Stokowski -Gala Night at the Opera Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Rienzi – Overture [11:52] Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Le nozze di Figaro – Non più andrai† [3:57] Alexander BORODIN [1833-1887) Prince Igor – No rest, no peace (in Russian)† [8:16] Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Faust – Vous qui faites l’endormie† [2:59] Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Tosca – Vissi d’arte* [3:41] Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Aida – Duet Act III: Ciel mio padre*† [8:26] Richard WAGNER Lohengrin – Prelude Act I [9:19] Götterdämmerung – Brünnhilde’s Immolation (Final Scene)* [18:47]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) *; George London (baritone) †
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live, stereo broadcast, 20 January 1962, Academy of Music, Philadelphia. ADD GUILD GHCD2410 [77:07]
This radio transmission is a memento from 1962 of the gala concert given annually in honour of the Philadelphia Academy of Music. It is in excellent sound for a live broadcast of its age and comes complete with linking radio announcements. After re-mastering the only defects are the occasional minor tape fade, some slight hiss and at first some “fizz” which fades as the concert progresses. The announcer advises his listeners that they might hear a different sound to the orchestral balance as a result of Stokowski’s unusual reconfiguration of seating of the strings all massed to the left. The woodwinds and timpani are on the right and the brass in the centre. This certainly lends greater immediacy and impact to the latter.
Given the scarcity of opera recordings by Stokowski, this souvenir becomes a desirable rarity for his fans; furthermore, it features two great singers of exceptional amplitude of voice, both at the peak of their form. The orchestral standard is very high with only some slightly watery trumpets in the otherwise thrilling “Rienzi” overture. This is followed by an amusing little interlude where Stokowski teases the late-comers admitted after the overture and raises applause.
George London’s magnificent bass-baritone is rather hefty for Mozart by this stage of his career but he makes an imposing sound. The aria from “Prince Igor” indicates that he is clearly more at home in Russian opera, having been the first Westerner to sing Boris Godunov in Moscow two years previously and a regular Amfortas in Bayreuth. He then makes a suitably sardonic and histrionic Méphistophélès. This comes complete with the requisite demonic guffaw, having demonstrated his versatility by singing in three different operatic genres in three different languages. He then gives way to Birgit Nilsson before joining her for the duet from “Aida”. Nilsson sings a vocally impressive but not entirely idiomatic “Vissi d’arte”, culminating in a wonderful top B flat. This is followed by some dodgy intonation in the concluding bars.
Nilsson is not entirely in her element in the Verdi, tending to swoop and lose firmness as she tries to soften her naturally hard tone and inject pathos. She matches London for sheer vocal presence and there is no lack of drama or commitment in their partnership.
Following a poised account of the “Lohengrin” Prelude, the concert concludes fittingly with a real stunner: Nilsson in finest voice, absolutely nailing the fearsome demands of her calling-card: Brünnhilde’s Immolation. She launches her famous laser tones skywards yet also exploits the robust resonance of her lower register. Stokowski’s conducting is electrifying throughout the whole programme. He is especially fine at vividly pointing the leitmotif components to create an absorbing narrative, building to a typically energised, technicolor climax. Ralph Moore