Celebrating Verdi’s Birth With Restored CD Box set of classic Verdi broadcasts from the Met

January 16, 2014 Updated: January 16, 2014

“Verdi at the Met” is a new Sony Classical box set celebrating the bicentennial of Verdi’s
birth. His work has been a fixture at the house since the first season of
the Metropolitan Opera in 1883.

The 20 CD set is comprised of 10 radio broadcasts from 1935 to 1967 and
includes many of the leading singers of the era.

As soon as the set arrived, I pulled one of the operas out of the box and
listened to “Aida.” I saw the Met’s production last season, and it was an
eye-popping spectacle. However, the singing was uneven.

But the singing on this box set is superior. Indeed, for vocal splendor, I
don’t think any opera house in the world today could match this. The 1967
performance had Leontyne Price in the title role.

Price’s debut at the Met six years earlier in another Verdi opera, “La Forza
del Destino” (also available, though not part of this set), had resulted in
one of the longest ovations in the Met’s history. “Aida” was one of her
signature parts, which she performed at her last performance with the
company.

Price was the first African-American opera superstar. Her romantic rival in
the opera, Amneris, was portrayed by another black singer with a glorious
voice, Grace Bumbry.

Aida’s father, Amonasro, was played by Robert Merrill, a native New Yorker,
possessing a baritone voice that probably surpasses anyone singing Italian
opera today. As Ramfis, bass Jerome Hines produced a powerful dark sound.

The conductor was another American, Thomas Schippers. The lone foreigner
among the leads was tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who sounded suitably Italianate
and always sang in good taste. Verdi didn’t make things easy for his tenors.
As soon as Radames appears, he has to sing “Celeste Aida,” and Bergonzi
managed even the difficult ending.

The sound quality is not on a par with current recordings, but the
performance is on such a high level that it doesn’t bother me. Even the
orchestral overture drew me in.

Clearly, the audience enjoyed the performance as much as I did. Who could
resist “O patria mia” or “Ritorna vincitor” sung by Price or the
heart-tugging final scene where the lovers are entombed together.

The set includes performances by many legendary singers: Rosa Ponselle (whom
even Callas idolized) with Lawrence Tibbett in “La Traviata,” and then the
baritone returns as Iago opposite Giovanni Martinelli’s Otello and Elisabeth
Rethberg’s Desdemona.

Performances by Leonard Warren
I had long bemoaned the fact that many of my favorite singers have not been
well represented on CDs, such as the great American baritone Leonard Warren.
Certainly, this box set provides an illuminating display of his artistry.

Warren was born in the Bronx and died of a heart attack on the stage of the
Met while appearing in the Verdi opera “Simon Boccanegra,” which is one of
the operas in the set (though naturally not that performance.)

Leonard Warren demonstrates his artistry in a range of roles. He plays the
comic Falstaff with a wonderful supporting cast, including Giuseppe di
Stefano, Regina Resnik, and Licia Albanese.

Then Warren sings a haunted Rigoletto (with Jussi Björling and Bidú Sayão),
Simon Boccanegra with Richard Tucker, and Macbeth with the searing Lady
Macbeth of Leonie Rysanek (stepping in for Maria Callas). Finally he appears
with Zinka Milanov and Richard Tucker in “La Forza del Destino.”

Other highlights include Björling appearing with Milanov (his frequent
recording partner) in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” and “Nabucco” starring Cornell
MacNeil and Cesare Siepi.

Opera lovers will want these performances. The set comes with a booklet with
information about each of the operas and the starring singers as well as an
introductory note by Peter Gelb, the Met’s current general manager.

Now we need a follow-up set with the next generation of Verdi singers,
notably Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Sherrill Milnes.

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