The Met’s French Wing is heard in famed post-War form in
this prized 1947 traversal of Gounod’s masterpiece. As
with so many performances of this kind, however, the glories
of the set - principally the two leads - must inevitably be traded
off against some weak links. Foremost amongst these is the erratic
conducting of the seventy year old Russian Emil Cooper, a big
name in conductorial circles, and whose early years make him
sound a rival of Koussevitzky and Coates for incendiary dynamism.
It’s a great loss that he left behind so pitifully few
commercial recordings, but we can at least take some pleasure
in the live performances that have survived. It ought to be said
in mitigation that, rather like Mitropoulos’s Cologne traversal
of Mahler 8, which is also in this initial batch of Immortal
Performances releases, Cooper does get better as the afternoon
wears on - it was a 2 o’clock start.
As a précis then to the performance as a whole we can gauge Cooper’s own contribution. The first act overture prefigures a rather laden, proto-Mussorgskian chorus, and is rather blustery; a French specialist would certainly imparted a greater sense of animation and played it with a more facile rhythmic point. His handling of Tybalt’s first entry is similarly etiolated, lacking flair. But as the work progresses, as I say, he generates a greater sense of character and energy. By the end we find a culminatory force and conviction, indeed a redemptive purity, has been generated. In contradistinction to his lackadaisical early contributions we find the Juliette of Bidú Sayão essaying the most marvellous and virtuosic flights of fancy. Her Écoutez!
unleashes a torrent of vibrant, youthful curlicues, including trills of fiery precision. Her Ariette
is ravishingly done, with virtuosity supremely married to style and the sense of characterisation paramount; once again she shows a cast member, John Brownlee, how it should be done. His Mercutio is blustery.
Her Roméo is Jussi Björling in an impersonation of great warmth, subtlety and vocal beauty. Youthful and ardent he proves a perfect partner for Sayão; the balcony scene is, for example, a most touchingly effective one in this performance. His is an impersonation both dramatic and free of self-indulgence; it revels in the trumpeting brilliance of the role as much as its more reflective moments of stasis and introspection; a complete portrayal in fact with no weaknesses.
Other cast members acquit themselves well. Nicola Moscona is Frère Laurent and his tone has something of the ochre about it, not least in his Act III Scene I scene - Dieu, qui fit l’homme
- and has a concentrated force not always found elsewhere in his preserved performances. Mimi Benzell’s Stephano is confidently projected and richly characterful - what an outstanding artist she was. The smaller roles are all very competently taken.
This performance has been released before as the notes make clear but with significant defects - pitch and otherwise. The Met’s own subscription release was over-filtered, according to IP’s notes - I’ve not heard it - and this restoration has opened out the sound, as well as interpolating a missing passage from the Prologue from a 1946 broadcast also conducted by Cooper. Additionally an alternative source seems to have been located for this transfer - the notes are a little coy on this point. Despite the restoration there are still scuffs and clicks from time to time and the dynamic range is somewhat restricted, though I would think, from IP’s claim, that it is significantly better than all previous releases. Again, it’s not something I’ve been able to substantiate. It’s still very listenable.
The two disc set ends with Act II from an Italian language performance with Beniamino Gigli, Mafalda Favero and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan directed by Gabriele Santini, a live broadcast from April 1934 and therefore a rare beast. It’s been out on EMI’s Gigli Unpublished
LP set and some editorial decisions here have ensured that it runs smoothly over a missing portion of the music. Gigli sings with lyric urgency, and the refinement of his duet with Favero is exceptional. Though the sound is no better than one might expect for the date, its survival is a matter for rejoicing.
The booklet goes into considerable detail about all these kinds of matters and is one of the notable features of the series. A notable afternoon at the Met is celebrated here in fine style.
see also review by Göran Forsling