A new home in New York
Record Review’s Andrew Mcgregor delves into the Metropolitan Opera’s first season at the Lincoln Center
This beautifully produced box (Metropolitan Opera 1135701822; 22 discs) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Met’s first season in its brand new purposebuilt home at the Lincoln Center. And we’re there on the opening night: 16 September 1966, for the premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. It was written for Met superstar Leontyne Price, but Franco Zeffirelli’s production caused problems as the Met troubleshot new technology – and that applies to the broadcast as well. They were still figuring out where to put the mics, struggling with the balance, a distant chorus and stage noise. But the electricity is palpable, and the highlights disc allows us to hear the singers’ nerves in live radio interviews.
They’re still working on the sound in Verdi’s Rigoletto six months later, but it’s a snapshot of the mid-1960s Met at its finest. Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is another Met warhorse, but styles have changed. Renata Scotto’s simpering geisha is an uncomfortable caricature, but hearing George Shirley in one of the five major roles he took in this inaugural season is a privilege.
Turandot boasts a cast to die for: Birgit Nilsson in a performance of terrifying power, Franco Corelli matching her for presence, and a young Mirella Freni as Liu.
James Mccracken’s raging Otello is another high spot, alongside Tito Gobbi’s malevolent Iago, and Montserrat Caballé’s heartstopping Desdemona.
For a proper sense of the Met ensemble, sample the almost all-american Magic Flute, with Josef Krips conducting. There’s not a lot of German opera in the set, but there is also Strauss’s
Die Frau ohne Schatten, with Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig superbly matched, and the Met orchestra excelling for Karl Böhm.
Britten’s Peter Grimes made its first return to the Met since the ’40s, with Jon Vicker mesmerising in the title role. Verdi’s Aida fields a dream team: Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry and Carlo Bergonzi with Thomas Schippers conducting. It’s an experience so magical you will forget it’s mono, noisy and awkwardly balanced.
With ten complete broadcast operas, this set is a time capsule, a treasure trove, and adds up to much more than a snapshot of a very special season.
Verdi’s fields a dream team with Leontyne Price
ahead of the game: opera-goers queue for tickets for the premiere of Antony and Cleopatra at the Met in 1966