GHCD 2238/39/40 – SAN FRANCISCO OPERA GEMS – Volume 1

San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola – Conductor

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1 January 2004 Bay Area Reporter

Voices unlocked from the vaults – San Francisco Opera’s glory days are newly out on CD

If you think I’ve just been whistling “Dixie” about the paucity of star singers at San Francisco Opera these days, I suggest you check the San Francisco Classical Voice website ( for December 23. Longtime opera fan, box-holder at SFO and Metropolitan Opera, and sometimes kilt-wearer John (Jjock) McBaine lets go with a blistering op-ed piece, “Tale of Two Opera Companies,” in which he dumps on SFO, while waxing enthusiastically about Placido Domingo’s recent casting at Washington and Los Angeles Operas.

Seems Domingo heard the same thing in Armenian diva, Hasmik Papian that I did when she appeared at the War Memorial in Arshak II a few years ago. He cast her as Norma, and apparently she, had a triumph. (Not surprising, as a former SFO conduc tor, had told me Papian was the best Norma he’d ever heard live.) Then in LA, Domingo cast Anna Netrebko (remember her?) as Lucia and had to deal with an- other standing ovation. (Poor baby.)

It was instructive, though depressing, to read this piece while I was listening to a new compact disc set called San Francisco Opera Gems, Vol. 1 (Guild; three discs).

Consisting of the second acts only of five operas representative of SFO in the late ’30s and 1940, these historical recordings were taken from broadcasts, and they star the absolute finest vocal artists available in the world at that time. Nobody cared anything about how they looked, how they dressed or what kind of sets they were, acting in. Opera in those days was about three things: voices, orchestra, and emotional expression.

And when the voices included artists such as Bidu Sayao, Tito Schipa, Raoul Jobin, Ezio Pinza, Elisabeth Rethberg, Jussi Bjoerling, Frederich Schorr, Lauritz Melchoir, Lotte Lehmann and Kirsten  Flagstad – well, possums, read it and weep. lf staging “Konzept” had been in fashion then, these excerpts would be as meaningless as a recording from most recent SFO productions would be.

There are problems with this set. Broadcasts mean better-than-usual sound considering the age of the documents, but because of time restraints (to say nothing of the tin-eared Philistines running, NBC), these “second acts” are not complete. They often end abruptly. The people at Guild occasionally graft on an ending with the same artists but from different performances. Also, because of the ear, the conductors themselves sanctioned internal cuts. (All of this is well-documented in the accompanying booklet.) And the orchestra has on- and off-nights; things were not always “better in the old days.”
Fascinating lady

Still, where are you going to hear a Manon like Sayao today? Certainly not Renee Fleming, whose recent recording from Paris (Sony Classical) reveals a gummy, unrhythmic, consonant-less approach to “Adieu, notre petite table,” which Sayao sings with crisp diction and subtle rubato, revealing that Manon is clearly a fascinating little bitch, not a maudlin Grand Opera diva. This is followed by Schipa, 25 years after he made his debut as Des Grieux, still singing the most gorgeously modulated “Reve.” SFO founder Gaetano Merola is the sensitive conductor. (Massenet: Manon; October 13, 1939)

That’s definitely the diamond in these “gems.” Carmen’s second act benefits from Pinza’s swaggering Escamillo and Jobin’s idiomatic Jose, but soprano Marjorie Lawrence, a butch, All- American Carmen, sounds more like a tennis pro than a gypsy out-law. Merola charges through the score at full speed, with little of the rhythmic charm he applies to Massenet, and the ensemble is atrocious. (Bizet: Carmen; October 25,1940)

Pinza, Sayao, Rethberg, Rise Stevens and John Brownlee were a Figaro ensemble direct from the Met. They are obviously having a thumping good old time on stage, but dry-stick conductor Erich Leinsdorf dims the musical good spirits. (Mozart: Nozze di Figaro; October 12, 1940)

The part of Un Ballo in Maschera’s second act that survives here makes one wish for the complete opera. Rethberg’s soprano tends to reproduce metallically, but the 27-year-old Bjoerling is as ardent as any Riccardo while maintaining honeyed suavity. Gennaro Papi’s conducting is suitably passionate in Verdi’s only Wagnerian love duet. (Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera; October 23, 1940)

Finally, we have most of Act 11 (with the “usual” cuts and a doctored ending) of Die Walkure, superbly conducted by Fritz Reiner, starring Melchoir and Lehmann as the Volsung lovers, the magisterial Schorr- as Wotan (though short on top, he’s devastating in the monologue), and Flagstad in her prime as Brunnhilde (no trill, but her “Ho-jo-to-hos” are charming). This entire three-disc set is worth the price for a searing “Annunciation of Death,” with both singers and conductor on fire.
Stephanie von Buchau

MusicWeb Friday May 23 03

With this issue Richard Caniell moves, for his American performance selections, away from the New York ‘Met’ to San Francisco, whilst still depending on NBC broadcast transmissions for source material. However, the transmissions from that source, whilst often featuring ‘Met’ roster singers, were usually only of single acts. Even these were often truncated if the performance was running late as the broadcaster insisted on the following programme starting on time! For the sake of completion Guild has interpolated endings from other performances by the same singers, except in the ‘Ballo’ extract where the voices of other singers are used as I explain below. Given these circumstances and difficulties, why go to the trouble? There are two good reasons. The first exemplified by the act 2 of Manon (CD 1). Although there are other preserved performances of Sayao’s greatly admired Manon, none features Schipa, unequalled in the part of Des Grieux. Further, the ‘Met’ administration had very clear views as to which roles the public liked to hear their favourites sing and this often curtailed artists, who could only show their diversity, or fulfil aspirations, elsewhere. The recordings are variable with pitch problems in Carmen and Walküre and severe sonic limitations in the Ballo, which is derived from private as distinct from the normal official Guild sources. Generally the voices are forward and clear and orchestral detail satisfactory. Stage noises are present as are surface clicks and hiss, which become less intrusive to enjoyment than the regular audience applause. Manon There are at least two preservations of Sayao’s renowned Manon. In neither is she matched for vocal quality by her Des Grieux, sung here by the outstanding ‘tenore di grazia’ of his (or any?) generation, Tito Schipa. In ‘Manon’ (tr. 3) he shows plenty of voice, whilst in ‘Instant charmant … En ferment les yeux’ (tr. 9) his vocal performance is outstanding with even legato, elegant ‘mezza voce’ phrasing caught ‘on the breath’, long breathed phrasing through the passagio, and concluding with an exquisite diminuendo. Sayao was a renowned and admired Manon with a’face and figure du part’ She hadn’t the palette of colours in the voice that Renée Fleming (another singularly beautiful face and figure for the part) brought in more recent years, but it is still a formidable characterization. Where I found some difficulty was in her ‘Adieu notre petite table’ (tr. 8), where she moves from using the lower tones of the voice (I deliberately do not use the phrase ‘chest voice’) to a prominent vibrato to add stress and meaning. The broadcast cut the final phrase, which is added, in a slightly different acoustic, from another Sayao performance. The recording and conducting are among the best in this collection. However, as might be expected given the quality of the singing, there are several intrusions of applause. Carmen The name part is sung by Marjorie Lawrence (born 1909) who first sang Brünnhilde at age 26 no less. She shared the leading Wagnerian soprano roles at the ‘Met’ with Flagstad from 1935 to 1941 when her stage career was cruelly cut short by the onset of polio. Lawrence aspired to sing Carmen. The opportunity arose at San Francisco in 1940 when she was scheduled to sing ‘Minnie’ in La Fanciulla del West and the baritone withdrew with vocal problems. The management searched for another new role for Lawrence, and Carmen was announced with Jobin and Pinza in the other principal roles. The major pleasure listening to the performance was, for me, the singing of Pinza as a swaggering Escamillo, (‘Votre toast’ tr. 14) albeit his French leaves something to be desired. The sheer richness of tone and vocal inflection bring the part to life and one can imagine how any Carmen would prefer his extrovert sexuality to Don José’s agonizing. Jobin was in the city to sing opposite Lily Pons in Lakmé when the changes were made. He is a little underpowered as José, but sings a more sensitive ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ (tr. 18) than he does on the famous 1950 recording with Solange Michel in the title role (Naxos Historical). As Carmen, Lawrence is strong voiced but rather monochrome. Her inability to express Carmen’s sexual allure is not helped by the conductor’s fast speeds. Interesting for vocal connoisseurs. Le Nozze Di Figaro The opening orchestral introduction is well caught but marred by intrusive applause caused by either the curtain rising on the scenery (it was the first night of a new production) or the entrance of Rethberg as the Countess. Rethberg (born 1894) was a renowned spinto at the ‘Met’, and elsewhere, singing Aida, Amelia, Siglinde, Elisabeth etc). She sings an amazingly steady, and full toned ‘Porgi amor’ (tr. 2) but sounds somewhat too mature when it comes to planning and executing capers with Susanna. As her husband, John Brownlee is something of a hectoring bully of no great vocal distinction whilst Pinza’s mellifluous bass, and vocal inflections, are ideal as Figaro. As his partner, Susanna, Sayao is rather light of tone, sometimes sounding too thin, but at least never acidic. The young Rise Stevens is justifiably applauded for a well shaped and phrased ‘Voi che sapete’ (tr. 6). Leinsdorf conducts adequately whilst a clangy piano continuo doesn’t help the recits. The broadcast was terminated part way through the finale and is completed by the interpolation from one on March 9th 1940. I have to note that the ensemble in this finale gets a bit scrappy towards the end. Un Ballo In Maschera This is the poorest sonically but the most vital vocally of this set of discs. Only 24 minutes of the act are included and this fragment derives from rather poorly recorded private sources. Whilst many pitch variations have been corrected there are still problems in this respect as well as surface noise that is particularly intrusive at the start of track 28 (‘M’ami, m’ami!’). ‘Holes’ have been filled with 5 seconds of Hervi Nelli and 20 seconds of Zinka Milanov. In 1940 no complete recording of Ballo had been made and even the ‘Met’ hadn’t managed a performance since 1916! However, the work was suddenly revived in San Francisco, Chicago and New York and has been a staple of the repertoire ever since. This performance spans two generations. Rethberg (born 1894) had been a ‘Met’ spinto for 20 years whilst Björling had only just began his international career, soon to be abbreviated as he returned to his native Sweden for the remainder of the ‘War’ years. Both singers display the skill of long-breathed phrases, and vitality of characterization, whilst in their phrasing respecting Verdi’s melody and dramatic thrust. They couldn’t, however, finish the duet (tr. 28) together! Bonelli is a full-voiced resonant Verdi baritone who sings with meaning and graceful phrasing. Björling’s personal problems deprived us of a studio recording of Riccardo, a part ideally suited to his lovely tenor voice. We can but regret having to be satisfied with limited opportunities such as this and despite the considerable limitations involved.

Die Walküre I am surprised at Guild including this extract in view of the complete opera in their ‘Dream Cycle’ (GHCD 2215-2217 reviewed elsewhere on this site). The conducting of Reiner is to be preferred to that of Leinsdorf whilst the Fricka is less convincing. In my review of the complete opera I was generous about Schorr’s limitations at the top of the voice. Here, recorded four years earlier, he is nearer to his great years as the foremost Wotan of his generation. However, London Green who writes all the informative notes on the performances in the usual high Guild quality booklet, is very realistic on Schorr’s portrayal of Wotan’s qualities: ‘But now, in 1936 … no longer a vocal painting, but a pencil sketch’. Elsewhere the cast sings with the quality that their reputations would lead you to expect and hope for. Whilst other issues of this performance conclude, as did the broadcast, well before the end of the act, Guild interpolate the end from the 1940 performance under Leinsdorf. Pitch variations are not wholly overcome.
Robert J. Farr