Listening Room: Historic Live Performances from the Met

Saturday, June 04, 2011 - 10:58 AM

I know from my mail that some readers think I live entirely in the past, especially in terms of opera. That is completely wrong. I know such people, and they seldom venture out of their houses, away from their collections of LPs, CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs and more. I am always out and about, looking forward to the next opera performance--even of standard repertory--so I can hear new singers or young artists in familiar music.

Multiple hearings and viewings help deepen my knowledge of works as familiar as Carmen or La Traviata. There are numerous reasons why these operas are masterpieces but, only with repeated exposure, can we figure out what makes them great. Opera can be expensive, even if one sits in the “gods” or, as Italians call it, la piccionaia (the pigeon roost). So we find other ways to listen to opera, particularly via radio broadcasts of performances as well as studio-made recordings.

Listening to opera without seeing it is a special treat because we focus on storytelling through music and on the singing. Through listening we refine our knowledge of the music and performance practices. Ideally, we read or hear the synopsis of the opera before listening to it. With our imaginations we create stage images, whether or not it is a work we have ever seen in the opera house. This is the chief way I first learned opera. As a small child, my Saturday ritual was orthodontia in the morning, followed by a palliative stop at Ebinger’s bakery with my Dad, and then a visit to Grandma, just in time for lunch and the start of the live broadcast from the Met.

As we listened, she would quietly narrate: “Her name is Violetta and she is wearing a pretty red dress. The man singing to her is Alfredo. She gives him a flower and tells him to come back when it has dried… Now it is act two and they are living in their house in the country....”

“Already, Grandma? They just met! Did they get married?”

“Never mind, just listen to the music...” By the time I got to see standard repertory works such as La Triavata, I knew the stories. The imagery that was created in my head through a combination of the music and my grandmother’s narrative could then be compared with what I was seeing on the stage.

In junior high and high school, after my grandmother had died, I continued the radio ritual because I loved it. At college in Wisconsin I tuned in on my clock radio every Saturday rather than go out to play or study. Hearing Milton Cross and Peter Allen present the operas “from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York” filled me with Chekhovian longing like some character pining to be in Moscow but stuck in Yaroslavl.

Part of the excitement of these performances, apart from their being live, was that when they were ended, they were history. Gone. It was not like a movie that could be seen again. Only years later did I learn that there were thousands of fans who dutifully recorded these broadcasts on reel-to-reel tape or even more rudimentary technology. To me it seemed so illegal but yet enticing. To again hear Vickers, Nilsson, Rysanek, Pilar Lorengar, James Morris, Grace Bumbry, Montserrat Caballé, Sutherland, Horne, and three young tenors just breaking onto the scene, what would I give?! I never met most of these reclusive, obsessive but immensely important documentarians but occasionally I would be handed a little audiocassette, often by an opera star, to perpetuate the memory.

A New Series Unearths Past Treasures

I always thought the Met was missing out by not selling great performances from the archives on LP or CD. The company gave them as gifts to major donors, but they were not available to the average fan. Good things come to those who wait. The Met, along with Sony, has begun to take some jewels out of the vault for us to admire. The first four to be issued on audio CD were Roméo et Juliette (from 1947); Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1950) with a great cast; La Bohéme (1958 with Licia Albanese and Carlo Bergonzi, conducted by Thomas Schippers); and Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli in a 1962 Tosca.

I recently listened to the second batch, released on May 3, with works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner. These performances come from between 1960 and 1972; the company moved from the old Metropolitan Opera House to the new in 1966. They will not win awards for sound technology as they are mostly monaural recordings of live broadcasts. But they are all gems, fascinating and rewarding, and with so much to teach us.

There is a Fidelio from 1960, starring Birgit Nilsson and John Vickers, conducted by Karl Böhm. Nilsson’s heroic and clarion voice earned its own adjective: Nilsonnian. Heard in a theater, there was nothing like it. Certainly it was loud and forceful, but not in a disturbing way. Rather, it so completely commanded your undivided attention and you willingly complied. In studio recordings, such as the famous Ring Cycle conducted by Georg Solti in the 1960s, technicians did their best to make the listener feel the Nilsonnian sound, but always fell short. On a live radio broadcast, it simply was not possible to know what she sounded like in the theater.

So, while listening, we focus more on how she actually phrased words and musical passages. I have heard better Leonores, such as Gwyneth Jones at her best, Karita Mattila and above all, Hildegard Behrens. But Nilsson shows remarkable emotional warmth in addition to the expected determination. Her scenes with Jon Vickers (Florestan) make one feel that this couple not only had marital fidelity but a pretty hot love life.

Vickers is the gold standard for Florestans and, while there are studio recordings of him in this role, hearing him perform live (even in shaky recording circumstances) is to be near a great artist at his best. Karl Böhm makes every note count, though the rich playing of the orchestra is hard to discern as it is more in the background when compared to the voices. And I love that the Leonore Overture No.3 is performed between the two scenes of the second act. While I almost always agree with James Levine’s contention that a performance should come as close as possible to the intentions of the composer, here is a bit of modern performance practice I endorse. Leonore has liberated her husband in a dark jail and in the next scene they are out in the sunlight with jubilant crowds. The overture provides a transition from darkness to light, allows scenery to be changed and surely gave Nilsson the chance to have her customary backstage beer before revving up for the grand finale.

Le Nozze di Figaro’s broadcast recording is from 1961. In my memorial posting about Giorgio Tozzi (who sings Don Fernando in the Fidelio, by the way), I alluded to the notion of “Met Family” to suggest a certain warm cohesiveness about performances from the old house and, to some degree, until about 1990. Now there are very few “old house” singers and musicians left and with them that spirit has gone. In its place, in the orchestra and chorus, is an ethic of amazing music-making every night. What strikes me in listening to these recordings is that, while the Met orchestra and chorus set a good standard back then, they do not come close to matching what we hear day in and day out at the Met nowadays. Among all the things that James Levine has accomplished at the Met, this is his crowning achievement. Here is what I mean when I say that historical recordings have so much to teach us.

Le Nozze includes singers opera lovers know of, including Cesare Siepi (Figaro), Roberta Peters (Susanna), Lucine Amara (Countess Almaviva) and Met star Regina Resnik doing a very droll turn in the smaller role of Marcellina. New to me were Mildred Miller (a randy Cherubino) and Kim Borg, of whom I had not even heard, as the Count. I have no idea where he was from, but his very un-Italianate diction sets him off from an otherwise accomplished cast. But the character’s vainglorious pomposity shines through.

Die Walküre comes to us from 1968 and I listened to it twice after seeing two performances of the new production at the Met. The prevailing opinion on the new Met Walküre is that the staging is a hollow disappointment but the musical forces are pretty amazing. I agree. Only in one case, though, did I do a musical match-up. When people asked me what I thought of Stephanie Blythe as Fricka in the current performances, I replied that she is the best since Christa Ludwig.

The great German mezzo sang the role for many years and it was her farewell at the Met in 1993. Her Fricka is by turns petulant, anxious, accusatory, and self-regarding. All of these choices are valid, but made me appreciate Blythe’s decision to fill her Fricka with anguish at the fate she sees befalling the gods. Fricka often is played as a disapproving monogamist next to her wandering husband, Wotan, but Blythe makes the role not only about protecting “morality” but the whole natural order of things. Oh, and she sings like a goddess.

All the other singers in the 1968 Walküre are world-class. The conductor is Berislav Klobucar, whose work is new to me. It is fine, but I have heard much better. The promotional text on CD case lists an incomparable cast, including Nilsson (Brünnhilde), Vickers (Siegmund), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), Kurt Ridderbusch (Hunding) and Ludwig. But no mention of Thomas Stewart as Wotan! He is an example of “Met Family.” Stewart is a very compelling Wotan and Nilsson and Vickers excel in their roles. Rysanek does not have her best outing here and is not helped by variable sound recording. And yet her Sieglinde is like no one else’s for sheer passionate singing and an unmistakable sexuality. If you have never heard the famous “Rysanek scream” that happens when Siegmud pulls his sword out of the tree, there is a great example of it here. If, by any chance, there is a recording of the legendary Rysanek gala from February 26, 1984, that is my first choice for what I want under my tree next December.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg comes from 1972. I know more than a few people who say this is their favorite opera. And I know the same number of people who cannot bear it. For those who adore this opera, there is a great deal to love in this performance. Theo Adam brings great humanity and musicianship as Hans Sachs. James King, who had a very long career as a Wagnerian, is a dulcet Walther. The radiant and much-missed Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar is Eva. Listeners below a certain age would not know her work, and I would encourage them to listen to her here and in any other performances you might come across. The large supporting cast includes many “Met Family” types including Shirley Love and Ezio Flagello. And, in the small role of Schwarz, is the young James Morris, one of the foremost exponents of “Met Family” performance even though he never sang in the old house. Morris made his Met debut in 1971, the same year as James Levine, and his has been one of the great careers in the past four decades.

Conducting this Meistersinger is Thomas Schippers, a marvelous American maestro who died much too young. In many ways he was the most gifted American opera conductor in the period right before the arrival of Levine. The audio quality of this recording is the best of the four I listened to, but it does not quite convey all that was happening in the pit and in the chorus. And yet, what a gift to have this document of the work of Schippers. How much we can learn from his vibrant, precise but fully breathing rendering of this incomparable score.

One recommendation to the designers of the CD package: The color palette in the background goes from light to dark gray, perhaps suggesting a faded but precious artifact. The idea is great, but the text placed over the dark gray is almost unreadable. A small quibble, and fixable, in a project that is commendable in so many ways.

And while Sony and the Met ponder which broadcasts to release next, here is my pick: The February 9, 1974 Otello, with Jon Vickers and Kiri Te Kanawa, making her Met debut as a last-minute substitution for Teresa Stratas.

What radio broadcast from the Met’s past would you like to hear again on CD?


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Comments [13]

Bob from Long island

Hi, I recently came upon a large collection of live met broadcasts from the late 50's to mid 80's from WQXR. Are these rare and do they have any monetary value. Thanks for your time. Bob

Aug. 20 2014 12:14 PM
Ira Ehrenkranz from morristown new jersey

When in High School in Hillside, New Jersey I received a Met Pass for some promotional reason to the old house. I used to take the bus at age 16 years old to the newly built Port of Authority Bus Terminal and gain entrance to the House for the rehersals. I would cut school and stay standing listening to the voices of Warren, Tucker, Albanese, Pons and many others for hours on end.
Then go back home, my parents would ask how was school and I had the best
afternoon at these rehersals. I am 77 years old now and my folks have passed away years ago. I should have told them what thrills I had and what memories of these sessions. Now, with satelite radio and the Met Broadcasts on tape I can relive this wonderful moments.

Jun. 05 2011 12:41 PM
Fred Plotkin from Vienna

To David: One of the many pleasures of loving opera is that even the most entrenched of us still have many things to learn and discover. The singer Kim Borg has never come to my attention, so that is yet one more artist for me to study. This is why I described the art form as a lifelong love affair in my book Opera 101. Some people thought it hyperbolic, but I know it to be true. And to the Pelleastrian, sounds like the opera should be called "Genevieve." I too love the Karajan performance.

Jun. 05 2011 08:28 AM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey

Hi Fred:

For the people who hate Debussy's opera I would recommend that they revisit Genevieve's 'Reading of Golaud's Letter' in Act 1 since it is the closest example to a conventional aria (about 4 minutes long) that the work offers. Or with the first orchestral interlude (the Parsifalian sounding one) that leads into Genevieve's beautiful passage. And then if he or she likes it, to the very beginning because there really is something very special about Act 1 -- the music is deeply inspired with its 'flow' and subtle melody. And then it's on to Act 2 which is even more perfect..

If one hates or doesn't respond to Act 1 then almost surely 'P&M' is not for that

As far as broadcast performances from the Met I can't think of any that are at all comparable to the Karajan recording on EMI. (for Act 1 at least)

And now I am getting off topic... Sorry!



Jun. 05 2011 08:07 AM
David Dunn Bauer from San Francisco

I'm surprised you don't know Kim Borg's work. His Sibelius recital on DG is one of the most exquisitely moving discs I know. Gorgeous singing. And I have absolutely no clue what he's singing about.

Jun. 05 2011 03:33 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

My only regret, Fred, is that you couldn't link to an audiophile of the Rysanek Scream.

Jun. 05 2011 01:28 AM
Erica Miner from CA

Wonderful essay, Fred, and what good news about the recordings being released. Thanks for sharing.

Jun. 04 2011 11:08 PM
Fred Plotkin

Correcting a typo from the comment below:
"...And to the Pelleastrian, I hope you know that I and others are grateful to opera lovers (not fans, but lovers) such as yourself..."

Jun. 04 2011 08:57 PM
Fred Plotkin from Vienna

Thanks to the three commenters below. To MAK: I am afraid the only recordings of Grandma Rose are in my head. She died in 1968 but I can still see and hear her in her small apartment in Queens with the plates of food and my glass of milk that came with a sweet at the end of the opera. The whole thing is so Proustian, but all positive. I think Sarah from Florida knows what I mean. And to the Pelleastrian, I hope you know that I am others are grateful to opera lovers (not fans, but lovers) such as yourself because you are an essential part of Planet Opera. Is there a broadcast performance from the Met of "Pelleas and Melisande" that you think those who do not yet "get" your favorite opera might want to hear?

Jun. 04 2011 08:52 PM

Wonderful recollection, Fred! It is too bad that there are not also recordings of your Grandma to go along with the Met re-issues-but we are lucky to now have her grandson superbly setting the scene for all of us.

You've rekindled my memories of also listening to the Saturday broadcasts as a child-and an appreciation of the life's enjoyment that they sowed. Then, they transported me to other worlds-your writing takes me back to that one. Thank you...I will look forward to re-listening and remembering.

Jun. 04 2011 03:47 PM
Sarah Malone from Florida

Thank you, Fred! Reading this brought back again many happy memories from my childhood ! I am so grateful that in my late adulthood I have been able to travel to the Met and other grand opera houses! I thank thank the Lord regularly for the technology that brings us the live performances in our local theaters!

Jun. 04 2011 12:45 PM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey


I forgot to add that I enjoy reading your weblog very much...


Jun. 04 2011 12:41 PM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey

"I know from my mail that some readers think I live entirely in the past, especially in terms of opera. That is completely wrong. I know such people, and they seldom venture out of their houses, away from their collections of LPs, CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs and more..."

Yup, that describes me to a tee... And I do not feel the least the bit ashamed.

"Listening to opera without seeing it is a special treat because we focus on storytelling through music and on the singing. Through listening we refine our knowledge of the music..."

Huh... doesn't this go without saying? Isn't this (the pure orchestral and vocal sounds) ultimately the whole point of opera?

"With our imaginations we create stage images..."

But again this is really beside the point.... Music (whether purely orchestral or operatic) most deeply affects people who already have rich inner emotional lives... I don't need to know a single thing about Maeterlinck's play to adore Debussy's opera or 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' to love Verdi's 'Falstaff' or anything about Judaism to adore Schoenberg's 'Moses and Aron' or Czech culture to love Smetana's 'Bartered Bride' and so on with every other opera...

Jun. 04 2011 12:34 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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