OP3340. LA TRAVIATA, Live Performance, 23 Dec., 1939, w.Panizza Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Helen Jepson, Richard Crooks, Lawrence Tibbett, etc., replete with Milton Cross' commentaries; MANON, Live Performance, 23 Jan., 1940, w.Pelletier Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Grace Moore, Richard Crooks, John Brownlee, Nicola Moscona, etc., replete with Milton Cross' commentaries; Studio recordings by Grace Moore & Richard Crooks. (Canada) 4-Immortal Performances IPCD 1115, w.Elaborate 53pp Booklet. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Notes by Gerald Parker & Richard Caniell. The four discs are priced as three by Immortal Performances. - 644216110322
“The unifying artistic force in this Immortal Performances release (four CDs priced as three) of two Met broadcasts is the American tenor Richard Crooks (1900–1972). After studies and early performances in the United States, the Trenton, NJ-born Crooks traveled to Europe where he established himself as an important artist. After returning to his homeland, Crooks made his debut at the Met on February 25, 1933, performing one of his signature roles, Des Grieux in Massenet’s MANON, an opera included on this set. Crooks sang leading roles at the Met until December 3, 1942, when he made his farewell as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI. Richard Crooks also had great success as a recording and radio broadcast artist. Illness led to Crooks’s premature retirement in the mid-1940s. But during his relatively brief career, Crooks made several wonderful recordings. And companies like Immortal Performances have done us a great service by making Crooks’ opera broadcasts available to a wider public. As much as I admire Richard Tucker (and that is to say, a very great deal), I would argue that Richard Crooks is the finest American operatic tenor whose work is preserved on recordings. As I wrote in my review of the Immortal Performances release of the Met’s March 20, 1937 broadcast of Gounod’s FAUST (FANFARE 41:4, March/April 2018), ‘Crooks possessed a beautiful lyric tenor voice that soared easily into the upper register, and possessed ample power for Cavaradossi in Puccini’s TOSCA, and Des Grieux’s St. Sulpice Scene in Massenet’s MANON….Crooks was also a highly accomplished interpreter of songs (both classical and popular), and at his best, the tenor brought a Lieder singer’s nuance and detail to his operatic performances’.
I will deal with each opera on this release individually. But at the outset I’ll note that Crooks, outstanding in each, displays the talents I’ve outlined above. His Alfredo in the December 23, 1939 Met broadcast of Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA is one of the finest on records. Not only is Crooks in splendid voice, but he displays a variety of vocal colors and dynamics and a keen attention to the text (delivered in precise, idiomatic diction) and dramatic situation rarely encountered in this work. Often, the part of Alfredo serves as an unobtrusive foil to the heroine Violetta, and her plight. That is hardly the case in this broadcast. Crooks creates a compelling, three-dimensional portrait of the young Alfredo. It’s a shame that, in accordance with the practice of the time, Alfredo’s Act II cabaletta, ‘O mio rimorso’, is cut. But Crooks makes the most of what remains in his part. This Alfredo is a very important document of Crooks’ legacy.
Most welcome, too, is the elder Germont of another glorious American artist, baritone Lawrence Tibbett. His vocal crisis of 1940 was just around the corner, and those with hindsight might be able, at certain moments, to hear some premonitions of its onset. But if Tibbett does not quite exhibit the vocal ease of his early-mid 1930s performances, he remains in rich, sonorous voice. And it was, to be sure, one of the most glorious, spine-tingling voices of its kind. Like Crooks, Tibbett lavishes all of his artistry and dramatic gifts upon his role. Tibbett, as well as any singer I’ve heard, conveys both Germont’s determination to end Violetta’s love affair with his son, and the concurrent arousal of his sympathy for the young woman. Tibbett’s ‘Di provenza’, aided by Ettore Panizza’s sensitive accompaniment, is a touching and very personal address to his son, radiantly sung in the bargain - a great performance by a great artist.
But the opera is titled LA TRAVIATA, a reference to its soprano heroine. And here, I’m afraid, the performance falls a bit short. The American soprano Helen Jepson was a radiantly beautiful woman who also possessed a secure and lovely voice that sailed confidently throughout a range of repertoire, both operatic and song. In my review of the FAUST broadcast, I wrote: ‘What Jepson lacks … is an individuality of approach’. That is once again the case with her Violetta. And in this LA TRAVIATA, even more than with Jepson’s Marguerite, the soprano rarely if ever gets below the surface of the text and music. It is all vocalized attractively, securely, and tastefully. But Violetta is one of Verdi’s greatest and most human soprano heroines, a woman who, by sacrificing the only true love she has ever known, also knowingly signs her death warrant. Such nobility and desperation are at the heart of any great interpretation of this role. I’m afraid you will search in vain for it in Jepson’s broadcast performance. But given the special contributions of Crooks and Tibbett, I still heartily recommend the broadcast to anyone with an interest in those singers and/or LA TRAVIATA.
The remaining singers, many Met stalwarts (including de Paolis, Cehanovsky, D’Angelo, and Votipka) acquit themselves well. Ettore Panizza, one of the Met’s finest conductors of Italian opera during that era, characteristically leads a performance of tremendous vitality, but one that is also attentive to the singers’ desire for expressive time and space. The recorded sound is quite fine, competitive with commercial recordings of the era. And speaking of commercial recordings, the TRAVIATA portion of the set concludes with Crooks singing arias from CARMEN (in German), THE PEARL FISHERS (in Italian), L’ARLESIANA, and DIE MEISTERSINGER. Crooks is in fabulous voice, and frequently uses his mastery in blending of chest and head registers to create moments of absolute magic, hushed singing in which time seems to stand still. These recordings, too, are all marvelously restored.
The second featured opera is Massenet’s MANON, broadcast on January 13, 1940. The Manon is American soprano Grace Moore, a singer celebrated for her work in French repertoire, including Massenet’s adaptation of the Abbé Prévost novel. For the greater part of this performance, Moore is quite successful and convincing. From Act II on, Moore settles in to give a fine and dramatically compelling performance. ‘Adieu, notre petite table’, Manon’s farewell to her blissful life with des Grieux, is given an intimate and affecting reading, all the more compelling for its simplicity and avoidance of the lachrymose. Moore firmly comes into her own in the St. Sulpice Scene as Manon summons all her wiles to seduce des Grieux to abandon his religious vows and return to her. It would be hard to imagine anyone able to resist Moore’s entreaties! As the Cours-la-Reine scene is cut, Manon’s gavotte, ‘Profitons bien de la jeunesse’, is transferred to the Gambling Scene, where it receives a fine account. And Moore is quite touching in Manon’s death scene, once again all the more effective for her lack of histrionics. When hearing this performance, and imagining it within the context of Moore’s beauty and compelling stage presence, it’s easy to understand why she was so beloved in this role. This is a worthy document of one of the Met’s star sopranos of the 1930s and 1940s.
From his entrance, Richard Crooks delivers a masterclass in the art of the French lyric tenor. Listen, for example, to the marvelous deployment of mixed voice technique on the repetition of ‘Mon père!’, as the young des Grieux looks forward to being reunited with his father. That, of course, intensifies the dramatic impact of des Grieux being shocked out of his domestic world upon seeing the beautiful Manon for the first time. And speaking of mixed voice, it’s not surprising that Crooks uses it to magical effect in the Act II aria ‘En ferment les yeux’, where the tenor spins a seemingly endless thread of poised, hushed singing. The diminuendo on ‘il y faut’ toward the close is sheer magic, as is the prolongation of the concluding ‘ô’ in ‘ô Manon’ for what seems an eternity. Crooks makes it clear that des Grieux wants this moment in his life to last forever. The St. Sulpice Scene requires tenor vocalizing of a far more robust, dramatic nature. Crooks does not disappoint here, either, as he captures the lovesick desperation of the abandoned des Grieux, soon reunited with Manon. Crooks remains in sterling form right to the opera’s conclusion, and he matches Grace Moore in communicating the tragedy of the final scene without ever overplaying his hand. As with his Alfredo, Crooks’ des Grieux is one of the best to be found on recordings.
As Richard Caniell describes in his Recording Notes, the source for the MANON broadcast was somewhat more compromised than for the accompanying LA TRAVIATA. There are moments when surface imperfections make their presence known, but those episodes are few and of brief duration. Overall the sound, while not the equal of the LA TRAVIATA, emerges as quite clear and detailed in this Immortal Performances restoration. It certainly allows for complete enjoyment of a very fine and important performance. A welcome bonus is a series of French songs Moore recorded commercially for RCA, with Pelletier conducting the Victor Symphony Orchestra. Moore, in wonderful voice, gives stylish, idiomatic readings, lovingly accompanied by Pelletier. The restorations of these recordings are first-rate.
The booklet includes an essay by Gerald Parker, detailed plot synopses for both operas, Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes, and artist bios and photos. As is the custom for Immortal Performances releases of historic Met broadcasts, the commentary of radio host Milton Cross enhances the experience of coming face to face with great moments in the Met’s legacy. This set would be worth acquiring for Richard Crooks’ contribution alone. But given the many other strengths, the release merits an overall strong recommendation.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, March / April 2020