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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948) The Merry Widow, operetta in three acts (1905)
Anna Glawari - Beverly Sills (soprano), Count Danilo Danilovitch – Alan Titus (baritione), Valencienne Zeta – Glenys Fowles (soprano), Camille de Rosillon – Henry Price (tenor), Baron Zeta – David Rae Smith (baritone), Njegus – James Billing (baritone), New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Julius Rudel
rec. 1-3 February, 1978, New York City
Sung in English translation by Sheldon Harnick.
Notes and text in English. EMI CDC7475852 [61:42]
This is the second in a series of recordings that I was able to access for review during the coronavirus shutdowns when international parcel shipments were on hold. These are recordings that for some reason I failed to acquire when they were originally released, and are now only obtainable on the resale market.
In 1978, Angel-EMI decided to release a highlights disc of Lehár’s perennially popular operetta. It was based on a well-received production mounted for superstar soprano Beverly Sills by the San Diego opera Company. The recording sessions took place in February of 1978, approximately a month ahead of the production opening for a run at Lincoln Center with most of the same cast (except tenor Henry Price who did not sing in any of the performances). The production used a new English translation of the score by Broadway legend, lyricist Sheldon Harnick of Fiddler on the Roof fame.
The chief reason for all of this was to capture the oft-performed Widow of Beverly Sills. On listening to it now, many years removed from the hype of the day, I find that that Sills projects an entrancing characterization. This is a very simple, direct assumption of Anna which radiates charm and good humour. It is something that singers approaching this role today would do well to emulate. Vocally, by 1978 the toll of her cancer surgery was was beginning to show in patches of strain in her vocal production. Her tone starts to lose its focus around G above the staff. The rest of her voice is beautifully intact, though. I found her singing for the most part delightful.
Her sparring partner is Alan Titus who was at the absolute top of his form when this recording was made. His Danilo is stylish bravado and gloriously ringing tone. His acting of the role pops out of the speakers quite vividly. His is a fantastic portrayal which would be even better had it been captured complete rather than in 60 minutes of highlights.
The supporting couple are sung by Glenys Fowles and Henry Price. Fowles does not get to sing much in the chosen excerpts but what she does sing shows off a buttery sweet soprano which provides an excellent contrast to Sills’s widow. Price has a pleasant lyric tenor and phrases his music well, although he experiences a somewhat choppy high note in the Act Two duet that should probably have been re-recorded. Lastly, James Billings gets to sing a verse of Trčs Parisienne, the number that Lehár wrote for the 1907 London premiere. His traversal is rather sedate compared to most others I can recall, as this is usually one of the more lively solos in the operetta.
Julius Rudel conducts his forces well enough, although there were times I thought his approach a little too leisurely. The recording engineers provided an acoustic that is rather close and similar to a Broadway-cast album than the more typically spacious sound of an opera recording.
The English version of the libretto strikes me as being quite singable, and it does not betray the work in any way. It does, however, continue the idiotic practice of most English versions of the Widow by having only the Grisettes sing with fake French accents. Realistically the chorus and most of the cast should also be singing with the same fake accents too, although that would provide the chorus with the too awful prospect of having to sing such phrases as “Vilja Oh Vilja ze witch of ze wood”. Definitely it is time to end this dumb practice.
My final impression is of a pleasant memento of what seems to have been a very enjoyable production of the day. It is good to have the fine portrayals of Sills and Titus documented. This does not win out over any of the complete recordings that are on the market but it makes a nice addition to them. It would be a good thing if Warner-EMI would make this available again for online streaming and digital download.