OP3312. ARABELLA, Live Performance, 26 Feb., 1955, w.Kempe Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Eleanor Steber, George London, Hilde Güden, Blanche Thebom, Roberta Peters, Brian Sullivan, Gabor Carelli, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-745. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“St. Laurent Studio continues to shower us with extraordinary goodies from the past. While this ARABELLA has circulated in other forms, this is the first time of which I am aware of such a superb-sounding transfer based on the Met’s original broadcast. This release is one of three simultaneous releases to honor the American soprano Eleanor Steber.
If I were to nominate singers for the category of ‘underappreciated considering their talent’, Steber would not only be on the list but also might head it. She was glorious in a wildly improbable range of repertoire: Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Wagner, Berg, German Lieder, and American art songs. She was an exquisite Manon too. Her 1955 Florence May Festival performance as Minnie in LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST used to be a classic in the opera recording underground….At the Met she sang 404 performances of 33 roles, and she sounded vocally and stylistically at home in all of them.
I had the privilege of seeing Steber in a concert performance of IL TROVATORE at Lewisohn Stadium in the 1950s and marveled at the sweep, beauty, and incisiveness of her singing. She appeared regularly on television (Voice of Firestone and Bell Telephone Hour) and sang throughout Europe including at Bayreuth. And yet, in an era that had Schwarzkopf, Tebaldi, Callas, and so many other remarkable sopranos, she never achieved the kind of stardom that she deserved. She could excel in the repertoire of any of those sopranos, and then some. She did appear in the title role of the world premiere of Barber’s VANESSA, which can be heard on a classic RCA recording, and a lasting contribution of hers is the commissioning of ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915’, another of her outstanding recordings.
This ARABELLA is probably not appropriate as anyone’s only recording, because it is sung in John Gutman’s English translation, but don’t let that impede your enthusiasm. The cast’s diction is clear, and even though the music was written for the German language, the English text flows naturally here. Under Rudolf Kempe’s knowing leadership the performance has the sweep and integrity that Strauss’ score needs but does not always receive. The tempo relationships are beautifully judged, and the orchestra produces a warm sound that was not always the case with the Met in the 1950s. Kempe also strikes the right balance between soaring lyricism and rhythmic tautness.
Steber is flawless, singing with glowing tone and showing no strain despite the demanding high tessitura of the title role. She colors her tone appropriately for the right dramatic purposes, and the voice remains lovely whether at the softest or loudest dynamic level. Every bit her equal is the Mandryka of George London, who also sings the role brilliantly on Decca’s legendary recording with Lisa della Casa as Arabella and Georg Solti conducting. The roles of Arabella and Mandryka are difficult to bring off convincingly. Her constant rejection of other suitors and immediate infatuation with Mandryka defy credibility, and Mandryka’s quick suspicion of her followed by immediate forgiveness is also presented without enough context to be believable. But if you have two performers who believe in the music and the drama, they can make the listener suspend disbelief, which is the case here. Between gorgeous singing and crisp characterization, Steber and London engage and persuade us.
There is not a weak link in the rest of the cast, either. Hilde Güden’s gleaming light soprano and her wit are as good as it gets for the male/female role of Zdenka, Brian Sullivan sings beautifully as Matteo, and in the silly but vocally brilliant role of Fiakermilli, Roberta Peters shows why she was a star for so many years at the Met.
For anyone who loves Strauss’ romantic comedy opera, this recording is enthusiastically recommended. It has the thrilling impact of a great night at the opera house, something almost impossible to achieve in the recording studio. No notes or libretto, but complete track listing and documentation are included.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“To Steber’s matchless Countess and Fiordiligi may now be added her Arabella….Steber’s portrayal is all the more cherishable for its rarity…. In superb voice from start to finish, the soprano gives a masterful demonstration of her perceptive musicianship and vocal command. By musical means alone, she is able to convey the adorable qualities of Arabella’s nature. The soprano has a wide palette of vocal colors and weights to work with, and she deftly applies them, both to Strauss’ conversational gambits and to his soaring melodic lines. Immensely supple, the voice retains its delicate sheen but, with midcareer ease, expands to full-throated, tremolo-free spinto tone of equal loveliness.”
- Paul Jackson, SIGN-OFF FOR THE OLD MET, pp.121-22
“[Eleanor] had an innate feeling for Mozart and Strauss, and had a loveliness of tone that recalled the voice of a great predecessor, Edith Mason.”
- Rosa Ponselle, A SINGER’S LIFE, p.203