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21 Feb 2005

Michael Bohnen: At the Metropolitan Opera, New York

The title of this most worthwhile CD is, I’m afraid, somewhat misleading. The charismatic German bass-baritone, Michael Bohnen, sang at the Metropolitan Opera from 1923-1932. One might expect this CD to only document roles that Bohnen sang there, if not provide transcriptions of actual Met performances. In fact, the disc includes excerpts from several roles that Bohnen never sang at the Met. Of the twenty tracks on this CD, twelve, by my count, are souvenirs of Bohnen Met roles (Tonio, Rocco, Caspar, Mephistopheles, Wotan, Wolfram, Sachs, and Francesco in Schilling’s Mona Lisa).

Michael Bohnen: At the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Arias from I pagliacci, Fidelio, Der Freischütz, Faust, Carmen, Dinorah, Robert le Diable, Die Zauberflöte, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Mona Lisa, and Hamlet.
Michael Bohnen, bass-baritone. Various orchestras and conductors.
Hännsler Classic CD 94.503. TT: 75:50

The title of this most worthwhile CD is, I'm afraid, somewhat misleading. The charismatic German bass-baritone, Michael Bohnen, sang at the Metropolitan Opera from 1923-1932. One might expect this CD to only document roles that Bohnen sang there, if not provide transcriptions of actual Met performances.

In fact, the disc includes excerpts from several roles that Bohnen never sang at the Met. Of the twenty tracks on this CD, twelve, by my count, are souvenirs of Bohnen Met roles (Tonio, Rocco, Caspar, Mephistopheles, Wotan, Wolfram, Sachs, and Francesco in Schilling's Mona Lisa).

But in the end, this is of little consequence. These recordings are all documents of Bohnen in the prime of his career. Michael Bohnen was a superb singing-actor with a vibrant and attractive bass-baritone voice that demonstrated extraordinary facility in the lower and upper reaches of the voice. Bohnen was also renowned as a riveting stage actor. Fortunately, much of this charisma translates to Bohnen's audio recordings as well.

Unlike many singers--even some very famous ones--Bohnen's recordings provided a different interpretive sound and 'face" to each character. The results are always fascinating, although some might find his over-the-top portrayals of Escamillo and Mephistopheles a bit much. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that anyone would object to Bohnen's chilling impersonation of Caspar in Der Freischütz, in which he tears into the music with an almost frightening abandon, or his noble assumptions of Sarastro, Wotan, and Hans Sachs. Overall, this is singing of a very high order, indeed.

The recordings, which date from 1922-1930, are sometimes performed in the original language, sometimes in German translation. Bohnen seems least comfortable in Italian. His French is quite passable and of course, he uses his native German with a virtuoso actor's touch. The transfers are a bit overly filtered for my taste, although Bohnen's voice still shines through with ample presence and color.

The booklet contains German and English essays on Bohnen's life and Met career. No texts or translations of the arias are included.

Kenneth Meltzer

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