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.