Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, unquestionably two of the greatest opera singers of the second half of the Twentieth Century, appear together in two of Sony Classical's recent releases of live Saturday matinee broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. With both singers in excellent, sometimes stunning, voice — and with the Walküre set boasting co-stars Leonie Rysanek, Thomas Stewart and Christa Ludwig to boot — not to mention that each set costs less than one "full-price" CD, both issues are must-have for any lover of German opera. With such vocal excitement and dramatic urgency at a minimal cost, one can easily accept the less-than-ideal monaural sound and skimpy CD booklets.
Fidelio/Leonore was only Nilsson's second role at the Met, following her sensational debut as Isolde only two months before this February 1960 Fidelio broadcast. Considering that this performance was her only Leonore of the season, she is in remarkable command of the role. Her "Abscheulicher!" — Beethoven's show-stopping aria of accusation, tender reminiscence and passionate resolve—besides being unerring in pitch and imposing over the full register of her voice, has that quality of shining nobility that made Nilsson so perfectly suited to the role of a woman sacrificing everything, even her femininity, to rescue her political prisoner husband.
As for Vickers, who was nearly always at his best in the theatre rather than in the studio, his own great aria-monologue, Floristan's "Gott! Welch Dunkelhier," is simply stunning. Vickers was unsurpassed in playing tormented characters — Otello and Peter Grimes were among his supreme impersonations, along with Siegmund, Tristan and the Samsons of both Handel and Saint-Saëns — and while Florestan is a victim rather than a tragically divided character, Vickers unforgettably brings out the anguish of the prisoner condemned to darkness, beginning with his first long-held agonized note ("Gott!"). The recollection of "life's spring-days" is heartbreaking, and the climactic vision of "my angel Leonore" leading him to freedom has the near-hysterical intensity of which Vickers was master. Granted, his spoken dialogue is not so convincingly acted as Nilsson's (but so what?), and in the thrilling duet of the reunited couple ("O namenlose Freude!") Nilsson is even more thrilling, both in her dazzling high notes and in her gorgeous diminuendo on the word "Floristan."
The rest of the cast is quite decent, sometimes more than that. Laurel Hurley is a charming, clear-voiced Marzelline, while Charles Anthony (the Met's stalwart comprimario) as her swain Jaquino may not have the most appealing young tenor voice, but he holds his own in the moving Act I quartet. Hermann Uhde is superbly dark-voiced and cutting as the villainous Don Pizarro (he looks like a Star Trek Romulan in the CD's publicity photo); Oskar Czerwenka is a bit fuzzy as Rocco; and Giorgio Tozzi is appropriately warm and noble-voiced as Don Fernando.
Karl Böhm was renowned for his Fidelio
at the Met (as well as for his Richard Strauss operas), and this broadcast gives
a good idea of why. The Met Orchestra was evidently a bit scrappy in those days
— the horns in particular seem barely up to the task in their prominent role
in "Abscheulicher!" — but Böhm
gives a far from routine performance, beginning with a complexly dramatic
rendition of the overture and, soon thereafter, a beautifully paced introduction
to the quartet. The opera's rousing moments are all they should be, with an
especially joyful opening of the final scene and a thrillingly jubilant final
chorus. (The Met chorus sings passionately throughout.) Böhm favored the
practice of inserting the Leonore Overture No. 3 in between the two scenes of
Act II, a tradition that makes little dramatic sense — why do we need a long
orchestral interlude that recapitulates the whole drama rather than moving
directly from the triumphant duet to the even more triumphant finale? But
audiences over the years have loved it: it allows the orchestra to show off with
a justly celebrated piece of music, almost more tone-poem than overture, and
expands a rather short act. In any case, Böhm and the orchestra give such a
supercharged performance — very much for the opera house rather than the
concert hall — with such daringly fast tempos in certain places that few would
want to skip over the track.
The sound is very acceptable for a live 1960
monaural recording, without too much compression — the range from softest to
loudest is quite reasonable. Perhaps most important, the unique timbres of
Nilsson's and Vickers' voices come across vividly.
The Walküre from
February 1968 was a production created by Herbert von Karajan, who conducted
most of the performances that season but not the Saturday matinee broadcast.
(The Sony booklet credits him as Stage Director, but he was in all but title the
lighting designer too and a collaborator with Gunther Schneider-Siemssen on the
sets, as well as personally casting the production, except for General Manager
Rudolf Bing's insistence upon Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde.) Croatian Berislav
Klobucar, little known today but a frequent conductor at Beyreuth and other
leading houses, took his place. Perhaps the orchestra was responding to its
memory of the Karajan-led performances — a review in Time
magazine of the production's premiere three months earlier claimed that Karajan
had "galvaniz[ed] that frequently scraggly ensemble into a pliant, rich tonal
fabric." But the excellent performance we hear on Sony's discs must also be due
to the sensitivity and dramatic astuteness of Klobucar. The Met Orchestra does
sound strikingly finer than in the 1960 Fidelio,
though not quite the world-class orchestra it is today: witness the opening
storm music and the tender accompaniment to Sieglinde's ministering to the
exhausted Siegmund. Even better, perhaps, is the orchestral accompaniment to
Siegfried's narration of his past woes: extremely alert and heartfelt (except
for a muddy statement of the Valhalla theme). The final bars of Act I are not as
wildly ecstatic as some conductors make them, but they are far from slack.
Vickers is again in excellent voice in another of his signature roles. As he usually did in this part, he conveys a sense of being on the edge, ready to crack under the strain of the tragic events preceding Act I, and yet full of heroic resolve. His long-held cries of "Wälse!" are almost frighteningly intense, while his growing confidence and rhythmic energy in "Winterstürme" and the rest of Act I are infectious. In this performance his conclusion of his earlier monologue — "Now you know, questioning woman, why I'm not called ‘Peaceful'" — is more gentle, less bitterly sarcastic, than he sometimes sang it.
Sieglinde likewise was one of Leonie Rysanek's
great roles, and while she is deeply in character from her first notes onward,
she really soars in that fierce Rysanek manner during her narrative of her
father thrusting the sword in the tree, and again when she gives Siegmund his
name. Her ecstatic "O hehrstes Wunder!" in the last act is another thrilling
As for Nilsson, anyone familiar with her Brünnhilde
will expect not just a general stance of heroic nobility, along with penetrating
high C's, but a true dramatic commitment to the role, and indeed one can hear it
in a passage like "War es so schmälich"
in which she asks (demands of?) Wotan to explain why her attempt to save
Siegmund was so shameful an action. She is well matched with American
bass-baritone Thomas Stewart, a preeminent Wotan of his day, who captures
especially well the character's bitter and angry sense of failure, and who
remains in commanding voice throughout the dramatic shifts of Act III — having
accomplished to fine effect his major scenes (uncut) in Act II, the debate with
Fricka and his long narrative for Brünnhilde.
The principal cast is completed by the excellent dark-voiced Karl Ritterbusch as Hunding and by the supremely accomplished Christa Ludwig as the outraged, unbending Fricka.
The monaural sound is, it should go without saying, inferior to the stereo studio performances of the day (Solti on Decca/London, Karajan on DG); but it is more than adequate to capture the power and colors of the voices and a good deal of orchestral detail. Compared to the painfully restricted and even distorted sound of many a pirate edition that opera fans have had to put up with, Sony's release is highly satisfying, especially at the remarkably low price for the 3-CD set. As with the Fidelio set, the low price does mean that the CD booklet is pretty minimal, with no libretto or articles, though the tracks (about 17 per disc in both sets) are clearly listed with the opening words and characters of the scene.
Sound Quality: (Fidelio) and (Walküre)