most of the recordings date from the 1960s when Horne’s singing was less mannered and astoundingly supple.
Reluctantly, I have to grant that sampler should extend beyond the “homeland” of Horne recordings (Gluck, Handel, Bellini, Rossini). I’m not very enthusiastic about her American or German lieder. (“Jeannie” also seems lugubrious to me: this is a singer of legendary suppleness and her gifts seem wasted in ultra-slow performances of simple ballads.) I’d give the second disc four stars at most. As an introduction to Horne, or remembrance of what she could do, the first disc is superb, and I have a weakness for Albert Hay Malotte’s 1935 setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” (which verges on appropriation of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”) and for the Bernstein/Sondheim “Somewhere” that overcomes my distaste for “the very unlugubrious I bought me a cat” and the lugbrious renditions of “At the river” and “Jeannie with the light brown hair,” so I’m rating the double disc 5-star.
Tracks and Timings
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera) – Carmen (Bizet) 5:02
Saint-Sa«ns: Samson Et Dalila – Mon Coeur S’Ouvre € Ta Voix 6:31
Eccomi al fine in Babilonia – Semiramide (Rossini) 11:11
Cruda sorte! – L’italiana In Algeri (Rossini) 4:51
Hence, Iris, hence away – Semele (Handel) 3:41
Dove sei, amato bene? – Rodelinda (Handel) 7:00
Che disse! che ascoltai! – Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck) 2:08
Addio, addio o miei sospiri – Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck) 4:22x
O prªtres de Baal – Le proph¨te (Meyerbeer) 9:42
Elle est l ! Pr¨s de lui! – Mignon (Thomas) 4:44
Mura felici – La donna del lago (Rossini) 10:55
Tanti affetti – La donna del lago (Rossini) 9:14
Superbo di me stesso [Meraspe] (Lampugnani) 3:18
Il segreto per esser felici [Lucrezia Borgia] (Donizetti) 3:23
Mi chiami, O Norma! [Norma] 2:37
Deh! con te, cont e li prendi [Norma] 3:565
Deh! con te li prendi! [Norma]:38l
Si, fino all’ore estreme [Norma] 2:20
Soli or siamo…condotta ell’era in ceppi [Il Trovatore]l
Non son tuo figlio? [Il Trovatore] 2:30
Mal reggendo [Il Trovatore] 4:39
E un anatema! [La Gioconda] 3:53
Nacht und tr¤ume (Sch¼bert) 4:10l
Abendlied (Schumann) 6:16l
Tr¤ume [Wesendonck Lieder] (Wagner) 5:59
Jesus de Nazareth 3:47l
I bought me a cat 2:20l
The Lord’s Prayer (Malotte) 3:58l
Somewhere [West Side Story] (Bernstein) 2:41l
At the river (Lowry)
Jeannie with the light brown hair (Foster) 4:16