Reviews for IPCD 1098-4
MASSENET: MANON 1948 & WERTHER 1949
March /April 2018
A new release by Immortal Performances (four discs, priced as three) pairs two late-1940s broadcasts of operas by Jules Massenet, performed at Mexico City’s Palacio de las Bellas Artas, and starring tenor Giuseppe di Stefano (1921–2008). Di Stefano, at least on recordings, is best known as the Cavaradossi in the iconic 1953 EMI recording of Puccini’s Tosca, also starring Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, conducted by Victor de Sabata. The biography included in this Immortal Performances Massenet release claims di Stefano’s “best years” were from 1947–1952. I’d go back just a bit further, to some amazing recordings of songs and arias di Stefano made in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1944. Although the recordings are rather primitive sonically, and employ piano accompaniment rather than orchestra, they capture a unique artist weaving his special brand of magic. In his all-too-brief prime, Giuseppe di Stefano had one of the most sensuously beautiful tenor voices documented on recordings. It is the kind of beauty that has the power to move listeners, this writer included, to tears. But there is so much more to savor. Di Stefano’s diction, both in his native Italian, and French, was exemplary, a gift he used to the utmost dramatic and musical effect. The young di Stefano also had a breathtakingly wide range of dynamics and colors, even when negotiating the most treacherous high notes. His diminuendo on the high C in the aria from Gounod’s Faust, “Salut! demeure chaste et pure,” featured on this set, is the stuff of legend. And as if all of these talents weren’t enough, di Stefano was an arrestingly handsome man, and a very fine actor in the bargain.
Sad to say, the magic was all too short-lived. It was not long before di Stefano began to try his hand at more dramatic repertoire, mercilessly pushing his lyric voice. That, coupled with di Stefano’s open approach to the passaggio and high notes, exacted its toll. To make matters worse di Stefano, by his own admission, was hardly the most disciplined individual when it came to pursuing a lifestyle and regimen that offered the greatest prospects for vocal longevity. By the late 1950s, much of the vocal luster, especially in the upper portion of the voice, was gone. Compare, for example the 1953 EMI Tosca with its early 1960s Decca counterpart, with Leontyne Price in the title role, and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. In the latter, di Stefano remains a charismatic, passionate Cavaradossi, but one who is a vocal shadow of the sublime tenor in the earlier recording. But before I become too judgmental of di Stefano’s life and career choices, it’s appropriate to consider that, had the Sicilian tenor pursued the straight and narrow in all matters, he perhaps might never have been the electrifying artist of those halcyon years. In any event, Giuseppe di Stefano recordings from the mid-1940s to early 1950s are treasures to savor. And such treasures are what Immortal Performances gives us in this four-disc set.
The Mexico City Manon and Werther, long available courtesy of various labels specializing in live recordings, are certainly not without their issues. The Manon is heavily cut, including excision of the entire Cours-la-Reine scene. While Manon is performed in the original French, Werther is sung in an Italian translation. The prompter is a regular, perhaps even obtrusive, presence. The recorded sound on previous issues suffered from harshness, and volume and pitch fluctuations. But avid collectors have been willing to suffer these flaws in order savor the many glories. Di Stefano is in top form in both performances. From his very first entrance in Manon, di Stefano establishes that his des Grieux will be a very special interpretation indeed. Listen, for example, to the way di Stefano lovingly colors his repetition of the words “mon père!,” as he anticipates being reunited with his father. And then, di Stefano masterfully portrays des Grieux completely forgetting that sentiment as he spies the young and beautiful Manon for the first time. Di Stefano sings the beautiful act II “Dream” with such melting beauty and artistry that the audience demands and receives an encore. And so it goes, as di Stefano’s interpretation and vocalism move from strength to strength. You could go a lifetime without hearing des Grieux sung with this combination of vocal beauty, artistry, and Italianate passion. And here, I think it’s important to note once again di Stefano’s clear and idiomatic French pronunciation. We’re fortunate that on this occasion, di Stefano is joined by worthy colleagues. The Mexican soprano Irma González is a first-rate Manon, one with a lovely and secure lyric voice, an artist who convincingly portrays the heroine’s transformation from innocent (but curious) young woman to tragic figure, ruined by her flaws. González’s French is not quite as idiomatic as is di Stefano’s, but she declaims the text with clarity and purpose. Giuseppe Valdengo is very much in his element in the lyric baritone role of Lescaut. Those familiar with Valdengo’s collaborations with Toscanini in various NBC Symphony Orchestra opera broadcasts will not be surprised that the Italian baritone’s Lescaut is beautifully sung, and interpreted with detail and panache. Massenet’s score (what remains of it) sparkles and proceeds with direction and purpose under Renato Cellini’s baton. As an appendix to the Mexico City Manon, the Immortal Performances set includes excerpts from di Stefano’s March 15, 1947 La Scala debut, in an Italian-language performance of Massenet’s opera. Di Stefano is once again in magnificent voice, and he is joined by the marvelous soprano Mafalda Favero, also in superb form as Manon. If these excerpts document a more overtly passionate, Italianate view of Manon, they are no worse for that, and document an historic moment and real sense of occasion.
The 1949 Mexico City Werther offers no pretense of a restrained, Gallic approach. The performance, sung in Italian, is very much in the verismo mode (for what it’s worth, Werther premiered in 1892, less than two years after the first performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana). But even those who prefer Werther sung in its original language and the French operatic tradition should seize the opportunity to hear the young di Stefano (Werther) and mezzo Giulietta Simionato (Charlotte) in absolute top form, giving their all for an ecstatic audience. The supporting cast is more than adequate, and Cellini once again leads a performance that brims with energy and momentum. The set concludes with arias performed by di Stefano in early 1950s Standard Hour radio broadcasts. Unlike the Mexico City broadcasts, these are in fine sound, and a wonderful document of di Stefano at the apex of his career. The sense of joy, both for di Stefano and his studio audience, is palpable, as the tenor lavishes his voice and passionate delivery on the various familiar arias. Listening to these excerpts, it’s hard to escape the sentiment that there was only one di Stefano.
The new Immortal Performances restorations of the Mexico City Manon and Werther broadcasts represent a dramatic improvement over the previous issues I’ve heard. The congestion and harshness surrounding the voices are greatly reduced, and the vocalists emerge with far greater definition and vocal color. Producer Richard Caniell has also painstakingly corrected the many variations of pitch that marred earlier releases. The recorded sound still falls short of studio recordings of the era, and of the best broadcasts as well. But at long last, we can fully enjoy these irreplaceable mementos of di Stefano at his absolute zenith. The liner notes include Henry Fogel’s beautiful appreciation of the recordings and artists, Richard Caniell’s fascinating essay on Massenet’s Manon and her operatic interpreters, plot synopses, artist bios and photos, and some notes on the recording sources and their restoration. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that anyone interested in the greatest tenor voices of the past century should have these di Stefano performances in their collection. And the new Immortal Performances release is the one to have. Very highly recommended.
MASSENET: MANON 1948 & WERTHER 1949
March /April 2018
It’s wonderful to have these two performances (plus a host of extras) in one place. Part of the reason for the space for those extras is the trimmed-down texts: Act III scene 1 is omitted in the Manon performance entirely, for example, while act IV is “abbreviated.” The transfers are superb, enabling us often to hear every detail, including various prompts. However, it is the orchestral detail, and indeed the luster of the string sound, that enables this Manon recording to shine, supporting the voices with real intensity. Moments of possible crowding (the opening of the fourth act, for example) are rendered with no distortion. Even the mists of time cannot hide the sheer verve of the opening of Renato Cellini’s performance, its music taken from the “Cour-la-Reine” from act III (ironically omitted from the performance itself). Yes, there are some tuning problems right at the end of the act I Prelude, but the atmosphere of the piece is well caught.
Despite heavy cuts to this performance, it remains a must-hear for the sheer strength of the singing. Renato Cellini is a superb conductor, his way with act II in particular impressive, his tempos keeping the drama moving and yet allowing space for each word to come through (consistency of diction throughout this performance from all singers is one of its core strengths). He conveys the barren emotional wastes of the fifth and final act superbly as well. The sound of the opening chorus is beautifully preserved; the ensuing arrival of the coach is well paced by Cellini. Time seems to stop, though, with the arrival of the Manon, Irma González, and her aria “Je suis encore tout étourdie,” which finds her in beautiful, sensitive voice; later, when we get the measure of her immaturity, she embraces the role completely, convincingly. Of course “Adieu, notre petite table” is her moment to shine, and González does so, radiantly and heart-stoppingly, as she bids her regretful farewell to the past. The way she holds the tension towards the end of the third act is positively mesmeric. Hers, with the exception of moments when the score requires her to fling out notes, is not an extrovert reading. It is interior, heartfelt, and sophisticated. Given the scarcity of commercial recordings of González, this is a must-have just for her alone.
The constant between the performances is Giuseppe di Stefano. His passion in act I of this Manon performance is beyond doubt, and when they close the act in their duet, the strength of di Stefano and González is stunning. The wondrous shading of line by di Stefano in the opening scene of act II is beautiful, especially given his flexibility of line; he is the embodiment of passion towards the end of the act, and his “En fermant les yeux” seems to glow internally. The audience evidently agreed, as it is encored. And, despite the absence of the first scene of the third act, one has to admire the intense second scene between the Comte des Grieux (the excellent Roberto Silva) and his son; left alone, we hear the famous “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” from di Stefano, complete with the odd sob but filled with a razor edge of sound. How perfectly we hear it through the years here, too; the orchestra, too, has presence. But it is here that di Stefano triumphs, his portrait so perfectly judged.
As Lescaut, Giuseppe Valdengo is beautifully strong, his “Ne bronchez pas, soyez gentile” a model of Massenet style, his diction impeccable. Filling out the second disc is what survives of a performance on March 15, 1947, sung in Italian, with Mafalda Favero as Manon and di Stafano as Des Grieux; Lescaut is taken by Mario Borriello, Signore de Brétigny by Michele Mainardi, and the servant by Laura Alberti. Borriello’s Lescaut is very characterful.
The fillers for the second disc is are portions of act II, act III scene 2, and act V of Manon from La Scala on March 15, 1947 (the tenor’s Scala debut, in fact). There is, for example, a gap between “Mil regards plus charme” and when the maid servant announces the two visitors. Giuseppe di Stefano is in resplendent form, and the orchestra is very pliant and responsive under Guarnieri. But it is hearing Favero’s Manon that makes this memorable. There is more heat behind her reading, a more Italianate temperament, one might propose, than with González. The slow “Adieu, notre petite table” is arguably even finer than González’s; certainly there is a passion here that is ready to inflame (as it does—listen to Favero’s “Ah, des Grieux” at the opening of the act V excerpt). In this Immortal Performances transfer we can hear how Favero can thin her voice to a near whisper, too; the audience’s explosive reaction is eminently understandable. Di Stefano’s Des Grieux is absolutely her equal in expressive depth; another lesson is how equally at home he seems in both Italian and in French in this piece. Again, in what we have of act III scene 2, we hear di Stefano soar like an eagle. The string beauty in act V comes across better than one might dare hope, increasing the fragile tenderness of the moment beyond measure.
The sheer expressive weight of the opening of the performance of Werther from 1949 promises much, as does the softening into the lyrical string passage with its beautifully judged balance. There is a rather reassuring crackle underpinning the entire act I Prelude. This performance is in Italian, but it could be worse (English or German, Heaven forfend); again, it is truncated (including the loss of Werther’s final words) and, in terms of the tapes, the odd word of Simionato has been stitched in from her 1951 Scala performance. Cellini shapes the action brilliantly, allowing him to find the tenderness at the heart of the score without losing the onward thread. The extended entr’acte between acts III and IV is both fervent and propulsive, providing the perfect preparation for Simionato’s ensuing outbursts.
Of course, it is to di Stefano we turn for inspiration here, and his “O Nature, pleine de grâce” (in Italian, of course) is as ardent as one could wish (as is his cry of “un altro ella sposa!” at the end of the first act: words he uses again in act II of course as Werther watches Charlotte with Albert, the multifarious aspects of his voice gloriously audible here). His ardent way almost convinces us that “Ah non mi ridestare?” is the only way to hear “Pourquoi me réveiller?”; this is truly breath-taking singing, golden toned yet steely at its climax.
Giulietta Simionato is a splendid Carlotta (Charlotte), every inch di Stefano’s vocal and dramatic equal, positively gripping in her long passages towards the close of act I. If the passions of her act III Letter Scene seem more identifiably Italianate in the higher dynamics, there is no denying her impressive presence (the phrasing at the lower dynamic levels is more authentically and fragrantly French); her contribution to act IV has already been touched upon. The power of this final act is remarkable.
As Sophie, Eugenia Roccabruna is an astonishingly fresh-voiced, sensitive Sophie. Ignacio Ruffino makes for a strong Bailiff (it is his voice that is heard first in the opera), while Fausto del Grado is a fine-voiced and believable Albert, capturing all the drama of the close of the fourth act. In his notes, Richard Caniell describes the heart-tearingly frustrating process of preparing the Werther in particular for release. He has performed miracles with sources that were frequently problematic, resulting in an eminently listenable experience. Given the deficiencies of previous releases in terms of pitch and clarity, the result is eminently justified.
The final filler is a sequence of five arias performed by di Stefano from Standard Hour Broadcasts from the 1950s: “Salut demeure,” “M’appari,” and “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père” from October 1950 specifically, plus “Che gelida manina” and “Cielo e mar.” There is more presence here to de Stefano’s voice. The Gounod is wonderfully tender, a cradle of strings supporting the singer (and some lovely scooping portamento at the end from those strings). A full-blooded “M’appari” (Flotow) leads to a “Che gelida manina” that it is simply impossible not to enjoy, especially one particular preternaturally extended fermata. The diction is exemplary and yet never interrupts the line (no complaints about this being in Italian, obviously!). It’s wonderful to hear some Massenet included here, too, to complement the main offerings, this time from Le Cid. A rather vibrato-laden trumpet notwithstanding, this is a highly enjoyable account, with de Stefano’s legato a model of its kind. There is an almost trumpet-like aspect to de Stefano’s opening to “Cielo e mar” perhaps in keeping with the verismo nature of both music and performance. The silence of the background here is utterly remarkable; the slightly dry acoustic is audible in some of the exposed string lines, but as “extras” these are hard to beat.