Reviews for IPCD 1050-4
STRAUSS: DER ROSENKAVALIER 1959
STRAUSS Der Rosenkavalier: Erich Leinsdorf, cond; Lisa Della Casa (Marschallin); Christa Ludwig (Octavian); Elisabeth Söderström (Sophie); Oskar Czerwenka (Ochs); Metropolitan Opera O & Ch IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1050-4 (4 monaural CDs, Sold for the price of 3: 258:02) Live recording: Metropolitan Opera, 12/26/1959
STRAUSS Der Rosenkavalier: Scenes Arturo Basile, cond; Lisa Della Casa (Marschallin); Mildred Miller (Octavian); Dorothy Warenskjold (Sophie); Los Angeles P O. Live recording: 1959
Dorothy Warenskjold sings arias by Debussy, Alfano and Charpentier. Live broadcast recordings: Standard Hour, 1948-1949
September / October 2016
Although Lisa Della Casa lacks the stature of reputation of the two most famous Marschallins, Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, there is no question that she merits mention in the same breath, and in her own way offers rewards in this role as thoroughly as those two great ladies. Any doubts about that are erased by this excellent restoration of a 1959 Met broadcast, a performance given a few years after she first sang the role at the Met.
One can find certain subtleties and specificity of inflection in Lehmann and Schwarzkopf that make each of their portrayals unique. Both sing beautifully, and both bring the character to life. The same can be said for Della Casa, beginning with the “sing beautifully” part. Reaction to voices is singularly personal, and one must recognize that when writing about singers—but having stipulated that, I am comfortable saying that Della Casa displays a gleaming, silvery beauty of tone that is uniquely hers. She consistently brings the listener into Strauss’ music with the radiance of her voice. To that gorgeous vocalism she adds the assets of an intelligent singing-actor. We don’t have to (and should not) rank artists as if they were sports teams, with one having a better win-loss record than another. Lehmann, Schwarzkopf, Della Casa, and probably a few others like Reining and Crespin, offer uniquely beautiful and effective portrayals that we can enjoy on their own terms without having to evaluate them against each other. We would be poorer without any of them, and that surely includes this one.
There are, in fact, many wonderful specifics in Della Casa’s performance. In the big monologue in Act I, for example, she manages a tone of resignation at “’s ist doch der Lauf der Welt” (“It’s just the way of the world”), a bitter hardness at “Die alte Frau,” and then a painful poignancy, accomplished with both vocal color and subtle phrasing, in the moments after. And always there is that glorious sound. You can sense the audience in the house breathless with concentration, and you find it happening to you as well. And she continues in this vein throughout. In the final trio the tone is almost too beautiful to describe, and the singing of the three ladies is close to perfection.
Christa Ludwig brings many of the same vocal and dramatic assets to Octavian: a luscious tone, evenly produced from top to bottom, matched to impeccable dramatic skills. It is difficult to believe that the same singer is impersonating the impetuous Octavian and the girl Mariandel flirting in disguise with Ochs. In her scenes with Della Casa Ludwig is persuasively ardent and vocally resplendent. With both singers, every word sounds, clearly articulated and integral to the dramatic action.
The Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström manages to make certain that we don’t overlook Sophie because of the strength of Della Casa and Ludwig, without unduly calling attention to herself. She does it with secure vocalism throughout her range, and the kind of inflection that manages to convey both innocence and flirtatiousness in the same character, reflecting actual human complexity rather than cardboard simplicity. Her Sophie is playful, naïve at first but ultimately quite wise.
Irving Kolodin, in his book The Metropolitan Opera 1883-1966 is rather hard on Czerwenka’s Ochs, implying that his voice was too small for the house and that he overplayed the comedy to compensate. One cannot tell about the size of voice from the broadcast recording, but other contemporary reviews do not echo this complaint, nor do I find his comedy overdone or coarse. Ochs is a difficult role to bring off, and Czerwenka seems quite convincingly boorish without becoming a caricature, and he also sings well.
Eugenio Fernandi, an important tenor of the second rank in those days (today he would be of the first rank) does a fine job with “Di rigori armato,” and the rest of the cast is superb (Thelma Votipka’s Marianne particularly so).
Erich Leinsdorf had taken over the German wing of the Met after Bodanzky’s death in 1939, and one of his achievements was opening up a number of the excessive cuts Bodanzky imposed on Wagner and Strauss. Although this performance is not completely uncut, the cuts are minimal and do not significantly disfigure the work; Leinsdorf’s performance is about twenty minutes longer than Bodanzky’s 1939 broadcast. Sometimes capable of routine time-beating, Leinsdorf could be inspired, particularly if he was pleased with his cast. He must have been on this occasion, because the conducting is animated, witty, impassioned and, perhaps most surprising, loving and tender where the music wants it. He is wonderfully flexible in the final trio, letting his singers have the time they need to weave their magic without letting the line sag.
Der Rosenkavalier fits on three discs, and the fourth is the bonus material noted above, and is provided without extra cost. Producer Richard Caniell points out in his notes that the mike placement for the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast is much more favorable than the Met’s, and indeed the sound is quite a bit fuller, allowing us to bask in the voices. Nothing in my knowledge of Arturo Basile’s routine conducting of Italian operas would have led me to expect a revelatory approach to these excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier, and my low expectations were met but not exceeded. The conducting lacks shape and momentum. It is not a matter of tempo, but a matter of sustaining intensity through a phrase and binding lines together. The music, even the magnificent final trio, sags under his baton. But it is wonderful to have these examples of the rarely heard Warenskjold’s Sophie and Miller’s knowing Octavian.
The second bonus, three arias beautifully sung in Standard Hour broadcasts by Dorothy Warenskjold benefits from the sensitive shaping on the podium of Pierre Monteux. Warenskjold was a fine lyric soprano who deserved a bigger career than she had. There are so many factors that go into a career in addition to talent: luck, drive, ambition, and politics all play their part. Warenskold was born in 1921, sang until the early 1960s then retired from the stage and spent the remainder of her life teaching; she died in 2010. Her stage career focused largely on the San Francisco Opera (she hailed from that area) but her biggest success were probably on radio, on The Voice of Firestone and The Standard Hour. To have Warenskjold and Monteux give us a rarely heard aria from Alfano’s Risurrezione is a real gift from Immortal Performances, revealing a little known gem. Warenskold’s singing of Debussy’s “Air de Lia” and “Depuis le jour” from Louise is exquisite, as are Monteux’s finely shaded accompaniments.
Immortal Performances’ usual high production standards apply. Richard Caniell has supplied thoughtful and knowledgeable notes on the performances (liberally quoting a fine Musical America review of the broadcast performance by Robert Sabin and more insights by John Steane), as well as the recording production. Lovely photos are an added attraction. The basic sound of the Der Rosenkavalier broadcast is more than listenable for anyone used to historic broadcasts, and Caniell has done good work overcoming the dynamic compression of the original, but it doesn’t equal the best monaural sound of that era. For anyone who enjoys this opera, this is close to essential. It is a performance that has the smell of the theater about it—the spark of an actual drama instead of a vocal display, no matter how good, that one almost always gets in a studio recording. And with the glorious singing of the three leading ladies, it is hard to imagine a listener who would not succumb to what is offered here.
STRAUSS: DER ROSENKAVALIER Met 1959
September / October 2016
This release of a Metropolitan broadcast which has had little or no currency among “pirate” issues, partially fulfills a promise made by what was then RCA years ago, c. 1958. In the monthly journal High Fidelity a brief announcement advised that Erich Leinsdorf would record Strauss’s Rosenkavalier in Vienna with Lisa Della Casa, Rise Stevens, Roberta Peters, and Otto Edelmann—and the Vienna Philharmonic. As with Leinsdorf’s three prior operatic recordings made with the VPO, the Decca recording team would have technical responsibility.
That recording was never made. To my best knowledge, no further announcement, and no word of cancellation appeared. It just never happened. Edelmann had, of course, an Ochs to his credit on EMI (numerous live performances exist). But neither conductor nor the announced three female protagonists ever recorded their roles in the studio. Thanks to Richard Caniell’s enterprise, we now have Leinsdorf and Della Casa at their best with an interesting cast, and in sonics which, although not ideal (as Caniell discusses in depth in detailed notes) are surely good enough for us to hear and enjoy the performance.
The opera is clearly special to the veteran restorer. Caniell was responsible for the amazingly good Immortal Performances set of the 1939 Met broadcast featuring Lehmann and Stevens (Bodansky conducting) and on the Guild label he offered a 1953 performance with Maria Reining (still in representative form) and the young Della Casa in the title role (Clemens Krauss conducting). Both are important releases of performances which are also special to me. This performance is just as special. Erich Leinsdorf was a conductor who influenced the formation of my musical tastes during those years when my studies and opera/concert attendance were most significant. In 1955 and 1957 he conducted San Francisco Opera performances of this work with (in 1955) Schwarzkopf, Edelmann, Dorothy Warenskjold, and Frances Bible, a Rofrano as good as there ever was. The charming Sophie did not return, but the others and alternates came over the years, with Schwarzkopf’s never aging Princess the constant, and Edelmann the Ochs in all but one season. For all of the vocal allure of those performances (into the 1960s) it was Leinsdorf’s conducting of this complex score in the first two seasons that has remained in my mind for six decades. I don’t have the date of his first Met performance, but he conducted Lehmann and the young Stevens in 1941 with the SFO. As Caniell notes, Szell and Busch, available to the Met through the exigencies of World War II, led the work during the war years, with great distinction. There is also a marvelous Szell performance from Salzburg (1949) and in addition to his Met broadcasts we have, in problematic sound, what seems to be a first-rate Busch performance from Buenos Aires with a superb cast including Kipnis, and the conductor leading with enthusiasm.
Constant readers will conclude—correctly—that for me this is a conductor’s opera and I welcome this unexpected release because it enables me to hear a conductor I admire leading a score he knew down to the last semiquaver. There is also a Teatro Colón performance of Rosenkavalier led by Leinsdorf, a decade after this Met broadcast, and 31 years after the Busch performance. With Jurinac moved up to Marschallin, Sylvia Geszty as Sophie, and Walter Berry as Ochs, Leinsdorf was reunited with Christa Ludwig, 10 years older and having also sung the Marschallin in the meantime, as Octavian. It is a wonderful performance, but the sonics cannot compare with the present issue. To hear Leinsdorf’s way with the score in sonics which are at least good enough for full enjoyment, you need to hear the present issue.
What are the concerns with the sonics? As Caniell explains, the Met changed broadcast microphoning in 1959. The result (to my ear) was to bring the orchestra right up to stage front. The balance is not as good as it had been for 20 or so years of broadcasting. The sense of hall ambience and space (most striking example or at least one of them, hearing the hall resonance around Martinelli’s “Celeste Aida” in the 1937 broadcast) is greatly reduced. And for whatever reason there seem to be more dead spots on stage. Some voices seem to lack presence due to mike placement or messing around with controls. I had thought from reading Caniell’s useful notes that this started in the autumn of 1959 and it is surely evident in The Gypsy Baron, broadcast three weeks in advance of the Richard Strauss work. But I hear it as well in a January 1959 Lohengrin which offers Della Casa as Elsa, an extremely well-sung performance by the soprano. So, the house or broadcast engineers may have initiated these changes well before the present broadcast. Does this spoil the performance as here offered? No; Caniell, with the proverbial help of all the king’s horses and men, has done a lot to improve the balance and the sonic framework. Solo and duet passages are fine. The act I ensembles lack clarity a bit, but the opening of act II sounds well, and I think the sound of act III is arguably the best of all. Caniell makes a point of it, and so in the interests of disclosure I mention it. To fail to purchase this release on sonic grounds would be foolish—absurd!
The felicities of this broadcast performance are countless. There are a few points at which I prefer other singers in this or that passage, but the performance is free of interpretive gaffes. It was the first performance of the work in a run of several. Nineteen fifty-nine may well have been the best year of Della Casa’s career. At 40 she was in full vocal bloom (still) and seemingly in full artistic maturity as well. The J. Strauss venture noted above did not meet with critical favor (although listening to it, the audience seemed pleased), but it was not due to any vocal shortcomings on the part of the Swiss soprano. Her Elsas at the beginning of the year (or at least, the broadcast) found her totally “on form.” This matinee Marschallin finds here in easy, secure voice and—for an artist who made more effects vocally than verbally—she is unusually fine in her projection of the text and of the Marschallin’s shifting moods. She is decidedly not a tragedy queen, nor does she seem crushed by the situation. She sounds like the 37-year-old woman of the plot who must deal with the end of a romance which could not, after all, endure or end well. Her vocalism throughout the close of act I is beyond cavil, and Leinsdorf, normally a fairly brisk conductor, expands considerably to let his vocalist make the most of Strauss’s broad vocal writing. Every time I have heard this performance, it has moved me more greatly. Della Casa’s contribution to act III is not quite as “edgy” as some, but vocally, in the trio, she is nothing short of sublime (as are all three singers at that point).
In his detailed history of the Metropolitan Opera, the late Irving Kolodin has not a good thing to say about Christa Ludwig’s busy 1959–60 season. He didn’t much like her Octavian, nor much else she did, and wound up criticizing her awesome versatility; proof that you can’t please everybody. Can anyone now seriously question she was one of the 20th century’s finest singers? I never saw her as Rofrano (my loss) but in this performance, as in the 1969 Buenos Aires performance with the same conductor, one can almost “see” her through the aural picture she provides. Yes, I suppose in comparison to Stevens (14 years her senior) she might have seemed a bit “bumptious,” and this 1959 outing finds here in slightly higher spirits than a decade later, or, for that matter, than in the highly refined EMI recording led by Karajan. But every note of the role is beautifully sung, she and Della Casa work well together, and when she meets her future love in act II, and as they sing of their love in act III, it is difficult to imagine better vocalization or a more persuasive interpretation of the role. I saw her just a few weeks earlier in Chicago (as Dorabella). It was prime time for a great singer.
The third female lead was coming up on prime time. Elisabeth Söderström sang in Faust that season, and then took up Sophie. She had the notes, she had the technique, and she is persuasive dramatically. To my ear, she had not quite the timbre I most like in the role; her sound is almost too complex. But the blend with Ludwig, and the blend of all three in the Trio, is provocative, and it is interesting to hear an artist who became one of the most significant singing actresses of the century at this early point in her career in this relatively light role. She recorded much of Octavian’s role a few years later, in Vienna, for Decca, with Crespin and Güden, and Varviso conducting. Interpretively, she was a terrific Rofrano; again, the timbre not quite right.
Met debutante Oskar Czerwenka (a native of Austria and luminary at the VSO) made his Met debut with this broadcast—two more Ochs, and five Fidelio Roccos were his house total. It is said he and Bing did not get along. Who knows? He joined Seefried (five Susannas) and Kunz (not much more) in that list of Vienna luminaries who did not endure in Manhattan. Although he had the range for the role, the lowest notes at the end of act II are finessed a bit, but they are finessed very well. His timbre is baritonal. This bothers me more than it probably bothered Leinsdorf, whose Ochs a decade later in Argentina was Berry—a very similar vocal type. Berry also satisfied Bernstein and countless “critics” in the role, so who am I to carp? Czerwenka, judged only on his singing, since we cannot see him, improves steadily during the afternoon. I like him a great deal in Act 3 and there is nothing wrong with his performance at any point. It’s just that the baritonal timbre does not sound quite right in acts I and II. But it was his Met debut for goodness sake, and well sung on the whole. He deserved more opportunities in this country, as demonstrated by a number of studio recordings as well as this broadcast. Rocco had to be seriously less suitable casting than Ochs, but what did Bing know?
As has been noted by Henry Fogel and other commentators in these pages and elsewhere, one of the glories of the first decade’s stewardship of the Met by Bing was the incredible supporting casts he was able to offer. Johnson had much the same ability in the 1940s but there would often be a weird misfire among the vocal gold. For a decade or nearly, Bing had a reservoir of talent and staff members who knew how to use them. For this broadcast and the other performances of the “run” Leinsdorf had such as the Viennese Ralph Herbert as Faninal; the immortal de Paolis and Votipka (Valzacchi and Marianne); a magnificent young contralto, Belan Amparan, as Annina; the strong-voiced Eugenio Fernandi as the Italian Singer (only for this broadcast); Norman Scott, veteran of so many Toscanini outings, as the Police Commissioner; and no less than Paul Franke as a superb Innkeeper (adding to the delights of the last act, following Leinsdorf’s typically brilliant traversal of the incredibly tricky orchestral opening). The orchestral playing is beyond the Met’s 1959 average, or so it sounds to me.
At no extra cost, four CDs for the price of three, Immortal Performances adds some wonderful bonus material: a 1959 Hollywood Bowl broadcast led by Tebaldi’s one-time lover, Arturo Basile (hardly noted for either Strauss or U.S. appearances) in Rosenkavalier excerpts featuring Della Casa and mezzo Mildred Miller, who was granted one series of performances of Octavian at the Met but generally was not used to her potential. The Sophie was the beloved California soprano Dorothy Warenskjold, my first Sophie (1955) whose SFO career inexplicably ended that year only a performance or two after I heard her in Los Angeles. She sang four Micaëlas in Chicago in 1959 (critics raved; I’ve never heard better). I never heard her in person again; she was not yet 40. Caniell gives us some further Warenskjold material, radio broadcasts led by Monteux, no less, of arias by Alfano, Charpentier, and Debussy. Another under-utilized American artist; a lovely voice. I wish there were enough material to warrant Immortal Performances doing a devoir, such as the wonderful tributes to Quartararo and Tourel which have been issued.
I am, however, grateful for what I have, and you will be grateful, too, if you choose to acquire this outstanding performance of Der Rosenkavalier. The sonics bring it much closer in history to us than might have been thought possible, and the performances, the performing style, are totally in synch with those of the present day. The execution is better than most of us have heard or will hear: as good as the best, and better than the rest.