Wunderlich in La Traviata

91b3-3eyhsl._ss500_

This recording was taped at a performance in Munich in March 1965. It was a new production by August Everding, and, judging by the audience reaction, it was a tremendous success.

Teresa Stratas’s shattering Violetta  is of course well known from the Zeffirelli film, brilliantly acted, if vocally stressed. Here she is  just a few months short of her twenty-seventh birthday and making her debut in the role, and, if the photos in the booklet are anything to go by, she looked absolutely stunning. Vocally though, and divorced from her powerful stage presence, she has her problems, especially in the first act. She has to transpose down Sempre libera and, even then, it taxes her to the limit. There are other places too where her voice doesn’t quite do what she wants it to, though, in intention at least, it has the seeds of a great performance. For instance the moments leading up to Violetta’s outpouring of love at Amami, Alfredo are urgently and sincerely felt, though she can’t quite swell the tone at Amami, Alfredo itself. In the last act she delivers a telling letter reading and a moving Addio del passato, but the performance doesn’t yet add up to a complete whole.

No challenge then for Callas, whose Violetta is hors councours, and whose 1958 Covent Garden performance remains my all time favourite. In Zeffirelli’s film, though vocally not much more comfortable, Stratas surpasses what she does here, where we are also able to see her touchingly vulnerable acting.

Hermann Prey, 36 at the time and only a year older than Wunderlich, sounds too young and tends to oversing, possibly in an attempt to sound more Italianate. Though there is pleasure to be derived from the voice itself, I don’t get any sense of a real character.

No, the chief reason for hearing this set is the chance to hear Wunderlich sing a complete role in Italian. The language suits him well and he is an ardently lyrical Alfredo, singing with honeyed tone, but with plenty of heft in the outburst at Flora’s party. Very very occasionally he overplays his hand (mostly in recitative) but there is much that is treasurable; Dei miei bollenti spiriti has a lovely lilt and he and Stratas make a wonderfully touching moment out of their brief moment of happiness in the last act,  Parigi, o cara. Later perhaps he would have played down slightly the histrionics in his contribution to Gran Dio, morir si giovane, but it is already a treasurable performance and reason enough to hear this live recording.

Teresa Stratas singing Weill

 

It was in 1979 that Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, saw Stratas singing the role of Jenny in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny. Knocked out by Stratas’s performance, she called her her “dream Jenny”, and afterwards she wrote to her, “nobody can sing Weill’s music better than you do,” and offered her a number of unpublished songs that she had closely guarded since Weill’s death in 1950.

The result was the first of these two discs, recorded in 1981, in which Stratas sings a collection of songs to piano accompaniment by Richard Woitach. Unfortunately, for the CD release, Nonesuch omitted the lyrics and translations that were included with the original LP, and what notes that remain are in minuscule print, almost too small to read without a magnifying glass. This seems little short of a crime, given Stratas’s vividly dramatic performances. Even without the aid of translations you can get a gist of their meaning, but how much more satisfying the disc would be be if we knew exactly what she was singing.You might be able to find texts and translations of some of them by scouring the internet, but it’s a long and arduous task.

Most people had no doubt got used to Lenya singing Weill’s songs in her gravelly baritone, but, as Lenya herself pointed out, her voice dropped over the years, and Stratas was performing them in the original keys. That said, most of these originally written for cabaret, had hardly ever been performed since and were here receiving their first recordings, though they are much better known now, and Weill selections have appeared from artists as diverse as Anne-Sophie von Otter and Ute Lemper.

Teresa Stratas was 54 at the time of the first recording. She had made her professional debut at the age of 20, joining the Met company the following year (1959), becoming a Met favourite until her final performance there in 1995 (in the role of Jenny in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny). The voice can be termed useful rather than beautiful, and, though a diminutive figure, she had a powerful stage presence, great personal beauty and was a superb actress. This might explain why she made comparatively few recordings, the most famous probably being Pierre Boulez’s recording of the completed Lulu, a role she had made her own in the Paris premiere. Beautiful or not, it was the perfect instrument for Weill’s songs, which rely on expression rather than beauty of tone.

Favourites for me here are the two settings of the same melody, one French, one German Wie lange noch and Je ne t’aime pas, the two Propaganda Songs Buddy on the Night Shift and Schikelgruber, and the glorious Youkali. Though the second disc is enlivened by the orchestral accompaniments, I have a special affection for the more intimate piano settings.

This second disc appeared four years later, and is more far reaching, though much of the material was more well known. The Y Chamber Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz has an undeniable of a theatre orchestra about it, which is perfect for the material. The songs are taken from Broadway musicals, and both German and French theatre works. Texts and translations are at least included, though print is again minuscule.

Stratas’s range is formidable. Though capable of the “Brechtian bark” we are probably more used to, it is bound into the fabric of her performance, as is the full operatic soprano at key moments. Consequently not only do we get the full meaning of the lyrics, but the lyricism of Weill’s writing is revealed to a much greater extent. Take the most famous song on the album, Surabaya Johnny, which emerges almost as a mini psycho-drama for solo performer. Her French and German are both impeccable, her command of the Broadway idiom just about perfect (a few years later she was to record the role of Julie in John McGlinn’s first ever complete recording of Jerome Kern’s Showboat). One of the most glorious performances is of Lonely house from Street Scene, which is swirlingly lyrical with an aching loneliness.

Both discs are an absolute must.

Wunderlich in La Traviata

91b3-3eyhsl._ss500_

This recording was taped at a performance n Munich in March 1965. It was a new production by August Everding, and, judging by the audience reaction, it was a tremendous success.

Teresa Stratas’s shattering Violetta is of course well known from the Zeffirelli film, brilliantly acted, if vocally stressed. Here she is just a few months short of her twenty-seventh birthday and making her debut in the role, and, if the photos in the booklet are anything to go by, lshe ooked absolutely stunning. Vocally though, and divorced from her powerful stage presence, she has her problems, especially in the first act. She has to transpose down Sempre libera and, even then, it taxes her to the limit. There are other places too where her voice doesn’t quite do what she wants it to, though, in intention at least, it has the seeds of a great performance. For instance the moments leading up to Violetta’s outpouring of love at Amami, Alfredo are urgently and sincerely felt, but she can’t quite swell the tone at Amami, Alfredo itself. In the last act she delivers a telling letter reading and a moving Addio del passato, but the performance doesn’t yet add up to a complete whole.

No challenge then for Callas, whose Violetta is hors councours, and whose 1958 Covent Garden performance remains my all time favourite. In the Zeffirelli film, though vocally not much more comfortable, Stratas surpasses what she does here, where we are also able to see her touchingly vulnerable acting.

Hermann Prey, 36 at the time and only a year older than Wunderlich, sounds too young and tends to oversing, possibly in an attempt to sound more Italianate. Though there is pleasure to be derived from the voice itself, I don’t get any sense of a real character.

No, the chief reason for hearing this set is the chance to hear Wunderlich sing a complete role in Italian. The Language suits him well and he is an ardently lyrical Alfredo, singing with honeyed tone, but with plenty of heft in the outburst at Flora’s party. Very very occasionally he overplays his hand (mostly in recitative) but there is much that is treasurable; Dei miei bollenti spiriti has a lovely lilt and he and Stratas make a wonderfully touching moment out of tha brief moment of happiness, Parigi, o cara. Later perhaps he would have played down slightly the histrionics in his contribution to Gran Dio, morir si giovane, but it is already a treasurable performance and reason enough to hear this live recording.