“It is increasingly the case, and very sadly so, that new recordings of the landmark masterpieces of the standard operatic repertory can be satisfying on any deep level only to those with the least experience and the shortest memories . . . We don't go to the recordings of Caruso or Melchior, Ponselle or Flagstad for the sonics. We go because we want the real thing - the vocal capacity and dramatic ardor that cannot be dimmed by mere matters of sound reproduction. The voices fairly jump out at us from whatever dim and unsatisfactory technology enshrines them.”
Music Critic & Editor
The Opera Quarterly
THE HISTORIC BROADCAST LEGACY
There really was a Golden Age of Opera; an age in which legendary singers appeared together in monumental performances which became the standard for singers then and since. Unfortunately, many of these great artists were not commercially recorded in the celebrated realizations of the roles with which they had become identified except in the form of excerpts. As a result, we were denied the experience of rehearing the artistic whole of their recreations which alone gave us the truth of the roles they lived to illuminate. Many music lovers did not know that private and broadcast recordings were made which preserved many historic performances from the latter days of the Golden Age.
The dedication I feel toward finding, restoring and sharing these important recorded operatic and symphonic broadcasts stems from a belief that they constitute an invaluable part of our musical heritage. This heritage derives, in part, from the fact that when various broadcast companies sought the rights to use public airways for transmission, they were required to broadcast a number of cultural programs weekly, and to recognize that when their 50 year copyright expired, all broadcast material from those years would enter the public domain and could be accessed in the public interest as their legacy.
What these facts led to was a recorded assemblage of broadcast performances offering many of the greatest vocal artists and conductors of these eras. At last we can hear famed singers and conductors who performed together, though they were never brought together for commercial recording, because the principal singers were under contract to diverse, competing record companies. As important, we can hear some of the greatest singers of the 20th century in complete performances of roles associated with their fame of which only one or a few recordings of arias are available on commercial recordings. What's more, many of the great vocal artists were inhibited by the cold ambiance of the recording-studio but were extremely different when on stage, caught up in the drama, lost in the virtual reality created by the sets and costumes.
This Broadcast Legacy enables us to enter again into this remarkable era, and especially into what was justifiably termed the final days of the Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. Through such preservations we can yet hear Melchior's heartbreakingly eloquent Tristan, his heroic and incomparable Siegmund and Siegfried, his golden Lohengrin and his memorable Parsifal and Tannhäuser. We can return again and again to Flagstad's noble Isolde, and her shining Brünnhilde; to Rethberg's visionary, ecstatic Elsa, her refulgent Eva, her pathetic Desdemona; to Janssen's warmly human Wolfram; to Hotter's brooding Dutchman; to Lehmann's rapturously feminine Sieglinde and sublime Marschallin; to Friedrich Schorr's wise and tender Hans Sachs and the humanity and grandeur of his Wotan; to Pinza's easy, confident Don Giovanni, his personable Figaro, his touching father in Louise, his diabolical Doctor Miracle, his blind, tortured King Archibaldo, and his unsurpassable Mephistopheles; to Björling's ardent Romeo, his impassioned Des Grieux, his unequalled Faust; to Sayão's charming Zerlina, her exquisite Manon, her tragic Juliette, her affecting Mimi, her mischievous Susanna; to Albanese's touching Butterfly and Violetta and many, many others.
Although the commercial record companies held many of the greats under strict contracts and refused to preserve these grand artists in the complete roles associated with their fame, these broadcast transcriptions preserve Ezio Pinza in 19 complete roles, Melchior and Falgstad in nine complete Tristan und Isoldes ; the work of great conductors in the opera house such as Bruno Walter, Reiner, Beecham, Fritz Busch, and many others. One can hear many great vocal artists singing in roles from which they never recorded even a single commercial disc.
In short, the reputations of many great singers in particular roles, corroborated in part by one or another single disc they made commercially, are entirely confirmed in their complete performance of the work. Martinelli was truly an unforgettable Canio and Otello; Welitsch was, in fact, incomparable in her 1949 realization of Salome , Björling and Sayão do bring alive Romeo and Juliette in a passionate poem of song which has never been equalled; Traubel does sing Isolde with an electrifying intensity and a Brünnhilde of Olympian grandeur; Edward Habich is the most remarkable Alberich we've ever heard, Rethberg's Eva was thrilling beyond description. Varnay's Elektra, Kipnis as King Marke, Tibbett as Boccenegra, Chaliapin as Boris, these and so many others are all incomparable. Their voices glow with an extraordinary and unexpected light, though sometimes surrounded by ordinary expression or betrayed by routine conducting. What does it matter, the imperfections of live performance, in the face of such vocal wealth?
Many of the Wagnerian singers whose performances are heard in our restorations, now on our own label, are legendary. This was not only because of their unusually beautiful voices, but also because many of them embodied something inexpressible in their vocal personality. For instance, Friedrich Schorr as Hans Sachs had, in the very timbre of his voice a tonality which communicated that nobility-of-being which is innately aristocratic, not by birth but by association with principle. This made him vocally one with the text and music, unifying the character of Sachs, or Wotan, with the epic poetry of the drama and the philosophy which suffused the total expression of Wagner’s music and drama.
There is yet another quality found in the legendary singers of the latter days of the Golden Age. Their singing is not in the least expectable. The very tone they take soars beyond what we are accustomed to hearing, establishing something essential about the character they sing in their very first notes. This rare atmosphere of a totally dimensional realization of a role results only from those artists expressing themselves through a role they seemingly were born to illuminate. Once having heard such singing, one finds it hard to imagine the artist singing anything else, being anyone else but this character, or to believe that the artist did not inhabit the life of the role even when the work was not being performed.
Many opera lovers feel this way when they hear Callas as Anna Bolena or her Norma, Medea, Tosca and Lucia from 1953-1955; Rethberg's Elsa, with Melchior's Tristan, Siegmund and Siegfried; Lotte Lehmann's Sieglinde, and Pinza's Don Giovanni. It is not that such artists do a particular "this" or a specific illuminating "that" in the role. What they achieved was above all of the extraordinary specifics which made up the details of their art. It was, rather, in their capacity to embody the essential character and its life in their tone. This gave us the soul of the emotions which, by reason of its universality, belonged as much to us as to the person in the drama.
Considering the factors which elevated the voices of the singers of the Golden Age on the wings of inspiration, we must recognize that not every one of them had an incomparable voice of unending power and beauty. Indeed, one even listens to some of them well past their prime, when their voices were compressing, or becoming dry or more restricted in range. This is because of what they did through their voices, for the voice is as revelatory as the eyes when it comes to character, and confesses the inner state or center whence comes the expression. Through such art, we are dissolved in a truth which lies at the heart of opera, wherein facts, history, circumstances and the essences of the human state have been condensed into spirit, into song. Thus, under a variety of disguises, we come to know, to experience, the poignant, wrathful, distraught, joyful or ennobled condition of humanity and so we come to live the life of the opera as our own. Everyone who loves opera finds something of themselves in every character who touches them emotionally. Through great artists we are permitted access to the heart of the human condition hidden within each operatic character, made possible only by the vocal art of the singer to illuminate the inner truth of the role.
Thus, the access we have gained to broadcast recordings restores to us a part of our musical heritage long believed lost. These transmissions deliver us back to previous eras with a vividity that allows us to live, however briefly, in that very time when Toscanini was conducting the Philharmonic and the NBC symphonies, Bruno Walter was conducting Mozart at the Met and Beecham was delighting us with his marvelous recreation of French opera. Once again the Golden Age of Wagner at the Met can be reheard, verifying that it truly was an era of unforgettable vocal achievement and not just a grandiose claim of those who tell us it was better, more elevating, back then. And, it emerges, many of these broadcast preservations offer sonics as good as the commercial releases of that era, so that we can enjoy, in unexpected fidelity, the immortal voices of a long bygone era.