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This review is from: Verdi At The Met: Legendary Performances (Audio CD)
This treasurable set paints a broad picture of the general standard of performances at the Met between 1939 and 1967. It's interesting to note that, across the 45 or so principal roles, 22 are taken by American singers, only 11 by Italians, and 12 mainly by European singers. The presence of Leonard Warren in 5 of the 10 baritone leads, plus Tibbett in Traviata and Otello is to be welcomed. The magnificent Warren is underrated outwith the US where he sang almost exclusively, but with Cornel Macneil as Nabucco, Met stalwart Robert Merrill is sidelined to a single performance as Amonasro in the 1967 Aida. As if to compensate, this performance finds him not only in his usual, splendid voice but far more dramatically involved than was often the case.
The listener will find many fascinating performances in this set. Apart from the obvious ones like Ponselle's Violetta, it was wonderful to hear Milanov justifying her reputation as the Forza Leonora, Sayao's heartbreaking Gilda in Rigoletto and Varnay's unidiomatic but sensitive Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, complete with an impressive trill. Controversial
Casting ensured legendary status of a sort for Nabucco. Most would agree that Cornell MacNeil is magnificent in the title role, but Leonie Rysanek's Abigaille was criticised, not least by the singer herself, who described it as "a tragedy for me". The booklet skirts this, quoting the New York Times' "...vocal intensity, thrilling top and a good deal of command". The score was riddled throughout with annoyingly pointless cuts of just a few bars here, such as the final bars of Abigaille's scena, rushing Rysanek to the climax, resulting in a distressingly flat and strained conclusion. Rysanek's not be idiomatic but, as ever, she gives 100% and if she doesn't teach us much about Verdi, she certainly lays Abigaille's conflicted character bare.
Chronologically, the conductors are a mixed lot. Panizza (Traviata 1935, Otello 1940, Ballo 1940) and Sodero (Rigoletto1945) are effective - and the only Italians in the set. Falstaff in 1949 fairly fizzes along under the Hungarian Reiner, but the Viennese-born Fritz Stiedry is too often pedestrian in Simon Boccanegra (1950)and Forza (1952). Erich Leinsdorf, also Viennese, whips Macbeth along excitingly in 1959. The final Nabucco and Aida (1960 and 1967) are conducted by the wayward Thomas Schippers, often effective but with a tendency to speed up at climaxes such as the final section of the Nabucco overture, which sounds like a prelude to a Rossini comic overture. "The zany adventures of a wacky Babylonian King" as the saying goes?
The sound is acceptable and, I'd say, an accurate picture of how the singers sounded, although there are understandably a number of congested fortes in the earlier recordings and headphone listening sometimes reveals traces of the digital processing in a slightly metallic quality to the voices.
There's an excellent booklet with interesting production photos and background on the performances but, as others have found, the discs are none to easy to prise out of their folders, but otherwise the packaging is attractive and won't take up too much room on your shelves, where it surely belongs. At £5 per opera it's an unmissable bargain you should snap up while it's available. Hopefully more compilations from the Met's mouth-watering Puccini and Strauss archives will follow.