In-keeping with the Opera In-Depth project on La Traviata, I thought I would share a Public Domain link to a complete performance of the opera:
This is a link to Toscanini’s NBC radio performance of La Traviata, done over two Sunday afternoons, December 1 and 8, 1946: The cast for this radio production:
Licia Albanese (soprano) Violetta Valéry; Jan Peerce (tenor) Alfredo Germont; Robert Merrill (baritone) Germont
Minor roles: Maxine Stellman, Johanne Morland, John Garris, George Cehanovsky, Paul Dennis, Arthur Newman
An unidentified chorus (probably the Westminster Choir of Princeton, NJ) and NBC Symphony are under the direction of Arturo Toscanini.
Toscanini met Verdi late in the composer’s life, and though he was primarily a cellist at the time, he does recount an encounter with the composer, which was re-enacted for “Toscanini in his own words”:
There are two recordings available that pertain to this particular radio production. There is the recording (issued by RCA) of the radio broadcast performance, and a later issue of some of the acetates of the “dress rehearsals” (for instance, on MUSIC AND ARTS CD4271), which have a lot more of Toscanini giving direction, and singing along. Some of these moments can also be found on YouTube:
I failed to find vintage review articles of the broadcast. Legend has it that the broadcast made such an impression on Igor Stravinsky that he was so anxious to have a copy of this broadcast that he obtained a set of acetate transcription disks!
Toscanini is a legend, and the many recordings he made with the NBC Symphony (which he led from 1937 to its disbandment in 1954) attest to his mastery of the not only the operatic repertoire, but also of the great Masters of the concert repertoire (his Beethoven and Brahms cycles are astonishing, and have stood the test of time in spite of the somewhat primitive recording technology available during those years. I don’t want to spend too much time off-topic, but you can appreciate the insight and incisive nature of his approach to Verdi in this recording of the overture to La Forza del Destino (despite the Lord Menuhin’s comments mid-stream through it…)
La Traviata, as conceived by Toscanini, is just as poignant and incisive – he truly lives the music and the story. It begins with the muted anticipation of the Prelude to Act One, through all the showstopper arias, and all the way to Violetta’s last breath. There may be better casts, there may be technologically superior recordings, but the overall result is nothing less than sublime!
What adds to this, IMHO, is the “theatre of the mind” aspect of opera on radio (and on CD). One can merely close his eyes, and create your own staging, your own set design, your own costumes… Yes, this is Toscanini’s Traviata, but it is whatever you want it to be!
Keep in mind that this is a “broadcast performance”, and not a studio recording. There are no touch-ups, no do-over’s, and what you have is an “in the moment” performance, assorted with (very minor) imperfections and warts. Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce may not necessarily be your “dream pairing” for Violetta and Alfredo, but their singing is on the mark, and the preparation (as expected) provides the right balance between musicianship and showmanship (if I may use those terms – readhttp://bassocantante.com/opera/traviata.html).
Violetta is appropriately young-sounding, yet still capable of great emotion. Her strength seems to lie in her interaction with other characters, not only with Alfredo. Alfredo, as portrayed by Peerce, has an undeniable vocal and stage presence. Try his lusty but not overdone ‘Libiamo’ and then compare and contrast with the duet with Violetta. Note here also how well his voice and Albanese’s match so well. Peerce is at the height of his powers at ‘Di Provenza il mar’, where focus and diction work well together.
This MONO recording is worth listening to, and can be either played from the site (off most browsers) or downloaded for personal use on your favourite digital companion.