than a year ago West Hill Radio Archives issued a sensational Il
from a Metropolitan broadcast in 1947 with
Jussi Björling (see review
There Ward Marston had worked wonders with the original
tapes and for the first time
performance available to a wider audience. Now towards
the end of Puccini year they have hoovered the archives
once more and come up with another two performances featuring
Björling. Both La bohème
and Manon Lescaut
to get the best out of the Swedish tenor. His studio recordings
of both works have always been regarded as top contenders
by connoisseurs. Having lived with the Beecham-conducted Bohème
almost 45 years I know it practically by heart, while the
highlights from Manon Lescaut
that I also acquired
very early have also a very dear place in my aural library.
I thought I would recognize a lot in these readings – and
I did – but they also differ quite a lot from what I had
got used to. The difference is to a very high degree attributable
reading of Bohème
has been debated and the sometimes
extreme tempos – extremely slow that is – have not been
to everyone’s liking. Beecham claimed that he had discussed
these matters with the composer himself and who should
know better? On the other hand Arturo Toscanini conducted
the world premiere of the opera back in 1896 under supervision
of the composer and his
recording is the fastest
of all. So where is the truth? Maybe somewhere in between,
which could be the tempo most conductors have chosen through
the years. It must be remembered that fifty years had passed
from the premiere when Toscanini made his recording. Puccini
had been dead for more than thirty years when Beecham made
his. Time tends to blur memories – even with so celebrated
and venerable gentlemen as Toscanini and Beecham.
preamble is of some importance since the conductor on Christmas
Day 1948 was Giuseppe Antonicelli, who was clearly influenced
by Toscanini. He was born in 1896 and consequently just
about the same age as the opera. From the very outset we
realize that this is going to be a thrilling performance.
With springy rhythms and forward-moving urgency he keeps
musicians as well as singers on their toes. There is a
freshness about his approach that heightens the temperature
in the Bohemians’ attic by several degrees. As a result
the lyrical moments tend to be less sentimental than normally – which
is good; they are also lacking in poetry – which is regrettable.
But make no mistake – Antonicelli can be flexible and sensitive
and the big set-pieces are finely moulded.
the singers the main interest undoubtedly focuses on Björling.
He is in glorious form, strong, confident and ardent but
in places too virile, too outgoing. There is a certain
lack of lyricism in his reading. Che gelida manina
superbly vocalized but transposed down. The duet with Mimi,
also transposed, is certainly thrilling and here he takes
the higher, unwritten option on the final note. On the
Beecham set he obeys the composer’s wishes and takes it
an octave lower. He actually finds more of the inherent
lyricism in the last two acts and especially in the act
III finale he is soft and caring.
one else in the cast quite reaches Björling’s splendour.
His Mimi, Bidú Sayão, though here nearing the end of her
career, is quite lovely. I believe she made a good impression
when also seen but tonally she isn’t very enticing. She
has a way of singing very forwardly and then she sounds
like a soubrette playing hard to get. Besides this she
all too often attacks some notes from above when she wants
to be emphatic, which results in a yelping sound. In the
later part of the opera she relaxes more: Donde lieta
is beautifully sung – and with feeling.
Valentino’s Marcello is expressive and reliable but tonally
rather dull and is no match for Robert Merrill on the Beecham
set. The little known Mimi Benzell on the other hand is
a good Musetta, singing with lustre but lacking true warmth.
Veteran George Cehanovsky is at least as good a Schaunard
as John Reardon on the Beecham set. Nicola Moscona is a
noble Colline and the coat aria in the last act is deeply
felt. As Benoit and Alcindoro we hear the legendary Salvatore
Baccaloni, who is undoubtedly a superb comic actor but
sometimes only nudging the notes in a precious kind of
speech-song. My preference is for the more rough-hewn and
sometimes unsteady Fernando Corena with Beecham.
sound is uneven and the production is noisy - Mimi drops
the key in the first act with such realism that one jumps
high in one’s armchair. It is however more than acceptable
considering the source.
recorded eight years
later, is vouchsafed a much better recording, no studio
quality but much easier to stomach than the Bohème
This is especially notable on the orchestral sound, which
is much fuller, more lustrous and is reproduced with
much greater clarity. This is essential when the conductor
is one of the true greats of the period, Greek-born Dimitri
Mitropoulos. He was born the same year as Antonicelli,
1896, and died far too early from a heart attack in 1960.
He draws superb playing from the Met orchestra. There
is a warmth and sheen from the strings that immediately
puts this reading among the top contenders on disc. Moreover
his care over nuance is quite enthralling. The Intermezzo
act III has rarely been so breathlessly concentrated.
It’s a pity the chorus isn’t anywhere near the orchestra
in excellence. At times it sprawls seriously – and they
have quite a lot to sing in this opera.
Björling is again the best reason to acquire this recording.
He is marginally more strained than in the studio recording
made two years earlier, but still sings with great confidence
and flexibility. Listen to Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde
see what I mean. Donna non vidi mai
has glow and
the act II duet with Manon finds him at the height of his
powers, even more so perhaps Ah! Manon, mi tradisce
the same act. As on the studio set Licia Albanese is his
Manon and the two years that have passed have further lessened
the impact of her voice. She sounds old. She is supposed
to be hardly twenty yet could pass for Manon’s grandmother – and
the tone is worn and shaky. She was certainly one of the
best interpreters of the role in her generation but like
Bidú Sayão she was long past her prime. Still there are
more than glimpses of her capacity and she compensates
some of the vocal flaws with insight and commitment. Frank
Guarrera as her brother is uneven and his voice is rather
hard. Again Robert Merrill on the studio set is far preferable.
But Fernando Corena, who was not only an excellent buffo
bass, is a vivid and expressive Geronte and his enunciation
is the clearest one can imagine; not an intrinsically beautiful
voice but so full of character. The young Rosalind Elias
is a splendid Solo Madrigalist and Alessio De Paolis makes
a real character of the Dancing Master. Jussi Björling’s
debut role at the Stockholm Opera was as the Lamplighter
in act III. Here we meet another star singer-to-be: James
McCracken, who later developed into a dramatic tenor, excelling
in roles like Florestan, Canio, Don José and Otello. His
vocal capacity is never in question here but his reading
is idiosyncratic, to say the least.
particularly enthusiastic audience” says the always superb
radio commentator Milton Cross during the curtain calls,
referring to the plethora of applause and shouts of ‘Bravo’ during
the performance. Like the Bohème
is flawed but live recordings often give a certain atmosphere
that is difficult to achieve under studio conditions. Younger
collectors – and others who want recordings with Jussi
Björling in these two roles – are advised to go for the
studio sets but true Björling fans – and the number of
them seems to grow – need this set as well. There is no
libretto enclosed, not even a synopsis, but they are hardly
needed by jaded collectors.