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For the Record: Met Opera Broadcasts On-Line

From time to time, I've dallied with the Met Player, the Metropolitan Opera's on-line service that makes available a range of audio and video broadcasts for an annual, monthly, or per-play fee. If I haven't plunged in more, it's mainly out of fear at the idea of spending even more hours in the day glued to the computer. But starting at 5 p.m. tonight, the service is offering a free three-day preview to all comers, and it's worth succumbing to the addiction for a weekend. (And if you find treasures that I haven't mentioned, please post about them in the comments section.)

I draw a line between the videos, which start with the first Live from the Met broadcast in 1977 (the Pavarotti-Scotto "La Bohème"), and the audio recordings, which go back to the 1940s. Historically, the videos are to me less compelling.

(read more after the jump)

Apart from the HD broadcasts of the last couple of seasons, the older ones document a lot of 1980s performances (confirming, for instance, that Sherrill Milnes, whom I venerated back then, was not actually as amazing as I thought). You get some respectable Pavarotti (though the "Ballo in Maschera" and "Rosenkavalier's" Italian tenor aria both show just how wooden he could be on stage), and some Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price that are, even past their prime, pretty amazing. I'm going through a resurgence of my love for Price, and watching her "Aida" and "Forza" this week I felt that I'd underestimated her when I first heard them in the 1980s. I focused then on the huskiness of her sound in the low register, and didn't fully appreciate the rock-solidity of the technique and the floating high notes, without a hint of a wobble, cascading downwards as freely and exhilaratingly as a child going down a slide. I also underestimated her total commitment to the character, which allowed her to play Aida in her 50s and still convey some of the passion of a teenage girl.

But the real gems are the audio recordings: "Ernani" with Zinka Milanov, Mario Del Monaco, Leonard Warren (a little flat at the start of "O de' verd'anni miei," but still warm and ardent) and Cesare Siepi; a Giovanni Martinelli "Otello" from 1940, with Elisabeth Rethberg and Lawrence Tibbett, showing that this powerhouse tenor role wasn't always sung by powerhouse tenors (though Martinelli's straight tone has never been quite to my taste); your pick of "Giocondas" between Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, Siepi, Warren from 1953 (with Kurt Baum as the weak link) and Renata Tebaldi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Carlo Bergonzi from 1968: the kind of recordings that got me to sign on as an opera fan in the first place. There are, to be sure, a few hiccups, like a 1949 "Elisir" with Sayao, Tagliavini and Baccaloni, which unaccountably turns into a performance with Peters, Kraus and Corena halfway through.

Speaking of old recordings, I caught most of the 1947 film "Carnegie Hall" on TCM on Wednesday night, which should go straight on the Netflix wish list for anyone who doesn't already know it. The movie itself is silly, but the story is only an excuse to show extensive footage of the musicians who actually performed at Carnegie Hall in that period. So you have Bruno Walter and Fritz Reiner and Leopold Stokowski conducting; Ezio Pinza singing Don Giovanni's Champagne aria and tantalizing with the introduction to "Il lacerato spirito" from "Boccanegra;" Risë Stevens singing Carmen (magnificent, sexy, schtick-free); Artur Rubinstein's hands airborne over the keyboard; and Jascha Heifetz.

There's some disagreement in my household about Heifetz. My husband is fond of citing Virgil Thomson's magnificently dismissive lines about him:

I did go to the concert last night and... I did observe pretty carefully his virtuosity. It was admirable and occasionally very, very beautiful. The fellow can fiddle. But he sacrifices everything to polish. He does it knowingly. He is justly admired and handsomely paid for it. To ask anything else of him is like asking tenderness of the ocelot.

I can see the justice in this, to some extent. Heifetz certainly projects an air of detachment. But perhaps my ear was contaminated by the box set of Heifetz I had in childhood. To me, his playing still makes the violin sound the way it is supposed to sound. I remember doing an interview many years ago with the then-violinist of the Eroica Trio, who confessed that she evaluated prospective romantic partners on their reactions to a Heifetz recording. This elicited from me the confession that I used to do exactly the same thing.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 1, 2009; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  music on the Web , opera  
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Comments

RE: Heifetz.

As I put the matter elsewhere (not on S&F) in response to someone asking, "Is anybody today considered on [Heifetz's] level?":

No one in modern times of whom we've recorded evidence has ever displayed the sheer violinistic gift of Heifetz. The man was simply a virtuosic phenomenon nonpareil. Musically, it's a different story -- way different. When one hears Heifetz play, one is so overwhelmed by the sheer violinistic bravura that the music itself tends to be overshadowed to the point of being relegated to the background. One is hard-pressed to not believe that Heifetz himself did all he could to further that effect.

And, yes, I was conservatory trained as a violinist.

ACD

Posted by: ACDouglas1 | May 1, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

But can we download it?

Posted by: Garak | May 1, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Oh dear. I just reread my above comment, and my closing line reads as if I were presenting my bona fides to give my comment more weight. Quite the contrary, actually. I made note of my training to *qualify* my comment as a trained violinist would quite naturally listen to and hear Heifetz's playing way more hypercritically than would someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of the instrument.

Just for the record.

ACD

Posted by: ACDouglas1 | May 2, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

My addiction to legendary Metropolitan Opera broadcasts began when I read Paul Jackson's books, which document many of the broadcasts in three individual volumes. With the advent of Sirius Radio, I've acquired quite a collection of Met broadcasts. My favorites are from the 1950's and 1960's, which comprise vintage Zinka Milanov, Roberta Peters, Richard Tucker, Rise Stevens, Licia Albanese, Leontyne Price. Franco Corelli, Birgit Nilsson, and Joan Sutherland. I find these performances exemplary. Moreover, they put me into a time warp, especially those which contain the Milton Cross commentaries. The newer videos are wonderful - don't get me wrong -----but there's something about hearing Milanov's greatest broadcasts, as well as those of the others noted above, that make me realize that we had an operatic golden age in the 1950's and 1960's and didn't realize it. And I'm not even alluding to Maria Callas, the greatest of them all.

Posted by: belcanto26 | May 2, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

My addiction to legendary Metropolitan Opera broadcasts began when I read Paul Jackson's books, which document many of the broadcasts in three individual volumes. With the advent of Sirius Radio, I've acquired quite a collection of Met broadcasts. My favorites are from the 1950's and 1960's, which comprise vintage Zinka Milanov, Roberta Peters, Richard Tucker, Rise Stevens, Licia Albanese, Leontyne Price. Franco Corelli, Birgit Nilsson, and Joan Sutherland. I find these performances exemplary. Moreover, they put me into a time warp, especially those which contain the Milton Cross commentaries. The newer videos are wonderful - don't get me wrong -----but there's something about hearing Milanov's greatest broadcasts, as well as those of the others noted above, that make me realize that we had an operatic golden age in the 1950's and 1960's and didn't realize it. And I'm not even alluding to Maria Callas, the greatest of them all.

Posted by: belcanto26 | May 2, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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