Historic Der Freischutz on CD/DVD

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz on CD and DVD

Bard College’s 2014 SummerScape offering of Weber’s Euryanthe realized on stage what most of us knew only by sound from recordings, even if that. Thinking this experience might spark an exploration of the operas of Carl Maria von Weber, I thought I’d revisit the ones I know. Der Freischütz ranks highly among my top 200 operas; alas Weber’s Euryanthe and Oberon and the lesser ones, such as Die drei Pintos and Abu Hassan, do not. I like them, and I confess I’m liking them more and more as I write this…but one has to draw the line somewhere.

This review of releases of Der Freischütz is certainly not meant to be all-inclusive: the recordings listed below are only the ones on my shelf, by far not all the ones available. I cite the labels of these; some of them are first releases on CD, but others are re-issues. Should you seek one, search by the complete cast: labels and cover art change over time.

Furthermore, as I write, rumors abound saying recordings that are flat and spin face extinction in the very near future. Hopefully, though, the content of these and all other great legendary recordings will be preserved for future generations and easily available in whatever new media come our way. Stick with the cast.

Some praise Wilhelm Furtwängler’s performance of Freischütz as an important historical document. But though live from the stage of the famed Salzburg Festival in July of 1954, just a few months before the great maestro’s death, this recording in no way should be a first choice for newcomers to Freischütz.

True, Furtwängler brings out an occasional hidden profundity in the score, but some of his tempi are leaden, as if Anton Bruckner had re-written the dances and the duet for Ännchen and Agathe in the beginning of Act II. Other drawbacks include overall poor sound quality, some of the cast members, and just plain noise, both on stage and in the audience. The overture, for instance, begins quietly with woodwinds, strings, horns, and eruptions of assorted respiratory ailments.

Hans Hopf was my first Siegfried at the Met in 1963. Not what you’d call a lyric tenor, he, as Max, is at best serviceable: a beefy voice with good volume and a hefty ring. To his credit, he warms up and, necessary for a live performance, he can be heard over the orchestra. But I’m not a fan. Kurt Böhme’s Kaspar is wonderfully menacing, though he is captured to better advantage on the Jochum recording, as is Rita Streich’s Ännchen (see below). The great Elisabeth Grümmer shines as Agathe, but you’ll hear more poise, more nuances and more soul from her on the Keilberth studio recording. Otto Edelmann is the Hermit. My CDs for this performance are issued by the Gala label, but it’s probably available on other labels too.

As live performances of Der Freischütz go, Erich Kleiber’s 1955 radio broadcast performance, released by Koch, is the best I’ve heard. Same era, also many of the same principals, but here it is quite well recorded: Elisabeth Grümmer’s heavenly elegance shines through her every line and Rita Streich is far more perky than with Furtwängler. Hans Hopf is heard to better advantage, sweeter, richer, even at times subtle; Max Proebstl is a good Kaspar. Kurt Böhme is the Hermit in this one. Erich Kleiber’s approach to Freischütz is refined and reverential, chamber-like in some sections, an alternative certainly to Jochum or to Kleiber’s son Carlos (see below). The Kolner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester handle Weber’s score aptly; actors speak the dialogue; there are unobtrusive but at first surprising sound effects to enhance the Wolf Glen Scene and elsewhere. If you like ‘live,’ this is the one.

But musically and vocally the best Freischütz on my shelf on CD comes from the studio under the direction of Eugen Jochum and the Orchestra of the Bayerischen Rundfunks (DG 1960). This one really sizzles! The cast features Kurt Böhme’s matchless Kaspar, who verges on a true sinister mania.

The best recording of Der Freischütz

The best recording of Der Freischütz

Max is pleasingly sung by Richard Holm, whose light tenor brings an easy sound of youth and innocence to the character. This fits: Max and Agathe, certainly Ännchen are, after all, young people, possibly even teenagers. Agathe is performed by a bright young Irmgard Seefried, who, like Gundula Janowitz in Carlos Kleiber’s Freischütz (see below) creates a certain degree of emotional distance vocally between her character and the listener. If you like a certain ‘chill’ to Agathe, then no problem. Both Seefried and Janowitz are heavenly, don’t get me wrong, but Grümmer on EMI, to my ears, has much more warmth to her expression.

Ännchen is charmingly sung by Rita Streich, always a favorite singer of mine. Jochum backs her spunk and fetching optimism all the way. Luxury casting includes baritone Eberhard Wächter as a youthful Ottokar and Paul Kuen as the bauer Kilian. A tad disappointing is Walter Kreppel as the Hermit: I want far more gravity in the voice to match the gravity of the moment.

Fans will note that these were the new and established German stars of that era: Kuen was a favorite Mime at Bayreuth; he, Wächter (as Donner), Kreppel and Kurt Böhme (as Fasolt and Fafner respectively) had all appeared only a few years earlier in Georg Solti’s groundbreaking Das Rheingold, the beginning of the legendary first studio Ring in stereo on Decca, produced by John Culshaw.

The dialogue is greatly trimmed, in my mind not a drawback for repeated listening. The music is the thing. No libretto is included in this 2 CD DG Opera House series release.

Another fine recording of Der Freischütz from Joseph Keilberth

Another fine recording of Der Freischütz from Joseph Keilberth

The Freischütz on EMI (1959) with Joseph Keilberth and the Berlin Philharmoniker was my very first, though it was the LP release on Seraphim, which omitted most of the dialogue save that of the Wolf Glen Scene and a line or two here or there. If Keilberth can’t whip up the visceral energy of Jochum’s or Kleiber’s conception, he is still competitive: this recording sports a first rate cast and most of the dialogue on the CD release. Elisabeth Grümmer is again a lovely, soulful Agathe, paired nicely with a sweet Lisa Otto as Ännchen. If Rudolf Schock, for me, never quite displayed the elegance of Nicolai Gedda in that swell of operetta recordings in the 50s and 60s, he makes for a very pleasing Max here (which, alas, is not the case for Mr. Gedda’s Max on a later EMI Freischütz with a miscast Birgit Nilsson as Agathe). Bass Karl Christian Kohn is a competitive Kaspar, but stick with Böhme if you must only have one. The great Gottlob Frick gives ample authority to the Hermit. There is the sound of redemption!

Oddly, though, the recorded sound levels change inexplicably in this release. Surely this aspect could have been adjusted in a digital remastering. There is a complete libretto with notes in English, but the libretto in my set was in German only.

Carlos Kleiber’s 1973 recording of Freischütz on DG in stereo runs a close second to the Jochum, certainly with Kleiber’s razor sharp conception, which, at some times, surprises one with eccentric tempi. But he leads a first rate orchestra, the famous Staatskapelle of Dresden. A real home game this one, in other words. The cast is uniformly solid, particularly Bernd Weikl as Ottokar, Siegfried Vogel as Kuno, Gundula Janowitz as Agathe, Edith Mathis as Ännchen, and Peter Schreier as Max. Schreier, like Holm, brings a lighter, more lyric voice to his role. Edith Mathis, like Streich, is firmly in the soubrette parts, if not quite as chipper; she is also Ännchen on the first of two Hamburg State Opera productions to be released on DVD (see below). Even these many years later I haven’t yet warmed up to Theo Adam’s Kaspar, neither in his voice nor in his conception of the role. Böhme and Karl Christian Kohn are far more expressive characters on CD.

The audio-theatrical aspects of the Solti/Culshaw Ring on Decca challenged recording engineers hereafter to conceive of the drama-on-record in a two dimensional sonic space. Happily, like most DG releases from the early 70s, Kleiber’s Freischütz is not over-the-top in this respect. Still, in creating depth some of the characters are recorded at a greater distance than they should be: the impact of the Hermit’s entrance at the end is muted by placing Franz Crass back from the microphones. The dialogue, also relatively complete, is spoken by actors who are relatively good matches for the singers.

My first Freischütz “on stage,” if that’s the right phrase here, was a screening of the Hamburg State Opera’s production, directed for TV in 1968 by Joachim Hess, eventually shown on screen at Lincoln Center in 1970. Rolf Liebermann, Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Opera at the time, oversaw this and the taping of several other operas in his company’s repertory, which, if you can get it, are still available as a boxed DVD set.

This classic performance of the Hamburg State Opera ’68 Freischütz, as well as the ensuing two cited below, is available on DVD on the ARTHAUS Musik label. It stars a familiar ensemble from that era, including Tom Krause as Ottokar, Ernst Kozub as Max, Arlene Saunders as Agathe, Edith Mathis as Ännchen, and Gottlob Frick as Kaspar. The Hermit is Hans Sotin. Leopold Ludwig conducts.

Taped in a relatively cramped studio, the scenic demands are only partially realized, particularly those of the Wolf Glen Scene. But Gottlob Frick, who recorded extensively in Europe yet appeared at the Met only a dozen times in the Ring of the 1961-1962 season, is worth the price of the disc just to see and hear his rendering of Kaspar. Arlene Saunders is quite lovely and Mathis is pert, as she would be soon after at the Met in a new production of Freischütz in the fall of 1971. All in all, the totality is most acceptable under the circumstances.

But the Hamburg State Opera’s video of Freischütz from 1999, directed for TV by Peter Konwitschny, under the musical direction of Ingo Metzmacher, is yet again another story. The elevator at the edge of the stage at the opera’s opening bodes ill, and, sure enough, this one delivers a heaping, steaming platter of Euro-Trash.

Samuel, the dark huntsman (a speaking role only), wanders in and out of the scenes. At one point the pervert flashes the girls, at another point he recites the text of the Hunter’s Chorus in front of the curtain as a sort of standup comedian. At the opera’s grand conclusion the characters exchange business cards. Give me a break! Unless there’s documented evidence that Weber and librettist Friedrich Kind even remotely thought of Der Freischütz as a joke it is a mistake to treat it as one.

However, musically, the Hamburg State Opera ‘99 is decently sung. As a ‘soundtrack only,’ the DVD might be worth the purchase. Agathe is Charlotte Margiono, certainly a respectable voice; Ännchen is a strong Sabine Ritterbusch, Kaspar is quite effectively characterized by Albert Dohmen, who today (2014) is a much sought-after Wotan on the world stage. Max is Jorma Silvasti, known at the Met for his performances in the Janáček repertory.

Happily, diametrically opposed to the above, we have Jens Neubert’s vision of this ghostly tale recently released on DVD, so titled The Hunter’s Bride.

Why? Because it (in German Die Jägersbraut) was one of the original working titles of Weber’s opera. Also because Der Freischütz doesn’t conveniently translate into English (it sort of means “the marksman (Der Schütz) whose bullets, through magic, freely (ergo Frei) hit their target without being aimed.” Interestingly, the origins of the hit-without-aim concept, albeit with an arrow, apparently go back to the very dark days (in 1484) of Sprenger and Krämer’s Malleus Malleficarum.

The Hunter's Bride, Der Freischütz on film.

The Hunter's Bride, Der Freischütz on film.

But more importantly it’s called The Hunter’s Bride because director Jens Neubert wishes to refocus the drama to what he feels was Weber’s original conception, wherein the central character is Agathe, not Max, and the time is Weber’s present, that of war torn Dresden of 1813, not back in time to the 1640s, the end of the Thirty Years War (which apparently was a dodge to avoid censorship). Napoleon and his shattered forces are in retreat through Saxony from their debacle in the Russian winter. Former alliances are crumbling.

For starters, the soundtrack for this film (the soloists and chorus and London Symphony Orchestra, led by Daniel Harding) is extremely fine. Harding has that firm grip on the score, echoing Jochum and Kleiber. The overture is played intact with images and events preceding the stage action, some done as a puppet show, but also we see the portrait falling and cracking Agathe on the forehead, the battles, the deaths and the misery, interspersed by cannon fire and gunshots, horses and cries. The film also clearly acknowledges differences in social strata: Max is a hunter and a marksman, but he is defeated in the shooting contest by a bauer, a peasant. Small wonder he feels jinxed and depressed.

The sopranos, new to me, are finely cast: Juliane Banse (Agathe) and Regula Mühlemann (Ännchen) are young, slender and most attractive to watch; they sing their parts with great aplomb. The two women take comfort in and clearly enjoy each other’s company. Agathe has her dreams and nightmares and Ännchen, always upbeat and supportive, has her fantasies of Mr. Right. I love Mühlemann. She is a winner in every way.

It may be difficult to grasp what the prim and gentle Agathe sees in a rough, sweaty Max here. Perhaps it’s the drift toward realism afforded by the medium of film that allows the display of some all-too-human qualities often overlooked in most opera productions. But Michael König as Max (and director Neubert) actually raise the stakes of the drama by making it fairly clear that the poor fellow is suffering from a real mental breakdown. Could be post-traumatic stress: he nearly escapes death in the battle during the overture.

Also it could be the dilemma he’s in: he’s off his game, and if he loses the shooting contest at sunrise, he loses Agathe’s hand in marriage. Michael Volle’s Kaspar is also a winning creation. Clearly (in the overture) he and Max have shouldered arms together through the bloodshed. But Kaspar is desperate: he needs Max’s soul (and maybe Agathe’s) to save his own.

In these days of CGI, where entire nations of orcs, hobbits, wizards, spirits, multi horned mastodons, ghosts, etc. can entrance the eye, I was a bit surprised that Neubert’s Wolf Glen Scene falls shy of Kind’s original (and graphic) stage directions. But the outdoor on-location scenery is atmospheric enough, with the bodies of dead soldiers strewn about. Most important, the music tells it all: the conjuring of the magic bullets is a major event of the opera, even here, even if some of the spirits on the periphery are not graphically apparent. I highly recommend Neubert’s Freischütz film, especially if you’re not, as some fans are, put off by opera-on-film.

The repertory of German opera in the first half of the 19th century is very rewarding for those who wish to take the plunge. One assumes that you know Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’sDie Zauberflöte, also maybe Die Entführung aus dem Serail. These at least have been performed at the Met in recent years, as have all of Wagner’s operas from Der fliegende Holländer onward. Since much of this repertory is not on DVD, you’ll have to be satisfied with audio.

That said, the next step from Der Freischütz is either more Weber (Euryanthe or Oberon) or to Lortzing (Der Wildschütz or Zar und Zimmermann), Nicolai (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor), Marschner (Hans Heiling), Schumann (Genoveva), Flotow (Martha) or Schubert (Alfonso und Estrella). Wagner’s big three Romantic operas are Der fliegende HolländerTannhäuser, and Lohengrin, but it’s impossible that you don’t already know these. Der Wildschütz and Zar und Zimmermann are personal favorites of mine.

More on these later. It's good to have this one back!  JRS

Pavarotti remastered!

Pavarotti Remastered: hmmmmm, must be a theme this year…

Decca has just released three remastered opera recordings by the late great Luciano Pavarotti, et al., a move representing perhaps the tip of a very very large iceberg…who knows? He was a big star, after all.

Different from the source material for the Warner Classics’ Callas Remastered project (see OperaMetro’s Callas Remastered posted below this one), the Decca recordings were already considered sound spectaculars back in the day, first released on vinyl in the early 70s, then on CD in the mid 80s, and now, drumroll please, for the 10s, wait, how many years later? Is this even possible? Now we’re offered the original studio tapes remastered with the latest technology and issued as deluxe combo albums of 2 CDs (for conventional CD players at home and on the road) and also the complete opera on a single bomber surround sound Pure audio Blu ray DVD (for Blu ray DVD players only). The discs are in sleeves which serve as book covers for the thick glossy cast list, track listings, happily-Decca-discovered-Pav kind of hype, historical program notes, who did what when, synopsis and the complete libretto in four languages sandwiched between them.  

The three Pavarotti remasters follow the 2012 release of the completely remastered Der Ring des Nibelungen on Decca, Georg Solti on the podium, surely one of the major sonic booms of the mid-1960s. Here is Birgit Nilsson in her glorious prime, each opera cast (mostly) to strength, and if not to strength, at least 'seasoned,' in short a real wow! In Solti’s hands Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung (side 12 as I recall) literally shook my windows, probably also those of my neighbors, in the spring of 1965, the year of its release on London ffss LPs in the USA. Every subsequent reworking of this baby has been a mover and shaker in context: my windows rattled again doing the comparison of the LPs with the first CD release in the mid-80s; the de-hissed remastering of 1997 was major (I still swear by it); one can only imagine the sound of this new CD/audio Blu ray DVD combo. I haven’t heard them yet. But I shall.

The 2012 Solti remastered Ring came in a big box, also with, as I recall reading the ads, books (among them John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding), a DVD of The Golden Ring (a thrilling documentary on the recording of Götterdämmerung: watch Nilsson do the Immolation Scene!), CD’s of Deryck Cooke’s enlightening analysis of Ring’s Leitmotifs with examples, Solti conducting Wagner overtures and assorted things, maybe even a shard of Nothung, one of Fafner’s bones for conjuring, or half of the friggin’ anvil. Anything’s possible. But this here is not about the Ring. I shall regroup.

Of the three new Pavarotti releases, each has something special to offer above and beyond better sound. John Ardoin, referring to Maria Callas’s 1955 recording of Cio Cio San, said of its conductor “[Herbert von] Karajan seems to view Butterfly as an orchestral poem with voices as much as [it is] an opera” (The Callas Legacy, Scribners, 1977, p. 101). If perhaps EMI’s monaural sonics weren’t quite up to the maestro’s snuff in ’55, in '74 Decca gave HVK and Vienna Philharmonic the green light to show their stuff and realize his vision: under his direction Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, and Robert Kerns is indeed a symphonic poem, perhaps, for better or worse, the most spectacular Butterfly you’ll ever hear. And that’s before it was recently remastered.

Those familiar with a more ‘Italianate’ reading of the work might find the whole thing pretty heavy going, fearing that, say, Richard Strauss had somehow changed the dynamics of Puccini’s score or Richard Wagner, rising from the dead but remarkably fresh from composing the aforementioned Funeral March, had somehow altered the tempi and the cumulative weight of the Act III Interlude…this Butterfly, in other words, is huge, which, if you like huge, will be most satisfying. But if you like huge (and you go back that far) you also know HVK’s La Boheme (Decca, 1972) with Pavarotti and Freni, quite huge too in its way relative to the competition. For that matter, so is HVK’s Tristan und Mélisande (EMI, 1978)…just kidding, it's the Debussy love triangle with von Stade, Stilwell, and van Dam, just heavier than the French style. Bottom line, his Butterfly is not really surprising if you’re familiar with HVK’s other recordings from his mid-70s period, particularly his Bruckner and Strauss. Happily all of the singers are in excellent voice.

I, for one, prefer Sir John Barbirolli’s conception of Butterfly, and especially Renata Scotto (my first Butterfly at the Met) and Carlo Bergonzi (EMI) but, always important: there’s room for other Butterflys on my shelf. I love the HVK with Callas too. The Pappano with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, also on EMI, isn't half bad either.

For the record (or rather for the big screen) HVK again conducted the Vienna Phil and his singers for the soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of Madama Butterfly, again with Freni, Ludwig, Kerns, but this time with a young Placido Domingo. Ponnelle now and then resorts to his familiar directorial opera-on-film gambit of characters ‘Yo! I'm only thinking this, not really singing it’ as they can do on film but can't get away with on stage. I think that, in addition to the symphonic weight, it gives the performance an additional chill. The DVD, available since 1990, has recently been released on Blu ray. Probably sounds wonderful.

Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland star in remastered Turandot from Decca

Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland star in remastered Turandot from Decca

And then there is Puccini’s grand Turandot, which a reviewer from Gramophone called “one of the finest of the many operas made in London’s Kingsway Hall.” It was released on LP in 1973, on CD in 1984. Though I’m completely in Birgit Nilsson’s corner for this role (she was my first Turandot on stage at the Met and sings on three CD recordings on my shelf), I have to say that Joan Sutherland’s take on the ice-princess is powerfully chilling yet ultimately affecting and vocally secure right up to the very top. Pavarotti is in his absolute prime, Nessun dorma at its best, years before The Three Tenors; having Montserrat Caballé as Liu, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Timur, Tom Krause as Ping, and Peter Pears as the Emperor in the cast is simply luxurious. Zubin Mehta, never my very model of subtlety, weaves a very fine sonic framework with the London Philharmonic Orchestra: he creates an aura of timeless ethereal magical spaces between the larger, more showy numbers. Turandot, after all, is based on a Commedia fairy tale, albeit a grim one, scripted in the 18th century by Carlo Gozzi. There’s already room on my shelf for this recording.

The third is a less well touted duet for Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland (with her husband Richard Bonynge at the helm), released in 1970, but no less an achievement. Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore is an Italian opera buffa, but its longevity in the repertory (since its premiere in 1831) is due to its differences from others in the genre. The characters in this one have subtle personalities that peek out through the conventions. These were the days of Decca's re-recordings of the Bellini/Donizetti repertory, Sutherland and a young Pavarotti, she the Margot Fonteyn and he the Rudolf Nureyev of the opera world; Sutherland wastes no time in demonstrating her vocal prowess. Consistent with the new depth of character she brought to this second round of recordings, she gives an air of intelligence and authority to Adina; Pavarotti is straightforward and pleasantly, not to say 'peasantly' unaffected. Also vocally brilliant. As if to make a point of the depth of their research into the performance history of the bel canto repertory, Bonynge and Sutherland insert an aria different from Adina’s traditional and simple (and very touching) Prendi; prendi, per me sei libero in Act 2. The new aria apparently was inserted by the great Maria Malibran. Yes, singers often did these things back then. And Donizetti approved. Why not? Malibran is singing his music! Depending on how attached you are to Prendi, the ploy is either a welcome and an historically informative substitution or a distracting mistake, but, this said, it’s certainly well sung. Though not my first choice for L’Elisir, this is a fine recording as well as the two above.

And now for the sonics: recalling the wisdom of my father’s silk purse and the sow’s ear saying (quoted in the Callas Remastered post below), recall that, as mentioned above, the current Decca project has far more recent “state of the art” source material to remaster. The three Pavarotti recordings are remastered at 24-bit, “ultra-high-quality” 96 kHz, under the technical supervision of Philip Siney, with the assistance of sound engineers from Abby Road Studios, Finesplice, and British Grove Studios.

The sound? Wonderful, of course, as stored on the disc. So unless the physical CD/DVD has a crack or is covered with finger smudges and so it snags or skips, everything you’ll ever need to hear, given the original source material, is right there in your hands.

But, digressing here, the degree of aural satisfaction, as always, depends a lot on essentially three things under your control: 1) the quality of your player; 2) the quality of your sound system, including connections, particularly player to amplifier and amplifier to speakers, the speakers themselves (however many you have), as well the programming of your amplifier (i.e., how you’ve configured the sound field); and 3) certainly related, the acoustical characteristics of your cave, including the dimensions, the placement of the speakers therein, as well as the walls, floors, furniture, drapes, etc., and also, the throne, i.e., where you tend to sit in the room.

Some things you most likely can’t control are the amounts of extraneous noise both in your house and from the world outside; something you may have difficulty controlling is the amount of time you can dedicate to undisturbed focused, in-the-zone quality listening. It depends on your family situation, your position on the dominance hierarchy, and your negotiating style. As I write this my home theater surround sound space is in Downton.

Listen, though, these parameters are critical: audiophiles, like wine tasters, attend to aspects of the sound picture most of us often miss, in part because of the playback. One of my friends claims he can tell the relative humidity in the studio on the day a recording was made. How many arguments do you need to hear to be convinced? Don’t you know that Carnegie Hall has better acoustics than Avery Fisher Hall? The Met always had better acoustics than the State Theater (it still does); Symphony Hall in Boston has better acoustics than Carnegie, I’m told, especially after the latter’s stage renovations; some say the Academy of Music in Philadelphia has the best acoustics of any concert hall in the country; and just wait until you hear the sound in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Unbelievable! For every point there’s a counterpoint. But I digress even further.

Cut to the chase here: the remastered CDs (2 channel stereo still) sound better than my older CDs when played back to back on every sound system in my world, including those in my automobiles and they certainly sound better than the LPs (alas, on this medium in my collection only Turandot is left) on the same amp and speakers. On the new ones there is far more orchestral detail, more aural space, more layers of sound, the voices seem more natural, less edgy, less in your face, more embracing.

As for the Blu ray surround sound audio DVD, it's not true 'surround sound.' The fine print doesn't actually list it as 5.1, 7.1 or whatever. It's 2 channels on my amp. To quote Dottore Dulcamara in L'Elisir d'Amore: "e Bordo, non elisir." But it can be pushed to 'surround' with the proper options. It depends on the number of possible sound fields your amplifier offers you. Experiment with this: there’s probably one that will make everything close to wonderful for the Blu ray audio DVDs. Of the 28 different sound fields I could muster with my amp, three or four were very good, but ‘normal surround’ (or its equivalent) seemed to work best, though, after my first test run, I increased slightly the volume of my center speaker and two rear speakers. You have to play with it.

Decca’s three remastered Pavarotti recordings, two Puccini operas and one Donizetti are well worth sampling, especially if you’re new to these: he, as each of the principal singers, is in great form. Having heard all of the principals live on stage I can tell you that the recordings don't exaggerate. But if you already have these or any of the big man’s other operas on CD, I’d wait until the remastered pure audio Blu ray DVDs are sold separately, especially if you listen to the CDs in environments fraught with outside noise. The bump up in quality is compromised by a noisy environment.

Related, and referring back to Solti’s Ring: I’ve already parted with two different media formats of the complete epic, one the originally released LPs, purchased one by one as they came out, and the other the first CD releases. I’m very content with my 1997 CD remastered Solti Ring and I've had all of the books and the Cooke LPs to refer to when I need them…don’t need the box, in other words. I feel as if I've invested lots already in the Solti Ring. But the remastered Ring in surround sound on a single pure audio Blu ray DVD, sold separately, could come over and sit on my shelf any time it wants to, assuming, of course, that the price is right. I'm running out of arms and legs. Likewise the Sutherland/Pavarotti/Bonynge Lucia or Puritani on pure audio Blu ray is moste welcome, but, again, I don’t need the CDs or another libretto.

Enjoy. The recovery of a glorious past is a blessing. Especially when it is wonderful!

Maria Callas remastered!

CALLAS REMASTERED: The Complete Studio Recordings

 This box of CDs, ready to be wrapped, comes with the promise you’ll hear Maria Callas as never before. Are you ready?

Warner Classics released recently Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings, a 69-CD deluxe box set containing all the studio recordings of the complete operas and recital albums Maria Callas made for both EMI/Columbia and the Italian label Cetra between 1949 and 1969.

The great Maria Callas recorded and remastered

The great Maria Callas recorded and remastered

 A labor of love, Abbey Road Studios painstakingly remastered each recording, using the original tapes, in 24-bit/96kHz sound using Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond speakers. The box set contains the studio recordings of her 26 complete operas and 13 recital albums, but, more than this, it is conceived as a true collector’s edition: Callas Remastered presents each individual opera or recital CD in its original cover artwork (do you remember the graphic of the front portals of La Scala?). Also within are a 136-page hardcover book with essays, a biography and chronology, rarely-seen photos and even reproductions of letters written by Maria Callas, Walter Legge and other EMI executives. The opera librettos and aria texts are provided on a separate CD-ROM.

 It’s difficult to imagine that there might be opera lovers today who don’t know the art and voice of Maria Callas, but then, when one does the math, the distance in time between her last stage performances / recordings and today is about the same as the distance in time between the likes of Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, Geraldine Farrar, and Giuseppe de Luca and my first season at the Met…so did I know their voices? No way; at least I’d heard of Caruso, but I certainly hadn’t heard any of them on recordings nor did I understand their place in history just yet. Suffice it to say that one’s appreciation for opera’s glorious past is very much enhanced by hearing the voices of, and, if they exist, seeing the films of the legendary artists.

 Maria Callas is the stuff of legend. Not without controversy, of course, not without rivals or detractors. Look, I know folks who couldn’t back then and still can’t warm up to her voice, as if for them the door of discovery, their openness to new experiences, is actually pad locked. Their loss: Callas Remastered illustrates in sound what legend means.

OperaMetro recommends the box set Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings on the grounds that, though I don’t have the box and therefore haven’t heard all of the remastered CDs, not to mention the time, I’ve heard enough of them to judge their overall high quality. I know most of the original recordings in the box from previous releases on CD and, yes, even on vinyl. Her voice from such a black vinyl platter is the soundtrack as I write this.

But on the greater likelihood that you, dear fan, will want to sample the water before taking the plunge, OperaMetro here recommends the ten best complete studio operas with Maria Callas on the basis of the performances. My draw is mostly from the previous round of the then ‘newly remastered’ CD releases by EMI in the late 1990s. Not bad, but not as good as the new ones.

The first five on my list are, personal opinion, not only the very best of Maria Callas in roles that suited her voice and her intelligence perfectly, but they are also among the best recordings of the operas themselves. In each her colleagues were, for the most part, well suited to their roles so that they complement her performance rather than detract. All listed below are monaural unless otherwise noted.

1. Tosca, recorded in August of 1953. Some call this Tosca the greatest recording in the history of opera. Here is Maria Callas with Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi, all in their prime, conducted by Victor de Sabata. Callas especially is at her absolute vocal peak. The role of Tosca was both a perfect vocal and emotional fit for her, giving her ample opportunity to demonstrate her art of communicating the subtle and not so subtle shifts of Tosca’s intentions, reactions, her varying emotions…it’s all there. This ‘53 Tosca is one of those ‘the-stars-are-aligned, everybody’s got his or her game voice on, everything-comes-together, let’s nail it today, kids’ kind of recordings…If you’re a Tosca fan you should not be without it!

Stats: Callas sang Tosca 53 times in her career; it was her last role at the Met in March of 1965 (the one and only time I saw her) and her last on stage, period, at Covent Garden in July of that year.

2. Un Ballo in Maschera, recorded September, 1956, is, for me, one of the best documents of this middle Verdi opera (rivaled by the Ballo by Beniamino Gigli, Maria Caniglia and Gino Bechi from 1943 or by Jussi Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov and Alexander Sved in the live broadcast of the Ballo from the Met on December 14, 1940). Callas is again with di Stefano and Gobbi, but joined here by the great mezzo Fedora Barbieri, conducted by Antonio Votto. Callas’s Amelia is a deeply troubled soul throughout, as well she should be, rising to abandon in the extended duet in Act II with Riccardo, here sung by Giuseppe di Stefano. Gobbi gives many facets to Renato’s character.

As an aside, sources at Warner Classics tell OperaMetro that they are considering the remastering of Callas’s live-on-stage recordings. If it’s really a go and if they’ve acquired the tapes, seek her live performance from La Scala with di Stefano, Ettore Bastianini, and Giulietta Simionato. It’s wonderful too. Stats: Callas sang Amelia 5 times; the live recording captures her first time singing Amelia on stage, December 7, 1957, a year after the studio recording.

3. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with di Stefano and Rolando Panerai, conducted by Serafin, recorded in August of 1953, and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci with di Stefano, Gobbi and Panerai, conducted by Serafin, recorded in June of 1954, is the next one.

Cav and Pag are two operas, I know this. But then I also count Wagner’s Ring as one big opera.

What strikes one listening to this traditional verismo marriage is that Callas takes characters often dismissed as simplistic and elevates them to a new level: she projects every word she sings as if she feels it and, as important, she, like Tito Gobbi, is able to express it all with a great degree of subtlety, not grand operatic histrionics. She can be innocent and in love as the Nedda with Silvio or the caged lion as the Nedda who confronts the stalking and spiteful Tonio. Her Santuza deeply suffers throughout. Again her cast cooperates: though a lighter voice than I prefer for Canio, Di Stefano will curl your hair with his manic finale to Pagliacci. Gobbi is a menacing, but also, to a degree, a complicated Tonio. Serafin’s conducting always supports his singers and the drama but never draws attention to itself. Callas sang Santuzza on stage only twice, once in 1938 at age 15, and again in 1944; she never sang Nedda in performance.

Take advantage of the CD-ROM: following the text along with her is very revealing. Singers like Callas and Gobbi, some others as well, Gigli, Olivero, Ferrier, Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau, Baker, Christoff, Hampson…stand apart from their contemporaries because of their attention to the meaning of the words they are singing, but, also important, because of their ability to express these meanings. They seemed to know always what their characters are thinking and feeling in context of the music and the drama. They are ‘directed from within,’ not merely told what to do by someone else. Callas maintained that it was ‘all in the music,’ implying that any singer could to it. Whatever…she obviously listened to the music and did it.

And now for the new sound: the Cav and Pag were the first of the newly remastered releases I sampled. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” my father used to say, one of his many wise sayings, which here translates into: you can’t retrieve information that is not on the original source recording. It’s therefore not surprising that there are still sonic limitations within the aural space, even with the remastering, especially, I find, with the space around the chorus. But the remastering brings the soloists and orchestral details more forward, accentuated here to their full advantage, yet, paradoxically softened. The best analog: the remastered CDs restore the warm sound of the voices as could be heard on an exquisite vinyl release (I used EMI LPs imported from Germany in the late 1970s as my comparison), but without the pits, scratches, surface noise, and turntable rumble one’s listening experience inevitably fell prey to with the old Angel LPs in the old days.

4. and 5. The roles of Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (recorded in August of 1954) and Gioconda in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (recorded in stereo in September of 1959) also play to Callas’s considerable vocal and dramatic strengths. However, these two recordings put her in different company: for Forza, Callas sings with Richard Tucker, Carlo Tagliabue, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Renato Cappechi, Tulio Serafin, her wise mentor, conducts; for Gioconda, she sings with Fiorenza Cossotto, Pier Miranda Ferraro, a young Piero Cappuccilli, and Ivo Vinco, Antonio Votto conducts.

Callas makes Verdi’s Leonora come alive, especially in her big moments: her long scene with Rossi-Lemeni is quite moving; Tucker is a passionate Alvaro. I had only the highlights LP of this Forza, though long since deceased. My remastered complete recording on 3 CDs is already a cherished resident on my shelf. Stats: Callas sang Leonora in Forza only 5 times on stage.

Gioconda was one of Callas’s early stage successes, notably at the Arena in Verona, Italy. These eventually led to a complete recording, her first opera on Cetra in 1952 (also included in the Callas Remastered box). But the 1959 stereo recording has a deeper, more thoughtful Gioconda from Callas, plus better sound and a better cast all around. There is no shortage of high voltage singing, particularly most of Act II, especially with Callas and Fiorenza Cossotto. It was one of the first Callas operas I replaced on CD. The Angel LPs had eventually become unlistenable. Stats: Callas sang Gioconda 12 times on stage, mostly early in her career.

6. Rigoletto, recorded in September of 1955, conducted by Serafin, is important as well, but here Callas ventures into a somewhat new territory. Gilda is a different sort of Verdi heroine, from, say Elvira, Lady Macbeth, even Violetta, etc. Callas gives her signature detailed attention to the text and she very much succeeds in lightening her voice, especially for Caro nome. But she’s not really as vulnerable, not as sweet nor as soft as many Gildas can be. However, this is a must-have recording for Tito Gobbi’s Rigoletto: he completely steals the show (my opinion). In addition to all of the complexities, he expresses the fears and uncertainties of all fathers with young daughters in love. Good that he is strong here: after all, Rigoletto is the title character, one of the great roles in the baritone repertory and Rigoletto is one of the great Italian operas, period. Gobbi is remarkable in all respects. Giuseppe di Stefano’s Duke of Mantua is straightforward and pleasing. Again, it’s an ‘all-the-stars-align, everything-comes-together’ kind of recording. Callas sang Gilda only twice on stage, both in Mexico City in 1952 with Di Stefano.

7. Then there is Bellini’s Norma. It was her most frequently performed role at 84 times, here recorded in stereo in September, 1960.

Back story here: Maria Callas is justly credited with sparking the post-war bel canto revival, in part because her art revealed more depth to her characters, in part because by the mid-50s her performances were big ‘events,’ such that Callas could sell out the house with almost anything, even with the then obscure operas such as Anna Bolena or Il Pirata. And also her recordings of Donizetti and Bellini operas were pretty much the only ones on the shelves until Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge began recording these operas in stereo for Decca in the early 1960s. Followed, you’ll recall, by everyone else.

Given her voice and character, the bel canto repertory with Callas was quite different from that with other artists: the great Joan Sutherland may have had an easier upper range and a more controlled, brighter voice than Callas, but one sometimes got the impression that Sutherland, exciting as she was live in the opera house and on recordings, seemed to be singing the same role in the same unintelligible language.

Callas had recorded Norma in the studio to great effect in 1954. The drawback is that her supporting cast is not strong, prompting collectors to seek the several recordings of her live performances that floated around just beneath the surface of the opera world. But because Norma was a favorite and one of the last complete roles remaining in her performance repertory, Callas and EMI chose to re-record it in stereo. At this point in her career vocal problems only hinted at earlier had become more manifest and her stamina was challenged. Still, Callas conveys the nobility and the tragedy of Bellini’s finest creation. With Callas are a young Christa Ludwig as Adalgisa, Franco Corelli as Pollione, and Nicola Zaccaria as Oroveso; Tulio Serafin conducts.

I comparing the newly remastered CDs of this Norma with the previous EMI CD release of the same recording track by track: the new one brings out details and depth, but also a softens the harsher vocal edges often found on the early CDs.

8. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, recorded in February 1953, was groundbreaking: it was her first studio recording with EMI under the wing of legendary producer Walter Legge and also her first international release on a major label. Callas’s Lucia is not always the prettiest, vocally speaking, but unlike many other singers in the role, she is able to elevate her character to a greater level of tragedy by bringing out shades of meaning to each phrase. Her duet with di Stefano (Edgardo) in Act I is particularly touching and the Mad Scene draws you into her troubled space. Unfortunately Gobbi here is miscast (my opinion) as Enrico. He comes off quite harsh and overbearing.

But keep your eyes open for the live performance from Berlin, September 29, 1955, with Callas, di Stefano and Rolando Panerai, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It gives real meaning to the word ‘event.’ Stats: Callas sang Lucia on stage 43 times; 7 of these were at the Met in ’56 and ’58. Lucia was her only broadcast from the Met, December 8, 1956.

9. Bellini’s La Sonnambula, recorded in the studio in March, 1957, was sandwiched in between several live performances. The role of Amina has Bellini’s notoriously long vocal lines, suffused with a lingering melancholy, but Callas places her voice properly throughout and also colors each word. Her rendering of Ah! Non credea mirarti, one of my favorites, is poignantly introspective. Poor dear. A young Fiorenza Cossotto is her step mother Teresa, Eugenia Ratti is Lisa, Amina’s rival, and Nicola Monti is Elvino.

Stats: Callas sang Amina in Sonnambula 21 times between 1955 and 1957. Her first Amina on stage, at La Scala on March 5, 1955, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, is a live recording well worth finding. Cesare Valetti is Elvino.

10. I know you’ve been here before doing the list thing: the first nine choices out of ten are easy, but the tenth is really difficult because of course there are maybe seven other operas that could be the tenth choice. Thinking out of the box set, let’s say that you can’t go wrong with any of Callas’s studio EMI recordings of the other operas by Bellini, Verdi or Puccini from between 1954 to 1959, including I PuritaniIl TrovatoreAïdaManon LescautLa BohemeMadama Butterfly, and Turandot.

But wait, there’s more: the box offers also all of her studio aria albums, which contain not only arias from the aforementioned complete operas, but also arias from operas she never performed on stage or recorded. Start with her very first two: the collection of the standard Puccini arias and her second, a mix of late 19th century Italian opera arias and bel canto arias, both recorded in London in span of six days in mid September, 1954. These are the very best. The latter contains La Mamma morta from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, the stirring aria used in the film Philadelphia with Tom Hanks; Ebben? N’andrò lontano from Catalani’s La Wally is haunting, as much because of Serfin’s conducting as because of Callas’s interpretation. And that one, lost on vinyl for some many years, reached out and touched me as no other has. So much to experience, so little time.

Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings can be purchased online; it is also available at the Met Shop in the Metropolitan Opera House; I haven’t had time to check my other brick-and-mortar sources for classical recordings. Both the box set and the individual operas and aria albums released separately will be available at mid-price. The Met Shop has several of the operas in stock. There is also a single vinyl release of highlights. This will bring it all back!

 She’s the real deal. Trust me.

Happy holidays to you and your family!

 JRS

Rimsky's Kitezh on DVD and CD

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya on CD/DVD

OperaMetro highly recommends the OpusArte Blu ray DVD of Dimitri Tcherniakov’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.

Svetlana Ignatovich as Fevroniya in Act I of Kitezh

Svetlana Ignatovich as Fevroniya in Act I of Kitezh

Count this one very high on my list of “Woefully Neglected Operas!” But the good news is that Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya seems to be making a showing in the opera sphere of late, and while it shall probably never supplant the more established Russian masterpieces in the standard repertory, surely it deserves a production now and then. For that matter, also on my list of WNO, my desires surfacing in print here, the same can be said for many of the infrequently heard Rimsky operas, especially Sadko and Snowmaiden. I’d go so far as looking forward to Christmas Eve, The Tale of Tsar SaltanThe Tsar’s Bride, and even again to the somewhat more popular Golden Cockerel, which, as they say, has been around the block: I’ve seen it a few times locally in the past half century. But I digress.

Kitezh, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1907, has been called ‘the Russian Parsifal.’ Lovers of the latter won’t find it satisfying in the same way Wagner’s mesmerizing epic impacts body, mind and soul. Not even remotely close. Yes, there is sufficient orchestral atmosphere in Kitezh to make the comparison hold here and there, but it's a Rimsky opera with a lot of Russian folksy and repetitive digressions. No way is it like the sustained musically dramatic progression that evolves thematically as does Wagner’s ultimate magnificent oeuvre. No way.

All right, granted, Fevronya is sort of a pure fool like Parsifal. But much more like die Gänsemagd in Humperdinck’s Königskinder Fevronya leaves the simple life of the forest with her newly beloved the young Prince Vsevolod Yuryevich, ventures into the degenerate world of Lower Kitezh, gets thrown around a lot by invading Tartars, honor and life threatened and all that, then she ends up abandoned, sadder, wiser, and ultimately dead, poor dear. But this, happily, leads to her assumption into an afterlife free from sorrow and pain where she is reunited with the faithful of Upper Kitezh, still invisible like heaven, and especially with her husband Prince Vsevolod, who, killed in battle, awaits her there. The steadfast Fevronya demonstrates unshakable compassion, love, meekness, tidy living, and faith in spite of the spate of slings and arrows in her path. So the legend goes, because of her clean moral slate, her prayers render the upper city of Kitezh invisible so the Tartars cannot slaughter everyone else and level it to smoldering rubble. There are lots of Christian references, even big choral scenes, ceremony, celebrations, bells, and all that good stuff.

For sure there are Wagnerian touches in the orchestra: the opera’s opening evokes both the mystery of the deep forest around Montsalvat (the location of the Temple of the Holy Grail in Parsifal) and the Murmurs of the deep Forest from Siegfried, though the cuckoos apparently flew in from Hänsel und Gretel. The invasion of the heathen Tartars gets rolling to the Storm music of Die Walküre, Act I; there are orchestral touches of the Magic Fire Scene from Walküre Act III (but no fire) toward the conclusion of Kitezh, along with some big Temple of the Holy Grail type horns. Rimsky’s encounters with Wagner’s Ring and Parsifal were a life-altering events, as they were for Humperdinck, who assisted Wagner at Bayreuth..

The sound picture of Kitezh is worth exploring. Try, as an appetizer, Neeme Järvi’s 3 CD set of orchestral suites from the Rimsky-Korsakov operas (released on Chandos). The Kitezh suite was my introduction to the opera many years ago, followed by the purchase of the complete Melodiya set on monaural LPs. If you know those albums, you’ll remember the unique smell they had.

But for the whole meal, soup to nuts, seek the complete opera on DVD. The winner here, as leaked above, is director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s near masterpiece production of Kitezh for the Nederlandse Opera in 2012, released on Blu ray by Opus Arte. Tcherniakov directed and designed last season’s excellent Prince Igor at the Met. He lavishes the same attention to drama, mood, detail, and spits of philosophy here as well.

Tcherniakov updates the tale to sometime either side of today: love child-like, Fevronya wears sneakers, but thankfully is sans the beads, tie dyes and peace signs. The hard drinking low life locals in Lower Kitezh slug down Jack from the bottle; the Tartar invaders carry assault weapons. Some of the scenic effects described in the libretto are passed over for more mundane solutions, yet it all is within the spirit of the opera and the production and it all works. It works, incidentally, much more so than Tcherniakov’s earlier essay on Kitezh, which was brought to the Met with by forces of the Mariinsky Theatre in July of 2003: sitting upstairs, I remember a lot of bare stage, spare sets and bright lights. Great music of course, but hardly magical to look at.

The whole thing pretty much rises or falls with Fevronya, here sung, but more importantly acted by soprano Svetlana Ignatovich. Her face and voice speak volumes. Fevronya is threatened with all sorts of violation, pain, and death, but she never loses her goodness or her faith. Even the disagreeable drunkard Grishka Kuterma, who harshly insults Fevronya just before the fall of Lower Kitezh to the invading Tartars, cannot crumble her good nature. In the end, he abandons her to die; in the afterlife she insists on his forgiveness. An intriguing touch: Fevronya seems to lie down for a nap at the opera’s opening, and then again assumes a similar position at the opera’s close. Could it all be a dream?

John Daszak’s Grishka is a bold wastrel. Maxim Aksenov is the handsome young wounded Prince Vsevolod Yuryevich who is tended by Fevronya in her forest and who brings her to Kitezh. His father Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich, sung by Vladimir Vaneey, intones solumn praise and hope for his city. Bedyay, sung by Ante Jerkunica, and Burunday, sung by Kirov veteran Vladimir Ognovienko, are the enemy Tartars who threaten Fevronya’s virtue. Marc Albrecht conducts. Running time is about three hours.

But a second DVD release on the Naxos label is competitive, primarily through the efforts of Tatiana Monogarova, whose Fevronya is strong, less vulnerable, a little less youthful, but no less ‘good.’ This is the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari’s production from 2006, under the musical direction of Alexander Vedernikov, staged by Eimuntas Nekrosiu. More of a fairy tale, with lots of children, this is a stylized setting of largely wooden shapes that are assembled and disassembled for scene changes. Sometimes they are put in place by chorus members, sometimes rotated on turntables, sometimes changed during intermissions. Mikhail Gubsky’s Grishka is more of a slovenly teddy bear, less threatening, even comic at times; the violence of the Tartars is stylized, as are the ceremonies. The rest of the cast acquit themselves respectably. This, too, is about three hours running time.

A problem with both productions on DVD, one faced by any staging of an opera with characters that are animals, is that Fevronya’s forest friends can be distractingly silly. Not so much in Tcherniakov’s staging: the animals (a crane, a bear cub, and a large elk) are referred to as such but they are clearly humans, albeit on the strange side. Are they innocent societal outcasts, now homeless and tended by Fevronya’s kindness? Has she actually lost her wits before the story starts and thinks these folks are animals? In the Cagliari production the animal types are suggested by parts of the costume, like horns, for instance, with no real attempt to disguise the fact that actors are carrying them.

The animal-on-stage issue is irrelevant with a sound-only recording. There are three caught in the radar here.

The complete opera on Philips CDs from the Kirov in 1999, under the masterful baton of Valery Gergiev, is highly respectable, as are most of the recordings from that series. It stars a soulful Galina Gorchakova as Fevronya and a wild Vladimir Galuzin as Grishka. Nicolai Ohotnikov is the Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich, Yuri Marusin is Vsevolod Yuryevich, the Tartars leaders Burunday and Bedyay are sung by Vladimir Ognovienko and Bulat Mijilkiev, respectively. The stereo sound gives a rich picture of Rimsky’s score. Here is the wish that Philips had completed the Rimsky cycle!

Kitezh is not a long opera, certainly not as long as many others in the Russian repertory go. For the time-pressed (who isn’t these days?), check out the 2 ORF CD set, distributed by Koch/Schwann, of a reduced version, Kitezh lite, from the 1995 Breganz Festspiele Production. The largely Russian cast is directed by Harry Kupfer, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev, who both agreed to trim about an hour’s worth from the score. The essence is retained and the performances are quite good, particularly the Fevronya of Elena Prokina and the Grishka of Vladimir Galusin, who ramps up the desperation of his character to a new level.

Or, if you’re game (and you can find it), that old Melodiya pressing from 1956 is available on Preiser CDs. The great Ivan Petrov is Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich, Natalia Rozhdestvenskaya is Fevronya, and Dimitri Tarkhov is Grishka. This one has its own magic.

Enjoy! Kitezh is worth the journey.

Historic Ruddigore recordings

A Ruddigore discography

Recommended recordings of Ruddigore: Let me start with the two best...

1. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1962 stereo recording on 2 Decca CDs. Stars John Reed, Thomas Round, Donald Adams, and Jean Hindmarsh, et al., conducted by Isidore Godfrey. Best all around.

But then 2. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1950 monaural recording on Naxos (1 CD). Stars Martyn Green, Leonard Osbourn, Margaret Mitchell, Darryl Fancourt, et al., conducted by Isidore Godfrey. Excellent also.

But neither is as good as the vintage D'Oyly Carte 1931, so read further!

Here's why I'm recommending recordings: if you plan to go to the NYGASP Ruddigore on the first weekend in November (2014) and you want to come prepared…always recommended if it’s new to you or if you really enjoyed the experience you want to, retrospectively, cement the music in mind…here are some options. Below are listed in more detail only the ones I know firsthand. All are on CD; some may even be available as MP3s now; the spoken dialogue is omitted from all of them. Only the Acorn BBC DVD has any sort of libretto, and at that it's only the words to the songs.

First some background: Ruddygore (as it was originally spelled) was not exactly a flop on its opening night (Saturday evening, January 22, 1887, Savoy Theatre, London), but another Mikado it clearly wasn’t. Gilbert was sensitive to reports of waning audience enthusiasm as the second act wore on, not to mention chaffing at a few audible boos at the final curtain. So he took out his shears and cut the brambles away, a few verses here this night, a few more a month later. He added tweaks, a new song to hide the seams, but many of these would be trimmed in 20th century revivals. If textual issues interest you, as perhaps do folio editions, film outtakes or omitted scenes, Reginald Allen’s The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan (Heritage Press) (out of print, but available at the best used book sellers) and Ian Bradley’s The Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (Oxford University Press) are indispensable resources. Watch for the newly released 20th anniversary edition! Visit OperaMetro’s bibliography for G & S sources on the page Further reading.

Sullivan too got mixed reviews. Many thought his music to be the best he’d written, but others apparently found it leaning too far toward a grand opera style: heavy, sometimes lugubrious, especially the Ancestor Scene. Indeed the whole tone of Act II is darker. With an “or title” of The Witch’s CurseRuddigore wasn’t as much fun as The Mikado in other words. It did not run long, but only relatively speaking.

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company staged major revivals of the G & S repertory in the wake of the passing of the duo (and Richard D’Oyly Carte himself), but Ruddigore had to wait until the London season of 1920 to grace the stage again. A year later Geoffrey Toye composed a new overture for it; Rupert D’Oyly Carte authorized Ruddigore to be recorded in 1924 as part of the effort to record all of the operas with casts mostly from the Company itself. This series were the older acoustic recordings; interested readers and collectors should check out Sounds on CD, a page on Oakapplepress.com for these and other recordings. I have not yet heard the 1924 set. But I shall.

In my world there are five audio CD recordings of Ruddigore, each of which will make you smile is some way. There is also a DVD, ‘satisfying’ only because there are no others. More on this later.

I grew up with the Decca/London stereo 1962 D’Oyly Carte LP recording of Ruddigore. Happily it was followed up for me on stage when the Company played at the New York City Center in 1964; my second performance was the Light Opera of Manhattan (LOOM)’s staging by William Mount-Burke et al. at the Jan Hus Theater in the later 60s; I’ve seen it locally bunch more times over the years. Ruddigore is a favorite. They’re all favorites.

The ‘62 Decca release was still relatively early stereo for us all. It starred one of the best D’Oyly Carte tenors, Thomas Round, as Richard Dauntless and one of the best bassos, the stalwart Donald Adams as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. His laugh in Act II still gives me chills. Twenty years later, Adams would repeat the role in the BBC TV production of Ruddigore (see below) and also appear in these in a few of his other signature roles. Jean Hindmarsh’s Rose Maybud here is exceedingly lovely, if relatively straightforward. She, Round, and Adams brightened the D’Oyly Carte’s two very early Decca stereo LPs of The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. Sad our lot and sorry that Decca (to my knowledge) never saw fit to release these two complete stereo recordings on CD. Peter Pratt was the comic baritone.

For shame! These are, on the whole, better than what followed: Decca released all of their stereo recordings with John Reed as 2 CD sets, but, sadly, the rest of the Company was in steep decline. My old LPs are hanging in there.

Reed is a pleasingly ‘clean’ Robin Oakapple in the ’62 Ruddigore, as he is in all of his previous and subsequent Decca stereo releases, but in this especially he seems to regress from the microphone. Kenneth Sanford is a tame Sir Despard Murgatroyd; Jean Allister is touching as poor Mad Margaret; Gillian Knight is Dame Hannah. Isodore Godfrey conducts a very sonorous Royal Opera House Orchestra. The Geoffrey Toye 1921 revision of the overture is there, of course, but also the original 1887 overture was inserted between the acts as a sort of bonus. What a surprise that was! Included too is the Rose/Richard Dauntless duet (“The Battle’s Roar is Over”) from Act I, which is usually cut from stage performances but apparently still in the score. Also with this Ruddigore is Cox and Box. All good: you won’t be disappointed with this album.

A year later EMI released a stereo Ruddigore, this one conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. As our focus on this page is recordings, the back story is worth elaborating: Sir Malcolm conducted many of the legendary D’Oyly Carte sets of the G & S operas in the early days of electrical recordings (late 1920s, 1930s), including Ruddigore in 1931 (see below). His Robin Oakapple in the ‘31 was baritone George Baker, who was never a member of the D’Oyly Carte and who actually had not been much of a stage performer. But he was a highly respectable singer who knew the style and, more importantly, he recorded well. He had been recording G & S roles since 1917; in fact he stars in that first complete acoustic Ruddigore of 1924, substituting for the Company’s leading comic baritone Henry Lytton, who had sung the role under Gilbert and Sullivan themselves during the first Savoy Theatre run in 1887. But Lytton, at this point in career, was older and his voice was deemed unsuitable for records. These were the days of singing loudly into the big horn.

Fast forward to the late 1950s: Sir Malcolm invited Baker to sing the comic roles for his projected EMI stereo G & S recordings, the so-called “Glyndebourne” series, with real opera voices. Baker was nearly 78 when he recorded Ruddigore in stereo in 1962. I didn’t know the history when I first heard this EMI LP release, but my first impression back then and again now from the CDs is: remarkable and eloquent as his achievement was, Baker sounds, how to put it, old.

And the rest of the cast are to varying degrees staid and polite. Richard Lewis is Richard Dauntless and Owen Brannigan as Sir Despard Murgatroyd, both decent singers. Elsie Morison is Rose Maybud. She too is a polished singer, though she lacks a youthful timbre. A young Elizabeth Harwood sings Zorah; both she and Monica Sinclair (Dame Hannah) would appear in subsequent productions in Great Britain and abroad. Pamela Bowden is Mad Margaret

Sargent, as does Godfrey, reinstates “The Battle’s Roar is Over” in Act I, but also Rose’s verses in “Happily Coupled are We” in Act II. The album is released today as 2 CDs; filler includes Sullivan's Incidental Music for The Tempest and a Suite from The Merchant of Venice.

After the War, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company sought to record all of the operas in the main repertory. These were eventually released by Decca on monaural LP sets (the first ones as 45s!). The CD releases appear on the Regis and Naxos labels, maybe others. The Ruddigore of the series, recorded in 1950, starred Martyn Green as Robin Oakapple. He, who had gradually succeeded Henry Lytton as principal comic baritone in early ‘30s, was, like Ella Halman and Margaret Mitchell, at the end of his run with the company. Perhaps it explains why he sounds tired and detached at first. But he gets his familiar fine form back toward the end. Margaret Mitchell brings an elegant, not to say youthful voice to Rose Maybud; Leonard Osborn is a staunch Richard Dauntless, as is Richard Watson’s Sir Despard Murgatroyd; Darrell Fancourt steals the show as Sir Roderic and Ella Halman brings masterful nuances to the small role of Dame Hannah. Ann Drummond-Grant is Mad Margaret. Isidore Godfrey, who was the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s Music Director from 1929 to 1968, conducts. This is a strong cast! On one Naxos CD, it is second on my list of recommended recordings. And inexpensive.

I’m no longer sure how, in the mid-1980s, I stumbled on the Caedmon LP series of the early electrical recordings of the G & S canon. But each, as it arrived in the mail, was a revelation of just how good, musically and especially expressively, the performances of these operas could be. The 1931 Ruddigore had a young George Baker as Robin Oakapple. Ahh! I get it now!

But more of an impact was tenor Derek Oldham as Richard Dauntless or baritone Sydney Granville as Sir Despard or the wonderful (and much younger) Darrell Fancourt as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. I loved Thomas Round’s voice, but Oldham’s is easily competitive, certainly in sincerity if not in tone. I’ll never lose my admiration for Donald Adams, but Fancourt is in another league altogether. Add to these beautiful people Muriel Dickson as Rose Maybud (she sang at the Met) and the inimitable Nellie Briercliffe as Mad Margaret (be still my heart!) and you have a full house. Dickson’s Aline from The Sorcerer and Briercliffe’s Iolanthe are also special. Space forbids listing all of the gems in these early recordings. That’s another posting to come.

Though many of the early electricals have been released on other labels (Naxos, Pearl, and Pro-Arte Digital, to name three), to my knowledge a CD of this 1931 Ruddigore is only available at Sounds on CD, a page on the Oakapplepress.com site for this and other recordings (as well as the 1924 acoustical Ruddigore cited above). A goldmine this site is; interested readers will also find an intelligently written, very very complete Gilbert and Sullivan discography. If what I say is a tip, the Oakapple Press site is the whole iceberg!

As long as we’re on the topic, another site worth investigating is David Stone’s compendium on the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on the Boise State website. Search D'Oyly Carte Opera Company casts to find bios and photos of everyone mentioned here on the D’Oyly Carte recordings, but also the rest of the ‘em never put to record from 1875 to 1982, when, sadly, the Company fell into bankruptcy and shut down.

The Sadler's Wells reconstruction of the original Ruddigore

The Sadler's Wells reconstruction of the original Ruddigore

The New Sadler’s Wells Opera gave a centennial reconstruction of the original Ruddigore of 1887, though, like most reconstructed originals, who can say what’s actually “original” and what’s not with a text that was literally tinkered with day by day before and after the premiere? But you’ll get the drift. The balance between the acts is restored by adding Rose’s verses of “Happily coupled are we,” and Sir Ruthven’s monologue “Away remorse,” and his patter song “For thirty five years I’ve been sober and wary” in Act II.

But, case in point: “For thirty five years” was ditched less than a month after the premiere, replace by “Henceforth all the crimes,” which was later dropped in subsequent revivals…oh well. The melodrama of Dame Hannah’s abduction and the original finale of Act II are also reinstated here.

I believe these restorations make an important difference. After all, Ruddigore is not as familiar to audiences today, as is, say, The Mikado. We’d all literally startle at a performance of the original sequence of songs in the premiere of Mikado. But Ruddigore, less familiar, carries fewer expectations and therefore, for the listener, allows more flexibility. In April of 2004, the Troupers Light Opera of Stamford staged the original version of Ruddigore to very positive reviews, as much for the restored balance as for the performance. The production was under the direction of Gayden Wren, author of the insightful A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan (Oxford University Press). This and other source material are listed on OperaMetro under Further reading...

The New Sadler’s Wells Opera 1987 2 CD release on JAY Records of the reconstruction is a credible performance. Gordon Sandison is a formal Robin Oakapple; David Hillman has his shaky moments as Richard Dauntless. Marilyn Hill Smith is a little edgy as Rose Maybud. Thomas Lawler (Sir Roderic Murgatroyd) and Harold Innocent (Sir Despard Murgatroyd) are particularly effective in the lower roles. Joan Davies is a commanding Dame Hannah; Linda Ormiston is a fey Mad Margaret. Simon Phipps conducts a very lively reading of Sullivan’s score with the New Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

The early 1980s BBC made-for-TV series of the G & S operas, released these days on Acorn Media DVDs, has highs and lows. Praise comes easily for some of the singers and for some of the productions, certainly for Alexander Faris leading the Ambrosian Opera Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra. But there are weak moments to be sure.

BBC television production of Ruddigore from mid 1980s (libretto cover)

BBC television production of Ruddigore from mid 1980s (libretto cover)

The Ruddigore of the series features some great artists: D’Oyly Carte’s Donald Adams sings Sir Roderic, though the impact of his “Ghost’s High Noon” song is compromised by silly visuals; Ann Howard, a star of the English National Opera, is Mad Margaret, happily left to her own dramatic devices; and John Treleaven, soon to be a Wagnerian tenor, is a robust Richard Dauntless. Sandra Dugdale sings well enough as Rose Maybud. Rose is always something of an enigma. Sometimes she seems sincere with a good heart, sometimes she’s just clueless and confused. But Dugdale acquits herself well in this as she does as Patience, Casilda, and Celia in other operas of the series. Johanna Peters is stolid Dame Hannah.

Actors/singers otherwise famous from film, TV, and stage were cast probably to give contemporary audiences a few names and faces they could ‘relate’ to, a ‘draw,’ so to speak. But 32 years later the names are not nearly a draw, certainly not for G & S newcomers from subsequent generations. Worse, these guest artists, out of their element, are often a drawback. Keith Michell, who gained attention in the States as Henry VIII in the series Henry VIII and his Six Wives (and perhaps also through a few episodes of Murder She Wrote) is Robin Oakapple. He clearly thinks he is amusing; your call on whether you find him so. And then there is Vincent Price, star of many a hoary old horror film. Sir Despard is a somber, evil character by the script, but Price here is more like one’s elderly uncle, who used to dabble in the theater and still powders himself, up to visit the old homestead from his retirement village down south.

Director Barrie Gavin ‘solves’ the problem of stage restrictions with cartoonish superimpositions; the finale of Act I has the Bucks and the Blades behaving in ways that, to me, are at odds with the feel of the music. One imagines a proper William S. Gilbert rolling in his grave. Nothing really your children shouldn’t see, but nothing they should.

My advice: if you want to see Ruddigore done well, come to the NYGASP production in November. Dates and times of these performances are listed in the NYGASP preview on the page Gilbert and Sullivan. Enjoy.

JRS

The Met's Golden Age

Historic Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts

Sony Classical, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Opera, released in 2013 two box sets of CDs of historic broadcasts in commemoration of the 200th anniversaries of composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. These priceless aural documents of an age gone by, ten complete operas by Verdi, nine by Wagner, performed by legendary artists with the Metropolitan Opera Company, are neatly boxed, each with a small annotated booklet containing tracking, casting, photos and brief performance commentary.

Met fans young and old have of late witnessed the recent and conspicuous availability of historic Saturday afternoon broadcasts on CD or telecasts on DVD, all professionally (and legally) presented. Available on the Internet, but also at The Met Shop (www.metshop.org) are at least 17 complete Metropolitan Opera broadcast performances, released on CD by Sony Classical as single sets, as well as compilation discs of historic moments from Met broadcasts, a bunch of studio recordings by the Met and also several live performances on CD and DVD documenting the first 40 years of James Levine’s artistic tenure at the Met. Also there’s the Metropolitan Opera channel (74) on Sirius FM satellite radio and the Met On Demand, both by subscription.

These, especially the older radio broadcasts, seemed destined to remain in the vaults of the Metropolitan archives, silent or unseen, never to be experienced again. I remember fellows on the standing line at the [Old] Met conjecturing that in fact EVERY performance, whether broadcast or not, had been recorded and filed away. I swear it took me weeks to relax my incredulous eyebrows. But thinking this through: even if the Met had recorded just every radio broadcast from the early 30s to the present (and maybe also the pre-broadcast sound checks) it would be a staggering assembly of riches. There’s probably a story in this…

Occasionally one or two of these little puppies would get leaked to the outside, distributed through the opera underworld. The standees seemed to know where to find them. Recall the Terrence McNally play about the Callas fans’ quest for a copy of the ‘Lisbon’ Traviata. It was the Holy Grail of opera tapes, reputed by the faithful to exist but still lost.

Both Metropolitan Opera boxes contain some truly great performances, but there are also some questionable choices. However, since none of these performances has been released yet as a hit single there’s no real point in going in too much detail here, through each box opera by opera, as I did for the Callas Remastered box set (see the page Opera Recordings). The decision is simply this: do you purchase it because it has some performances you want to experience and might cherish, even if there are some you don’t particularly care about? From this perspective you’ll get what you pay for. Consider the others in the box as freebies. And who knows? You may unexpectedly discover something quite pleasant.

The quality of the total experience of each varies from sound quality that is barely tolerable (the early broadcasts before 1940) to more or less acceptable (by the early 1950s) to actually quite decent live recordings (1960s on). But there are variations within these seasonal parameters: the sound depends on the quality of the recording equipment and also the state of the source records long stored in the vaults. And then, above and beyond these, also on the singers: were they "on" that day or were they "off," and where on stage are they singing from? It’s the human aspect, actually no different today…

Leonard Warren, Leontyne Price, and Richard Tucker on Verdi boxed set

Leonard Warren, Leontyne Price, and Richard Tucker on Verdi boxed set

The Verdi box sports some really great broadcasts: Otello (1940, with Martinelli, Rethberg, and Tibbett) and Un Ballo in Maschera (1940, with Bjoerling and Milanov), both conducted by Ettore Panizza, a protégé of Toscanini, as well as Simon Boccanegra (1950, with Warren, Varnay, and Tucker) and La Forza del Destino (1952, with Milanov, Tucker, and Warren), both conducted by Fritz Stiedry. As happened back then there are odd cuts, notably Riccardo’s aria “Ma se m’e forza perderti” in Act III of Ballo (why?) and the Inn Scene and the entire role of Trabucco in Forza, which completely changes the balance of the act.

Also you’ll find a stellar Falstaff (1949, with Warren, Resnik, Valdengo, Albanese, di Stefano, deftly conducted by Fritz Reiner) and a more recent Aïda (1967, the Met now at Lincoln Center, with Price, Bergonzi, Bumbry, and Merrill, conducted by a young Thomas Schippers). Right there are six reasons to take the box home with you. A Rigoletto (1945, with Warren, Bjoerling, and Bidù Sayão) is thrown in for good measure.

Though it’s true several of these artists later recorded their roles (or extended excerpts) in the studio with the advent of the LP (and, later, stereo), here we have them, probably younger and fresher, live and in real time. Studio recordings can come nearer to perfection, it’s true, but the perfection gained by multiple takes to correct imperfections and recording sessions spread over long periods of time comes at the expense of the artists’ on-stage spontaneity and arousal from their face-to-face interactions with each other and from the applause by the audience.

This said, it’s questionable why the 1935 Traviata with Rosa Ponselle, Jagel, and Tibbett is included in the set. Perhaps it was to get a document of Ponselle, a great artist, live-on-stage singing Verdi on CD (she made her Met debut in Forza in 1918): she and Tibbett are very affecting in Act II, she the soulful one, but her Act I seems labored and the aria is pitched down (she was singing Carmen that season); Jagel is just not exceptional.

I was interested to hear what the premiere Met broadcast of Macbeth actually sounded like in live performance (1959, with Warren, Leonie Rysanek, Bergonzi and Hines, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf). Fans know RCA brought the cast of Macbeth into the studio very soon thereafter. The broadcast has the live buzz certainly, but there are few significant surprises.

However, the artistic consultant or someone at Sony must love Rysanek (no surprise here, I do too) because also in the box is the Met’s premiere broadcast of Nabucco from the following year. It’s not particularly pretty (1960, with MacNeil and Siepi, conducted by Thomas Schippers). Rysanek is fearless, exciting of course, but she's sometimes all over the place in her own inimitable fashion.

Worse though it takes up a space in the box. One wonders why the broadcast of Rudolf Bing’s opening night, the new production of Don Carlo (1950, with Rigal, Barbieri, Bjoerling, Merrill, Siepi, Hines, conducted by Stiedry) was not included instead. Someone left this important performance out to include Nabucco? Perhaps it’s because Sony Classical already released separately a Don Carlo with Corelli, Rysanek (there she is again), Dalis, Herlea, Tozzi, and Uhde?

An important historical note: the 1950 Don Carlo was also telecast, yes, telecast live into America’s households. Perhaps a video of this great performance will come out separately…? And it was not the first live telecast from the Met. There are at least two others in the vaults I’ll bet. There's probably a story in this as well...

Alternative choices for the box would have been Ernani (1962, with Bergonzi and Price) or Il Trovatore (1961, with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli in their debut roles), but happily these are already available as individual Sony Classical releases, as are a Luisa Miller (1968, with Caballé), another Rigoletto, this time from 1964 with Peters, Merrill, and Tucker and another Ballo (1955, with Milanov, Peerce, Merrill, and Marion Anderson). Hey, as long as we’re up, why not issue the Un Ballo in Maschera from 1962 with Bergonzi, Merrill, Madiera, and Rothenberger? Rysanek’s pretty hot in this one too!

But then that would make three historic Met Ballo broadcasts. How many Masked Balls can a man have?

Sven Nilsson, Lauritz Melchior, Margaret Harshaw on Wagner boxed set

Sven Nilsson, Lauritz Melchior, Margaret Harshaw on Wagner boxed set

Though the Wagner box raises similar questions, why this, not that, it, too, is also a chest of treasures.

After a check of the casts, the obvious question: why not a complete Flagstad/Melchior Ring? Truth is the Met did not see fit to give her a broadcast of Götterdämmerung throughout her tenure there, let alone with Melchior. So in the box we have Melchior in all three Heldentenor roles (Siegmund, Siegfried x 2) but we have Flagstad only in the earlier two installments. For the ultimate Ring opera, Melchior in 1936 is paired with the heroic Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence. Though lacking the richness of Flagstad, Lawrence gives a committed performance. By all accounts she actually leapt onto a real live Grane (the horse) on stage at the opera’s catastrophic closing scene. You can’t see this of course. She also sings Sieglinde in the set’s Die Walküre (1940) to Melchior’s Siegmund and Flagstad’s Brünnhilde.

There is definitely a story in this! Though the Met did not have a Melchior/Flagstad broadcast of The Twilight of the Gods, Covent Garden had been recording complete performances of Wagner with Melchior and Flagstad during the same period (1936/1937). Sadly, of the three existing transcriptions of their complete performance together, Flagstad's set was tossed into the fjords, Melchior's set was used as targets by the Russians, and the third were likely melted down after the war. There seems to be a tape of this last, but only snippets have appeared on CD commercially.

Oh well, nothing you can do. If you wish, you can get Flagstad’s complete on-stage Brünnhilde with Furtwängler’s Ring, live from La Scala in 1950 on various CD labels. The sound is quite acceptable and she is pretty thrilling here as well, albeit a few years older. Furtwängler, who worked well with her, is exciting and committed in the pit.

Still, the Met’s 1938 Tristan und Isolde is electric. Flagstad and Melchior are truly the stuff of legends, and her Liebestod will make you weep. Conductor Artur Bodansky’s pace here makes Karl Böhm’s tempi for the famous 1966 Tristan from Bayreuth (Nilsson and Windgassen) sound like Reginald Goodall’s. But Bodansky knows how to end it. Although (I have to say this) if your shelf space can handle two or three other Melchior/Flagstad performances of Tristan, add Fritz Reiner’s at Covent Garden (1936) or Sir Thomas Beecham’s, same place (1937), each from the seasons mentioned above, or even the Met’s broadcast with Erich Leinsdorf from the Met in 1941, her last before leaving. Collect the whole set. You’ll never be bored.

Though I’ve grown over the years (“matured” my learned dear friends would say) and have come to admire Wilhelm Furtwänger’s studio Tristan und Isolde with Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus on EMI, I felt that everybody had their ‘love-ears’ working hard when they put Flagstad back in the role so late in her career. The glory of this late studio recording rests on knowing the thrill of the earlier ones listed above.

The rest of the Met’s Wagner historical box is pretty fascinating. High on my list is the broadcast of Der fliegende Holländer in 1950 under Fritz Reiner. It’s special not only for Reiner’s smart, lucid and articulated conducting, but also for Hans Hotter’s tormented Dutchman and Astrid Varnay’s soulful Senta; the soon-to-be-legendary Hans Hotter also sings Wotan for Fritz Stiedry in Das Rheingold in 1951. These were Hotter’s last seasons at the Met, but he went on to make his mark at Bayreuth only a few years later, as documented is over a decade of recordings from that immortal theater.

In the Lohengrin (1943), Melchior and Astrid Varnay give a heartfelt duo, with Kersten Thorborg as Ortrud, Leinsdorf conducts; in the 1954 Tannhäuser, we hear Ramon Vinay and Margaret Harshaw as the Minnesinger and Elisabeth, his adoring patron saint, conducted by George Szell: in Die Meistersinger (1953) we have a younger Paul Schöffler as Hans Sachs joined by tenor Hans Hopf and soprano Victoria de los Angeles, conducted by Fritz Reiner.

As with Verdi broadcasts, Sony Classical has also released some Wagner singles. The Walküre with from 1968 with Nilsson, Rysanek (there she is again), Ludwig, Vickers, and Thomas Stewart, Klobucar conducts is superb. There is also a Meistersinger with Theo Adam, James King, and Pilar Lorengar, conducted by Thomas Schippers from 1972. As long as we're up, I'm wondering if Sony Classical will release the 1985 Jon Vickers, Kurt Moll, and Leonie Rysanek Parsifal, conducted by James Levine. Again, there she is. Got that?

Enjoy the present, look forward to the future, but don’t forget the past.

JRS