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Remembering conductor Georges Prêtre (1924–2017)

The great French conductor worked with The Royal Opera several times.

By Alasdair Steven (Music writer)

5 January 2017 at 4.05pm | 2 Comments

French conductor Georges Prêtre (1924–2017) has died.

Prêtre made his Royal Opera debut in 1965 when he was engaged to conduct the first revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s historic production of Tosca. Prêtre conducted the cast of the original production – Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Renato Cioni – and his interpretation was hailed for its understanding of the score and his sympathetic coaxing of a clearly ill Callas in the title role.

In fact, Callas only sang one of the four scheduled performances, a Royal Gala. This performance turned out to be her final operatic appearance.

The Australian soprano Marie Collier – one of Covent Garden Opera Company’s resident artists – was rushed in to take over. Prêtre with great musical skill guided the young soprano through the demands of the role, both musically and dramatically, and joined the soprano for her rapturous reception at the end. They were given 14 on-stage curtain calls and won rave reviews.

In 1980 Prêtre returned to conduct the premiere of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in John Schlesinger’s acclaimed production. Prêtre accompanied the stellar cast – including Plácido Domingo, Geraint Evans, Agnes Baltsa and Ileana Cotrubas – with a rare and commanding authority. The Financial Times commented, ‘The orchestra were on admirably light-fingered form for Prêtre’, while The Observer wrote, ‘Prêtre conducts with warmth and vitality’. Hoffmann was soon established as one of The Royal Opera’s most popular productions and has been regularly revived.

Prêtre returned in 1983 to conduct the first revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Samson et Dalila, with Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett in the title roles. He had a genuine love of the Saint-Saëns score and brought a real vitality to the evening. Prêtre supported Vickers’s towering performance as Samson and The Times warmly greeted his conducting of the ‘beautifully soft choral singing and orchestral playing of endlessly versatile finesse’.

Prêtre was recognized worldwide as an inspiring conductor. He enjoyed an exceptional rapport with Callas – both on stage and in the recording studio – and his musically assured appearances at Covent Garden in three epic productions make a fitting legacy.

By Alasdair Steven (Music writer)

5 January 2017 at 4.05pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Georges Prêtre, obituary

This article has 2 comments

  1. It was through him I (properly) discovered Saint-Saëns. RIP

  2. Jean-François Hubert responded on 19 February 2017 at 2:55pm Reply

    In your tribute, I think you forget the Gala concert filmed for TV called "A golden hour at the Royal Opera House" conducted by Prêtre on Nov 4, 1962. I'd be glad to find the complete program of this concert, because only the pieces performed by Maria Callas (Don Carlo, Carmen) can be found.

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