Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sony/BMG Dips Into the Archives

Puccini: Madama Butterfly: Price, Tucker, Maero; RCA Italiana Orchestra and Chorus, Leinsdorf, cond. (Sony BMG 82876-82622-2)

I haven't been able to hear this on my SACD player yet--which means I don't yet have the full measure of its sonics--but as a regular CD, it's really lovely: richer, with a fuller, less treble-happy balance than the older Living Stereo CD's, and minus some tape hiss. In fact, this is so free of background noise that I'm inclined to suspect that either it was removed via computer--a no-no in my book--or else it just was sourced from higher-level source material lower in hiss. It's also missing the occasional soft electronic click evident in the older transfer, which leads me to lean toward the second scenario: better source.

Even in its regular (redbook) CD format, this set sounds very close in tonal balance and general presentation to my old open-reel tape version, which still comes off best of all, in spite of its obviously higher level of tape hiss and occasional dropout. Ultimately, this one is a trifle short on sparkle and air--the top is very slightly attenuated--meaning if you have the older Living Stereo version, this one doesn't cry out to replace it.

A mild disappointment, though my general preference toward a brighter frequency balance my differ from yours. If it's significantly more impressive in its SACD guise, I'll follow up to that effect.

This is still my favorite Butterfly, BTW, edging out Scotto, Bergonzi, Barbirolli. Price is glorious, and so is Tucker, in spite of the occasional corny over-emphasis. This was the recording that made me an opera fan. And had, say, Merrill been engaged in place of the barely adequate Philip Maero (Sharpless), its critical reception might well have been even greater.

Original notes included, and libretto available via BMG on the net. The packaging is a slim SACD double jewel case, similar to the other issues in this series.

Verdi: La traviata--Moffo, Tucker, Merrill; Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Previtali, cond. (Sony BMG 82876-82623-2, Hybrid SACD)

Again, I haven't heard this in SACD yet, just regular old redbook CD. So my comments are preliminary.

The remastering work on this set is is first-rate. Extended on top (listen to the detail in the flutes in the introduction to "Sempre libera") and bottom, transparent, and impactful. It is so far superior to any other version of this performance I've ever heard that it sounds like a different (and better) recording. Furthermore, the peak distortion that used to plague this recording seems largely to be gone--no doubt thanks to the use of superior source material (probably the studio masters, since the recording may also be played in three-track on capable systems).If you already have and like this set, you need this new remastering, so far superior does it sound. A technical triumph.

I like the performance very much, though I can't say I'm a big Moffo fan: she strikes me as a moderately talented but wan lyric soprano, one you might be happy to encounter on an average night at, say, the NY City Opera. Joined with voices like those of Tucker and Merrill, she sounds seriously out of her depth. Compared to a Violetta like Callas--not even in the same league (or the same sport, for that matter). Alfredo is not the ideal role for Tucker--he's a tad heavy-voiced, especially at this point in his career--but in the event, he makes a positive impression. Merrill recorded the role of Germont three times. This is as good as any of them: big-scaled, gorgeous singing.

Previtali conducts a nice, alert, middle-of-the-road performance, less frantic than Toscanini's, but with a lovely orchestral sound and energetic bounce. It's not the best or worst-conducted Traviata on disc, but it'll do.

If you already have this performance, buy the new discs for the sound. If you don't, run, don't walk.

Puccini: Turandot--Nilsson, Bjoerling, Tebaldi, Tozzi; Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Leinsdorf, cond. (Sony/BMG 82876-82624-2)

This one's another disappointment. While in redbook (regular CD) format, it sounds fine--the best of this title in digital I've ever heard, and competitive with, though not quite in the class of, the LP's--it still is nowhere in the class of the superlative open-reel tapes. Those are noticeably more open and extended on top *and* bottom, and seem better able to convey the "stage movement."

I do still enjoy the performance very much, and consider it on approximately equal footing with the 1973 Decca recording (Sutherland, Caballé, Pavarotti and Mehta). Richard Mohr--who produced the RCA--stated on a Met intermission feature of the '70s that he considered this the greatest opera recording ever made. I don't know about that, but I think I'd place it in my top 20 or 25.

As to why the extreme highs and lows might be missing, I'm afraid we now have to consider the possibility that the master tapes are irreparably damaged in some way, since all CD's of the performance have been so afflicted. Truly a pity, because in its original form this was a demonstration-quality recording.



At 8:49 AM, Blogger Abe said...

This guy has an interesting take on opera for the novice.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Will said...

I went to the site abe recommended and found several places where I feel Mr. Timothy J. Harris is misinformed. the principal one is his contention that it wasn't until Wagner that the music of the plot was fully integrates with the music of the arias. Mozart experimented with this in IDOMENEO, having gotten the idea from Gluck in works like IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE where recitative, nature description music and aria flow one into another wthout break or any obvious gear shift.

There are other points with which I would take issue, but this is the main one. I note that Wagner was fully aware of Gluck's innovations.

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