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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
see also review
by Robert J Farr