The company had built itself a solid reputation with its collaboration with La Scala and some of the best singers and musicians around (Bergonzi, Cossotto, Stella, Bastianini, Serafin, Karajan) and now it went for a provincial house and provincial singers as well. Moreover, by that time, unless one worked strictly for a specific home market, operas were recorded in their original language and here all at once one reverted to Italian translations. But worst of all were the scores used by Basile, which clearly came from the deepest Italian provinces. Decca and Bonynge had accustomed record buyers to full versions and other companies had followed. DG itself for instance was the first company to give us the five act Don Carlos. And now that same company reverted to editions one no longer knew were still in existence.
Fra Diavolo suffers worse: 66 minutes and the recording is over. This is less than half the music that the real Italian version contains (142 minutes), which was recorded at the Festival di Martina Franca and conducted by Alberto Zedda (available on Cetra). La Fille du Régiment fares somewhat better as it has only lost half an hour of music. Originally these recordings were offered as a 3-LP album and there was no talk at all of highlights, which indeed they are not—truncated versions may be a better definition as some arias and concertati are simply cut in half. Forty years ago these versions disappeared almost the moment they were available as if someone realized at DG what a travesty this was. The mystery remains why these recordings were ever issued. There was talk of a big coup for DG by alluring Renata Tebaldi away from Decca. And, as a confidence building measure her lover got to conduct a few recordings; but this story was never substantiated. Therefore I still fail to see why DG has decided to bring these versions once more on the market. And yet, and yet there may be a reason some opera lovers would want to buy these budget sets (though I’m sure nobody at DG has ever thought of that reason). At the time together with the rise of consumer society and as one of its consequences, a magnificent opera tradition was slowly dying in Italy. Very few young people were still interested or thought of making a career in opera, even if they were talented. There were other well paid and far safer jobs to be found and it is no coincidence Decca would advertise Pavarotti’s records with the slogan “the one great tenor to come out of Italy for a whole generation”.
But in the sixties there were still a lot of singers who had made their début just after the war and who earned a living in small houses, grateful for some engagements abroad. Those are the ones well-known with all collectors by the proverbial saying: “if signor X or signora Y had sung nowadays, etc..” I heard a lot of them as at Flemish Public Radio, where I started my career, there were often opera and belcanto concerts. No real stars were engaged—too expensive; but the provincial Italians came and went several times a year. Indeed, with the exception of Giuseppe Campora who had a well-publicized Met and Scala career, all singers on these recordings often performed at the legendary Studio 4 in the Radio Building in the city of Elsene. Some of these singers even are above the epithet “provincial,” the foremost among them being Ugo Benelli. He was simply born too early. Everybody who heard him in his prime (like in this recording) will attest to the fact that they rarely heard a better “tenore di grazia,” all sweetness, charm and technically proficient but with a hint of steel in his fine top notes. In short and I have heard both of them in the flesh, I’m not sure at all Juan Diego Florez is the superior singer. A pity, therefore, that Benelli’s role in one of his rare recordings was butchered. This is the aria with 3 instead of 9 high C’s. And his “Pour me rapprocher de Marie” is cut entirely. Another better than common singer is bass-baritone Alfredo Mariotti with his beautiful rounded sound and fine coloratura facility. Speaking of coloratura, both Cecilia Fusco (Zerline) and Anna Maccianti (Marie) do well. They are both still deeply steeped in tradition; and they never skip a high note when there is a possibility at the horizon. Both have a somewhat sharp sound with a hard edge whenever they sail upwards; but they plunge with abandon into their roles. Maccianti especially may not have the beauty of Joan Sutherland in her classic assumption; but there is a lot to be said for the “joie de vivre,” the spontaneity and the lightness of touch the Italian soprano brings to her role. But I doubt that will be enough to sell this recording.