THE GOLDEN YEARS 1948 – 1973

Desiree records, 4 CD’s, GAV 009

Click here to order the CD set

(please note that of most of the singing is in English)

What a treasure trove this is! Another gem in this wonderful Australian singers’ series and as the other releases by the company (see our other reviews) it can’t be recommended enough.

The luxurious set with an 80-page booklet covers singers who were active in Australia and internationally between the end of the WWII and the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Again, almost every track is a first release and covers repertoire from Mozart to Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Gershwin. There's even a medley of Barbra Streisand songs recorded in 1968 and unreleased until now sung by Rosalind Keene who created Zerbinetta in the Australian Premiere of Richard Strauss's Ariadne on Naxos.

39(!!) singers are featured, with detailed biographies and rare photographs - as is de rigeur with all the releases of the label. Some names will be familiar to Australian opera lovers but there are a handful of singers who had long international careers in major houses, who will be unknown to the most knowledgeable aficionado.

Some of the rarest material includes the opening scene from the Australian première of Richard Strauss's Salome in March 1960 under Karl Rankl. Joan Hammond can be heard in the title role. Rankl who came under a lot of criticism during his Australian years conducts expertly to my ears and Hammond sings indeed “with a magnificent and opulent sound”. This was Hammond’s last part as health reasons forced her retirement soon afterwards while she was still in her prime. Hammond’s singing is outstanding. Neil Easton is a convincing Jochanaan delivering his lines with conviction as does the mystery voice of Gino Zancanaro as Narraboth.

Included too are live recordings from the National Theatre in Melbourne capturing the Australian coloratura soprano voice of Barbara Wilson who is completely at ease in Lucia’s ‘Il dolce suono’(1952).

Another first soprano of the Melbourne opera was Betty (later Elizabeth) Fretwell delivering warm Italianate tone and a moving and musically exemplary Minnie in Puccini’s Fanciulla (rec. 1963). And here’s again the cliché that “there’s no one today who can sing the part as well as” Fretwell does here with such incredibly easy top register. Fretwell can also be heard in the Butterfly duet opposite Lance Ingram (later Albert Lance) as Pinkerton (rec. 1954) and as Ada in Wagner’s Grand Opera Die Feen (1963). In the latter Fretwell delivers the second act aria “Weh’ mir, so nah” with the necessary  sense of vulnerability and ‘raw’ courage it requires resulting in an exciting and beautiful interpretation of the part. The conductor, unknown to the booklet, must be the Viennese born and former Franz Schmidt student Leo Wurmser. Wurmser brings an even crisp beat and drama to the score. The Butterfly duet is regrettably not complete yet both Fretwell and Lance Ingram deliver it with ringing top notes and powerful vocalizing. Four years later Ingram (then Lance) would sing Cavaradossi opposite Callas in the famous 1958 Eurovision television broadcast and established himself as a stalwart of the Paris Opera houses.

Rosina Raisbeck (spelt twice as Rasibeck) sings Ritorna vincitor in 1950 under Beecham. There’s dramatic authority in her delivery and security in the lower register. She’s in splendid vocal form and dramatically involved. Raisbeck can also be heard in a beautiful rendition of Senta’s Ballad (1950 under Rankl).

Elsie Morison was one of the first post-WWII Australians to leave a major impression outside of the country. She sings a delicate moving Mimi conducted by her husband Rafael Kubelik in 1956 and an appealing and vocally luscious Marenka in Smetana’s Bartered Bride also conducted by Kubelik (1960).

Known by many for reportedly singing Flagstad’s high C’s in Siegfried (w. Svanholm) Sylvia Fisher is much more than that. An Isolde for instance, a part she studied with Frida Leider. Fisher can be heard in Isolde’s “Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen’ under Malcolm Sargent (1957). With singing like this she would be the leading Isolde of today. I prefer her to many more famous recorded Isoldes. The delivery is just awesome. Astonishing is her ease with literally every note of the part. Olympic grandeur rewarded by a thunderous –and well deserved – ovation by the London public.

Margaret Nisbett (Dinorah 1951)is remarkable for ease and accuracy and also for excellent enunciation. Both she and the previously mentioned Wilson are healthy examples of the light –voiced ‘chirpy’ coloraturas in the Galli-Curci, Pons tradition. Other examples are Glenda Raymond heard as a lively Rosina (1958)and Marjory Conley in a sort of steely rendition but ardent “Ah forse lui” from 1952.

Rosalind Keene is much better at Strauss than at singing Barbra Streisand (the last track of the set). Keene copes with Zerbinetta’s grueling aria with almost coquettish casual ease (1961). The “composer” in that same performance under MacKerras is Althea Bridges whose singing is effortless and delightfully vocalized. 

The Carl Rosa member Una Hale sings “Vissi d’arte” (1958) with the necessary emotional commitment in a “German” way and with a strained and unsteady top.

Maurine London is a soubrettish yet lively and lovely Musetta (1965).

From the first note of Lauris Elms’s voice, the listener realizes there’s a voice to reckon with. As Azucena (one of her signature roles) she provides vibrant, powerful singing in spite of possessing a more lyric mezzo.

Maureen Howard – a Vera Rosza student – is a technically accomplished Nedda in Stridono lassu (1972) coping admirably with the tessitura and the trills.

In Gilda’s “Caro nome” Janice Taylor sounds youthful enough. Her interpretation shows elegant musicianship. Also technically she’s completely up to the demands of the role with even tone and excellent breath control topped with an effortless trill.

Justine Rettick can be heard in The Consul’s lullaby  “I shall find you shells and stars”. She sings in an old-fashioned way with chest voice in great supply and rolling r’s but also revealing an engaging sense of drama.

The male voices are all great professional singers but contrary to several female voices only a handful is of international stature. These include the already mentioned Albert Lance but also tenor colleague Kenneth Neate. The former “singing policeman” and student of De Gorgorza and Muratore is as impressive in Paul Lincke’s Frau Luna as in Weber’s Freischutz. Neate sings Marie’s song "Schloesser Die Im Monde Liegen" (1950) – first recorded by Richard Tauber - with the necessary schwung emanating warmth and a smooth lyrical tenor. His Max from 1960 shows the lyric part of this tenor voice has changed to a more dramatic colour reminiscent of Rudolf Schock.  His conductor is Henry (formerly Heinrich) Krips, brother of Josef. While the more famous Josef stayed in Europe, Henry left for Australia after 1938.

Ronald Dowd aka “Rowdy Dowdy”, mainly a Sadler’s Wells tenor, surprised me as a very noble Florestan (1970) capable of ample power and intensity when needed but also of sustained mezza voce. Sixteen years earlier Dowd delivers a total voice type change as he turns out to be a sweet light musical tenor voice when singing Marbot's Maytime flowers.

Gregory Dempsey performs David in Wagner’s Meistersinger under Goodall in 1968. An excellent delivery and a fine portrayal turning David into a major personality in the opera.
The last tenor to reckon with in the set is former Dino Borgioli student John Lanigan who sings the Rome narration from Tannhauser (1948). Lanigan is no heldentenor but he never sounds forced revealing a fresh pliant sound.

Donald Smith copes well with Puccini’s tenor writing for Fanciulla and as Canio sings in the ‘best’ Italian tenor tradition to the gallery.

Tonio (1958) in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is a perfect vehicle for the dark baritone of John Cameron. The set also includes the “prologo” of Robert Bickerstaff (Bordeaux 1963) who for six years was the principal baritone of Sadler’s Wells. Bickerstaff sings with aplomb and with more ease in the ultimate top register than Cameron.

John Shaw can be heard as Don Carlo in Verdi’s Forza under Erede (Amsterdam 1962). He’s in full command of the role. He sounds as stentorian as John Cameron resulting in a full blast portrayal with the necessary bite with strikingly excellent Italian.

Several major opera companies would be more than happy nowadays with a tenor like John Weaving as Otello though he is far from a Del Monaco. Weaving in Si pel ciel (sung in German, Kiel,1969) has no problem in riding over the orchestra. He’s partnered by the underrated first class baritone of Guillermo Sarabia. The conducting though (no name mentioned) must be the worst on the whole set.

The stentorian baritone of John Germain is heard as Valentine in Gounod’s Faust (1963). Another Valentine in the set is John Probyn’s (1954).

Alan Light apparently known as ‘the biggest baddie of them all” can be heard in the unlikeable character of Jack Rance (1968) and the bass-baritone of Neil Warren-Smith is featured in Boris’s “Farewell, my son” singing with the required intensity(1968).

Clifford Grant’s bass can be heard in Porgy and Bess (1961) and as a sturdy Silva in Verdi’s Ernani (1967).
Other singers include the ever delightful June Bronhill in Léhar’s Graf von Luxemburg (1968), baritone Robert Simmons singing in an almost Brechtian way Joseph Mendelsohn’s “The devil of the Floral Dee" (1948) and Raymond McDonald, Ronald Jackson and Valda Bagnall in the “Dovunque al mondo” scene from Butterfly (1962).

The four CD’s and the booklet chronicle 25 years of operatic history in Australia. A history which is now available to be discovered by every voice/opera lover elsewhere on the globe.

Thank you Desirée records !

Rudi van den Bulck, February 2019