BJÖRLING Verdi: Il Trovatore (1941, Met) - PACO134

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BJÖRLING Verdi: Il Trovatore (1941, Met) - PACO134

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    VERDI  Il Trovatore
    Live recording, 1941
    Total duration: 2hr 16:13

    Manrico - Jussi Björling
    Leonora - Norina Greco
    Count Di Luna - Frank Valentino
    Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera

    Conductor Ferruccio Calusio

    This set contains the following albums:

    Björling's classic 1941 Met Opera Il Trovatore

    "This is a great Il trovatore with one of the 20th-century’s great tenors - Fanfare

    We return to our small but (almost) perfectly preserved cache of fabulously-preserved NBC Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from the early 1940s with this incredible performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore, broadcast live from the opera house on the afternoon of Saturday January 11, 1941.

    John H. Haley's wonderful CD notes (see tab) describe far more eloquently than I could why this is one of the all-time greatest recordings of the opera, and so I'll keep to making a few technical observations on the recording itself.

    As with other recent Met recordings issued on Pristine, I've been given access to previously unheard (and barely played) high quality 33rpm acetate disc records of the NBC broadcast, made either in house or down a high quality line, as opposed to off air. The original records included lengthy introductions and intra-act discussions and talks which together added almost another full hour to the proceedings, and have accordingly been cut from this release - I've instead opted to leave an edited flavour of Milton Cross's presentation at the beginning and end of the opera and as appropriate within the recording. Fascinating as the discussion may have been to historians I felt they would be superfluous to the performance and the majority of latter day listeners.

    As is common with vintage acetate discs, it is the openings of sides which take the most punishment from even a small number of replays, and that was the case here, where I've had to deal with short sections of unwanted surface noise intrusions. Thereafter, and for the vast bulk of the opera, the discs were in near mint condition, with a remarkably wide frequency range and low noise floor, making for some remarkably good sound quality for any recording of this era. There is some treble loss to the end of sides but again this is barely noticeable more than perhaps once, where I've taken steps to disguise the change-over.

    XR remastering has added another layer of life, body and realism to the sound, with Ambient Stereo processing once again adding just a hint of space and air around the central mono sound. The sample features three of the best-loved arias from the opera and more than adequately demonstrate just how good the performances and sound quality are throughout this fabulous recording.

    Andrew Rose

    VERDI  Il Trovatore

    Manrico - Jussi Björling
    Leonora - Norina Greco
    Count Di Luna - Frank Valentino
    Azucena - Bruna Castagna
    Ferrando - Nicola Moscona
    Ines - Maxine Stellman
    Ruiz - Lodovico Oliviero
    Gypsy - Arthur Kent

    Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera
    Ferruccio Calusio, conductor

    Matinee concert of 11 January 1941
    NBC Radio announcer: Milton Cross

    By John H. Haley

    One of the conventions with virtually all 19th century operas is that we--the audience--must learn to accept the incongruity of hearing large mature voices, often possessed by large, mature people, portraying very young leading men and women on stage. Operas may be drama but they are also comprised of demanding music, and the music must be well served by performers who have the means to do so, or the dramatic experience will almost always go for little.

    We really do not want to hear a fifteen year-old girl attempt to perform Madama Butterfly, and the best we can hope for is that the chosen soprano has found a way to portray youthfulness, both vocally and visually. The same can be said for the heroine in Strauss’ Salome and any number of other operas. And of course the great 19th and 20th century opera composers did not create their grand works for immature voices, clearly anticipating maturity of the both the performers’ artistry and their vocal means. Listening to an operatic recording, we are greatly assisted by the “theater of the mind,” yet the particular qualities of the vocal portrayals still play a large part in our personal recreation of the drama that is screening in our heads as we are listening.

    Verdi always paid enormous attention to the dramas that formed the basis for his operas, but today’s stage directors, and consequently audiences, often ignore the needs of the dramas upon which his operas are constructed and focus instead on creating “entertainment” by some other means than a forthright presentation of the plot acted out convincingly on stage. Among Verdi’s large output, Il trovatore has been especially ill-served as a stage drama, and it has come to be known primarily as a work with a silly plot that is performed mainly for its glorious music. Failing that, it offers at least an evening of robust singing.

    This January 11, 1941 broadcast recording of Verdi’s Il trovatore undoubtedly stands above all other recordings of this great opera in its matching up the character of the voices we hear to the personalities of the characters in the drama, giving us, for once, a convincing sense of the drama and allowing us to appreciate this opera more completely as a music-drama than any other performances we are likely to encounter. That it is also gloriously performed, musically, by at least three of the principals, all of whom offer up excellent Verdian style as well as vocalism, and is also quite well conducted by conductor Ferruccio Calusio, are almost rendered pleasing byproducts by the convincing nature of the whole enterprise. This was one great afternoon indeed at the old Met.

    Admittedly, the challenges presented in making the characters of Il trovatore come to life as living beings are formidable, even taking the opera as pure melodrama. Consider Manrico, the eponymous troubadour. The opening scene of Act III reveals that the immolation of the infant boy by Azucena when attempting to extract revenge on the Count who had burned her mother at the stake, had occurred a mere fifteen years in the past, meaning that Manrico is but a lad of sixteen to eighteen, depending on the age of the two boys at the time of Azucena’s actions, which is not made entirely clear. Yet somehow, in his few years he has become (1) a minstrel gifted enough to capture the heart of a fair maiden with his singing (as Leonora discloses in her opening aria), (2) a warrior leading his own band of fighters, as part of an insurgent group, sufficiently belligerent to give real trouble to a reigning count, (3) an obviously talented jouster on horseback, skilled at knightly games (as also recalled by Leonora in her opening scena), and (4) a lover capable of capturing the attentions of a maiden who is obviously a great lady. And all this, while having been raised by a band of roving gypsies. (For present purposes, we are ignoring the fact that he is going to be sung and portrayed by a large-voiced tenor capable of stentorian delivery, not to mention sustained high C’s.)

    Perhaps the most fully developed of the principal characters is the older gypsy woman Azucena, Manrico’s putative mother, who should be sung by a large, deep female voice that can suggest great maturity. We do not learn her age, but she was clearly of child-bearing age shortly before the immolation of the child fifteen years in the past. She drifts in and out of reality yet expresses genuine maternal love for Manrico, whom she has raised as her son and who believes that he is her son. As so often occurs in Verdi’s operas, the dramatic relationship between a parent and an adult child is well exploited and developed, adding dramatic depth to both characters. Manrico must express dismay at his mother’s unintended revelation that he may not be her natural son, and his maternal love for her lies at the center of several important scenes, including his most famous scena where he must abandon his new bride-to-be to race off and rescue his mother, who has been captured by the vengeful Count. While Azucena provides a dramatic mezzo or contralto with outstanding dramatic possibilities, Verdi has also made her role quite demanding vocally, with the icing on the cake being a capricious high C written into a cadenza, published in the score (dramatic mezzos and contraltos suitable for the role can be forgiven for eschewing it).

    The dramatic duties of the Count, who is also Manrico’s romantic rival, are largely limited to establishing a ruthless character, his one overwhelming trait being his dark obsession to “possess” Leonora, with no apparent regard for her happiness or wellbeing. And he is allocated the final dramatic reaction, as the curtain falls--the realization that he has just murdered his own long-lost brother. Leonora herself is saved from being a stock character by a dramatically forceful last act, where her character springs to dramatic life, as she sacrifices her life to save that of her beloved.

    As indicated above, one will not likely encounter a single performance elsewhere in which all of these dramatic requirements are as convincingly met as they are in this one. Il trovatore, as an operatic drama, is vividly and movingly brought to life by the coincidence of at least three remarkable and believable characterizations by the principals.

    We begin with the critical fact that both of the members of the couple at the center of the drama sound convincingly young, in addition to meeting all the other substantial requirements of their roles, which is no mean feat. It is safe to say that no 20th century tenor has fulfilled the almost impossibly diverse requirements of Manrico quite as fully as Jussi Björling, a Swede who arguably became the greatest all-around Italian tenor of his time. Apart from possessing a meltingly beautiful tone, one which can fairly be described as both Italianate and Nordic at the same time, what sets him apart from almost every other Manrico on recordings (or encountered in person by this writer), is the fact that early in his career, he achieved full confidence in the power of his essentially lyric voice to project without forcing the tone or trying to sing with a larger tone than he possessed. Coupled with this vocal confidence was an obviously intelligent, well schooled mastery of true Verdian musical style. Il trovatore harks back to bel canto ideals of Verdi’s early period, which followed upon the great bel canto era of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and Björling understood and delivered the long line and generous legato that is the essence of good bel canto style. The result was his ability to essay a number of Verdi roles almost always sung by heavier voices than his, including Manrico. There was enough bright metal in his tone to portray the warrior, but at the same time enough lyric beauty to succeed and convince with the lyrical phrases of the troubadour, the devoted son and the ardent lover, in a way that larger voiced Manrico’s do not seem to encompass (excepting perhaps Caruso, of whose Manrico we can hear only a few recorded samples). We never get the sense that he is oversinging or compromising the integrity of his voice with such a dramatic role, and further he offers a level of involvement in all the various aspects of the character that is very rarely encountered—when we add up all the successful elements of his portrayal, he actually moves us, in a role that too often “reads” as pure cardboard.

    Fortunately, we have a generally excellent commercial recording of Björling’s Manrico, the 1952 RCA recording that also features Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri and Leonard Warren, conducted by Renato Cellini, and that recording has rightfully been regarded by many as the “gold standard” among commercial recordings of Il trovatore. And there are other live recordings of Björling’s Manrico, but as an overall experience of this opera, they are all surpassed by the present one.

    The little known soprano, Norina (Eleanora) Greco, is our Leonora, and the quality of her performance here makes one realize what a loss the Met incurred by letting her go after only two seasons. Born in Italy in 1915 and transplanted as a young girl to Brooklyn (where her younger brother would be born—he was to become the Hollywood Spanish dancer José Greco), she was hired by the Met in the 1940-1941 season due to the absence of Stella Roman, whom no one would seriously contend today was a superior singer to Greco, on any level, although she was an established star. That means Greco was literally only 26 at the time of our 1941 broadcast, but she was in fact already experienced in other companies, including the touring San Carlo Opera Company, in such roles as Violetta, Santuzza, Mimi and Aida, receiving fine reviews that one can find on the internet. Operatic writers have not been as enthusiastic about Greco as they should have been, but the undeniable evidence is before us in this stunning broadcast.

    One can read unfavorable commentary regarding her Aida broadcast at the Met in her second and last season there, but her rendition of “O patria mia” from her Aida Met broadcast can be heard on You-Tube, and it is creditably done, if a little effortful, with a fine high C at the climax. The effort one hears bears no comparison to the heavy laboring of a great many later Aida’s who struggle so mightily just to slog through the role. Leonora is obviously a more congenial role for Greco than Aida, and she meets all of its requirements with aplomb, including excellent musical style (surprising in such a young performer), fine and often quite beautiful vocalism, sophisticated sense of phrasing, excellent flexibility, dramatic fire that makes her Leonora genuinely exciting, and a young dramatic soprano voice of great appeal and promise. Her final act is especially moving, and her interaction with Björling is outstanding. In short, hers is a most winning and complete performance; she would be an instant superstar today.

    As much as we appreciate and honor the excellence of the Trovatore Leonora of Zinka Milanov, Björling’s partner in the fine RCA recording, in what could be argued to be her best recording of a Verdi role, there is no denying that her voice, despite her often beautiful tones, has a matronly quality that militates against dramatic believability in this opera. She is quite obviously bested in this regard by Greco, whose youthful Leonora is ultimately the more satisfying one. There is a smaller issue as well, in that Greco’s Italian diction is impeccable, unlike Milanov’s, which includes some occasional oddities.

    This brings us to the superb Azucena of the very underrated Bruna Castagna. There are a number of fine recorded Azucena’s, but none of them quite measures up to the level of this one, considering the totality of all the elements she brings together in this memorable performance. Her dramatic conception is quite imaginative, in fact captivating, and her vocalism very beautiful, easily meeting all the requirements of this difficult role. The only real fault that can be registered with her singing is her rather habitual tendency to bringing her chest tones up substantially higher than we normally hear in such grand, dramatic mezzo voices of her size and caliber, resulting in some fairly dry tones here and there. One can find live performances where this tendency can take over and spoil the beauty of her singing, turning it rather blatty, but here things remain well under control. The preservation of this broadcast goes a long way toward making up for her plainly unwarranted absence from commercial opera recordings. She was a major artist, and if her Leonora and Manrico were not also so outstanding, she would have stolen the honors in this performance.

    The Count di Luna of Francesco Valentino at least offers the right sort of voice for the role, even if his performance is short on musical distinction and polish. In short, he is adequate. Bass Nicola Moscona fills out the smaller part of Ferrando, including that character’s quirky but effective first act aria, quite well. Overall, we are unlikely to find Il trovatore better served than we find it here.

    Fanfare Review

    Jussi announces himself as the great tenor he is, opening in his absolute best voice

    Among the record collecting fraternity, there is an eternal question over remastering. An interventionist transfer to reduce the crackle, producing as modern a sound picture as possible? Or, reproduce the 78-rpm/broadcast as faithfully as possible, leaving a fair amount of surface noise but maybe a brighter sound? This is the dilemma with the release of Pristine’s new version of Il trovatore, live from the Metropolitan with Swedish tenor Jussi Björling.

    Trovatore is one of the few operas that spanned the whole of Björling’s long international career, and this 1941 performance must be seen as one of his most rounded and dramatic portrayals, for which some credit must go to Argentinian conductor Calusio, who directs in a taut and lively fashion. The opening illustrates the drama in the reading, with the steady Greek bass Nicola Moscona as Ferrando and the chorus sparking well off each other in a fleet performance, emphasizing the sense of horror. Next is the American (though Italian-born) Norina Greco, who today we might be extremely grateful for. She is both accurate and idiomatic and perhaps just a little light of tone for the role of Leonora. She is not always on pitch, but there is no doubt that this is a true lyric-soprano of quality, just lacking that last ounce of power and presence in Zinka Milanov or even Stella Roman.

    Jussi announces himself as the great tenor he is, opening in his absolute best voice with “Deserto sulla terra.” As Stephen Hastings says in his book on Jussi, The Björling Sound, it is “immaculately sung” and “the tone more urgent and authoritative. The conductor gives him time to make a real feature of the climax, with a crescendo on the interpolated (and extended) B-flat.” Throughout Jussi is superb, offering light and shade—notably in his act III arias beginning with the delicately sung “il presagio funesto” and a lovely soft “al core.” The start of his aria “Ah si ben mio” is also sung lightly and delicately, until the insertion, during the final cadenza, of an extended “la morte.” Following the short duet with Leonora, Jussi hurls himself into “Di quella pira.” This is tremendous singing and despite his ferocity, he still manages to sing the turns and ends up with a mighty and long held B-natural.

    Bruna Castagna, the only Italian, is in splendid voice, despite the occasional chesty outburst. “Condotta all’era in ceppi” is dramatically and impulsively sung, as is the following duet with the tenor. Frank Valentino, also USA born, can sound occasionally pressured, especially in his aria “Il balen” where he tends to lose the Bellini-like cantilena; however, we should be grateful for the lack of aitches and the ease of the high notes.

    So to the dilemma—just recently Immortal Performances released the same performance in very good sound and a pitch-perfect recording. However, Pristine says it has discovered a new high-quality source, and its version is scratch-free and sounds like a 1940s commercial recording. The IP performance is brighter perhaps, and has more air around the voices, but still sounds like an aircheck. Pristine is smoother, has more bass and is more accessible or just listenable, and so in the end the choice is up to the listener. Either way this is a great Il trovatore with one of the 20th-century’s great tenors. It would be nice if this was the last word on this performance. With all the unreleased performances still out there, let us please have some new ones.

    David Cutler
    This article originally appeared in Issue 40:3 (Jan/Feb 2017) of Fanfare Magazine.