Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore
Manrico - Jussi Björling
Leonora - Norina Greco
Count Di Luna - Frank Valentino
Azucena - Bruna Castagna
Ferrando - Nicola Moscona
Ines - Maxine Stellman
Ruiz - Lodovico Oliviero
Gypsy - Arthur Kent
Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Ferruccio Calusio
Live, New York, 11 January 1941
Producer and XR Remastering: Andrew Rose
PRISTINE PACO134 [71:06 + 65:11]

Pristine has again put us in its debt by issuing a Met broadcast in sound much superior to that of any previous issue that I have heard, though I do not know the Immortal Performances transfer by Richard Canniel. The Pristine source, a new one, never before used for a transfer, is in almost perfect condition.
The main selling point is undoubtedly Björling’s Manrico. I have always been a little ambivalent about Björling. His voice is clearly wonderful, with its Nordic silver rather than Italian gold timbre, and it is also technically superb; the concept of vocal registers seems entirely irrelevant to Björling, the voice is one seamless entity, utterly consistent in timbre and vibrato from top to bottom. The singer he most reminds me of in this respect is the baritone Pavel Lisitsian, and like his Soviet counterpart, Björling often seems to believe that pouring out glorious tone is in itself sufficient. With both these great vocalists there can be a lack of detail, both musical and verbal, which can lead to a sense of monotony and a lack of dramatic involvement in their performances. It could be that in later life he simply became bored by the whole thing – he had made his performing debut at the age of four and regularly toured Scandinavia and the USA throughout the years before puberty as part of the Björling Quartet, before moving pretty seamlessly into the tenor repertoire, making his operatic debut in Stockholm at the age of 19 as the Lamplighter in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

In January 1941 he was a month short of his 30th birthday, and any sense of ennui was in still the future. In this performance we have the technical perfection, which was always the case, right up until his untimely death in 1960, but combined with a sense of musical and dramatic involvement. From his first entry we hear the wonderful legato and sensitive handling of the final cadence in “Deserto sulla terra”, but shortly after in the trio “Di geloso amor” he is largely drowned by Greco and Valentino. I think this is indicative that he did not really have the big guns ideally needed for the more dramatic parts of Trovatore, rather than just unfortunate microphone placing. He is always at his best in the more reflective parts of the score; there is some lovely dynamic light and shade in the “Mal reggendo” duet, and his “Ah sì, ben mio” is a beautifully modulated performance close to the ideal. The recitative has real musical imagination with an exquisite diminuendo at “il favelli al core”, and in the aria the legato is truly distinguished (there is even a hint of a trill). Despite what I have said about his lack of the ideal spinto quality, “Di quella pira” is a very successful attempt, though transposed down a semitone. He articulates the semiquavers clearly and the top Bs are cracking, the final one being sustained over 11 bars right until the final chord of the act. In the final scene he cannot approach Martinelli in the 1936 Met broadcast for intensity and breath control, but he has a tonal warmth and a sympathetic quality, which were beyond Martinelli by this stage of his career. All in all, this is a superb performance.

Almost on a par with Björling is Bruna Castagna’s Azucena. Castagna was 15 years older than Björling and is largely forgotten today, probably because she made few commercial recordings, although she regularly sang at the Met between 1935 and 1945. This performance demonstrates her fine voice with its excellent top and bottom, with only the tiniest hints at the “hole in the middle” which is the almost inevitable trade-off for the sort of barn-storming chest register that Azucena, Amneris and most of the verismo mezzo roles demand. In “Stride la vampa” she articulates the notes with commendable clarity and accuracy. Her sensitivity to the text and dynamic variety make this a very convincing performance. “Giorni poveri” is a beautifully moulded performance and is followed by a tremendous, blood-and-guts “Deh rallentando, o barbari”, which shows off her chest voice to great effect. In the final scene she is also excellent. She combines passionate emotion and restraint in “Sì, la stanchezza”, the terror at the prospect of being burned alive kept just under the surface, but finding release in a lovely legato for “Ai nostril monti”.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not of the quality of these two. Norina Greco, although born in Italy, was brought to America as a young girl and lasted only two seasons at the Met. Although being catapulted into leading roles on the Met stage, aged only 26, probably seemed to be a stroke of tremendous good luck at the time, I’m not sure that it was really any such thing. She is clearly not sufficiently experienced for such a task, having sung only with regional and touring companies until that time. She was only engaged by the Met because Stella Roman had been delayed, and the war made it very difficult to obtain replacement singers. I think the problems of this performance are as much to do with nerves as actual inadequacy. Her first appearance in this performance is very promising; she displays a dark, resonant tone with a real Italian feel to it. “Tacea la notte” is well-shaped, with a sense of momentum in the line and nice dynamic variety. The top C in the cadenza is there, but cannot be called a comfortable note. The cabaletta “Di tale amor” has serviceable coloratura, though the conductor’s fast tempo does not make it easy for her. Unfortunately tuning problems begin to show themselves in the Convent Scene. In Act 4 Scene 1, the prospect of singing the extremely difficult “D’amor sull’ali rosee” make the nerves kick in with a vengeance, and although the recitative shows command, the aria has real problems. The vital trills are at best vestigial, but, worse, the high notes are often distressingly flat, and tuning is approximate throughout. All the dolce markings are ignored and the performance as a whole has a quality of desperation. Probably fortunately, the cabaletta “Tu vedrai” is cut. The performance improves after that, hence my belief that the problem was nerves – once the mountain of “D’amor sull’ali rosee” had been climbed she could relax and give of her best again. Her part in the “Miserere” is effective (though the tower in which Björling is imprisoned seems to be in the next county, so distant is he) and the duet with Di Luna is dramatic and without significant pitch problems. In the final scene, she makes the “Prima che d’altri vivere” phrases desperate rather than ethereal, but it is possible that this was an interpretational decision rather than a technical one. Greco sang a very variable Aida in 1942, and then was gone from the Met. I can’t help wondering that if she had been better looked-after by experienced hands at the Met she might have had a much more successful career.

The problem with the final one of the four principles is a problem of imagination rather than technique. Valentino was an American baritone – he was actually called Frank Valentine Dinhaupt and was born in the Bronx. He had a fine, natural voice with a solid, rich timbre, but was a limited interpreter. In moments of anger or unbridled passion he could be very fine, his part in the “Di geloso amor” trio is excellent, but in moments of repose or introspection he was out of his depth. Unfortunately for him, the main baritone aria is precisely such a moment. “Il balen” requires an elegance, legato and bel canto refinement that he simply does not have. Most of his dynamics in the aria range between forte and fortissimo (Verdi at only two points marks the vocal line forte) and the dolcissimo and con espressione markings are ignored; by the end of the aria he is simply bawling. He is much better suited to the cabaletta “Per me l’ora fatale” – stentando is a marking far more to Valentino’s taste than dolcissimo. The Act 4 duet is much more his cup of tea, and is a dramatic, if monochrome, performance. It must be said, however, that he had a Met career of some 20 years, singing major roles, so clearly his fellow New Yorkers liked him.

The conductor, Ferruccio Calusio, is another almost entirely forgotten musician. He was Argentinian, spending most of his career at the Colon in Buenos Aires, and had an even briefer Met career than Greco, lasting only this one season. This surprises me, as I find his conducting generally excellent. There is real drama and excitement to it, and his rhythm (one of the vital ingredients for successful Verdi conducting) is taut and snappy. His tempi are sometimes faster than usual, but are very effective as a result, even if this does not always help Greco. He is certainly vastly better than Cellini on the commercial Björling set.

As almost goes without saying, Andrew Rose’s transfer is excellent. The quality of the sound is almost that of a contemporary studio recording by one of the big companies. There is almost no distortion, and the frequency response for a recording of this era and provenance is astonishingly good.

This performance does not have the overall superlative quality of the Tannhäuser I reviewed recently, but there is certainly enough that is excellent to make it well worth acquiring.

Paul Steinson