Next year (2011) is the centenary of Gian Carlo Menotti’s
birth and he will certainly be duly celebrated. This double-bill
opera set is the first in a series devoted to his music. During
his life time he was not always hailed, at least not by critics,
who found him out of phase with existing musical tastes. Menotti
basically belonged to the late-romantic school and could be
seen as a follower of Puccini in the Italian opera tradition.
He became rather popular with the general public and was twice
awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for The Consul in 1950 and
The Saint of Blecker Street in 1955. His Christmas opera
Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) was the first opera
written directly for the TV medium and it was - and has remained
- hugely successful and beloved.
The Consul, after a try-out in Philadelphia, ran for
269 performances on Broadway and the response from audiences
and critics alike encouraged American Decca to record it with
the original cast. Amazingly enough it has never been reissued
on CD. The more grateful we have to be that Naxos are now giving
it a new lease of life.
Considering its age - it was recorded 60 years ago! - it is
an impressive recording with shattering dynamics and it’s
very vivid and easy to approach. The action is brought forward
in melodious parlando, punctuated by a very active orchestra,
sung and spoken lines are sometimes mixed and there are sweeping
melodies galore, but also rather harsh harmonies. This stands
in sharp contrast to what was normally played on Broadway at
the time. But I believe that even those not normally used to
opera must have felt the dramatic coherence and the expressivity
of the music. It’s the cold war that forms the backdrop,
which also may be a reason that it attracted attention. Communism
was the red rag to many and Joseph McCarthy had already started
his witch-hunt. With all this in mind it is easy to imagine
the impact this opera made. Even today it has a realism that
Lehman Engel was one of the leading Broadway conductors at the
time and his recorded legacy covers many of the most famous
musicals in as complete versions as was then possible. Especially
famous is his recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
(1951), which for more than 25 years was the only one available
- even though it wasn’t absolutely complete. His conducting
here is both exacting and punchy and though inevitably the orchestral
sound is compressed in the mono recording it is an exciting
He has a fine cast, who were well inside their roles. The try-out
in Philadelphia opened on 1 March 1950, the Broadway premiere
was a month later; the recording was made in April, probably
during a number of sessions in daytime with performances in
the evening. Menotti’s wish was to have Maria Callas,
then relatively unknown, as Magda Sorel but the producer said
no. With hindsight it would have been very interesting indeed
if Menotti’s proposal hadn’t been rejected but Patricia
Neway is a splendid Magda and probably better suited to the
idiom. She was already an experienced singer and actress but
this was her breakthrough. She went on to sing the role at the
premieres in London and Paris and other European cities. It
is interesting to note also that she was Mother Superior in
the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music,
a role for which she received a Tony Award.
All the other soloists are good and in particular it is nice
to hear the young Cornell MacNeil as John Sorel. His voice was
then a light baritone, far from the imposing power-pack he was
later to become. He was also vouchsafed a very long career.
I heard him as Amonasro at the Arena di Verona in 1986, when
he was in his mid-sixties and his magnificent voice projected
superbly to even the most distant seat (where I was).
Menotti wrote a couple of operas while still a child but his
first mature opera was Amelia al ballo, which was premiered
in 1937 in Philadelphia and the following year was brought to
The Metropolitan Opera. This work is quite different from The
Consul. It is an opera buffa with the well known love triangle
wife-husband-lover. It is charmingly written in pseudo-19th
century style but spiced with some 20th century seasoning.
As in the true buffa tradition the music rarely settles but
whirls on irresistibly as a long scherzo movement. Verdi’s
Falstaff had no doubt been a source of inspiration. But
when it settles Menotti gives the leading singers some lovely
lyrical music to show their expertise in cantabile singing.
The Husband has a beautiful romanza (CD 2 tr. 15) and Amelia’s
romanza (CD 2 tr. 21) is pure Puccini. The Lover also gets his
share in the romanza trio (CD 2 tr. 26).
Nino Sanzogno leads a spirited performance with the La Scala
forces on their toes and the leading trio of soloists are excellent.
Carosio is brilliant, fluent and lively and sings with beautiful
tone. Panerai is completely at ease here, far more than in I
puritani, which he recorded with Callas less than a year
earlier, and Prandelli, though the possessor of a brilliant
tenor, keeps within the confines of the role. As Chief of Police
Enrico Campi is sonorous and expressive and has a fine cantabile
solo (CD 2 tr. 31), interspersed by Amelia’s coloratura.
A wholly enchanting opera!
It is good to have both recordings back in the catalogue and
they should be attractive to a lot of opera lovers.