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A graceful art

Serious glamour: Grace Bumbry

In 1957, a young mezzo called Grace Bumbry featured in a musty recording of Israel in Egypt led by Maurice Abravanel, the first of a series of Handel oratorios which marked her early career in the studio. Aged just 20, the singer already had glamorous timbre and admirably homogeneous vocal technique. She displayed a natural gravity, even in ‘Their Land Brought Frogs’, where harpsichord leaps evoking a batrachian plague can provoke giggles. Bumbry gives us the minimal agility required without showing much potential for coloratura. Overall, the performance lacks zing due to complacent orchestra, soloists, and choir.

A version of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus has the American soprano Martina Arroyo in muted form, showing little involvement with the text. Bumbry sings the Second Israelite Woman, Messenger, and Priest with clear diction and a seriousness of purpose. She turns on the glamour in ‘Father of Heav’n! From Thy eternal throne’, showing fine breath control. From Adrian Boult’s 1961 Handel Messiah we are offered two snippets, since the entire performance, starring Joan Sutherland, has remained in print.

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Opera Now
April 2017

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