Prima Voce: Ljuba Welitsch
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni: Don Ottavio, son morta!...Or sai, chi l'onore (1787) [6:43]*¹
Don Giovanni: Crudele? Ah no, mio bene...Non mi dir (1787) [6:48]*
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz: Wie nahte mir der Schlummer...Leise, leise (1817-21) [8:29]+
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera: Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa (1859) [5:00]#
Un ballo in maschera: Morrò, ma prima in grazia (1859) [4:01]#
Aïda: Ritorna vincitor! (1871) [6:14]^
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin: Tatyana's Letter Scene (1877-8) [14:07]+
The Queen of Spades: Ich muss am Fenster lehnen (1890) [4:14]#
The Queen of Spades: Es geht auf Mitternacht (1890) [4:56]#
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca: Love Duet (1900) [11:39]§²
Tosca: Vissi d'arte (1900) [2:58]§
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome: Final Scene (1904-5) [16:30]*
Johann STRAUSS, Jr. (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus: Czardas - Klange der Heimat (1874) [4:13]§
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Die lustige Witwe: Viljalied (1905) [4:52]#
Zigeunerliebe: Lied und Czardas (1910) [4:12]#
Theo MAKEBEN (1897-1953) after Karl MILLÖCKER (1842-1899)
The Dubarry: Ich schenk' mein Herz (1879/1931) [3:05]#
Ljuba Welitsch (soprano)
¹Alessio de Paolis (tenor)
²Richard Tucker (tenor)
*Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
+Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Susskind
#Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Rudolf Moralt
^Philharmonia Orchestra/Josef Krips
§Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Max Rudolf
rec. 1947 (Aïda), 1948 (Freischütz, Onegin), 1950
NIMBUS NI 7959/60 [60:40 + 47:34]
Since Nimbus's particular noise-reduction methods have aroused some controversy, it's probably worth considering the technical aspects of this album first.
The current processing comes off best in lighter textures, where the sense of presence is breathtaking. In the unaccompanied cadenzas of the two Ballo arias, Welitsch's voice can almost be felt against the silent backgrounds - its presence is almost tangible. The same goes for solo instruments in lightly scored passages - it's clear that the cor anglais player in Vienna, in the first Ballo aria, produces a more pleasing tone than the Philharmonia's tight, squawky oboe in the Aïda.
In the bigger passages, the problem isn’t the touch of congestion in some tuttis, which - like the slight furriness around the soprano's top notes in Lisa's two arias and elsewhere - probably inheres in the original recordings, or in the LPs used as source material for this issue. It’s just that these passages sound generalized, less detailed; nor does Welitsch's voice stand out so starkly against the full orchestra. So the solos and the lighter textures end up sounding more vivid than the tuttis, a topsy-turvy effect.
Still, the sound is never less than satisfactory, and it's good to have such a document of Ljuba Welitsch's singing so readily available both to veteran listeners and to a new generation of operaphiles. The Bulgarian soprano’s voice was more Slavic than Italianate - bright and clean, rather than lush and sweeping, the timbre warmed by a narrow but even vibrato. One wonders, however, whether the processing has shortchanged her deeper sounds - we don’t hear the darker colors audible in, say, the Columbia-Sony recording of the Met Fledermaus. The resulting clarity is refreshing in repertoire that usually falls to Big Honking Dramatics, without sacrificing the required intensity or passion.
Salome was perhaps the role for which Welitsch received her widest acclaim. Its distinction lay in the soprano’s ability to project over Strauss's large orchestra while maintaining a youthful, age-appropriate timbre. What I found most striking, however, was how easy it all sounds. There's never a sense that Welitsch is pressing or fighting through the mass of instrumental sound. The voice simply soars, clarion and expressive, over the churning orchestra - it's something to hear.
Welitsch came by a generous Slavic temperament naturally, and her stylish renditions of the Tchaikovsky selections are only slightly compromised by her singing of them in German translation. As in Salome, she sounds convincingly youthful but has sufficient resources to fill out the broad phrases; her manner is impulsive, though I can imagine a more mercurial Tatyana. The big Weber scene, too, goes with a nice variety.
Welitsch's clear tones might seem an odd match for Verdi and Puccini. But the Ballo Amelia, on this showing, must have been a fine role for her. Both arias are full of feeling, and the Morrò, where the soprano outlines the phrases with a haunting purity, is unabashedly glorious. The cadenzas are smooth and assured, with the top note cleanly attacked each time, and no clumsy register shifts on the way down. The Aïda, on the other hand, disappoints: it’s all shallowed-out vowels, with no depth or warmth, and the legato not fully bound. Perhaps Welitsch was uncomfortable with Josef Krips's temperamentally foreign conducting, which offers little more than efficient, musical traffic direction. The Tosca duet is lively and well-sung, with Richard Tucker an ardent partner; conversely, Welitsch’s bar-by-bar tempo changes in the aria, though well-intentioned, seem a bit much.
The operetta selections are fun. Rosalinde was a big Welitsch role at the Metropolitan, in Howard Dietz's Broadwayish English translation; here, she clearly finds the original German more comfortable, though she doesn't quite sing all the notes in the downward chromatic run. I rather enjoyed her no-nonsense Vilja, forthright and lustrous, unencumbered by any need to manufacture "diva moments". It's the Millöcker-Makeben concoction, though, that most strongly conveys the Viennese atmosphere.
The soprano’s rather brief career trajectory - she debuted in 1936, and the voice was all but spent by 1953 - suggests technical faults. For all the brilliance and "cut" of Welitsch's top, when the tessitura stays high - the final pages of Non mi dir; the rise to high C in Ma dall'arido stelo; the concluding phrase of the Fledermaus "Csardas" - the singing is strained and throaty. And, as can happen with such forwardly positioned voices, there's a tendency to drift sharp, although never damagingly so - Tucker tactfully corrects the pitch at one point in the Tosca scene.
A more serious, purely musical problem was Welitsch's habit of rushing for no obvious reason - it's not as if she were short of breath. The forward push sounds unrelated to any particular pulse, suggesting perhaps a basic deficiency in the soprano’s feeling for rhythm. The effect in the last section of Non mi dir is rather comical: after rushing the first few phrases, she has to slam the brakes on for the coloratura!
The diverse conductors are all at least competent, and sometimes better. Fritz Reiner directs the Salome scene with assurance, and sculpts the textures of Or sai chi l’onore nicely; in Non mi dir, he’s too busy scurrying after the soloist to maintain clean ensemble. Rudolf Moralt, in Vienna, and Max Rudolf, at the Met, also provide stylish backups.
I’d say this collection is an essential acquisition for opera lovers - at least, for those not bothered by the rushing.
Stephen Francis Vasta
A essential acquisition for opera lovers - at least, for those not bothered by the rushing.