Desperate For Divas? Met, Sony Release Historic Broadcasts
Not so many years ago, opera nuts eager to hear a particular historic Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast raved about by other fanatics, had nowhere to turn but to bootleggers.
If you were aching to hear, say, Zinka Milanov float her ethereal pianissimos in some Aida broadcast from the 1950s, you sent some guy somewhere in Jersey a few bucks and in return you got a handful of cassettes that sounded as if the performance had been recorded in a wet cardboard box instead of on the hallowed Met stage. (Yes, we operaholics are desperate for our favorite divas.)
Later, a small selection of famous performances seeped out of the Met vaults, but were only available to members of the Met Opera Guild. Then in the 1990s, the Naxos label released a handful of very tasty titles (Rosa Ponselle's 1935 La Traviata, Lawrence Tibbett in the 1935 world premiere of Howard Hanson's Merry Mount) but a tangle of copyright lawsuits put a stop to that.
Times and technologies have changed.
These days, anyone with a computer and the will to shell out a monthly subscription fee can log on to the Met Player, a digital service containing more than 300 audio and visual performances. In the mood for La Boheme? You can choose from a dozen. From Hilde Guden and Eugene Conley's 1953 broadcast to Renata Tebaldi and Richard Tucker in 1970 to up-to-date HD video offerings.
But for those less inclined to pay, click and play, there's good news. Last week, the Met and Sony Classical (once headed by Met general manager Peter Gelb) offered up four historic performances on the good old compact disc — the first in a projected series.
There's Lily Pons in a 1950 Barber of Seville, Licia Albanese and Carlo Bergonzi in a 1958 Boheme, Jussi Bjorling and Bidu Sayao in the title roles of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, and the first one that caught my eye (and my ears), a stunning 1962 Tosca starring Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli.
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With all the handwringing about a "golden age of singing now lost" (which is arguably a false notion), I think it's safe to say, after hearing the duet from Act 3 of Tosca (above), that we just don't hear singing anything like this today. Corelli in full cry is a wonder to behold — glorious, if a bit self-conscious. And Price, with the aubergine lushness of her voice, gives us, as British critic John Steane puts it, "the grand sweep of the music."
So thanks, Sony and the Met. Along with the new James Levine box sets, you've whetted my appetite. Now, how about opening up those vaults really wide? I'm in the mood for Elizabeth Rethberg's 1938 Otello with Giovanni Martinelli! Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.