Category Archives: The Operatic Ear

Greg Darlin’

Leontyne Price 3

My Weekend with Leontyne Price

Greg Stanford

The great American soprano Leontyne Price was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honor in 1980, the third annual Kennedy Center Honors presentation and gala. Her fellow recipients were Leonard Bernstein, James Cagney, Agnes DeMille and Lynn Fontanne. While most of the honorees come with a personal guest, the Kennedy Center provides an escort for each recipient for the weekend, from pickup at the airport to the return. This person is normally a Kennedy Center employee, preferably one with a knowledge and appreciation of the artist in his or her charge. It was my good fortune to be that person for Leontyne Price, a singer I had long admired. At the very least, I considered her one of the two greatest Verdi sopranos of the Twentieth Century, alongside the long retired Rosa Ponselle, who had walked away from her career at forty in the mid 1930’s. Continue reading Greg Darlin’

Nimbus Prima Voce Series

 

The Nimbus Prima Voce C.D. Series

Greg Stanford

Since writing my recent piece “What About Today”, I have fortunately heard further evidence that the supply of fine new vocal talent is continuing to increase. At the same time, some of the new voices heard recently have sent me back to singers from the first four decades of the 20th Century to make some comparisons. My collection includes many discs from the British label Nimbus.  They pioneered their remarkable recording technique in 1989.  The Nimbus Prima Voce Series makes listening to these past singers a much richer and more rewarding experience than it used to be. Most of these C.D.’s are easily available on Amazon, often for bargain prices. They are by far the best way to hear singers whose recordings were made on 78 R.P.M. records. The sound quality difference between the Prima Voce Series and other transfer methods is particularly striking in pre-1925 acoustic recordings, though considerable improvement is also obvious in electrical recordings made beginning in 1925, when the microphone made it possible to record a full orchestra, as well as bringing increased fidelity to recorded voices.

Nimbus’s technology for transfer of the old 78’s is unique. They constructed a small, acoustically ideal “hall”, where they placed a specially constructed horn gramophone equivalent to the best models made in the early 20th Century. Thorn needles were used, as they produced the best sound. Digital microphones were placed in the tiny hall and a mint copy of the 78 played on the gramophone while the sound engineers recorded the playback digitally from outside the hall. Thus the voices were finally allowed to resonate in ideal playback circumstances in acoustically perfect surroundings. The results are much more satisfying than before, as the resonance of the little hall frees the voices from the acoustically dry recording rooms where the originals were made. Originally, only people with the highest quality gramophone placed in a room with fine acoustics (obviously a rare combination in a home) could have heard similar results. Nimbus has now made these wonderful old singers palatable to the ears of a more general modern audience than only the collectors and specialists, always a small minority, who cannot help but be delighted as well.  Continue reading Nimbus Prima Voce Series

What About Today?

Kaufman 5

Grigorio Expansive

An Expansive Query

Greg Stanford

I recently attended a recital by soprano Ana Maria Martinez shortly after having seen Simon O’Neill and Ailyn Perez in a performance of Otello at the Houston Grand Opera. I went to the recital alone and found myself seated next to a charming couple who turned out to be enthusiastic opera lovers. During the intermission, we were discussing Ms. Martinez’s fine talent as well as that recent Otello. Asked my opinion of the Otello, I  spoke of its merits and faults, including Perez’s lovely Desdemona. I gave O’Neill’s voice due praise, but said his characterization had failed to arouse the deep emotions I once routinely experienced in that masterpiece’s final two acts. Previously, Johan Botha’s performances of the title role had also left me cold. Continue reading What About Today?

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.”

Cutting A Rug With Leonard Bernstein

Greg Stanford

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While conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein was not generally thought of as an opera conductor, he did achieve great distinction as just that from time to time. Many treasure memories of Bernstein’s work at the Met, (Falstaff, Cavalleria Rusticana, Carmen), as well as his recordings of works he conducted in Europe (Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff again, the Verdi Requiem, etc.). My own memories of Bernstein and opera tell quite a different story without contradicting Bernstein’s undeniable musical brilliance.

 The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center For The Performing Arts in Wash., D.C. opened in 1971 with the world premiere of Bernstein’s Mass. For the rest of that decade and well into the next, Bernstein was a frequent visitor there. My first personal contact with him came on the night of the first annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1978. I spent most of the first part of the program in the Press/V.I.P. Lounge of the Opera House, relaxing and waiting to play host during the intermission. Most of that time was spent having a drink and chatting with Gregory Peck, who arrived a few minutes after the program had begun. At intermission time, a large and very illustrious crowd began to pour in. As usual, we had background music coming through speakers in the ceiling and I was unconsciously swaying to the rhythm when I caught Leonard Bernstein’s eye. Bernstein was also gently swaying, and he danced across to me, took my hand and began to twirl me around. Our dance was quite brief and lighthearted and he was soon circulating to greet friends and acquaintances, but the Maestro certainly made a vivid first impression. I had long admired his work and had had many opportunities by that time to appreciate it, but that hardly prepared me for the personal impression this most uninhibited of personalities could make.

 The following year, the Vienna State Opera made their only Kennedy Center Opera House visit, offering two weeks of opera conducted by the likes of Bernstein and Karl Bohm, combined with Vienna Philharmonic concerts in the Concert Hall. This late 1979 visit marked the end of the Kennedy Center’s greatest decade, a period during which impresario Martin Feinstein had managed to arrange visits by the Paris Opera, Deutsch Oper, Berlin, the Bolshoi Opera, La Scala and finally, the Vienna State Opera. Such ballet companies as The Bolshoi, Stuttgart, and London’s Royal Ballet also graced the Opera House stage during those years, as well as the still-annual visits by the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. The Vienna stay opened with Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Bernstein.

 Bernstein and Vienna delivered superb Beethoven, but during the Leonore Overture #3, played as an Interlude before the final scene, Bernstein’s terpsichorean talents burst forth, leaving our little dance of the previous year in the dust. I was sitting quite near the pit and, just prior to the piece’s magnificent finale, was startled to see Bernstein suddenly crouch down low and jump straight up in the air, nearly clearing the top of the pit! He seemed to have been shot from a cannon, or at least to be using a trampoline to magnify the drama of his downbeat.

A Leonard Downbeat

Continue reading Cutting A Rug With Leonard Bernstein

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