Reviews for IPCD 1071–2
Verdi LA FORZA DEL DESTINO & Verdi AIDA
VERDI La forza del destino: act II, scene 2; act III: La vita è inferno; act IV.(1) Aida: act I, Celeste Aida and Temple Scene; act IV, scene 2(2) • 1 Rosa Ponselle (Leonora di Vargas); 2 Rosa Ponselle (Aida); 2Grace Anthony (Priestess); Giovanni Martinelli (1Radamès,2Don Alvaro); 1Giuseppe De Luca (Don Carlo); 1Salvatore Baccaloni (Fra Melitone); Ezio Pinza (1Padre Guardiano, 2Ramfis); 1, 2Rosario Bourdon, 2Herman Heller, 1Giulio Setti, 1Bruno Walter, cond; 1Metropolitan Op Ch & O; 1, 2unidentified O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1071-2 (2 CDs: 155:13)
& Aida act II, scene 2; act III; act IV: L’abborrita rivale a me sfuggia (Elisabeth Rethberg (Aida); Gertrude Wettergren, Bruna Castagna (Amneris); Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (Radamès); John Brownlee, Alexander Sved (Amonasro); Ezio Pinza (Ramfis); Robert Easton (Il Re); John Barbirolli, Vincenzo Bellezza, Ettore Panizza, cond; Royal Opera House Ch & O, 5/15/1936)
& Aida Ritorna vincitor! (Rethberg, Frank Black, NBC Studio O, 10/24/1937); Qui Radamès verra…O ciel azzuri, (Rethberg, unidentified O, 1926). La forza del destino Sull’alba il piede (Rethberg, Pinza, Merola, San Francisco Op O, 10/28/1938)
As early as the first decade of the 20th century, enterprising companies made complete opera recordings (or at least, as complete as 78-rpm technology and costs would allow). Many of these recordings are unique, irreplaceable historical documents of singers and performance practices from earlier, golden eras. For various reasons, the Metropolitan Opera waited until the LP age to make its first complete recordings. Spend a day poring over the Metropolitan Opera Archives (a wonderful service, available on the Internet), and you will quickly feel regret for the many opportunities forever lost. In an attempt to rectify this unfortunate situation, at least partially, Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances have inaugurated their Heritage Series. The new series combines studio recordings (familiar and less so) with in-performance documents to offer a much fuller picture of legendary Met casts (actual or possible, given the available artists) from the 78-rpm era. In its maiden Heritage Series release, Immortal Performances includes extended excerpts from Verdi’s La forza del destino and Aida, cast by singers who starred at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s and 30s.
The excerpts from La forza del destino focus upon famous 1920s studio recordings made by Rosa Ponselle, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, and Giuseppe de Luca. These include the Cloister Scene for Padre Guardiano and Leonora, Alvaro’s great act III aria (“O tu che in seno agli angeli”), the final confrontation between Carlo and Alvaro, Leonora’s “Pace, pace mio Dio” and La forza’s concluding scene. Immortal Performances also includes the Soup Kitchen Scene preceding the Carlo-Alvaro skirmish. It is taken from a 1943 Met broadcast conducted by Bruno Walter, with Pinza as Padre Guardiano, and Salvatore Baccaloni as Fra Melitone. Pinza and Baccaloni are marvelous foils, and both sing superbly, all the while relishing the text and comic relief of a scene placed in a dark tale of revenge and murder (Carlo’s contributions toward the close, sung by Lawrence Tibbett in the 1943 broadcast, are cut in this release). The studio excerpts are familiar to collectors of historic recordings, and are magnificent. How wonderful it is to hear Ponselle, Pinza, and de Luca in their primes. And for those more familiar with Giovanni Martinelli’s work in the late 1930s and 1940s, while in his sixth decade, the 1920s excerpts may come as quite a surprise. The crystal-clear diction, amazing breath control, and extraordinary focus and power are present, but so is a warmer (dare I say “beautiful”?) vocal quality that was absent in later years. In any event, the studio recordings (beautifully remastered by Richard Caniell) are a must, and the 1943 Soup Kitchen Scene is a gem.
Aida is represented by two casts. The close of the first CD, chiefly dedicated to Forza, includes Aida excerpts with Pinza, Martinelli, and Ponselle. Again, 1920s studio recordings are most prominent. But the excerpts begin with the initial Ramfis-Radamès exchange from a 1937 Met broadcast, followed by Martinelli’s marvelously-sung “Celeste Aida,” the latter taken from a 1930 Vitaphone, receiving its first CD release. Ponselle’s magnificent 1926 “Ritorna vincitor!” is well known, as is the 1927 Temple Scene with Pinza and Martinelli. The Heritage Series release includes both 78-rpm sides of the Temple Scene, the first including the contribution of the Priestess, sung by Grace Anthony. It’s the first time I’ve heard that portion of this legendary recording, and it is a most welcome addition. Again, the remasterings are first-rate.
The second CD is devoted to an Aida cast including soprano Elisabeth Rethberg and tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, along with De Luca and Pinza. Here, in-performance recordings play a far more prominent role. First is a 1937 NBC radio broadcast, in wonderful sound, of Aida’s “Ritorna vincitor!” sung by Rethberg with a remarkable blend of elegance and passion. The act II Triumphal Scene, performed in its entirety, is from 1936 Covent Garden productions. Baritone John Brownlee is a vibrant and intense Amonasro, and it’s wonderful to hear Rethberg and Lauri-Volpi immerse themselves completely into the music and drama. Lauri-Volpi joins Rethberg for a blazing high C before the scene’s final portion (not part of the tenor’s music in Verdi’s score, but I will hardly complain). Act III (Nile Scene) comprises the following: (1) opening (March 2, 1940 Met broadcast); “O patria mia” (1927 Berlin studio recording); (3) the remainder of the act (involving Aida, Amonasro, and Radamès) assembled from classic 1929 and 1930 studio recordings. The latter is one of the great versions of this music, with all of the artists at their artistic and vocal peaks. The act IV confrontation between Amneris (Gertrud Wettergren) and Radamès (Lauri-Volpi) is part of the May 15, 1936 Covent Garden performance. Once again, Lauri-Volpi throws himself into the music and drama with an almost frightening intensity. Lauri-Volpi made many studio recordings in his prime, but in-performance documents from the same period are indeed rare. It’s clear that an audience brought out the best and most intense singing from Lauri-Volpi, and I am most grateful for the opportunity to hear him in that environment. Two bonus excerpts include Rethberg’s 1926 studio recording of Aida’s act III aria, and a portion of the act II La Forza exchange between Leonora (Rethberg) and Padre Guardiano (Pinza), from a 1938 KGO-NBC broadcast from the San Francisco Opera. Both feature beautiful singing, but the latter is in marginal sound at best. Still, the contributions of Pinza and Rethberg merit its inclusion.
It’s important, I think, to acknowledge Richard Caniell’s superb achievement in selecting and mastering the various sources to create a listening experience is both seamless and highly musical. No doubt, the labor and care necessary to achieve this result were painstaking and intense, and therefore all the more deserving of my gratitude. The accompanying booklet includes Henry Fogel’s insightful and affectionate tribute to the artists, the recordings, and their significance in opera’s grand tradition. There are also plot synopses, artist bios, and Richard Caniell’s recording notes. If you don’t already own the studio recordings included on this Heritage Series release, they should be a part of your collection. And even if you already do have them, the wonderful restorations, coupled with the many in-performance treasures make this Heritage Series La forza/Aida retrospective a very attractive proposition. I had a marvelous time listening to this set, and will return to it often, with great pleasure. I also very much look forward to future releases in this series.
Verdi LA FORZA DEL DESTINO & Verdi AIDA
The aim of this series is to capture as vividly as possible live performances from the first third of the 20th century. Piecemeal the excerpts may be, but they are continuous enough to provide bleeding chunks and even complete acts. The intent for La forza was to recreate as far as possible from what was available the performance of 5/9/1927. By taking studio recordings from the Met (December 1926, January, April, May, and November 1927), we have a “recreation” from the Met itself. Reconstructing scenes and even operas is the intent of this series, which draws from broadcasts, private recordings and commercially available issues. So it is then that “Ritorna vincitor!” from act I of Aida comes from Rethberg’s 1937 NBC broadcast, within the overall context of the May 15, 1936 Covent Garden performance.
The delicacy of the orchestra at the opening of act II scene 2 of La forza sets the atmosphere perfectly. Ezio Pinza’s smooth line is beautifully caught as Padre Guardiano (“Il santo nome”; “Alzatevi, e partite”); when Ponselle enters as Leonora, the result is magic indeed. That one can hear the harp with such immediacy, and the distancing of the chorus as the music moves forward, is utterly remarkable. Surfaces are blissfully quiet. Martinelli’s “La vita è inferno … O tu che in seno” is a masterpiece of Verdi singing, each phrase deeply considered; Salvatore Baccaloni makes short shrift of the difficulties of the Melitone’s contribution to act IV, scene 1. Giuseppe de Luca’s “Invano, Alvaro” is honeyed and intense while Martinelli’s strength is fully on display in the last part of act IV, scene 1, the confrontation between Don Carlo and Alvaro.
All ears though, surely, must be on Ponselle’s “Pace, pace mio Dio” from the second scene of act IV of La forza. Her beautifully modulated cries of “Pace,” plus the tremendous presence of the harp, reveal just how much can be heard, and relished, in performances from this era. The finale of act IV, with Pinza, Martinelli, and Ponselle, is little short of miraculous. There is, thankfully, full discographical documentation about the performers in each excerpt. Giulio Setti conducts the earlier excerpts (1927–28, Victor) and we know Rosario Bourdon conducted act IV scene 2 (“Pace, pace, mio Dio”) and the finale (January 1928). Not all the detail is available, but there is enough. The Soup Kitchen Scene (act IV, scene 1) is from a 1943 Met broadcast conducted by Bruno Walter.
So on to Aida, although still on the first disc and in the form of one of Immortal Performance’s famous “bonuses”: Pinza, Martinelli, and Ponselle from the Met. Again, sources are various, and the jewel in the crowning a “Celeste Aida” from Martinelli (the Met conducted by Herman Heller, May 1930, from a rare Vitaphone original) Ponselle with an unnamed orchestra contributes a terrifically strong (and present, in the recording sense) “Ritorna vincitor” which melts into the most interior singing (Rosario Bourdon conducts, May 1926). Martinelli and Pinza are joined by Grace Anthony at the Met in November 1927 for the Temple Scene (act I, scene 2, Setti conducting) and by Elsie Baker, again at the Met but now under Bourdon from a succession of Victors taken down on May 17, 1926. Pinza’s “Nume, custode e vindice” is a masterpiece of Verdi singing. The close of the opera (“O terra addio”) is magnificently managed; what makes this special is not just the presence of the voices through the years, with Ponselle particularly enchanting high up, but the radiance of the tremolo strings in the recording also.
The Rethberg “Ritorna vincitor” gets its own listing in the subhead, not because I am a great fan of Rethberg (I am, but it matters not); it is because that performance is the act I excerpt for the second disc, which concentrates on a potted traversal of the opera. Her performance grips from her first syllable, her diction being stunning. The studio orchestra feels a little insubstantial, but then again it was 1937 at the time. The act II scene 2 is taken from the 1936 Covent Garden performance conducted by Bellezza, with Lauri-Volpi as Radamès, John Brownlee as Amonasro, and Gertrud Wettergren as Amneris. Act III is a composite act with various orchestras, and here it is Bruna Castagna who sings Amneris and Giuseppe De Luca who sings Amonasro. The Judgment Scene Duet from act IV is performed by Wettergren and Lauri-Volpi. The act II composite here is referred to as being from “from a huge range of sources.” Even with multiple people in the same role (in different acts), Alexander Sved sneaks in for one line in an ensemble (he was alternating with Brownlee at Covent Garden), while John Barbirolli inserts himself (with a little bit of help, admittedly) to provide the opening of the Triumphal Scene, and the March and Ballet. Act III is a mix of broadcast material and several discs: Victor 7106 (“O mia patria,” Rethberg with Berlin SO), HMV DB 1455 (“Cielo! Mio padre,” Rethberg and de Luca, January 1930) followed by four more Victors and one more HMV DB. Somehow, it all works magnificently. It takes a certain kind of mind to do this (and a certain kind of mind to work out what is being done, I suspect). I would like to say it all makes perfect sense when you get the documentation, but I don’t like to make guarantees.
The recording for “Gloria all’ Egitto” is superb; but it is surely Rethberg’s “O patria mia” and onwards that is the set’s highlight. The singing is nothing less than angelic; and surely Lauri-Volpi is her ideal partner. His expressive power is remarkable; act III provides a remarkable highlight of this set. As mentioned above, the Covent Garden act IV, scene 1 has Swedish mezzo Gertrud Wettergren as Amneris and, fine as she is, she cannot compare with Lauri-Volpi.
Of course there are extras to the second disc also: Rethberg in 1926 with a Brunswick “Qui Radamès verra,” featuring an oboe that thinks it is indulging in proto-Tristan pipings, and finally “Sull’alba il piede,” with Rethberg and a rather boxily-caught Pinza in an NBC acetate, thought to be all that survives of a KGO-NBC broadcast of October 28, 1938 of act II of Forza from the San Francisco Opera. Previously available on EJS 168, an LP from 1960, it obviously has high rarity value. One has to contend with the sonics here, but it is worth it.
A phenomenal achievement.