Licia Albanese: A Small Tribute to a Legend
Licia Albanese has died. It was inevitable, yet still somehow unexpected, as though she would live forever. I had always been a moderate fan of this lady's, but some years ago I heard a performance I'd previously only heard about, the 1956 Manon Lescaut broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera featuring Albanese & Bjoerling in the leading roles, with Dimitri Mitropolous at the helm. I'm here putting down the notes I made from that experience.
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My jaw still hasn’t recovered from hitting the floor. How crazy was this performance??!! It was completely insane.
Albanese sounded a thousand years old - yet really, really hot . . . juicy, even. And her high notes? They blasted out like velvet bullets. Whenever someone speaks about how to "act with the voice" - Albanese is PRECISELY what they're talking about. The emotive skills of both of these singers, is mind boggling . . . huge. Of course I knew this already from their studio recording, and though I’d always heard of this '56 performance, and white hot” it was, I had no idea . . . no idea.
Both Jussi and Licia give such over the top performances that if they were singing these roles today, some would (sadly) laugh at the hysterical, over-emotive “in your face” performances. Then again, maybe not, when the actual singing is of this high quality. Bjoerling’s performance here tops his studio effort for the fact you get the sense he really is living the role. And his top notes (low notes . . . and all notes in between) are spun out with such vocal glory that not only are his excesses forgivable, they’re necessary . . . welcome and thrilling.
Sadly the orchestra (under my man Mitropolous) often sounds bad, undernourished and under rehearsed, and I have to put it on the conductor as I’ve heard the orchestra from that season sound quite fine. (Nobody shoot me please, I can't believe I'm saying that about a man I consider a god). But D.M. pays wonderful attention to his singers and that pay off was worth its weight in gold.
Albanese’s Sola perduta, abbandonata was one of the wildest versions of any aria I’ve ever heard – certainly of this aria, and I mean by about 1000 percent. Shrieking and sobbing and shouting and sobbing and gasping (and sobbing some more) sometimes, remarkably, in the middle of the notes of a phrase. Who else could do this like her? Sometimes she seems even to do this in the middle of a note – it’s madness . . . pure FILTH! Delicious filth. And the notes . . . Oh. My. God. Simply unbelievable. She hurls them out with such force I believe they were very likely heard on Mars. I had to both laugh and cry as she finished the aria punctuated with sobs as continued repeating the aria’s final lines, sobbing and choking out "non voglio morir . . . no voglio morir" over and over, before more sobs, shrieks as a hysterical Jussi returns, joining in the madness.
The closing few minutes were intense beyond the point of ordinary belief – and why should anything about this performance be ordinary?
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Licia, of course sang many more roles, logging in over 400 performances with the Metropolitan Opera over a long, distinguished singing career. Singing, however, wasn't her only career, as she went on - up until her passing, encouraging, coaching and aiding new, young singers to get established in this most difficult and rewarding art form. Madame Albanese truly was one of a kind, and though she has passed on, her work and legacy will live on. How lucky we were to have her! Rest in peace, dear lady.
Licia through the years.