Gounod: Romeo Et Juliette / Bjorling, Sayão, Brownlee, Cooper, Metropolitan Opera
GOUNOD Roméo et Juliette • Emil Cooper, cond; Jussi Björling (Roméo); Bidù Sayão (Juliette); Nicola Moscona (Friar Laurence); John Brownlee (Mercutio); Metropolitan Opera O & Ch • SONY 8869780462, mono (2 CDs: 126:34). Live: New York City 2/1/1947
Sony has managed to clear hurdles with the Metropolitan Opera and all of the unions involved to begin commercially releasing important Met broadcasts from the past. (Is there any point in our continuing to hope that the Italians will get their act together and find some way to open up the archives at La Scala?) All of the first four releases are superb, but this one is the true gem. Sony has worked with the Met on these, and the sound surpasses, though not by a great margin, all previous releases of this broadcast (and there have been many on a variety of what are euphemistically called “private labels,” including Rodolphe, Immortal Performances, and Myto). Collectors have long prized this exquisite performance, and the Met itself had issued it on LP at high fund-raising prices.
Of course the sound is still somewhat constricted and not at the level of good 1947 monaural studio recordings. If you must have stereo then you will have to look elsewhere. Probably the first choice would be EMI’s effort with Michel Plasson conducting, and Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as the star-crossed lovers (EMI 40700). For those who want large-scale, often thrilling vocalism, Franco Corelli and Mirella Freni made an earlier EMI set worth hearing despite its lack of refinement (Alain Lombard conducting, 65290). But if you have the flexibility to listen to adequate 1947 monaural broadcast sound, processed quite well by Andreas Meyer and John Fredenburg, this performance is in almost every way clearly superior to its competition. The biggest sonic flaw is an occasional flutter that creeps in on sustained wind tones. But it is rarely apparent.
There is a problem with cuts, more traditional in the 1940s than now; particularly brutal is the axe taken to the fourth act. But even with that caveat, this is a must-have for anyone with an interest in this opera, or for that matter in opera in general. Although Bidu Sayão is superb, and Emil Cooper’s conducting is some of the most sensitive and well paced this opera has received on disc, it is Jussi Björling who makes the set indispensible. Where does one start with this tenor? I suppose with the sound of the voice itself—if the word “golden” was ever apt as a descriptor for a voice, it is this voice. His scrupulous musicianship, his unerring pitch, his sensitivity to the style of the music, all of those play into his success as Roméo. But it is more than that. Here Björling sings with an abandon and passion that was not always present on his commercial studio recordings. Without ever going over the edge into excess, he holds some high notes longer than you might expect from him, and he adds just that extra bit of juice when it is appropriate. I cannot imagine the role ever sung better, and in fact I never expect to hear it sung as well. His ringing high C at the end of the third act is thrilling.
Sayão is almost as good. The voice has just a slight hint of bite in it, while mostly retaining sweetness throughout all the registers. And she too shows complete mastery of the style. She and Björling blend beautifully in the four big duets that are the reason for this opera’s survival in the repertoire.
It is fascinating that the most stylish and successful recorded performance of this opera does not contain a native French speaker in the cast or on the podium. The Roméo is Swedish, the Juliet is Brazilian, and the conductor is Russian of English heritage! Cooper was a more important figure than history remembers; he conducted the world premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or , and he was a mainstay at the Met for many years. His conducting reflects a deep knowledge of Gounod’s score, an understanding of the appropriate tempo relationships within each scene and act, and a sensitivity to the singers’ needs. The Met Orchestra was not in those days the refined jewel that it has become under James Levine’s leadership, but it plays well enough, and Cooper takes great care with matters of color and balance. The chorus is perhaps a bigger problem, singing with raw tone that wants more blending. Still, that is a minor flaw.
Fanfare readers who have come to know my writing are aware of my love for older so-called “historic” recordings. But as much as I often find special qualities in performances from the first half of the 20th century, and believe that they have much to show us, there are very few cases where I would state that a live broadcast from the 1940s is the one recording of an opera to own if you were only going to own one. In this case, however, I have no hesitation in saying that. What Björling, Sayão, Cooper, and a fine supporting cast offer here is a performance that is truly memorable and thrilling. We should be grateful to Peter Gelb and the Met and to Sony for figuring out how to get some of the treasures of the Met archives out to the public, and to whoever made the decision that this Roméo et Juliette belonged in the first group of releases in the series. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Catalog Number: 88697804652
Composer: Charles Gounod
Conductor: Emil Cooper
Orchestra/Ensemble: Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Performer: Bidu Sayao, Claramae Turner, John Brownlee, Jussi Björling, Mimi Benzell, Nicola Moscona, Thomas Hayward