Reviews for IPCD 1057-3
Donizetti: DON PASQUALE AND Puccini: IL TABARRO
DONIZETTI Don Pasquale.1 PUCCINI Il tabarro2 • 1Fritz Busch, 2Cesare Sodero, cond; 1Salvatore Baccaloni (Don Pasquale); 1Bidu Sayâo (Norina); 1Nino Martini (Ernesto); 1John Brownlee (Malatesta); 2Licia Albanese (Giorgetta); 2Frederick Jagel (Luigi); 1, 2Alessio de Paolis (1Notary, 2Tinca); 2Lawrence Tibbett (Michele); Metropolitan Op Ch & O. 5 January 1946 • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1057-3 mono (3 CDs: 200:54)
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1057-3 (4 CDs - 313:57)
March / April 2017
This remarkable double-bill from January 5, 1946, listed above in reverse order of presentation, is the sort of event senior opera-goers think of as (to borrow Paul Jackson’s phrase) “a Saturday Afternoon at the Old Met.” It is no longer considered necessary to precede Donizetti’s comedy of love and deception with anything, much less so grand a melodrama as Puccini’s masterful presentation of infidelity by the Seine. Indeed, in the 1940–41 season, Edward Johnson first offered Baccaloni, Sayâo, Martini, and de Paolis in their roles with no curtain raiser. Later in the decade, he must have changed his mind, to our good fortune and those who surely got their money’s worth from a program which must have run four hours or nearly with intermissions. Although Tabarro had its premiere at the Met as long ago as December 1918, Johnson had his own memories—he had sung Luigi in New York with the visiting Chicago Grand Opera early in 1920.
The 1946 matinee found both works cast from strength (as had been Don Pasquale just over five years earlier), and in a seemingly vanished 1935 broadcast as well). The Donizetti work simply should not be done if good voices, and singers of wit, point, and intelligence, are not available. We have such a cast here. Baccaloni and Brownlee had sung their roles with Busch when the great conductor presented the work at Glyndebourne in the late 1930s. Brownlee had alternated as Malatesta with Francesco (Frank) Valentino, an expatriate American who returned to this country at about the same time Brownlee arrived on these shores. Valentino sang the role in the 1940 Met broadcast, so, although Busch was not present then, two cast members who had worked with him were. The conductor’s operatic career in New York was not long, but what he did was distinguished: some Mozart, Rosenkavalier, a particularly fine series of Tristan performances and this really exceptional Pasquale. The more I listen to his work, studio and live, the greater my conviction that Fritz Busch was one of the handful of the greatest operatic conductors of the 20th century. For that reason alone, I consider this a seriously important release.
But there are several other reasons and several of the vocalists are among those; also the fact that for the first time we can hear this broadcast in representative, acceptable sonics. It happens that the best reproduction of the 1940 broadcast is a Naxos issue which, as with this offering, was remastered by Richard Caniell. Having done it once may well have helped Caniell in tackling this job. He used, and I assume it was beneficial, more than one source, and having different sources for different passages must have enabled him to pick and choose. The result is a decent sonic stage—not the best mid-1940s broadcast we have, but far from the worst and much better than any other representation of this broadcast I have heard. The sonics enable us to enjoy this performance as much as the earlier broadcast.
Of equal importance, so does the singing. This performance is, by and large, the vocal equal of the earlier broadcast. I expected Baccaloni, in particular, to have lost vocal resonance, but I hear absolutely no deterioration in his tonal production. I first heard and saw him as Benoit and Alcindoro about eight weeks prior to this performance, in San Francisco. I was a child but the visual impression of the tipsy landlord is with me still. In 1954, I heard him as Mozart’s Bartolo; in the early 1960s, when the voice was but a shadow, he still made an impression as Sulpice. Baccaloni was one of those larger than life stage personalities who initially made his effects because he was a very good singer (as in the two Met Pasquale broadcasts), as well as actor, and ultimately his lingering success was just because he was Baccaloni. With a conductor to keep him in line, and Busch was surely that, he delivered a treasurable characterization on this January afternoon.
In purely vocal terms (actual sound of voice) I prefer Valentino’s Malatesta from the earlier broadcast to Brownlee here. But Brownlee was one of the singers most influenced from his Glyndebourne years with Busch and here, in the 20th year of his international career (he sang Marcello in the third and fourth acts of Boheme for Melba’s 1926 Covent Garden farewell), he offers a performance which is a model of style and has more than enough voice to convey the amiable schemer’s wit and sardonic humor. Martini’s Ernesto seemed to me flow more easily in the earlier broadcast. This music was always a bit of a stretch, I suspect, and his singing in this broadcast is a bit less steady than under Papi’s somewhat more erratic but more lenient baton at the end of 1940. Martini was well liked in New York, in Hollywood, and on the radio. A handsome stage figure, he must have looked Ernesto to a T. He does not let down the side, and I can’t think of another tenor on the roster who would have done better. I think Bruno Landi lacked the metal the role requires (like Malatesta, Ernesto is a deceptively difficult role).
Perhaps the most interesting vocal assumption in this broadcast is Sayâo’s Norina. I find this one of her finest roles, superbly sung, and with great interpretive dash, energy, and wit. She is, to my ear, in even finer vocal form than in 1940. She sings with greater abandon and takes more vocal risks to make her dramatic points. It is astonishing that she actually, in the two seasons, only sang a handful of performances of the role. She never sang it in San Francisco (Albanese was Baccaloni’s unlikely bride in that city). I am a nearly lifelong admirer of the Brazilian soprano; I heard her late career in an unforgettable recital, her voice and technique as secure at age 52 as at any point, a tribute to the schooling of Jean de Reszke. We have genuinely great singing here from one of the finest artists of her or any day.
The superb character tenor Alessio de Paolis sang the Notary on this afternoon as he had in 1940, but on this occasion, he had warmed up singing Tinca in the preceding Il tabarro to which we now turn. The opera had not, as noted, been performed by the company in nearly three decades. That in itself is mind-boggling. Imagine what Ruffo, Ponselle, and Martinelli might have made of it in 1928 under Serafin’s baton. In fact, although we now think of Muzio as mistress of the heavier Verdi and Puccini roles, she was still considered a lyric, possibly spinto, in 1918. With that in mind, casting Albanese, who, depending on your sources (or what you believe) was 33 (or 37) as Giorgetta and was definitely a lyric soprano, does not seem so strange. Against expectation, perhaps, the soprano from Bari had a great success in yet another Puccini role. I believe she only sang it at the Met, and also Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi a few seasons later when Johnson used that work as the preface to Salome. (The Canadian-born General Manager had a penchant for grouping “family” plots!) The sound of my two or three prior copies (mine probably were second-generation E. J. Smith) was awful and did the least justice to Albanese. Caniell has cleaned up the noisy original to a considerable degree, particularly after the opening scenes. Sonics get steadily better as the work progresses under Cesare Sodero’s discerning baton. One would never believe from his well-paced, well-controlled conducting that his career and life would end within two years. With clarity of sound enhanced, the soprano sounds like her true self, at one point, a bit underpowered and almost like Butterfly; but, for the bulk of the role, she gives of herself passionately, convincing in her love for Luigi and in her later horror at what her husband has done. Her Luigi, the reliable but hardly glamorous American tenor, Frederick Jagel, here finds an Italian role almost perfect for his slightly leathery voice. He, too, sings with unwonted passion.
Conventional wisdom has it that Tibbett was washed up by the mid-1940s, and it is true that some broadcasts show definite vocal deterioration. I do not care for his 1946 Scarpia, sadly his only broadcast of the role. Here, however, we have for a little under an hour a near miracle. Time has rolled back a bit for the great baritone, and—perhaps stimulated by a new role, the intense singing of his colleagues, a strong supporting cast, and Sodero’s conducting—we hear Tibbett at his near best. As with the performance as a whole, he gains in vocal solidity and dramatic involvement and is overpowering in his final soliloquy and the closing scene. The reader will doubtless conclude I love this performance, and I do; I also love the work, and am most happy to discard an audio cassette and two different CD transfers. The original recording from which this is taken was made for Tibbett. It has gone through many iterations before it reached Caniell’s hands and equipment. Having known it for years, I am amazed at how well the reification turned out.
In addition to de Paolis’s star turns in each opera, the Tabarro cast offers that amazing depth of casting which marked the late Johnson and early Bing years. The veteran Virgilio Lazzari, in what must be his final broadcast, is Talpa, and the young Margaret Harshaw sings a rich voiced Frugola. (She is perhaps not as pungent in characterization as Chloe Elmo when the latter took the role, but who would imagine we are hearing a future Isolde and Brünnhilde in these few lines?) The attractive voice of Maxine Stellman did not lead to the career some expected, but her lover in their short scene was Thomas Hayward, who went on to a long career in secondary roles and often took the lead as well. This historic performance used the original Nowak sets (which had been warehoused for 28 years!) but marked the introduction of a new stage director who worked at the house for years to come: Dino Yannopoulos.
We have here, as so often from this restorer, performances of great musical as well as historic interest. We all have modern recordings of these operas. There are a lot of fine Tabarro performances available, not nearly so many really good versions of Pasquale. As a pendant to the complete performance, we hear various selections from Schipa and others which remind us that Donizetti was, perhaps, done more easily, more consistently, in an earlier day. Fanfare’s Henry Fogel has provided sterling notes, and Caniell offers essays discussing Fritz Busch and also his early experiences and preferences viz. Don Pasquale. He and I have many of the same likes and dislikes among commercial sets, so I leave it to those who buy this set to consider those biases. Since we largely agree, I can only say they are reliable! Should you buy this set? You would be foolish not to; it will provide hours of enjoyment.