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San Francisco Opera Gems: Volume 2
Live recordings from the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco in Seasons 1936, 1938, and 1945

San Francisco Opera Gems: Volume 2
CD 1
Jacques François HALÉVY (1799-1862)

La Juive, Act 2 complete.
Rachel, Elisabeth Rethberg (sop); Eleazer, Giovanni Martinelli (ten)
Conducted by Gaetano Merola. Recorded October 30th 1936
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Die Walküre, Act 3 scene 3
Wotan, Friedrich Schorr (bar); Brünnhilde, Kirsten Flagstad (sop)
Conducted by Gaetano Merola. Recorded November 1936
CD 2
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chenier, Act 1 scene
Chenier, Beniamino Gigli (ten); Madeleine, Elisabeth Rethberg (sop)
Conducted by Gaetano Merola. Recorded October 7th 1938
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

Nedda, Licia Albanese (sop); Canio. Raoul Jobin (ten); Tonio, Francesco Valentino (bar); Silvio, Mack Harrell (bar); Beppe, Alessio de Paolis (ten)
Conducted by Gaetano Merola. Recorded October 7th 1945
CD 3
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)

Carmen, excerpts
Carmen, Risë Stevens (mez); Don Jose, Charles Kullman (ten); Micaëla, Eleanor Steber (sop)
Conducted by Georges Sebastian. Recorded October 21st 1945
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Der Rosenkavalier, Act 3 complete
Marschallin, Lotte Lehmann (sop); Octavian, Risë Stevens (mez); Sophie, Nadine Conner (sop); Baron Ochs, Lorenzo Alvary (bass)
Conducted by Georges Sebastian. Recorded October 18th 1945
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera House, San Francisco


This second volume of ‘San Francisco Opera Gems’ seems to serve much the same function as volume 1. The San Francisco Opera often provided opportunities for singers on the Met roster to sing roles and leads not offered them at the premier house. There was also the matter of repertoire. One of the most interesting items in this collection is the 1936 recording of act 2 of La Juive with Elisabeth Rethberg as Rachel and Giovanni Martinelli as Eleazer. Eleazer was Caruso’s last appearance on the stage when he sang the role at the Met on Christmas Eve 1920. In great pain he never really recovered and died the following summer. (see Life of Caruso on Naxos). It is a role which, as London Green notes in the booklet (p.8), requires a genuine heroic voice. Giovanni Martinelli sang the role at the Met in its first revival there three years after Caruso’s death. By the time of this recording there are signs of vocal wear. He does not sing the part with the open-throated freedom of his great predecessor as can be heard on the final disc of Naxos’s Caruso survey (Vol. 12) The portrayal of Rachel by Elisabeth Rethberg provides the real pleasure. Her full even tone and superb legato are a joy to hear. Her introduction to Il va venir and the following music (CD1 trs. 6-9) are the highlights. It is a great pity that the recording, derived from four sixteen-inch transcription discs, has so much surface noise.

Rethberg makes a brief contribution to the scene from Andrea Chénier (CD2 trs. 1-4). The notable performance here is by Beniamino Gigli. The 1938 series of performances at San Francisco, from which this recording is taken, marked Gigli’s return to the American opera stage after the contretemps of his departure from the Met six years earlier (see my review The Life of Gigli on Naxos). His studio version is well known and admired. It is good to know from this live recording that his essentially lyric voice could hit the high notes with full tone and no strain in the theatre too (tr. 4). The remainder of the second disc features act 1 of Pagliacci. The recording derives from four transcription discs made for the featured tenor Raoul Jobin. The sound quality is variable. The interest for me is the Nedda of Licia Albanese. She is richer and warmer of tone than de los Angeles in the recently re-issued studio recording (see review) and her characterisation is good (CD 2 trs. 12-14). I am no more impressed by Raoul Jobin’s Canio than I was by his Don José in volume 1 of the series. His phrasing lacks grace and he substitutes volume for subtlety (trs. 8-9 and 19-20). Francesco Valentino as Tonio introduces the work well (tr. 5), but at the end of the day one can hear why he was pushed into smaller parts at the Met after the arrival of Warren and Merrill.

On the third CD Risë Stevens makes a thoroughly vibrant, secure-toned and sexy Carmen (CD 3 trs. 2 and 4). Charles Kullman as Don José sings tastefully if without any distinctive beauty of tone (tr. 3). The American soprano Eleanor Steber is a vocally secure Micaëla (tr. 5). The recording quality of this 1945 performance is amongst the best in this collection. The act 3 from Der Rosenkavalier from the same year, and which follows the Carmen, is of much poorer quality (trs. 6-20). The best singing comes from Risë Stevens as Octavian, although I agree with the booklet note that she overdoes the Mirandel episode. Lotte Lehmann, born 1888, is here past her considerable best. Although her artistry is still there so too is thin tone and downward transposition.

I haven’t mentioned the Die Walküre extract. Frankly, Schorr and Flagstad have had excessive exposure on the various ‘Immortal Performance’ issues on Guild. Volume 1 of ‘San Francisco Opera Gems’ included a whole disc of act 2 of Die Walküre conducted by Reiner and featuring these artists plus Melchior and Lehmann; this was recorded the same year. London Green justifies these further extracts on the basis of the freshness of Flagstad’s manner, caught here in the earlier years of her Wagnerian career. Certainly the forward placing of the voices helps appreciation of the purity and tonal beauty of her singing (CD 1 tr. 13). The downside is that we can too clearly hear the worn parts of Schorr’s instrument. Given the surface noise, pitch variation and the necessity of interpolation for the sake of dramatic continuity, the time could have been better used.

The main item of interest in this collection is the extracts from La Juive and Rethberg’s contribution in particular. Otherwise this disc is for those with a specialist interest in particular singers from the past and whose ears can tolerate the sonic limitations.

Robert J Farr

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