Bergonzi at the Met as Hero and Bumpkin

Bergonzi as Tragic Hero and as Village Bumpkin

Among the several CD transfers of vintage Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the Sony label, two of the more recent releases star Carlo Bergonzi in the tenor lead–one a tragedy, one a comedy.

IMG_20150815_0002Verdi’s “Ernani” (recently seen by many as an HD telecast at local theaters) is based on a play by Victor Hugo. Francesco Maria Piave, who wrote many a libretto for the Master, did a good job boiling it down to a straight love-plot and omitting most of the political matter that made Hugo’s play so startling for its day.

Basically, Ernani (Carlo Bergonzi), who turned bandit after Don Carlo killed his father and seized his property, is in love with Elvira (Leontyne Price). But so is Charles V of Spain (Cornell MacNeil), and so is Elvira’s uncle Don Silva (Giorgio Tozzi). Though not as incomprehensible as “Il Trovatore,” the plot of “Ernani” seems a little silly to audiences today, hinging as it does on bravado oaths and how Honor must be served. (W.S. Gilbert spoofed this sort of thing in “The Pirates of Penzance”; but Verdi was a hot blooded Italian and to him a man’s word meant something.)

As much as I dislike Franco Corelli’s excesses, I think I would have preferred him to Bergonzi in the role. The latter simply does not have the clarion tones that such a heroic role demands. The audience at that December 1, 1962 performance, however, adored him. An energetic reading of the score by conductor Thomas Schippers helps a distinctly impressive cast.

IMG_20150815_0001On March 5, 1966, Bergonzi appeared in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” as the prize village bumpkin Nemorino, who loves the lovely Adina (Roberta Peters), who loves to read about Tristan and Isolde’s magic love potion and is herself loved by the army officer Belcore (Frank Guarrera). Known for opera buffa roles that require patter technique, Fernando Corena is the believable charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara.

The libretto by Felice Romani is little more than a sequence of duets; but the score is bubbly enough, especially under Schipper’s baton, to keep things from getting dramatically boring.

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Corena as the quack

Here I find Bergonzi’s voice to be just right for the innocent he is playing. I did, however, find some fault with his bel canto technique in the gem of the score, “Una furtiva lagrima,” halfway into Act II. Others may disagree.  Peters is at her usual chirpy soprano, Guarrera is an imposing Belcore, and Corena does what he does best. It is difficult to be funny on a CD, but he comes close.

Both operas have some cuts, “Ernani” more than “Elisir,” and both sets take up two CDs.

Verdi at the Met

51TneT7ZWuL._AA160_VERDI AT THE MET

Sony Classical has gathered together in a boxed set 10 operas by Verdi that were broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera from1935 to 1967. No one is claiming that any of these are the best performances that could have been chosen, but the historical interest is great and many listeners might recall hearing these very broadcasts.

Each 2-CD opera is in its own cardboard envelope and there is a booklet giving background information and tracking numbers and timings for all of the performances. All I wish to do here is to list the operas with broadcast years and lead singers. I hope the omission of first names will cause no problems.

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Lawrence Tibbett

“La Traviata” (1935)—Ponselle, Jaegel, Tibbett; “Otello” (1940)—Martinelli, Rethberg, Tibbett; “Un Ballo in Maschera” (1940)—Milanov, Bjoerling; “Rigoletto” (1945)—Warren, Sayao, Bjoerling; “Falstaff” (1949)—Warren, Resnik, Valdengo, Albanese.

“Simon Boccanegra” (1950)—Warren, Varnay, Tucker; “La Forza del Destino” (1952), Milanov, Tucker, Warren; “Macbeth” (1959)—Warren, Rysanek, Bergonzi; “Nabucco” (1960), MacNeil, Rysanek, Siepi; “Aida” (1967)—Price, Bergonzi, Bumbry, Merrill, Hines.

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Richard Tucker

I believe many of my readers would be most interested in hearing all of these, even with the audio as it was then. I do miss all the intermission features, which I wish would be released in separate CD sets.

Wagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

A-OP-Wagner at MetWagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

  I recall when those who wanted to have radio transcriptions of Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts had to be Met Guild members and well off enough to pay the price of the LP sets. That is all the more reason to welcome a box set of 25 CDs from Sony Classical, titled “Wagner at the Met.”

There are nine operas included and I had best list them with broadcast dates and the leading singers. “Der fliegende Hollander” (12-30-50) has Hans Hotter (Dutchman), Astrid Varnay (Senta) and Set Svanholm (Erik). Fritz Reiner conducts. “Tannhauser” (1-9-54) stars Ramon Vinay (Tannhauser), Margaret Sarshaw (Elisabeth), George London (Wolfram), and Jerome Hines (Landgrave). Heard in the tiny role of Shepherd is Roberta Peters. George Szell conducts.

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Lauritz Melchior

“Lohengrin” (1-2-43) gives us Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin) and Astrid Varnay as Elsa. The conductor is Erich Leinsdorf. The lovers in “Tristan und Isolde” (4-16-38) are Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad—an unbeatable team—with Karin Branzell as Brangane. Arthur Bodanzky conducts. The more human “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” (1-10-53) has Hans Hopf (Walther), Paul Schoffler (Hans Sachs) and Victoria de los Angeles (Eva). Fritz Reiner wields the baton.

I pause here to point out that opera lovers who originally heard some or all of these broadcasts must have recognized  many of the artists I have listed up to now. So beyond any historical value of these discs is a nostalgic value that is a strong one. Now back to the set.

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Kirsten Flagstad

This wouldn’t be much of a salute to Wagner at the Met without the entire Ring Cycle. “Das Rheingold” (1-27-51) features Lawrence Davidson (Alberich), Margaret Harshaw (Fricka), Hans Hotter (Wotan), and Set Svenholm (Loge). Fritz Stiedry conducts. “Die Walkure” (2-17-40) pairs Melchior (Siegmund) with Flagstad (Brunnhilde) and Marjorie Lawrence (Sieglinde). Julius Huehn (Wotan), Karin Branzell (Fricka) and Emanuel List (Hunding) share the spotlight, while Leinsdorf conducts.

“Siegfried” (1-30-37) is like the scherzo movement to this Ring-symphony, and Melchior (Siegfried) and Brunnhilde (Flagstad) finally get to meet. The Wanderer, Wotan in disguise, is sung by Friedrich Schorr, the evil Mime by Karl Laufkotter, and the equally nasty Alberich by Eduard Habich.

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Marjorie Lawrence

The titanic “Gotterdammerung” (1-11-36) has Marjorie Lawrence as Brunnhilde, now wedded to her Siegfried (Melchior) and thwarted by the machinations of Gunther (Friedrich Schorr), Hagen (Ludwig Hofmann) and to a lesser degree by Gutrune (Dorothea Manski).

I apologize for the long listings, but I feel my readers might be encouraged to hear these discs by knowing some of the casts. Yes, the sound is not studio-perfect; but many low-fi radios sounded like these transcriptions back then.  Now and then, as at the actual opera house, the orchestra drowns out the singers, an example being Hagen’s call to the Vassals, the only traditional chorus in the Ring cycle. But it is the best that 1936 technology had to offer.

Each opera is in a cardboard folder with the cast and track listings. Unhappily, the CDs are in sleeves and so tightly in those sleeves that one fears harming the discs when removing them. Is that the best that 2013 technology can offer? Just be careful handling them.

A 128-page booklet repeats the cast and track listings (the latter with timings), synopses and notes about each work.