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July 2022

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CD: Immortal Performances

Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893)
Roméo et Juliette (1867)
Jussi Björling (tenor) - Roméo; Bidú Sayão (soprano) - Juliette; Mimi Benzell (soprano) - Stephano; Claramae Turner (contralto) - Gertrude; Thomas Hayward (tenor) - Tybalt; Anthony Marlowe (baritone) - Benvolio; John Brownlee (baritone) - Mercutio; George Cehanovsky (baritone) - Paris; Philip Kinsman (bass) - Gregorio; Kenneth Schon (bass) - Capulet; Nicola Moscona (bass) - Frère Laurent; William Hargrave (bass) - Le Duc de Vérone
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Emil Cooper
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1 February 1947
Bonus: Romeo e Giulietta, Act II complete (sung in Italian)
Mafalda Favero (soprano) - Giulietta; Beniamino Gigli (tenor) - Romeo
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala/Gabriele Santini
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 5 April 1934
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD1003-2 [74:06 + 79:30]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording of a matinee broadcast from the Metropolitan in February 1947 has been around for many years. It was first released in 1959 by Edward J Smith on his private label EJS in rather poor sound, Since then it has been issued by various pirate companies with the same aural deficiencies. Matters were hardly improved when the Met released their own recording of the occasion. Lately, however, Richard Caniell has located a better source and after laborious restoration work has come up with a version that is far superior to what has been heard before. The performance has always been regarded as one of the truly great moments at the Met some sixty years ago, primarily for the participation of Jussi Björling as Roméo but also for the immensely lovely singing of Bidú Sayão, a soprano with whom Björling appeared frequently at the Met.

To complicate matters for prospective buyers I was made aware by the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge, Sweden, that a while ago the same performance was issued by a label also entitled Immortal Performances with the catalogue number IP 210. I borrowed that issue from the museum for comparison and it is not the new restoration. Shopping around one has to be careful. IP 210 is housed in a very plain jewel-box without track-list and no notes whatsoever. IPCD 1003-2 has a 36-page booklet, richly illustrated and with long essays on the recordings, artists’ bios and even a synopsis from Milton Cross’s Stories of the Great Operas with track-numbers inserted at appropriate places in the text. In other words this is a high quality product in every respect.

But let me give some personal comments on what we actually hear on the two discs. Readers who have some experience of old broadcasts from the Met - and other venues - know more or less what to expect: low-fidelity, mono sound, variable sound quality and balance. But they probably also know that a good audio restoration engineer can work wonders with the old tapes. During the last few years I have had opportunities to hear a number of superb restorations, not least with Jussi Björling. There was a sensational Trovatore, a Manon Lescaut and La bohème and most recently the famous Don Carlo which inaugurated the Bing era at the Met. Or rather: the premiere was not broadcast but the matinee a few days later was and it had been refurbished to be almost on a par with studio recordings of the same vintage (1950). Somehow Ward Marston had got hold of a primitive tape, recorded with a microphone directly from the TV during the telecast of the premiere and managed to include more than forty minutes from that occasion in quite acceptable sound - a historic document indeed.

Richard Caniell has also managed to open up what was, on previous issues of the Gounod, boxy and compressed, making this restoration fully digestible for any opera-lover bar those who at all costs must have hi-fi, stereo, state-of-the-art technology. It is still a primitive sound but once one has adjusted to the limited dynamic range it is almost comparable to what one can hear on 78 rpm records from the period. The bass is distinct, the high frequencies naturally lack the lustre of a decade later but the sound is still good enough to allow the listener to enjoy the music. The voices are well defined and there is bloom around them. Björling in particular has rarely if ever sounded so free and inspired. He glows from beginning to end.

The orchestral playing is a bit uneven but in many places there is a shine around the strings and the cello department is very good in the introduction to act IV. The chorus during this period seems to have been the weakest link at the Met. At least that’s the impression I’ve got from several broadcasts of the late forties. But I have to admit that there is a good servants’ chorus in act II.

Roméo et Juliette is a rather long opera but fifty-sixty years ago it was quite common to cut extensively at performances - at least at the Met. As there is no libretto enclosed with this set I had to make do with the one to Pappano’s EMI recording, which left me with the feeling that I was listening to a highlights disc. There are long stretches of music that is gone: several ensembles and several solos, including Juliette’s long act IV aria - and also the whole second scene of that act.

What is left is however wonderfully executed, at least what the eponymous couple sing. Bidú Sayão during these years was so lovely and human with her somewhat fragile vibrato. Her waltz aria in act I, Je veux vivre, has fine lilt and glittering tones. Björling’s opening to the duet Ange adorable is touchingly sung with that very special tear in the voice that more than one listener has commented on, most recently Joan Baez who visited the Jussi Björling Museum the day before I wrote this review. ‘I have never been so moved by any other voice than Jussi’s’, she said. ‘There is so much soul in it.’

The whole garden scene is exquisite and the cavatina has possibly never been sung with such beauty, feeling and brilliance - not even by Jussi Björling himself. O nuit divine as sung here is as close to Heaven as it is possible to come on an operatic stage.

Impassioned singing of a quite different kind occurs in act III, after the slaughter of Mercutio and Tybalt, where Ah! jour de deuil is magnificently heroic. In act V luckily Björling’s O ma femme is retained since this is again singing of the highest possible order. When Juliet wakes up from her sleep she exclaims Dieu! Quelle est cette voix, dont la douceur m’enchante? (God! What voice is that whose sweetness enchants me?’). I believe every listener will make the same exclamation when they hear Jussi Björling.

The rest of the cast is more run-of-the-mill but generally do a good job. Mimi Benzell’s youthful (she was not yet 23 when the recording was made) light soprano shines in the role of Stephano, and Thomas Hayward is a good, expressive Tybalt. John Brownlee, who sang for 21 seasons at the Met, was only halfway through his career in 1947 but sounds decidedly on the downgrade, rather dry and rough. Nicola Moscona also had a long tenure in New York and was always reliable. He is at his best in the act III trio.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves with credit and veteran conductor Emil Cooper paces the performance well.

As a bonus we get the whole of act II from a broadcast from Teatro alla Scala in 1934, conducted by Gabriele Santini and with two legendary singers as Romeo and Giulietta (the performance is sung in Italian. Beniamino Gigli and Jussi Björling must be ranked as the two most exalted lirico-spinto tenors of the mid-20th century. Their voices were quite different with Gigli’s velvet tones contrasting with the brilliance of Björling. But comparisons aside, they were equally attractive and here Gigli, at the height of his powers, avoids the sentimentalizing sobs and hiccups that sometimes marred his recordings. It is fascinating to listen to Roméo’s cavatina with both singers. Mafalda Favero is also the loveliest Giulietta one can imagine, just as lovely as Bidú Sayão, though Favero has a larger voice. There is a connection with Jussi Björling as well, since they sang together at the Met in La bohème the night when they both made their house debuts. This recording is another tribute to Richard Caniell who has managed to make something eminently enjoyable from material with serious deficiencies. The sound is more occluded than on the Met performance but it is a real treat to be able to hear these two singers live.

Readers who just want a decent - and in this case very good - modern recording that is complete, Pappano’s version on EMI is available at budget price. But for the very best singing possible by four of the most luminous stars of the 1930s and 1940s, the present set is indispensable.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Jonathan Woolf  



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