The Metropolitan Opera on SONY series recently issued the famous February 4, 1961 TROVATORE broadcast with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli which followed by a week their wildly acclaimed joint Met debut in the Verdi opera. The 1960-61 Met broadcast season was happening without my knowledge, otherwise I would certainly have been glued to my radio. But I did not discover the Met broadcasts until the following season when the fabled Sutherland 'debut' LUCIA was the first time I tuned in. From then until just a couple of years ago, I hardly ever missed a broadcast.
I heard Price and Corelli many times at The Met - Leontyne I actually heard at the Old Met as Fiordiligi in COSI FAN TUTTE (in English) and Franco sang in the first performance I saw at the New Met (as Calaf in TURANDOT). I loved them both in those golden years though I knew Franco could be sloppy at times and Leontyne, over the years, developed some annoying idiosyncrasies. I'd never heard the 1961 TROVATORE so I set aside time to concentrate on it; I must say, it is a very erratic performance.
Fausto Cleva, a favorite conductor of Renata Tebaldi, takes much of TROVATORE at a breathless clip. For the most part the singers manage to keep up though there's some scrambling here and there. Aside from Leontyne Price, who strives throughout for thoughtful musicality, the principal quartet of singers tend to sing TROVATORE in verismo style rather than treating it like a god-child of the bel canto era. I suppose there's a temptation to snarl and bluster in the opera's dramatic utterances and in a live performance there is no recourse other than to let the singers do what they will in declaiming the text. But it becomes a bit tiresome after a while.
Corelli is the most lachrymose Manrico I ever heard; he gives the same impression on his commercial recording of the role for EMI, though that is more artfully sung. Of course there is a lot of very powerful and exciting vocalism in his interpretation, but this is somewhat compromised by his melodramatic excesses. Upon receiving news that Leonora is to take the veil, Corelli has a little mad scene which wanders right off the musical map. But despite some slight variability of pitch at times, the utterly distinctive Corelli timbre and his sheer generosity of voice make him a Manrico on the grand scale. Interestingly, Corelli only sang this opera at the Met eleven times, retiring it from his repertory at the House in 1964. A new production in 1969 was reportedly planned for Corelli but in the event Placido Domingo was the Manrico.
Leontyne Price on the other hand kept Leonora in her repertoire for over twenty years; the great aria "D'amor sull'ali rosee" might be considered the soprano's theme song and she sang it superbly at the gala that closed the Old Met in 1966. The warmth and shimmering beauty of her timbre provide the vocal high points of this 1961 broadcast where she manages to maintain the Verdian line while her colleagues wander into melodramatic over-accenting of certain passages. For my money, Price was not a soprano with a first-rate forte top; she was best in the floating upper phrases of a role. Corelli drowns her out on the final D-flat of Act I, and her high-C at the climax of the Act IV duet with di Luna doesn't have any zing to it. But overall it's wonderful to hear the soprano in all her freshness in this music. Over the ensuing years Price developed a vocal 'style' that could be off-putting: growling in the lower register and introducing some bluesy mannerisms that could spoil her performances for me. You don't hear these on her commercial recordings so much, but in the House she could be very self-indulgent. Nevertheless her singing could still thrill, right to her farewell operatic performance.
I always loved the sound of Mario Sereni's voice, so warm and attractive. For me he was at his best in verismo: his Marcello, Carlo Gerard and Tonio (PAGLIACCI) were all very fine; he did leave behind some wonderful studio recordings too, notably his Germont with de los Angeles and his Enrico on the RCA/Moffo LUCIA. But in this TROVATORE he seems way off form. I wonder in fact if he was actually originally scheduled for this broadcast since Robert Merrill had sung di Luna in the Price/Corelli debut performance and sang it again in the next performance following the broadcast. Whatever the case, Sereni seems unprepared. He sings the wrong entry line in the first scene of Act III and gets lost in the recitative on his entry in Act IV. Some handsome singing along the way is offset by serious pitch problems in the great aria "Il balen". It's sad that this particular broadcast should be chosen as a document of Sereni's live Met performances; I know I can never listen to it again.
Irene Dalis was a great favorite of mine. She was a powerful stage presence and a singer who could be both passionate and subtle. Her performance is exciting but I feel of all the singers she may have been most put-off by Cleva's fast tempi. In the Act III, Scene 1 finale Irene is pushed to the limits by the conductor's absurdly rapid pace and it seems to me that she simply stops singing during the final bars of music. Her final scene is very impressive, though, with the quiet calm of her "Ai nostri monti" and a sustained high B-flat in her last triumphant, vindictive phrase. Ten years after this broadcast, I saw Irene's Azucena at the Met during a June Festival performance. Despite the intervening decade of singing some of opera's most demanding roles, she was in fact far more thrilling and vocally secure than on this 1961 broadcast.
It's good to have a document of William Wilderman's performance of Ferrando; his ample and darkishly dramatic singing gets the opera off to a strong start. Teresa Stratas sings the brief role of Inez and there is no mistaking her voice. She strives to make something lovely of her phrase bidding farewell to Leonora at the convent, but Price trumps her by coming in a shade early and stepping on the younger soprano's tapering piano.
For all its flaws, listening to this recording reminded me of how much I love this opera. Despite its improbable plot, the vast treasury of Verdi melody makes TROVATORE essential.