27 Aug 2007
Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals
Almost thirty years ago a century old tradition ended with the last performance of I Maestri Cantatori.
For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago.
‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.
Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.
Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.
A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.
Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.
Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece
With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.
J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.
The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.
Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.
What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?
Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.
What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.
In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.
The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.
Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.
This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.
The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.
Almost thirty years ago a century old tradition ended with the last performance of I Maestri Cantatori.
From that moment on only Die Meistersinger went unto the boards as snobbery wanted operas to be performed in their original language, even when 90% of the public didn’t understand a single word. Wagner himself would have been flabbergasted at this decision, though I'm sure he would be the first to welcome ten years ago the redeeming factor: the surtitle. But together with the disappearance of Wagner in Italian or French there went astray another tradition as well: the stars (especially the male ones) of French and Italian opera no longer wanted to sing Wagner as they had to relearn their roles in a language often strange to them. Domingo is of course the big exception but what a wonderful Lohengrin Bergonzi (who studied the role in Italian) or Pavarotti could have sung. Therefore this recording is one of the last of a dying tradition and well worth hearing.
No, it is not a substitute for a German official recording as there are some traditional cuts (mostly in the Hans Sachs role) and the sound of orchestra and chorus is a little bit thin. I don’t think Myto was allowed access to the original radio tapes. But there are some interesting assets as well, the main being the noble Hans Sachs of Giuseppe Taddei. Usually booklets accompanying these pirate issues praise the performers to the sky but the anonymous writer of this issue dryly states that “Taddei impresses more by way of his volume than richness of phrasing”. This will come as a surprise to someone listening to the baritone in this role. Listen to his moving Flieder monologue, full of subtle utterances. And which postwar German baritone has the warmth of this well-focused voice that is so suited to the role ? There was always something of a bass-baritone in Taddei’s voice (he made his début as Heerrufer in Lohengrin) and therefore he easily encompasses the whole vocal range for the role. Second to him comes the surprising David of tenor Carlo Franzini, a real lirico with fine pianissimi in a role often sung by almost voiceless buffo’s.
Bruna Rizzoli, another neglected Italian lirico of the fifties and sixties, brings a sweet and beautiful soprano to the role fully convincing the listener of her youth and charms. With Luigi Infantino things go slightly downhill. One still hears the remains of what was once during and just after the war one of the most beautiful tenori di grazia in the world. His attacks on ‘Am stillen Herd’ and ‘Morgenlicht leuchtend’ are still magical: soft, sensitive singing of the highest order but at full voice the throatiness is now clearly discernible. Still, compared to most German tenors of the day and most gentleman of today he sings in a higher league.
Boris Christoff brings authority and gruffness to the role of Pogner. The Bulgarian clearly is not a very loving father because warmth and charm were never in his vocal arsenal but after all, how loving can a father be who offers his daughter to the as yet unknown winner of a singing contest ?
Renato Capecchi’s Beckmesser is more problematic. At his first utterance he reminds one immediately of his many Melitone recordings where he tries to make an impression by distorting his voice or gliding over the notes in his bad Corena-imitations. There is more to Beckmesser than just a bigoted preaching clown but Capecchi never delves deeper into the role.
Matacic is a phenomenon, even with an orchestra of the second rank. He actually takes his time, in fact he is slower than several German conductors. He doesn’t hurry along his singers but still succeeds in giving an impression of lively vitality. One never feels that the music comes to a standstill. The bonus is an interesting one: Boris Christoff singing in more or less acceptable German, Wotan’s ‘Leb Wohl’ from Walküre. Though the bass hits all the notes, the voice is definitely too low for the music and the colour is wrong. Christoff could express hate, resignation, pride, solitude but warmth or deeply felt love are not his. One feels all the time this is a Boris or a king Philip lost in another planet.
Leyla Gencer (Beatrice), Mario Zanasi (Filippo), Antigone Sgourda (Agnese), Juan Oncina (Orombello), Mario Guggia (Anichino). Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice di Venezia conducted by Vittorio Gui. Recorded live at La Fenice 10 January 1964.
Myto 2 MCD 065.334 [2CDs]
Leyla Gencer is the subject of one of the few state of the art singer biographies in Italian (by Franca Cella). Usually these Italian books are hagiographies (witness the horribly bad Azali series) where all former colleagues tell how wonderful the singer was, is and will be. Rarely do we get a glimpse of opera politics in these morose texts. Cella delved deeper and didn’t forget to consult the diva’s correspondence. The recording under review gets a prominent place as conductor Gui wrote many letters to Gencer concerning transpositions (she refuses) and the rewriting of the finale according to Bellini’s last ideas (she accepts). Gui, a renowned Rossinian, does more than that. He brings a sense of urgency, of drama that succeeds in vitalizing the somewhat lethargic long melodies of Bellini so that the opera has more in common with young Verdi than is custom with the Catanian composer (in the accompanying booklet Bellini is called a Catalonian; Barcelona will be surprised). In his endeavours Gui is magnificently supported by Gencer. Of course one has to love her somewhat pale timbre and her idiosyncratic way of singing; often switching to one of her fine pianissimi by a less than fine glottal coups. She clearly relishes the conductor’s dramatic tempi and is willing to sacrifice fine sounds for dramatic effects. In short she often makes it a different opera than Joan Sutherland does in the famous Decca recording and still Gencer’s approach sounds as valid.
Mario Zanasi uses the same method but contrary to Gencer Zanasi never was a very stylish baritone. He offers power and rage and succeeds but this is more Amonasro and Scarpia than count Filippo. Juan Oncina on the other hand has all the necessary refinement in his lovely voice, that is until the moment arrives style alone will not do and things become a matter of voice and voice alone. Then one notes his frayed top, his lack of squillo and one realizes he was more of a lieder singer. Antigone Sgourda as Agnese sounds a bit overtaxed in the role of Agnese and her voice is too close to Gencer’s to offer the necessary contrast between the two ladies. The sound is exellent and the recording is a worthy alternative for the official Decca one. The Sony recording too with Nicolesco (very much underrated), Cappuccilli, La Scola, Toczyska, Zedda may not be forgotten as the Rumanian soprano offers some of Sutherland’s beauty of sound together with Gencer’s sense of drama.
Mirella Freni (Suzel), Gianni Raimondi (Fritz), Bianca Maria Casoni (Beppe), Rolando Panerai (David) Piero De Palma (Federico). Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala Milano conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Recorded live at La Scala on 12 December 1963.
Myto 2 MCD 065.336 [2CDs]
What a masterpiece this little opera is; so fresh of musical invention, such fine melodies. It says a lot on the ignorance of opera managers and directors that it is neglected and that one still has to suffer the combination of Cav and Pag while La Scala proved on that exceptional night of 1963 what a winning team these two operas are (Corelli and Simionato sang Cav). I suppose most directors don’t know the story because there is a tragic and real underground to it. The opera is set in Alsace late 19th century early 20th century though it could easily be updated with thirty years. Later is impossible as it plays in one of the many Jewish communities of the region which were ruthlessly liquidated by the Germans in the second world war. In reality Fritz and his Suzel and their eventual children and grandchildren would probably haven ended their life in an extermination camp. Mascagni probably didn’t realize what was happening with his heroes in real life though he knew that everything was not very well when he conducted the opera in 1941. All references to the Jewish background disappeared and one hears Ferruccio Tagliavini address David as ‘o buon dottore’ instead of the original ‘o buon rabbino’.
A live recording of L’Amico Fritz is always difficult to enjoy for 100% because the two official recordings are so fine. Tagliavini in the 1941 recording sings breathtakingly beautiful and is ably supported by his first wife Pia Tassinari and Saturno Meletti, with of course the composer himself conducting. Still that recording has a worthy rival in the 1968 EMI with Freni and Pavarotti and Gavazzeni at the helm. This is one of young Pavarotti’s finest recordings and it says a lot of Moritz Rosengarten (Decca’s boss) that he sent the tenor to EMI in the hope he would stay there as Decca had enough tenors already. Happily for Decca, Pavarotti came back and would almost earn half the company’s revenues in the years to come. But this means that Gianni Raimondi on that Scala night is singing against almost insurmountable competition and indeed phrase after phrase, so memorable by either Taglivani (listen to his second act’s ‘Strane eventi’) or Pavarotti (a miracle in Ah! Ditela per me) goes for nothing. Moreover Raimondi’s voice has not the morbidezza for the role and all that can be said is that he hits all the notes but a romantic hero he is not. Freni on the other hand is fabulous; as beautiful and fresh as on her official recording and with some more leeway from Gavazzeni so that she can introduce a little bit rubato in her thunderously applauded last act aria and a few well chosen sobs at the end of the second act. Beppe has two nice solo arias which I could at last enjoy thanks to the inspired singing of Bianca Maria Casoni. Both mezzo’s on the two aforementioned official recordings have a sour voice and are no match for Casoni. Panerai too is maybe the best David around though he has a tendency to sing slightly flat. Freni lovers will be happy with the bonuses as the soprano is brilliant too in some arias and scenes from La Scala’s 1967 Faust.
Therefore, not a replacement for either the Cetra or the EMI recording but well worth a try as a worthy live recording at a time when the Scala public by its warm applause proved they still knew this repertory.
Marilyn Horne (Isabella), Paolo Montarsolo (Mustafa), Luigi Alva (Lindoro), Enzo Dara (Taddeo), Margherita Guglielmi (Elvira), Laura Zannini (Zulma). Orchestra e Coro alla Scala conducted by Claudio Abbado. Live recording from 18 April 1975.
Myto Records 2MCD 064.331 [2CDs]
There are some remarkable parallels to be drawn between listening to a modern Verdi performance and a Rossini one of thirty years ago. The moment one hears the lightweight voices of today, the lack of the appropriate style, the absence of sheer gusto while singing one can only sigh and return to one’s records of Bergonzi, Price, Merill, Corelli, Tebaldi etc. The sigh is the same when one listens to a Rossini-performance before the great Renaissance of the composer’s music started. Take the Mustafa on this recording. Montarsolo was a fine singer with a big round bass; a real fat sound very appropriate for the role. But in the meantime we have been accustomed to Sam Ramey who has only half the voice of Montarsolo and as a result the older Italian bass sounds so clumsy, so unwieldy whose coloratura is laboured and is sung only because it is in the score and not to drive home a comic point by musical means. Or listen to Luigi Alva’s Lindoro. He sounds squeezed and a little dry; without charm or cunning in the voice. This isn’t a slave who finally sees the possibility to get his freedom and his girl at the same time. Here too it is remarkable that Alva’s coloratura sounds so sketchy to us, though one has to take into account the date of performance: six years before Azio Corghi’s critical edition of the score appeared but still, how one longs to hear Juan Diego Florez.
One of the few Italian singers who knew what Rossini was about in those days was Enzo Dara and he is an expert in telling us the musical jokes. And then there is the one and only Marilyn Horne, sprightly and bewitching and the set is worth the purchase for her alone. I know not everybody liked her timbre but I do and the Scala audience on this evening very much did. The voice sounds wonderfully fresh and she twinkles and twitches as nobody else did or does. The great difference to me between Horne and Cecilia Bartoli is that coloratura is a means of expression for Horne and not just a gimmick with which to stun the audience like Bartoli does when she puts on her machine-gun trick. Therefore Horne in everything she sings sounds spontaneous while Bartoli often gives the impression of being a Schwarzkopfesque Rossinian.
Claudio Abbado at the time of recording was still learning his way around the Rossini scores and there are some moments where Verdian seriousness make its appearances. I’m not much impressed by his sense of timing in the finale of the first act, maybe the best in all Rossini and which sounds a little bit flat in Abbado’s hands. Claudio Scimone would give him an object lesson in Rossini style five years later when he recorded his L’Italiana for Erato with Horne in the title role. I think the mezzo sounds less youthful on that official recording and therefore Horne-admirers should pick up this issue without neglecting the later one which has the wonderful Ramey and the far less admirable Palacio as Mustafa and Lindoro. Sad to say, the two CD-reissues of this 3LP-Erato cut away the three alternative arias sung by Horne on the original LP-version.
Alfredo Mariotti (Don Pasquale), Mario Basiola (Malatesta), Ugo Benelli (Ernesto), Anna Maccianti (Norina). Coro e Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Ettore Gracis. Recorded at the Teatro Communale Firenze, October 1964.
Gaetano Donizetti: Il Campanello di Notte.
Alfredo Mariotti (Don Annibale Pistacchio), Emma Bruno De Sanctis (Serafina), Flora Raffanelli (Rosa), Alberto Rinaldi (Enrico), Mario Guggo (Spiridone). Coro e Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice conducted by Ettore Gracis. Recorded at the Teatro La Fenice, October 1964.
Deutsche Grammophon 002890 477 5631 [2CDs]
What an excellent idea to add that small comic masterpiece that is Il Campanello to a Don Pasquale that would otherwise have been somewhat short of value. Sad to say, there is a price to pay for that joy. Donizetti’s Night Bell only fits on the second CD because of some standard theatre cuts already existing in the Don Pasquale recording. Even in 1965 when this recording first appeared most labels didn’t accept provincial Italian house practice anymore on their commercial recordings. The main cut is the fine cabaletta of Ernesto, following his ‘Povero Ernesto’ and what a pity it is with such an accomplished singer as Ugo Benelli. He had one of the sweetest yet manly sounds I ever heard in the house. He was simply born too early as his voice was so well suited to Rossini and he would have been a strong competitor to Florez. Indeed, having heard both men I still think Benelli had a little bit more charm, more morbidezza in the voice while at the same time his high notes were strong. Therefore the blame for the cuts must be laid at the feet of conductor Ettore Gracis as I heard the Italian tenor sing the cabaletta and topping it with a brilliant C during a Pasquale-performance at De Munt in 1973.
Benelli is a marvellous Ernesto: indeed the very best of them all and I know that Schipa, Kraus, Araiza etc. recorded the role. But the voice is so winning, so intrinsically beautiful while at the same time sounding convincing in his despair or his love-making (listen to his ‘Com’è gentil). Another winner is the now completely forgotten Anna Maccianti. I heard her several times in concert at Flemish Public Radio but I had forgotten how lively and sensuous she sounded on this recording and her coloratura is brilliant and she can sing a real trill. Maybe the low notes are a bit weak but the rest of the voice is lovely and the top rings free. And then there is Alfredo Mariotti; an ideal Don Pasquale. His was not a big voice and I doubt he could have made an impression in the same role in a barn like the Met or La Scala but in an average sized house he brought a solid somewhat gritty Italian bass-baritone absolutely appropriate for the role. Moreover he doesn’t exaggerate the clownish aspect of the Don and one feels a certain reticence in the voice, a lingering doubt when he acquires such a young and beautiful bride. The least of the four soloists is Mario Basiola. During his career he always added jr. to his name so that people wouldn’t mix him up with his more famous father (the Tonio in the 1934 Pagliacci recording with Gigli) but DG dropped the jr on this reissue. Basiola did have the experience but asomewhat dry voice too and he is less than ideal on the recording. During the first part of the famous pattern duet with Pasquale, orchestra and singer are clearly not looking eye to eye.
Alfredo Mariotti made a career out of cuckolded husbands and once more his Don Annibale Pistacchio is exemplary in Donizetti’s little amusing farce where a new wedded older man, a pharmacist, is cheated out of his wedding night by his young bride’s lover. As the ‘gay young spark’ Alberto Rinaldi brings a fresh opulent baritone voice with him. 43 years later he is still going strong though these days he specializes in the husband roles. Here he is especially fine as the lover who has disguised himself as an opera singer who is losing his voice. Some singers tend to exaggerate their hoarseness, forgetting that too much foolery may be acceptable on the scene but irritates on record. Rinaldi knows and keeps the delicate balance between singing and comic effects. Both Rinaldi and Mariotti are at their best in the inevitable patter singing that is the vocal high of the score. Only Emma Bruno De Sanctis lets us down as the new bride. The sound is too sour and undistinguished. A pity, as Ettore Gracis paces his orchestra so well. All in all, a budget offer worthy for inclusion in a good collection.
Edita Gruberova (Amina), José Bros (Elvino), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Rodolfo), Dawn Kotoski (Lisa), Gloria Banditella (Teresa), Tim Hennis (Alessio), Andreas Mogl (Notario). Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Marcello Viotti. Recorded February 1998.
Nightingale Classics NC000041-2 [2CDs]
A good though not a brilliant performance. Of course much, even everything, depends upon the listener’s personal taste for Edita Gruberova’s sound. She starts out in a little girl voice though by her first cabaletta she already gives an object lesson in belcanto. From then on it’s smooth sailing and I remarked that the edginess which sometimes mars her work on record is not distinguishable. She also refrains from desperately lunging at flat high E’s which were no longer hers as at the time she was already 52. What will eventually decide all is the listener’s attitude towards her timbre. Personally I think it a little too opaque, not rich enough, too little vocal colour to put her in the same ranks as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Others nevertheless may prefer her sure footed singing above the former’s often sour sounds and the latter’s droopier tones.
Gruberova is very well partnered by Dawn Kotoski, a name new to me but the lady has a charming voice, steady from bottom to top and she sings her arias extremely well. Often in performance or on record one has too suffer a dreary Lisa as if the budget was only sufficient enough to pay the prima donna and I’m glad that for once this is an exception. At the time tenor José Bros was still at the outset of his career. The voice is slender but cuts powerful through the ensembles and he sings with style and a feeling for the line. The sound on this recording is a little bit dry and reminds one of Alfredo Kraus though not above the stave where the Bros voice thickens and loses most of its beauty. I’m glad to report that in recent performances (a fine Luisa Fernanda in Madrid) he seemed to have remedied his earlier vocal shortcomings. Robert Scandiuzzi sings a sympathetic count though he is somewhat tentative in his cabaletta and there is a hollow sound at the top of the voice. Marcello Viotti who was clearly Gruberova’s favourite conductor nevertheless doesn’t slack in his interpretations and never overindulges the soprano thus sentimentalizing the score. In these lean times I clearly enjoyed the accompanying booklet: at last different interesting essays in English and in German instead of just translations. And full colour photographs of most other Gruberova-sets are of course auto-promotion on the diva’s own label but still agreeable to look at.