JUST FOR THE RECORD: RCA VICTOR OPERA RECORDINGS IN 1921
When Volume 1 of “Opera on Record” (Harper) came out in 1979, there were listed 26 complete recordings of “La Boheme” (including one in French, one in Russian and two in German). Since then, I have simply lost track of how many others have been issued, mostly to feature some current media-hyped star. Since the advent of CDs, many of the older sets are available again; and so Bohemephiles have more than an embarrassment of riches from which to choose their favorite versions.
Not too long ago, I stumbled across a copy of the 1921 edition of “The Victrola Book of the Opera” and recently took a look at what was available back for those who craved a recording of “Boheme.” The pickings were slim indeed.
For starters, there were no complete recordings available in the US. If you wanted to hear Rudolfo’s Act I aria, you could choose from the renditions of Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, John McCormack, Orville Harrold–in Italian–and Evan Williams, in English. Each was on a single-faced 12″ disc selling at $1.75. If you wanted to hear it in French, there was a double-facer for $1.50 with Leon Campagnola, with his “Vesti la giubba” (also in French) on the second side.
Mimi’s aria was available with Geraldine Ferrar, Nellie Melba, Lucrezia Bori, and Frances Alda at $1.75 per 12″ single-faced disc. The love duet was rendered by Caruso and Melba ($2.50), Alda and Martinelli ($2.00), and Bori and McCormack ($1.50 on a 10″).
Musetta’s Waltz came in only one version, with Alma Gluck for $1.25 on a 10″. And that is all you could have gotten from Act II. That is unless you wanted a “whistling solo” version of the Waltz on a double-facer with “Carmen” selections for xylophone on the second side for $.85! (If anyone out there has a copy, could you please send me a taping?)
Act III fared much better. There was the Marcello-Mimi scene with Farrar and Antonio Scotti ($2.00); Mimi’s “Addio” with Farrar, Melba, and Gluck ($1.75, $1.75 and $1.25 respectively); and the concluding quartet with Farrar, Gina C. Viapora, Caruso, and Scotti ($3.00). [I find the price variations fascinating and wonder on what they were based.] On a double-facer, you could get the Marcello-Rudolfo-Mimi scene with the Soldiers’ Chorus from “Il Trovatore” on the other side for $1.35.
Act IV was represented by the opening duet (Caruso and Scotti, for $2.00), Colline’s Farewell to his coat (Marcel Journet for $1.25), and the death scene in German (Claire Dux and Karl Jorn) on a double-facer for $1.50.
The only other items listed in the Victrola book are some band selections. Several years would have to pass before an American opera lover could purchase a complete “Boheme” from La Scala on the RCA Victor label.
Considering that “La Boheme” is one of the most beloved operas, what was one to do if one wanted to hear (say) “The Flying Dutchman, ” a work not very high on most people’s list of super-favorites? You had a choice of three double-faced discs. There is the Dutchman’s opening monologue sung by Fritz Feinhals ($1.35), the Spinning Chorus in English (backed up by the Bridal Chorus from “Lohengrin”, $1.35), and Erik’s aria by Karl Jorn ($1.00). And so on.
All of this research brought back memories of when I cherished my little Gilbert & Sullivan excerpt albums long before I finally owned my first complete “Mikado.” (Some of you MUST remember those Nelson Eddy sets of the Patter Songs!) Each hearing was a rare treat, both wonderful and frustrating: I loved what I had and yearned for more. Today I have in my collection about ten “Mikado” sets (only one of which has the dialogue) and four video versions. But somehow all of this completeness never quite compensates for that sense of wonder I experienced in the past. I am sure that when someone back in 1921 put on their brand new Caruso or Melba or Scotti disc, the reverse side shiny, black and empty, there was a thrill when the first notes filled the room through whatever megaphone the set was designed to hold. Today we have supercalifragilistic surround digital heaven-knows-what that is simply ho-hum because we are so jaded.
No, darn it, I could never bring myself to give up my collection of seven complete “Bohemes” and about as many “Aidas” for some scratchy collection of excerpts. But I would like to go into some attic and find a wind-up phonograph with a good Cactus needle and a pile of those “Boheme” discs I listed up above; and spend a few hours of low-fi delight with those joys we have lost in the name of Progress.