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San Francisco Opera Gems - Volume One
CD 1

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Manon: Act II
Bidù Sayāo (Manon), Tito Schipa (Des Grieux), Richard Bonelli (Lescaut), George Cehanovsky (De Brétigny), Margaret Ritter (Maid)/Gaetano Merola
Recorded October 13th 1939
Georges BIZET (1838-1875) Carmen: Act II
Marjorie Lawrence (Carmen), Raoul Jobin (Don José), Ezio Pinza (Escamillo), George Cehanovsky (Dancairo), Elessio De Paolis (Remendado), Thelma Votipka (Frasquita), Alice Avakian (Mercedes), Lorenzo Alvary (Zuniga)/Gaetano Merola
Recorded October 25th 1940
CD 2

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Le nozze di Figaro: Act II
Ezio Pinza (Figaro), Bidù Sayāo (Susanna), Elisabeth Rethberg (Countess), Risë Stevens (Cherubino), John Brownlee (Count), Gerhard Pechner (Bartolo), Irra Petina (Marcellina), Alessio De Paolis (Basilio), Mari Monte (Barbarina), Robert Ballagh (Don Curzio)/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded October 12th 1940
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1891) Un Ballo in Maschera: Act II (1st part)
Elisabeth Rethberg (Amelia), Jussi Bjoerling (Riccardo), Richard Bonelli (Renato)/Gennaro Papi
Recorded October 23rd 1940
CD 3

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Die Walküre: Act II
Friedrich Schorr (Wotan), Kirsten Flagstad (Brünnhilde), Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund), Lotte Lehmann (Sieglinde), Kathryn Meisle (Fricka), Emanuel List (Hunding)/Fritz Reiner
Recorded November 13th 1936
All performances recorded at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
GUILD GHCD 2238/40 [3CDs:]

 

It is astonishing how much operatic history has been preserved. In the United States, rich pickings have been gleaned from broadcasts from the Met. As Richard Caniell explains in his introduction, San Francisco performances were less consistently broadcast; just 75 were transmitted in the 1930s and 1940s, and of these only 10 were complete. The normal practice was to broadcast one act only, and woe to opera lovers if it overran its allotted time! Several of the present recordings have been "completed", in the interests of pleasurable listening, by the last few bars from other sources, with similar casts. Of the 60 single-act broadcasts, we are told that only 13 have survived and "not all are available or listenable". Here are five and, since this is Volume One, I presume that material exists for at least a second volume.

Is it worth it? If you’re still getting to know the world of opera, no; you should concentrate on building up a library of good modern recordings. If you are an opera fan, then yes, it definitely is. Not all these singers can be heard in these roles elsewhere, and in general we have to judge "Golden Age" singers on the strength of single arias recorded in the studio. But actual theatre performances take wing in a way that is almost impossible in the studio, so if we want to have some sort of idea of the real stature of these singers we must combine the 78s with the broadcasts and complete the rest with our own imaginations.
MANON

A comparison with the revered 1928-9 studio recording of the complete opera under Elie Cohen – widely held up as a repository of the lost art of French opera singing – shows that "international" Massenet was to be heard in San Francisco. But, I would add, "good international" Massenet of the sort we had in more recent years from such tenors as Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus. Tito Schipa is not in that class of Italian tenors who misappropriate Massenet, maybe singing him in Italian too (this performance is in French), treating him as an adjunct to their native verista school. From Tito Schipa we get exquisitely drawn, elegant lines, complete naturalness of expression and total command of the voice. He can fine down his high notes to a pianissimo without the recourse to falsetto made by Louis Guénot in the Cohen recording. Wonderful to have a whole act from Schipa live.

Bidù Sayāo seems more dated in her slightly swoony manner. Her stage presence was, I believe, very beautiful but on disc the suggestion of a moving fragility seems more the result of insecurity than of interpretative method. She comes into her own, though, in "Adieu, notre petite table", which the conductor allows her to take much more slowly than Germaine Féraldy and Cohen. Gone is the French elegance – international Massenet is encroaching! – but frankly I find the beautifully shaded delivery infinitely more touching. There is the real frisson of the opera house here.

The other singers hardly justify revival on their own account but they are decent enough. Gaetano Merola (1881-1953) founded the San Francisco Opera in 1923 and conducted it till his death. His name means little on the Old World side of the Atlantic but he certainly knows his business. The sound is remarkably good, on a par with most studio recordings of the same date.

CARMEN

Here the sound is more limited but the voices are reasonably well caught. It was evidently a lively production with all sorts of crashings and bumpings and shouts of "Olé" and bursts of audience applause that must be prompted by something seen on stage since it has no musical rationale.

The performance is more problematic, too. Marjorie Lawrence, famed for her Wagner roles, had long harboured a desire to sing Carmen. That she found no takers need not inspire us to rail at the obtuseness of operatic managers, impresarios, conductors and so forth. Probably these gentlemen had a shrewd idea of what the result might be. A last minute cancellation brought about the present performance. She sings splendidly in her best Brünnhilde voice, full of regal authority and with about as much sex appeal as Margaret Thatcher. Hardly the stuff of Carmen. Ezio Pinza brings Verdian slancio to Escamillo’s aria, enjoyable but hardly authentic, so that leaves us with Raoul Jobin as a model of tasteful French style, but sounding like a fish out of water in this context (he later recorded the role under Cluytens). Merola is less effective than in Manon. He conducts with some understanding when Jobin is around; elsewhere he goes in for pretty hectic tempi that sound exciting in a superficial way when the orchestra is playing alone, but just don’t allow the singers space to breathe. Pinza can be heard several times trying to slow him down to no avail. Leave this for fans of these particular singers.

FIGARO

After a scratchy beginning the recording is reasonable for what it is. The modern listener will have to accept some old-fashioned touches – some portamento from the strings in the introduction to "Porgi, amor", cuts in the (piano-accompanied) recitatives and even a snipped-down version of the Susanna-Cherubino duet. Old-fashioned might also be thought (at least in Mozart) Bidù Sayāo’s tendency to put characterisation before vocal accuracy, with the result that much of "Venite inginocchiatevi" is close to Sprechstimme. It’s also a rather more dollish voice than we might favour today. On the other hand, she puts over a terrific character and it must have been theatrically effective. It is also to be noted how Leinsdorf, while maintaining a tight control over the orchestra, actually leaves her (and the other singers) a great deal of liberty, and here I must part ways with London Green who, in his detailed booklet notes, describes Leinsdorf as "sedate". It is true that "Porgi, amor" and "Voi che sapete" are both very slow, though so delicately poised as to avoid any heaviness. Thereafter tempi are normal to brisk (sparks really fly in the Susanna-Cherubino duet), and his ability to give singers their space while keeping a firm grip on proceedings surely reveals an altogether higher level of art than Merola’s straitjacketing of his singers in the Carmen act. The finale was not recorded complete and the end is provided from a Met broadcast of the same year, with a similar cast under Ettore Panizza. I don’t detect any great change of style.

Elisabeth Rethberg was 46 and had been on the stage for 25 years. Occasionally there are signs of this in her taking of breaths in phrases she would probably have sung unbroken a few years earlier. Her very Germanic "r" is also a liability. Otherwise she has the ideal voice for the Countess, with a beautifully poised, even timbre and an innate musicality of phrasing.

My previous encounters with Risë Stevens belong to a later stage in her career, by which time she sounded jaded and chesty. Her singing of "Voi che sapete" is good if unremarkable, but she enters fully into the vivacious spirits of the rest. A certain metallic timbre contrasts well with Sayāo’s Susanna, and in fact the three ladies are better differentiated than is often the case.

John Brownlee was as well known at Glyndebourne as he was at the Met and gives a solid Count. New performances from Ezio Pinza are always welcome. He has no aria in this act, but even so his irrepressible characterisation shows that he must have been the pivot around which the performance revolved. He has the inestimable advantage of singing in his own language, but a strong feature of the performance as a whole is that the recitatives have been very well prepared with a view to the pacing and weighting of the words. This means that, like all the best operatic performances, there is an overall theatricality which transcends the single moments. There is still a great deal to be learnt from this recording.

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Here we can admire the way in which Elisabeth Rethberg, so calm and controlled in Mozart, has the spinto power for the great Verdi roles. Also in this case, there is the suspicion that she has to take a few more breaths than she would have considered ideal, but the right gleaming tone is there. Her partner is the young Jussi Bjoerling, pouring out some glorious sounds together with much musicality of phrasing. In so far as we hear him, Richard Bonelli is a good Renato.

Gennaro Papi had been with the Met since 1915 and his name crops up quite often in these historical rediscoveries. This is true Verdian conducting with plenty of drama but also sensitivity. The singers are allowed generous leeway, with some long unmarked tenuti inserted which may have roots in tradition since Papi’s memories went back almost to Verdi’s own days (and he had worked with Puccini).

Although this is little more than a fragment, it does cover the highpoint of the opera, the duet between Amelia and Riccardo, and that makes it a tremendous discovery, well worth the patient work of piecing it all together; as the booklet describes, this recording was in a particularly bad state of preservation, but the results are surprisingly good.

DIE WALKÜRE

This is the earliest recording here, and for all the patient work done to it, the sound is dim and the surfaces often very heavy. The roughly contemporary HMV studio version (Vienna 1935/Berlin 1938) almost sounds like a modern recording in comparison. On the other hand, the forward recording of the voices in that version is hardly an operatic balance and there is the sensation here that we are actually witnessing a night in the theatre, however cracked and steamed up our opera-glasses may be. The HMV recording was a composite affair, scenes 3 and 5 (most of the music for Sieglinde and Siegmund) recorded in Vienna under Bruno Walter, the rest in Berlin under Seidler-Winkler, and the reason for making the comparison is that it, too, has Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior as Sieglinde and Siegmund (I’m using the Danacord transfer in their Melchior series but there are others around).

If you want to study the performances of these two singers you’ll have to get both versions. On the HMV you can hear so much more clearly what they are doing, but here in San Francisco there is the thrill and continuity of a real performance. This is also partly due to Reiner, for while the "humane" Bruno Walter perhaps catches better the ebb and flow of the music and is more considerate in giving the singers space, Reiner’s leaner, more expressionistic reading screws up the tension and goads the cast on to greater things.

All the principal singers show a wonderful security and have the voices to ride effortlessly over the great orchestra. Melchior was the heldentenor we’ve been missing ever since, and has a Wagnerian soprano ever surpassed the glinting perfection of Kirsten Flagstad in her prime? Friedrich Schorr was one of the great Wotans, but he was now 48 and his voice was past its best. The contrast with the young Hans Hotter on the HMV recording is in one sense cruel, but in another sense it is revealing. Hotter was to become the great Wagnerian bass of the next generation, but here he has only youthful security to guide him and Schorr, making virtue of necessity by presenting a mellow Wotan, has a more detailed response to the music.

In spite of all the drawbacks – which also include some substantial cuts – this is a performance that Wagner lovers will need to have.

All in all, there is plenty in these three CDs to excite the most seasoned opera-lover. There are detailed notes on the performances and the singers, but no synopses or libretti. For this type of issue this seems a reasonable policy since it is aimed at a public of aficionados.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Robert J Farr

 



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