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Recordings

03 May 2005

VERDI: La Forza del Destino

“The policies of recording companies never fail to wonder me.” I am often reminded of the late Harold Rosenthal’s expression in the magazine, Opera, and I definitely had it in mind when I received this recording. Why would anyone bring out a set with two singers (Bergonzi and Cappuccilli) duplicating their roles of the classic EMI-recording of 1969; maybe still the best buy around? And yet, yet I’m not so sure anymore of the superfluousness of this set. There are two reasons for it. Number one is Carlo Bergonzi. I didn’t think he would be able to surpass his formidable EMI-Alvaro and nevertheless he does. Bergonzi’s voice was slowly changing in the early seventies. He had been singing the most strenuous roles of the repertoire for almost a quarter of a century and still the voice had not suffered. On the contrary, there were no traces of his baritone past anymore. The top was secure, though there never was much squillo and a high C usually became a high B. It was the middle voice that had changed most. It became honeyed, silvery in an almost Gigli-like way. Combined with his inexhaustible breath control, his legato and the way he could colour some small phrases and switch from forte to a heavenly pianissimo it slowly dawned upon many listeners that here was one of the greatest tenors of the century who maybe had been taken too much for granted.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino

Carlo Bergonzi (Don Alvaro); Ilva Ligabue (Donna Leonaora); Piero Cappuccilli (Don Carlo); Franca Mattiucci (Preziosilla); Agostino Ferrin (Padre Guardiano); Domenico Trimarchi (Fra Melitone); graziano Del Vivo (Marchese); Florindo Andreolli (Trabucco); Giovanni gusmaroli (Alcade); Chirurgo (Teodoro Rovetta); Una voce (Carla Bucci); Mirella Fiorentini (Curra)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI conducted by Fernando Previtali
RAI Live Recording Torino 1971
BONGIOVANNI 2545/7 [3CDs]

"The policies of recording companies never fail to wonder me." I am often reminded of the late Harold Rosenthal's expression in the magazine, Opera, and I definitely had it in mind when I received this recording. Why would anyone bring out a set with two singers (Bergonzi and Cappuccilli) duplicating their roles of the classic EMI-recording of 1969; maybe still the best buy around? And yet, yet I'm not so sure anymore of the superfluousness of this set. There are two reasons for it. Number one is Carlo Bergonzi. I didn't think he would be able to surpass his formidable EMI-Alvaro and nevertheless he does. Bergonzi's voice was slowly changing in the early seventies. He had been singing the most strenuous roles of the repertoire for almost a quarter of a century and still the voice had not suffered. On the contrary, there were no traces of his baritone past anymore. The top was secure, though there never was much squillo and a high C usually became a high B. It was the middle voice that had changed most. It became honeyed, silvery in an almost Gigli-like way. Combined with his inexhaustible breath control, his legato and the way he could colour some small phrases and switch from forte to a heavenly pianissimo it slowly dawned upon many listeners that here was one of the greatest tenors of the century who maybe had been taken too much for granted.

I clearly remember two Verona Giocondas where he set the arena afire after a hauntingly beautiful "Cielo e mar", each time encoring that long aria and without any loss of sound launching himself into the duet with the mezzo. This "Indian summer" lasted for about 4 years until 1975, when it became clear that his notes above the staff had a tendency to go flat but while it lasted it was breathtaking. This is the Bergonzi we get in this concert performance of 1971 in Torino (I don't know why it is not mentioned in the sleeve notes that it was on the 11th of October). Though we have several magnificent renderings of the tenor in "La vita è infelice" this is a version that ought to be played and replayed for every singer wanting to know what belcanto means.

His performance doesn't stop there. Every note is sung with utter beauty, a sense of the Verdian line without lingering or without extravagantly sobbing. He sometimes had a tendency even in his best years of gliding to a top note and clinging to it for death, bringing it on pitch all the while but here the high register is completely free and he pins every note right on. And then there is a fly in the ointment. It may be Previtali's fault but I fear we have to look at Bergonzi. This paragon of tenors had an awful respect for Verdi's scores in a recording studio but he could as easily resort to the worst provincial butchery on the scene. In 1966 Dallas opera pleaded, asked, begged and threatened him in the hope he would consent to sing at least one verse of the Duke's cabaletta "Possente amor," which he had recorded for DG. He didn't budge an inch and absolutely refused to sing those extra three minutes. Surely in a concert performance he could give us the fine second Alvaro-Carlo duet "Ne gustare " which he recorded for EMI but the listener will have to live with this barbaric cut.

There is a second reason this set is so worthwhile: Ilva Ligabue. One wonders after hearing this assumption why record producers didn't run to get her signature under a contract. She recorded (together with stylish tenor Nicola Filacuridi) 3 MP's on a small label and Myto would do well to transfer them to CD. These were her only solo albums. RAI however used her a lot in less well known concert performances and one after another they found their way to CD (Boito's Nerone, Cherubini's Lodoiska). There are some Verdi's as well (I Masnadieri, Ernani, Otello) though not always in best sound. Her Alice Ford is well represented and indeed has her only official recording on Decca. And I've got fond memories of her Francesca, a radio France recording though with Olivero, Gencer and Kabaivanska the competition is stiff. And now at last there is one of the major Verdi's. This is clearly not another Tebaldi, Price or Stella as Ligabue has a somewhat lighter voice. Indeed during the Convent Scene I thought for a moment I was hearing a somewhat heavier version of Mirella Freni, combining that singer's beauty of timbre with Ligabue's own limpid sound and a hint of steel, riding easily over the orchestra though in the upper regions around high B Ligabue's voice tends to vibrate and loses a little bit of focus.

Another stalwart of RAI who never made the major labels is bass Agostino Ferrin. He doesn't have the decibels of Ghiaurov or the black timbre of Christoff; but the voice is attractive, noble and rolls along most musically.

Piero Cappuccilli was the baritone during many performances at De Munt in Brussels or the Verona arena. His voice has the brown colour and the volume one nowadays misses sorely in most Verdi performances. Still, and this may be very personal, he always remained a somewhat aloof singer in my opinion with a great voice that never excited me overmuch. He too is here at his EMI-best.

Mezzo Franca Mattiucci sings in a lower division. She sounds somewhat like a poor man's Cossotto. She has a bright though not too personal sound and the voice becomes shrill when she has to reach for the impossible high notes of Preziosilla. Domenico Trimarchi is a fine Melitone, actually singing the role instead of crooning or clowning like Corena used to do.

Fernando Previtali is a maestro di capella of the old school with his well measured conducting so much attuned to his singers' breathing. Forza poses a big problem for record producers when one has no choice but to accept a cut performance. It's still too long for 2 CD's but it gives short value on the third one. So what bonus to put on to convince prospective buyers? I cannot say Bongiovanni looked after an original solution. They give us part of a 1984 Bergonzi live concert (Italian and Neapolitan songs) which was already out completely on LP and is now part of their CD-catalogue. They do the same with a Cappuccilli LP-CD. I'm sure most opera lovers will have both issues. A pity as with a little bit of research they could easily have given us some unknown vintage Bergonzi-concerts of the sixties and early seventies with unhackneyed repertoire which make the rounds of collectors. Better still, while discussing conditions with RAI, they could have asked for Bergonzi's extremely rare but magnificent Inno delle Nazione, recorded for the commemoration of Toscanini's birthday in 1968.

Jan Neckers

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