Category Archives: Greg Stanford

I Shot Jose Carreras

Firing_Squad_4

Stanford Takes Aim…

At a recent Paul McCartney concert in a packed sports arena one of my companions commented that if someone screamed “Fire!”, a lot of us  might not survive the ensuing barbecue. I smiled, though in truth I would probably laugh until the flames consumed me. The explanation for my reaction is presented below.  It was a unique moment that occurred during my formative years, long before The Three Tenors became an entity. As nearly everyone knows, the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and Spaniards Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras famously pooled their talents in Rome for a concert at the time of the 1990 World Cup. The multimedia explosion after this performance became the most successful “crossover” phenomenon since Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love” (number one on the pop charts) and his smash hit film The Great Caruso in the early ’50’s. Our three heroes surpassed even that triumph when the C.D. of the Rome concert entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling classical album of all time. The Three Tenors, as they soon became known and marketed, became household names, and  their subsequent concerts, videos and C.D.’s continued to keep them in the limelight as the ’90’s yielded to a new Century. That first concert was certainly good show business, particularly on video, and helped bring opera off its pedestal. Continue reading I Shot Jose Carreras

Out & About with Pavarotti

I waited on the tarmac. It was Spring, 1972 in Memphis, Tennessee and I  was awaiting  the arrival of my girlfriend at the airport.  She was coming in from New York City; I had driven from the St. Louis area and we were to meet for an enjoyable weekend of performances by the Metropolitan Opera on its then-annual Spring Tour. This was during my Hippy days, and I looked the part. As I waited, I was surprised to see a man emerge, a man not yet nationally famous, but instantly recognizable to me. As our eyes met, I said in Italian, “Mr. Pavarotti, welcome to Memphis.”

 The tenor descended laughing, then said “You are my welcoming committee?” We chatted amiably for a few minutes. Suddenly, a large group of people approached Pavarotti, apologizing for being late to welcome him. He summoned enough English to say “Here is my welcoming committee”, or words to that effect, indicating me. It should be noted that in later years his English improved considerably. The well-dressed opera patrons eyed the disgraceful Hippy with amazement, then swept their star away. My girlfriend came out and everything began to proceed according to plan. Such was my first meeting with the man who would become one of the three most famous opera singers of the 20th Century, along with Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas, both of whom lacked the mass media advantages that Pavarotti enjoyed. Future meetings proved equally unexpected.

 The second one was several years later at the Kennedy Center. By then the Hippy appearance had been discarded and I was working my way up the ladder there; I was in the Box Office for the Opera House. Pavarotti’s name had by then become a household  word and he was to appear in four performances at the Opera House during the Met’s still-active tour. One day, during a very slow part of the day, those of us at the windows were astonished to see Pavarotti approaching us with a big, friendly smile. As if it were necessary, he introduced himself. He then told us he was singing the four performances and encouraged us to come to see him. He proceeded to go all around the entrance level of the building and did the same with the people at the souvenir stands, the ushers, with anyone he saw who worked there. In all my years at Kennedy Center, he was the only star to do such a thing and it made quite an impression. Several employees who had never seen an opera went to see him as a result of his efforts as goodwill ambassador. I of course needed no encouragement, having previously gotten tickets for his Un Ballo In Maschera and L’Elisir D’Amore performances. It  was becoming clear that I was never to have what might be described as a normal meeting with this man. Little did I know how odd the next, and last one would be.

 The vocal pinnacle of Pavarotti’s voice was from the late ’60’s  through the mid-70’s. Nearing the end of the ’70’s, the easy lyrical brilliance of his tone had begun to harden slightly as he entered his ’40’s and took on heavier roles. In any case, Pavarotti’s voice type is often at its best in a tenor’s younger years. While the tenor continued to sing very well, those of us who had heard him at his absolute best noticed the difference. I was somewhat alarmed to hear that Pavarotti had decided to take on the role of Manrico in Il Trovatore, hardly a role he was born to sing. However, when he began to perform Manrico at the Met, I went to hear the result, not without trepidation. As far as Pavarotti was concerned, I got what I expected: a still fine tenor voice singing music not really appropriate to it. The rest of the experience could hardly have been predicted.

 I found myself next to an elderly gentleman who, from the sound of his “Bravo!”, was Italian. During the first intermission, I spoke to him in Italian, asking him if he were from Italy. He responded as predicted and then asked me what I thought of the tenor. When I simply responded that Pavarotti was one of the best tenors in the world, he said “One of the best? He’s the best.  He’s my son.” Such was the passion of his response that I felt it best to simply agree with him. I learned that he was from Modena, a town I had once spent a considerable amount of time in and we discussed that. He revealed that he had come from Modena particularly to hear his son’s Manrico and was staying for several performances. In those days, the Met had 3 intermissions for a 4-act opera and we spent each one in conversation. By chance I was on the list for admittance backstage after the performance, as was, of course, the elder Pavarotti.

 At the end of the performance, we duly went backstage to the area near the star dressing rooms. The tenor saluted his father affectionately and Pavarotti, Sr. introduced me as “Gregorio”. I told Pavarotti of our first meeting and he told me he recalled it, though I was doubtful. I excused myself and said hello to a couple  of singers and staff members I knew, then bade farewell to both Pavarotti’s, as it seemed  best not to intrude. As I walked away, I reflected on the unusual nature of all three meetings with Pavarotti. Though I was to hear him sing many more times, our paths did not cross again. Through those years, I often thought of Caruso and Callas, wondering what level of fame they would have achieved in the media age. Had they been contemporaries, would Pavarotti’s fame have matched or even exceeded theirs? A provocative question to be forever unanswered. For his 21st Century fans, Pavarotti’s preeminence will likely remain undisputed. 

 

Carlo Bergonzi

Carlo Bergonzi

    “In braccio a morte”

The recent death of the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi at age 90 brings back many wonderful memories. One of the most striking of these memories is that I never saw a Bergonzi recital that was not attended by from one to several of his younger tenor colleagues, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. They all knew they had something to learn from the master. This situation is by no means common; I cannot recall ever seeing a noted tenor attending a recital or concert by any major tenor other than Bergonzi. The last time I heard this paragon was in Madrid when he was 65 years old. Excepting some strain beginning at B flat, he was the same great singer as ever. Many have testified to the surprisingly high quality of his singing at a New York recital when he was 75! But the core of our memories of this fine artist go back to the years of his happily long prime.

 The Italian phrase in my title (“In the arms of death”) comes from the final scene of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera which offered Bergonzi what most admirers considered his finest role. How appropriate that it is by Verdi, as Bergonzi was always particularly associated with the music of his great compatriot. He may have lacked the trumpet-like brilliance and glamour of such as Del Monaco or Corelli, but what he did have to offer more than compensated for that. There is much to be said for such virtues as impeccable legato, sound vocal technique, beautiful tone and fine musicianship, and these were among the qualities that Bergonzi possessed in abundance. Indeed, his solid technique and the wisdom never to push his lovely voice beyond its natural limitations, while still sustaining the necessary stamina and security in the upper register needed for some of Verdi’s heavier roles, helped make Bergonzi a master interpreter even of roles in such Verdi operas as Il Trovatore, La Forza Del Destino and Aida.

Continue reading Carlo Bergonzi

JON VICKERS: AT THE APEX

 Vickers Tree

Few opera lovers would dispute that the leading tenor roles in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Verdi’s Otello are the most fiendishly difficult roles to sing in the entire tenor repertory. Should a tenor appear today who could sing and act these three roles and prove definitive in each, the opera world would reel in disbelief. No contemporary singer is really satisfactory in any of them, let alone all three. Yet there was a tenor who was indisputably the greatest interpreter of all these roles during his career, and who sang them all within a six week period at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1974. This is the stuff of operatic legend, and Canadian tenor Jon Vickers indeed accomplished this at that time. I am in the fortunate position of being able to provide an eyewitness account of an achievement which reminds us what the much overused word “awesome” really means.                                                                                         

Jon Vickers’ operatic career began in the 1950’s and ended in 1987. In addition to the roles listed above, he was the leading interpreter of Florestan in Fidelio, Siegmund in Die Walkure, Samson in Saint Saens’ Samson et Dalila, as well as the title roles in Parsifal and Peter Grimes. Though he sang many other roles with great distinction, these eight parts were generally agreed to be his greatest characterizations. 

As J.B Steane so aptly wrote, “….Vickers is not a ‘tenor’ any more than Caruso was. Both are voices unlike any other, and simply share their range and repertoire with the world’s tenors.”

Mini Reviews

 Courtesy of Amazon.com

Reviews by Stanford’s Operatic Ear:

Photo Aida

*****  5 Stars for Final Act.  A Must for Corelli Fans!

This 1962 Met broadcast offers a solid Amneris and Amonasro in Irene Dalis and Cornell MacNeil, and a lyric and lovely (though, at that time, insufficiently powerful) Aida, Gabriella Tucci. The raison d’etre of the release is Franco Corelli in his best available live performance of this, one of his signature roles. Yes, there are other live Corelli Aida’s available, but they are all from either before or after his prime. Only this set offers the voice at its best. His work in the last act alone, particularly the final scene, merits the 5 star rating and makes the set a MUST for Corelli fans. Corelli’s performance in the first two acts is fine, but better enjoyed on his EMI recording with Nilsson. Here, he has not yet learned to finish the aria in the wonderful fashion heard later and there are other small problems along the way to the fortissimo B flat, but there is compensation ahead. Corelli’s performance in the Nile Scene is not significantly better than the recording until the overwhelming successive A’s which conclude the act. In this scene and elsewhere, though Corelli is as considerate as he can be about overpowering his soprano, the matching of voices is not ideal. Tucci gives us much to enjoy when singing alone, with lovely tone, secure, floating soft notes and musical phrasing. The orchestra and chorus of that era perform as well as could be hoped and Staff Conductor George Schick is at least solidly competent. But finally, this set is essential for those whose thirst for more of Corelli’s voice leads them to pursue performances where he reaches his top form. In the EMI recording with Nilsson, the fourth act scene with Amneris was probably the best part of Corelli’s variable performance, and it is also fine here. Were the final scene the only part of this performance worth listening to (which is not the case), the wonders of that scene alone would make this a must have item for them and a revelation for many others. Faults? Yes. But what a magical soft sound, baritonal lower notes and lush, glowingly powerful top tones, still unequalled, complementing a vivid, involved and passionate characterization. Both singers do beautiful work in the Tomb Scene and anyone wondering up to that point whether this was a worthwhile purchase will have their doubts laid to rest. Corelli’s singing in that scene is addictive; no other word will do. This set has turned up from time to time on Amazon, always for a very high price. After searching for a better buy for about 3 years, I finally found it at a quite reasonable price. The Tomb Scene alone made it well worth the wait. It should be mentioned that the brief Prelude to the final scene is missing here for some reason. Greg Stanford, The Operatic Ear (anotheramerica.org).

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Photo De Stepfano

 *****  Hours and Hours of Prime DiStefano

 

For value for your money, this is unbeatable. Virtually anything worthwhile recorded by Di Stefano during his all too brief prime is represented here, including such rarities as 4 songs from a 1944 Zurich radio broadcast, selections from his La Scala debut in an Italian language Manon and a remarkable 1950 San Francisco operatic concert. The beautiful recordings EMI made of the young tenor in the late ’40’s are here, as well as countless other goodies. EMI, Decca and RCA/BMG can hardly have authorized the selections from their recordings, so this set may not last long. I’d recommend grabbing it while you can. The sound quality is surprisingly good and 10 well filled cd’s for this price is nothing short of incredible (literally). The only drawback is the too-tight cardboard sleeves and the complete absence of notes, but what can you expect when so much music is offered at such a price? No post-1958 Di Stefano is here, so we don’t have to suffer through his self-imposed premature vocal disintegration. What a shame that someone who had such a wonderful voice coupled with that unique and quite audible charm didn’t respect his own gifts enough to take care of them. The smoking, drinking, sexual escapades and all-night poker parties weren’t enough; he also had to sing Corelli/Del Monaco roles and further abuse that divine lyric tenor voice. It’s as if he willed his own destruction, and this man probably never heard of Wotan. But no one was ever blessed with a more beautiful natural gift and this set can’t be too highly recommended. Greg Stanford (The Operatic Ear, anotheramerica.org).

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Photo Cav & Corelli

*****  Bernstein and Corelli Make this Cav a Must

This was of course a unique situation, with Bernstein conducting Cav of all things. Those who complained that he was out of his element here had better check the score. By dusting off many traditional cobwebs, he brought this to life as if it were a new work he was trying to promote. Domingo had previously been scheduled for this production, but the labor problems which so delayed the ’69, ’70 season produced various temporary defections, including the young Spaniard’s. Corelli took over, and did he take over! At that time, young Domingo could never have approached Corelli in this one, particularly in this form and cooperating fully with Bernstein. There’s no doubt who’s in charge, but Corelli much more than makes up for his relatively sloppy performance on his commercial set of Cav, where his scooping seriously mars the “Addio”. This time, he delivers the best Turiddu I have ever heard. The Operatic Ear, anotheramerica.org

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Photo Verdi at Met

*****  Verdi at the Met

This is a must have collection. No one has ever touched the likes of Ponselle, Tibbett, Martinelli as Otello, etc., just to name the most obvious of the earlier singers represented here. Price’s incomparable Aida,Bjorling’s only recorded Ballo, Tucker, Bergonzi, Warren….. It would take a book to describe the many wonders of this set. Get it while it lasts. The Operatic Ear, anotheramerica.org

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Photo Samson and Dalila

*****  Samson and Dalila

Read Carefully; Reviews of 2 Perfromances Mixed At Random

 Potential buyers should take a careful look at these reviews. For some reason, they are an indiscriminate mixture of reviews of two different performances. If you order expecting the great Vickers and get Domingo, you’ll have little reason to be glad about it. Sure, Domingo was/is a fine artist, but not in all repertory. Many of his roles were much better suited to either Vickers or Corelli, and in the case of Samson, Vickers was the man.

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Mini Photo 9 Turn 1

****  Turandot: Yes, Great, But Not the Best

I’ve read all the reviews here and have owned this ’64 La Scala performance for years. Some of the reviewers seem surprised by the “inferior” sound quality. Clearly, they don’t have much experience listening to off the air live performances of the ’60′s and earlier. No one goes to these priceless performances for sound quality, but for the special joys that live performance before an audience can offer, particularly with such artists as Corelli or conductor Hans Knappertsbusch, high among prominent examples of performers who just couldn’t usually deliver their best under studio conditions. These were theatre creatures, their true stature revealed only there. Also, the cuts objected to by some reviewers were standard practice everywhere then; for sound quality or absolute completeness, such live performances can’t be expected to match studio recordings.That said, I still greatly prefer the ’66 Met performance with the same star duo, with Freni and Mehta (see my review of that one) and the ’61 Stokowski will be preferred by some. Many knowledgeable listeners considered this ’64 version the best up to that time, but 2 years down the road, Nilsson and Corelli, particularly the tenor, surpassed themselves again. As for Sutherland and Pavarotti, despite some fine singing, they were far out of their respective elements when compared with the real thing for this opera, the Valkyrie and the Supertenor.Generally, I yield to no one in my admiration for Bjorling, but Turandot was hardly the best opera to showcase the wonders of Bjorling’s art, despite his beautiful singing in Calaf’s 2 arias (but check out his 1944 recording of “Nessun dorma” for something really amazing). Turandot was never in his repertory and shouldn’t have been.My recommendation: get the studio recording of your choice and also the 3 Nilsson/Corelli live performances mentioned above and choose for yourself. I’m betting that the Met ’66 version will be your favorite too. The Operatic Ear, anotheramerica.org

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 Photo Met Turandot Broadcast

*****  Best Ever Turandot Met Broadcast.

This 1966 Met Turandot surpasses the more famous 1961 Stokowski broadcast, also with Nilsson and Corelli. As is well-known, the singers and chorus in 1961 had a great deal of trouble following Stokowski’s batonless and vague cues. Both the legendary Turandot and Calaf, still unrivalled, offer surer and clearly better performances under Mehta, particularly Corelli, who here gives easily the best of his various available performances of his signature role, his constant artistic progress in the part in the 5 years since the ’61 effort clearly evident here, while the voice, of course, is still in pristine form. Freni is ideal, barring some excessive “crying” after her Act One aria. This is THE Turandot to own. Why, oh why, did the Met choose the 1961 performance over this one for their own official release? Obviously because of Stokowski’s great fame. Incidentally, this 1966 broadcast was the first ever Saturday matinee broadcast from the “new” Met at Lincoln Center, the 1st this writer, then age 19, ever heard, and on rehearing it often beginning 45 years later, I was better able to evaluate its excellence. Once heard, this will inevitably be the Turandot of choice, despite the audio superiority of Nilsson’s 2 studio recordings, the 1st with Bjorling, the 2nd with Corelli. Buy it and find out what you’ve been missing when any other team has subsequently performed it. Incidentally, if you are dubious about the variable Mehta, don’t be. Mehta excels here too, keeping his enormous forces under firm control while allowing the singers room to breathe and phrase. He keeps the whole performance under firm control without strait-jacketing his formidable leading duo. The Operatic Ear, anotheramerica.org

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Photo Parsifal

*****  Greatest Parsifal Ever and at Bargain Rate

This 1951 Wieland Wagner/Hans Knappertsbusch Parsifal, which reopened the postwar Bayreuth Festival, is the greatest Parsifal ever recorded and here costs under $20.00! None of the singers has ever been surpassed on other recordings and Knappertsbusch shows why he reigned supreme as the greatest of all conductors of Wagner’s final masterpiece. The 1951 mono sound is fine, though most will want a second recording in modern sound (I’d recommend the Solti) as an occasional alternative. But this is the performance you will always come back to, as no other recording can ever completely satisfy after hearing this one. Since Knappertsbusch could never adapt to studio recording conditions, one must hear his work in a live performance to understand and appreciate this musical giant’s extraordinary gifts. No libretto is supplied, but most listeners will already have one anyway. RUN now to your computer and snap up this bargain. Then welcome to Wagner’s world, for this is your passport.

 

Face to Face With Wagner

Wagner Grave

All opera fans read of great performances of the past and wish they could have been there. Oh, to have been at the old Met that afternoon in 1899 when Lilli Lehmann and Jean de Reszke sang the Tristan und Isolde the great Lehmann later recalled as “the ideal Tristan performance of my life”! To have seen Chaliapin’s Boris or almost anything with Caruso! The list goes on and on. Continue reading Face to Face With Wagner

I Shot Jose Carreras

Firing_Squad_4

Stanford Takes Aim…

At a recent Paul McCartney concert in a packed sports arena one of my companions commented that if someone screamed “Fire!”, a lot of us  might not survive the ensuing barbecue. I smiled, though in truth I would probably laugh until the flames consumed me. The explanation for my reaction is presented below.  It was a unique moment that occurred during my formative years, long before The Three Tenors became an entity. Continue reading I Shot Jose Carreras

Backstage With Corelli

In May, 1967, the fledgling Ear was a 19-year-old student born and bred in a small Midwestern town in Illinois. Despite rarely having been farther from home than the 45-minute drive to St. Louis and growing up in an area not known for its embrace of the Arts, I was irresistibly drawn to the nearest place to catch the Metropolitan Opera on its annual tour, which turned out to be Memphis, Tennessee, 400 miles away. Strangely, the need to do this (and it really was a need) was circuitously sparked by attending a double feature at the local movie theater with my little brother 6 years before.

Continue reading Backstage With Corelli