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Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, February 2011

The nearest antecedent to Menotti’s opera The Consul is Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. Both are through-composed operatic works and both have strong influences from American popular music. Weill wrote Street Scene for Broadway and wholeheartedly embraced both popular music and the vulgarity of Broadway. Menotti didn’t and in later life seems to have been not a little embarrassed by his highly coloured opera. Where Weill channels the music of Broadway shows, Menotti channels the sound-tracks of Hollywood films. The sheer melodic fecundity, highly-coloured realism and a confident reliance on operatic ensembles mark the opera out from many operatic works from the 1950s.

The Consul is American Film Noir come to musical life; you could imagine the work as a 1940s Hollywood film. In fact, Menotti’s skills as a dramatist led to a contract with MGM to produce screenplays; none was in fact filmed but one became The Consul. What makes it work is that it is a rattlingly good tale, well told. The work was written in the 1940s and was Menotti’s first full-length opera. He wrote his own libretto and the piece is full of the overtones of McCarthy era America and the Iron Curtain. Interestingly, Menotti wanted Maria Callas in the role of Magda Sorel, which would have been fascinating to say the least.

On the set under review Naxos have usefully re-issued the opera’s first recording, from 1950, in fact made just a month after work’s pre-Broadway tryout in Philadelphia. The work was recorded with extremely close miking and the result is very dry and has a profoundly period feel. In fact it feels like a radio play, albeit one that is sung. The singers’ diction is admirable though, like their English counterparts of the period, they sound rather too polite. Unfortunately at climaxes, particularly in the ensembles, the recording becomes a little overloaded.

But what we gain is dramatic immediacy in a performance which is vividly unselfconscious, with all the singers providing a vital response to the words. Patricia Neway (Magda) sang the role at the Philadelphia tryouts and on Broadway. A number of other members of the cast were also present at these early run-throughs and at the premiere. This involvement shows in their interaction and strong ensemble.

Patricia Neway’s Magda does sound a little under-powered in her big Act 2 aria; at least she doesn’t really ride the orchestra the way Susan Bullock and Christine Brewer are able to—Brewer recorded the aria for Chandos’s Opera in English recital series. This might be a fault of the balance of the recording. Still Neway is an involving and poignant Magda, giving us an emotional climax at the end of Act 2 and tugging the heart-strings in Act 3 when she commits suicide.

Marie Powers provides able support as the Mother, with her own telling moment as she sings a lullaby to the dying baby. And Gloria Lane is impressive as the Secretary. The remaining cast are equally strong.

The opera is slightly cut; Menotti was evidently concerned to preserve the dramatic impetus on the radio and elided some of the purely orchestral passages. Naxos provides a detailed scenario but no libretto. The singers’ diction is such that no libretto is required—you can simply put the CD on and enjoy the experience direct.

The companion work is the 1954 recording of Menotti’s first opera, Amelia al Ballo. This is a charming piece of fluff which rather reminded me of some of Wolf-Ferrari’s comedies and is an entirely enchanting filler.

The original recording of The Consul is a vividly dramatic and highly atmospheric piece of work, which manages to transcend the limitations of the recording. Whilst most people will want modern sound, I would recommend investigating this historic recording as well.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Next year (2011) is the centenary of Gian Carlo Menotti’s birth and he will certainly be duly celebrated. This double-bill opera set is the first in a series devoted to his music. During his life time he was not always hailed, at least not by critics, who found him out of phase with existing musical tastes. Menotti basically belonged to the late-romantic school and could be seen as a follower of Puccini in the Italian opera tradition. He became rather popular with the general public and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for The Consul in 1950 and The Saint of Blecker Street in 1955. His Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) was the first opera written directly for the TV medium and it was—and has remained—hugely successful and beloved.

The Consul, after a try-out in Philadelphia, ran for 269 performances on Broadway and the response from audiences and critics alike encouraged American Decca to record it with the original cast. Amazingly enough it has never been reissued on CD. The more grateful we have to be that Naxos are now giving it a new lease of life.

Considering its age—it was recorded 60 years ago!—it is an impressive recording with shattering dynamics and it’s very vivid and easy to approach. The action is brought forward in melodious parlando, punctuated by a very active orchestra, sung and spoken lines are sometimes mixed and there are sweeping melodies galore, but also rather harsh harmonies. This stands in sharp contrast to what was normally played on Broadway at the time. But I believe that even those not normally used to opera must have felt the dramatic coherence and the expressivity of the music. It’s the cold war that forms the backdrop, which also may be a reason that it attracted attention. Communism was the red rag to many and Joseph McCarthy had already started his witch-hunt. With all this in mind it is easy to imagine the impact this opera made. Even today it has a realism that is frightening.

Lehman Engel was one of the leading Broadway conductors at the time and his recorded legacy covers many of the most famous musicals in as complete versions as was then possible. Especially famous is his recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1951), which for more than 25 years was the only one available—even though it wasn’t absolutely complete. His conducting here is both exacting and punchy and though inevitably the orchestral sound is compressed in the mono recording it is an exciting reading.

He has a fine cast, who were well inside their roles. The try-out in Philadelphia opened on 1 March 1950, the Broadway premiere was a month later; the recording was made in April, probably during a number of sessions in daytime with performances in the evening. Menotti’s wish was to have Maria Callas, then relatively unknown, as Magda Sorel but the producer said no. With hindsight it would have been very interesting indeed if Menotti’s proposal hadn’t been rejected but Patricia Neway is a splendid Magda and probably better suited to the idiom. She was already an experienced singer and actress but this was her breakthrough. She went on to sing the role at the premieres in London and Paris and other European cities. It is interesting to note also that she was Mother Superior in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music, a role for which she received a Tony Award.

All the other soloists are good and in particular it is nice to hear the young Cornell MacNeil as John Sorel. His voice was then a light baritone, far from the imposing power-pack he was later to become. He was also vouchsafed a very long career. I heard him as Amonasro at the Arena di Verona in 1986, when he was in his mid-sixties and his magnificent voice projected superbly to even the most distant seat (where I was).

Menotti wrote a couple of operas while still a child but his first mature opera was Amelia al ballo, which was premiered in 1937 in Philadelphia and the following year was brought to The Metropolitan Opera. This work is quite different from The Consul. It is an opera buffa with the well known love triangle wife-husband-lover. It is charmingly written in pseudo-19th century style but spiced with some 20th century seasoning. As in the true buffa tradition the music rarely settles but whirls on irresistibly as a long scherzo movement. Verdi’s Falstaff had no doubt been a source of inspiration. But when it settles Menotti gives the leading singers some lovely lyrical music to show their expertise in cantabile singing. The Husband has a beautiful romanza (CD 2 tr. 15) and Amelia’s romanza (CD 2 tr. 21) is pure Puccini. The Lover also gets his share in the romanza trio (CD 2 tr. 26).

Nino Sanzogno leads a spirited performance with the La Scala forces on their toes and the leading trio of soloists are excellent. Carosio is brilliant, fluent and lively and sings with beautiful tone. Panerai is completely at ease here, far more than in I puritani, which he recorded with Callas less than a year earlier, and Prandelli, though the possessor of a brilliant tenor, keeps within the confines of the role. As Chief of Police Enrico Campi is sonorous and expressive and has a fine cantabile solo (CD 2 tr. 31), interspersed by Amelia’s coloratura. A wholly enchanting opera!

It is good to have both recordings back in the catalogue and they should be attractive to a lot of opera lovers.

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, November 2010

The cast is excellent, as is Sanzogno’s rhythmically alert and energetic conducting. The sound is very good…I found the simple story and the charming music quite rewarding.

To read complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

John Steane
Gramophone, October 2010

A first CD appearance for this Consul and a splendid Amelia

Announced as the first in a series designed to commemorate Menotti’s centenary coming up in 2011, this issue brings together two important early recordings, that of The Consul appearing now on CD for the first time. It was made in 1950, a month after the premiere, by the original cast, which had moved promptly from Philadelphia to Broadway. There the opera ran for 269 performances, a unique achievement for a work written in what most would still consider to be a modern style (the nearest comparison in terms of immediate popularity would probably be with Rutland Boughton’s The Immortal Hour in the 1920s). The other opera, Amelia al ballo, startling to recall, dates back to 1937 when it was given at the Metropolitan, New York, paired in a double-bill with Strauss’s Elektra. The recording was made 17 years later, also by a cast fresh from a premiere, this time at La Scala, Milan, where Italians heard for the first time their now internationally famous compatriot’s small masterpiece.

Though Amelia shows up here as by far the better work, it is likely that attention will centre on The Consul. On the face of it, this is an essential “creators” recording, documenting an event which, whatever may be judged to be the score’s merit, has a sure place in the history of opera in the 20th century. In fact, as Mark Obert-Thorn’s interesting Producer’s Note points out, the recording is seriously flawed (“very dry and closely miked” for one thing), and it seems improbable that conditions were such as would enable the authentic theatre experience to be caught. Much of the sound is harsh and the voice of Patricia Neway in the leading role (strong but never, by most accounts, a beautiful instrument) sounds metallic and worn even here at the beginning of the run. One positive quality is the firmness of the voices: I would be very surprised if a modern recording matched it in that respect.

The Amelia is splendid in every way, with fine, natural recorded sound, verve and style in Sanzogno’s conducting, charm of an agreeably “period” kind in Carosio’s singing and very able backing by Prandelli and Panerai, the male corner-pieces of the eternal triangle. The transfer also gives much pleasure…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

Next year marks the centenary of the American composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, this being the first release in a series of historic recordings being issued on the Naxos label. Building a career that ignored the prevailing musical styles left him exposed to charges of being an obstinate reactionary. He was musically educated in Milan and New York, and with an Italian background he was drawn to opera, the one-act, Amelia al ballo, giving him international attention at the age of 26. It did not last, the next opera, The Island God, proving a disaster on its Metropolitan Opera debut, a set-back partially rectified by the The Medium and The Telephone in the mid-1940’s. His first melodrama came with The Consul, a score much in the style of Puccini. In the late 1940’s his libretto was highly topical with a young couple are trying to escape from the secret police somewhere in Europe. He goes into hiding leaving his wife to seek help from the Consul where she is faced with impenetrable bureaucracy. The end—in true Puccini tradition—comes with her death. Initially a great success in Philadelphia before moving to New York’s Broadway, the original cast made this premiere recording in 1950. Amelia al ballo is very different, the dark comedy centred on Amelia’s halted departure for the ball when her husband discovers a letter from her lover. For husband and lover the end is not happy, but Amelia gets her own way and goes to the ball. The score sparkles and deserves residency in the repertoire. The reissue producer makes copious apologies in the booklet regarding the original recording of The Consul  that came from American Decca, its shortcomings made more obvious by the stunning performance and recording of Amelia. It comes from La Scala in the Callas era, and has a fine cast of Margherita Carosio, Rolando Panerai and Giacinto Prandelli in the major roles, Nino Sanzogno conducts and in an excellent transfer is well worth more than the budget price of both discs.

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