Notes and Editorial Reviews
Veteran collectors will recall that the 1903 Columbia Grand Opera Series (recorded 1902-03) was first reissued on LP by Columbia in 1963, in a magnificently produced box set that included a facsimile of the original sales brochure for the series. It was a model historical release for the time, but it has been surpassed in almost every way in its new incarnation on Sony's Masterworks Heritage series. Everything that was on the LP set is present, including the facsimile brochure, but there is much new material, including alternate takes as well as some intriguing recordings made through 1907.
Although the LP set was very well transferred for the time (using as was then the norm, discreet reverb), it has all been newly transferred by Seth B. Winner and remastered by Dawn Frank so that the old recordings yield up sound that was previously obscured. According to the producer, Dennis D. Rooney, Sony achieved an unprecedented 8,000 hz on Marcel Journet's 1905 “Infelice! E tu credevi,“ by using a mint set of metal parts. To hear this level of fidelity from an acoustic and not an electric, and with such sharply etched sibilants, is uncanny. What a testament to those pioneering inventors! The rest of the material, the majority taken from the New York Public Library's pristine copies of salesmen's samples, is mostly at a less spectacular, but still impressive, 4,000-4,500 hz. Winner has been very discreet in his filtering, but the surface noise is rarely intrusive and the voices in these old recordings emerge with a startling immediacy.
The set's cover bills it as “the first recordings of opera in America,“ not accurately, since Bettini was offering his cylinders of top opera stars in the 1880s, and the first commercially produced opera record was made by Berliner in Philadelphia by the tenor Ferruccio Giannini in 1896. However, the Columbias are likely the first flat discs of celebrity opera singers to have been made here and, more importantly, they offer performances of the highest artistic and historic significance.
First and foremost are the three records by bass Edouard de Reszke, the only ones he would ever make. The premiere bass of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a far bigger star than his great contemporary, Pol Plançon, Edouard with his brother, the tenor Jean de Reszke (who, alas, had his record masters destroyed), ruled the opera world like kings. Edouard's three recordings, “Infelice! E tu credevi,“ the “Porterlied,“ and “Don Juan's Serenade,“ are sung with a uniquely cultivated tone and style. Although the bass was forty-nine at the time of these recordings, and his once mighty voice had no doubt considerably lightened, all three, but particularly the Ernani selection, relay the impression of unmistakable greatness and magisterial authority.
Except for the one surviving Bettini cylinder of Marcella Sembrich, these Columbias find her voice in its freshest state. She was regarded as the finest Violetta of the time and her “Ah, fors' è lui“ is passionately sung, and with a rich tone that is less apparent on her Victors. The same can be said of Schumann-Heink's selections: although technically less impressive than her Victors, these are dazzling enough, and her unsurpassed contralto has a depth in “Der Tod und das Mädchen“ that is soul stirring. The baritones, Antonio Scotti, Giuseppe Campanari, and Charles Gilbert (a bass-baritone), are fabulous sounding on these Columbias; Scotti and Campanari are especially exuberant and unrestrained, with rousing “Toreador Song“s the like of which we don't hear anymore.
Although she is scarcely remembered anymore, the American soprano Suzanne Adams, a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, was a superb singer with a luscious soprano voice bearing a remarkable resemblance to Patti's in the middle register. During her brief career, Adams was a first-rank star, a favorite of Gounod, and her recordings of the Roméo “Waltz“ and Faust “Jewel Song“ are not approached by modern interpreters. Another forgotten, but exquisite-voiced soprano was Lillian Blauvelt, whose pinpoint trills (real ones, not phony martello) in “Les filles de Cadix“ are eye-opening. There is a welcome Schubert selection by the famous Wagnerian bass-baritone Anton van Rooy, a singer who did not generally fare well on recordings, but is impressive in “Die beiden Grenadiere.“
Beautifully packaged, this is one of the great historic releases of the CD era.
-- James Camner, FANFARE [1/1997]