VERDI: Un ballo en maschera
VERDI: La forza del destino.
VERDI: Simon Boccanegra
VERDI: La traviata
As a performance, this Otello from 1940 is a major disappinting. In the title role we hear Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969), a true legend in the operatic world. The Italian tenor, with his dashing good looks and fine voice, was a favorite right from the start. Martinelli sang in the premiere of The girl of the golden west when Enrico Caruso was unable to do so.Puccini wanted him to sing the role of Calaf in the premiere of Turandot (Puccini died before completing the opera). Arturo Toscanini favored Martinelli and used him often. Martinelli's Met career began in 1911 and he sang 926 performances. He was called "The Lion of the Met." However, by the time of this Otello , Martinelli's voice had deteriorated considerably. The ringing high notes are gone (you can hear them on the tenor's earlier recordings). His opening Esultte¡ doesn't amount to much, and tthroughout he sounds strained and insecure. It is a pleasure to hear one of the finest sopranos of the era, Elisabeth Rethberg, as Desdemona, and a very young Lawrence Tibbett as Iago. Panizza's conducting is rather frantic, but exciting. Operaphies should listen to this performance, but it is only of historic interest. There is a strange sound at the end of the death scene; perhaps it was Martinelli gurghling? Audio on this recording is often distorted.
Rosa Ponselle (1897 - 1981), America's leading soprano, can be heard in a 1935 broadcast of La traviata. This is important as it is her only available complete live opera performance. There also was a broadcast of Act II of Norma, but this has yet to be found. Ponselle and her sister Carmela had a vaudeville vocal variety act in New York, when they were heard by Enrico Caruso who was mightily impressed. The Met was planning to present the American premiere of La forza del destino, and Caruso suggested Ponselle sing the role of Leonore. It as the first time she had ever been on an operatic stage. From that time, she was a leading Met soprano with well over 400 performances. Her repertory was wide, perfect for dark soprano roles but agile enough for coloratura. . She appeared in Aïda, Ernani,, Norma, Cavalleria rusticana, L'Amore dei tre rey, Il trovatore, La gioconda and Don giovanni, among others . She sang in the American premieres of Oberon,Don Carlo, and William Tell.
At the height of her popularity, Ponselle was heard in many radio broadcasts of songs and artias; fortunately many of these have been preserved. She made many recordings, mostly for Victor, but never, unfortunately, a complete opera. All of these recordings have been issued on CD and are worth searching for.
Rosa Ponselle retired in 1937 at the age of 40 at the height of her career. What an incredible loss to the world of opera!! The previous year she married a wealthy Baltimore socialite, Carle Jackson; who built her dream home, called Villa Pace (after the aria in Forza del destino) in t beautiful Green Spring Valley north of Baltimore. They divorced in 1949.
Rosa Ponsells's Violetta is legendary. It was one of her best roles, and she was perfect for it both vocally and dramatically. I had the good fortune to spend some time with Ms. Ponselle in the early '70's. when I was in public radio. A lengthy interview was recorded in her home. She always was a delight to be with, had a great sense of humor, and did much for the cause of opera in Baltimore.
At the time I knew her, Ms. Ponselle had discovered a copy of her Met broadcasts of Carmen and La traviata, both private recordings. One time, as we listened to parts of Carmen, particularly from Act IV, she acted it out sometimes singing along with the recording! A fascinating experience!. Ponselle's Carmen was, to say the least, over the top, and she didn't hesitate to change the score! When she received a test copy of her Traviata from a New York collector, she told him the speed was wrong - it was too slow - she knew how she had sung it! So he remastered the tape towards the end of the first act so so her big scene was amazing, truly unbelievable- actually it was phenomenal played at the correct speed. Of course the increased speed castrated Frederick Jagel's Alfredo, but that was not her concern. This performance was issued on LP as a bonus for contributors to the Baltimore Opera Company. Fortunately what we hear on this Sony set is at the correct speed, but it is unfortunate that audio is quite poor, often fuzzy and distorted. Still it is the best we have, and should be checked out by those who love Verdi.
Leontyne Price for years has been the perfect Aïda, and sang it more than 40 times at the Met. The role has been important to her throughout her career. She recorded it with Sir Georg Solti for Decca in 1966, and when she decided to retire from the Met in 1985 she chose this opera, a magnificent performance that was televised. What a glorious night that was for the 57-year old singer, still in total control of her rich, distinctive voice. In this Sony set we have a performance from Feb. 25, 1967, and it one of the finest you'll ever hear of Verdi's masterpiece. Bergonzi, Grace Bumbry, Robert Merrill, Jerome Hines and the remainder of the cast are equally impressive. Audio is excellent. An essential Aïda, for sure.
Equal vocal splendid is heard in Croation soprano Zinka Milanov's performances in La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera, the former from Nov. 29, 1952, the latter, Dec. 14, 1940. Born in 1906, her unique vocal quality was recognized. Bruno Walter recommended her to Arturo Toscanini for a performance of Verdi's Requiem which was a great success. Milanov first appeared at the Met as Leonore in 1937 and from that time on was a favorite, recognized as a successor to Rosa Ponselle in big dramatic Italian roles. In both of the operas issued here Milanov is partnered by the best of the time, tenors Jussi Björling and Richard Tucker, and baritones Leonard Warren and Alexander Sved, with conductors Panizza and Stiedry in firm control of the podium. It is truly thrilling to hear Milanov at her best. After retiring from the Met, she taught extensively, and died 1989 at the age of 83.
Thanks to Sony Classical, we have the opportunity to hear the great American Leonard Warren (1911-1960) in four of his signature roles. Warren made his official Met debut in 1939 and soon sang many leading baritone roles, particularly Rigoletto, Germont, Tonio, Scarpia, and Escamillo. In 1951 he recorded for RCA a complete Rigoletto (with Erna Berger), and this was the first complete opera to be issued on LP - and a superb performance it was.Warren was a favorite in other international opera houses, giving many concerts as well. He made a number of recordings for RCA, many with Zinka Milanov and Jussi Bjöerling. On this reissue we have a Rigoletto from Dec. 29, 1945 with Bidu Sayao as Gilda; Simon Boccamegra ( Jan. 28, 1950), Macbeth from Feb. 21, 1959 (with Leonie Rysanek's superb Lady Macbeth), and Falstaff broadcast Feb. 26, 1949, the latter with Fritz Reiner on the podium. All of these are of major interest to collectors. Warren died onstage at the Met March 4, 1960, during a performance of La forza del destino, a tragic end to a major career.
Each of the ten operas occupies two disks and has its own cardboard folder, and tthe entire set is in an attractive box. A handsome booklet contains program notes, track information and many photos. This is an outstanding set, at a very reasonable price. Now may we hope for similar treatment for historic Met performances of Puccini and Strauss? Hope so!
R.E.B. (April 2016)