I am surprised to find no reviews for this enterprising 1912 version of an opera invariably heard in its orchestrally expanded 1916 version with the Prologue substituted for Hofmannsthal's original intention: an adaptation of Molière's play "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme". As it stands, Nagano has here opted on Virgin to provide all 11 musical numbers - about half an hour's music, some of which was retained in the revision - with the merest thread of spoken dialogue from M. Jourdain to link them. That was surely a wise decision; no-one today really wants to sit through over two hours of the play in order to hear the ninety minute opera any more than they did in 1912, hence the continued preference for the revision. Nonetheless, it's marvellous to get the chance to hear the original and it emerges by no means as a poor cousin.
There are gains and losses of course: the non-appearance of the Composer here is the most regrettable omission but on the other hand, apart from the delicate and pleasing incidental music for the play, we have for Zerbinetta an extended "Grossmächtige Prinzess" and a new aria at the end combining motives from "Komm der neue Gott gegangen" and "So war's mit Pagliazzo und Mezzetin!". When this extra music is sung by a lyric coloratura as enchanting and accomplished as Sumi Jo, this is a great advantage. She sings extraordinarily difficult music written in a very high tessitura with amazing insouciance and facility - and no screeching, just warm, full tone. There is also an ironic ending whereby Jourdain returns as the fireworks are starting; this follows the Big Bang for Ariadne, Bacchus and full orchestra that we are used to hearing as the conclusion.
Another welcome feature is the chance to hear Margaret Price in one of her great Strauss roles, caught a little late to be entirely secure in either intonation or her top B-flats, which are negotiated tentatively, but still producing lovely, creamy tone and sustaining a smooth legato. I was prepared to hear an aging diva struggle but she is much, much better than that. She is best in the concluding duet with Bacchus but impressive throughout, her famous, fluting tones largely intact.
Supporting roles are not as starrily taken as in recordings of the later version but special mention must be made of Veronica Cangemi's un-named singer and Gösta Winbergh's smaller-scale but beautifully sung Bacchus. His grainy, very attractive voice often sounds like one of those vanished, French, lirico-robusto tenors like Vezzani or Alain Vanzo who had sweetness and delicacy but also the heft to take on heavier roles. The reduced orchestration with its quirkily prominent harmonium permits the tenor to lay off the belting and sing what is already fearfully demanding music with more attention to nuance and steadiness of line.
Nagano's conducting is lively and alert and the orchestral playing professional.
Unfortunately, this set is expensive but still worth acquiring to hear the fascinating first thoughts of one of the most famous composer-librettist duos, lovingly performed.