DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor (Sung in German)
Maria Stader, soprano (Lucia), Ernst Häfliger, tenor (Edgardo), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Enrico), Werner Faulhaber, bass (Raimondo), Karl Hoppe, tenor (Arturo), Sieglinde Wagner, mezzo-soprano (Alisa), Heinz Maria Lenz, tenor (Normanno), RIAS Chorus and Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. Excerpts from Don Carlos.
MYTO 2 CD 033.H078 (2 CDs). (M) (ADD) TT: 2:32:06

PUCCINI: Tosca (Sung in German)
Leonie Rysanek, soprano (Floria Tosca), Hans Hopf, tenor, (Mario Cavaradossi), Josef Metternich, baritone, (Baron Scarpia), Willy Hoffman, tenor, (Spoletta), Werner Faulhaber, bass (Sacristan), Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, Richard Kraus, cond. MYTO 2 CD 033.H077 (2 CDs). (M) (ADD) TT: 1:48:34

These MYTO releases feature broadcast recordings of mainstays of the Italian repertoire—Lucia di Lammermoor and Tosca. Both date from 1953, and are sung in German translations. Both are fascinating performances that are well worth investigating. The Lucia broadcast, from Berlin, is under the direction of the great Hungarian conductor, Ferenc Fricsay. A major talent who died at the age of only 48, Fricsay nonetheless left a considerable recorded legacy, both of orchestral and vocal music. This Lucia is yet another valuable contribution to the Fricsay discography.
Certainly, the focus of this bel canto masterpiece is invariably on the singers, the soprano heroine in particular. But Donizetti took great care to compose a score that makes considerable use of the orchestra, not just as an accompanying body, but as a key player in the drama as well. The orchestral introductions to each scene do much to establish the atmosphere for the impending drama. Fricsay most certainly recognizes this. The conductor and his RIAS Orchestra give each introduction its full due in terms of weight, color, unanimity of execution, and forward propulsion. Indeed, these are qualities found throughout the performance. The conductor is also considerate of his singers, allowing them ample opportunity to make their expressive points, but never at the expense of the work’s momentum. In my opinion, this is one of the best-conducted Lucias on disc, and on that basis alone, merits purchase.

It’s fortunate the cast is worthy of its conductor. Maria Stader is in lovely and secure voice, and quite accomplished in the florid music. Only the very highest notes lack the ultimate brilliance and freedom, but are nonetheless accurate. Throughout, I also admired Stader’s characterization, emphasizing the delicate and introverted aspects of Lucia’s character, making the heroine’s victimization and descent into madness all the more credible. Likewise tenor Ernst Häfliger offers a valuable interpretation of Lucia’s love interest, Edgardo. There is no denying the voice is on the small side, and that the most stentorian moments, such as Edgardo’s denunciation of Lucia, press him to the very limits. But Häfliger does not back off from such challenges, and throughout is admirably committed to the role. That intensity, aligned to this fine musician’s lovely voice, customarily elegant phrasing and dramatic insight produce a valuable partner for Stader’s patrician Lucia.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as Enrico, is in his youthful prime. Fischer-Dieskau brings his usual intelligence and attention to the role. However, unlike some off his other forays into Italian opera, here Fischer-Dieskau avoids the temptation to over-inflect the text. Instead, he is able to strike an appropriate balance between making his dramatic points and preserving the Italianate flow of the vocal line. His Enrico is a youthful, impetuous character, intent upon revenge, and most definitely a force to be reckoned with. It’s a shame the recording omits the Wolf’s Crag Scene. I suspect that Häfliger, Fischer-Dieskau, and Fricsay would have made quite a show of it. Werner Faulhaber is a rather wooly Raimondo, though certainly not poor enough to distract from the general excellence of the performance. The RIAS Chorus joins its orchestral counterparts in maintaining the high level of the proceedings. The recorded sound is quite fine, essentially equivalent to the studio recordings of the period. The filler for the second disc contains excerpts from Fischer-Dieskau’s professional debut in 1948 as Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlos, also available complete from MYTO.

Although Leonie Rysanek performed Tosca frequently throughout her long career, she never made a commercial recording of the opera. There are various in-performance recordings, sung in Italian, that have circulated on private labels. This German-language Tosca, from Munich, offers the advantage of presenting Rysanek in glorious, youthful voice, recorded in superb sound, even better than the Lucia. Typical of Rysanek, the voice tends to gain stability and focus the more it ascends the staff. But there are no glaring vocal weaknesses, and Rysanek, always a galvanizing force as an actress, certainly throws her entire being into this performance. While she may not offer any of the unique interpretive insights of Maria Callas or Magda Olivero, Rysanek is still a most compelling Tosca. Tenor Hans Hopf is a surprisingly good Cavaradossi. This recording captures him in about the best vocal form I’ve heard from this much-maligned tenor. The pitch is secure, the legato essentially smooth, and the voice lacks the kind of “sour beef” quality that afflicts many of his recordings. So, we are left with a more advantageous balance toward the strengths of Hopf’s arsenal—his dramatic commitment, and a voice that offers a curious (and for me, compelling) blend of a baritonal lower register and ringing high notes. By the way, Hopf’s final scream of pain during the Act II torture sequence is the most hair-raising I’ve ever heard. And he follows it with an equally gripping “Vittoria!”

For me, the star of this Tosca is baritone Josef Metternich in the role of Scarpia. My first impression while listening to Act I was that Metternich was underplaying Scarpia, the operatic personification of evil. Metternich, who possessed a marvelous baritone voice, sings gorgeously throughout Act I, but lacks the kind of menacing intensity evidenced by the greatest of all Scarpias, Tito Gobbi. But then we move to Act II and from the Church of the Sant’Andrea alla Valle to Scarpia’s office in the Farnese Palace. And suddenly Metternich’s Scarpia becomes a demonic figure, delivering the text and music with a frightening, animal-like intensity, but always with complete vocal security. It seems clear that Metternich is drawing a distinction between Scarpia as he appears before the public eye, and Scarpia in the comfort of his domain. I’ve never heard the dichotomy characterized quite this way before. It makes tremendous sense to me, and certainly made the proceedings of Act II all the more riveting.

Richard Kraus’s conducting, while not exceptional, certainly allows the drama to move forward, and brings out many of the colors in Puccini’s orchestral score. The Bavarian Radio Orchestra plays quite well throughout, and contributes a lovely Prelude to Act III.

Certainly the German translations of the original Italian preclude these versions of Lucia and Tosca from being first choices for recordings of these great operas. But collectors who don’t mind owning multiple copies of the same opera (and you know who you are!) might well consider investigating these new MYTO releases. Repeated listening has provided me with considerable enjoyment, as well as some new insights into these familiar and beloved works.

K.M. (December 2003)