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Recordings

Amilcare Ponchielli: I Lituani
29 Apr 2006

PONCHIELLI: I Lituani

Why would anyone want to replace his LP-version on MRF? Because his records are scratched and it is too much trouble to put everything on CD.

Amilcare Ponchielli: I Lituani

Alessandro Cassis (Arnoldo), Yasuko Hayashi (Aldona), Carlo De Bortoli (Albano), Ottavio Garaventa (Walter/Corrado), Ambrogio Riva (Vitoldo), Susanna Ghione (un menestrello). Orchestra sinfonico e coro di Torino della RAI conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni.
RAI performance of May the 6th 1979

Bongiovanni GB 2390/91-2 [2CDs]

$35.99  Click to buy

But why would anyone want to replace his CD’s on LO taken from this same performance? Just play the prologue and the answer is right there. The LO CD’s originated with an excellently taped radio broadcast. This new Bongiovanni-issue uses the original RAI-tapes and I am still surprised at the difference in sonics. The sound picture is so much clearer, so much more incisive and this results in more than just sound. I’ve never had problems with complete recordings of the early electric age like Pampanini’s, Arangi-Lombardi’s, Merli’s or Pertile’s complete sets; but these were always recordings of bread and butter operas that I already knew by heart the moment the historical recordings entered my home. This I Lituani is different. Apart from a few historical shellac solos, I knew nothing of the opera when I purchased the LO version some ten years ago in Boston. I played it several times and enjoyed it, though considering it more or less a first attempt that would finally result in the beauties of La Gioconda that premièred two years later (and which I’ll finally see once again in the Walloon opera, 26 years later after a Ghent performance). Lituani seemed to be well-crafted music but not much more than that. Ponchielli’s melodic genius clearly had to mature a few extra years. A recording in perfect sound changed my perception. The composer was 39 when I Lituani premièred in 1874 and he clearly already knew how to write a good tune. Granted there is no aria worthy of “Cielo e mar” or a ballet like the Dance of the Hours (but which other opera has a ballet on this level of inspiration?). Yet, there is more than just a generalized humming possibility, especially some of the many choruses, which are just as fine, if not better, than in Gioconda.

The cast has some strong singers. Baritone Alessandro Cassis will be a name that only vaguely rings a bell, though he is in several important productions like the French Jérusalem (Carreras, Ricciarelli), the Boito Nerone or the Adriana Lecouvreur DVD from La Scala with Freni. Cassis had quite a career, though he mostly limited his appearances to the Italian peninsula, singing in all important houses while in the summer he was busy in Verona and Caracalla. The sound is noble and has the burnished brown of the real Italian baritone. Indeed he maybe is the nearest thing to Bastianini I have heard; and it says a lot on the decline of Italy and the reputation of its singers in the operatic world that he is not better known.

Next comes Yasuko Hayashi. An earlier generation would maybe have Italianized her name but it is always something of a surprise to hear this lirico-spinto. She could be any good Italian singer as the technique is fine, the voice sounds appropriately Italian and she knows how to ride an orchestral climax. If one didn’t know better, she could easily be taken for one of those fine Italian sopranos that still abounded at that time—someone like Rita Orlandi, Luisa Maragliano or Orianna Santunione—honest artists with good vocal endowments maybe just lacking a very personal and intrinsic beautiful sound.

Bass Carlo De Bortoli brings an appropriate black voice and years of experience with Verdi roles to his part.

There remains the problem of the title role. Now Ottavio Garaventa is something of a case. He started out as a baritone singing as Silvio in the same Pagliacci that saw the début of Bruno Prevedi, not as Canio but as Tonio. Garaventa later promoted himself to lyric tenor. I heard him a few times and I cannot say I was very impressed. It was straight singing without much insight or musical phrasing. Moreover, I thought the voice made a finer (and especially a bigger) impression on record than in the flesh, where it sounded more tight and squeezed. He did make the rounds of Italy and some European and South American theatres; but contrary to what is said on his live solo album, he never made it to the Met and for good reason. When this recording was made he had been singing for 24 years. The voice sounds clearly more robust but thicker as well; and the finer qualities of the timbre are less noticeable. What is especially galling is this insouciant singing of notes without any attempt to use some dynamics or to phrase. As a result his brindisi and his romanza go for nothing; and one is sure that even an older Bergonzi would have made so much more of this music such that one would immediately have grasped its tunefulness. A pity, as Gianandrea Gavazzeni was not a conductor who would throw away his gifts on an unimportant score. The way he sculpts the many choral moments and the concertati (already a Ponchielli feature) proves that he believed in a revival of the opera.

Another advantage of this recording is the libretto in Italian and English—LO has Italian only—with a fine introductory article by Fernando Battaglia. Any opera lover of the ottocento who has become somewhat tired of his too well-known Verdi recordings should not hesitate to buy this set.

Jan Neckers

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