Listening Room: Historic Live Performances from the Met

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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?