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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Il trovatore (1853)
Stella Roman (soprano) – Leonora; Leonard Warren (baritone) – Il Conte di Luna; Margaret Harshaw (mezzo) – Azucena; Jussi Björling (tenor) – Manrico; Giacomo Vaghi (bass) – Ferrando; Lodovico Oliviero (tenor) – Ruiz; Inge Manski (soprano) – Inez; John Baker (bass) – Gypsy
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Emil Cooper
rec. live broadcast, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 27 December 1947
Audio restoration by Ward Marston
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA-6010 [68:57 + 61:25]

There 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.

Since 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.

Let 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.

The 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.

And 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.

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.

The 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.

Jussi 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.

Lovers 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.

Göran Forsling




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