Today would have been Leonard Warren’s 98th birthday, and to mark the occasion I spent most of the morning and the better part of the afternoon listening to some of the more obscure items in his discography, including bits and pieces from live Metropolitan Opera performances of Otell0 (1948 and 1958), Falstaff (1948), Simon Boccanegra (1950), and Ernani (1956). These latter recordings are–how shall I say?–“unofficial,” and since I don’t want to run afoul of the Met’s licensing department. I won’t post any of them here. I will, however, share a few of my other favorite Warren moments with you.
Warren’s was one of the first non-contemporary voices I remember hearing back when I started discovering opera. I’ve written elsewhere about how, as a teenager, I would escape to my bedroom and surrender to his recorded portrayal of Scarpia. And after all of these years, familiarity still hasn’t bred contempt. If anything, I’m drawn even more to Warren’s full, rich, and resonant sound, and above all, to those big, meaty high notes, the likes of which we rarely–if ever–hear nowadays.
Here, then, is a small sampling of the best Leonard Warren had–and has–to offer, some familiar fare along with a couple of interesting surprises.
These first two clips have a rather unusual provenance. In 1940, the New York Post, hoping to boost circulation and to carve a niche out for themselves as a newspaper of “culture,” issued a series of operatic excerpts under the title “World’s Greatest Operas.” The discs eventually became known as the “No Name Records,” because none of the singers who were involved received credit for their work, but subsequent research has revealed the identities of those taking part in the project. In addition to the following arias from Pagliacci and Rigoletto, Warren, who had just turned twenty-nine, also recorded selections from La Traviata, Aida, and Carmen.
Leoncavallo – Pagliacci, “Si può?” (1940)
Verdi – Rigoletto, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (1940)
Here’s another early recording, made in 1941, this time of Dapertutto’s Act 2 aria, “Scintille diamant,” from Les contes d’Hoffmann. I’m not sure what to say about that final G#, except that I am humbled by its very existence.
Offenbach – Les contes d”Hoffmann, “Scintille diamant” (1941)
Warren’s Met debut took place on January 13, 1939, as Paolo in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra opposite the company’s leading baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, who would eventually pass the mantle on to his younger colleague. Although Warren never committed the role to disc, he did record the Recognition duet with his Met colleague, Astrid Varnay, in February, 1950.
Verdi – Simon Boccanegra, “Dinne, perche in quest’eremo … Figlia a tal nome palpito,” with Astrid Varnay (1950)
Two very rare studio clips of Warren as Marcello in La bohème, a role he never sang on stage. I know people who swear Warren joined in on the high B flat near the end of the quartet (at about 3:15), but I honestly can’t tell. He had the note, so I guess it’s possible. What do you think?
Puccini – La bohème , “Dunque è proprio finita?”, with Licia Albanese, Patrice Munsel, and Giuseppe di Stefano (1951)
Puccini – La bohème, “O Mimi, tu più non torni,” with Giuseppe di Stefano (1951)
There are plenty of terrific examples of Warren singing the Act 2 finale from Rigoletto, but I happen to like this one at the moment. It’s taken from a 1954 KNBC Standard Hour broadcast and features the French coloratura Mado Robin. Kurt Herbert Adler conducts the San Francisco Opera orchestra.
Verdi – Rigoletto, “Si, vendetta,” with Mado Robin (1954)
Finally, the only commercial recording of Warren singing Wagner, made during a 1958 recital in Moscow. As far as I can tell, the faint sound of a violin in the background probably came from a student practicing somewhere else in the building.
Wagner – Tannhäuser, “O du mein Holder Abendstern,” with Willard Sektberg, piano (1958)
So there you have it. I could easily have added another dozen clips, but maybe it’s best to leave you wanting more.