An African-American, born in 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi, the soprano Leontyne Price developed an interest in singing whilst performing with a Glee Club. She enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, her courses part-financed by the great black American singer Paul Robeson. She made her operatic debut as a student in 1952. On the strength of her performances, the composer Virgil Thomson chose her for the Broadway revival of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts. This in turn led to her being cast in the lead role in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that toured the world for two years. Price took breaks from that extended tour to give recitals in New York and elsewhere in America and abroad. A big break came when she sang the role of Tosca on television, the first African-American to appear in a leading role on American TV. The success of this broadcast set her on an international career in opera with first appearances at Salzburg, Covent Garden, Arena di Verona and La Scala. She then made her debut at America’s premier opera venue, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, appearing there often with what became her calling-card, the title role in Verdi’s Aida.
Her work in Salzburg was often alongside Karajan who was a great fan of her singing and is the accompanist in the Schubert on this disc (Tr.3) and with whom she went on to make some of the gramophone’s greatest recordings including Tosca, Il Trovatore,Carmen and Verdi’sRequiem. As the recordings here are limited to 1960 and 1961, none of those are featured in this collection. Also absent are any from the sequence of opera recordings she made in Rome after performances at the Met such as Ernani and Un Ballo in Maschera with Bergonzi. As these come out of copyright selections will doubtless appear.
On the advice of friends Price turned down an early offer of a Met house debut as Aida and waited until 27 January when alongside another house debutant, Franco Corelli, she sang Leonora in Il Trovatore. The applause at the end lasted around forty minutes and a company contract was hers for the taking. The aria Tacea La Notte from act 1 scene 2 of that opera (Tr.6), along with O Patria Mia and Ritorna Vincitor from Aida (Trs.4-5) illustrate her clear diction, lustrous tone, seamless legato and ability to characterise vocally as well as ravish the ear. TheIl Trovatore aria includes the cabaletta Deserto sulla terra although no attribution is shown for the brief interjection of Inez. Her singing of the Libera me from Verdi’s Requiem derives from her earlier recording under Fritz Reiner which finds her in fresh voice (Tr.7). It exhibits the full variety of tonal colour and dramatic capability she possessed.
The six Puccini selections include Tosca’s prayer (Tr.11) and Butterfly’s hopes that Pinkerton will return in the aria Un bel di (Tr.8). These were her favourite Puccini roles and again illustrate that characteristic tonal richness as well as dramatic flair. The extracts from La Rondine (Tr.10) and Turandot show Price’s capacity to fine down her voice without losing characterisation. Those extracts also, perhaps, illustrate why the Met was able to cast her in roles such as Pamina from Mozart’s Magic Flute, a role normally associated with a lighter lyric voice, as well as Liu in Turandot (Trs.12-13).
Leontyne Price’s career reached its peak on 16 September 1966, when she sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber. The conductor was Thomas Schippers. The opera was commissioned to open the Met's new house at the Lincoln Center. After earlier collaborations, Price and Barber had remained close friends and colleagues, and the composer tailored Cleopatra's music to Price's warm middle register and soaring top.
In 1975, such was Leontyne Price’s reputation in Verdi, and in particular as Aida, that the Met staged a new production to showcase her in the role. It was as Aida that she retired from the stage in performances at the Met in 1985, continuing to sing recitals for another twelve years. The two final items (Trs.14-15), whilst not representing her later repertoire, serve as a reminder of her melodic and characterful singing.
Robert J Farr
Full contents list
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
In Quali Eccessi ... Mi Tradi [5.38]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ave Maria (arr. Sabatini) [5.24]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ritorna Vincitor [6.55]
O Patria Mia [6.50]
Tacea La Notte [8.26]
Libera Me [16.04]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Un Bel Di, Vedremo [4.47]
Tu, Tu, Piccolo Iddio! [2.47]
Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta [2.45]
Vissi D'arte [3.15]
Signore, Ascolta [2.30]
Tu Che Gel Sei Einta [2.35]
TRADITIONAL (arr. MacGinsey)
Sweet Little Jesus Boy [3.01]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)