still pop up more or less sensational historic documents in
the field of recorded opera. This 60-year-old broadcast from
the Metropolitan Opera was not unknown – it has even been in
circulation for quite some time among collectors but then in
such inferior sound that it gave very little pleasure. Now it
appears, not as good as new, but in more than acceptable sound,
where both chorus and orchestra are amazingly well reproduced
in a close recording. The solo voices are so lifelike that they
are almost touchable. Whether new original tapes have been found
is not made clear in the booklet but the name Ward Marston appears
on the back of the jewel case and in the booklet in small print.
Music-lovers who, like myself, have spent hours and hours listening
to murky old recordings being re-vitalized by Mr Marston know
what wonders he can make. If he has rescued this performance
so that not only inveterate bacon-fryers can enjoy it he should
have had star-billing on the front cover.
it is a live recording we get some obligatory stage noises into
the bargain and, being broadcast at the end of December, the
microphone has also registered the general state of bronchitis
in the audience that day. The coughers have a field-day during
the intimate opening of the last scene of the opera. Neither
stage- nor coughing activities need deter opera-lovers from
lending both ears to this issue; after all it is the music-making,
and especially the singing, that counts, and there we are on
an exalted level.
me first mention the conductor, who may be an unknown quantity
to many readers. Russian by birth he was something of a child-prodigy,
playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto when he was eight, debuted
as conductor at 19, studied with Taneyev and Nikisch and premiered
Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel. Here, at 70, he
leads a performance that is not the most dynamic and he sometimes
drags but he is considerate with the soloists. I believe Jussi
Björling must have been satisfied with the tempo of Ah! si
ben mio, which gives him time to mould the phrases more
lovingly than possibly anywhere else. Cellini’s tempo in the
studio recording from five years later is more rushed. On the
other hand Cooper conducts the anvil chorus with obvious relish
and the anvils seem to be made of more precious metal than plain
iron. The soldiers’ chorus, opening act 3, is also well paced.
timings above may lead readers to think that it is a very slow
performance, alternatively that it is uncut. Neither is true:
standard cuts at the time are observed, but a lot of applause
is included and we also hear glimpses of Milton Cross’s commentaries
between scenes and at the end. He is, as always, a pleasure
to listen to.
so, in the main, is the whole performance. After the bleak orchestral
introduction we encounter Ferrando who tells the horrible story
of the child that disappeared. This is something for a good
dramatic base to set his teeth in. Giacomo Vaghi, who is hardly
a household name, amply shows that he should have been – a large,
sonorous voice with expressive powers and a quick, attractive
vibrato. It is strange that he never made it to the recording
studios – as far as I know – when so many second rate singers
did. About the next main character we hear I am not quite so
sure. Romanian soprano Stella Roman certainly had an impressive
voice, a true spinto that no opera orchestra in the world could
drench, but she is often wayward and over-emphatic as if she
were singing in a verismo opera. It was by all means the order
of the day during the first decades of the 20th century
– as recordings of the period also testify – to ham up Trovatore
as though it were Andrea Chenier. And no one can
deny that there is a certain thrill in Ms Roman’s voice and
delivery. She tends to bark in Tacea la notte and the
cabaletta is unsubtle. In the last act she shows more greatness.
She is far more stylish in D’amor sull’ali rosee where
she floats the final note beautifully and is truly magnificent
in the scene with Luna. Best of all is her scene with Manrico
near the end of the opera where she tells him that “Rather than
live as anothers, I chose to die as your love.” (Prima che
d’altri vivere, Io volli tua morir); a key moment in the
opera and here she is angelic.
may not be the best word for Margaret Harshaw’s Azucena but
she sings extremely well and with deep involvement. This is
another singer who unaccountably has been relegated to the second
ranks. She could have adorned many a complete opera set during
the 1950s, being only 35 when this set was recorded.
brothers, as we get to know they are in the last few bars of
the opera, both sang their roles on the complete studio recording
under Cellini – a recording that has always been regarded as
one of the best versions, in spite of the cuts. They were both
born in 1911 and both died in 1960, Leonard Warren on the MET
stage during a performance of La forza del destino, Jussi
Björling at his summer house in the Stockholm archipelago half
a year later. They were the possessors of two of the most glorious
voices of their – or any – time. Here, at the age of 36, they
had reached maturity while retaining a youthful timbre. Warren
knows that his aria in act 2, Il balen, is no showpiece
but an intimate love song and he begins the aria softly when
he speaks of her smile and the beauty of her face but then,
when he speaks of “the tempest raging in my heart”, the sheer
volume is overwhelming while the beauty of tone is undiminished.
All through the performance he is a pillar of strength and in
the golden line of great American Verdi baritones: Tibbett,
Warren, Merrill, MacNeil, Milnes and Hampson; he is certainly
one of the most accomplished.
Björling was also in superb shape that afternoon. I have already
touched on Ah! si ben mio, also a love song, where his
warmth is so palpable and his phrasing so musical. And of course
the beauty of his voice. It has sometimes been said that Björling
wasn’t a dramatic singer. Anyone of this opinion should listen
to the act 2 scene with Azucena, where he adopts a dark baritonal
tone and is dramatically convincing. His solo Mal reggendo
is full-voiced and glorious and then he sings the final Non
ferir as a whisper! He is tender and warm in the act 4 scene
with Azucena and furious in the dialogue with Leonora, when
he thinks he understands that she has betrayed him. There is
even a snarl on Intendo! Intendo (I understand! I understand!).
This is great heroic singing and together with the 1950 recording,
also from the Met, of Faust, this Trovatore possibly
represents Björling at his very best, uninhibited by the sometimes
antiseptic studio conditions.
of great singing should be grateful to West Hill Radio Archives
for bringing this engrossing performance to the general public
and Jussi Björling fans, of whom there are many, should place
their orders immediately (£15.99 incl. VAT - see links above).
No texts are provided but most intended buyers surely already
have one or other version of this opera already. Stephen Hastings’
well informed essay is a splendid read and some rare photos,
provided by the Jussi Björling Museum, are further attractions.
The American Björling Society have also contributed with valuable
advice and these joint efforts have resulted in one of the most
sensational historical ‘finds’ for many a moon.