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CD: Crotchet


Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
La bohème (1896)
Bidú Sayão (soprano) – Mimi; Jussi Björling (tenor) – Rodolfo; Mimi Benzell (soprano) – Musetta; Frank Valentino (baritone) – Marcello; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Schaunard; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Colline; Salvatore Baccaloni (bass) – Benoit; Alcindoro; Anthony Marlowe (tenor) – Parpignol; Lawrence Davidson (bass) – Sergeant
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Giuseppe Antonicelli
rec. live broadcast, Metropolitan Opera, 25 December 1948
Manon Lescaut (1893)
Licia Albanese (soprano) – Manon; Jussi Björling (tenor) – Des Grieux; Frank Guarrera (baritone) – Lescaut; Fernando Corena (bass) – Geronte; Thomas Hayward (tenor) – Edmondo; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Innkeeper; Rosalind Elias (mezzo) – Solo Madrigalist; Alessio De Paolis (tenor) – Dancing Master; Calvin Marsh (bass) – Sergeant; James McCracken (tenor) – Lamplighter; Osie Hawkins (bass) – Captain;
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. live broadcast, Metropolitan Opera, 31 March 1956
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA-6020 [4 CDs: 54:33 + 55:31 + 66:48 + 69:07]
Experience Classicsonline

Less than a year ago West Hill Radio Archives issued a sensational Il trovatore 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 made this superb 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 used 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 for 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 the conductors.
Beecham’s 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.
This 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.
Among 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 is 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.
No 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 usci is beautifully sung – and with feeling.
Frank 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.
The 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.
Manon Lescaut, 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 before 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.
Jussi 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 to 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 in 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.
“A 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 performance it 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.
Göran Forsling


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