OP1976. DON GIOVANNI, Live Performance, 14 Feb., 1959, w.Böhm Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; George London, Ezio Flagello, Cesare Valletti, Eleanor Steber, Lisa della Casa, Laurel Hurley, etc. (E.U.) 3-Walhall 0275. - 4035122652758
“Karl Böhm has made at least a half dozen recordings of this great work. All are good; most are very good. But until this recording came along none was regarded as one of the ‘great recordings of the 20th Century’.
I like the sleek, undistorted sound, wideranging in dynamics as well as frequency response. The artistic merits are likewise remarkable. The orchestra begins with no special sheen, for about the first 30 seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it catches fire, and the whole game changes. By the time Leporello comes along, things have come together, a tension and an aura of expectation built, a level that persists until DON GIOVANNI is safely no longer around to bother any future Donna Anna and Elvira. The Met Orchestra plays as if possessed, its sound sleek and sure. It’s not like the VPO, but is just as beautiful in its own way, not surpassed by the VPO in any of the recordings it has made, under Böhm, Krips, or anyone else. It is remarkable, the impossible dream. It is mono, of course, but so perfectly balanced and undistorted that it makes no great difference.
The star of the singing cast is Eleanor Steber, who is likely the best Donna Anna ever. I heard her sing the rôle at an otherwise routine Met performance led by someone else around 1960. She has a large and wide-ranging soprano, totally secure, beautiful in tone, and most skillfully employed. It is seamless, betraying no hint of effort or difficulty. These qualities seem to inspire the whole cast. George London isn’t the biggest or loudest DON GIOVANNI in captivity, but his intellect and flexibility make him one of the best. Lisa della Casa’s Elvira is her specialty, and it is offered here in all its glory. Nobody else even comes close. Ezio Flagello offers a fast-thinking, agile, smooth-voiced Leporello; and Cesare Valletti’s sure negotiation of the formidable obstacles in ‘Dalla sua pace’ is surely unexcelled elsewhere. The others are inspired to the same level. I can’t say why this performance takes flight and others do not, but here it is for your enjoyment, and at a modest price.”
- John P. McKelvey, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Jan./Feb., 2012
"...the prima donna continues to shine in Anna's two great scenes. The vengeance aria is thrilling in its rhythmic thrust, [Steber's] squarely attacked top tones a solid affirmation of Anna's determination to avenge her father. The soprano's command of breath in 'Non mi dir' is wondrous, her treatment of line a model of Mozartian elegance....The palm for vocal beauty must go to Valletti, who offers what may be the finest Ottavio yet heard on the broadcasts....His firmly concentrated tone is particularly reliable in this music...."
- Paul Jackson, SIGN-OFF FOR THE OLD MET, pp.315-16
“As one of the younger tenors to emerge soon after World War II, it was obvious that Valletti was an artist whose reputation would be made based on artistic and musical considerations….His musicianship and vocal colour made him an ideal interpreter of Mozart rôles, and like Schipa [his mentor], he became a renowned Werther with sensitivity and nuance being the key to his interpretation….he was considered a lyric tenor of the front rank.”
- Alan Bilgora, program notes to Pearl’s THE CETRA TENORS
“Cesare Valletti…was a phenomenon among Italian tenors, an opera singer who was also a stylish recitalist with a large, well studied repertoire of songs....Valletti was a pupil of Tito Schipa but has more affinity with Schipa’s contemporary Dino Borgioli.”
- John Steane, GRAMOPHONE, June, 2008
“In the many performances I have appeared in, there were many wonderful colleagues who had me in raptures. There were those with magnificent voices, or great musicians, wonderful actors or great personalities. But George London had it ALL. He was as impressive on stage as he was the wonderful colleague and friend in his private life.”
- Birgit Nilsson, as quoted in Leonardo A. Ciampa’s THE TWILIGHT OF BELCANTO, p.130
“George London was a dramatic and very expressive singer. In many roles he sang like a demonic panther with a sound of purple-black in color. London was a singer favoring the drama in a piece, varying color to suggest shifts of mood. His acting on stage was described as overwhelming. The special magnetism of this artist is documented on his great recordings. Every role he sang was sung with utmost expression and unbelievable commitment, truly a singing-actor!”
- Andrea Shum-Binder, subito-cantabile
“Lisa Della Casa, the Swiss soprano who combined an outstanding voice, stunning beauty and exceptional stage presence to become one of the foremost interpreters of Richard Strauss, was one of a generation of sopranos to emerge from war-shattered Europe in the 1940s. In her Strauss roles, like the title character of Arabella, which alternately calls for demure graciousness and soaring enthusiasm, Ms. Della Casa displayed ‘a wholly appealing kind of fragility, tender and unmannered’, the musicologist J. B. Steane wrote in his book THE GRAND TRADITION: 70 Years of Singing on Record. She was equally extolled for her roles in Mozart operas.
In Europe, where Ms. Della Casa performed at the major opera houses, her beauty and charisma could seduce even a great conductor like Herbert von Karajan into pursuing her for roles that were out of her vocal range. ‘Karajan saw me as the Marschallin and, if you can believe it, immediately asked me to sing TANNHÄUSER with him’, even though the role, Venus, called for a dramatic soprano or a mezzo with an upper register and thus was not at all appropriate for her voice, she said in an interview in Lanfranco Rasponi’s book THE LAST PRIMA DONNAS. ‘He told me I had just the right kind of sexiness to make a splendid goddess of love’. She turned down the role.
Her complaint was the opposite at the Metropolitan Opera, where, she said, the general manager Rudolf Bing typecast her. She sang four roles at the Met — Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira, the Marschallin and Arabella — a total of 114 times in her 147 performances. ‘My 15 seasons at the Metropolitan were not happy ones’, Ms. Della Casa told Mr. Rasponi. ‘Mr. Bing would not have it any other way, for he kept repeating that I was indispensable for the Mozart and Strauss operas, and that he had a surplus of sopranos for the Italian and French ones’.
Yet Ms. Della Casa rarely bickered or engaged in offstage dramatics. In an opera world notorious for outsize egos and histrionic rivalries, her colleagues openly admired her. The Romanian soprano Maria Cebotari, famous for her portrayal of Arabella in the 1940s, lobbied for the young Ms. Della Casa to sing alongside her in the role of Zdenka. ‘I’ll put my hand in the fire for her’, Ms. Cebotari told a Vienna opera manager who was skeptical of this relatively unknown soprano’s talent.
Ms. Della Casa was also admired for her glamorous good looks. The German soprano Anneliese Rothenberger compared her to Elizabeth Taylor.
Still, at 55 and at the height of her career, she abruptly announced her retirement in 1974 after singing her last Arabella at the Vienna State Opera. She then retreated with her husband, Dragan Debeljevic, and their daughter, Vesna, who was often in poor health, to their castle near Lake Constance in Switzerland. She offered no public explanations, nor was she ever tempted into recitals or master classes.
Ms. Della Casa appeared first at the Salzburg Festival in 1947 as Zdenka in ARABELLA; after hearing her premiere performance, Richard Strauss himself asserted, ‘The little Della Casa will one day be Arabella!’ In the fall of 1947 she made her début as Gilda in Verdi’s RIGOLETTO at the Vienna State Opera, where she remained an ensemble member for 27 years.
In 1953 Ms. Della Casa made her début as the Countess Almaviva at the Metropolitan Opera, where she continued to perform until 1968. Her early Met performances as Donna Elvira and Madama Butterfly did not impress the New York critics. But she hit her stride with Arabella. ‘There was a youth in her movement and a beauty in her appearance that might well have driven Vienna’s gay blades wild', Howard Taubman of The New York Times wrote in 1957. ‘And her singing was unfailingly lovely — accurate, well focused and sensitively phrased’.
‘The strange thing about a singer’s destiny’, she told Mr. Rasponi, ‘is that you have to renounce everything for its sake, and then it’s all over in a flash.”
- Jonathan Kandell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 Dec., 2012