GHCD 2315/16 – LES CONTED D’HOFFMANN – Offenbach – Metropolitan Opera – 1937
Chorus & Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Maurice Abravanel, René Maison, Vina Bovy, Lawrence Tibbett, Angelo Badà, Irra Petina, Norman Cordon, Louis D’Angelo, Anna Kaskas
The Monadnock Shopper 17-23.August 2005
Opera Direct From The Met, 1937
I recall being ill one Saturday as a child and by chance my radio was tuned to a Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Carmen.” Well, that got me going on opera once and for all. Therefore, I have a great fondness for recordings of those old Met broadcasts, none of which are available in this country. However, a wonderful broadcast from January 23,1937 of Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” has been preserved on 2 Guild Historical CDs (GHCD2315/6).
The sound is, of course, just this side of tolerable in parts and quite clear in others, as singers are near or far from the microphone and as the surface of the original discs on which the sound was recorded back then was free or not free of static and slight defects.
The booklet by London Green gives a very nice account of the stars and of the plot. Rene Maison was the last of the French spinto tenors; and while his vocalizing has a few annoying qualities, he certainly throws himself into the part more than any other Hoffmann on subsequent recordings. As Offenbach hoped it would be, all four female roles are sung by a single soprano, Vina Bovy – and vocal teachers should be most interested in hearing how she tries to differentiate each of the characters.
For many, the big attraction will be American baritone Lawrence Tibbett as all four villains. There is not much differentiation here, and he is allowed to take several liberties with the score (as is Maison); but this is the only record (in both senses of the word) of his portrayal of all four nemeses to the luckless Hoffmann.
Maurice Abravanel conducts a spirited accompaniment, choosing or being obliged to conduct a somewhat abbreviated version (but without any major cuts). And how good it is to hear Milton Cross’s voice welcoming his radio audience and describing the curtain calls.
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A splendid night and its restoration on disc has been accomplished with skill and care …
This was a splendid night at the Met’s French Wing. The two leads were both Belgian – the veteran René Maison, or so we like to think of him but he was actually only forty-two at the time – and Ghent-born Vina Bovy who was in the middle of her very short two-year engagement at the Met. In later life she became Director of the Ghent Royal Opera. Then there’s Tibbett whose French pronunciation is bluff to say the least but whose powerful projection is secure at all times. The Italian comprimario Angelo Badà makes a fine showing and the Russian Irra Petina (who lived to be ninety-three, dying over a decade ago) spent many years at the Met and was a reliable and able musician. Supervising all is Maurice de (the de was dropped later) Abravanel, at one time the youngest ever conductor at the Met.
Firstly, the sound quality. It’s good: maybe slightly recessed and occasionally scuffy but basically unproblematic. There are moments of aural distortion and other ancillary concerns that should be noted. In the Prologue (track 4 Dans les roles) there’s a bit of a blizzard of acetate damage for a little while and there’s more of the same and a complete break up in Act I Tu me fuis? (Track nineteen) and more scuffs in Act II Morbleu! (CD II track 3). There are in fact similar small occurrences throughout but veterans of operatic broadcasts of this vintage will have heard much, much worse. The pleasures far outweigh the problems. This is a set that was released not so long ago on Naxos and derived from Bovy’s acetates; this one comes from an alternative source, NBC’s own 16″ transcription discs. The Guild, as is company wont, also includes commentaries and curtain calls, giving period flavour to the proceedings. It’s something I happen to like but other companies, such as Naxos, generally don’t.
Maison floats his top notes with great skill (Il etait une fois) but can get Wagnerian metal into the voice when required as in Je vous dis moi to conclude the Prologue. The voice itself I find exceptionally sympathetic in this role – forward, focused, subtly deployed. Bovy is superb – it’s remarkable to think her Met career was so short. Her dynamics in Les oiseaux are compellingly deployed, the technique is cast iron and the trill is immaculate; her impersonation is theatrically and vocally highly impressive. Listen to their duet in Act II Malhereux, mais tu ne sais donc pas where helped by the conductor’s energising warmth the two display increasing urgency of declamation. Maison’s ardency is matched by Bovy’s clarity and incremental increase in theatrical pressure; really fine musicianship. Tibbett takes a little time to warm up and he tends to bark early on but grows in command and menace and by the time we reach Pour conjurer le danger in Act III he’s exhibiting all his accustomed power and theatrical menace. Angelo Badà raises a laugh with his hoarse games as Frantz in his Act III Jour et nuit and the excellent Petrina impresses with her immaculate trill and clarity of projection. It’s a shame that the recording tends to cover Bovy’s exquisitely soft singing toward the end of Act III but certainly enough remains to mark this down as a memorable impersonation.
As I said this was a splendid night and its restoration has been accomplished with skill and care, notwithstanding the obvious aural considerations. And how amazing, and regrettable, is the fact that the two leads have sunk so low in the race memory of operagoers. As we have discovered from Maison’s Wagner at the Met it is high time for a reappraisal.