OP3319. LA TRAVIATA, Live Performance, 6 April, 1957, w.Cleva Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Campora, Leonard Warren, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-910.
"Violetta in Verdi's LA TRAVIATA was not one of Renata Tebaldi's signature roles. Her one commercial recording of it, a fairly early mono effort for Decca, was afflicted with inferior male leads (Gianni Poggi and Aldo Protti) and uninspired conducting by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. It was one of the few operas that Decca did not remake in stereo with Tebaldi. Other sopranos made the role more personally their own, Maria Callas above all, and before her Rosa Ponselle in a treasurable Met broadcast from 1935. Collectors no doubt have other preferences, too, for Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballe, Anna Netrebko, and a number of other great sopranos. This restoration of a 1957 Met broadcast gives us a chance to re-evaluate our assumptions.
One can pick at certain aspects of Tebaldi's performance. 'Sempre libera' is transposed down a half-tone; the coloratura is approximated in a few spots (less so than you might expect), and a few high notes are slightly flat. But to concentrate on those defects deprives oneself of the pleasure of one of the most lusciously sung Violettas on record. Tebaldi's voice was a uniquely beautiful instrument, immediately identifiable once you have heard it, rich in colors, and particularly attractive in its middle and upper middle registers. While she was not a vocal actor capable of the kind of specificity exhibited by Callas, neither was she a cipher. This is an impassioned performance with a wide range of emotional expression. Violetta pleading with the elder Germont will tear at your heart, and 'Addio del passato' conveys all the fragility of Violetta's poignant ill condition while still serving as a master class in beautiful singing.
Speaking of which, there is Leonard Warren's Germont. This great Verdi baritone is heard here in his prime, pouring out a unique gigantic but always beautiful sound, and inflecting the role with meaning. 'Di Provenza il mar' is exemplary in its sculpting of Verdi's broad phrases, and positively thrilling.
The surprise to many might well be Giuseppe Campora, though experienced collectors will expect a high quality of lyric tenor singing. Campora was the superb Pinkerton on Tebaldi's first BUTTERFLY recording. He sang frequently at the Met in the 1950s and 60s, but that was an era of truly great tenors on the order of Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Bjorling, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Richard Tucker. Campora was left in the shade, but today we would pay a great deal to hear an Alfredo of this quality. There is a nice, warm glow to the sound and a completely natural feel for the shape of the music (something all three principals share). Campora's voice and Tebaldi's blend beautifully, particularly in 'Parigi o cara' but also in the first act.
The remainder of the cast consists of Met regulars from this era, but one must single out a future Otello and Canio, James McCracken, in the tiny role of Giuseppe. Fausto Cleva conducts idiomatically and with sensitivity to the needs of his singers, even if it cannot be said that he brings anything unique to the proceedings. His conducting is far more energized and firmly shaped than Molinari-Pradelli's for Tebaldi on the Decca set. The performance employs the cuts that were standard at the time.
You will search long and hard to find a more beautifully vocalized recording of LA TRAVIATA, but you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is code for 'dramatically uninteresting'. In addition to utterly remarkable singing the likes of which simply does not exist today, here is a dramatically alive, impassioned performance. St. Laurent Studio has done its usual fine job of making the transfer sound as good as any 1950s Met broadcast could. As usual, no notes, but complete tracking information.."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
"[Campora] had a true lyric spinto voice, a fine stage presence, and excellent technique, so it is surprising that he was never really ranked with the top tenors of his time - he sings with some sensitivity and a varied dynamic range."
- Vivian A. Liff, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Sept./Oct., 2007
"Warren has another glorious afternoon. Singing most often at the quieter dynamics, he pours forth a stream of impeccable tone in faultless legato; Tebaldi is the healthiest rose that ever bloomed - her healthy tone can be relished."
- Paul Jackson, SIGN-OFF FOR THE OLD MET, pp.183-84
"I heard Tebaldi many times, as a standee at the old Metropolitan Opera House from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, and I never stopped marveling at the sheer beauty of the voice, her ability to project a pianissimo throughout the auditorium so that even though the note was extraordinarily soft, it sounded as if she were standing right next to you. The plushness of tone was probably the most unique feature of her singing, and along with that an innate sense of the appropriate shape of the phrase she was singing. She was not a subtle actress, never inflecting every phrase with subtexts of meaning the way Callas could, but nor was she a disengaged singer just pouring out lovely sounds. Her acting, both physical and vocal, was sincere and convincing, and at times very powerful. Her Butterfly broke your heart every time, through the moving way she shaped the ebb and flow of the music. There was no way you could see her as a 15 year old geisha, but by the wedding scene of the first act you were a complete believer.
Above all, there was that voice. It was immediately recognizable, distinctive, unlike any other. If you tuned in to a radio broadcast without hearing an announcement, two notes would be enough to identify the richly colored, luxurious sonority of the Tebaldi sound, a sound that caressed the ear and at the same time enveloped you. For many of us it was the sound that defined what an Italian soprano should be."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE