OP3256. TOSCA, Live Performance, 17 April, 1965, w.Cleva Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Régine Crespin, Sandor Konya, Robert Merrill, Ezio Flagello, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio T-657. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
"This is another in St. Laurent Studio's valuable series of important Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from the past. This one is particularly significant, because it is the finest representation we have of two important portrayals: Régine Crespin's Tosca and Sandor Konya's Cavaradossi. The other choices for Crespin are a very dim-sounding Italian broadcast with di Stefano and another Met broadcast with less successful male leads (Gianni Raimondi and Gabriel Bacquier). For Konya the alternative is a rather turgid DG studio recording, issued on LP, with Stefania Woytowicz in the title role and Horst Stein conducting.
If you are of the school that there must be one single great recording of every opera, which is the only one you are interested in, the present release doesn't qualify. Not only is there the classic EMI set with Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, and conductor Victor da Sabata a prime candidate, but there are other quite extraordinary broadcasts (Leontyne Price/Franco Corelli/Cornell MacNeil; Renata Tebaldi/Richard Tucker/Leonard Warren), each of which has unique merits. But for listeners who appreciate the variety available in different truly fine performances, this one is especially significant.
Crespin was, of course, one of the great spinto sopranos of the second half of the twentieth century, with a Met career that featured 129 performances between 1962 and 1981. She is most frequently associated with the French and German repertoire, but in fact she had the intelligence and sense of style to make her successful in Italian repertoire as well. Crespin's splendidly rich voice and its wide range of colors suit Puccini's score perfectly. There is a glow to the sound that is consistent in all registers, except when Tosca is hurling hatred at Scarpia, at which point Crespin darkens the sound and lets it turn dramatically hard. She is also capable of varying her tone in such a way that the Tosca we hear in the first act love duet and the Tosca we hear in 'Vissi d'arte' are very different. In that first act her tone is bright and warm, even when she is chastising Cavaradossi over the painting. In the great second act there is that same beauty of sound, but it is tinged with piteous sorrow. (The high B-flat, by the way, rings gloriously. It is not milked for pure excitement but is kept to its appropriate place in the musical line).
Crespin's dramatic pause before the final lines of the aria is heart-stopping. It is as if Tosca is so choked with emotion that she almost cannot continue her plea to God. In all, 'Vissi d'arte' becomes an important part of the dramatic context of the act rather than the showpiece it often seems to be. (In fairness I will note that the aria instigates a huge ovation, which St. Laurent Studio has kept.) In the third act too Crespin manages the switch from ecstasy to despair very convincingly. Her thrilling high C on 'io quella lama' is shining and without strain. Hers is an important assumption of this central role in the Puccini canon, now given its best representation.
Konya was an extraordinarily important tenor at the Met and elsewhere in the 1960s and early 70s. Between 1961 and 1974 he sang 287 performances of 22 roles at the Met. He was so completely identified with the lighter Wagner roles (Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Walther) that we tend to forget how successful Konya was in the Italian repertoire. This performance will serve as a vivid reminder. His voice had a beautiful honeyed quality and was secure all the way up to the top of the tenor range. His cries of 'Vittoria' are powerful and his tenderness in the love duet is palpable. Konya had the misfortune of overlapping at the Met with Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli, and Placido Domingo, as well as two seasons of Luciano Pavarotti. He was unlikely to be remembered for his Puccini and Verdi in such company. But listening with the perspective provided by distance, we can hear that he was superb in this repertoire. Konya was also a terrific actor, both physically and vocally, and he was much more comfortable with the Italian style than many other Central and Eastern European singers. I anticipated enjoying his Cavaradossi, but his performance exceeded those expectations. He employs some very beautiful shading in 'E lucevan le stelle', which he sings movingly. Some of his Italian vowels are not as naturally formed as is ideal, but that is extremely minor in the face of singing of such beauty. Konya's rendering of 'O dolci mani' is tender and exquisitely phrased.
Robert Merrill is what we have come to expect him to be: a rich-voiced baritone with a generalized sense of the dramatic situation. There is little specificity of inflection or shading in his singing, but neither is it what one could call dull. Merrill's voice is, of course, worth hearing for its own sake. While Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, and Leonard Warren dug more deeply into the character, Merrill's Scarpia provides vocal thrills that few could match.
There is fine casting in the secondary roles as well. Ezio Flagello and Paul Franke, as the Sacristan and Spoletta, are superb. At his best Fausto Cleva could be an exciting conductor. He is a bit less than that here but provides solid and knowing support for the singers. One misses the extra intensity that conductors like Zubin Mehta could bring to this repertoire (Mehta was just starting his Met career in 1965), but Cleva provides somewhat more juice than Francesco Molinari-Pradelli or some of the other routiniers around at the time.
This is, in the end, a wonderful, at times thrilling performance that will bring pleasure to any collector. As usual, St. Laurent Studio's transfer is of very high quality, reproducing the Met's monaural broadcast faithfully and cleanly. No notes, but full cast documentation and track listing. This release is available at Norbeck, Peters & Ford (www.norpete.com)."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
"To be sure, one of the remarkable assets of Crespin's singing was the power and size of the voice. She could compete on even grounds with Nilsson when they sang together in DIE WALKURE, and with Corelli in WERTHER.
But there was much, much more to Crespin than sheer visceral impact. She sang with subtlety, a variety of colors depending on the demands of the music and the dramatic moment, and always with real involvement. Her singing was filled with nuance, with a wide range of dynamic shading, and was always founded on a beautiful glowing tone."
- Henry Fogel, Program Notes, Immortal Performances Set [V2547]
"Régine Crespin, the French operatic soprano and later mezzo-soprano, one of the most important vocal artists to emerge from France in the decades after World War II was widely admired for the elegance, warmth and subtlety of her singing, especially in the French and German operatic repertories. Early on, the natural carrying power of her voice seemed to point to a career as a dramatic soprano. Indeed, she made her 1950 debut at the regional company in Mulhouse, France, singing Elsa in Wagner's LOHENGRIN. Yet Ms Crespin's singing was imbued with nuanced phrasing, telling attention to text, creamy lyricism and lovely high pianissimos. While she had an enveloping voice, she always seemed to keep something in reserve, leading some listeners to sense a touch too much French restraint. But most opera buffs valued Ms Crespin for the effortless richness, lyrical nobility and subtle colorings of her singing. She was also a sophisticated actress whose Junoesque presence commanded attention. Ms Crespin's Metropolitan Opera debut came in 1962 as the Marschallin in DER ROSENKAVALIER, directed by the soprano Lotte Lehmann, who had been the most renowned interpreter of the role. Reviewing Ms Crespin's portrayal, the NEW YORK TIMES critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote that she gave 'a simply beautiful performance' [enriched with]'all kinds of delicate shading'. But when she let out her full voice, he added, it 'soared over the orchestra and all over the house - big, confident and beautiful'. In 1967 she sang Sieglinde to Birgit Nilsson's Brünnhilde at the Met, with Herbert von Karajan conducting a production that he also directed. Reviewing that performance for THE TIMES of London, the critic Conrad L. Osborne wrote that 'Nilsson and Crespin spurring each other on make for the sort of thing one remembers with a chill for years'. In later life Ms Crespin won wide recognition as a voice teacher. During some 1995 master classes at the Mannes College of Music in New York, the students were enraptured not only by her insightful critiques, but by her insider tales about opera stars."
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 6 July, 2007
"[Crespin] was surely one of the greatest French singers of the 20th Century; in fact - one of the great singers on records, one whose art goes well beyond the merely vocal. Beyond its size, [her voice] had a beautiful shimmer about it, a glowing quality present in all registers."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March/April, 2005