Thursday, August 30, 2012

Memories of Opera on the Radio Pt. 4

I see I've been cheating in previous posts. I meant to include those broadcasts I actually heard "live": in car, living room, back yard, school, on transistor or portable or car radios, with batteries or extension cords. OK in this post I include only those that had me crouched by the speakers or transistor to my ear while everyone was singing and carrying on.

Pagliacci February 13, 1971: Richard Tucker, Teresa Stratas, Sherrill Milnes, Dominic Cossa/Fausto Cleva

Richard Tucker, THE Canio
The Met was recovering from a strike at the time of this broadcast. A year earlier, Franco Zeffirelli's production of Cav and Pag along with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne (and Carlo Bergonzi!) in Norma that were produced on schedule. Richard Tucker had a colossal success as Canio. I remember that Zeffirelli told the press that Tucker was a great VOICE but not much of an actor-but in these rehearsals Tucker had pushed himself dramatically. There was still a great seal of buzz for Richard Tucker as Canio long before this February broadcast. Sherill Milnes was nearing the top of his career as America's macho-man baritone with everything: great voice, looks, musicianship. Teresa Stratas's  Nedda had likewise rocked the business   for the sexuality. Stratas gave a hot performance of his role-she inhabited Nedda, rather than playing Nedda. The press made comparisons to Sophia Loren.

This I heard on my trusty 8V transistor. The audio would have horrified most even in 1971 but I, at thirteen thought it was just great. I can still hear Tucker's voice swelling in Act I: A venti-tre ORE! Sherrill Milnes took the optional high ending of the prologue like a piece of cake. It as a few more years before I could completely appreciate Dominic Cossa. I stood for Les pecheurs de perles , which Cossa sang so beautifully at City Opera in 1980. Later Dominic Cossa gave Beverly Sills's farewell one of its few moments of pure class: He sang Schubert's Du bist die Ruh' while Cynthia Gregory danced. But in this Pagliacci, with no disrespect to anyone else, it was Tucker, Tucker, Tucker. I listen to this performance 40 years later and get chills.

Tristan und Isolde December 18, 1971 Birgit Nilsson, Jess Thomas, Irene Dalis, William Dooley, Giorgio Tozzi/Erich Leinsdorf

Jess Thomas
I wasn't much on the Wagner bus in 1971. Kids don't have much of an attention span-adults have less today then kids did forty years ago-and let's face it. Wagner operas are long. This was the Saturday before Christmas and I'm sure I was being ordered about to help clean, cook, wrap, shovel, sled or generally stay the hell out of the way. .OK. Halfway through the prelude of this performance I "got it". At last some of it. I could the beauty of of the first riding theme and its near resolution.  I remember sitting on the edge of my chair when that hit. Of Nilsson I remember thinking she was like a fast train, nothing could stop her. Her sound was endless-.

And I can still hear Jess Thomas, sounding intense with five notes: 'Was ist's? Isolde!'. I've always had a soft spot for Irene Dalis. At the time of this broadcast she had sung Isolde-not Brangaene-in San Francisco. It wasn't a success.  Her chest voice at 'vertraue nun Brangaene!' was devastating. Leinsdorf was music director of the Boston Symphony. He was a regular presence on Channel 2 as many of the BSO concerts were televised. Them were the days. I didn't know enough to pay attention to the conducting per se in 1971. I do remember a funny and unkind comment from a mentor of mine when Leinsdorf died, "And the angels sing!" 

The Dialogues of the Carmelites  January 5, 1977 Maria Ewing, Shriley Verrett, Regine Crespin, Betsy Norden, Raymond Gibbs, William Dooley/Michel Plasson 

Nobody knew what this was. Yes, the opera had been performed in New York (City Opera, God bless them) and it was often heard on campuses: whole lotta roles for women. Today with Sirius broadcasts of From the House of the Dead and Satyagraha, you may surprised to know that opera broadcasts  in the 70s and before were not adventurous. La Perichole was about it. No disrespect, but c'mon. The first time I remember the mold being broken was for L'Italiana in Algeri but that had Ponelle and Marilyn Horne.
Carmelites  at the Met had John Dexter and Regine Crespin. She was Poulenc's choice for Mme. Lidoine in Paris and Dexter was the razor sharp director of productions. That may not count for radio but the triumph of Carmelites was HIS as much as Poulenc's or anyone else's. So hearing an opera written in the 20th century on the broadcasts was a rarity. Dexter wrote that he insisted the first performance of this work be a Saturday broadcast, believing it would create buzz. It did! This performance was heavily this Saturday evening there wasn't a ticket to be had for repeats.

It was sung in English and except for Verrett-who was very grand for Mme Lidoine, a contradiction, you could take dictation of the singer's Eng;ish. Maria Ewing had a sadness to her voice, what Italians call morbidezza. Betsy Norden won all hearts as Sister Constance -she knew when to be adorable in this role and when NOT to be. Crespin gave the production authority and class.  She was the First Prioress,  Mme de Croissy ad the only non native English speaker in the cast. Crespin, even with Verrett on stage-was very much the star of this production. At first hearing Crespin's voice is woofy and hard to control. But like a great artist, she makes you listen. She doesn't have the easiest voice at this point, but it remains huge. Crespin can still caress a phrase: "Yes your heart is gentle and kind" she says to Blanche and melts us all.

The finale as the nuns marched to the guillotine got the silence. It sounds like the New York audience was shocked or moved. I suspect both.

Maria Ewing, better late...
Here's a postscript. This production was done on the Met tour and came to Boston in April of 1979. My buddies and I ushered. We arrived in good time for the 8 pm curtain. There were fliers all over the auditorium. The performance would be delayed until 9.30 at least.  (People didn't say 'chill out' in 1979) So the audience had nothing to do but mill around. The bar did  good business I'm sure. The singers came out in their street clothes to hang with the audience. What else were they going to do? Crespin, Dunn, Norden, Clarice Carson, Raymond Gibbs (nice guy, fine tenor-a wonderful Pelleas-look him up) all were hanging out chatting up the audience. Crespin sipped a bit of wine. We noticed Maria Ewing wasn't chillin'. It turns out she was the reason for the wait. She had decided to drive from New York and her car broke down! Some of the choristers told us that management was prepared to come down hard on our Maria, but that Crespin wouldn't permit it-and people made way for this great French diva. as they should have. Oh yeah, around 10 PM the show went on and it was sensational.

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