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Reviews for La Traviata / Madama Butterfly IPCD 1037-4

Reviews for IPCD 1037-4



Verdi - LA TRAVIATA

Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, 5 December 1942

Cesare Sodero, cond; Licia Albanese (Violetta); Charles Kullman (Alfredo); Lawrence Tibbett (Germont)


Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, 25 Januray 1941

Gennaro Papi, cond; Licia Albanese (Cio-Cio San); Armand Tokatyan (Pinkerton); John Brownlee (Sharpless)


& Albanese Sings: CATALANI La Wally: Ebben? ne andrò lontana. LEONCAVALLO Pagliacci: Balatella. GOUNOD Faust: Prison Scene (with Peerce; Weede). VERDI Otello: Ave Maria; Love Duet (with Del Monaco). BIZET Carmen: Don José-Micaëla Duet (with Kullman). Micaëla’s Aria GIORDANO Andrea Chenier: La mamma morta


IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1037-4 (4 CDs - 304:52)


Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine,
May/June 2014


“The genuine beauty of singing consists in a perfect union, an amalgam, a mysterious alloy of the singing voice and the speaking voice, or, to put it better, the melody and the spoken word.” That was spoken in a lecture by Reynaldo Hahn (1874–1947), highly regarded as a teacher, critic, and scholar as well as composer and singer. It sums up to me the essence of vocal music. And it sums up the miracle of Licia Albanese, who, as I write this in January of 2014, is still alive, having turned 100 last July!


Fanfare regulars know that I do not favor the ranking of recordings as if they were sports teams. Music is too subjective, and too complex, to say that there is one “best” recording of any work that has been recorded by many great interpreters over time. But what can be said is that those who love Italian opera are likely to find these performances irreplaceable, not replicated as musical-dramatic experiences by any other.


This La traviata is a real discovery; I am not aware of a prior release (though I suspect some reader will jump to correct me on this). The regular NBC transcription discs of the 1942 broadcast were lost or destroyed, but the Met also broadcast to South America, and a separate transcription was made with a Spanish-speaking announcer (Augustin Llopes de Olivares) instead of Milton Cross. That transcription apparently survived almost intact. A few portions were either missing (the beginning of the second scene of the second act) or damaged and overloaded (some of Albanese in the second act), and Immortal Performance’s Richard Caniell has replaced them with bits from 1943 and 1944 Met broadcasts, something he is upfront about in the notes.


Albanese made a famous recording of La traviata with Toscanini, a recording with which just about everyone in the world except me is in love. The dress rehearsal from that 1946 NBC broadcast is also available. Both suffer, to my ears, from a rigidity of phrasing that seem to me to put the music in a box. But even if you love that recording you should hear this one because it shows Albanese’s imagination given more freedom to explore and to stretch boundaries. There is also a 1959 Met broadcast in circulation with Valletti, but Albanese is not in as free a vocal form as she is here.


Partnering with both Kullman and Tibbett, the soprano never seems to be merely singing the music. Rather she inflects every word and every phrase, in a way that brings Violetta to life, but does so without ever seeming mannered or overly calculating. In fact, it is the natural flow of the music that marks this performance. We are being witness to a musical drama brought to life as a dramatic whole, not as a series of attractive musical moments. Like Callas in this role, some of Albanese’s great moments are not the big arias, but the moments in between, the interactions with Alfredo and with his father. She has both the lightness and flexibility for the demands of the first act, and the weight and richness of tone for the second and third. “Amami Alfredo” will tear your heart out. No, this does not replace Callas, or Ponselle, or Caballé (or whoever your favorite is). But this performance stands with the great ones, and that will make you react freshly to the opera, and in a way that will stay in the memory.


Charles Kullman sang at a time when there were many great tenors. Today, an Alfredo of this stature would be a star. He does not have the distinctive and unique beauty of tone of a Di Stefano or a Tagliavini, nor the brilliance of a Tucker. But his tone is sweet and warm, his phrasing absolutely natural, and when he needs some power he has it. His Alfredo is tender, convincing in his love for Violetta. “Parigi o cara” is extraordinarily beautiful.


I will admit to some disappointment with Tibbett here. His is of course a great natural baritone voice, and he is an intelligent actor. But for much of the first part of his scene with Violetta his voice seems dry and hard, nowhere near as rich as in 1935 with Ponselle. Others have written of his vocal decline beginning around 1940 and I fear this performance documents it. It is still a striking and beautiful voice, and he is an imaginative and convincing vocal actor, but one hears the hardening of tone and one could predict without knowing it the coming end of his career.


Part of what enables Albanese to stretch her imagination and give a performance of utter spontaneity is the flexibility of Sodero’s conducting. He knows the idiom perfectly and he is comfortable enough with it to allow her to stretch a note here or push a phrase there. The performance is, in the very best sense, a feeling of being made up on the spot rather than carefully planned out. I have never heard this performance before, so I cannot compare Caniell’s restoration with anything else, but I can say it is a decent sounding monaural AM-quality broadcast that anyone familiar with this kind of material will find satisfying. The insertions he has made are undetectable. The performance does use the cuts that were traditional in that era.


Everything said about Albanese’s Violetta applies as well to her Butterfly. The Butterfly performance may be even more important because Cio-Cio San was the role with which she was perhaps most strongly identified, yet she never made a complete recording. RCA made two “highlight” discs, one with James Melton in the 1940s and one with Jan Peerce in the 1950s. The Met issued a complete 1946 broadcast with Melton on LPs, and a 1956 broadcast with Daniele Barioni, conducted by Mitropoulos, was issued on Walhall. This performance has also seen the light of day on Walhall in very poor sound. Immortal Performances has now issued the 1941 performance in excellent monaural broadcast sound. The difference between this and Walhall is night-and-day.


Everything said about Albanese’s Violetta applies as well to her Butterfly. The Butterfly performance may be even more important because Cio-Cio San was the role with which she was perhaps most strongly identified, yet she never made a complete recording. RCA made two “highlight” discs, one with James Melton in the 1940s and one with Jan Peerce in the 1950s. The Met issued a complete 1946 broadcast with Melton on LPs, and a 1956 broadcast with Daniele Barioni, conducted by Mitropoulos, was issued on Walhall. This performance has also seen the light of day on Walhall in very poor sound. Immortal Performances has now issued the 1941 performance in excellent monaural broadcast sound. The difference between this and Walhall is night-and-day.


As with her Violetta, it is in the moment-to-moment details even more than the big moments that this Cio-Cio San stands out. She displays a range of inflections in the letter-reading scene with Sharpless that really makes the character whole. This Butterfly is not a purely naïve child-like girl totally in denial, but rather has flashes of real fear coupled with moments of rejection of the idea that Pinkerton won’t come back. Her situation and her reaction to it is complex. When she bursts out with “Ah! M’ascordata!” (He forgot me!) it is an explosion of pain and fury. In the first act, she is the perfect teenage bride, giddy, charming, coy. Her sighting of Pinkerton’s ship is an outburst of joy unrivalled by other performances. One can also start analyzing the purely vocal strengths—the smooth legato, the evenness of her registers, the purity of the sound. But the important thing is that no moment in the performance is isolated from the whole. This Butterfly is a complete, believable character, and the listener is caught up in her situation as with few others. Again, it is simplistic to claim that Albanese is the best Butterfly. There have been wonderful versions by Tebaldi, Scotto, dal Monte, de los Angeles, and Callas—each with something unique to offer. But Albanese belongs rightly in that company.


Tokatyan sings a ravishingly beautiful Pinkerton. Like Kullman’s Alfredo, this is a performance that would raise him to stardom today. Brownlee is simply not on the same level as the soprano and tenor. The voice is dry, and the acting seems to be on automatic pilot. Albanese carries their big scene in the second act. Papi’s conducting is entirely empathetic with his singers, and it underlines the dramatic impact of the performance. He keeps things moving, neither indulging excesses nor putting them in a straitjacket. This is flexible, supple, but firm Puccini conducting. This recording has no insertions from other performances—it is complete as it happened in 1941.


It is difficult to over-praise the production values of Immortal Performances. They always include excellent essays, some by Caniell himself, others by guests, and interesting historic photos. (Full disclosure: I wrote the notes for their Florence Quartararo set, but should note that it was done pro bono). Of the various filler items, most originate from Standard Hour radio broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Gaetano Merola, dated October 10, 1948 (the Leoncavallo aria, the Faust prison scene, and the Otello “Ave Maria”), October 3, 1949 (the Catalani and Giordano arias), and October 22, 1950 (the Otello duet). The Carmen duet is taken from the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of March 10, 1949, conducted by Wilfred Pelletier, while Micaëla’s aria comes from a New York television broadcast of March 10, 1940, with an unidentified orchestra conducted by Frank St. Leger. These performances all capture Albanese in superb voice. Particularly important is the Otello duet with Del Monaco. I am not aware of any other recording of the two of them together, and he sings with uncommon tenderness in response to her Desdemona (though he still cannot resist belting out the final “Venere splende.”)


This set is essential for anyone who loves these operas. Albanese was a central performer in the core Italian repertory for a quarter century at the Metropolitan, and both of these performances demonstrate why.



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