The right box

Let’s call this meeting to order. My name is Patrick and I’m a boxset-aholic. 

I can pinpoint the exact moment it happened for me. In 1996 RCA released an 11-disc overview of the career of Leontyne Price in honor of her 70th birthday. Many tracks on this set had never been released on CD. I remember the cost was so spectacular I contrived to purchase it through a friend who worked in a record store (remember those?) and thereby secured his 20% employee discount.

The Metropolitan Opera started issuing historic broadcast recordings in 1974 on LP (now called vinyl), with treasures from their decades long backlog of Saturday morning radio relays. These included Gioconda with Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren, Romeo et Juliette with Bidu Sayao and Jussi Bjorling, Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in Tristan und Isolde. They released nearly 30 in the series over the years.

I became an opera fan shortly after the birth of digital audio so I scoffed at all these old fogies singing in dim and crackling mono and at $150. a pop (excuse me, tax deductible donation) no less. There was one I will admit to coveting and that was the 1961 Turandot with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli and Anna Moffo conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

A very wise woman pointed out to me in my youth that studio opera recordings were really nothing but hot-house tomatoes. The truth of this has come to be reflected in my cd collection in the past decade as my appreciation for the excitement of live performance, warts and all and even in glorious mono sound, has deepened.

Peter Gelb revived the practice of issuing broadcasts, through Sony on CD and digitally through itunes, in 2011 and in 2013 the Met debuted both a Verdi and Wagner box of invaluable, near mythic, performances. But now we have something unique in The Inaugural Season: Extraordinary Met Performances from 1966-1967 celebrating the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center that year.

Ten complete performances from that gala season and an appendix disc of notable excerpts as bonus form a charming little time capsule of productions from back in the day when eager audiences applauded not only when a bona fide star took the stage but even over the postlude of a famous aria, at an act finale, or just for a spectacular high note all by itself. New York was evidently far more clap-happy than any of us recall. Initially I was aghast at first at all of this indiscriminate jubilance. I will say that it does add a certain frisson to the proceedings. You know like people were actually enjoying themselves at the opera, not just shouting out a disgruntled “where’s the F?” after feeling slighted in Puritani.

Let’s start with the dessert. The highlights disc opens with Milton Cross talking to us live from the 1966 opening night and he throws it over to Rudolf Bing backstage who brings warm wishes from the cast. Justino Diaz says that when he made his debut three years prior he never dreamed he’d be singing the lead on opening night to which Bing retorts,”Neither did I”. We get Joan Sutherland in prime estate tearing her way through “Or sai chi l’onore” with a surprising amount of appoggiatura led by Karl Bohm (who himself may have been surprised).

The Act II “bitch duet” from Gioconda finds a scrappy Renata Tebaldi (and her two voices) facing off with sweet Rosalind Elias. “Donde lieta” from Teresa Stratas as Mimi in Act III of Boheme sounds wildly uneven but I suppose that’s part of her charm. Robert Merrill, RIchard Tucker and Martina Arroyo have a merry time with the first act trio from Trovatore. Their are other charms on this bracelet for sure but the rarest is the Act II quintet from composer Martin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra which was the “other” world premiere that year.

Which brings us to Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. I enjoy this opera quite a bit and have the Spoleto Festival recording from 1983 which remains the best souvenir of this work. The premiere was a fiasco from all accounts and this live recording of the night in question doesn’t do much to dispel that judgement. The orchestra and the chorus seem to be grappling their way through the modern musical style at times (and how modern was Barber?). Leontyne Price gave a magnificent performance of both of her grand scenes on her RCA Barber disc two years later under the same conductor, Thomas Schippers, but on the night in question she is selling the Shakespearean text so hard her Mississippi accent slips through. The air is so full of flop sweat and desperation it makes you happy you weren’t there to witness it.

Then the figure of Renata Scotto crests the upstage as Cio-Cio San and all is forgiven. This live performance of Madama Butterfly is a far greater dramatic experience than either of her commercial recordings. 1966 is the year after her debut and while there’s no surprise that she’s text oriented her al dente Italian is sensationally vivid. She’s partnered beautifully by a fresh and ringing George Shirley as Pinkerton and Nedda Casei as a warm Suzuki. The Sharpless of Ron Bottcher is far better than his Met career of Melots and Moraleses would lead you to believe. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducts and the Met Orchestra certainly knows its way around Puccini, so no problems there.

A volcanic Otello is next under Zubin Mehta whipping the orchestra and singers into a frenzy. Odd that, stylistically at least, the chorus here sounds at times like it’s singing “doo-wop” on the background of a 1950’s Cinerama extravaganza. I have no explanation for these vocal stylings. Tito Gobbi is a peerless Jago and although the voice tends to dry at the top he’s far more articulate than the majority of his baritone colleagues in the role. Even when his pitch is suspect Gobbi’s intention is never in doubt.

Montserrat Caballé was singing only her fifth performance at the Met and the role of Desdemona plays to all her strengths. She’s all glorious soprano cream and lofting those pppp’s at the drop of a hat. The Willow Song is naturally a splendid showcase for her crowned here with a final “Ave” held for an impossible length of time (to wild applause).

But the real story here is James McCracken’s Otello. After slaving away in comprimario parts at the Met he finally quit to make his name in Europe, returning triumphantly for the prima of a new production of the Verdi masterpiece in 1963. He’s a Moor off his hinges and his cries of “Sangue!” in the duet at the end of the second act are harrowing. During the Act III confrontation with Desdemona things got so hot I wanted to call Health and Human Services. Mehta stokes those flames with equal parts fire and sensitivity. If some of the climactic orchestral moments at curtain fall are drawn out far too long it’s still exciting and there’s also an impossibly beautiful cello solo at the start of the Act I love duet. It’s a keeper.

Then we have a Rigoletto led by Lamberto Gardelli who only conducted four operas at the Met in two years time. His cast of Met stalwarts has Cornell MacNeil and Roberta Peters as the tormented jester and his innocent daughter. This is your grandmother’s Rigoletto with all the excesses and interpolations that covered it like barnacles before good taste and musical scholarship swept it clean. Gardelli’s leadership is strong on all sides and he gets the tricky tempos of the first scene with the backstage banda just right. He also takes the most massive ritard on the three opening chords of “Cortigiani” I’ve ever heard and it’s intoxicating.

Peters, along with Lucine Amara, epitomized the Met “house soprano” of that era and she gets applause when she does nearly anything. She’s sparkling in the role, youthful sounding and she has a truly beautiful way with the Italian text which I found surprising. Not always pitch-perfect, and she does some serious off-roading in the cadenza to “Caro nome” but does find her way back. MacNeil is in leonine form as you’d expect even if he too gets pitchy from emotion at times. He and Peters blow the roof off with “Si, vendetta,” both holding their last note for a full 13 beats! The crowd goes so bonkers you’d think they were watching the Mets instead of the Met.

But the real surprise here is the performance of the Duke by Nicolai Gedda. Ever the chameleon, he does an astonishing impersonation of an Italian Tenor complete with scoopy portamento and phrasing so sloppy it has to be heard to be believed. Then suddenly he ends the last two phrases of “Parmi veder” with the most gorgeously placed piano singing and you remember what made Gedda Gedda.

I’ll mention briefly the Lucia di Lammermoor which, in spite of being conducted by Richard Bonynge, uses a performance edition so heavily cut the word “disfigured” would actually be an understatement. Joan Sutherland’s Lucia, five years past her Met debut, was still passionately sung at this point and with a lovely youthful abandon. Richard Tucker is her muscular Edgardo and his stentorian ardor is all about those heavily rolled R’s and the glottal clutching. He and Sutherland are at least evenly matched and the crowd loves them both loudly.

All of these performances I’ve mentioned have been in circulation on the Met Sirius radio station and the Met on Demand app. But there are two here that are debuts and they’re doozies. First is a white hot Turandot under Zubin Mehta with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli in a white-hot dead heat.

Nilsson starts “In questa reggia’”with her placement so high you know you’re in for something. She’s in heat-seaking nuclear warhead voice and sails through Act II barely pausing for breath. The best I’ve ever heard her live. Corelli is a total pig and I mean that as a compliment. If there’s a high note he locks on and holds it for as long as he possibly can. During the riddle scene he links the last two phrases of each his answers together just to show off. He takes the high option in his riposte to the princess at the end of the act and the crowd can barely contain their joy.

Bonaldo Giaiotti was having a good afternoon too and he’s by far the most imposing Timur I’ve ever heard. His every utterance rich and plangent. For the slave girl Liu the Met had probably the most impressive stable of sopranos to call on. Since Anna Moffo sang the prima, Licia Albanese, Leontyne Price and Teresa Stratas had all inherited the role. Here we get Mirella Freni and she is glorious. Tender in Act I, though she does end “Signore, ascolta” with a case of the sobs, she goes gorgeous in the double arias of the last act. She gets a huge hand from the audience after she kills herself which sounds a mite incongruous today but I have to admit it’s well deserved.

Theodore Uppman is luxury casting as Ping and my only quibble is that La Nilsson omits “Del primo pianto,” making a short role even shorter. Meanwhile Mehta, with all the faux Chinese tonalities appliquéd on that Italian romanticism, brings the firm hand to the proceedings that Leopold Stokowski didn’t quite manage. The orchestra and chorus had been performing Turandot every year since this production debuted so they all know what they’re doing.

The piece de resistance is the Die Frau ohne Schatten in Bohm’s dream production with the full resources of a modern theater. Reviews of the time spent the lion’s share praising the Dyer’s Wife and Barak, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry in his Met debut, for their singing and acting. Yet I find this cast the best balanced of any I’ve ever heard. Ludwig’s tone is generous and radiant and I find her ideal.

Leonie Rysanek owned the Empress and she always impressed me as a singer, like Nilsson, who didn’t warm up excessively backstage. She’s a little scattershot in the opening scene but by her grand scena in the second act she’s at peak Leonie. Her Emperor, James King. has a handsome instrument and was at his best here as evidenced by his ability just to get through this voice wrecker. More controversial is Irene Dalis as the Nurse. She’s almost over the top in her malevolence but for me it works.

Meanwhile Bohm had apparently been chipping bits and pieces off the score for years. It runs just about 50 minutes for each of the three acts. Since this was the last performance of nine in that season, you’d think the orchestra wouldn’t sound so tentative. Still the maestro leads a powerful reading and builds to a spectacular inferno of sound at the final quartet . This is irreplaceable as a souvenir.

There’s certainly more to enjoy here than I can go into. An Aida with a sovereign cast that I’ve already reviewed in these pages. There’s Jon Vickers having his first bash at Peter Grimes led by Colin Davis. Also a lovely Zauberflote conducted by Josef Krips where Peters steals the show as the Queen of the Night.

Cardboard cases hold each opera set and they’re liberally decorated with quite a few photos I’ve never seen. Each set has its own booklet, synopsis, cue points, and interesting history and Metcentric background on each of the performances.

This is a terrific souvenir to honor the 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center and the Met, along with Warner Classics, have done themselves proud.

Now I patiently wait for the Puccini and Strauss boxes.