Recordings > Historical

THOMAS: Mignon

spacer Stevens, Benzell; Melton, Pinza; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Pelletier. No texts or translations. Sony Classical 7961922 (2)

MetMignonCD

The voice of American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens was sui generis, unlike any I've heard before or since. It had an immediately identifiable sound — warm, sultry, smoky and full of personality. While her voice may have had some limitations, particularly toward the top of her range, Stevens fully understood her strengths and focused on the operas that maximized them. After early exploration of a wider range of repertoire, Stevens chose to concentrate on a handful of leading roles that were ideally fitted to her voice, glamorous looks and star persona — and then proceeded to reign supreme in them at the Met for a generation or more.

The title role in Mignon provided Stevens with her house debut at the Met, in December 1938. (Her actual company debut came the previous month, as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in Philadelphia.) Thomas's opera is hardly profound, but the bad reputation it has these days is undeserved: to my ear, Mignon has irresistible charm and melody, with highly rewarding moments for all four principal characters. In this Met broadcast from January 27, 1945, Stevens's strengths are immediately apparent — especially her wonderfully rich, spontaneous-sounding use of vocal color and text, which makes her Mignon alive and vivid at every moment.

The other treasure of this performance is the Lothario of Ezio Pinza (1892– 1957). Has there ever been a more perfectly placed voice than his? Even after more than two decades of singing — Pinza made his Met debut in 1926 — the tone is rock-solid, the vocal quality his alone. His berceuse at the beginning of Act III weaves a genuine spell. Virtually every Pinza performance I've heard is one for the ages, and this is no exception.

The other two leads are honorable, if not up to this level. American soprano Mimi Benzell (1918–70) dispatches Philine's famous polonaise neatly and cleanly, though it is somewhat lacking in charm and personality. The Wilhelm Meister of another American, James Melton (1904–61), is bright and clear but plain and unvaried. His rendition of Wilhelm's gorgeous aria, "Elle ne croyait pas," lacks the elegance, subtlety and grace that other tenors have brought to it. Those qualities are very much in evidence in the conducting of Canadian maestro Wilfrid Pelletier (1896–1982), who was in musical charge of the Met's French repertoire at that time. Pelletier was an expert at highlighting the strengths (and perhaps disguising the weaknesses) of this opera. The recorded sound, as remastered by Sony, is distinct, present and highly listenable, especially given the age of the source material.

Fifty years after her last Met performance as Carmen, Risë Stevens is probably still more identified with the role than any other singer. She first took on the part at the Met in 1945, but it was in Tyrone Guthrie's famous production of 1952 that her legend as Carmen became secure. She owned the role in New York for the next decade. 

This broadcast of February 16, 1952, took place only two weeks after the premiere of the revolutionary Guthrie staging, and the preparation, energy and excitement of the event are well captured here, beginning with Fritz Reiner's brilliant conducting. His work is precise and controlled, but never rigidly so, full of color and rhythm, balanced by delicacy, languor and sensuality. The broadcast features most of the Guthrie production's original cast, with the exception of American Frank Guarrera, the opening-night Escamillo. This performance substitutes Italian baritone Paolo Silveri (1913– 2001), a mediocre toreador.

Stevens's Carmen is a complete performance: voice, words and personality are one. Each moment and subtle inflection feels alert, alive and responsive, but never over-studied. Although Stevens sang several later Carmen broadcasts, this one captures her in perhaps her best vocal form.

The Micaela of American soprano Nadine Conner (1907–2003) is difficult to fault but also somewhat difficult to remember. Conner had an honorable career, but I find her sound faceless and lacking true bloom at the top of her range, where so many of her character's key phrases sit.

As noted, Silveri's toreador is unremarkable, fading out in his low register even more than most in this wide-ranging role. More pleasure is to be had from the smugglers of then-newcomers Lucine Amara (Frasquita) and Margaret Roggero (Mercédès), along with Met veterans Alessio De Paolis (Remendado) and George Cehanovsky (Dancaïre).

The true vocal glory of this set is the amazing Don José of Richard Tucker (1913–75). José was one of Tucker's greatest roles. I am tempted to say that this broadcast captures Tucker in prime voice — except that Tucker's prime seemed to span his entire Met career. In any event, his singing here is stunning, his voice poised, ringing and fully responding to whatever he asks of it. A special highlight — which I played several times over — is his singing of José's offstage song, capped by a flawless trill! Tucker is also fully engaged dramatically, and the chemistry between him and Stevens is palpable.

As is standard with this series of historic Met broadcasts from Sony, notation is fairly minimal. Given the importance of some of the performances released, a bit more historical context would be welcome. That small point aside, these two releases pay well-deserved honor to Stevens, a genuine star who remains a beautiful, gracious presence in the New York opera world. spacer 

KEN BENSON

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2