Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Opera in Four Acts (1853) [103:52]
Violetta Valéry – Licia Albanese (soprano); Alfredo Germont – Jan Peerce (tenor); Giorgio Germont – Robert Merrill (baritone); Flora – Maxine Stellman (mezzo); Annina – Johanne Morland (soprano); Gastone – John Garris (baritone); Baron Duphoul – George Chanovsky (baritone); Marquis d’Obigny – Paul Dennis (bass); Doctor Grenvil – Arthur Newman (bass)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. dress rehearsals, November and December 1946
no text or translations included
MUSIC & ARTS CD4271 [57:07 + 46:45]

There is a common view that the commercial recording for which these discs contain rehearsals is indifferently sung, poorly recorded and conducted unyieldingly. It is too long since I heard that final version for me to comment, but that would certainly not be a fair summary of what is heard on these discs. The cover is perhaps misleading in referring to it as a “dress rehearsal” in the singular as apparently it is compiled from two separate dress rehearsals, on 30 November and 7 December 1946 together with shorter extracts from earlier sessions. However this is not apparent from listening to the discs which sound like a single event full of energy and commitment from everyone concerned. I use the word “event” rather than “performance” as it is clear that the conductor was (rightly) using these rehearsals as opportunities to prepare for the actual performances. We hear him encouraging both singers and orchestra, berating them when something is unsatisfactory, and even taking the small part of Violetta’s servant Giuseppe when the intended performer was absent. Interestingly he does this at least as well as one might expect to hear from the professional performer of such a part, and he does not use the “conductor’s voice” so familiar from other recordings made at his rehearsals. The recording is fierce, like so many of Toscanini’s NBC recordings, but it took very little time to adjust to it. The cuts are made that were taken for granted at the time of the recording.

You may understandably have decided by now that this is not for you, and certainly I could never recommend this to anyone unfamiliar with the opera live on disc. If you are familiar with it, however, this set is likely to reveal aspects that were otherwise unsuspected. Given that the opera is about a woman dying of consumption and that there are numerous moments where the soprano will want to demonstrate this by allowing her phrases to languish, it is unsurprising that many performances seem to comprise in large part a series of dying falls right from the start. Toscanini has none of this. He sticks firmly, but by no means rigidly, to the tempi specified by the composer, giving the work a much more febrile character, and making the last Act much more of a contrast to what has gone before. The three leading singers all do their best to follow this, although it must have taken much effort for them to forgo a more “traditional” approach. Lucia Albanese’s voice is perhaps an acquired taste, and indeed for the first Act she does seem somewhat uncertain, wild even, but by Act Two she is very much in command and presents a very convincing character. Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill may not be the most interesting of singers but both sing in a fresh and warm way and with sensitivity towards the music. The minor parts are adequately cast if no more than that.

This set clearly does not represent a wholly satisfying performance, but it does teach the sympathetic listener much about aspects of its character and about the music. Under these circumstances the lack of text and translation is unimportant – ideally you need a score to appreciate both what is done here and what is missing from it, in part due to the recording quality. This is an essential adjunct to other more modern recordings for anyone wanting to explore the opera more fully.

John Sheppard

An essential adjunct to other more modern recordings for anyone wanting to explore the opera more fully.