OP1041. LA BOHEME, Live Performance, 15 March, 1952, w.Erede Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Licia Albanese, Giuseppe di Stefano, Hilde Güden, Frank Guarrera, Cesare Siepi, etc. (E.U.) 2-Walhall 0019. - 4035122650198
“Licia Albanese was, for her army of admirers, synonymous with the ‘old’ Met during the middle of the twentieth century. She made her début at the Met on 9 February, 1940, as Cio-Cio-San, and sang 427 performances of seventeen roles with the company. Her final Met appearance came at the farewell gala on the closing night of the old house, 16 April 1966, when she sang a thrilling performance of ‘Un bel dì’, dropped to her knees and softly kissed the stage that had been her home throughout the great and glorious years of her career. Many of those who attended remembered that the moment felt like the almost palpable passing of an era — which it was….it was not until she promised her father, on his deathbed, that she would forge a career that she moved to Milan and, with financial help from a cousin, studied with the great soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, who had been particularly identified with Madama Butterfly. The teacher instilled in her the importance of the meaning behind the words, the necessity of conveying emotion to the audience.
An amazing fairy-tale-style succession of events occurred in 1934 and ’35. Albanese found out about a national vocal competition from a friend the very day the competition was closing and managed to get in at the eleventh hour. Believing Baldassare-Tedeschi would deem her not yet ready, she entered secretly. One of three hundred singers, Licia won the first round in Milan and traveled to Bologna for the finals, where she competed every day for a week before a tough panel of judges that included Rosetta Pampanini and Luisa Tetrazzini. Licia [won]first prize with the enormously difficult and dramatic ‘Un dì ero piccina’, from Mascagni’s IRIS. Back in Milan, in 1934, she attended a performance of BUTTERFLY at the Teatro Lirico and was pulled from the audience and [appeared] onstage to replace the soprano in the title role — singing it for the first time. Cio-Cio-San was also her ‘official’ début role before the notoriously demanding audience in Parma, in 1935. Her performance was a triumph, and the young singer found steady work in Italian theaters, singing everything from Wagner’s Elsa to Refice’s CECILIA, gaining invaluable experience. At one point, she found herself onstage with Beniamino Gigli, who so admired the soprano that he requested her for his 1938 recording of LA BOHÈME and recommended her to the Metropolitan Opera. She made débuts at La Scala (as Lauretta in GIANNI SCHICCHI), Rome and Geneva, and the 1937 Coronation Season in London featured her Liù in TURANDOT — her Covent Garden début, and a performance of which recorded fragments exist, displaying the trademark Albanese sound. In 1941, she made her débuts at San Francisco Opera, again as Cio-Cio-San, and Chicago Civic Opera, as Micaëla in CARMEN.
Albanese was an ideal verismo artist of the time. She may not have possessed a sound as beautifully limpid as that of other Italian sopranos, but it was a voice of incomparable profile and cut — instantly recognizable to anyone who heard it even once. Always, she sang with full emotional commitment and stunning dramatic intensity; actor/comedian Charles Nelson Reilly, a lifelong Albanese admirer, once aptly observed that, if forced to, she might sacrifice the voice somewhat, but she never sacrificed the word. She invested her roles with enormous thought and preparation, no matter how many times she had sung them before. One of the challenges of Cio-Cio-San, she felt, was that the voice must be light in Act I, to underline the character’s youthful innocence, then gradually darken in the two successive acts, as the tragedy deepens. She took enormous pleasure in bringing certain plangent details to her characterizations — among them letting the wedding veil drop to the ground as Butterfly and Pinkerton enter their house at the close of Act I — ‘a little thing’, she told a reporter in 1947, ‘but effective’.
She worked with another legendary perfectionist, Arturo Toscanini, who requested her for Mimì in the fiftieth-anniversary performance of LA BOHÈME. She loved working with him and was equally delighted when he asked her to sing the title role in LA TRAVIATA with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1946….Under Toscanini, Violetta — which she had already sung many times at the Met — became one of her immortal recorded performances. In Act IV’s ‘Addio del passato’, the snuffing out of life within Violetta is overwhelmingly moving. Albanese’s remains one of the most vivid, spontaneous and nakedly real Violettas on disc.
Albanese had specific ideas about the nature of acting for the opera stage, feeling that it was a mistake to pursue absolute naturalism or to replicate acting techniques from the screen. ‘The stage is a world apart’, she once said, ‘and the opera stage something more specialized still…. You have to add poetry, too.’ She believed that Puccini’s roles were superbly crafted, but she always resisted the temptation to chew the scenery too much, underlining that Tosca was ‘a great diva in an era of poetic elegance’, not a common, hot-tempered shrew. Ultimately, she always believed in the innate dignity and aristocracy of Puccini’s heroines. She believed it was important to begin not with the notoriously tricky role of Manon Lescaut but with Mimì or Liù. ‘Butterfly’, she once said, ‘can break the voice’. She regretted never getting to sing Minnie in LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, but she did sing her first Magda in LA RONDINE in 1960, in Philadelphia. She also expanded her repertoire carefully, adding roles such as Verdi’s Desdemona, Massenet’s Manon and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Explaining her remarkable longevity to OPERA NEWS’s editor Robert Jacobson in 1974, she said, ‘I never pushed on the low notes, except for some dramatic moments. I was taught to do it with accent and not with the voice. It is important to keep the middle voice light, even when dramatic, or you lose the high notes. The drama comes in accenting the words and with diction’.
Albanese sang in a total of forty-one Met broadcasts; her broadcast record was Violetta, with ten separate airings. Her total of eighty-seven Violettas still stands as a Met record. She was busy in other areas as well: from 1942 to 1947, she had a weekly radio program, TREASURE HOUR OF SONG, in which she branched out to sing operetta and Broadway tunes. She had a happy private life, too, as the wife of stockbroker Joseph Gimma, who soon took on a major role in the handling of her career. They had a child, Joseph, Jr., born in 1952. She had enjoyed very happy relations with Met general manager Edward Johnson through the 1940s and successfully made the transition to the new regime of Rudolf Bing in 1950. She also appeared on television on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and VOICE OF FIRESTONE, as well as in the 1956 Warner Bros. musical drama SERENADE, starring Mario Lanza and Joan Fontaine. But by the 1960s, she was heard at the company far less often. (Albanese maintained that it was her determination to save the old Met on Thirty-ninth and Broadway, while the new building at Lincoln Center was in the works, that damaged her standing with Bing.) Although she never appeared at the New Met, which opened in 1966, she was frequently an enthusiastic — and voluble — member of the audience. At the opening of Giancarlo del Monaco’s new production of MADAMA BUTTERFLY in the mid-1990s, Albanese took exception to the director’s decision to have Pinkerton (Richard Leech) begin to disrobe Cio-Cio-San (Catherine Malfitano) onstage and erupted with a robust ‘BOO!’ from her orchestra seat.
She was also much in evidence as the guiding spirit of the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation (an American counterpart to the established Italian organization), which she founded in 1974. For more than two decades, she presided over the Foundation’s concerts at Lincoln Center, handing out cash prizes to young singers, welcoming guest-star colleagues such as Fedora Barbieri, Leyla Gencer, Lucine Amara and Robert Merrill, and often performing herself; her opening-concert rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, complete with flag-waving gestures and a still-impressive B-flat, was always eagerly anticipated by the audience.
In her later years, Albanese’s energy was unflagging. She graced the Met Centennial Gala in 1983 and the opening of the refurbished War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 1997. She also taught master classes extensively, worked as a stage director, and appeared as Old Heidi in the New York Philharmonic’s all-star concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s FOLLIES in 1986; her fine interpretation of ‘One More Kiss’ embodied the musical’s themes of missed opportunity and regret. Almost to the end of her life, she continued to attend performances in New York. At a 2011 performance of LA RONDINE presented at Hunter College by Martina Arroyo’s ‘Prelude to Performance’ program, Albanese, now in her tenth decade, could be heard in the audience, softly singing along, having miraculously retained not only every note of the vocal line but the orchestral passages as well. Hers was a life truly centered in music, and she was gifted with the soul of a poet.”
- Brian Kellow & Ira Siff, OPERA NEWS, 16 Aug., 2014
“Giuseppe di Stefano, a flamboyant, sometimes erratic opera star who in his prime after World War II was lauded as the most thrilling Italian tenor in a generation and was renowned for his superb voice, Mr. di Stefano had only brief years at the top, with a repertory that focused on lyric roles like the Duke in RIGOLETTO, the title role in FAUST and WERTHER. Rudolf Bing, the longtime general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, asserted that Mr. di Stefano could have been as great as Enrico Caruso if he had demonstrated more restraint in his personal and professional conduct. Mr. di Stefano conceded that he could be reckless. He reveled in his image as a bon vivant and bragged of his affairs, including a long romance with Maria Callas, his favorite onstage partner.
‘I wanted to enjoy life — not just the opera’, he said in an interview for OPERA NEWS in 1999, which took place at his villa north of Milan, on the edge of the lake district. ‘Yes, I smoked a lot. And it’s true I used to gamble, and I would stay up late and sometimes drive around all night. So of course the critics wrote: ‘He was not in shape to go on stage'.’ But Mr. di Stefano insisted that it was severe allergies that permanently damaged his voice.
With the onset of World War II, he served in the Italian army, assigned to an infirmary. But he was saved from duty on the Russian front by his regimental commander, an opera-loving doctor, who gave him a medical dispensation because he felt that the young man had a promising career ahead. Mr. di Stefano spent some of the war years as a pop singer, entertaining audiences at movie theaters between feature films. Then, in 1943, he fled to Switzerland, where he began his operatic career with recitals on a classical radio station in Zürich.
After the war, Mr. di Stefano made his opera début in Italy in 1946 at the Teatro Municipale, in the city of Reggio Emilia, as Des Grieux in Massenet’s MANON. He was quickly recognized as a rising star, praised for the rich, velvety texture of his voice and his great emphasis on diction. He was invited to sing at the major Italian opera houses. In 1948, Mr. di Stefano crossed the Atlantic to make his Metropolitan Opera début as the Duke in RIGOLETTO. But he received his greatest accolades for his performances as FAUST. Mr. Bing was awestruck by Mr. di Stefano’s interpretation of the role in the 1949-50 season. ‘The most spectacular single moment’, Mr. Bing wrote in his 1972 memoir, 5,000 NIGHTS AT THE OPERA, was ‘when I heard his diminuendo on the high C in ‘Salut! Demeure’ in FAUST. ‘I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound’.
But Mr. di Stefano’s behavior soon caused Mr. Bing to sour on him. When a new production of LA BOHÈME went into rehearsal at the Met in the 1952-53 season, Mr. di Stefano failed to show up in time, contending that illness had prevented him from traveling from Italy to New York. Mr. Bing learned that Mr. di Stefano had in fact been healthy enough to perform at La Scala in Milan, and banned him from the Met for three years.
On his return to New York, Mr. di Stefano expanded his repertory to include Don José in CARMEN and Cavaradossi in TOSCA. But Mr. Bing, in his memoir, complained that the tenor persisted in his erratic behavior. ‘We never knew from day to day whether he would show up’, he wrote, adding that ‘his lack of self-discipline soon harmed what might have been a career men would remember with Caruso’s’. By the late 1950s, Mr. di Stefano’s career was in decline, with his failing voice often forcing him to cancel appearances. He insisted that an allergy to synthetic fibers had inflamed his larynx. But the opera world remained skeptical. After a miserable 1966 performance as Otello in Pasadena, CA, Mr. di Stefano’s stage appearances dwindled. In 1973-74, he and Maria Callas made a disastrous tour of North America, Asia and Europe, with critics panning their performances. Mr. di Stefano, who first sang with Ms. Callas in the early 1950s and later became her lover, rated her as the best diva with whom he ever sang. ‘Even when Callas’ voice wasn’t perfect, she had so much interpretation’, he said. ‘Opera is storytelling. Feelings must be conveyed. Acting must be moving. And Callas had it all’.
Even in old age, Mr. di Stefano insisted that he had no regrets about his short career at opera’s summit, and that he did not begrudge the success of peers like Luciano Pavarotti or Plácido Domingo. ‘I was never jealous of anybody’, he said. ‘I don’t have to go around insisting that I had one of the great voices. Fortunately, I made enough recordings to let people judge for themselves’.”
- Jonathan Kandell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 4 March, 2008
“Giuseppe di Stefano possessed an especially beautiful voice. It was impossible not to be moved; he truly had the sound of tears in his voice, without being over sentimental. His wonderful piano – and his stirring voice – moved his audience almost beyond endurance.”
- Birgit Nilsson, LA NILSSON, p.116
“Hilde Güden made her début at the Vienna Volksoper in Benatzky’s operetta HERZEN IM SCHNEE. Her operatic début was at the opera house of Zürich where she appeared as Cherubino. Although the soprano was of Jewish origin it was Clemens Krauss who engaged her to the Munich State Opera, but she was soon forced to leave Germany. Tullio Serafin gave her the opportunity to sing in Rome and Florence. It was not until after the end of the war that she was allowed to return to the Munich State Opera where she remained an admired member until 1973. She gained great success abroad, at La Scala, Covent Garden, at the Grand Opéra de Paris, at the Glyndebourne Festival (Despina, Zerlina), at the Teatro La Fenice, the Maggio musicale di Fiorentino, and last but not least, at the Met, where she sang from 1951 until 1965. One of her greatest achievements was Rosalinde in Johann Strauss’ DIE FLEDERMAUS. At the Salzburg Festival she regularly appeared as Cherubino (1947, 1952, 1953), Zdenka, Zerlina (1946), Sophie (1949, 1953, 1960), Norina (1952), Aminta in DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU (1959), Zerbinetta (1954), the Countess Almaviva (1963 - 1966), Anne Truelove in Stravinsky’s THE RAKE’S PROGRESS and as Julia in the first performance of Boris Blacher’s ROMEO UND JULIA (1950). Hilde Güden was a versatile singer, equally successful in operettas, lieder and oratorio work. She was considered as one of the most accomplished Mozart and Strauss singers of the time and was a much admired member of the so-called ‘Wiener Mozart Ensemble’. On 1 May 1945, before World War II was officially ended, the Vienna State Opera resumed operations with a performance of Mozart’s LE NOZZE DI FIGARO under Josef Krips. Hilde Güden was one of the brightest Viennese stars and one of Decca’s busiest artists during the ‘50s and ‘60s. As a lyric and coloratura soprano she enjoyed remarkable success.
Hilde Güden’s voice was a high soprano of silvery gleam and youthful shining. It was very responsive to coloraturas as well as to cantilenas (essential for Richard Strauss), and it was of a highly individual timbre. If you want to experience Güden’s charming personality, play her magnificent recordings of Richard Strauss or her ravishing operetta recordings. She was the ideal Sophie, Zerbinetta, Zdenka, Daphne, Aminta - and, she is still unequalled as Rosalinde!”
- Andrea Shum-Binder, subito-cantabile