OP3269. TOSCA, Live Performance, 11 April, 1959, w.Kurt Adler Cond. Eleanor Steber, Carlo Bergonzi, George London, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-726.
“All opera lovers probably have a list of singers whom they feel were underappreciated for one reason or another. High on my list is the American soprano Eleanor Steber (1914–1990). She was, to be sure, highly regarded, particularly as a Mozart and Strauss specialist and as an intelligent artist. Steber did much for American music in her recitals and as the title character in Samuel Barber’s VANESSA. But in addition, she was also a highly accomplished singer in the core Italian repertoire and should have been used by the Met’s dictatorial general manager, Rudolf Bing, more frequently in that fach.
Steber was chosen to make the ‘official’ Metropolitan Opera Club recording of Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY [OP2757], and some of her other forays into that repertoire have been preserved by many of the small labels that specialize in live performances. Recently, St. Laurent Studio has given us first-rate transfers of her Desdemona and Elisabetta in Verdi’s OTELLO and DON CARLO as well as the title role in Strauss’ ARABELLA. Now the label has released Steber in one of the central Puccini roles, Tosca. This 1959 broadcast has circulated in a fairly decent transfer on Myto, but the sound here is cleaner and warmer. I wish someone could find a better source for her Florence FANCIULLA DEL WEST with del Monaco, a stunning performance.
Steber did not possess the kind of rich tonal plushness that distinguished the singing of Renata Tebaldi, nor the infinite variety of colors that Maria Callas applied to this opera. However, what she did bring was a remarkably evenly produced spinto soprano sound, crystal clear in its tone, very focused but never hard. She was a scrupulous musician with impeccable intonation and a strong internal rhythmic pulse, and she sang with fervor and dramatic involvement. She may not have exhibited the individual vocal glamor or personality of a Tebaldi or, to give another example, Leontyne Price, yet the kind of singing heard here should never be taken for granted. Steber’s Tosca is a regal character of dignity and strength, much as we might expect from a famed Italian opera diva, which is what Tosca is, after all. Steber’s high B-flat in ‘Vissi d’arte’ is splendid, and her voice glows throughout its range. The high C in the third act, a note that gave Tebaldi great trouble, is remarkable, throbbing with beauty. There are no seams in the voice at all, and she can spin out a long line with generous phrasing, and at the same time Steber is specific in her interactions with Cavaradossi and Scarpia. Not a single line is a throw-away.
George London is another singer who was valuable and versatile. Now remembered for his title-role portrayals in Wagner’s DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER and MUSSORGSKY’S BORIS GODUNOV, the Canadian bass-baritone was an important Amonasro and Scarpia at the Met. London had a dark, somewhat dry timbre that suits Scarpia quite well, and he was a skilled vocal actor. While he may not be the completely theatrical creature that Tito Gobbi was in this role, London is persuasive as a polished nobleman and brutal chief of police who never loses his dignity even while feeling the lust for Tosca that drives him. London’s voice rides over the ensemble in the ‘Te Deum’, and one feels Scarpia’s menace throughout his long second-act scene with Tosca. This is a far more impressive portrayal than the one on London’s Decca recording, which seems very studio-bound.
About Carlo Bergonzi’s Cavaradossi there can be no doubt. This is one of the most distinguished and beautiful portrayals of the role on disc, even in comparison with some of his other recorded performances. One thinks of Bergonzi as an elegant singer, but we often forget that he could be passionate and explosive too (usually more so vocally than physically). His 12-second hold of the B-flat on ‘Vittoria’ sounds as if it will burst from the pressure he applies, but without ever losing the quality of the timbre. At the same time, his caressing of the line at phrases like ‘…le belle forme disciogliea dai veli’ represents uniquely beautiful singing at the very highest level. Cavaradossi is the perfect role for Bergonzi, and his performance alone would justify a purchase even if Steber and London were not as good as they are. I could justify a claim that this is the finest recorded example of Bergonzi’s art.
The smaller roles are all taken well by Met stalwarts from the 1950s and 60s (Gerhard Pechner, Alessio de Paolis, Lorenzo Alvary, Osie Hawkins, and Louis Sgarro). There is, however, a fly in the ointment, and it sits firmly on the podium. Kurt Adler was the Met’s longtime chorus master from 1943 to 1973, and the management gave him some performances to conduct. I remember dreading it when I attended the Met during those days, and what I hear from this TOSCA does nothing to dissuade me. Adler’s conducting is square, uninflected, lacking in rhythmic snap or tension even in the score’s most dramatic moments. Its lack of dynamism is apparent from the very opening chords.
Do not, however, let that discourage you. Steber, Bergonzi, and London produce a TOSCA you will not soon forget. St. Laurent Studio has given it very clean, full monaural sound. As usual, they provide no notes but complete tracking information and cast list.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“I sang two Toscas before our broadcast performance on April 11, and after one of them my husband mentioned that my leap off the parapet at the end wasn’t visible to the audience. ‘If you are going to risk breaking your neck’, he quipped, ‘why don’t you do it out there where everyone can see you?’.
We experimented before the broadcast, setting the mattress so I could leap dramatically but safely to my death. When Tosca plunged from the Sant’ Angelo that afternoon, it was only a two-point landing. I gave the jump all I had - which was too much – and tumbled off the far side of the mattress. My head hit the floor with a terrible crack; I chipped a tooth and cut my lip….
During that evening’s performance of LA GIOCONDA [not CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA], Pat [Tavernia, our stage director] was chatting in the wings with Zinka Milanov (one of the Met’s great Toscas) and asked ‘ Did you hear what happened to Steber this afternoon?’ ‘Naw’, replied Milanov. ‘Vat happent?’ ‘Well, when she jumped from the parapet she overshot the mattress, cracked her head and cut her lip’. Milanov arched an eyebrow. ‘Vel, I always told Eleanor the part was too heavy for her!’.
- Eleanor Steber, ELEANOR STEBER - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, p.201
“…George London provides the dominant portrayal of the afternoon. His Scarpia is a brute of a man, all strength and arrogance. In contrast to the courtly elegance of Warren and Schöffler’s businessman police chief, London revels in overt violence, pouring out black, icily severe tones with unstinting power….[his] tone turns to lava, its heat continuing to prevail in the torture chamber. This Scarpia is black-hearted but purple-voiced, something sensuous in the tone, arresting to the listener, and perhaps to Tosca as well.
- Paul Jackson, SIGN-OFF FOR THE OLD MET, p.429
"Considered the foremost Verdi tenor of his age, Mr. Bergonzi sang more than 300 times with the Metropolitan Opera of New York from the 1950s to the '80s, appearing opposite a roster of celebrated divas that included Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Rise Stevens, Victoria de los Angeles and Leontyne Price.
A lyric tenor of some vocal heft, Mr. Bergonzi lacked the sonic weight and brilliance of tenors in the Wagnerian mold. But what he did possess was an instrument of velvety beauty and nearly unrivaled subtlety.
'More than the sound of the voice, it is Mr. Bergonzi's way of using it that is so special', Peter G. Davis, reviewing a 1978 Carnegie Hall recital by Mr. Bergonzi, wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES. 'He is a natural singer in that everything he does seems right and inevitable - the artful phrasing, the coloristic variety, the perfectly positioned accents, the theatrical sense of well-proportioned climaxes, the honest emotional fervor. Best of all, Mr. Bergonzi obviously uses these effects artistically because he feels them rather than intellectualizes them - a rare instinctual gift, possibly the most precious one any musician can possess'. In the view of his many fans, this vocal elegance amply compensated for the fact that Mr. Bergonzi was no actor and, by his own ready admission, no matinee idol. 'I know I don't look like Rudolph Valentino', he told THE TIMES in 1981. 'I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing'.
Mr. Bergonzi began his career as a baritone, and after becoming a tenor a few years later was careful not to push his voice past its natural confines. As a result, he largely escaped the vocal wear that can force singers to retire by the time they reach their early 50s; Mr. Bergonzi, by contrast, continued to sing on prominent stages - and, as critical opinion had it, sing well - into his late 60s.
During World War II, Mr. Bergonzi spent three years in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. He returned home after the war, weighing 80 pounds, and resumed singing.
Mr. Bergonzi made his operatic debut in 1948 as a baritone, singing the title part in Rossini's BARBER OF SEVILLE in Lecce, in southern Italy. After coming to realize that tenor parts were better situated for his voice, he made a second debut, as a tenor, in the title role in Umberto Giordano's ANDREA CHENIER in Bari in 1951.
In 1955, Mr. Bergonzi made his United States debut with the Lyric Theater of Chicago (now the Lyric Opera of Chicago) as Luigi in Puccini's IL TABARRO. The next year, on 13 November, he made his Met debut as Radames opposite Antonietta Stella, also making her debut that night.
Mr. Bergonzi also appeared at La Scala, 1953, and at Covent Garden, where he made his debut in 1962 as Don Alvaro in Verdi's FORZA DEL DESTINO. At the Met, in March 1964, Mr. Bergonzi was a soloist (with Ms. Price, Rosalind Elias and Cesare Siepi) in an acclaimed performance of the Verdi REQUIEM in memory of President John F. Kennedy, under the baton of Georg Solti.
In 1994, Mr. Bergonzi, then 70, took the stage at Carnegie Hall for what was billed as his American farewell recital. The concert, a program of Italian art songs and arias, concluded with a 50-minute ovation and was warmly reviewed by critics. But as it transpired, that concert was no farewell. In 2000, two months shy of his 76th birthday, Mr. Bergonzi sang the one Verdi role he had never attempted: the title part in OTELLO, one of the most fiendishly demanding tenor roles in opera, in a concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York under Eve Queler. His performance - a high-wattage Carnegie Hall affair whose audience included Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Sherrill Milnes, Licia Albanese and Anna Moffo - was, by wide critical consensus, an unreconstructed disaster. 'It was immediately apparent that there was something wrong', THE GUARDIAN wrote shortly afterward. 'A grainy tone in the voice inhibited everything. Bergonzi strained audibly in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the high A that caps the triumphant entry phrase'. Mr. Bergonzi withdrew from the performance after two acts, leaving his role in Acts III and IV to be sung by an understudy, Antonio Barasorda.
But the younger, supple-voiced Mr. Bergonzi endures on his many recordings, including several of AIDA (opposite Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Montserrat Caballé; a BOHEME and a BUTTERFLY opposite Renata Tebaldi; Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR with Beverly Sills; and a three-record set for Philips on which he sings all of the Verdi tenor arias."
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 26 July, 2014