GHCD 2287/88/89 – SAN FRANCISCO OPERA GEMS – Volume 2

Martinelli, Rethberg, Flagstad, Schorr, Gigli, Jobin, Albanese, Valentino, Harrell, Stevens, Kullman, Steber, Lehmann, Conner, Alvary

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International Record Review  December 04

Volume 2 of ‘San Francisco Opera Gems’ contains things that I have never encountered before, though they may have once appeared on one of the pioneering pirate labels. As usual with Guild, the sound surprises by its clarity and lack of graunch and crackle, though sometimes at a cost in top-cut, which is never gross. We begin with Act 2 of La Juive from 1936, with Giovanni Martinelli and Elisabeth Rethberg under Gaetano Merola, who often turns out to be a less dreadful conductor than his reputation would suggest. The singing here is simply amazing, leading me to feel that I must settle down and listen to this neglected opera through. Martinelli shows a few signs of strain but is mainly wonderful, and Rethberg I truly is – to use a word I have vowed I wouldn’t – awesome. The rest of the disc is devoted to a severely truncated final scene of Act 3 of Die Walküre, with Flagstad and Schorr , again under Merola, emphatically no Wagnerian. Flagstad in 1936 was in her youthful prime, singing with a passion which she is so regularly denied, while Schorr, despite terribly effortful high notes, is a model of nobility and firm legato. Where the acetates gave out, Guild has supplied excerpts from a Met broadcast of 1940, but with great tact and skill. The next disc begins with tantalizing fragments from Act 1 of Andrea Chénier from 1938, Gigli on heroic form, Rethberg singing for only a few moments. Then Act 1 of Pagliacci from 1945, a performance mainly distinguished by Raoul Jobin’s desperate Canio, while as usual Licia Albanese treats us to her full repertoire of sobs and strained mirth. The third disc has extracts from Carmen with Charles Kullman, Risë Stevens and, most strikingly, Eleanor Steber, a glorious Micaëla. Then we get a nominally complete Act 3 of Rosenkavalier, also from 1945, in which Lotte Lehmann sings one of her last Marschallins, and has to adjust the vocal line of the trio to cope; she is still incredibly moving, and the other singers are fine, apart from Lorenzo Alvary’s unsuitable Ochs. A thrilling set: let’s hope there are more volumes to follow (Guild Historical GHCD2287/89, three discs, 3 hours 19 minutes).

Guild’s booklet is as ever very attractive and full of background and there will, I am sure, be a collector’s market for these discs. Generalists will find it less satisfactory. …


One thing that I’ve learned from Guild’s series of discs devoted to off-air performances is just how unusual Raoul Jobin was in having his performances privately recorded. His I Pagliacci, from 1945, survives because a San Francisco studio preserved Act I on acetate discs and Jobin authorised other such private recordings, some of which Guild has utilised in the past. Commonplace later or now perhaps, and easy to do; but then troublesome and compromised by all manner of potential problems, seldom of abiding interest to the musicians themselves – and not cheap.

Which brings us to a central consideration regarding Volume 2 of this San Franciscan operatic odyssey – the sound (we shall leave the issue of snippets and segments to later). Sound quality ranges from fine to just bearable and most stops in between. Listeners should know that there are a number of imperfections inherent in the recorded mediums, including some necessary patching, though I should also note that assiduous collectors and those for whom early electrics are the height of modernity will find little to frighten them here.

We begin with Act II from La Juive with Rethberg and Martinelli. The sound is somewhat constricted and there is a deal of acetate scuffing but against that one can hear Rethberg’s dominating performance (a touch of steel in Il va venir!) and also the sterling contribution of the underrated Charlotte Boerner; the great Martinelli is not optimally steady, occasional effortful (the impression is one of a bark) but full of personality. He strays off mike at points, which is a pity, especially in Tu possèdes. Making up the disc is Act III Scene III of Die Walküre, with Flagstad and Schorr. This has a big cut and there’s some pitch fluctuation in Lieb’ wohl. If I add that the orchestral playing can be crude and that Schorr, though ever magnetic, sounds in frayed voice you will think this is a washout. It’s true that there are only about twenty-three minutes worth here – and then not all have emerged intact from damage – but Flagstad is here and her breath control in War es so schmählich is superb to hear.

Andrea Chénier is a fourteen-minute segment. The chorus and band are rather ragged but we again have Rethberg and this time Gigli, whose unforced ease of voice production in Colpito qui m’avate – mezza voce, portamento and a kind of parlando lyric power – is only slightly vitiated by his very Gigli-esque emoting at the end. From the sound of it the San Francisco orchestra was a very variable instrument because the strings are sketchy in the orchestral introduction to I Pagliacci. Here we have some problems with Jobin’s acetates that later on, because of side changing, occupy rather different acoustic perspectives – still they are accurate enough to pick up what sounds like a very active prompter or conductor. The star of the performance is Albanese – quicksilver and alive, and the hints of acetate shatter in Sei là are not going to derail her or her very pretty laugh. Mack Harrell proves dependable, in the best sense, whilst Jobin is adequate as Canio; his Vesti la giubba won’t make the cut but it’s not an embarrassment by any means.

The final volume offers a study in contrasts; Carmen is in generally excellent shape – but against that it offers really only meagre excerpts lasting some twenty minutes – whereas Rosenkavalier is in relatively worn condition but offers a substantially complete Act III. Kullman – often taken for granted – proves attractive in Carmen though it’s Risë Stevens who takes the honours – strongly flexible singing and in youthful, fresh voice. The sound in Rosenkavalier is rather brazen but Stevens is here again, in a performance she gave three days before her Carmen extracts (in both cases Georges Sebastian is the conductor – for many years Gaetano Merola ruled the operatic roost in the city and he conducts La Juive, Die Walküre and Andrea Chénier). Stevens gets a barrel of laughs as Marandel, though she tends to caricature – the Ochs of Lorenzo Alvary is not at all bad. But the sound is not good – congested and brittle and it tends to limit enjoyment.

Guild’s booklet is as ever very attractive and full of background and there will, I am sure, be a collector’s market for these discs. Generalists will find it less satisfactory.
Jonathan Woolf

By Robert J Farr

Live recordings from the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco in Seasons 1936, 1938, and 1945

This second volume of ‘San Francisco Opera Gems’ seems to serve much the same function as volume 1. The San Francisco Opera often provided opportunities for singers on the Met roster to sing roles and leads not offered them at the premier house. There was also the matter of repertoire. One of the most interesting items in this collection is the 1936 recording of act 2 of La Juive with Elisabeth Rethberg as Rachel and Giovanni Martinelli as Eleazer. Eleazer was Caruso’s last appearance on the stage when he sang the role at the Met on Christmas Eve 1920. In great pain he never really recovered and died the following summer. (see Life of Caruso on Naxos). It is a role which, as London Green notes in the booklet (p.8), requires a genuine heroic voice. Giovanni Martinelli sang the role at the Met in its first revival there three years after Caruso’s death. By the time of this recording there are signs of vocal wear. He does not sing the part with the open-throated freedom of his great predecessor as can be heard on the final disc of Naxos’s Caruso survey (Vol. 12) The portrayal of Rachel by Elisabeth Rethberg provides the real pleasure. Her full even tone and superb legato are a joy to hear. Her introduction to Il va venir and the following music (CD1 trs. 6-9) are the highlights. It is a great pity that the recording, derived from four sixteen-inch transcription discs, has so much surface noise.

Rethberg makes a brief contribution to the scene from Andrea Chénier (CD2 trs. 1-4). The notable performance here is by Beniamino Gigli. The 1938 series of performances at San Francisco, from which this recording is taken, marked Gigli’s return to the American opera stage after the contretemps of his departure from the Met six years earlier (see my review The Life of Gigli on Naxos). His studio version is well known and admired. It is good to know from this live recording that his essentially lyric voice could hit the high notes with full tone and no strain in the theatre too (tr. 4). The remainder of the second disc features act 1 of Pagliacci. The recording derives from four transcription discs made for the featured tenor Raoul Jobin. The sound quality is variable. The interest for me is the Nedda of Licia Albanese. She is richer and warmer of tone than de los Angeles in the recently re-issued studio recording (see review) and her characterisation is good (CD 2 trs. 12-14). I am no more impressed by Raoul Jobin’s Canio than I was by his Don José in volume 1 of the series. His phrasing lacks grace and he substitutes volume for subtlety (trs. 8-9 and 19-20). Francesco Valentino as Tonio introduces the work well (tr. 5), but at the end of the day one can hear why he was pushed into smaller parts at the Met after the arrival of Warren and Merrill.

On the third CD Risë Stevens makes a thoroughly vibrant, secure-toned and sexy Carmen (CD 3 trs. 2 and 4). Charles Kullman as Don José sings tastefully if without any distinctive beauty of tone (tr. 3). The American soprano Eleanor Steber is a vocally secure Micaëla (tr. 5). The recording quality of this 1945 performance is amongst the best in this collection. The act 3 from Der Rosenkavalier from the same year, and which follows the Carmen, is of much poorer quality (trs. 6-20). The best singing comes from Risë Stevens as Octavian, although I agree with the booklet note that she overdoes the Mirandel episode. Lotte Lehmann, born 1888, is here past her considerable best. Although her artistry is still there so too is thin tone and downward transposition.

I haven’t mentioned the Die Walküre extract. Frankly, Schorr and Flagstad have had excessive exposure on the various ‘Immortal Performance’ issues on Guild. Volume 1 of ‘San Francisco Opera Gems’ included a whole disc of act 2 of Die Walküre conducted by Reiner and featuring these artists plus Melchior and Lehmann; this was recorded the same year. London Green justifies these further extracts on the basis of the freshness of Flagstad’s manner, caught here in the earlier years of her Wagnerian career. Certainly the forward placing of the voices helps appreciation of the purity and tonal beauty of her singing (CD 1 tr. 13). The downside is that we can too clearly hear the worn parts of Schorr’s instrument. Given the surface noise, pitch variation and the necessity of interpolation for the sake of dramatic continuity, the time could have been better used.

The main item of interest in this collection is the extracts from La Juive and Rethberg’s contribution in particular. Otherwise this disc is for those with a specialist interest in particular singers from the past and whose ears can tolerate the sonic limitations.