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Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
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extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms
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18 Dec 2005
The legendary Magda Olivero
What is the difference between a lady who becomes a prima-donna and a prima-donna who becomes a lady? The last one has to be begged as she thinks she has to behave according to her rank. The first one is sure of herself and doesn’t need, well let’s call it to behave somewhat capriciously.
OK, let’s call a spade a spade. Some 15 years ago I produced a TV-show for Flanders and the Netherlands on the decline of Italian singing and I asked a mutual friend who knew Tebaldi and Olivero very well to ask for their cooperation. Both ladies agreed to receive me a few weeks before shooting would start but my friend warned me that making an exact appointment would be difficult as Tebaldi was not one to be pinpointed on a date. So I started calling the great prima-donna and of course got her assistant Tina who kindly asked me to phone back tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week etc. till La Signora had made up her mind. At last we agreed I should come to Italy and try from there and Tina was sure La Signora would receive me.
So I went because by that time I was sure this would not be a journey for nothing as I had also placed a call to La Olivero. I had stated my business to her assistant and within a minute Olivero herself took the call, looked at her agenda and gave me a date and an hour at her apartment. On the exact date and hour I arrived and she herself opened the door. She offered a drink and as she was a little (really only a little) shaky I wanted to pour out myself a cup of tea. I’ll never forget Olivero charmingly taking my hand and friendly but firmly saying: “So sorry but it is my duty and honour to serve you!” Of course she always was a member of the rich bourgeoisie. (Yes, I finally succeeded in meeting Tebaldi as well).
Now to the record. The title gives the impression that here we’ve got all of Olivero’s official solo-records but this isn’t so and it’s a pity the firm didn’t produce a second CD with the lacking titles (the Cherry duet with Tagliavini; Amami Alfredo from Traviata; Amor, celeste ebrezza from Loreley; Panteismo and Triste est la steppe). That would have been short value but they could re-issue as well her only solo LP-album with songs of Faith and Devotion from 1970.
Of course we are not lacking in Olivero-issues as she herself said to me “I’m the queen of pirate recordings” (Leyla Gencer makes the same claim) and proudly showed a recent issue of her Mefistofele from Rio with Siepi and Labo which a fan had sent her for approval. Still not all of these many recordings were produced in excellent conditions and sometimes the sound picture is not a thing of beauty. I’m sorry to report that the sound on this CD is not always pristine as well. Two items were run through an echo chamber for I don’t know what reasons and the producers definitely didn’t use the original matrixes or tapes but used some less than mint 78’s as from time to time a small crackle pops up.
Now what can be said of the actual singing that has not been already said so many times before? Olivero is something of an acquired taste and she succeeds with means that could be called limited. The voice was not big but immensely well projected. It has an obtrusive vibrato, somewhat more in the pre- than in the post-war-recordings. Now for vibrato lovers like me that is a plus but in the Anglo-Saxon world that didn’t help her career. A score is not a sacrosanct object to revere but a means to construe a character and, if for that aim note values have to be lengthened or shortened, so be it. Sighs, sobs and growls are fine as long as it helps to define the heroine’s problems, though there are no such weird sounds to be found on these records that can compete with a lot of her live recordings where she pulls out all stops. And of course she is the queen too of the “fil de voce”, spinning out a phrase eternally to an almost whisper before swelling the tone once again to a forte. Everything is so exaggerated, so blown up that once more camp becomes pure art.
During my re-listening for the n-th time to these recordings I especially concentrated on the difference between her 1940 and her 1953 recordings and there is almost none. As is well-known, she didn’t sing in opera between 1941 and 1951 (desperately trying to get children) though she often performed in concerts and there is not the slightest wear. The only difference seems to be in the style where the sobs are more obtrusive, preparing the ground for her triumphs of the late fifties and sixties. In short Olivero’s solo-arias are a must in every vocal buffs collection. And by the way, in her big Traviata scene she is assisted by a nice tenor whose name is never mentioned on any re-issue. He is the completely forgotten Muzio Giovagnoli.