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Joseph Rouleau: Operas Russes

02-04-2015 | By Stephen Francis Vasta | Issue 77


CD: Orchestra of Radio Canada/Jean Deslauriers; *unidentified pianist
DVD: Nancy De Long (s), Feodor; Misha Raitzen (t), Shuisky; Yoland Guérard (bs), Pimen; orchestra and chorus/Pierre Hétu. Analekta 2 9223-4 (CD+DVD). CD time: 39.09. DVD time: 29.28.

CD: BORODIN: Prince igor: Galitzky's Aria; Konchak's Aria. GLINKA: A Life for the Tsar: Ivan Susanin's Aria. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Sadko: Song of the Viking Guest. MUSSORGSKY:Khovantshchina: Dosifey's Aria.* TCHAIKOVSKY: Iolanta: René's Aria; Eugene Onegin: Gremin's Aria. RACHMANINOV: Aleko: Aleko's Cavatina. DVD: MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov: The Death of Boris (Act IV, scene ii).

An odd release, indeed. It resurrects a 1983 tribute, originally presented on Radio-Canada (the Francophone arm of the CBC) on its television series Beaux dimanches, to the bass Joseph Rouleau.There's just under seventy minutes of music here, which would have made a nice disc-length program in a consistent format. But Analekta, for whatever technical or licensing reasons, offers the death scene from Boris Godunov in video, along with eight Russian arias in audio only. Thus, we get a too-short audio disc clumsily harnessed to a too-short video disc!

It's the video that really justifies the issue: Rouleau proves quite a fine Boris. In the scene's more histrionic moments, the singer's wild-eyed gesticulations, very much in the overwrought post-Chaliapin mode, are hokey and unconvincing. Otherwise, Rouleau invests the role with concentration and dignity, increasing the urgency in his final instructions to his son Feodor without compromising the rolling, resonant vocal quality. The camera placements and the arrangement of the set suggest that this performance was staged specifically for the TV program, and the CBC surrounds its featured performer with orchestra, chorus, and first-class supporting soloists, all indicative of the company's willingness to devote both time and money to the arts.

In the first few selections on the audio-only disc, Rouleau sounds in dire shape. In Galitzky's aria, he can't manage legato at all; his uncouth lunges at the topmost notes spill into desperate parlandoshouts, and the syncopations at the end of each strophe leave him struggling to keep up. The singer projects a fine melancholy as Glinka's Ivan Susanin, but the Russian vowels keep interfering with the legato, and the woozy upper tones suggest seasickness. These cuts do Rouleau no favors, though omitting them would have left the CD unacceptably short.

But then Sadko's "Song of the Viking" returns to the concentrated intensity of the Boris scene, and from there matters improve. The Aleko cavatina effectively rides on its undulating rhythm. King René's aria from Iolanta has a nice flow and forward impulse, even if the topmost note is a bit unsteady each time. The singer pours rich tone into a piano-accompanied performance of Dosifei's aria, licensed from the BBC Bulgarian service in 1963, and projects power, along with some hoarseness, in Konchak's aria. Gremin's aria from Eugene Onegin—probably the item most familiar to most listeners—is poised and even, with Rouleau investing the theme with an extra sadness on its return; the descent to the final low cadence is full and easy. The conducting and orchestral playing are lovely, as is the playing of the anonymous pianist.

Sound quality and balances are fine on the audio CD. At the start of the DVD, the massed male-chorus-and-orchestra comes off like a stereophonic version of AM radio. After that, the textures reproduce with nice color and depth, and the solo voices are clear and focused.

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.