Recordings > Historical

"Verdi at the Met: Legendary Performances From the Metropolitan Opera"

spacer Met broadcast performances (1935–67) of La Traviata, Otello, Un Ballo in Maschera, Rigoletto, Falstaff, Simon Boccanegra, La Forza del Destino, Macbeth, Nabucco and Aida. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Leinsdorf, Panizza, Reiner, Schippers, Sodero, Stiedry. No texts or translations. Sony Classical 88883 72120 2 (20) 

VerdiAtMetCD

These Metropolitan Opera performances, broadcast between 1935 and 1967, bring some intriguing history to life. Robust singing made this one of the best of times, in contrast to what Steven Blier calls a vocal "dimming of the lights," a "power shortage" that keeps singers today thinking small. (See OPERA NEWS, March 2003). During that same mid-century period, the Verdi canon was gradually expanded to incorporate works seldom heard before. In addition, for better or for worse, the Met saw a transition toward internationalization in this repertoire, from Italian conductors linked to Toscanini and La Scala (particularly Ettore Panizza, in this collection) to central Europeans (Reiner, Leinsdorf, Stiedry) and Americans (here, Schippers).

The first three performances, captured between 1935 and 1940, are conducted by the unjustly neglected Panizza (1875–1967), who spent many years at La Scala, the Teatro Colón and Covent Garden. In his Traviata, Ballo and Otello,the listener recognizesa discipline and vitality that hark back to Toscanini, with whom Panizza had collaborated in Milan. But Panizza's forceful pacing is balanced by insight and flexibility. In this generally fast-moving Otello,Giovanni Martinelli's soliloquies have amazing intimacy and an almost daringly slow pulse; the tenor's quivering emotionalism in these quiet moments serves to offset a certain brevity and tightness in his high forte singing. He was twenty-four years into his Met career but still effective and mercurial in the duets. Elisabeth Rethberg's Desdemona is kept on a tighter rein, stressing the emotional immediacy of her tone, which had lost considerable bloom by this date. Her willow song and other lyrical passages lack the caressing line that might have relieved a certain monotony of timbre.

In the most balanced portrayal, Lawrence Tibbett sings a fascinating Iago of Shakespearean range; he displays ideal wit and contempt, as well as an abiding vocal confidence that serves the character's hubris. The pacing of his scenes is masterful, with virtuoso displays of tonal variety and verbal emphasis.

Tibbett shines too in the 1935 Traviata, realizing a patrician, sensitive characterization, rather than the generic Verdi villain so often heard. Rosa Ponselle's controversial Violetta, already known through other recording releases, combines compromises and glorious excess. The recorded sound is a liability in this early taping, but it improves by 1940. Panizza's Ballo from that year offers an elegant Jussi Björling, slightly freer than in his still-formidable Rigoletto Duke (under Cesare Sodero, in 1945), along with a luminous Zinka Milanov and the rich-hued Ulrica of Bruna Castagna.

Undoubtedly the truly distinctive entry in this anthology is the Falstaff led by Fritz Reiner in 1949, which, heard after Panizza, seems to come to us from a different world. In his only Verdi assignment at the Met, Reiner reaped great critical praise for the unusual verve and precision of his conducting. Regina Resnik, the Alice Ford, later recalled the intense rehearsals Reiner demanded, the drilling of ensembles with the cast just before each performance and during intermissions. Leonard Warren, who sang the fat knight with the company only three times, masters Falstaff with a finesse seldom heard in this role. The cast boasts a firm, explosive Giuseppe Valdengo as Ford and the luxury of Giuseppe Di Stefano as Fenton.

Reiner produced a rollercoaster sensation with the complex, rapid ensembles, leaving no loose ends apart from some trouble in the brasses in Act II. And yet, the emphasis on lockstep precision and speed may have left little room — or too little rehearsal time — for touches of legato and rubato (to cite two foreign terms) that could soften and vary the forward impetus. Even Toscanini's treatment of the score feels pliant by comparison. 

It's especially in the women's lines that one misses Italianate warmth and lyricism. Sopranos Resnik as Alice and Licia Albanese as Nannetta maintain strict rhythm and volume even in lines usually treated with expansiveness and smorzando, such as "Ma il viso mio su lui risplenderà" (Alice) or "Anzi rinnova come fa la luna" (Nannetta). Reiner sometimes overlooks such score directions as "dolce" or "cantabile." This rigidity affects the men's lines as well, leaving the two baritones' madrigal curiously short on lilt or charm.

In the 1950s, Austrian conductor Fritz Stiedry's treatment of two operas also had a tendency to migrate northward over the Alps. In Simon Boccanegra, the lyrical element is supplied entirely by Leonard Warren's ardor in his smooth upper register, while Richard Tucker (Adorno), Mihály Székely (Fiesco) and especially the miscast Astrid Varnay (Amelia) remain relatively rigid. Tucker, Milanov and Warren all bring vibrant tone, spirit and a certain stentorian quality to their Forza del Destino,which suits the frantic drama but is rarely tempered — even by the soprano — with the full expected frisson.

With a high-powered cast including Price, Bumbry, Bergonzi and Merrill, Thomas Schippers fosters greater warmth and variety in the formidable 1967 Aida that concludes this sampler. (The performance is discussed in the November 2013 OPERA NEWS.) In Nabucco (1960), the conductor draws a better response from the orchestra and chorus than from the shaky principals.

The presence of Leonie Rysanek in two operas seems oddly subjective, considering her stronger association with German repertoire and her technical challenges, including problems with pitch in Nabucco. Other decisions by the compilers of this set are also questionable, including the total absence of Verdians Caballé, Tebaldi, Cossotto, Verrett, Corelli, Del Monaco and Bastianini. If the collection shows partiality toward Leonard Warren — heard in no fewer than half of these operas — it is hard to resist his inspired, probing portraits of Rigoletto, Boccanegra, Carlo, Falstaff and not least his Macbeth. 

We may miss Don Carlo in this Met collection, but fortunately all three of Verdi's Shakespeare operas are included. In Macbeth the stars are aligned; one relishes the balanced leadership of Erich Leinsdorf and the strong showing by Rysanek in a role that suits her rich-toned intensity; one cherishes the poetic Bergonzi and especially Warren's wrenching portrayal of the title role in 1959, a year before his death. And at the end one feels — to quote the opera's title character — "pietà, rispetto, amore." spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6