The Saint of Bleecker Street
Ruggiero, di Gerlando, Akos, Marlo, Lane; Poleri, Aiken, Lishner; chorus and orchestra, Schippers. No libretto. RCA 91290 (2)
Menotti was basking in popular and critical success in December 1954 as The Saint of Bleecker Street opened on Broadway. His previous efforts at "Broadway opera," The Medium and The Consul, had been very successful, his television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors an instant classic. Saint won him some critical acclaim and a second Pulitzer but lasted only ninety-seven performances on Broadway. (Not that that wasn't a respectable run for an ambitious work: Candide lasted a mere seventy-three performances in its first Broadway run, in 1956–57.)
The dynamic cast, under wunderkind (and Menotti protégé and paramour) Thomas Schippers, clearly gave thrilling performances: that fact jumps from the recording that RCA has now reissued. But there was some backlash from the Italian– American community, as Menotti took on and "showed in public" some aspects of social and familial structures in Little Italy that many might have preferred to leave unexamined. Saint, with its gang violence, shunning, fervent religiosity and implicit core of incestuous feeling, is not easy sledding — nor should it be. Unlike The Consul, the piece resists updating (it makes no sense in a post-Vatican II setting) but has won occasional skillful and gritty revivals, especially at New York City Opera, where it was long a feature. Menotti cared nothing (at least at this point) for Darmstadt-dictated modernism; his musical vocabulary is tonal and tuneful and cannot be said to aim "high." Listening at home, one hears very clearly the traces of Mussorgsky, Puccini, Mascagni, Richard Strauss, Respighi, Bartók and Stravinsky, among others. But as a piece of veristic grand guignol, Saint can be surprisingly effective in the theater.
This RCA Victor recording, now reissued by Arkiv but previously available on CD in Europe on the Naxos label, is not exactly an "original cast album"; the recorded Annina, Gabrielle Ruggiero, was the alternate to Virginia Copeland in the Broadway run. Understudies, appearing in ensemble parts, included a staggering lineup of future luminaries — Elizabeth Carron, Richard Cassilly, Mignon Dunn and Chester Ludgin. Other ensemble members presumably heard here include Donald Grobe, Dorothy Krebill, John Reardon, Francesca Roberto and Broadway's Reid Shelton. In those days, Broadway knew how to sing. Ruggiero left little trace otherwise on the opera profession, but her Annina is memorable — sometimes angular and intense, sometimes more sweet-voiced. Famously hot-tempered onstage and off, tenor David Poleri (1927–67) had his innings at City Opera and on television, as well as in Italy. He's not likely to be surpassed as the bitter Michele: the sound is just right, bright and pinging, and his diction is phenomenally clear. Gloria Lane makes a vivid Desideria, the local Santuzza figure, with a dark, focused Zwischenfach sound and audible passion. Catherine Akos makes Annina's friend Assunta sympathetic and appealingly soft-grained. Experienced singer/actors rather than suavely lyrical vocalists, David Aiken (Salvatore), Maria Marlo (Maria Corona) and City Opera regular Leon Lishner (Don Marco, the priest) all make solid contributions. Schippers keeps the tension simmering. The packaging has a synopsis but no libretto, but the theatrically-honed cast makes the words very clear.
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