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