I thought I would begin my survey of RCA mono LPs with two box sets of two LPs each: one very popular, but never rerecorded in stereo with the same artists; the other less popular, but recorded by the same conductor and orchestra a few years later in stereo for the same label. The comparison yields some unexpected results.
Before the bright red shaded dog came the dark red shaded dog (always mono), and before that the plain brown, dogless "Red Seal." For all the reasons we would expect, and including the fact that they are equalized in RIAA, these two are the labels to look for. By comparison, the bright red shaded dogs sound thin, soulless, transistorized. Worse still are the later Dynaflex Red Seal floppies, about which the less said, the better. When possible, you want to look for the original Red Seals, or dark red dogs if there was no Red Seal original. Red Seals are hard to find in good condition, while dark red dogs are not.
Puccini: La Bohéme. Victoria de los Angeles, Lucine Amara, Jussi Bjoerling, Robert Merrill, Giorgio Tozzi; RCA Victor Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. RCA LM-6042 (2 LPs). [Also available on CD]
This justly popular recording proves its worth on several fronts: It is an accessible introduction to opera, with possibly the finest cast ever assembled on record for any opera. That is particularly significant when you consider how many of its roles require first-rate singers. And it has surprisingly good sound. Textures remain uncluttered even in the most complex passages of Act 2, where the excitement of the layered solo voices, choruses and orchestra is matched by the clarity and dynamics of the engineering.
The story about Bohemian life in the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec moves from light comedy to passionate love, to that love's inevitable jealousy, to death and anguish. Compared to some operas, things don't remain melodically static for long in La Bohéme. Best of all for the beginner, it's short: two hours tops. (By the way, for a youthful, exuberant take on La Bohéme, you owe it to yourself to rent or buy the DVD of Baz Luhrmann's 1993 Australian Opera production.)
Jealousy is the driving force for the most performed operas on the planet. We can't seem to get enough of watching and identifying with this particular form of human suffering: In addition to La Bohéme, there's Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, even Mozart's comedic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. (Interestingly, the leading men in the tragic operas just mentioned are tenors, as is Otello; whereas Figaro, a comic figure, is a baritone.) La Bohéme is relentlessly melodic, with some of the most memorable and exquisite arias ever composed, as is Carmen — which Beecham often performed and recorded more than once. Carmen ends in murder, and the mood until that point supports the necessary fire to make that act inevitable; La Bohéme focuses on internal struggle, with very little action on stage, allowing the arias to express its feelings. Both Carmen and La Bohéme end with the heroines’ names on the lips of their erstwhile lovers, each tying the knot into eternity.
Given its popularity, we should not be surprised that there are more recordings of La Bohéme than of most symphonies, with the lead singers frequently recording it more than once in their careers. But de los Angeles, Bjoerling and Beecham got only this one crack at it in a serious commercial recording. We might bemoan the fact that, like the last person to die in a shooting war, this was one of RCA's last opera recordings in mono (1956); and as luck would have it, they never equaled the effort in stereo.
1956 was late in Bjoerling's career, and though only in his forties, he never surpassed this performance (He died in 1960 at only 49.) While he was possessed of possibly the most beautiful instrument ever endowed a human, he could be a shade cool (as witness his Calaf in his RCA stereo recording of Turandot.) But his Rodolfo is so taken with Mimi that even his petty jealousies can be forgiven. More to the point, the very beauty of his singing makes his fall from romantic grace that much more poignant. His cries of "Mimi" at the close are almost unbearable to listen to.
Victoria de los Angeles, whose voice tended to thin out in later years (unlike most singers whose voices gain in richness), was right on the money in this La Bohéme and not at all bloodless, even taking into account that Mimi is consumptive — a fact which tests every new opera listener's willingness to suspend disbelief. The part demands extraordinary acting as well as singing talent. Once you accept Mimi, everything else in the opera falls into place.
Lucine Amara is relatively unknown today, though at the time she was well regarded at the Met. She is not entirely successful as both mezzo and coloratura (as is, say, Cecilia Bartoli), but her vocal characterization of the carefree Musetta is colorful and sympathetic; and her technique is better than merely competent. Which reminds me that not even Toscanini's 1946 recording for RCA, despite the fabulous Licia Albanese as Mimi, comes close to this set. Its compromised sonics are really difficult to get past, but more than that, Anne McKnight is seriously inadequate as Musetta.
The remaining cast of basses and baritones include some of the best in the business: Merrill, Tozzi, and John Reardon. Robert Merrill had one of the creamiest baritones around. As Rodolfo's friend and confidant and Musetta's lover, his Marcello is instantly engaging. We like and respect him, and because of that, we fervently hope that he will get through to thickheaded Rodolfo.
Copies of the original dark red dogs are in ample supply, so that you needn't even have to settle for the Seraphim reissue. There is no excuse not to have this recording — if not on LP, then certainly on CD.
Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet, A Dramatic Symphony. Margaret Roggero, contralto; Leslie Chabay, tenor; Yi-Kwei Sze, bass; Harvard Glee Club; Radcliffe Choral Society; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA LM-6011 (2 LPs). [also available on CD]
"A Dramatic Symphony" indeed! What could Berlioz have meant by that subtitle? How is this work different from an oratorio, for example? We recognize that a symphony needn't have four movements nor, thanks to Ludwig van, be the exclusive province of instrumentalists. But the word "symphony" must have something to do with the idea of a coming together. Well, Hector, does it?
This sprawling work of at least eleven movements is expressed by a full orchestra, small chorus — often á capella — along with several different large choruses, an aria for alto voice, one for tenor, several movements for orchestra only, and a finale that alternates solo bass voice with chorus. This is the point where Friar Lawrence attempts to reconcile the two families, and it is in this movement that Berlioz likewise attempts to reconcile his disparate instrumental musical forces.
Historical critical opinion has thus far come down against Berlioz. His musical architecture is often at odds with the musical establishment. We might say that Berlioz' parts are greater than the whole — or perhaps I should say: more difficult to conceptualize into a whole. Indeed, the parts of Berlioz' Romeo, like those of his Symphonie Fantastique, are so seductive that they seem to stand on their own. And while we may enjoy one movement of a symphony more than another, such a piece supposedly makes more sense when heard entire.
Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette follows Beethoven's lead in the forces with which he ends this work. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, whose Finale adds a quartet of solo voices and a full choir was composed only fifteen years earlier. In the ensuing interval, Berlioz developed a passionate love of Shakespeare, and an obsession with Harriet Smithson, the leading Shakespearean actress of the day, whom he eventually married.
Recorded ca. 1953, this mono recording is in nearly every way superior to Munch's later stereo version, presented in RCA's prestigious Soria series with the same orchestra and big name soloists. The orchestral playing in the earlier recording is more dynamic, more fervent; the soloists are fully comparable to those in the Soria production. The mono recording features the inimitable Chinese bass Yi-Kwei Sze. Heavens, what a sound! Bassos today, at least on recordings, rarely if ever achieve the rich yet focused sonorities of this nearly forgotten master.
It is curious that Munch's view of this piece should have undergone such metamorphosis in just a few years. For my money, he should have left well enough alone, for his earlier conception of the drama surpasses all the later competition. We feel the very presence of Shakespeare's characters: The Introduction, where the families duel in the streets, is more tumultuous; the Prologue is more alert; the Love Scene more passionate; and the Queen Mab music just that much more magical and elusive. The scene where the lovers witness each other's deaths (following David Garrick's revisionist stage directions, popular in the day) is hair-raising, the more so because of the contrast to the ghoulish loveliness of the funeral music that precedes it.
There is one problem with the mono, and it's not small: the choirs do not sing in French. I mean, they sing French words, but not "in" French. The Harvard/Radcliffe vocal coach was big on clarity and diction, but not on language. It's not merely the pronunciation, but also the melody — which in their mouths is about as Gallic as French Fries. If it weren't for this snag, which will bother some listeners more than others, this recording would be le premier hands down, regardless of vintage.
Claiming sonics superior to Munch's Soria effort is damning the mono with faint praise, since the latter recording sounds more like rechanneled mono than the kind of stereo reproduction RCA generally achieved. A more challenging comparison is with the Colin Davis version on Philips stereo 839716. The RCA mono’s sonics fare less well, while Davis’s orchestral playing and soloists are, on balance, as good. I prefer Davis's Patricia Kern to Margaret Roggero, though Chabay and Yi-Kwi Sze are both winners. It's hard to beat the London Symphony Chorus on the Philips — always first-rate. While not quite getting to the work’s dramatic core, the Davis is otherwise excellent.
If you are looking for the RCA Munch mono on LP, the original red seal edition has a reproduction of a painting of the tomb scene from Romeo, originally published in 1805; the later bright red shaded dog edition sports less subtle cover art (see above.) Hard to find in good shape on LP, the performance is available on CD.