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San Francisco Opera Gems: Volume 1
Live recordings from the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco in Seasons 1936, 1939 and 1940
CD 1
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Manon, Act 2
Manon, Bidú Sayao (sop); Des Grieux, Tito Schipa (ten); Lescaut, Richard Bonelli (bar)
Performance conducted by Gaetano Merola; Recorded 13 October 1939
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)

Carmen, Act 2
Carmen, Marjorie Lawrence (sop); Don José, Raoul Jobin (ten); Escamillo, Ezio Pinza (bass)
Performance conducted by Gaetano Merola; Recorded 25 October 1940
CD 2

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze Di Figaro, Act 2;
Figaro, Ezio Pinza (bass); Susana, Bidú Sayao (sop); Count Almaviva, John Brownlee (bar); Countess Almaviva, Elisabeth Rethberg (sop); Cherubino, Rise Stevens (mezzo); Marcellina, Irra Petina (sop); Don Bartolo, Gerhard Pechner (bass)
Performance conducted by Erich Leinsdorf; Recorded 12 October 1940

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Un ballo in Maschera, Act 2 (part)
Amelia, Elisabeth Rethberg (sop); Riccardo, Jussi Bjorling (ten); Renato, Richard Bonelli (bar)
Performance conducted by Gennaro Papi; Recorded 23 October 1940
CD 3

Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)

Die Walküre, Act 2
Siegmund, Lauritz Melchior (ten); Wotan, Friedrich Schorr (bar); Brunnhilde, Kirsten Flagstad (sop); Sieglinde, Lotte Lehmann (sop); Hunding, Emanuel List (bass); Fricka, Kathryn Meisle (mezzo)

Performance conducted by Fritz Reiner; Recorded 13 November 1936
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera House, San Francisco
‘Immortal Performances’ series - Bargain Price
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2238-40 [3CDs: 70.50+69.47+65.57]

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With this issue Richard Caniell moves, for his American performance selections, away from the New York ‘Met’ to San Francisco, whilst still depending on NBC broadcast transmissions for source material. However, the transmissions from that source, whilst often featuring ‘Met’ roster singers, were usually only of single acts. Even these were often truncated if the performance was running late as the broadcaster insisted on the following programme starting on time! For the sake of completion Guild has interpolated endings from other performances by the same singers, except in the ‘Ballo’ extract where the voices of other singers are used as I explain below. Given these circumstances and difficulties, why go to the trouble? There are two good reasons. The first exemplified by the act 2 of Manon (CD 1). Although there are other preserved performances of Sayao’s greatly admired Manon, none features Schipa, unequalled in the part of Des Grieux. Further, the ‘Met’ administration had very clear views as to which roles the public liked to hear their favourites sing and this often curtailed artists, who could only show their diversity, or fulfil aspirations, elsewhere.

The recordings are variable with pitch problems in Carmen and Walküre and severe sonic limitations in the Ballo, which is derived from private as distinct from the normal official Guild sources. Generally the voices are forward and clear and orchestral detail satisfactory. Stage noises are present as are surface clicks and hiss, which become less intrusive to enjoyment than the regular audience applause.

Manon

There are at least two preservations of Sayao’s renowned Manon. In neither is she matched for vocal quality by her Des Grieux, sung here by the outstanding ‘tenore di grazia’ of his (or any?) generation, Tito Schipa. In ‘Manon’ (tr. 3) he shows plenty of voice, whilst in ‘Instant charmant ... En ferment les yeux’ (tr. 9) his vocal performance is outstanding with even legato, elegant ‘mezza voce’ phrasing caught ‘on the breath’, long breathed phrasing through the passagio, and concluding with an exquisite diminuendo.

Sayao was a renowned and admired Manon with a’face and figure du part’ She hadn’t the palette of colours in the voice that Renée Fleming (another singularly beautiful face and figure for the part) brought in more recent years, but it is still a formidable characterization. Where I found some difficulty was in her ‘Adieu notre petite table’ (tr. 8), where she moves from using the lower tones of the voice (I deliberately do not use the phrase ‘chest voice’) to a prominent vibrato to add stress and meaning. The broadcast cut the final phrase, which is added, in a slightly different acoustic, from another Sayao performance.

The recording and conducting are among the best in this collection. However, as might be expected given the quality of the singing, there are several intrusions of applause.

Carmen

The name part is sung by Marjorie Lawrence (born 1909) who first sang Brünnhilde at age 26 no less. She shared the leading Wagnerian soprano roles at the ‘Met’ with Flagstad from 1935 to 1941 when her stage career was cruelly cut short by the onset of polio. Lawrence aspired to sing Carmen. The opportunity arose at San Francisco in 1940 when she was scheduled to sing 'Minnie' in La Fanciulla del West and the baritone withdrew with vocal problems. The management searched for another new role for Lawrence, and Carmen was announced with Jobin and Pinza in the other principal roles. The major pleasure listening to the performance was, for me, the singing of Pinza as a swaggering Escamillo, (‘Votre toast’ tr. 14) albeit his French leaves something to be desired. The sheer richness of tone and vocal inflection bring the part to life and one can imagine how any Carmen would prefer his extrovert sexuality to Don José’s agonizing. Jobin was in the city to sing opposite Lily Pons in Lakmé when the changes were made. He is a little underpowered as José, but sings a more sensitive ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ (tr. 18) than he does on the famous 1950 recording with Solange Michel in the title role (Naxos Historical). As Carmen, Lawrence is strong voiced but rather monochrome. Her inability to express Carmen’s sexual allure is not helped by the conductor’s fast speeds. Interesting for vocal connoisseurs.

Le Nozze Di Figaro

The opening orchestral introduction is well caught but marred by intrusive applause caused by either the curtain rising on the scenery (it was the first night of a new production) or the entrance of Rethberg as the Countess. Rethberg (born 1894) was a renowned spinto at the ‘Met’, and elsewhere, singing Aida, Amelia, Siglinde, Elisabeth etc). She sings an amazingly steady, and full toned ‘Porgi amor’ (tr. 2) but sounds somewhat too mature when it comes to planning and executing capers with Susanna. As her husband, John Brownlee is something of a hectoring bully of no great vocal distinction whilst Pinza’s mellifluous bass, and vocal inflections, are ideal as Figaro. As his partner, Susanna, Sayao is rather light of tone, sometimes sounding too thin, but at least never acidic. The young Rise Stevens is justifiably applauded for a well shaped and phrased ‘Voi che sapete’ (tr. 6). Leinsdorf conducts adequately whilst a clangy piano continuo doesn’t help the recits. The broadcast was terminated part way through the finale and is completed by the interpolation from one on March 9th 1940. I have to note that the ensemble in this finale gets a bit scrappy towards the end.

Un Ballo In Maschera

This is the poorest sonically but the most vital vocally of this set of discs. Only 24 minutes of the act are included and this fragment derives from rather poorly recorded private sources. Whilst many pitch variations have been corrected there are still problems in this respect as well as surface noise that is particularly intrusive at the start of track 28 (‘M’ami, m’ami!’). ‘Holes’ have been filled with 5 seconds of Hervi Nelli and 20 seconds of Zinka Milanov.

In 1940 no complete recording of Ballo had been made and even the ‘Met’ hadn’t managed a performance since 1916! However, the work was suddenly revived in San Francisco, Chicago and New York and has been a staple of the repertoire ever since. This performance spans two generations. Rethberg (born 1894) had been a ‘Met’ spinto for 20 years whilst Björling had only just began his international career, soon to be abbreviated as he returned to his native Sweden for the remainder of the ‘War’ years. Both singers display the skill of long-breathed phrases, and vitality of characterization, whilst in their phrasing respecting Verdi’s melody and dramatic thrust. They couldn’t, however, finish the duet (tr. 28) together! Bonelli is a full-voiced resonant Verdi baritone who sings with meaning and graceful phrasing. Björling’s personal problems deprived us of a studio recording of Riccardo, a part ideally suited to his lovely tenor voice. We can but regret having to be satisfied with limited opportunities such as this and despite the considerable limitations involved.

Die Walküre

I am surprised at Guild including this extract in view of the complete opera in their ‘Dream Cycle’ (GHCD 2215-2217 reviewed elsewhere on this site). The conducting of Reiner is to be preferred to that of Leinsdorf whilst the Fricka is less convincing. In my review of the complete opera I was generous about Schorr’s limitations at the top of the voice. Here, recorded four years earlier, he is nearer to his great years as the foremost Wotan of his generation. However, London Green who writes all the informative notes on the performances in the usual high Guild quality booklet, is very realistic on Schorr’s portrayal of Wotan’s qualities: ‘But now, in 1936 … no longer a vocal painting, but a pencil sketch’. Elsewhere the cast sings with the quality that their reputations would lead you to expect and hope for. Whilst other issues of this performance conclude, as did the broadcast, well before the end of the act, Guild interpolate the end from the 1940 performance under Leinsdorf. Pitch variations are not wholly overcome.

Robert J. Farr

 



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