Reviews for Romeo et Juliette 1947 (IPCD 1003-2)
Charles Gounod: Romeo et Juliette
Jussi Bjoerling (tenor) - Roméo; Bidu Sayao (soprano) - Juliette; Mimi Benzell (soprano) - Stephano; Claramae Turner (contralto) - Gertrude; Thomas Hayward (tenor) - Tybalt; Anthony Marlowe (baritone) - Benvolio; John Brownlee (baritone) - Mercutio; George Cehanovsky (baritone) - Paris; Philip Kinsman (bass) - Gregorio; Kenneth Schon (bass) - Capulet; Nicola Moscona (bass) - Frere Laurent; William Hargrave (bass) - Le Duc de Verone/ Emil Cooper
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, February 1, 1947
Bonus: Romeo e Giulietta, Act II complete (sung in Italian)
Mafalda Favero (soprano) - Giulietta; Beniamino Gigli (tenor) - Romeo
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala/Gabriele Santini
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 5 April 1934
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD1003-2 [74:06 + 79:30]
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
This recording of a matinee broadcast from the Metropolitan in February 1947 has been around for many years. It was first released in 1959 by Edward J. Smith on his private label EJS in rather poor sound, Since then it has been issued by various pirate companies with the same aural deficiencies. Matters were hardly improved when the Met released their own recording of the occasion. Lately, however, Richard Caniell has located a better source and after laborious restoration work has come up with a version that is far superior to what has been heard before. The performance has always been regarded as one of the truly great moments at the Met some sixty years ago, primarily for the participation of Jussi Bjoerling as Romeo but also for the immensely lovely singing of Bidu Sayao, a soprano with whom Bjoerling appeared frequently at the Met.
To complicate matters for prospective buyers I was made aware by the Jussi Bjoerling Museum in Borlaenge, Sweden, that a while ago the same performance was issued by a label also entitled Immortal Performances with the catalogue number IP 210. I borrowed that issue from the museum for comparison and it is not the new restoration. Shopping around one has to be careful. IP 210 is housed in a very plain jewel-box without track-list and no notes whatsoever. IPCD 1003-2 has a 36-page booklet, richly illustrated and with long essays on the recordings, artists' bios and even a synopsis from Milton Cross's Stories of the Great Operas with track-numbers inserted at appropriate places in the text. In other words this is a high quality product in every respect.
But let me give some personal comments on what we actually hear on the two discs. Readers who have some experience of old broadcasts from the Met - and other venues - know more or less what to expect: low-fidelity, mono sound, variable sound quality and balance. But they probably also know that a good audio restoration engineer can work wonders with the old tapes. During the last few years I have had opportunities to hear a number of superb restorations, not least with Jussi Bjoerling. There was a sensational Trovatore , a Manon Lescaut and La boheme and most recently the famous Don Carlo which inaugurated the Bing era at the Met. Or rather: the premiere was not broadcast but the matinee a few days later was and it had been refurbished to be almost on a par with studio recordings of the same vintage (1950). Somehow Ward Marston had got hold of a primitive tape, recorded with a microphone directly from the TV during the telecast of the premiere and managed to include more than forty minutes from that occasion in quite acceptable sound - a historic document indeed.
Richard Caniell has also managed to open up what was, on previous issues of the Gounod, boxy and compressed, making this restoration fully digestible for any opera-lover bar those who at all costs must have hi-fi, stereo, state-of-the-art technology. It is still a primitive sound but once one has adjusted to the limited dynamic range it is almost comparable to what one can hear on 78 rpm records from the period. The bass is distinct, the high frequencies naturally lack the lustre of a decade later but the sound is still good enough to allow the listener to enjoy the music. The voices are well defined and there is bloom around them. Bjoerling in particular has rarely if ever sounded so free and inspired. He glows from beginning to end.
The orchestral playing is a bit uneven but in many places there is a shine around the strings and the cello department is very good in the introduction to act IV. The chorus during this period seems to have been the weakest link at the Met. At least that's the impression I've got from several broadcasts of the late forties. But I have to admit that there is a good servants' chorus in act II.
Romeo et Juliette is a rather long opera but fifty-sixty years ago it was quite common to cut extensively at performances - at least at the Met. As there is no libretto enclosed with this set I had to make do with the one to Pappano's EMI recording, which left me with the feeling that I was listening to a highlights disc. There are long stretches of music that is gone: several ensembles and several solos, including Juliette's long act IV aria - and also the whole second scene of that act.
What is left is however wonderfully executed, at least what the eponymous couple sing. Bidu Sayao during these years was so lovely and human with her somewhat fragile vibrato. Her waltz aria in act I, Je veux vivre , has fine lilt and glittering tones. Bjoerling's opening to the duet Ange adorable is touchingly sung with that very special tear in the voice that more than one listener has commented on, most recently Joan Baez who visited the Jussi Bjoerling Museum the day before I wrote this review. 'I have never been so moved by any other voice than Jussi's', she said. 'There is so much soul in it.'
The whole garden scene is exquisite and the cavatina has possibly never been sung with such beauty, feeling and brilliance - not even by Jussi Bjoerling himself. O nuit divine as sung here is as close to Heaven as it is possible to come on an operatic stage.
Impassioned singing of a quite different kind occurs in act III, after the slaughter of Mercutio and Tybalt, where Ah! jour de deuil is magnificently heroic. In act V luckily Bjoerling's O ma femme is retained since this is again singing of the highest possible order. When Juliet wakes up from her sleep she exclaims Dieu! Quelle est cette voix, dont la douceur m'enchante? (God! What voice is that whose sweetness enchants me?'). I believe every listener will make the same exclamation when they hear Jussi Bjoerling.
The rest of the cast is more run-of-the-mill but generally do a good job. Mimi Benzell's youthful (she was not yet 23 when the recording was made) light soprano shines in the role of Stephano, and Thomas Hayward is a good, expressive Tybalt. John Brownlee, who sang for 21 seasons at the Met, was only halfway through his career in 1947 but sounds decidedly on the downgrade, rather dry and rough. Nicola Moscona also had a long tenure in New York and was always reliable. He is at his best in the act III trio.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves with credit and veteran conductor Emil Cooper paces the performance well.
As a bonus we get the whole of act II from a broadcast from Teatro alla Scala in 1934, conducted by Gabriele Santini and with two legendary singers as Romeo and Giulietta (the performance is sung in Italian. Beniamino Gigli and Jussi Bjoerling must be ranked as the two most exalted lirico-spinto tenors of the mid-20th century. Their voices were quite different with Gigli's velvet tones contrasting with the brilliance of Bjoerling. But comparisons aside, they were equally attractive and here Gigli, at the height of his powers, avoids the sentimentalizing sobs and hiccups that sometimes marred his recordings. It is fascinating to listen to Romeo's cavatina with both singers. Mafalda Favero is also the loveliest Giulietta one can imagine, just as lovely as Bidu Sayao, though Favero has a larger voice. There is a connection with Jussi Bjoerling as well, since they sang together at the Met in La boheme the night when they both made their house debuts. This recording is another tribute to Richard Caniell who has managed to make something eminently enjoyable from material with serious deficiencies. The sound is more occluded than on the Met performance but it is a real treat to be able to hear these two singers live.
Readers who just want a decent - and in this case very good - modern recording that is complete, Pappano's version on EMI is available at budget price. But for the very best singing possible by four of the most luminous stars of the 1930s and 1940s, the present set is indispensable.
Romeo et Juliette
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, 1947
Emil Cooper, conductor.
Bonus: Romeo e Giulietta, Act II complete (sung in Italian)
Mafalda Favero (soprano) - Giulietta; Beniamino Gigli (tenor) - Romeo
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala/Gabriele Santini
5 April 1934
Before Gounod and his librettists took up the subject, Romeo and Juliet had been the subject of operas by such household names as Dalayrac, Steibelt, Zingarelli, Vaccai, and Marchetti. To that list, one can add Bellini and, if one counts quasi-oratorios, Berlioz. Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet has nothing to do with Shakespeare. First heard in Paris in 1867, Romeo was Gounod’s last operatic triumph. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the decline of the aristocracy, he turned to writing mostly religious music. This celebrated performance has already appeared on several labels going back for decades. I assume almost anyone knows the plot—the only big change is the addition of Stephano, the page, a “pants role” presumably inserted into the opera so another female voice could be added to the cast. I first heard Romeo on a tape that was probably taken from an EJS LP set in the 1960s. The sound was pretty bad. Immortal Performances claims to have had access to a better source than EJS or the Met Opera itself used when it reissued the Romeo several years ago as a bonus to its contributors. It’s been too long between hearings, so I’ll just have to take their word for it and, in truth, the transfer, though not without noise and distortion (especially in the choral passages) does seem brighter, fuller, and less boxy than many old broadcasts I’ve heard. Surface noise is quite audible in the final scene, though it was probably worse on earlier editions.
Although it used to be performed a lot more than it is now, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette certainly has its moments, but, according to my 1897 score, the opera was already being cut back in the 19th century, so one simply accepts the likelihood that it was probably being more heavily cut at the Met in 1947. In this case, the conductor, Emil Cooper, has “streamlined” the opera considerably, dispensing with a lot of choral passages and pieces that don’t advance the plot, and even one that does — Juliette’s “death” at her forced wedding ceremony; acts IV and V are really telescoped. What keeps the performance out there are the performances of the title roles, simply unsurpassed on recordings. Jussi Bjoerling can handle the soft stuff (though he could be a little sweeter at times) and, unlike the old smoothies di grazia, he can pour it on in Romeo’s several explosions of passion, whether it be love or anger. His bright, shining voice simply rings out and the singing is ultra-clean — he tends to hit the notes right on the bulls eye. Bidu Sayao brings to Juliette that curious combination of delicacy and passion that was almost uniquely hers among her contemporaries. The voice sometimes sounds frail, but, though I never heard it in person, I have been assured that it could be heard back in the upper reaches of the old Met. On the whole, the supporting cast is nothing special, but Stephano’s insolent little aria is efficiently dispatched by Mimi Benzell, Nicola Moscona is a solid though not particularly striking Friar Lawrence, and Thomas Hayward, a forceful, imposing Tybalt — I don’t think he would have been a bad Romeo. Two cuts were not made by Cooper: part of the Prologue was missing from the broadcast recording and has been filled in by part of a 1946 broadcast, also conducted by Cooper, and the first measure of the Marriage Scene is missing—I doubt that Cooper would have bothered to cut it; it’s probably missing from the original. At the beginnings and ends of the acts, we hear just a bit of Milton Cross’s patter from the 1947 broadcast, a nice, atmospheric touch.
As a bonus, Immortal Performances offers two more “immortals,” the great Beniamino Gigli and Mafalda Favero in a somewhat cut (but less so than the Met’s) La Scala performance of the Balcony Scene. Noise and distortion are certainly present but it’s good to have the performance at all. Favero’s contribution rivals Sayao’s—she must have been a terrific Juliet with that same odd mixture of frailty and strength. After Bjoerling, Gigli seems sloppy and occasionally pushy, even flirting with vocal catches to suggest “passion,” but as the music goes on, he begins to dispense the expected vocal honey and ends the scene (literally and figuratively) on a high note.
As expected, the annotations are profuse and thorough, consuming 29 pages, not including the cue lists. Opinionated to the point where they will bluntly criticize things in the performances (“There’s nothing left in Brownlee’s voice but the sound of dried wood. He brings a ruinously heavy, thick, uninspired traversal of the quicksilver Mab Ballad . . .” — even I didn’t think he was that bad!), the notes are informative as well as entertaining. You will learn plenty. The only negative point I might make is that, after hearing Bjoerling and Sayao, you may be so spoiled that you’ll have difficulty enjoying anyone else’s Romeo and Juliet. I suspect that I will.
American Record Guide
March / April 2010
This complete Romeo and Juliet was broadcast from the Met on Saturday afternoon, February 1, 1947. It was previously issued on a private label and also by the Met in their Historic Broadcast Series. Richard Caniell, who is responsible for this restoration, claims (and the results confirm it) that the sound of this release is greatly superior to the Met's (not to mention the private label).
And the performance is electrifying; the singing of Jussi Bjoerling and Bidu Sayao is magnificent. It makes also-rans of all the commercial recordings of this opera that have been reviewed in ARG for the last 25 years. Mr. Caniell has included Act 2 of the opera from a 1934 La Scala performance with Gigli and Favero as the lovers. Bjoerling and Gigli in one release! One's cup runneth over.
Bjoerling, in 1947, was in glorious voice. His interpretation of Romeo is heroic as well as passionate; his vocal acting persuasive, committed, and wholly admirable. His high register, including the high Cs in this role, is exceptionally brilliant; there isn't a tenor alive today (unfortunately) who is his equal. His French diction is excellent, and Bidu Sayao and he sing the four duets beautifully, matching each other phrase by phrase. And he delivers the cavatina 'Ah! Leve-toi Soleil' with passionate expression. Sayao, a Brazilian native long a Met favorite, is a youthful Juliet in her Act 1 Waltz 'Ah! Je Veux Vuvre', her voice sounding a bit fragile and girlish; yet she is quite affecting in the final Tomb Scene. Her voice is always clear and beautifully lyrical, her top almost as brilliant as her partner's. (I recall her appealing and witty performance as Mozart's Susanna, especially when she was joined by Ezio Pinza, a close personal friend, as Figaro.) The finale of Act 2, 'O Nuit Divine', is sheer vocal magic.
As for the rest of the cast, Nicola Moscona's huge and limpid bass is heard to advantage as Friar Lawrence, Thomas Hay¬ward is a more than competent Tybalt, Mimi Benzell a charming and more than adequate Stephano, and the veteran John Brownlee a vocally dry Mercutio. Emil Cooper, known primarily at the Met for his conducting of Russian opera, leads a performance that bristles with energy starting with the Overture, but he never drowns out his singers. The Met Chorus is, predictably, very good; and even the orchestra, at that time not the brilliant group that it became under Levine, plays with lustrous tone and even a touch of French elegance.
Gigli and Favero sing the music in Italian. The tenor's voice doesn't have the heft of Bjoerling's; but it's of exceptional purity and beauty, projected without, it seems, any effort. His singing is of course more Italianate, with a few sobs and vocal tears. I prefer Bjoerling in this role; he sounds more heroic and his high notes are more brilliant. Favero is a more conventional and mature Juliet; her voice seems larger and warmer, but the girlish vulnerability that Sayao projects so well is missing. Still, this is a fascinating reading.
No text but interesting notes. If you like this opera, you should buy these marvelous performances.
International Record Review
A god among tenors sings Romeo
I believe it was more than 30 years ago that the Metropolitan Opera released its 1947 radio broadcast of Romeo et Juliette on LP. It was reviewed by one of America's most astute writers on vocal music, Conrad L. Osborne, who hailed Jussi Bjoerling's Romeo as the finest performance of a standard lyric-tenor role in the history of recording. Being a poor student, I was unable to make the $125 contribution that entitled me to receive the lavishly presented LP set. How thrilling, then, finally to hear this portrayal and to confirm the truth of Osborne's seemingly extravagant declaration; but more about Bjoerling in a minute.
There is one major failure in the cast: John Brownlee, hectoring and heavy-handed in Mercutio' s Queen Mab aria and singing with a timbre the booklet's writer, Richard Caniell, aptly describes as 'dry wood'. Several other portrayals, however, do satisfy. Bidu Sayao's heroine is typically narrow-toned in the middle, not always ideally youthful or invariably easy at the very top, but most of the time technically sound and, in her idiomatic French, delightfully communicative. Rather than the usual mezzo, Stephano is a coloratura soprano: Mimi Benzell (a Met Philine and Queen of Night) offers an , ebullient and vocally delicious performance, confidently capping her aria with an 'If you've got it, flaunt it' high ending that I have not heard another singer try before. Nicola Moscona demonstrates why Toscanini's enthusiasm for him was justified, providing the right steady, warm, massive tone for Friar Laurence. Claramae Turner (Gertrude) and Thomas Hayward (Tybalt), two fine American artists, are strong casting as well.
Yet everyone else - even Sayao - pales beside Bjoerling, whose French is sensitively shaped while enhancing vocalism that leaves the listener dazzled and awestruck. Phrase after glowing phrase pours from the Swede's throat with stunning effortlessness. The delivery is vehement and ringing when required, but it is balanced by unending, sculpted legato of supreme eloquence.
It is impossible to choose a highlight, since everything is similarly memorable. Bjoerling, as even his most obsessive fans will admit, always made a more vivid impression live than in a recording studio, and this Romeo proves the point constantly. There has surely never been a more poetic -- and passionate traversal of the part. All right, the end of the aria is trumpeted rather than floated, but when faced with a top of such refulgent beauty, who can complain? The man utterly ennobles his role.
A house routinier, Emil Cooper, gives a surprisingly powerful reading, admittedly lacking the elegance of a Monteux but keeping a firm grip on the proceedings and imparting a most welcome urgency to many scenes. The recorded sound, although reportedly given much restorative work, remains less than ideal, but it is clear enough to let one appreciate Bjoerling and his colleagues fully, and that is what counts.
The set contains a bonus: Act 2 of the opera, recorded live in 1934 at La Scala. Beniamino Gigli, with frequent flights of exquisite mezza voce but prone to expressive extremes, is very much The Great Tenor rather than Romeo. Mafalda Favero, however, is typically passionate and most enjoyable, despite occasionally straying into a rather too Puccinian style.