Milan La Scala Chorus; Milan La Scala Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
That this work is the essential link between Gluck and Berlioz, and also pre-echoes late Rossini and Bellini, is even clearer here than on the Kuhn set. Muti, working with stronger forces than were available to Kuhn, emphasizes its centrality in the history of French opera and moulds the music urgently, keeping a sure grasp of the whole while observant of pertinent detail. Well aware that the piece is poised intriguingly, if precariously, between the classical and romantic worlds, he responds accordingly, aided and abetted by the chorus and orchestra of La Scala. He plays the score complete, including the ballets that close Acts 1 and 3. Thus full justice is done, in orchestral terms, to an opera that needs help if it is to work in the opera house, because in it convention rubs shoulders with original inspiration.
Some of the singing is another matter. Muti seems somewhat injudicious at present in his choice of leading ladies for dramatic pieces. After Eaglen's hit-and-miss Norma (EMI, 10/95) he now offers us Huffstodt's somewhat under-characterized Julia. The American soprano certainly feels, and is able to convey, all the vestal virgin's conflicting emotions as she re-encounters her Licinius and her despair as she faces death for her illicit love, but her voice is not altogether pleasing. Its persistent tremor vitiates her good intentions, spoiling her line much of the time, and the tone itself is monotonously one-dimensional so that the many affecting phrases she sings in the last two acts suffer from weak execution. Plowright, though not ideal in the rival set, makes a grander, more positive impression and her French is much better enunciated than that of Huffstodt, who swallows her consonants.
Michaels-Moore (the name is hyphenated, Sony) sings much more articulate French and commands a more satisfying line than his partner. Although it is strange to hear a baritone rather than the usual tenor in the part, Michaels-Moore is quite happy in the tessitura and generally justifies the high opinion in which he is now held. He begins tentatively but builds the character into something vital and positive, his tone always warm and even. Graves is an imperious if not very idiomatic Grande Vestale, Kavrakos an imposing Pontifex if you can take his quick vibrato. Raftery's move from baritone to tenor doesn't seem a happy one on this evidence: his tone as Cinna is gravelly.
For all my reservations, the sum here is greater than the parts simply because Muti imposes a unity of purpose on the whole. He benefits from recording in the opera house, with the extra frisson that brings to all the performances, making this version a more successful offering than the Kuhn set. The recording, well balanced, catches the theatre's atmosphere.