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Recordings

Arrigo Boito: Nerone
30 May 2006

BOITO: Nerone

“What a difference a sound makes” goes the song (or something like that).

Arrigo Boito: Nerone

Bruno Prevedi (Nerone), Agosto Ferrin (Simon Mago), Alessandro Cassis (Fanuèl), Ilva Ligabue (Asteria), Ruza Balsani (Rubria), Antonio Zerbini (Tigellino), Giampaolo Corradi (Gobrias), Alessandro Cassis (Dositèo), Anna Di Stasio (Perside), Corinna Vozza (Cerinto), Walter Brighi (Rimo viandante; il Tempiere), Renzo Gonzales (Voce dell’ Oracolo), Vinicio Cocchieri (Secondo viandante; lo Schiavo ammonitore). Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni.
Live recording : Torino 23th of August 1975.

Bongiovanni GB 2388/89-2 [2CDs]

$35.99  Click to buy

Up to now I only knew this opera by the San Carlo recording of 1957, which is an acceptable one. I never invested in the Queler-Hungaraton issue as I didn’t think such a rather difficult work would be served by Hungarians, even though there were some good singers in it. And I never saw the Zagreb DVD with former boy wonder, tenor Kruno Cigoy. But this set under review changed my perspective due to the excellent sonics, as Bongiovanni got the original tapes RAI made, which MRF didn’t have when they launched this performance as a pirate.

The first time I heard Nerone, my reaction was probably a common one: that someone who composed splendid arias like ‘Dai campi’ ‘Giunto sul passo’’Ave Signor’ and the hauntingly beautiful ‘L’altra notte’ had given all his inspiration to that one Mefistofele. But, even a second and a third hearing didn’t change much. This set did. Of course, the composer of 1902 (when La Scala announced a production) or 1912 when Boito asked Caruso to sing the title role was not the same one as the young man of 1868 (première of Mefistofele) or 1876 (reworked version for tenor, which is nowadays always performed). Too much had changed in those 30 years. There was Boito’s collaboration with Verdi and the revolution Mascagni wrought with his Cavalleria. But especially there was the all overwhelming influence of Wagner whose scores were now widely available for study and performance. The results of all those influences are clear to hear in this performance. There are melodies but they are not the long sweeping arches of before. The balance between orchestra and voice is far more equilibrated and often the parlando is more accompanying the orchestra than vice-versa; and that makes perfect sound so important if one wants to pick up the tune. Granted, there are several dry patches where ‘Sprechgesang’ takes over. Yet there are many fine parts as well and in his choral writing we surely recognize the composer of that grandiose Mefistofele-prologue.

The cast is a strong one. By 1975, Bruno Prevedi’s big international career was over. He mainly sang in Germany and Austria and some fine but still smaller Italian houses. He gladly accepted RAI-invitations to sing tenor roles in rarely performed operas like Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Fernando Cortez and this Nerone. In fact, between February, when he sang Maurizio at Bari, and this RAI-broadcast, no performance is to be found in his chronology. So he definitely took his time to learn this difficult score. The voice is still as we remember: a true Italian lirico-spinto that always betrayed his baritone origins. Though he is never unmusical, there are certain details that cloud some of his singing. He uses an unremitting forte and his technique with a lot of glottal attacks is somewhat crude. Picchi in Naples is a more accomplished singer and brings more nuance to the role but he hasn’t the power of Prevedi in some of Nero’s outbursts.

The real star of the set is Ilva Ligabue. During her heyday, she was shamefully neglected by the big labels. She recorded 3 MP-recitals in not always typical repertoire (together with tenor Nicola Filacuridi) and then there was the Solti-Falstaff. As more and more documents become available (an unforgettable Forza with Bergonzi at his very best on Bongiovanni) we realize what a great singer she was. The moment she starts her long scene in the first act, one sits up and takes notice. Here is a soprano with her own typical sound, basically a lyric voice but with enough steel in it to climb all vocal hurdles and to dominate the temple scene in the second act or the orchard scene in the third act. One regrets Boito wrote the libretto for a fifth act where her death scene is the culminating point of the opera and then never set it to music.

The rest of the opera, too, is cast from strength. Agostino Ferrin as Simon Mago has not the house rattling amplitude of Nicolai Ghiaurov but the voice is fine, cultivated and rolling along. In fact it is a bit too sympathetic for the bad guy he is supposed to be. Alessandro Cassis is nowadays mainly remembered as Michonnet in the DVD of the classic La Scala Adriana with Freni. But he had one of the best Italian baritone voices in the seventies and eighties, firm and rounded and with more than one hint of Bastianini. For reasons unknown to me he never had a big international career (or he didn’t want one) but his singing as Fanuel, leader of the Christians (not to be mixed up with the Magician in Massenet’s Hérodiade), is exemplary. The same can be said of Ruza Baldani’s performance in the lesser soprano role of Rubria. This recording is witness to the dying of a great Italian tradition. The many smaller comprimario roles are taken up by sometimes first class voices like mezzo Anna Di Stasio (Suzuki in the Bergonzi-Scotto Butterfly), tenor Corradi, mezzo Corinna Vozza (Lola in the Corelli Cavalleria) etc. Most of these singers would nowadays have major careers.

Gianandrea Gavazzeni was already a veteran at the time of recording and one of the last great Italian Maestri Concertatori with direct ties to the creators. Though he conducted the famous Corelli-Callas revival of Poliuto, he was something like a specialist of verismo; a love he later shared with his 50-years younger wife Denia Mazzola. This opera with hints of late Verdi, Wagner and Puccini of Fanciulla or Mascagni of Amica or Isabeau fits him to a T; and he brings it forth with a firm hand that reveals a score and a recording worth investing in.

Jan Neckers

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