06 Aug 2013
Verdi at the Old MET
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.
While it may be true that in 2013 it is easier to encounter a consistently well-sung, compellingly-acted performance of an opera by Händel than of any of Verdi’s mature masterpieces, many of the performances that have emerged from dusty archives and personal collections during the past few years have revealed that the ‘Golden Ages’ of previous generations of Verdi singing show more tarnish than some listeners might care to remember. When Verdi performances at the Metropolitan Opera during the past few seasons have been only fitfully satisfying, these three releases in Sony Classical’s series of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts—Un ballo in maschera from 1955, Il Trovatore from 1961, and Don Carlo from 1964—are welcome reminders of the standards to which performances of Verdi’s most popular operas aspired during Sir Rudolf Bing’s tenure as the Company’s General Manager. The choral singing and orchestral playing are rarely of the quality that MET forces achieved either in previous decades, when the influence of Gustav Mahler’s leadership was still felt, or under the subsequent guidance of James Levine. These performances are cut; viciously so in the case of Don Carlo. These performances do not always find their ‘star’ singers at their considerable bests, but they are representative of one of the world’s most important opera companies at a time in its history when, on almost any night of the week, an operagoer could enjoy an idiomatic, musically satisfying performance of a Verdi opera. None of these performances is unknown to collectors, having circulated in ‘pirated’ editions of quality not markedly inferior to the sonics offered by Sony, but in this year in which the music of Verdi is in the ears of most opera lovers it is wonderful to renew acquaintances with these old friends.
History was made at the MET in January 1955, when legendary contralto Marian Anderson made her début as Ulrica in the Herbert Graf production of Un ballo in maschera. Prejudice and discrimination regrettably persist in the world’s opera houses, but it is no hyperbole to state that Ms. Anderson changed the musical world with her eight performances of Ulrica. By the time of the broadcast released here by Sony, eleven months after her début, Ms. Anderson’s nerves had settled. Many critics expressed regret that Ms. Anderson’s début did not come earlier in her career, when the voice was stronger and more pliable. She was nearing sixty at the time of the Ballo broadcast, but her Ulrica is a compelling creation. The voice remained on excellent form, the lower register appropriately earthy and the upper register focused and impactful. Indeed, Ms. Anderson produces some brilliant top notes in Ulrica’s brief appearance and injects a welcome sense of occasion into the performance. Zinka Milanov first sang Amelia in Ballo at the MET in December 1940, when the première of the Graf production opened the season. Her opening-night performance in 1940 did not meet with critical approval, but in the intervening seasons she became a favorite of New York audiences in the part. Ms. Milanov was a prime example of a star soprano of the ‘old school’ in that vocal production took precedence over dramatic verisimilitude. In this performance, however, she reminds the listener that an exceptional voice can convey all of the emotions that are expressed in the composer’s score via vocal means alone. In that regard, Ms. Milanov is an uncommonly satisfying Amelia, the voice mostly steady and the celebrated pianissimi deployed sparingly but to splendid effect. The voice is slightly ungainly in the lower register, as it ever was, and there is evidence of the scooping that increasingly affected Ms. Milanov’s singing as the voice aged. Excursions above the staff are usually luminous, however, the top C in ‘Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa’ rushed and slightly shrill but dead on the pitch. There are fewer instances in this performance of the singer’s much-cited habit of abandoning text in favor of unspecific vowel sounds in moments of greatest stress, particularly in the upper register: her diction is good in general despite some ferociously trilled r’s. Jan Peerce’s tenor was a nasal instrument, which mitigated even his best efforts at conveying Italianate ardor. Consonants are slightly swallowed in his method of vocal production, but he, too, displays concerted efforts at producing good diction. The voice is rock-solid throughout most of the compass, and Mr. Peerce’s rhythmic precision is appreciable. He and Ms. Milanov work up a froth of passion in their great duet in Act Two, ‘Non sai tu che se l’anima mia,’ the soprano unleashing the full power of her spinto voice unforgettably. Mr. Peerce comes to grief on top A, and Ms. Milanov avoids the top C that ends the duet in the score. Vibrant in Act One, vital and touching in his death scene in Act Three, and unimpeachably musical throughout the performance, Mr. Peerce is a finer Riccardo than has been heard at the MET in a number of years. Robert Merrill is a pillar of strength as Renato, his voice on its finest mid-career form. He never overdoes the conviviality in early scenes, but the breadth of his anger upon discovering Amelia’s seeming betrayal is formidable. Mr. Merrill’s performance of Renato’s aria ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima’ is for the ages, the line sustained effortlessly by one of the great Verdi baritone voices of the 20th Century. Mr. Merrill’s singing in the final scene should be played to young baritones with Verdian pretensions as a masterclass in the art of Verdi ensemble singing. Roberta Peters is a pert, perky Oscar, fluent of tone and text and confident in her voicing of the high lines in ensembles. Her timbre and dramatic profile are unapologetically feminine, but she sings delightfully. Samuel and Tom, Verdi’s endearingly collegial conspirators, are excellently sung by Giorgio Tozzi and Norman Scott. The presence of singers of the quality of James McCracken, Calvin Marsh, and Charles Anthony in secondary rôles reminds the listener of one of the principal glories of the Bing Era at the MET, the sustenance of a company of ‘house’ singers who were accomplished performers in their own rights and could be called upon not only to take comprimario parts but also to pinch hit in principal rôles as required. In 2013, one is unlikely to hear a Judge in a MET performance of Un ballo in maschera who seems completely capable of getting through the part, let alone one who, like James McCracken in this 1955 performance, would within a decade sing Manrico and Otello. All three of these vintage broadcasts benefit from the incredible depth of Bing’s roster. Ultimately not a Ballo in maschera that forces other performances from the memory, this recording preserves a typically heated performance led by Dimitri Mitropoulos, of whose 208 appearances at the MET only eleven were at the helm of Ballo in maschera. If the Athens-born conductor was sometimes inclined to push the music rather hard, it was always in the interest of dramatic effectiveness, and his pacing of this performance boils with passion and unmistakable affection for the score. As the first MET broadcast to feature an artist of color in a principal rôle [Robert McFerrin made his début as Amonasro in Aida three weeks after Ms. Anderson’s début, but Aida was not broadcast in the 1954 - 55 season], this performance is of tremendous importance: as an idiomatic performance of Un ballo in maschera that is representative of the MET on best mid-Century form, it is thoroughly enjoyable.
On 27 January 1961, Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli made their MET débuts in a performance of Il Trovatore of which opera lovers still speak in hushed tones. It was surely a momentous occasion, and much of the triumph remained in the air a week later when Trovatore was broadcast on 4 February. Fausto Cleva was a stalwart conductor at the MET whose musicality is now under-appreciated. His best efforts at shaping an idiomatic Trovatore on the afternoon of 4 February are undermined to a degree by the excitement coursing through the house. Maestro Cleva made the best of the circumstances, keeping ensembles as tight as possible but also giving his singers latitude to strut their vocal stuff. The Trovatore cast also exhibits the richness of the MET roster during the Bing years: with the young Teresa Stratas as an atypically full-voiced Ines, Carlo Tomanelli as a sonorous Gypsy, Robert Nagy as a ringing Messenger, and Charles Anthony as a vibrant Ruiz, secondary rôles are all in more-than-capable hands. Bass William Wilderman sang 232 performances at the MET in eleven seasons, with a gap of fourteen years between his appearances. During that absence, he was acclaimed at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, where he was essentially the ‘house’ bass in both German and Italian parts. He was also a familiar presence at Chicago Lyric Opera. As Ferrando in this performance, Mr. Wilderman launches the performance powerfully. He also starts Act Three with winning menace. His partner in crime, so to speak, is the Conte di Luna of Mario Sereni. Mr. Sereni débuted at the MET as Gérard in Andrea Chénier in 1957, and he was one of the baritones to whom Bing turned to fill the void in the MET roster left by the on-stage death of Leonard Warren in 1960. Particularly in comparison with Warren, Mr. Sereni’s voice was not of extraordinary proportions, and its timbre was somewhat generic. The voice also had a quick vibrato that recalled the voices of Italian baritones from earlier generations. In this performance, Mr. Sereni is a manly, fluent di Luna. With only the audio element of the performance at hand, his interjections in Act One seem like those of a comic-book villain, but his singing of ‘Il balen del suo sorriso’ in Act Two is capable, his technique largely equal to the considerable demands made by Verdi. He is none too subtle about his intentions towards Leonora in Act Four, but he sings with genuine Italian slancio in ‘Mira, di acerbe lagrime’ and ‘Vivrà! Contende il giubilo.’ An admired Kundry at Bayreuth, mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis’s two-decade MET career encompassed an almost even split between German and Italian rôles. As Azucena in this performance, Ms. Dalis is on barnstorming form. The trills in ‘Stride la vampa’ in Act Two are only suggested, but the gypsy’s spooky craziness is always in evidence. Ms. Dalis throws herself into the drama in Act Two, though like most singers she ducks the top C that Verdi wrote for Azucena in ‘Perigliarti ancor languente.’ Her irony in ‘Giorni poveri vivea’ is cutting, but Ms. Dalis transforms Azucena into a womanly, beautiful figure in Act Four, her tenderness for Manrico always apparent. There is an element of horror in her expression of triumph over di Luna at the final curtain, and on the whole her performance, though not completely idiomatic, is marvelous. The voice of Leontyne Price was from her first note in Trovatore in 1961 until her last note in Aida in 1985 one of the greatest natural instruments ever heard at the MET and one of the few over which its owner had near-absolute control. The lower register was never the strongest part of Ms. Price’s voice, and there are passages in this performance that display the huskiness in the lower octave of the voice that was heard throughout Ms. Price’s career. When she reaches the ascending phrases of ‘Tacea la notte placida,’ however, it is apparent that this is a Verdi soprano of amazing quality. Leonora in Trovatore was one of Ms. Price’s best rôles, and this performance wholly reveals the evidence for the acclaim. Ms. Price has the technical acumen to achieve the part’s frequent top notes (including an interpolated D-flat, on which she is joined by Mr. Corelli, in the coda of the Trio that ends Act One), the roulades, and the trills. The ease with which Ms. Price voices the cruelly-exposed lines in the Act Two Finale is breathtaking, and her accounts of ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ and one stanza of its frequently-cut cabaletta, ‘Tu vedrai che amore in terra,’ are superb. The voice smolders during the ‘Miserere’ and in the scene with di Luna. Ms. Price’s voice pulses with emotion in Leonora’s death scene, her singing of ‘Prima che d’altri vivere’ rivaling the finest ever heard. Ms. Price’s understanding of Leonora’s musical and dramatic progress would deepen with time, but this performance is a smashing freshman effort by one of the 20th Century’s greatest singers. From an operatic perspective, the term ‘swagger’ that is so frequently encountered in today’s popular culture might have been coined to describe Franco Corelli. By the time of his MET début, Mr. Corelli had a decade of singing leading rôles in Italy behind him. Mr. Corelli was regarded as one of Bing’s most significant acquisitions for the MET, and his début was greatly anticipated. Though critics expressed reservations about his singing, audiences gave Mr. Corelli their complete affection. In this Trovatore broadcast, Mr. Corelli is a riveting Manrico, the voice on rafter-rattling form. Considering his association with the part, it is interesting to note that only eleven of Mr. Corelli’s 369 MET performances were as Manrico. Following the success of Ms. Price’s opening aria, an electric charge audibly passes through the house when Mr. Corelli is first heard, singing ‘Deserto sulla terra’—capped, expectedly, by a ringing interpolated top B-flat—from off stage. Mr. Corelli reaches his stride in his Act Two exchanges with Azucena. The Mozartean grace of ‘Ah! Sì, ben mio coll’essere’ eludes Mr. Corelli, as do the aria’s trills, but the aria receives a stirring performance. ‘Di quella pira’ is the part of the performance for which the audience was collectively waiting, of course, and Mr. Corelli does not disappoint: even transposed down by a semi-tone, the aria gives Mr. Corelli an opportunity to flex his musical muscles, the high Bs hurled out into the house like grenades and shamelessly sustained. In Act Four, there are moments of genuine emotion from Mr. Corelli, not least in his ardent attempt at reassuring his mother and his shame at having doubted the devotion of the dying Leonora. A poetic Manrico Mr. Corelli is not: a grandly exciting one he is. Like the Ballo in maschera broadcast, this is not the finest Trovatore in the MET’s history, but it is a glamorously satisfactory performance.
Three months after his début in Il Trovatore, Franco Corelli sang his first performance of the title rôle in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the MET. Of Mr. Corelli’s four MET broadcast performances of Don Carlo, the March 1964 broadcast was selected by Sony and the MET for release in this series. It is regrettable that the February 1970 broadcast was not preferred, this being the least-circulated among Mr. Corelli’s broadcasts of the opera and offering a rare opportunity to hear the wonderful Raina Kabaivanska as Elisabetta. Though perhaps not as treasured by collectors as Mr. Corelli’s 1970 Wiener Staatsoper performance or the 1972 MET broadcast (in which Montserrat Caballé famously sustains her concluding top B-flat for an eternity), this 1964 Don Carlo has much to recommend it. There are too many cuts in the performance to allow a true assessment of Kurt Adler’s way with the score, but he adopts credible tempi for what remains of Verdi’s music. This performance, too, benefits from the work of excellent singers in secondary parts. The Count of Lerma is strongly sung by Hungarian tenor Gabor Carelli, who also sang principal rôles such as Alfredo in La Traviata and the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto at the MET. Baltimore-born soprano Junetta Jones made her MET début in this production of Don Carlo in 1963: she is a radiant Celestial Voice in this performance. Robert Nagy, the firm-toned Herald in this Don Carlo, would go on to sing the Kaiser in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and other leading parts at the MET. Marcia Baldwin’s Tebaldo is above the recorded average. The young Justino Díaz is luxury casting in the Friar’s few but critical lines. Among the principals, the acerbic Grand Inquisitor of Hermann Uhde is an astounding performance, Mr. Uhde’s voice moving through the part with chilling cruelty and granitic tone despite lacking the lowest notes required by the score. His encounter with Giorgio Tozzi’s Filippo is rightly the dramatic climax of the performance. A MET stalwart, Mr. Tozzi never sang better than in this performance, in which the richness of his timbre is allied with a complete connection with the emotional development of his part. Mr. Tozzi was not a singer whose work was always marked by great dramatic depth, but this performance reveals a thoughtful sensibility, his singing of Filippo’s towering ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ mined from the recesses of the singer’s soul and aimed squarely at the hearts of the listeners. It is difficult to believe that the head of such a sensitive monarch could have been turned by an Eboli as unhinged as the one depicted by Irene Dalis. Eboli’s tessitura stretches Ms. Dalis’s vocal resources, but she blows through the part with the force of a tornado, uprooting all of the characters she encounters. The Veil Song is not a good fit for Ms. Dalis’s vocal skills, but her singing of ‘O don fatale’ is exhilarating, the top notes landing dead-center on the pitches. Another of the baritones brought to the MET by Bing as replacements for the fallen Leonard Warren was the Romanian Nicolae Herlea, whose MET career sadly extended to only twenty-four performances. It was in this broadcast performance of Don Carlo that Mr. Herlea made his MET début, and the timbre of his voice is immediately arresting. Debutant nerves affect Mr. Herlea at his entrance, but when he reaches the celebrated ‘friendship’ duet with Carlo, ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor,’ he is singing with the rare strength of a true Verdi baritone. ‘Per me giunto è il dì supremo’ and ‘Io morrò, ma lieto in core’ receive from Mr. Herlea thrilling, moving performances, his account of Rodrigo’s death displaying his magnificent breath control. Though his MET performances did not consistently find Mr. Herlea on best form, his was one of the finest baritone voices heard at the MET in the 20th Century, and none to equal its quality has been heard in the house in the first thirteen years of the new century. Elisabetta di Valois taxes the great Leonie Rysanek, the lower reaches of the part demanding greater security and freedom than the Viennese soprano could reliably provide. Unsurprisingly, there are some startling top notes, however, especially in Ms. Rysanek’s unidiomatic but broadly-sung performance of ‘Tu, che la vanità.’ The go-for-broke nature of the performance as a whole compels Ms. Rysanek to sing at full-throttle throughout, Verdi’s lines exacerbating the register breaks that were less apparent in the higher lines of the her usual territory of music by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Her encounters with each character in turn show Ms. Rysanek making commendable efforts at varying her dramatic approach, and she is an impressively regal presence in the opera even when the voice—or, more aptly, the manner of wielding it—falters. Mr. Corelli’s Carlo was a famous portrayal, but it was one that relied upon vocal largesse far more than any perceptible insights into the character’s psychology. Mr. Corelli bulldozes through Carlo’s entrance aria, ‘Io la vidi e il suo sorriso,’ without a hint of elegance, but the tone is golden. Still singing vibrantly, Mr. Corelli responds to Mr. Herlea’s superb singing in ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor’ by infusing his performance with an added air of competitiveness. Opera with Mr. Corelli was ever a spectator sport, and he fires a volley at Mr. Herlea and the MET audience with an interpolated top C in the duet’s coda; not one of his better efforts at the note but one that audibly excites the audience. There is little in the way of brotherly affection between this Carlo and Rodrigo, but there are moments of dramatic identification with his rôle in Mr. Corelli’s performance. His confrontation with Eboli blazes with exasperation, albeit of a type more appropriate for Turiddu and Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana: Carlo is the Infante, heir to the Spanish throne, after all, and the Princess of Éboli was widely considered the most beautiful noblewoman in Spain (her husband, to whom she was married at the age of twelve, was Don Ruy Gómez de Silva, who figures in Verdi’s Ernani). Mr. Corelli’s exchanges with Ms. Rysanek’s Elisabetta are intense but lack the subtext of dangerous erotic energy. Similarly, Mr. Corelli’s Carlo seems impetuous and spoiled rather than genuinely threatening in his scenes with his father, Filippo. Still, the appeal of a voice as secure as Mr. Corelli’s, combined with a native Italian temperament, is undeniable, and, vocally, Mr. Corelli’s Carlo streaks through the performance like a flash of lightning. This broadcast has what on paper seems like one of the most distinguished casts that could have been assembled for Don Carlo in 1964. Aside from Mr. Herlea’s first appearance with the MET, however, the performance never adds up to much more than the sum of its parts: nothing is embarrassing or musically catastrophic, but this is a verismo -tinged performance of one of Verdi’s most ambiguous operas. The extroverted passions are there in spades, but the inwardness that gives the principal characters such bracing humanity is largely absent.
Before the dissolution of the MET’s system of having French, German, and Italian ‘wings’ staffed by singers and conductors whose artistries were built upon the foundations of those nationalistic traditions, New York was a bastion of effective, idiomatic performances of Verdi’s operas. Perhaps the sheer size of the new opera house at Lincoln Center has contributed to the decline of performance standards in Verdi’s music in recent seasons. It cannot be denied that a voice like Leontyne Price’s is of the quality that emerges, at best, once in a generation. It cannot be said that the voices heard on these three vintage MET broadcasts are irreplaceable, but it would be difficult to argue that a Milanov, a Merrill, a Price, an Herlea, or a Corelli has been heard at the MET in the past thirty years, especially in Verdi repertory. In the context of preserving the work of these important singers in assignments typical of their MET careers, these Sony recordings are valuable documents that appeal not only to the nostalgia of those who heard the broadcasts live over the airwaves but also to those who are curious about how Verdi’s operas sound when sung by singers who know more about these scores than what they were told in conservatory lecture halls.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901):
Un ballo in maschera —J. Peerce (Riccardo), Z. Milanov (Amelia), R. Merrill (Renato), M. Anderson (Ulrica), R. Peters (Oscar), G. Tozzi (Samuel), N. Scott (Tom), C. Marsh (Silvano), C. Anthony (Servant), J. McCracken (Judge); Dimitri Mitropoulos [Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast of 10 December 1955; Sony 88697 91002 2; 2CD, 124:46]
Il Trovatore —F. Corelli (Manrico), L. Price (Leonora), I. Dalis (Azucena), M. Sereni (Conte di Luna), W. Wilderman (Ferrando), T. Stratas (Ines), C. Anthony (Ruiz), C. Tomanelli (Gypsy), R. Nagy (Messenger); Fausto Cleva [Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast of 4 February 1961; Sony 88697 91006 2; 2CD, 124:52)
Don Carlo —F. Corelli (Don Carlo), Leonie Rysanek (Elisabetta), G. Tozzi(Filippo II), N. Herlea (Rodrigo), I. Dalis (Eboli), H. Uhde (Grand Inquisitor), M. Baldwin (Tebaldo), G. Carelli (Count of Lerma), J. Díaz (a Friar), R. Nagy (Herald), J. Jones (Celestial Voice); Kurt Adler [Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast of 7 March 1964; Sony 88697 91004 2; 2CD, 155:49]