Stokowski – Gala Night at the Opera = Works of WAGNER, MOZART, GOUNOD, BORODIN, VERDI & PUCCINI – Soloists/Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild

by | May 30, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Stokowski – Gala Night at the Opera = WAGNER: Rienzi Overture; Lohengrin Prelude, Act I; Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Goetterdaemmerung; MOZART: “Non piu andrai” from Le Nozze di Figaro; BORODIN: “No rest, no peace” from Prince Igor; GOUNOD: “qui faites endormie” from Faust; PUCCINI: “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca; VERDI: “Ciel, mio padre” from Aida – George London, bar./ Birgit Nilsson, sop./ Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild GHCD 2410, 77:07 (5/5/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

A special anniversary concert to celebrate Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (20 January 1962) features the appearance of Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra, extending his “historic return” series of performances. Any document that pairs Stokowski with operatic repertory offers us a rare glimpse into his persuasive powers in a medium which did not exploit his gifts enough. A conversation with Gerard Souzay had that singers speaking in glowing terms of a Stokowski production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which Souzay accorded in “wonderful taste.”

From the opening brass A in Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, we become enthralled in the luscious, spatially sonic world of Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra, always responsive to that maestro’s epic requirements. The idiosyncratic seating of the orchestra itself contributes to the blazing sound Stokowski elicits from the players. Announcements proceed to introduce American bass-baritone George London (1920-1985), who will demonstrate his linguistic, vocal prowess in three arias sung, respectively, in Italian, Russian and French.  London’s Count Almaviva enjoys a canny, worldly wisdom as he exhorts Cherubino that the days of amorous flirtation are ending with Cherubino’s having to join a military regiment in Seville.  The Borodin aria from Act II exploits dark hues from the opera overture, with the sad sentiment from Konchak, “No rest, no peace for my tormented soul.”  The lush orchestration carries Konchak’s lament by London with fulsome power.  Mephistopheles’ serenade from Faust, Act IV carries a savage irony to those naïve girls who open their doors to suitors before the wedding ring justifies amour.

Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) enters the festivities for her plangent rendition of Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, Act II. With the imminent threat of her lover Cavaradossi’s death, Tosca recounts her pious dedication to art and love, an orphic spirit’s wishing none harm.  The broad tessitura, E-flat – B-flat, Nilsson traverses with a controlled diminuendo at the climax that verges on ecstatic.  Then, London and Nilsson sing the so-called “Nile Scene” from Aida, Act III of Verdi, in which Amonasro elicits from his daughter the marching orders of the Egyptians against the Ethiopians.  Every nuance of divided loyalties and their lethal consequences filters into the passionate, raging contradictions of this powerfully dramatic moment.

Stokowski allows Nilsson some respite with his graduated, erotic realization of the First Act Prelude from Wagner’s Lohengrin, a musical depiction of the Holy Grail as it descends to the earth through Divine intervention, an extended orchestral crescendo that builds to a brilliant climax then settles back into its original, elemental whisper.  The sheer transparency of effect again testifies to the durability of the “Stokowski sound.”   Nilsson then proceeds to the monumental close of The Ring Cycle with the “Immolation Scene, “ with Brunnhilde’s having taken the ring from Siegfried’s murdered hand, in her attempt to ride into her own funeral pyre to redeem the world of the fallen Norse gods and institute a new, mortal world ruled by love. Besides the hard patina of Nilsson’s “metallic” voice, the contribution of the Philadelphia winds, brass, and harp contingent creates a mighty spectacle of idea, if not of scenic drama.

The thunderous applause of the mesmerized Philadelphia audience contributes as much as the musical occasion to immortalize this historic concert. The aural remastering by Peter Reybolds is first rate.

—Gary Lemco


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