Cher Public

Teeny furniture

prima-donna-assolutaWe live in magical times. The box set, which was once a hotly over-priced commodity, has now become the preferred vehicle for reissuing the classic operatic recordings of yore, polished to a high digital shine and at midrange prices to boot! 

Rejoicing in the online bargains I recently availed myself of Maestro Toscanini’s entire Verdi and Wagner cycles for a pittance, Jussi Bjorling’s RCA box set for a fraction of the retail and Joan & Jackie’s (Sutherland & Horne to you civilians) recital collections on Decca at such a steep discount it really qualified as shoplifting with a receipt. I saved so much I even bought Anna Moffo’s box used and didn’t feel guilty at all.

I was bewitched into a life of operatic fandom and diva worship after listening to Leontyne Price’s entrance as Aida on the 1961 Decca recording of the Verdi masterpiece led by Georg Solti. She starte on the word,”Ohime,” climaxing eight measures later on an A-natural of the most exquisite poise. At the tender age of 17 I had absolutely no idea what I had just heard but I knew I was going to have to hear more of it immediately. Lucky for me Miss Price was the rock on which RCA classical built its church and there was no end to the operatic exploration from there.

A decade later I heard a new friend glibly refer to her as ‘”Teeny!” Aghast at the over-familiar disrespect of having this woman, who changed the course of my entire life, and whom I had even met at that point, reduced to a comic nickname, I practically fainted. Our friendship managed to thrive only because of my sense of humor and his enormous cd collection.

Besides, I call her “Teeny” now too.

Sony Classical has now released “Leontyne Price Prima Donna Assoluta” containing nearly her entire operatic oeuvre in a box set comprised of Ernani, her first go at La Forza del destino, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Cosi fan tutte, Un ballo in maschera, Il Tabarro and her second stabs at Il Trovatore, Tosca, and Aida. These 22 discs are very reasonably priced and all re-mastered up to 24-bit/96 kHz technology from the original analogue tapes, with the exception of the Butterfly which was DSD direct streamed a couple years back and remains the crowning glory of this set from the sonic engineering standpoint.

First things first. The 1969 Trovatore conducted by Zubin Mehta which preserves the best of Ms. Price’s three performances of Leonora also starred recording debutantes Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes along with a hard as nails Fiorenza Cossotto. Sonically it has had a problematic history. RCA had invented the “Dynagroove” process, which used an analog computer to both enhance and reduce frequencies, and it was coming to the end of its useful life.

On the old, thicker 33 LP discs (and masters) of the 60’s there was plenty of aural space but on the newer, thinner, platters of the 70’s there were noticeable miscalculations in range of sound. This Trovatore has finally been scrubbed of the heinous case of pre-echo that has been plaguing it since its initial release.

Although the top frequencies still show some distortion they too has been lessened to a degree not achieved in the previous re-master in 1997 which was only up to the 20-bit standard at that time. Not perfect but much improved and still a glorious, and the first note complete, recording of Verdi’s torrid crib-snatcher.,

The Carmen, recorded in 1963, is a hoot deluxe. Herbert von Karajan leads a performance about as Gallic as Sacher Torte, with the Ernest Giraud recitatives included. Back when Decca and RCA were sharing releases this was the one they decided to keep in their library when they split. Cecil B. DeMille protegè John Culshaw produced with his usual flair for huge crowds and the new engineering faithfully captures the excitement of Stereo in the 60’s. Franco Corelli is absurdly overqualified for Don Jose, but he and Price work well together and there’s definitely a little frisson going on between the two of them.

She’s all slinky and purring in the first act and probably, just by virtue of that voice, the most overtly sexual Carmen we’ve ever heard. Then at the last they’re both giving as good as they get and you’re not certain who’s going to get out alive. Price never performed the role on stage (turning it down along with Karajan’s offered Salome led to Herbie taking his marbles and going home and not calling for nearly a decade) but she seems to have a preternatural level of concentration in the studio. The microphone loved her and I think vice versa. Mirella Freni and Robert Merrill, both in their prime, round out the gold standard casting.

The 1967 Cosi fan tutte has a cast of voices more suited to Verdi than Mozart and is something to hear. It was also the first note-complete recording of Mozart’s score. Tatiana Troyanos and Price are hilarious together. The great George Shirley gives a beautiful rendition of both arias (and throws in a cadenza) and Sherrill Milnes in his youth brought machismo to Mozart unlike any other. Price distinguishes herself as the most luscious Mozart soprano ever.

The voice is really too warm and vibrant, especially by the standards of Viennese concert hall correctness. She certainly can’t be labeled “cool” and there’s nary an emotion held in reserve. She also had the juiciest trill in the business which she could actually pulse to the tempo of the music. Erich Leinsdorf conducts like he’s enjoying himself immensely and has no idea what “period” means.

But the two performances that really stand out here are both Verdi. The 1966 Un ballo in maschera and the 1967 Ernani. They both find Price partnered by Carlo Bergonzi and they bring out the best in each other. Bergonzi, ever the gentleman tenor, never lets his ardor eclipse his artistry for a moment. He had a clean bel canto line that sounded at times like he was almost too good for the music he was singing. He and Price both sport a healthy lyric spinto sound that could go boom above the staff when required.

Price does a certain amount of showing off here as Elvira. Slow and sensual in the opening cavatina, her singing waxes Olympian as the vocal challenges mount. She dispatches all of the hurdles with a frisky ease, even plunging down into that smoky chest that she flaunted to her enjoyment and ours. Mario Sereni and Ezio Flagello, both under appreciated to my mind, sound authentic and virile as Don Carlo and Silva.

Thomas Schippers gives us far more of the score than on the live Met broadcast from 1962 that Sony released commercially a couple years back. He also gives us a more studied account of Verdi’s work which is surprisingly mature considering where it falls in the line of composition. The RCA Italiana Orchestra play like the red bloodied sons of Verdi they are. You could quibble but I don’t see anything in the current catalogue that comes close to touching this one.

But the real jewel here is the Ballo. Amelia is Verdi’s heaviest soprano role. Frankly I think the singing is more demanding than Aida. Where the Ethiopian princess simmers and soars Amelia’s vocal line is decorated with a passionate intensity that makes it a hybrid of his early and late styles. The rest of the casting here is an embarrassment of riches. Besides Bergonzi’s second outing as Riccardo there’s Reri Grist who sparkles so charmingly she’s the vocal equivalent of Veuve Clicquot as the page Oscar. Shirley Verrett puts in a guest appearance as a sepulchral Ulrica and Merrill snarls with golden age villainy as Renato.

Price here can’t be touched. The sheer opulence of beauty on the top of that voice in its prime is an astonishment. Shortly after her first entrance she unfurls that huge opening phrase in the trio in Ulrica’s hut and soars over her colleagues and your mouth just hangs open. For the scene at the gallows she’s on fire with the huge line and that emotional “catch” in her throat she applies to express unhappiness. Also of note: the childlike timbre she exploits when portraying fear and the sharp intake of breath to depict crying and the slurred staccati during the love duet, to say nothing of that famous float and spin combo.

During the final duettino at the ball with Bergonzi she hushes her tone until he ‘discovers’ her identity and then she lets it flood out. The syncopated B-flats that follow (the ones that many sopranos just join together for one looooong note) are a ravishment to the ear. Her constant attention to the words to say nothing of the quality of attack show an enormous musical intelligence and a goosebump inducing ability to communicate. 50 years later I don’t think we’ve seen its equal.

Leinsdorf leads the RCA Italiana’s this time and he does a wonderful job building the scenes and providing support. I’m sure it was really for contractual convenience but seriously imagine a record label having it’s own orchestra and chorus nowadays?

The Forza I like for a lot of the same reasons and Price is infinitely fresher in 1964 than when RCA brought her back into the studio in 1976 for a second bash under James Levine. By the 70’s Ms. Price’s voice became a larger and darker-hued instrument. Her gifted colleagues for both outings, Tucker and Merrill on the first and Domingo and Milnes on the latter, just prove how lucky we were in the 1960’s and the 1970’s while her career spanned generations.

Although they can still bring great pleasure her earlier interpretations of both Tosca and Aida are my preference over the ones included in this box set. Not that I would write them off completely. I could hardly part from Grace Bumbry’s Amneris or Milnes’ absolutely riveting Amonasro (maybe the best thing he ever did). I know some people who find her second Tosca tougher and more assured. She’s ably partnered in both and the sonics are certainly good.

For those who may be interested the Urania label just remastered and reissued Ms. Price’s first Trovatore Leonora with Richard Tucker (a real trill in “Ah, si ben mio”), Leonard Warren, and Rosalind Elias as the youngest (at least the youngest sounding) Azucena ever.

A lovely 169-page booklet includes a welcome essay by Jürgen Kesting reminding us why Teeny is so damn fabulous (like we needed it) and an interesting defense of the Cosi. Production information for each recording is listed along with a queue list by itself and then, no librettos, but the queue points integrated within a fairly detailed synopsis in English, French, and German.

Peppered liberally throughout with publicity shots of the period. Some rocket scientist has finally figured out that it’s best to put the opening on those little cardboard CD cases on the top instead of the inside to avoid tearing. Hallelujah! Plus the box takes up far less space on your shelves then the previous 12 recordings did and, believe me, shelf space it is at a premium at Casa Mack.

So RCA has done strong work for the woman who brought them so much glory, and not a little coin, during its golden age. Richard Mohr produced every recording in this box (save the Carmen) and it was a collaboration that bore an amazing output of rich musical experiences. For any fan of “Teeny” this is simply a must have.

  • Porgy Amor

    A terrific review, Patrick. She was an important voice for me. I had seen a videocassette of the Verdi Requiem with her, Cossotto, Pavarotti, and Ghiaurov, and although I did not go into that thinking that opera was the sort of thing I would care for, I had to hear more like this, and these people in particular.

    In fact, another RCA box set for Price (that reddish-pink one for the occasion of her then-approaching 70th birthday) had the first music I heard from many of the Verdi operas and others she recorded. I suppose, 20 years later and more frugal, I have something else to start budgeting for.


      That Requiem is like a miracle with all those voices in their young prime. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it.

  • I won’t be buying this because I already have so many of the recordings included. But I did enjoy reading this review, which has moved me to consider Price’s second Aida (I’ve had the first one for years).

    Now we just have to patiently wait for a certain someone to tell us how bad she was in her farewell Aida telecast (though great in “O patria mia”).


      I have no idea to whom you may be referring but I will say this. If we had someone now singing Aida as well as Teeny sang that last one she would be hailed, hosanna’d, and carried through the streets. That voice may have aged but certainly the technique was still all there and after she got her second wind during the duet with daddy she was hot for the rest of the evening.

    • PCally

      Kash, I’m not her biggest fan and I think she had technical limitations many seem to want to overlook but the people (and I do think I know whom your referring to) make those comments about that Aida are crazy. Give or take Julia Varady (who sang her final Aida at an even older age than price) or millions on a good night, I don’t think I’ve heard an Aida live who sings the role as well as price does in that video.

      • southerndoc1

        Is that Aprile Millions?

      • Porgy Amor

        I only saw that for the first time (in whole) about a year ago, and certainly went into it with reasonable expectations. It is something I am glad to have seen because of the occasion, the history, the emotion, but as a musical performance…there is a lot to overlook, or forgive. Patrick is right that she is better in the second half of it. One of the other principal vocal performances is far more compromised by age and wear than hers is.

        My biggest revelation from seeing it is that I preferred Dexter’s production, about which one rarely hears anything good, to the Frisell that succeeded it. Of course, this was a revival long after Dexter had left the building, but I could see what he was trying to do — strip it down and emphasize the ritualistic, militaristic aspects. It seems a little ahead of its time, actually.

        It is a shame there was so little of Price filmed in complete operas, compared to some of her soprano contemporaries: Scotto, Caballé, Freni, and we even have some prime Tebaldi.

      • Kkarpov

        I would volunteer Leyla Gencer, who had the best qualities of both Price and Caballe.

      • Luvtennis


        I totally respect your opinion. Indeed, her issues with the bottom third of the voice after about 74 were quite evident. I think part of the problem was that she sang at or above her weight class for much of her career. Joan by contrast sang roles that were several weight classes BELOW her natural vocal endowment for the majority of her career. That said, I think that her singing from ’57 to ’69 was extraordinary. I would urge you to seek out some of the radio recordings with von Karajan from the late ’50s to the early ’60s. The Verdi and Mozart requiems. The ’60 Don Giovanni from Vienna. The early radio recordings from London -- excerpts from Danae and the Egyptian Helen particularly -- are almost unbelievably perfect. The studio recordings from the era speak for themselves.

        Most folks who have posted here for awhile know that Sutherland and Price are the two sopranos I admire most. While neither singer evidenced the deep connection to words and text that is so moving in the work of Callas or offered the gorgeous Italian pronunciation of Tebaldi, their MUSICAL expressiveness which was enabled by the perfection of their breathing and legato, which in turn enabled them to play their voices like the greatest violin virtuosos, their mastery of their upper registers which allowed them to negotiate the widest intervals with utter confidence and no forcing, their versatility in different kinds of music, and their apparent deep understanding of vocal technique that gave them tremendous confidence even in late career are for me almost unique. (Early Rethberg, early Steber, Gadski, Grummer possessed similar abilities in my experience. As much as I adore Rosa Ponselle, I cannot help but think that she relied on transpositions throughout her career which might explain the dearth of live recordings of her greatest roles.)

        And let me stress that my opinion (whether worthwhile or not) is not based on nostalgia. I was born after their prime years and never even saw Joan sing in person (I attended a Price recital in the late ’80s). I have devoted a great deal of time listening to historic recordings of singers, but no matter how moving or important those recordings proved I always return to the early recordings of those two with a renewed appreciation of their virtues.

        • PCally

          LuvTennis, I actually agree with essentially everything you write here. Price had a phenomenal endowment and strong musical instincts. I’ve actually heard most of the recordings you mentioned and the earlier stuff is excellent, especially that early Donna Anna and Leonora from Salzburg. I also love her first Tosca for Von Karajan. In general I admire her quite a bit. I just think certain singers from the “golden age” get away with a lot of things that singers today would be torn apart for doing. Beyond a weak lower register, I think price actually displays some pretty clear cases of fairly sloppy musicianship (I actually disagree with the excellent review regarding the Fiordiligi which I think is actually pretty slovenly for long stretches and oddly overparted, ditto the Amelia IMO). I think people sometimes get having a georgeous voice mixed with having strong musianship and I personally think as her career went on Price’s performance style mitigated musicality in a way that I don’t think Sutherlands ever did, even when her voice started to go. Sometimes I just think price sounds lazy and coasting whereas Sutherland seems to be vocally “on” consistently up until the end. That’s not to say she was a great actress or wasn’t dependent on things going exactly as she always did them. But I think vocally speaking Sutherland maintained a discipline and strong rhythmic sense that price either didn’t want to maintain or couldn’t. And there are also just other Verdi sopranos whom I just prefer in general.

          • Porgy Amor

            I personally think as her career went on Price’s performance style mitigated musicality in a way that I don’t think Sutherlands ever did, even when her voice started to go. Sometimes I just think price sounds lazy and coasting whereas Sutherland seems to be vocally “on” consistently up until the end. […] Sutherland maintained a discipline and strong rhythmic sense that price either didn’t want to maintain or couldn’t.

            This is something I saw too long ago to cite it with any authority, but I’m sure I’ve read that when Karajan and Price worked together in the later 1970s on a Trovatore recording, not having done so in a while, he was unhappy with habits she had picked up, and that this had to do with general sluggishness and lack of precision in rhythm.

            How successful he was in getting her out of them, I don’t know. I have that Trovatore recording (Bonisolli, Cappuccilli, Obraztsova, and Raimondi are the other principals), but probably have only listened through it once, with everything else out there to hear for that opera. I mostly listen to the Giulini and Muti these days when I want to hear the entire opera, but Mehta/RCA is my favorite of the available live and studio Leontyne choices.

            • Luvtennis


              Lol! I just realized how your screen name works in abbreviated form too.

              It worked out well. I think the critics and the live recordings from Vienna and Salzburg (or maybe just one) bear that out. The performances with Pavarotti, Ludwig et al are really wonderful especially given that she was 50.

          • Luvtennis

            Chacon a son gout.

            • PCally

              Also luv, I also think frankly the voice was capable of so much more than she eventually used it for. Her repertoire was minuscule by any standard and the few roles she sang outside of her standards tended to fail.

            • MisterSnow

              Her stage repertoire certainly shrunk as her career developed. However, in recital and in the recording studio, she had an enormously wide repertoire. Her complete Prima Donna album series covers about every style (and role) known. From Turandot to Gilda (with a solid high E!), Wagner to Handel, Mozart to Britten, she sang it all with amazing versatility. Unfortunately, the DVD re-release only included a sampling of the many(!) albums. I treasure the ones I still have. The complete series of Prima Donna albums is a recorded legacy that few, if any, have equaled.

            • PCally

              Impressive yes but most of the music was stuff she never sang live in any capacity, so the idea that she was versatile is only partly accurate. And IMO a lot of the singin is mediocre and uninvolving. I think the best price introduction is through a complete recording

            • Luvtennis


              Price sang Barber with great distinction. She sang some of Stauss’s most difficult music with great distinction. She sang Mozart with great distinction. She sang Verdi with great distinction. She sang Beethoven with great distinction. She sang Puccini with great distinction. She sang Lee Hoiby with great distinction. I could go one.

              Did she sing all of these roles complete on the stage? No. And most of the marvelous Maria’s broad rep was a thing of the studio or a tiny number of live performances. I adore her but her rep was actually musically very limited. Even including recordings. Joan sang a very wide rep in the beginning but dramatically reduced that after the fling with Massenet.

              Of corse, you are totally entitled to your opinion. But I think the knock on rep was a bit hard.

            • Luvtennis!! Sooth teller!! Very smart, I think.

            • PCally

              Your probably right, although I’ve never been one to claim Callas was the most versatile soprano. I don’t think she was. A lot of the composers you mention though I don’t really think price did justice to. But that’s just an idiots opinion. And I never saw her live so in all honesty, what do I know? I’ll always admire her more than I love her.

            • Luvtennis

              I should have been clear that I was referring to her singing of the soprano parts Missa Solemnis and the 9th. I also think you discount the business aspect. I think very few impresarios would have been thrilled if Price had decided to concentrate on Britten in ’68. I don’t think they were all that thrilled when Joan (or was it Bonynge) got the Massenet bug. Opera house impresarios and recording producers gotta eat too.

              Honestly, I think the changed nature of the recording industry has helped singers avoid being forced by their own success to pigeonhole themselves. Although the income stream must be missed. Certainly, Domingo has complained about it. ????

            • All Ears

              Luvtennis -- I’m pretty sure Joan said it that was Richard who had become the “French opera nut”, while she bemoaned not doing more Mozart. And as for the numbers, you got me all tweaked up, and while your regular seven stands, I couldn’t help myself and had to do a count — from ’75 to ’89 she sang sixteen composers, and they be: Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini, Lehar, Delibes, Massenet, Puccini, Mozart, Strauss J, Meyerbeer, Handel, Cilea, Rossini, Offenbach, Poulenc, Thomas.

            • rapt

              And, on records, Leoni!

            • Only distinction I’d like to make is that the reason that Maria didn’t have a huge repertoire in live performance (or only a tiny number of performances) is that her career was rather short. During the last several years, she barely sang and her voice was in such a compromised state that she didn’t have many options. She only had a dozen truly active years and covered a great number of roles in that time.

            • Luvtennis

              True, Kashania, but good lord there was so much music she could have continued to sing. Song literature, concert stuff. I think she was trapped by her own brand. Sadly, the vocal problems and her concomitant loss of confidence took her great roles from her too soon.

              And as for the great number of roles, isn’t it really true that apart from her flirtation for a matter of months with Wagner, that she almost exclusively sang the music of 19th century Italian composers. And she sang much less Puccini onstage than most people think from her discography. No Strauss. Yes, she did sing Spontini and Gluck early in her career and that was noteworthy and laudable. And of course all of the stage roles were sung in Italian.

            • Luvt: I was talking only about staged opera, and yes, she stuck mostly to Italian opera. But within Italian opera, she covered everything from bel canto to Verismo and often gave definitive (or at least top 3 or 5) interpretations. So, the number of roles in which she distinguished herself is relatively huge. And again, all within a dozen years or so.

              Agree completely about exploring other repertoire after her voice started to falter. She still had plenty of voice left for the song repertoire, and one would think that with her way with words, she would have been marvelous in that rep.

              Also agree about her being stuck in her brand, as it were. As everyone knows, she could have sung a number mezzo roles but didn’t.

            • I may be wrong but didn’t Price reduce her active rep after the Met Fanciulla? If I recall, from then on, she stuck to her tried and true Verdi (and a couple of Puccini) roles.

              I think it’s a great shame that she didn’t expand into Strauss roles in the 70s.

            • Krunoslav

              But she did sing Ariadne at the SFO and Met in the 70s and also recorded it under Levine.

              And “after Fanciulla” (1961-62) she did sing Pamina, Donna Anna (as late as 1974) and add Fiordiligi. She sang Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana in 1964. She premiered Barber’s Cleopatra (1966). Two of the Puccini roles--Manon Lescaut and Giorgietta-- and three of the “tried and true” Verdi operas- ERNANI, FORZA and BALLO-were also added *after* FANCIULLA.

            • Thanks, Kruno. I was way off. I thought the MetFanciulla came in the early 70s. Never mind!

            • MisterSnow

              According to Wikipedia, she started reducing operatic performances after 1966 (post Cleopatra), focusing on concerts, recitals, and recordings. The three new roles she added were the two Puccini and Ariadne. If I am not mistaken, she also revisited Poulenc (Dialogues) in the 70s.

            • Bad Krunoslava! Bad! She recorded Ariadne with Solti!!! Levine conducted her two Met performances. I saw them. Many the royal that complained, but I always thought with her that the magical quality of her tone, it’s uniqueness cast a spell, even if 1979 was starting to be late for her. The Pamina for NBC Opera (1956) and her Madame Lidoine (1957) both in English are gloriously sung. The live Fiordaligi (I saw two) were fun if not consistently well managed by her. I thought the star was Rubin Ticker — every word was clear, his tone was lovely and large and he wonderful breath and a butcher’s charm. Lee and Roz had a good time and I adored Theodore Uppmann and the great Donald Gramm (Alfonso). They did well with the English. The royals didn’t like Lee, some I felt didn’t like a woman of color in Mozart, but she was uneven vocally and struggled with the lower range. But Per pieta was magnificently sung and she and Tucker had a great rapport in the seduction scene.

              I saw the Onegin twice, the first with Jess as Lenski, the second with Barry Morrell in the part (a fateful performance since the beloved character tenor, Alessio di Paolis who one could not hear died in a car accident a day or so latter.) Hung Bill Dooley was Onegin. Even that early in a bad life I knew I was Tatiana. But I don’t think Lee thought she was Tatiana. I remember some inevitably nice phrases but she seemed outside the role. As did poor Tommy Schippers who I remember banging through except when he fell asleep. That was 1964.

              I saw both dress and opening night of Anthony and thought she was just fabulous and that is a great extended death scene. I also loved when she was trapped in the Big Pyramid at the dress which was supposed to revolve but got stuck. She was hilarious.

              The Manon Lescaut (undertaken because Kubiak had cancelled) got big laughs from the audience and didn’t seem to sit well for her at least in New York. The great John Alexander was terrific as Des Grieux.

            • Krunoslav

              ah yes of course, solti

              traveling without power cord, should have checked. not a recording like.

              “Hung Bill Dooley”?

              do tell

            • Oh, Krunoslava, I think you know very well. I shouldn’t tattle but Mr. Dooley was famous for … certain things… and those braver (and older) than I got a look. He had more going on there than … elsewhere.

              Yes, that Ariadne is not SO wonderful, not even Tatie is as good as she is with Bohm. My favorite Lee outing was the Ernani. After the aria she just flung her voice out and was truly stunning in the last act. So was Franco throughout although he did come and go as he felt like it and so was Cornell MacNeil throughout, truly phenomenal in those days, huge voice, gorgeous tone, rock steady but with all that sound early on (1962!!) he had wonderful line, beautiful Italian (one could not really say the same about Lee or Franco for different reasons) and at least some of the elegance written into the style. I felt sorry that it was Jerry Hines that first year and not the very greatest Siepi. He came two years later with poor sweet Mario Sereni. Of course your great fave Arturo Sergi sang an Ernani as did the greatest Carlo.

              I have heard various things about the Fanciulla, as you know she sang four, two in house and two on tour. No tape survives. Word was that she was thrilling at the dress and opening night. But then had trouble and took about seven or so weeks off. I heard later that she was a mess emotionally at that time and Bing had assigned an assistant manager as a “minder”, he was concerned that she seemed “unstable” and “feverish”. I actually met the minder who did not want to give details. But it’s safe to say that the sudden pressure of being a world star weighed on her.

              It possibly led her to being cautious about roles with stretches that lay too low and aggressive orchestrations.

              It is so hard for people to know how thrilled audiences were with her and a few others. There was an enormous electricity built in to her performances in the 60’s, big audiences that were thrilled just to be there. I was just watching some clandestine footage of Nureyev filmed live in NY in his first season and was reminded of the same thing in ballet. The audience just explodes and starts to scream at a wild series of turns. I saw the same with her. That expectation is hard to live up to and I suspect the pressure she felt came in large part from that.

            • Luvtennis

              So, Mrs. JC and Kruno:

              I have a theory. Looking back, I get the impression that the 30’s and 40’s and even early 50’s were not a great era for high notes among Italian and italian trained singers. Perhaps because singers from that era were trained with the very reasonable expectation that Verismo and Expressionism were the likely future of opera. And therefore, that a strong, edged (if you know what I mean like a speaking voice) middle register with the ability for forceful declamation in the “passagio” or upper middle reregister was essential. And forte high notes with the occasional disembodied pianissimi for effect. And aspirates if necessary for emphasis.

              Of course there were exceptions -- Arangi-Lombardi, who was maybe considered a bit old-fashioned. And the canaries like Carosio and Pagliughi -- who lost ease at the top early .

              Unfortunately, and this is NOT concern trolling, that didn’t pan out and as the 50s wore on opera started to become the museum that it is now.

              Maria, who was determined to sing everything, and willed herself to an expansive upper register and conquered. Ditto, in a different way, big Renata who had the mid-register virtues of her cohort with more plush and an easier (in the beginning) top, but who also had issues up there after a decade of Verdi. And then came a cohort who came by their upper register naturally (more or less). (Steber was a striking early exception.)

              Nilsson, Price, and Sutherland were high note money singers like opera had not seen since the beginning of the century. Unlike so many of their immediate predecessors, they kept singing their money roles (with varying success on everything but the money notes) until retirement in their late 50’s. That this coincided with the explosion of stereo recordings and TV (especially in the US). As a result, they (along with Maria and Renata) cast longer shadows than almost any other cohort of singers you can think of.

              Now blast away!

            • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati

              Allow me a bit of queenery. I saw several of those MANON LESCAUTs and Leontyne was having a grand time each night in Act II. There was much laughter from the audience, and why not? She was provoking it and playing along. I saw her (seated at her dressing table) slip a large, jeweled ring on her finger, blow on it and then polish it on her bodice/bosom, then look at it again as if to admire it’s size and sparkle. She then smiled and winked broadly and directly at the audience. Mae West could not have done it better.

            • Luvtennis

              When you listen to the excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra with the ridiculous number of hurled out high notes, you have to wonder what happened with the Fanciulla. Was it the orchestration, had she failed to work the role completely into her voice. Physical ailment? Stress from overwork? I think the former is a possibility. Given her essentially lyric gift, I sense she had to work very hard to get the bigger roles into her voice so she could navigate them in the big houses where she typically sang.

              But enough of the looking backwards!!!!

              I want to discuss a couple new things! First, what is happening with Jonas???? Is it physical only? Has his very specialized vocal method started to cause problems? He has been such an essential fixture in the mini golden age we have enjoyed in the last 6 or 7 years with the blossoming of Radvan, Netrebko, Stemme, Fabiano, Barton (still in progress), Yoncheva, and Cubanova. Frankly, I am very pleasantly surprised, especially by Anna’s growth. She could have coasted, but the challenge of the new rep and increasing personal maturity (not intending to condescend) appear to have transformed her. She can still be very rough in her initial launch of new roles or music, but she seems to improve dramatically with experience.

              I still think she would be an amazing Cleopatra. Not sure singing in English is her thing though.

      • Bill

        PCally -- I also was not the greatest fan of Leontyne
        Price but did find her mighty fine in several Forzas I heard at the Met and Ballo in San Francisco.
        Her Ariadne was not so much to my taste, nor
        her Fiordiligi where the other Price, Margaret
        was one of the best in my experience and Margaret’s Donna Anna was sublime and refined whereas I thought Leontyne rather merely stormed through the role. -- I know Leontyne Price sang a couple of Paminas in Vienna at one time -- probably would not have been to my taste. Curiously I never saw Leontyne Price as Aida (an opera I do not care for as much as some other Verdi) and now lament that I did not bother to hear her in that role -- But Leontyne Price was, without question, one of the most important prima donnas of her era

        • PCally

          Bill you’ve mirrored my feelings exactly. Prices strengths are obvious and are very hard to argue with, which is why in her case I chalk my ambivalence up to taste and preference. I would check out the early Donna Anna’s from Salzburg though, she’s pretty magnificent. I think had she wanted to she could have focused on Mozart more than she did. And no disagreement from me shift Margaret price whom I think while not an actress in any real sense actually is more expressive musically speaking than leontyne, albeit on a much smaller scale.

  • QuantoPainyFakor

    I’m missing something here. When did Sony Classical acquire the RCA (BMG) masters? Does the booklet indicate that they are licensed from the original owner or have those recordings fallen into the public domain? Were the original producer / musical assistant credits (like Richard Mohr and Luigi Ricci) mentioned? Jürgen Kesting is a real expert at things like this. I’m assuming that all of this came about through Sony’s offices in Germany.

    • steveac10

      Over a decade ago. Sony acquired 50% of BMG music in 2004 and bought the balance in 2008.

      • QuantoPainyFakor

        Thanks very much. That explains it completely. good that this new release can be enjoyed as tribute to Leontyne

  • Rick

    Great review -- but I wonder what Patrick means by “Franco Corelli is absurdly overqualified for Don Jose”. Is Don José considered a particularly easy or small role? Not in my mind.


      Mr. Corelli had an over abundance of voice for almost everything save Chenier and Calaf. I remember listening to his flower song with a friend and after he blastissimo’d the b-flat I turned to my friend and said,”that b-flat is supposed to be sung piano’. My friend said,’that WAS his piano’.

  • grimoaldo2

    I have loved those recordings of Trovatore, Ernani and Ballo for many years, the Trovatore and Ballo are among my favourite ever opera recordings. Also love the Forza almost as much, though I would have preferred Bergonzi with Price in that one instead of Domingo.
    ” a glorious, and the first note complete, recording of Verdi’s torrid crib-snatcher.”
    That recording is the way I came to know and deeply love Trovatore and when I listened to other recordings I was really shocked at the “traditional” cuts and still don’t really understand why any cuts are necessary in what is not a long opera, it just seems like laziness and disrespect to me. In a live performance I can put up with those cuts but cannot accept them in a recording.
    Glad they have finally done something to improve the notorious sound issues with that recording.

    • fletcher

      I’ve always treasured Price’s live Salzburg Trovatore with Karajan and listened to that rather than the Mehta, having been warned away due to the sound issues, so I’m glad to hear those have been addressed. I’m probably used to the cuts! Can’t wait to rediscover the music.

      The Ballo is a real gem, one of the finest opera recordings of anything, full stop.

    • Luvtennis

      Do you mean Tucker? He was the tenor in the first Forza. ????

      • grimoaldo2

        Sorry I didn’t read carefully enough, I thought the Forza included on this set was the later one with Domingo conducted by Levine. I have never heard the one with Tucker, he is also Alvaro on Callas’ recording of Forza, I heard that once years ago and never again, I can’t stand the way Tucker gulps and sobs and bellows all the way through. No offense I hope, I know he is very revered by many but I cannot take his style.

        • Luvtennis

          Yes, he is out of control on the Callas Forza! He is on much better behavior with Lee under Schippers. Please give it a listen. I think you will agree.

  • southerndoc1

    I remember Price saying that when she felt blue, she’d put on the Carmen recording to cheer herself up.

  • Patrick, great review. She is no doubt a very treasured and singular artist. I need to listen to more of her records. Also, I clinked on the links for the ‘Toscanini conducts Verdi/Wagner’ albums and my you weren’t kidding about the prices! Those would make great christmas presents.I hope they’ll be added to Spotify if they’re not on there already. They recently added an album of Verdi opera arias by Gilda Cruz Romo. I listened to the Trovatore arias but unfortunately I wasn’t taken with her. She was very flat in certain places in ‘d’amore and sounded a bit harsh and strident. I fear that the album of Verdi opera arias I really want will never be released. Le sigh. Maybe I should go listen to Carmen now lol.

  • Leontiny

    Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing. It made me smile, laugh, and cry. When I came to this site I chose “Tiny” assuming “Teeny” would have been taken. Like kashania I have most of these recordings, but might be tempted by the new mastering of that Trovatore. Some of my work is in sound, and distortion and clipping make me grind my teeth, as does off pitch singing. One of the glories of her recordings is that many of them have that immediacy I felt hearing her in the theatre. She opened her mouth and was immediately present and engaged. On a lark as a teenager I travelled to NYC in ’67 and heard the Ballo, couldn’t wait to return for the Forza, then was nailed to my seat in the ’69 Trovatore. I never heard a bad performance from her. Sure there were off moments, thank god she is human, but I felt she always gave everything she had and at some point in every performance she went to that place I keep buying tickets hoping to hear -- “a magnificent human soul literally vibrating to that music and those words”. I quote Mrs JC, or probably misquote and hope to be forgiven.

  • Krunoslav

    ” Franco Corelli is absurdly overqualified for Don Jose”

    Unless one considers the ability to sing it in even *decent* French important, that is.

    I adore that BALLO-- it was the first CD opera set I ever bought-- but I have always thought Price, so wonderful elsewhere, is not at her best in Act II *after* the Love Duet, a really tough stretch that just doesn’t suit her as well as it does some other (Arroyo, Callas and Cruz-Romo on one Met broadcast I have heard). Leontyne does some whooping in that trio.

    Con rispetto,I would point out that Ferrando has THREE arias and that Mr. Shirley sings all three of them well, not ‘both”.

    • fletcher

      Corelli’s French on the Lombard R&J is spectacularly bad. It’s beautiful but almost unintelligible. (It’s a weird recording -- very French, with good performances from Henri Gui, Claude Calès, and Xavier Depraz… and then there’s Corelli and Freni.)

      Krunoslav, for a second Ballo, do you favor the Muti with Arroyo over the rest (Serafin or Votto)? I’ve also heard good things about the Solti.

      • Krunoslav

        I certainly don’t like the first Solti; second is pretty good though. Muti is also good though not very characterful. Votto is pretty exciting; Searfin spoiled by Caniglia and its not a great orchestra.

        What about the Gavazzeni dal vivo?

      • Porgy Amor

        Corelli’s French is amusing on the Carmen because he sounds like an Italian who thinks he’s making a good try at French, but it’s more as though he’s burned his mouth.

        I find that recording highly enjoyable anyway, and go back to it more often than I do some Carmens I probably should like more.

        I love the Muti Ballo. Every voice is a good one, and there are some of those moments in it when things are achieved with such panache and brilliance that I cannot believe they came off so well. Conclusion of the first scene, for example — the way every element of the ensemble just clicks into its place, Grist piping right along with the flutes for Oscar’s interjections, the mad scramble of the playout that really is neither mad nor a scramble, under perfect control…maybe you have to find extreme fastidiousness something to savor, as I do, but that would be my one Ballo. (Leinsdorf’s was my first.)

        I like it much more than Serafin’s, Votto’s, either of Solti’s, or Karajan’s. Abbado’s video performance is better than his studio recording. The live Gavazzeni is very exciting, but Di Stefano is sounding parched, and Ratti’s ubiquitousness as Oscar around that time is not something I personally celebrate. (I do celebrate Grist’s, in her, later time.)

        • Krunoslav

          Yes, Grist is delightful, among the best Oscars available, though Peters in the Met broadcasts is really superb-- one of the best things she did , surely.

          Abbado was stuck with Karajan’s hand-chosen Amelia, Armer’s very favorite timbre among modern sopranos evoking waterfowl. And Nucci is kind of routine, less persuasive than in later years. I do love Quivar in that performance.

          • Porgy Amor

            I don’t think I’ve ever failed to enjoy Quivar. Great singer, could just walk off with an opera even in a smaller part like Frugola, and apparently a delightful personality offstage. (Famously breaking the ice with Hans Hotter before a Gurre-Lieder concert: “Now, honey, if you need any help with your German diction, I’m right here for you!”)

            However, that cast (Barstow, Jo, Quivar, Domingo, Nucci) was the one shared between the Karajan DG recording and the Solti/Salzburg DVD, the production Karajan died before conducting. Abbado’s audio-only set for DG had Ricciarelli, Gruberova, Obraztsova, Domingo, and Bruson, circa 1979-80.

        • In John Culshaw’s book he tells a lot about that Carmen recording: how they hired a French coach for Corelli who used to follow him around repeating the more difficult vowel sounds loudly over and over again, and Corelli’s care for Price when news hit of the Kennedy assassination. He knew he was one of her great heroes and searched for her to make sure someone broke the news personally rather than having her get it from a newspaper headline or a TV news broadcast.

          • Porgy Amor

            Some of that is related in Osborne’s Karajan bio as well.

          • southerndoc1

            “the more difficult vowel sounds”

            But “Je la vois” still came out as the not inappropriate “J’ai la voix.”

    • Luvtennis

      I actually prefer the live ’66 Ballo from the Met. It’s incredible and they do almost everything perfectly. The live Solti Aida from ’63 is again nearly perfect given the met orchestra and chorus of the day (doing well for Solti). And their is a

  • MisterSnow

    Re: Price’s Carmen. I remember a few years ago when one of the Met intermission features did a “name the singer” bit where the phrase was “frappe moi donc ou laissez moi passé” from the end of the Act IV duet. The one everyone missed was Leontyne -- she had more chest than all the mezzo so combined.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    I had lunch with a friend in Laurel, MS, a few weeks ago. I was happy to drive on a major street renamed Leontyne Price Boulevard.

    Here a short news article from July 2015:

    “LAUREL, MS (WDAM) --
    The City of Laurel has renamed one of their main roads after an opera singer.

    City council approved the change and Beacon Street is now Leontyne Price Boulevard. The street is named after a Laurel native who is known to be one of the first African-Americans to gain international acclaim as a professional opera singer.

    Mayor Johnny Magee said the street signs have not been changed yet, but will be in the next few months. He said residents who live on the road will have to change their street address name.

    ‘Beacon Street is going to be a major thoroughfare in Laurel after the completion,’ Magee said. ‘We felt like it would be a great addition to put the name of Leontyne Price on Beacon Street because of all the notoriety that she brings to Laurel.’

    Mayor Magee said the unveiling of the renamed road will be held as soon as Price can make her way down to Laurel.”

    • DeepSouthSenior

      I am greatly privileged to be a native Mississippian along with Leontyne Price. I hope to bring just a fraction of the credit to my state that she has.

  • Before this fades I wanted to be sure and thank Patrick Mack for a delightful read and an interesting thread, starring him, and Mrs. Claggart’s many favorites including Porgy Amor, Krunoslav(a), Luvtennis, Leontiny, PCally (la perversa!), grimoaldo2, Kashania, QuantoPainyFascor, with a special guest appearance from Benedetta Funghi-Triffolati — and indeed everybody!

  • almavivante

    With all this lovely repackaging and remastering going on, does anyone know whether there is any unreleased Price out there in a vault somewhere?