Magazine article Gramophone

Legendary Performances from the Met: Sony's Two New Box-Sets Dedicated to Verdi and Wagner Should Be Snapped Up before They Disappear

Magazine article Gramophone

Legendary Performances from the Met: Sony's Two New Box-Sets Dedicated to Verdi and Wagner Should Be Snapped Up before They Disappear

Article excerpt

'Historic broadcast' recordings from the Metropolitan Opera have been circulating among collectors for years, often over-priced and in poor sound, which makes Sony's dazzling Verdi and Wagner boxes especially valuable. Not that the sonic transformation is always as thorough as one might have hoped (in some cases competing CD editions are as fine) but overall this is about as good as it gets.

In terms of vocal charisma and sheer musical theatre, there's little on the current market to compare with either set. Yes, there are the cuts, stage and audience noises, occasional intrusions from muttering prompters and one or two falls from grace performance-wise. But faced with Rosa Ponselle's Violetta (La traviata under Ettore Panizza), does any of this really matter? Here was a God-given voice deployed with the most amazing technique and, on the evidence of what we hear, an electrifying stage presence. Ponselle's 1935 performance, with Lawrence Tibbett surpassing himself as Germont and Panizza running Toscanini a close match on the rostrum, is worth fighting for, the 'fight' being crumbly sound quality that needs some putting up with.

But you don't have to fight through Panizza's Otello from 1940 and, Ponselle aside, I would count this as the set's musical and dramatic highlight. Panizza's fiery direction once more invites comparison with Toscanini; Tibbett is a creepily insinuating Iago, again in prime vocal condition, Elisabeth Rethberg a full-voiced and poignant Desdemona; but the star of the show is Otello himself, Giovanni Martinelli, a raw, hectoring, touching and theatrically overwhelming portrayal, not exactly a beautiful voice (certainly not by 1940) but a humbling stage presence. Panizza also directs a memorable 1940 Un hallo in maschera with Jussi Bjorling, while another great singer, one who turns up in no fewer than five operas, is the baritone Leonard Warren, whose nut-brown, expressively versatile voice is always a joy to hear.

The Wagner set is as desirable artistically, though a number of the recordings have been available elsewhere. The complicating factor here is The Ring, where the constituent parts of the Met's hellfire cycles with Flagstad, Melchior and Friedrich Schorr form an entity of sorts. …

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