Eleanor Steber, Soprano (1914-1990)
Giuseppe Verdi: ERNANI
"Surta è la notte ... Ernani, Ernani involami"
Conducted by Fausto Cleva
Recorded 1950's (Public Domain)
My personal opinion: At the beginning of the 20th century, America saw a flood of European singers. Tenors who wanted to make career in the United States were always compared to the model of Caruso, and it seemed unimaginable, that an American singer could reach the top. It was expected, good
tenors had to come from Italy. For this reason some Americans even faked their names: Hugh Whitfield became Riccardo Martin (1874-1952), Archer Cholmondeley turned into Mario Chamlee (1892-1966). At the latest with Richard Crooks (1900-1972), the American tenor was finally established. As a result a whole dynasty of American born (or assimilated) singers arose: Ruvn Ticker became famous as Richard Tucker (1913-1975), Moishe Miller changed his name in Morris Miller and became a star as Robert Merrill (1917-2004). Also the list of ladies is a remarkable one : Licia Albanese (1909-2014, US citizenship 1945), Bidu Sayao (1902-1999, coming from Brazil), Rose Bampton (1907-2007), Helen Traubel (1899-1972), Helen Jepson (1904-1997, named "the stunning blonde beauty") and last not least Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996), daughter of an African-American methodist - to name a few ...
One of the most beloved and acclaimed Met sopranos was Eleanor Steber (1914-1990), described by Wikipedia as "one of the first major opera stars to have achieved the highest success with training and a career based in the United States." Operatic historian William Seward: "Her greatness lies not in what she did but the manner in which she did it. Miss Steber's success was the result of talent, sincerity of purpose and hard work. Her growth as an artist was one of the few satisfactions New York opera goers could take pride in during the 1940's and 1950's."
Primarily associated with the Metropolitan Opera, she sang in twenty-six years (1940-1966) thirty-three roles, beginning with a tender Sophie in DER ROSENKAVALIER, ending with a tough Minnie in LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. She had with the company more than four hundred performances to her credit. In February 1952 she even sang Desdemona and Fiordiligi on the same day - two utterly different roles in their requirements.
Steber's voice was a superb lyric-dramatic soprano of great size and amazing sonic energy. Her pleasant timbre was refined by a ladylike attitude. Only rarely a guest in the sound studios, she left us numerous live recordings - each one a document of intense and red-blooded singing. For example, there is an interesting 1949 TRAVIATA Met broadcast (with the relish Alfredo of Giuseppe Di Stefano, who makes some irritating mistakes). A last minute substitute for Sayao, Eleanor Steber gives a highly concentrated performance despite the stressful circumstances. Whilst not a specialized coloratura, she mastered the breakneck finale of Act I with brilliance, including a glorious trill after "croce e delizia al cor", followed by the hard bravura cabaletta "Sempre libera" - breathtaking performed with aplomb and verve. Regardless of her diligence, capability and great success, general manager Sir Rudolf Bing never forgave her some forgivable private weaknesses (Steber loved partying), and punished her with a small salary. In his second memoires, Bing named Steber hypocritically "the queen among our sopranos, an unrivaled Mozart singer". The DON GIOVANNI broadcast of December 14,1957 with Karl Böhm in the pit at least confirms Bing's canting statement: Steber's sultry Donna Anna placed her in the first row of dramatic Mozart sopranos: What a fiery attack in "Or sai che l'honore", what a florid passion in "Non mi dir" ...
In Verdi and Puccini, Bing preferred European guests (Milanov, Tebaldi), and, how strange, even for the premiere of Samuel Barber's American opera VANESSA, he planned first to cast the Bosnia-born Sena Jurinac - who canceled in favor of Steber. With a large spectrum from Mozart heroines to the divas of verismo, Eleanor Steber was the most versatile Met soprano, a prima donna assoluta - but Rudolf Bing (with an ear not as sure as his eye) and phonogram producers ignored her largely.
Aside from a splendid recording of Berlioz' LES NUITS D'ÉTÉ, Steber's most recommendable studio performance is MADAMA BUTTERFLY (with Richard Tucker), conducted by Max Rudolf in 1949: It's Puccini in pure culture. Here we have the rare combination of tonal beauty, perfect technique, dramatic flair and unfailing musicianship.