Friday, August 5, 2016

The NRR Project #17: Canzone del Porter from ‘Martha’ (1903)

Edouard de Reszke
In 1903, a cultural arms race was on. The Victor and Columbia recording companies were battling it out for a dominant share of the “high-end” record market. At the height of the enthronement of Western culture as a beaux ideal, opera was considered the most prestigious of the arts. Its combination of music and drama was seen as the ultimate synthesis of forms, and opera singers were globally-known celebrities in a manner not seen again until the days of Pavarotti.

This recording was part of a set of releases by seven Metropolitan Opera stars – Suzanne Adams, Antonio Scotti, Giuseppe Campanari, Charles Gilbert, Marcella Sembrich, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and Edouard de Reszke. The Victor company had sent its representative to Europe to obtain recordings by continental opera stars. Columbia beat them to the punch by commissioning recordings in New York. The singers were well paid, and the discs were correspondingly more expensive. Avid listeners shelled out $2 a disc, twice what the going rate was for a record in 1903, and the equivalent of more than $50 today.

De Reszke was a bass from Warsaw; his strong singing and acting skills propelled him through an illustrious three-decade career (he often sang with his brother, the equally talented and noted tenor Jean). He sings this aria from Act III of the once-popular romantic/comic opera “Martha” by Friedrich von Flotow, which premiered in 1844. The bass plays the hero’s best friend, and gets to implement a little comic relief here and there. It’s a drinking song, rendered here in Italian, as many German and French operas of the 19th century found themselves translated into Italian for the convenience of the predominantly Italian-trained singers.

Though Columbia won the battle, Victor won the war. Under its Red Seal label, most of the first half of the century’s great artists would choose to record for them – starting with its superstar, Enrico Caruso. Caruso would make “Martha” a huge hit for the Met in 1906, and very familiar Flotow melodies such as “Ach, so fromm” and “the Last Rose of Summer” would become familiar cultural staples of the period.

As an aesthetic record, it’s lacking. The same year de Reszke recorded his three sides, of which “Canzone” is his best effort, he retired from singing. His breath support is wobbly, his tone is flat. Only his phrasing and trills remain to remind us of what he must have sound like at the peak of his career.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Uncle Josh and the Insurance Agent.'

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