Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin - opera in three acts [194:13]
Lohengrin - Lauritz Melchior (tenor); Elsa - Elisabeth Rethberg (soprano); Ortrud - Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo-soprano); Friedrich von Telramund - Julius Huehn (baritone); König Heinrich - Emanuel List (bass); Der Heerrufer des Königs - Leonard Warren (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. live radio broadcast 27 January 1940, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO160 [3CDs: 194:23]
The Guild issue of this live radio broadcast was positively reviewed by my MWI colleague Bob Farr back in 2004. It now benefits from being transferred by Pristine from … er … pristine acetates but it is still somewhat harsh and scratchy, with rustling from the end of track 5, through track 6 and the beginning of track 7 on CD 3, distortion in choruses and a sometimes remote orchestra, for all Andrew Rose’s wizardry in reviving historic recordings. As such, it remains an issue of a performance for the historical voice buff - but what vocal treasures lie within, fielding a far finer cast than we could assemble today. The only caveat – and it is a significant one – is that in accordance with standard Met practice sanctioned by the then recently deceased Artur Bodanzky, there are forty minutes of cuts from the full score.
I not much impressed by Leinsdorf’s impatient delivery of the famous Prelude, which lacks flow and gravitas compared with the serenity of Kempe’s or Kubelik’s direction; perhaps he was nervous, having only just taken over at the Met. Nonetheless, compensation is soon as hand in the form of the young Leonard Warren’s virile Herald, even if List’s King is less than ideally steady and Julius Huehn’s Telramund, although energised and very competent, lacks the tonal effulgence and intensity the best singers bring to this role. Kerstin Thorborg was standing in for indisposed compatriot Karin Branzell; as a true contralto, she struggles a little with the higher-lying passages in Ortrud’s part but has lovely, rich full tone. However, by far the main attractions here are Melchior’s Lohengrin and Rethberg’s Elsa. Only two
years before her retirement, she is not in the first flush of youth and there is some diminution in resonance, but she is still in firm, silvery, powerful voice and he, as ever, is miraculously consistent, at fifty years old his tireless tenor ringing out in ensembles but also capable of admirable tenderness. He is not just a vocal phenomenon but acts well with his voice, too; he is especially moving in his farewell to Elsa. Leinsdorf manages to relax for their crucial first encounter and the lovely Act 3 duet “Das süße Lied verhallt”, but also generates sufficient tension for the faux rapprochement of Elsa and Ortrud in Act 2.
As ever, the inclusion of Milton Cross’ commentary adds colour, atmosphere and information to the broadcast, providing a little incident at the end of the Act 1 bows when he gets a frog in his throat – and including a funding appeal, begging for at least $1 from every listener! I love the cover design here, too, depicting the Great Dane looking for all the world more like a cuddly blond toddler than Parsifal’s noble warrior son. There is also a very audible racket from (presumably) chattering, laughing scene-shifters during the brass fanfares at the end of track 7 – all part of what microphones pick up in a live performance.
Sonic limitations and comparative deficiencies in the secondary roles mean this cannot be a first-choice recording, but Melchior and Rethberg are superb.