28 Mar 2012

Historical Performances from Covent Garden: Barbiere, La traviata and Tosca

Once the province of only the most dedicated opera fanatics, mid-20th century recordings of privately taped live performances have become more widely available.

ICA Classics appears to be a label dedicated to in-house tapes of live Covent Garden performances of the mid-to-late Fifties. Of the three sets reviewed here, all share constricted audio that mutes the orchestra but gives voices — at least the stronger ones — satisfactory prominence. Tape hiss, while audible, will not bother any but the most sensitive after a short period of adjustment. The question becomes then — how many “carats” can be ascribed for these nuggets from one of opera’s supposed Golden Ages?


The most fun comes with the 1960 Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini leading a tastefully raucous performance. The audience takes longer than the singers to warm up, by the time act one concludes, the stage action has broken through any stereotypical British reserve, and the extended bouts of laughter will make most any listener impatient to know what was happening on stage. Rolando Panerai sings a youthful, confident Figaro, but most of the laughter seems centered around the Bartolo of Fernando Corena. Luigi Alva offers a stylish Conte d’Almaviva, and for some of us, it’s nice to end this opera without the extended aria Rossini cut and later used in Cenerentola. Juan Diego Florez fires up standing ovations with this piece when he takes on the role, but it is narratively redundant and shifts the focus away from what should be an ensemble finale. Teresa Berganza made Rosina a specialty. There is much evidence here of the special quality she brought to the role — feminine and feisty — but either the stage action placed her further from the source microphone or the quality of her voice was not as susceptible to off-stage miking. Her vocal effect is dimmed by a recessed quality.

A couple of years before that 1960 performance Maria Callas made a notable appearance as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Although still in her mid-30s, 1958 finds Callas in variable voice. The middle still has warmth and agility, but the top is awkwardly approached and often unpleasant, although Callas holds onto high notes as if hoping the quality will improve through sheer determination. Act three comes off best, as she doesn’t have to extend upwards as much. Then again, it may have been an off-night for everyone. The stylish light tenor Cesare Valletti starts off “Un di felice” as if unsure of the key, and then seems to struggle with conductor Nicola Rescigno over tempo. He improves as the night progresses, but this is probably not a performance he would have wanted a permanent record of. Mario Zanasi is a competent Germont, not much more. This is a document for Callas-philes.


And for those still adhering to a supposed “Callas vs. Tebaldi” fan feud, the 1955 Tosca finds Tebaldi in glorious voice. Although the great soprano tends to let the sheer beauty and size of her voice carry much of the characterization, she does offer some moments of personal insight, including a spookily whispered repetition of “Mori!” at Scarpia’s death, and a sudden scream as her own final leap. For Cavaradossi Ferruccio Tagliavini pushes his voice forward, perhaps to match Tebaldi. While retaining his individual sound, Tagliavini stays at one emotional pitch, even in his act three showpiece. The biggest and saddest surprise is the Scarpia of Tito Gobbi. This is a role with which he will forever be identified, but as recorded here, he sounds dry all night, shouting for effect. One grows eager for Tosca to get her revenge. Conductor Franceso Molinari-Pradelli supports Puccini and the singers well, including a soprano “boy shepherd” in act three who sounds exactly like a mature soprano.

ICA Classics provides a brief booklet note that gives some basic details about the run of performances from which the recordings are drawn. Unsurprisingly, those commentators find each performance to be a long-lost gem. At budget price, there’s not much risk for the curious fan who would like to close his or her eyes, hop in an imaginary time machine and imagine themselves in London for these performances. Of the three, only the Barbiere gets a recommendation here.

Chris Mullins