O Dieu! Que de bijoux!
I've just returned from a raid on the used vinyl stores of Chicago. I didn't
quite find the sizable quantity of booty I had hoped for, but I did manage to
track down several treasures.
The pick of the crop is a 1968 performance of Berg's Lulu on Angel Records,
with Anneliese Rothenberger in the title role. This live recording documents
the cast that participated in the famed Guenther Rennert staging for the
Hamburg Opera, a production that eventually traveled to New York (was anyone
on the list in attendance?) The front cover alone would be worth the paltry
$3.99 I paid for the set: Rothenberger, sporting an Ann Margaret bouffant and
lounging seductively on a green and blue Art Nouveau divan, is dressed in
nothing more than garters, black lace bustier and pale salmon negligee with
blue feather accents at the sleeves and neckline!
Even devoid of physical trappings, Rothenberger manages to be riveting. I am
enormously impressed with her remarkably musical account of the fiendish vocal
writing. She eschews the staccato high D in the phrase "Er nimmt mich mit
mach Afrika," but is otherwise uncompromising in her dedication to accuracy.
Rothenberger's soprano sounds positively radiant here, the tone refreshingly
sweet, focused and pure. Above all, it is her interpretation that I find
particularly striking. Rothenberger manages to portray the role with a
ruthless honesty that never turns sadistic. She neither sentimentalizes
Berg's anti-heroine nor overdoes her emotional detachment. There is simply a
fearless integrity at work here, that unerring sense of directness that gives
Lulu her fascination. Rothenberger exudes girlish allure and vivacity. Some
may find her a tad sophisticated for a former street urchin but I find the
unconventional refinement to be quite original.
Toni Blankheim is an appropriately sinister Dr. Schoen, his dark-colored
baritone creating impact in music too frequently barked, shouted or declaimed.
Kerstin Meyer portrays a moving Geschwitz, delivering her final apostrophe to
Lulu with great pathos if somewhat shaky vocalism. Gerhard Unger is an ardent
Alwa, while Kim Borg manages to make Schigolch's appearances in the action
both comical and poignant.
Leopold Ludwig, a conductor active during Bing's final years at the Met, leads
the forces of the Hamburg Opera in a reading of almost savage theatricality
and menace. Ludwig's work is notable for sustaining a mood of oppressive
dread; there is little of the wit and delicacy other conductors have found in
this music. He is working here with the truncated version in use prior to
Cerha's completion of the score left unfinished at Berg's death. Rennert
alters the text in certain places, presumably to complement some aspect of his
staging. The recording picks up a great deal of stage noise: there are
plenty of thuds, bumps and whacks and other sounds that add to the immediacy
of the performance. Curiously, the production overlays the perfectly
evocative vibraphone with the gratuitous addition of an offstage doorbell.
All in all, I find this recording to be a useful and engrossing addition to my
Lulu discography. It cannot claim superiority to the performances with Lear
or Stratas but it is a worthy alternative, given special distinction by the
work of Rothenberger. If this recording should ever resurface on compact
disc, I strongly recommend it to all aficionados of the opera.
Another surprise was finding a Franco Corelli compilation in the Decca "Grandi
Voci" series that includes ALMOST ALL of the elusive duets he recorded with
Tebaldi in 1973. I say 'almost' because the Amneris-Radames duet is missing
from the collection. However, the long duet from Act Three of Zandonai's
Francesca da Rimini is there, plus the Laura-Enzo duet from Act Two of La
Gioconda. The Tebaldi-Corelli partnership is further represented by
performances of "Tu, tu, amore, tu" from Act Two of Manon Lescaut and "Ma
dunque e vero" from Act Two of Adriana Lecouvreur.
Having heard the performances, I am puzzled as to why this duet project has
usually been dismissed as little more than a late-career oddity. True,
Tebaldi's high notes sound worn and pressured here, while Corelli's once-
golden tones have dried out considerably since his prime years. But their
singing still conveys unbelievable vocal opulence. And the interpretations
practically define the term "heartfelt." Tebaldi radiates a rare sexual
energy in the Zandonai and Corelli is the very picture of wounded pride as Des
Grieux. Although Tebaldi and Corelli did perform Adriana Lecouvreur together,
they never were partnered in the other works heard on this record (yes, they
sang Gioconda and Enzo together, but never Laura and Enzo).
I wonder to what extent Tebaldi could have prolonged her career by switching
to mezzo repertoire. Schuyler G. Chapin's recent book makes it clear that he
approached the soprano in the 1970's with the idea of singing roles like
Amneris and Azucena. According to Chapin, Tebaldi was outraged and deeply
hurt by his suggestion. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Tebaldi had
supposedly learned the role of Charlotte in French for a revival of Werther at
the Met, starring Corelli in the title role. Obviously, this never came to
pass. But it is fascinating to speculate on what kind of impression she might
have made onstage as Charlotte, Santuzza and other low-lying heroines.
The final acquisition in my shopping bag is the Metropolitan Opera Record Club
version of La Boheme, starring Lucine Amara as Mimi, Daniele Barioni as
Rodolfo, Heidi Krall as Musetta, Frank Valentino as Marcello, Nicola Moscona
as Colline, Clifford Harvuot as Schaunard and Alessio de Palois as Alcindoro.
Fausto Cleva conducts. The Record Club performances were abridgements and the
cuts come fast and furious on this single-record album.
The cast may look like an off-night at the Met during the 1950's but there is
much to enjoy here. Amara's voice may lack idiomatic appeal but it is never
less than attractive and used with remarkable sensitivity. More than once,
her healthy yet tender lyric soprano put me in mind of Patricia Racette.
Barioni is a tad whiny but his sincere, serious conception of the poet is
appreciable. The rest are more-or-less adequate to their respective tasks.
Cleva is a supportive presence on the podium but the orchestra as recorded
sounds distressingly recessed, the blending with the soloists poorly achieved.
But for $1.99, who's complaining? I suspect this is what some of you Met
standees on the list were paying for a ticket back then:)
Even in the age of deluxe technology, Enzo has not abandoned his turntable
completely. With good reason: treasures like the recordings discussed above
would otherwise never be heard. And that would be a shame. Don't toss those
phonograph needles just yet, folks.