Recordings in Review: Metropolitan Opera's fiftieth anniversary

Dewey Faulkner

On 7 May 2017 New York’s Metropolitan Opera officially celebrated with a gala evening the fiftieth anniversary of performances in the “New Met,” a term employed in its initial years to distinguish the current building at Lincoln Center from the 1883 “Old Met,” the “yellow brick brewery” at Broadway and 39th Street in Manhattan. That first, 1966–67 season is also officially celebrated by a box of CDs titled The Inaugural Season: Extraordinary Met Performances from 1966–67 (Met Opera B01LYTT7LP, 22 CDs). This officially produced set contains recordings of nine radio broadcasts and the soundtrack from the televised opening night, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, as well as an additional CD of excerpts from seven other broadcasts. Each opera but one has its own two-CD cardboard container with a booklet and illustrations; Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is on three CDs. Also included is a booklet containing more photos and a brief, graceful essay by Barbara Haws, the Met’s current historian.

            The Met has issued such boxes before, as with their 2013 pair of Verdi at the Met (Sony, B00DWOUY3Y, 20 CDs) and Wagner at the Met (Sony, B00AL6SM0S, 25 CDs), and they have fixed here those sets’ problem of too-snug openings for their CDs. But this is the first Met set devoted to one season only.

            It may be claimed that the 1966–67 season was exceptional as well as historic. There were nine new productions, two of which were of American operas commissioned for the opening season. Old favorites were moved to the new house, many with star performers new and old: Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, Martina Arroyo, Renata Scotto, and Mirella Freni, to name only some sopranos, appeared. The “Three Tenors” had not yet burst onto the Met scene, so one had to make do with Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Nicolai Gedda, Jess Thomas, Jon Vickers, James King, and James MacCracken, again naming only some of the singers. And there were great mezzos, baritones, and basses. Conductors were more variable, but Karl Böhm, Thomas Schippers, Zubin Mehta, and Colin Davis all made strong impressions. General Manager Rudolf Bing had reason to be proud.

            The house itself, which is only glimpsed here in photographs, was not quite what we had wanted or expected. The dimensions at the front and on the sides had to be reduced, so the grand staircase was shortened and not very grand, and the huge Marc Chagall murals at either side of the second level were (and are) just behind the glass at the front and hard to see up close. Inside, the auditorium and stage were as planned, but the decor was both overdone and underdone at once. Each tier of seats was faced by white protruding outcrops that looked like ill-designed automobile grills from the fifties, with gold sashes or ropes draped across the tops and gold corrugations on the bottoms–for the acoustics, we were told. The walls were all covered in outwardly bowed wood from a single African rosewood tree that looked exactly like formica–again for the acoustics. The proscenium surround was nondescript (we missed the old house’s proscenium for the first time), ridged in various unappealing ways, crowned with an awful sculpture unconnected with anything musical, and all brightly gilded–so brightly that it had to be painted darker in succeeding seasons because spotlights and other house lighting created a blinding glare on it.

            The highlight of the hall was the set of tasteful (Austrian) starburst lighting fixtures, twenty-one of which rose to the scalloped ceiling (gilded, of course) when an opera began. In typical New York fashion, enough was not enough, and clusters of small lights, looking like cheap costume brooches, were added to the corrugated bottoms of all the tiers. Everywhere you looked there was glitter and more glitter. Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times remarked that “there is … a strong temptation to close the eyes.”

            Fortunately, when the lights went down (and up) the sound was all that we had hoped for. Even small voices carried easily through the enormous space, and the orchestra blended well with the voices. The only problems were that the sound was best in the uppermost tier, not in the more expensive orchestra seats, and offstage music was broadcast through speakers that sounded like tin cans, horribly spoiling the ending of Act 2 of Frau. Otherwise it was perfect.

            The opening Antony and Cleopatra was telecast on 16 September; the regular radio broadcasts, all monaural, did not begin until early December, as they had done for decades. Sound in all of the broadcasts on these CDs is quite good, favoring the voices a bit throughout. The only real issue to be taken with the set is the selection of operas. For one instance, the stellar Elektra by Strauss had an unmatched cast yet appears here only as a snippet on the highlights disc. Other listeners will have different objections and want different choices. The same stricture applies to the operas and “bleeding chunks” selected for the highlights disc itself. For another instance, among these bitty selections one might disagree with some of the casting of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, but one would certainly like to hear more of its Ortrud-Telramund duet (Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry) than is given here. (No, the “Entweihte Götter!” is not present.) At least you don’t have to look at Wieland Wagner’s not-quite-staging.

            Here, in order of radio broadcasts, are the offered operas, followed by the contents of the highlights disc similarly arranged. The televised Antony is saved for last. It was the season’s most controversial evening and is the most anticipated opera recording in the set, never having been released before in its original form and in excellent sound. All the operas are worth hearing: all reminders of yet another lost age and of what has been lost with it.

            The new house’s first radio broadcast featured an opera that had been very popular at the old: Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, in the 1961 Cecil Beaton production, directed by Nathaniel Merrill. Three of the principals from that production were in this one: Birgit Nilsson as Turandot, Franco Corelli as Calaf, and Bonaldo Giaiotti as Timur. Anna Moffo as Liu was replaced by Mirella Freni, and the original conductor, Leopold Stokowski, was replaced by Zubin Mehta, who was new to the opera that season but would become a specialist in Turandot as the years passed. The performance is very fine, generally excitingly sung; it suffers chiefly in comparison with the original Stokowski Met broadcast from March 1961, where the conductor really is a sorcerer who draws magic from every part of the score. (This is available from Pristine Classical.) An auspicious opening.

            Next is the jewel of the 1966–67 season, Strauss’s magnificent Die Frau ohne Schatten, which had been premiered in Vienna in 1919 but first appeared at the Met only in 1966. Both the splendid cast and the extraordinary production overpowered the audience. Karl Böhm’s five leads included Leonie Rysanek as the Empress, a Maria Jeritza role that well suited her stratospheric upper register, and Christa Ludwig as the Dyer’s Wife, a Lotte Lehmann role suited to Ludwig’s attempts at the time to move into soprano territory. James King’s light heldentenor was ideal for the Emperor, and Walter Berry’s warm baritone was equally ideal for Barak the Dyer. Most impressive, because unexpected, was Irene Dalis’s malevolent Nurse, a role to which she brings glorious tone and keen dramatic insight, making her Amme one of the most enjoyable on records. The orchestra is perhaps overly lean compared to the Vienna Philharmonic, which Böhm leads in a 1974 performance on the Opera d’Oro label, but the two couples are in fresher voice here, and Böhm creates a tauter performance at the Met than in Vienna, befitting the players’ tighter sound. The offstage brass fanfares sound tinny, but they sounded that way in the house as well.

            The major attraction in Frau, however, was the stunning staging by Robert O’Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill, which we cannot see. When a second scrim (there was nearly always a scrim) dropped after the opening scene and the entire stage was seen rising into the flies the house audibly gasped and applauded. Much the same happened at the end of Act 2 when different sections of the stage sank at different speeds, with the downstage slab surmounted by Hofmannsthal’s small boat, into which Rysanek threw herself as the orchestra thundered out its final chords. Here was the New Met we had all come to see. On CDs the 17 December broadcast still registers as the great show it was.

            Next we skip two weeks and regress in several ways with the broadcast of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Joan Sutherland and Richard Tucker. Since her first Met appearance as Lucia in early 1931, the role had been the property of Lily Pons, who made it the proverbial “canary fancier’s delight.” New York’s thinking about its dramatic possibilities was drastically altered in December 1956 when Maria Callas sang it in the house. In 1959 Sutherland, with her large voice and formidable technique, appeared in the role at Covent Garden, creating a sensation, and she brought it to the Met in 1961, with Tucker as Edgardo. (That broadcast is available on Pristine Classical.) On the 31 December 1966 broadcast she sang it in the new house, as she would through 1982.

            As in 1961 the audience appears to be primarily interested in the Act 3 mad scene, in which Sutherland is sensational, and her fans respond with appropriately excessive enthusiasm. Richard Bonynge, Sutherland’s husband and regular conductor, leads a forceful performance that makes the opera sound like good Mercadante or bad early Verdi. Of elegance or bel canto as we have now come to understand it, there is precious little.

            Matters improve considerably when we skip to the Met’s next new production, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, on 11 February 1967. The opera had been written to a Serge Koussevitzky commission and premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1946, followed by three staged performances at Tanglewood, led by the young Leonard Bernstein. It reached the Met in 1948 and 1949 but vanished until the 1967 revival. With one exception the new cast was ideal, especially Jon Vickers as Grimes and Geraint Evans as Balstrode. Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s simple and atmospheric sets supported the acting, especially the many secondary roles and the highly individualized contributions of the chorus, carefully directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Grimes used the new stage simply and effortlessly, placing the emphasis where it belonged, on the singers’ stunning impersonations of its characters.

            Chief among these is Vickers. Rather than the misunderstood poetic soul Britten had envisioned for its creator, Peter Pears, Vickers’s Grimes is far closer to the sadistic psychopath that George Crabbe created in 1783. With his magnetism emanating constantly from the stage, Vickers is terrifying and engaging at once. Splendidly supported by Colin Davis and the Met orchestra, Vickers’s portrayal of Grimes remains one of the great operatic assumptions of our time. Much of this comes through on the broadcast (although Vickers had to be seen to be fully appreciated), whose only weakness is Lucine Amara’s Ellen Orford. (Apparently a sop to her–if not to us–given by Mr. Bing.) Vickers and Davis later recorded the opera commercially at Covent Garden (once on video), but this broadcast is a worthy representation of Britten’s American-commissioned masterpiece.

            We skip two weeks in February and are given next Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, with Leontyne Price (Aida), Grace Bumbry (Amneris), Carlo Bergonzi (Radames), Robert Merrill (Amonasro), and Jerome Hines (Ramfis), all conducted by Thomas Schippers. This recording was previously issued in the Met’s 2013 Verdi set, although it fits here more suitably. Price is in prime voice and sounds wondrous, pouring out glorious tone combined with full understanding of the character, one of her signature roles. Bumbry is her equal, encompassing the music and the emotions of her highly volatile princess with absolute mastery. Bergonzi similarly brings the customary ringing tone, complete vocal control, and high intelligence that made him a master of Verdi’s heroic parts. Merrill is good, though he has moments of strain, while Hines is plagued by the unsteadiness that had set into his once solid bass. The chorus sounds routine. Schippers holds it all together effectively, if without the passion and conviction that make a performance of Aida extraordinary.

            The following week’s broadcast brings another of the nine new productions, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, as staged by Marc Chagall. This was a mélange of painted cloth, its costumes and drop curtains designed and colored by the artist. The presentation resembled an eighteenth-century performance, with backcloths and wings, all on a flat stage (perhaps the better to see, or not interfere with, the painter’s marvelous backdrops).

            There were two casts, an international one and an American one. The broadcast featured the latter, with George Shirley as Tamino, Theodore Uppman as Papageno, Judith Raskin as Pamina, John Macurdy as Sarastro, and Roberta Peters as the Queen of the Night. It isn’t exactly Alt Wien, but the ensemble’s approach and vocal skills suit both the production and the occasion, being competent and charming. Here at last we hear a good bit of Shirley’s heroic sound and Uppman’s warm one on disc, and Raskin makes one love her all over again. This broadcast was Macurdy’s second ever Met performance as Sarastro, whom he portrays creditably, with all the low notes. The conductor, making his Met debut, was the Viennese Josef Krips, who had guided the resurgent Vienna Staatsoper through lots of Mozart after World War II. His work is genial, efficient, idiomatic, and unexciting. It does not interfere with Chagall’s work. All lopes along and is sehr gumütlich, exactly fitting the occasion.

            The 11 March broadcast of Verdi’s Otello from the ensuing Saturday brings the set back into the realm of exceptional performances. James McCracken was a leading Otello internationally, having mastered the part (and other leading roles) in Europe before returning to the Met in it in 1963. Montserrat Caballé was a legend in everything she did; this broadcast was the third of her only four appearances as Desdemona at the Met. Tito Gobbi had sung Iago in the house once only, in 1958, with Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco, but this season was the first in which he had sung the role in a series of Met performances. It was one of his signature characterizations, and a great one.

            Otello has been a Met staple since the Old House was new, the title part first sung there by Jean de Reszke. Giovanni Martinelli revitalized the role in the house starting in 1937, and it remained continuously in the repertory thereafter. McCracken is a bold, brazen, straightforward actor of the part, pitted against Gobbi’s dark, subtle, infinitely nuanced Iago. Add to this the exquisitely refined Desdemona of Caballé, in her first full season at the Met, spinning out glorious tones ranging from rich and full to golden filaments, especially in her “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” in Act 4. Zubin Mehta’s conducting is somewhat overmatched by his singers but gets most of the opera right. Pirated recordings have made this performance a legend. The sound on the Met’s official recording is splendid.

            With the following week’s Madama Butterfly we revert to house norm, which is very good but not memorable or imperative. Renata Scotto as Cio-Cio San, one of her specialties, is excellent, heartbreakingly vulnerable. George Shirley’s Pinkerton is finely done, if without the Italianate warmth many tenors have brought to the role. The rest of the cast is good. Unfortunately, conductor Francesco Molinari-Pradelli lets down many of the great moments and produces mere routine most of the time.

            The last complete opera in the set is Verdi’s Rigoletto, another repertory staple. Here the cast was familiar, and much interest centered on the conducting of Lamberto Gardelli, who had recorded nearly all of Verdi’s early operas, mostly on Philips, and was an exciting presence on disc. In the house, helming Verdi’s first great middle-period masterwork, Gardelli has a much lower voltage. Everything runs moderately, efficiently, and effectively, though we had hoped it would be inspired, and it wasn’t quite. Nicolai Gedda portrays the Duke forthrightly, with ardor, though without the gleam formerly on the voice. Cornell MacNeil, who had once seemed the American baritone successor to Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill, delivers rich tone with minimal dramatic intervention. Roberta Peters, the Gilda, lightens her voice and becomes convincingly girlish; her “Caro nome” is well sung. On the whole a good everyday performance of Verdi’s great drama.

            What of the remaining radio broadcasts? Tristan und Isolde (Birgit Nilsson) and The Queen of Spades (Jon Vickers, Teresa Stratas) were not presented on radio, a blessing in the former case, a notable omission in the latter. Of the ones that were broadcast, Faust, Die Fledermaus, and Die Meistersinger are omitted from the set in any form, none lamentably. The rest, including four of Rudolf Bing’s new productions, are included only in snippets on a single CD, titled “Highlights of the 1966–67 Season,” though they do not appear in their correct chronological order.

            Taking them as they appeared on radio, Richard Strauss’s Elektra was an anticipated new staging, starring Birgit Nilsson as Elektra, Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis, Regina Resnik as Clytämnestra, and William Dooley as Orest, conducted by Schippers. We are given a chunk of the confrontation of Nilsson and Resnik, splendidly sung–as was the rest of the opera. This was one of the season’s better offerings, and it is unfortunately not adequately represented here.

            Six weeks later Wieland Wagner’s new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin was given, with Sandor Konya, Ingrid Bjoner, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, John Macurdy, and Sherrill Milnes. The typically static new-Bayreuth staging was actively hated, though most of the singing and Karl Böhm’s conducting were distinguished. We are given some of the end of Act 2’s Ortrud-Telramund duet, richly and intelligently sung and pertinently accompanied. As with Elektra, more is wanted.

            The following week, Mozart’s Don Giovanni had a largely stellar cast led by Böhm, but its main attraction was Joan Sutherland’s first appearances at the Met as Donna Anna, and a bit of this alone appears on the CD, Act 1’s “Or sai chi l’onore,” with Gedda as Don Ottavio in the preceding recitative. As in her legendary recording of the opera under Carlo Maria Giulini, Sutherland is staggering: a large, beautiful voice, easy command of Mozart’s difficult passages, relatively clear diction. Böhm keeps her on a tight rein, and the music profits. Again, would there were more of this great opera.

            A week later came Puccini’s La Bohème, with Teresa Stratas at once fragile and strong as Mimi. We are given only her touching “Donde lieta usci” from Act 3 under Fausto Cleva. Slim pickings indeed. Skipping to 18 February, we have a typically well-matched Met cast in a chunk of the middle of Act 1, Scene 2, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore with Robert Merrill as Count di Luna, Richard Tucker as Manrico, and Martina Arroyo as Leonora. Even Molinari-Pradelli’s ordinary leadership cannot kill the occasion.

            A trio of the new productions was broadcast toward the end of the season. First was Cecil Beaton’s over-flowered overstaging of Verdi’s La Traviata, which had been the third opera given in the new house. Reprising their roles from the premiere are Anna Moffo and Robert Merrill in a good bit of the Violetta-Germont duet from Act 2. Georges Prêtre’s conducting is nondescript, but the singers are involved and in good voice. The following week brought Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, the season’s second newly commissioned opera, which had premiered two weeks earlier. Neither particularly lyrical nor overly dramatic, the piece was engaging enough to return the following season, after which it disappeared. Much of the cast is heard here in a brief ensemble snippet from Act 2 that gives some idea of the piece’s appeal. Based on Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play(s), sung by Marie Collier, John Reardon, Evelyn Lear, and Sherrill Milnes, and conducted by Zubin Mehta, the opera had everything going for it except compelling music demanding to be reheard.

            The season’s final broadcast was of the second opera to be heard in the new house, in one of the nine new productions, La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli. This is a big, unsubtle work that demands big voices and a big spectacular production, which it got in the new Met. (The ship set for Act 2 was especially impressive.) Several cast members repeated in April from the September premiere: Renata Tebaldi, for whom it was staged, as Gioconda, Cornell MacNeil as Barnaba, and Cesare Siepi as Alvise (not heard here). Rosalind Elias is a fine replacement as Laura, but Barry Morell cannot erase memories of Franco Corelli as Enzo. We are given the end of Act 2, rather sloppily led by Fausto Cleva. This 1966 Margherita Waldmann–Beni Montresor production has never been surpassed and is still seen occasionally at the Met, though it is increasingly difficult to cast.

            To return to the beginning of both the season and the set, the most problematic production was Franco Zeffirelli’s uneasy combination of excessive realism and uncharacteristic abstraction for Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which opened both the new house and the new season in a live televised presentation on 16 September, the soundtrack to which is reproduced here. (It was not rebroadcast on radio.) Antony’s creation had been supported since 1964 by Bing, who even revived Barber’s earlier Met commission, Vanessa, in the spring of 1965. Shakespeare’s play was a favorite of Barber’s, and he decided to set the original complex Jacobean text–a mistake. By the mid-sixties Barber had split up with Gian Carlo Menotti, the successful librettist and opera composer who had worked with him on Vanessa, and Bing assigned Zeffirelli to work with him on the book–an even bigger mistake. The Italian designer and producer was primarily interested in creating a piece that would show off the capacities of the new stage and his own theatrical wizardry. The resulting text had three acts and sixteen scenes, alternating between Alexandria and Rome, although Zeffirelli fortunately left Act 3 as a single scene. There were lots of characters and even more chorus members and supernumeraries, so the stage was often clogged with people, most of whom were only too busy much of the time.

            The words of the opening scene for chorus, depicting an Egyptian market with lots of real animals on stage, were pieced together from various parts of the play, making the scene quite long, though admirably spectacular. (The admiration was for Zeffirelli, of course–Shakespeare’s words were indistinct and incomprehensible and Barber’s music nondescript.) Cleopatra first appeared at the top of and within a large pyramid, which in some performances failed to open, and she wore a massive (and heavy) headdress, while the train of her gown cascaded down a story or two of steps. Leontyne Price was constantly forced to sing standing still with her arms held at angles out from her sides; one felt quite sorry for her. The conclusion of the act exemplified the opera’s problems. As Enobarbus described Cleopatra’s barge in full Shakespearean verbal splendor, Zeffirelli had the barge itself sail in from the rear stage behind the main stage, with Price on it, singing. As with the décor of the hall, too much was not enough.

            Act 2 was dominated by an enormous sphinx (on wheels) which was repositioned for its eight scenes. Unfortunately, with all its attendant onstage personages it was too heavy for the new turntable, for which the engineer had submitted grossly inadequate specifications. (He omitted the requisite final zero.) The turntable broke at the first rehearsal and the sphinx thereafter was moved by stagehands. At least the “monument” for Act 3 was simple and made sense. Behind everything throughout was an uncharacteristically (for Zeffirelli) nonrepresentational background of horizontal copper pipes, like a huge venetian blind, frequently rearranged and lit in a gorgeous array of golds and ochres, subtly and often gloriously. The tableau of Octavius  Caesar on his white horse, the Roman army and the sphinx in front of him, was especially memorable.

            The overly negative initial reviews made Antony out to be a fiasco, but as the season went on its staging problems were sorted out. Unfortunately, Zeffirelli’s mastery continued to overwhelm Barber’s music, which overwhelmed Shakespeare’s words, which already contained as much music as was needed for any stage. Despite the splendid singing, the result was both too much and too little–too much Zeffirelli and too little Barber and Shakespeare.

            For better or worse, all we have on the Met disc is the sound, and that almost suffices. Price is, as Barber intended, the main attraction, pouring her glorious voice into the rich lines expressly composed for her. Justino Diaz’s bass-baritone is strong and full. Only Jess Thomas’s Octavius Caesar is somewhat less substantial than memory would have it. Schippers conducts the piece authoritatively. Menotti revised the work for Barber in 1975, but our essentially unique presentation of the 1966 original version still demands to be heard–although one should acquire a libretto to follow it.

            CD sets like this one are available for only a short time, and separate operas from broken-up sets have not yet appeared on the market. (The Aida, Otello, Butterfly, and complete Gioconda are available from the Met’s On Demand service, while many of the 1966–67 season’s broadcasts pop up at times on the Met’s SiriusXM Met Opera Radio on satellite.) The sound throughout is good, and the performances range from unmissable to average for the era. It is the unmissables that make the set mandatory.

            For those of us who attended several of these presentations, the set will bring back memories of its season and of the Rudolf Bing era generally. With a few exceptions it was not a golden age, such as the Met had in the 1930s and previously, but it had many great voices and a good number of outstanding performances and productions. Above all, after 1966 it had the new house. Once the lights dimmed, hiding the gaudy vulgarity of the place itself, there was musical magic aplenty, especially in the superb acoustics. From the bronzed spectacle of Barber’s Antony to the ascending and descending locales of Strauss’s Frau to the floral exuberance of Verdi’s (and Beaton’s) Traviata, the new stage at its best was a feast for the eyes. Frequently sound and singing and visual splendor combined in the New House’s first season to create the glory that is opera at its finest. Today, over fifty seasons have passed in it, and it is merely the Met, its opening season, like the Old House, a fading memory at best. Even so, this set of Saturday afternoon broadcasts brings back vividly, if imperfectly, how it all felt and sounded when the house–and we–were young.