PUCCINI: Gianni Schicchi
GUILD GHCD 2230/31 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 78:10 / 78:04 (broadcast
March 12, 1949)
WAGNER: The Flying Dutchman
WAGNER: Der Ring Des Nibelungen
Major releases, all! These Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, all from more than a half-century ago, the earliest broadcast 67 years ago (!), are of incredible interest to collectors, giving us the opportunity to hear leading singers of the past in live performances.
Ljuba Welitsch's Salome is legendary, and this recording documents her first Met performance of the role. She already had made her Met debut as Salome Feb. 4, 1949. Her first Met broadcast was Aida Feb. 19, 1949 (a role really not suited for her), this Salome broadcast took place March 12, 1949. No one knew what to expect her Salome to be—although it was known she had studied the role with the composer and had given numerous acclaimed performances in Europe. Paul Jackson, author of Saturday Afternoon at the Old Met, said: "The voice is an ideal Salome voice suggesting the child seductress with delicate, shimmering tones which never fail to penetrate the orchestral mass, or spewing forth in strong bands of steel in the highest tessitura and middle voice; often she wraps its cutting edge in a sheath of honeyed, almost Rethberg-like tone. Now and then she dabbles in a touch of brassy chest tone as Salome's degrading impulses surface. And Welitsch is mistress of Strauss' sinuous line. She whips her voice in and out and around the tortuous melodies with seeming complete spontaneity; the utter freedom of her vocal line is mesmerizing." Irving Kolodin said of Reiner's conducting (which was his debut with the company), "...(he) delivered as tense and comprehending a performance of the orchestral score as the Metropolitan has ever heard...and...with Ljuba Welitsch as Salome, the most absorbing production of the drama in its considerable Met history...for her Salome alone, Welitsh was a new figure of legend."
And, indeed, it is legendary. Fortunately Welitsch's voice was still in its prime; this was just before a serious decline in vocal prowess occurred, evicent in her Salome broadcast of 1952 which has been released officially by the Met (for a hefty price). The soprano's concept of the role remains, but the voice is not as fresh or controlled as three years earlier. This Guild release, remastered from the original NBC broadcast transcriptions, has the finest sound I've ever heard for this broadcast, voices quite prominent permitting us to hear Welitsch's total performance, including the gasps as Jochanaan walks back to the cistern after cursing her (CD2, track 5). I've never seen Welitsch as Salome but I am told by someone who had that priviledge that at this point she is kneeling in front of him and holds onto Jochanaan as he walks away—which explains those exclamations.
In those days the Met surely gave audiences their money's worth. On this occasion, Salome was preceded by Puccini's Gianni Schicchi which also had an all-star cast mentioned above. It was standard at the time to have two operas if the featured one was rather short. At a performance in 1942, Salome (conducted by George Szell with Lili Djanel) was preceded by Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona; at another by Cavalleria Rusticana. Elektra also usually had another opera as opener, often Rossini's Il Signor Bruschino! Both of the Guild CDs are filled to capacity including Milton Cross' radio commentary—a glimpse into the past, indeed!
Flying Dutchman is yet another treasure from December 30, 1950, the first broadcast of this opera by the Met. And what a cast! Hans Hotter, the leading bass-baritone of his time, in the title role; Astrid Varnay, whose impromptu Met performance as Sieglinde in Die Walküre in 1941 (heard in the Naxos Ring), a brilliant Senta, Set Svanhom a sterling Eric—and, of course, Fritz Reiner's dynamic conducting. This was remastered by Ward Marston, who in the notes describes the problems with various sources for this performance.
And what a privilege it is to be able to hear a Ring cycle from the Met featuring legendary singers of the era including the astounding Lauritz Melchior, Astrid Varnay's last-minute debut as Sieglinde for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann, Friedrich Schorr's magnificent Wotan, and three sopranos as Brünnhilde. Helen Traubel is heard in Walküre, Kirsten Flagstad in Siegfried, and American Marjorie Lawrence in Götterdämmerung. This was the first time Lawrence had sung this opera at the Met and at the conclusion she does indeed ride the horse, Grane, into the flames, an action the director didn't want her to attempt. It was so effective she continued to do it in her other performances of the role (Try to see the 1955 MGM film Interrupted Melody, the life story of Marjorie Lawrence who is acted by Eleanor Parker, sung superbly by Eileen Farrell. The Götterdämmerung incident is vividly depicted). These are dynamic performances with conductors Bodanzky and Leinsdorf; neither dawdles one bit and there always is a forward impetus.
Sound on this Ring cycle is variable but always acceptable and often very, very good. On occasion the pitch isn't always steady, but balances between voices and orchestra generally are fine, and any sonic deficiencies are moot considering value of these historic performances. Ward Marston restored Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, Richard Canelli (who was responsible for the Guild Salome above) restored Rheingold, and Walküre was done by K & A Productions Ltd.
For opera lovers all of these historic recordings are essential. For copyright reasons they cannot be sold in the United States but they are readily available in Europe.
R.E.B. (August 2003)