Reviews for IPCD 1094-3
MOZART: LE NOZZE DI FIGARO
Inspired programming comes here from Immortal Performances, presenting a complete performance of Figaro with a bonus complete second act from another venue but the same year, and sharing many principal singers. It’s a real luxury to have Rethberg common to both, of course: As we shall see, her star shines brighter in one performance than in the other. Richard Caniell candidly sets out why he had a “slight reluctance” to issue the Met 1940 performance because of the pre-existence of the 1943 Met broadcast with Steber and Sayão; yet the results are vindicated by the sheer level of enjoyment this set provides.
The complete opera performance presents the Metropolitan debut of Salvatore Baccaloni, and is notable in historical interest terms for that alone. The reliable Ettore Panizza is at the helm for this performance; he was perhaps better known for his central Romantic repertoire but fields his forces with great élan. Rhythms are taut, with the orchestra well drilled, something in evidence from the outset in the wonderfully sprightly Overture, where louder dynamics are well caught. One might argue, these days, with the unashamedly Romantic handling of the orchestra introduction to “Porgi amor” (including slowings), and the tempo for “Tutti è tranquillo” towards the end of the opera is funereal rather than placid. Yet Panizza’s strength is in his structural awareness, and the way he finds huge reserves of energy for the end of acts (the second in particular); in doing so, he propels the drama along, pulling the listener with him. He also times the crescendo of the march in act II to perfection.
Albanese in Mozart is another draw, as is Novotná as Cherubino. Novotná ’s “Non so più” is lithe and agile, providing a real highlight of the set; her “Voi lo sapete” is another one.
The voices of Pinza and Albanese work supremely well together in the opening duet of act I; Pinza’s “Se voul ballare” is a superb example of just how well he can characterize. Matching him in that aspect is the wonderful Baccaloni, whose “La vendetta” oozes power, coupled with miraculous diction. Albanese shines later in preternaturally clean slurs in “Canzonetta sull’aria,” and a sense of Mozartian line that is hard to equal; her “Deh vieni non tardar” is another miracle, this time of breath control, not only in terms of that line but in coping with Panizza’s slow tempo. The Count for the both performances is John Brownlee, solid and confident. But maybe it is Albanese who trumps them all, her “Venite, inginocchiatevi” a miracle of lightness. More, she seems to capture the very essence of the opera itself; “Aprite, presto aprite” is another fine example.
Regular readers will know of my personal enthusiasm for Elisabeth Rethberg, so it is a shame to report that she is not in top form here (something openly admitted in Immortal Performance’s documentation). Her “Porgi amor” does actually find her magical despite a less than perfectly controlled end. Of the smaller roles, Louis D’Angelo is a particularly fine Don Antonio, while Marita Farell’s “Pin Aria” is a joy, the richness of Farell’s voice maintained in her upper register in both the theater and in Immortal Performances’s transfer. The Met Chorus can be sluggish at times.
The extra (San Francisco), a complete second act, holds a “Porgi amor” from Rethberg that is just in another league. This is a greater Countess, who moulds every phrase exquisitely. Risë Stevens is the other reason to investigate the set’s coupling, her “Voi che sapete” tenderly stroked. True, there are moments in this supplementary act where singers and orchestra are not completely on the ball (“Aprite, presto aprite” hangs in there, just), yet the sense of the excitement of a live performance is palpable, especially in Leinsdorf’s very end, which hums with fizz. This set is a fascinating journey into another era.
MOZART: LE NOZZE DI FIGARO
On February 20, 1940, the Metropolitan Opera revived Le nozze di Figaro. It was the first Met performance of the Mozart-da Ponte masterwork since the 1917–18 season. Two broadcast performances followed in relatively short order, on March 9 and December 7, 1940. The latter was the very first sponsored by Texaco, the beginning of a relationship that would last more than six decades. In 1974, the Met offered an official LP release of the December 7, 1940 broadcast. It seems the Met was especially protective of its LP broadcast reissues, used for fundraising purposes. I am aware of CD issues of the March 9, 1940 broadcast (I own it on both the Arkadia The Golden Age and Music and Arts labels). But I have not encountered a CD issue of the December 7, 1940 broadcast prior to the one that is the subject of this review, courtesy of Immortal Performances.
Over time, the December 7, 1940 broadcast has acquired legendary status, and I think for good reason. The Immortal Performances reissue of the December 7, 1940 Nozze, taken from the NBC transcription line-checks, is exponentially better, with more than sufficient detail, warmth, and dynamic range to enjoy the many stellar qualities of this performance. All of the principals in this broadcast bring many admirable qualities to their interpretations, but for me, three stand out. First is Ezio Pinza in the role of Figaro. Pinza acknowledged that among all his roles, Figaro was the one “with whom I found perfect self-identification.” Pinza added: “Myself an itinerant carpenter’s son, I could not but rejoice in the superiority of the barber-valet and his friends over an arrogant aristocrat.” Pinza’s affection for the role is evident throughout. As in the 1937 Salzburg Don Giovanni, Pinza lavishes his glorious basso cantante, sublime Italian diction, and imaginative phrasing upon the role. The role of Figaro requires its interpreter to be able to make lightning-quick and chameleon-like changes of mood and expression. Pinza rises to each and every such occasion. Pinza is superb in ensemble, a true collaborator, and makes all of his solo moments highlights of the performance. It is true that Pinza seems unwilling or unable to negotiate the Fs in “Se vuol ballare” at full voice, but artist that he is, the great Italian bass turns that hurdle to subtle and convincing dramatic effect.
Also superb is soprano Jarmila Novotná in the trouser role of Cherubino, the young page. Novotná sings with great beauty and eloquence, all the while fetchingly depicting Cherubino’s adolescent passion, energy, and angst. Novotná was a strikingly beautiful woman with a commanding stage presence. Her Cherubino must have been something to see. As it is, we have this wonderful audio document of a treasured artist. Conductor Ettore Panizza too belongs in this august company. Better known for his superb Met performances of the Italian Romantic repertoire, Panizza demonstrates he is a compelling and sympathetic interpreter of Mozart as well. The music proceeds with Panizza’s characteristic precision and brisk tempos. That said, Panizza is more than willing to allow for a broader approach and flexibility of phrasing when the musical and dramatic situation so dictates. Perhaps Panizza’s greatest achievements are in the ensembles that conclude the opera’s final three acts. Panizza’s Met broadcasts of such operas as Aida, Otello, and La Gioconda document a conductor who is a master of pacing such ensembles, building the tension to a breaking point, only released in the final measures. That is the case in this Nozze as well, especially in the great ensemble that concludes act II.
The other singers, while more problematic than their colleagues mentioned above, offer much to admire as well. Licia Albanese brings her customary artistry, dramatic intensity, and, like Pinza, mastery of the art of Italian declamation to the role of Susanna. Albanese treats all of the music, both recitatives and set numbers, with the utmost care, respect, and imagination. Albanese’s Susanna is an intelligent, passionate, and steadfast young woman, clearly a force to be reckoned with. Her voice strikes me as lacking the ideal silver purity for this lyric soprano role (compared, for example, with Bidú Sayão, the Susanna in the San Francisco performance of act II, offered as an appendix to this set). That said, Albanese is absolutely magical in Susanna’s last-act solo, “Deh, vieni, non tardar.” A great interpreter of Susanna will seize that opportunity to create a moment of unalloyed magic, where time seems to stand still. And that is precisely what Licia Albanese does.
In the December 7, 1940 broadcast, Elisabeth Rethberg is not in her finest, most secure voice (she is in far better form for San Francisco’s act II). Nevertheless, Rethberg’s nobility, musicianship, and affinity for the Mozart style are never in doubt. John Brownlee offers an attractive baritone, and solid, reliable vocalism, as the Count Almaviva. He is also quite convincing in portraying the Count’s haughty nature, and propensity for anger. And to be sure, that is a great deal of what the Count Almaviva is all about. Still, there is much more variety and subtlety to be found in this role, and apart from a touching plea for forgiveness by the Countess in the opera’s final scene, Brownlee falls short in that regard. The subsidiary roles are well performed by Met stalwarts. The beloved Italian basso buffo Salvatore Baccaloni made his Met house and broadcast debut on this occasion. He is in fine, plummy voice as Dr. Bartolo, and a few mannerisms apart, eschews the kinds of broad-brushed comic touches that would become trademarks of his many Met performances. The inclusion of Milton Cross’s spoken commentary enhances the immediacy of this historic broadcast.
Act II of an October 12, 1940 San Francisco broadcast of Nozze proves a welcome addition. The cast of principals remains the same, with the exception of Sayão’s lovely Susanna, and the engaging Cherubino of the young Risë Stevens. And, as previously mentioned, the San Francisco performance allows us to hear Rethberg in far more radiant voice as the Countess. The CD booklet includes a superb, detailed appreciation of the performance by my colleague Henry Fogel, a plot synopsis, artist photos and bios, and Richard Caniell’s description of the recordings included on this release. Although the December 7, 1940 performance is not without some flaws, it is, on balance, a wonderful performance, and a worthy document of several legendary Met artists at the service of one of Mozart’s greatest masterworks. Thanks to Immortal Performances for making the performance to a broader audience, and in fine sound. Recommended.