Having enjoyed success with Strauss's Salome, Cheryl Studer dons her veils a second time and proves no less seductive. Silvery pure in tone, her Salome throws herself into the drama with lustful abandon.
...Domingo is in healthy voice [in
] and the obvious star of the performance. As with his Hoffmann or Samson, he finds the romantic French style to his liking and the music responds to the Mediterranean glow of his voice. It would seem difficult for EMI on their rival set to equal him, but in choosing Ben Heppner they almost do. Gifted with a voice of enviable capacity, Heppner phrases the music with remarkable breadth and seems to have heroic top notes to spare (a dream Aeneas for Les Troyens in the making?). All his voice lacks is Domingo's in-built passion.
In all other respects the EMI set is a fairly clear winner. Michel Plasson conducts the opera uncut, as it is printed in my Heugel score, and has the advantage of a good studio recording. Ironically, this is the set that feels the more theatrical. Plasson is not one for taking an objective view of the music and there are times when he rushes frenetically ahead, as if he is as possessed by the lurid goingson in the drama as the characters on stage. The sense of atmosphere is palpable. In Plasson's hands the heavy chords at the opening of Act 3 resound with a potent mysticism that presages Klingsor's castle (Massenet knew his Wagner too). In fact, we are at the dwelling of Phanuel the sorcerer, a less threatening proposition. Jose van Dam is marvellous in this big solo, leaning on the opening words of "Dors, ô cite perverse" with a sinister gleam in his voice that sends shivers down one's back. The sturdy Kenneth Cox on the Sony set has none of his imagination.
Having enjoyed a success with Strauss's Salome, Cheryl Studer dons her veils a second time and proves no less seductive for EMI in Massenet's version. Some people may complain that Studer has a "recording voice", but when she sounds as good as she does here, that seems a compliment rather than an insult. Silvery pure in tone, her Salome throws herself into the drama with lustful abandon. For all her virtues Renee Fleming works harder for the same effects in San Francisco and is not helped by a live recording that often places her at a disadvantage.
Being in front of a microphone helps all the singers on the EMI set make the most of the words and especially Thomas Hampson, whose French has never come across more vividly. The bestknown aria from the opera is Hêrode's "Vision fugitive", which Hampson sings with the proudly handsome tone and virile beauty of a matinee idol. The character of drooling, incestuous old Herod really demands something different, but it is impossible not to capitulate to him. By comparison, Sony's Juan Pons is rather dry-voiced and workaday.
It may seem strange to leave the title-role till last, but Herodiade only makes a passing impact on the opera that bears her name. This is Massenet's Amneris and Dolora Zajick for Sony knows it, tearing on to the stage with a fearsome energy that must have made the rest of the cast run for cover. Nadine Denize, though welcome as the only French principal on either set, does not have her attack or such a settled voice. What we ideally need is a present-day Rita Gorr, who took the role on EMI's pioneering disc of excerpts with the unsurpassed Regine Crespin as Salome back in the 1960s (EMI, 12/64 — nla).
It is a great shame that the opportunity was missed to record Herodiade complete with that 1960s cast, but the company has made amends in the most generous fashion 30 years on. Lovers of Massenet need not worry if it takes as long for the opera to come round on disc again. This EMI set will do very nicely, thank you.
-- Gramophone [2/1996]