Author Topic: NYT: From a Vault in Paris, Sounds of Opera 1907  (Read 1208 times)

Offline Aloysius J. Gleek

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NYT: From a Vault in Paris, Sounds of Opera 1907
« on: February 16, 2009, 08:21:03 pm »

From a Vault in Paris, Sounds of Opera 1907

Urnes de l’Opéra — 1907
Officials in Paris on Dec. 24, 1907, preparing to fill a canister with records of famous opera singers and instrumental pieces.

Published: February 16, 2009

PARIS — On Dec. 24, 1907, a group of bewhiskered men gathered in the bowels of the Paris Opera to begin a project that by definition they could never see to fruition. First, 24 carefully wrapped wax records were placed inside two lead and iron containers. These were then sealed and locked in a small storage room with instructions that they should remain undisturbed for 100 years.

The man behind this musical time capsule was Alfred Clark, a New Yorker who headed the London-based Gramophone Company and had provided the records. And in truth, once the ceremony was over, he had achieved his primary objective of drawing attention to his company and to the new flat-disc records it was promoting to compete with the better-known cylinders.

“I know of no other case where a commercial firm has obtained so much free publicity as we have,” he wrote to a colleague two days later.

The Paris Opera displayed a more elevated sense of history. Through this selection of opera arias and instrumental pieces, it announced, future generations could discover the musical taste and the quality of sound recording of the early 20th century.

French officials also predicted radical changes in recording technology. So in 1912, when they added 24 records and two more containers to the trove, they included a new hand-cranked gramophone, along with instructions on how it worked and a score of spare stylus needles.

Now the 100 years are up, and after lengthy examination, cleaning and digitizing of the records, EMI, the heir to the Gramophone Company, is reissuing them on three CDs. The collection will be released in France later this month as “Les Urnes de l’Opéra”  and in the United States in early April with the English subtitle “Treasures From the Paris Opera Vaults.”

Most intriguing is the repertory chosen for posterity, and here the surprise is the lack of surprises. Wouldn’t any opera season today also offer evergreens by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini as well as by Bizet, Gounod, Wagner and Mozart? And won’t many concert programs this year include instrumental pieces by Beethoven and Chopin?

Along with these household names are French composers whose lasting popularity was perhaps less assured. In practice Massenet and Saint-Saëns, who were both still alive in 1907, have fared well in the interim. But operas by Adolphe Adam, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Victor Massé and Ambroise Thomas (apart from his “Hamlet” ) are now rarely performed, even in France.

The passage of time is also apparent in the way pre-19th-century music was largely overlooked. Although Mozart was hardly in vogue in 1907, he made the list with arias from “Le Nozze di Figaro”  and “Don Giovanni.”  But there was no room for Gluck, Handel or Monteverdi, who in recent times have been called on to satisfy the opera world’s need for novelty.

The quality of the recordings themselves is much as might be expected. A century ago, when recordings were made by piping sound through a horn to a diaphragm attached to a cutting stylus, scratchy sound was inevitable. Further, because string instruments were barely audible in early recordings, technicians favored the piano and wind instruments.

The Gramophone Company’s international reach enabled it to feature the top singers of the day. The great tenor Enrico Caruso can be heard in three excerpts from Verdi and one each from Donizetti and Puccini, and the Australian soprano Nellie Melba sings a solo from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

The legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin could hardly be omitted, although he sings only a Russian ballad. In contrast, the Italian tenor Francesco Tamagno, who created the title role in Verdi’s “Otello”  in 1887, offers a dramatic reprise of the Moor’s dying aria, “Niun mi tema,” to piano accompaniment.

Other singers in the time capsule may be known only to opera buffs, but some earned footnotes in opera history. Hector Dufranne, for instance, created the baritone role of Golaud in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,”  and Ernestine Schumann-Heink created the role of Clytemnestra in Strauss’s “Elektra.”

Yet the dream of Alfred Clark and the Paris Opera that these records would be heard a century later has been only partly realized.

In 1989, while air-conditioning was being installed, the opera house’s administrator insisted on opening the storage room where the containers were. It was then discovered that one of the 1912 containers had been opened and emptied and that the gramophone was missing. The three remaining containers were moved to the French National Library.

So in December 2007, when two of the sealed containers were presented to the news media at the opera house before being opened, the gramophone on display was actually an identical period copy of the one that had been stolen.

There were further complications. The records had been wrapped in asbestos-covered cloth, which only technicians wearing all-body protection could handle. They had also been separated by thick sheets of glass; in one container, 9 of 13 sheets had broken. But most records were undamaged.

By good fortune, the first 1907 container and the surviving 1912 container included parchments with a detailed list of all the musical pieces chosen in each year. As a result, thanks to the national library’s collection of 350,000 pre-1938 recordings, it was possible to digitize the same records as those missing from 1912.

Finally, it was decided to leave the other 1907 container sealed and again to use identical recordings from the library’s collection. “Even if these old records are played once, they are slightly damaged by the needle,” said Elizabeth Giuliani, who oversaw the project at the library. “We decided to await new optical technologies that can read them without touching them.”

So even now the experiment is not quite over.

But it has at least drawn attention to a long-ignored plaque set in the marble floor at the entrance to the Comédie-Française, France’s national theater. Dated Dec. 10, 1957, it notes that a live recording of a performance of Henry de Montherlant’s play “Port-Royal” is buried there “for the attention of future times.”

It just doesn’t say when the recordings should be dug up.
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Offline southendmd

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Re: NYT: From a Vault in Paris, Sounds of Opera 1907
« Reply #1 on: February 16, 2009, 08:45:35 pm »
Thank you, John, that was fascinating!

Chaliapin! How exciting!

Offline Meryl

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Re: NYT: From a Vault in Paris, Sounds of Opera 1907
« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2009, 12:37:50 am »
What an interesting project!  I hope the CDs are a success when they come out at last.  8)
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