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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


One thing that I’ve learned from Guild’s series of discs devoted to off-air performances is just how unusual Raoul Jobin was in having his performances privately recorded. His I Pagliacci, from 1945, survives because a San Francisco studio preserved Act I on acetate discs and Jobin authorised other such private recordings, some of which Guild has utilised in the past. Commonplace later or now perhaps, and easy to do; but then troublesome and compromised by all manner of potential problems, seldom of abiding interest to the musicians themselves – and not cheap. 

Which brings us to a central consideration regarding Volume 2 of this San Franciscan operatic odyssey – the sound (we shall leave the issue of snippets and segments to later). Sound quality ranges from fine to just bearable and most stops in between. Listeners should know that there are a number of imperfections inherent in the recorded mediums, including some necessary patching, though I should also note that assiduous collectors and those for whom early electrics are the height of modernity will find little to frighten them here.

We begin with Act II from La Juive with Rethberg and Martinelli. The sound is somewhat constricted and there is a deal of acetate scuffing but against that one can hear Rethberg’s dominating performance (a touch of steel in Il va venir!) and also the sterling contribution of the underrated Charlotte Boerner; the great Martinelli is not optimally steady, occasional effortful (the impression is one of a bark) but full of personality. He strays off mike at points, which is a pity, especially in Tu possèdes. Making up the disc is Act III Scene III of Die Walküre, with Flagstad and Schorr. This has a big cut and there’s some pitch fluctuation in Lieb’ wohl. If I add that the orchestral playing can be crude and that Schorr, though ever magnetic, sounds in frayed voice you will think this is a washout. It’s true that there are only about twenty-three minutes worth here – and then not all have emerged intact from damage – but Flagstad is here and her breath control in War es so schmählich is superb to hear.

Andrea Chénier is a fourteen-minute segment. The chorus and band are rather ragged but we again have Rethberg and this time Gigli, whose unforced ease of voice production in Colpito qui m’avate – mezza voce, portamento and a kind of parlando lyric power – is only slightly vitiated by his very Gigli-esque emoting at the end. From the sound of it the San Francisco orchestra was a very variable instrument because the strings are sketchy in the orchestral introduction to I Pagliacci. Here we have some problems with Jobin’s acetates that later on, because of side changing, occupy rather different acoustic perspectives – still they are accurate enough to pick up what sounds like a very active prompter or conductor. The star of the performance is Albanese – quicksilver and alive, and the hints of acetate shatter in Sei là are not going to derail her or her very pretty laugh. Mack Harrell proves dependable, in the best sense, whilst Jobin is adequate as Canio; his Vesti la giubba won’t make the cut but it’s not an embarrassment by any means.

The final volume offers a study in contrasts; Carmen is in generally excellent shape – but against that it offers really only meagre excerpts lasting some twenty minutes – whereas Rosenkavalier is in relatively worn condition but offers a substantially complete Act III. Kullman – often taken for granted – proves attractive in Carmen though it’s Risë Stevens who takes the honours – strongly flexible singing and in youthful, fresh voice. The sound in Rosenkavalier is rather brazen but Stevens is here again, in a performance she gave three days before her Carmen extracts (in both cases Georges Sebastian is the conductor – for many years Gaetano Merola ruled the operatic roost in the city and he conducts La Juive, Die Walküre and Andrea Chénier). Stevens gets a barrel of laughs as Marandel, though she tends to caricature - the Ochs of Lorenzo Alvary is not at all bad. But the sound is not good - congested and brittle and it tends to limit enjoyment.

Guild’s booklet is as ever very attractive and full of background and there will, I am sure, be a collector’s market for these discs. Generalists will find it less satisfactory.

Jonathan Woolf

See also review by Robert Farr

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