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Classical 101

Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" At The Met, December 16, 1950

Once upon a time it was easy enough to find bootlegged recordings of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts going back to the 1930s. You had to be willing to run down to 8th St. and Sixth Avenue to Discophile and endure a dusty hushed back room piled high with rotting cassette tapes; or you could send cash to Vincent in New Jersey or Ed Brooklyn and receive back discs in plain paper wrapping. Trafficking in these broadcast performances was strictly illegal. But enough of us wanted to hear Giovanni Martinelli, Rosa Ponselle, Robert Merrill, Licia Albanese and Giuseppe DiStefano, that the dust and the cash and the crappy sound quality be damned. Nowadays it's a lot easier. YouTube is the bootleg opera lover's heaven and trading groups proliferate  on the web (call me up on the phone and I'll direct you). Better still is the new agreement between with the Metropolitan Opera and Sony Classical to issue these venerable and often fabulous performances for commercial sale. Great broadcast performances of Tosca, Romeo et Juliette, and La Boheme are among the new releases. So is the December 16, 1950 broadcast of Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville. The cast that Saturday afternoon starred the Italian baritone Giuseppe Valdegno (1914-2007).  Valdegno was a great favorite of Toscanini's, and gave 123 performances at the Met between 1947 and 1950. This is a Class B baritone voice with a native Italian's fluency in the language and skill at pointing the words. Don't believe me? [audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/BARBER1.mp3"] Valdegno was a good looking man with charm to spare - essential qualities for Rossini's Figaro (Mozart's needs to be more sinister) Giuseppe DiStefano (1921-2008) sang Count Almaviva. People will tell you to this day that 'Pippo' had the most glorious tenor voice of his time. He was also young and handsome in 1950, but his promise went unfulfilled, a victim of laziness and poor repertoire choices. Nonetheless, it's a joy ho hear him and Valdegno plotting away as Figaro and his ditsy master, Almaviva. [audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/BARBER2.mp3"] The marquee name that afternoon was neither of these worthy gentlemen, but the French soprano Lily Pons (1898-1976). If by 1950 Pons made a rather elderly Rosina, her star shone as brightly as it did at her American debut twenty years earlier. Pons had begun limiting her opera appearances in favor of lucrative concert and radio appearances along with trips to Hollywood. She had the best public relations sense of anyone and this hurt her reputation in 'classical' circles. Pons was a star in 1931. Pons was a star in 1950, and she made her final appearance at 76, very much a star, singing on the Merv Griffin Show (go ask your parents) with her voice unimpaired. You go, girlfriend! The biggest hand of the afternoon goes to the basso buffo Salvatore Baccaloni (1900-1969). Performances of comic operas were unthinkable at the time without this great audience favorite, even if he improvised freely and was musically, well, approximate. No matter. These artists understood opera as show business and made sure Il Barbiere di Siviglia was well sung and funny. Now, in cleaned up good ol' AM broadcast sound, you can hear what all the laughing was about, and realize why Pons and DiStefano found their places in the history books, with this glamorous Saturday afternoon performance given sixty-one years ago. Bravo Sony and bravo Met!  

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.