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5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive recording of this unjustly neglected opera on compact disc finally, 23 Mar 2013
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This review is from: Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans (Audio CD)
At last! It's a mystery to me why we have waited so long for this exceptionally fine recording of Tchaikovsky's 'Maid of Orleans' to appear on compact disc: having got to know this performance from a decades old EMI vinyl boxed set, I have been searching the monthly new releases for its reissue pretty much since the advent of the compact disc format - to no avail until now. Even leaving aside the fine quality of the performances here, it fulfils a significant gap in the composer's discography, as the only other audio releases of the opera are an historical one from the 1940s in pretty poor sound and a more modern stereo, live recording in what is also pretty abysmal sound quality for the time and which is, in addition, quite heavily cut.*

I'm not really sure why 'The Maid of Orleans' has become something of a Cinderella-figure among the composer's operatic output though I suspect the reasons lie more in what it isn't than what it is: ironically, although Tchaikovsky seems to have picked the subject matter with an eye to international appeal (and the manner as much as the subject matter - the influences of grand opera and the inclusion of an extended ballet sequence in particular suggest that he hoped the work would be a hit in France), the fact that the work is not overtly Russian in tone might well have militated against its success both in a Romantic and post-Romantic world that too often deemed non-nationalist music somehow inauthentic or of less artistic value; stylistically, in many respects it also represents a step backward after the highly original intimacy of 'Eugene Onegin', which Gerald Abraham once described as "a novel in musical form" - and a musical rendering of a classic Russian verse novel by Russia's national poet, to boot. I won't pretend that 'The Maid of Orleans' has the originality of 'Eugene Onegin' - or, indeed, 'The Queen of Spades' - and, Joan aside, the characters are painted with a broad brush but it is a richly melodious score and a very full-blooded one too with many scenes and passages (orchestral as well as vocal - such as the grandiose, heart-tugging introduction to act two) that are echt-Tchaikovsky. It is a large scale work and there are some longueurs, especially in the second scene of the third act, where the influence of Meyerbeer is most apparent - yet even here, once the theatrical display of the French celebrating victory is over, the dramatic finale of the act in which Joan is confronted by her father in front of the court is ample compensation for the rather empty spectacle that has preceded it; the septet that crowns this finale is almost worthy of standing alongside the ensemble that ends the Mme Larina's ball in 'Onegin' and it contains one of those long-breathed Tchaikovsky melodies that haunt the mind long after being heard. In fact, melodically I would say this is a far stronger score than some of his later ones, such as 'The Enchantress' or 'Iolanta': Joan's farewell aria in act one is relatively well-known from recitals but it gains so here by dint of the scena that follows, in which a choir of angels send her on her mission; although not so familiar, her extended narration of her life to the French court in the next act is even more impressive - one of the best parts of the score, in fact, and the music with which Tchaikovsky started the compositional process in much the same way he started 'Onegin' with Tatyana's letter scene - and a major contributory factor in why the heroine comes across as more deeply characterised than the other principals in the drama. His indentification with the heroine informs all the scenes in which she is present - the impassioned duet at the start of the final act, for example (one of his finest "love duets", I think) and the surprisingly restrained treatment of her burning at the stake, in musical terms set as an impressive and inexorable march to the opera's tragic denouement - but the level of inspiration is high throughout, even where the music is incidental to the drama: the minstrels' song at the French court or the dances that follow.

Sometimes returning to a recording that you previously admired so much - especially one that is making the transition from vinyl to CD - can prove to be a disappointing experience: happily there was no sense of my memory having played tricks on me as I listened to this new Melodiya release. It dates from the 1970s originally and is in bright and clear stereo sound: as was common with Soviet recordings, the soloists and even certain instruments (the woodwind in particular) have a spotlit, forward quality to them that is not, I'll admit, balanced entirely naturally - this results in very much a self-consciously studio sound rather than a concert hall or theatre experience. It does have enormous presence, though, which adds to the strong sense of drama inherent to the performance. Arkhipova is a stunning Joan, really the role could have been written for her but the supporting cast is hardly less impressive even when their roles demand less in terms of character engagement; of these, baritone Vladimir Valaitis certainly merits singling out - he is a fine actor as well as a fine singer (talents that are equally on display in the classic, Vishnevskaya recording of Rimksy-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride'** in which I first came across him) and it is a shame that he is so little evident in Soviet recordings of this period; I know nothing of his back story but one imagines if he failed to make the cut in the the recordings of this era, it must surely have been more to do with the toxic political atmosphere at the Bolshoi than his musicality. Under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, the USSR Radio and Television orchestra turn in vivid performances that are as full-blooded as Tchaikovsky's score: it's hard to imagine better advocacy for this work, really, and they make the best possible case for its revival.

The packaging is - to a degree - handsome but the accompanying booklet is slight and, though it contains a short synopsis, it doesn't provide a libretto (as with all these recent Melodiya re-releases). That is, I think, the only minor quibble about this long overdue release, which it has been a great pleasure to reacquaint myself with. If you are interested in hearing this work, this is the first place to go I would say - it's top notch stuff on all counts.

Highly recommended.


* The Maid of Orleans (Leningrad 1946) and The Maid Of Orleans

** Tsar's Bride (Complete) (Comp)
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5.0 out of 5 stars At last!, 1 May 2014
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This review is from: Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans (Audio CD)
This is the very same Melodya recording I used to have on 3 LP'S back in the seventies, and the dances are placed within the opera in their right place and not as an afterthought at the end as is often the case…Gounod's Faust comes to mind.

Although the 2012 remastering is presentable and acceptable with no new recordings made since then, the singing is a little shrill and the music rather shaky in places.

BUT! What a relief to have back in my possession one of my all-time favourite operas. I agree with the previous reviewer it is incomprehensible that no live performances are made of this marvellous music, nor up to date recordings…come on Mr Gergiev!

Ignore the rest, buy this one!

Note: If you are copying this into iTunes for transfer to your listening device, there is no Gracenote information for CD 2, you have to go into your complete songlist and extract the 11 tracks one by one and give them names from the very adequate booklet and then juggle them into the right order between CD's 1 & 3 which do have all the information, albeit in Russian!
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Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans
Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans by Irina Arkhipova (Audio CD - 2013)
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