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Giuseppe Verdi: <em>La Traviata</em>
30 Dec 2007

Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals: December 2007

This recording made half a century ago will not be anyone’s first choice unless one is a die-hard fan of one of the principal singers; neither of them belonging to the absolute top in their profession.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Anna Moffo (Violetta), Richard Tucker (Alfredo), Robert Merrill (Germont). Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus condcuted by Fernando Previtali. Recorded 1960

RCA (Sony BMG) SKU: B000G759LC [2 Hybrid SACDs]

$19.97  Click to buy

Moreover, the conductor is a good ‘routinier’ and that’s all that can be said. Nowadays one doesn’t accept anymore the truncated versions of yore with almost half an hour of music missing. Still as a memento of three important and fine American singers or as an alternative to more famous recordings this is a set not to be despised lightly. Anna Moffo may not be plumbing the tragic depths of Callas but the voice is sweet and fresh and shimmering with youth. The coloratura is fine too just before the turning of the B.S Age ( = Before Sutherland) and the top is strong though the high E at the end of “Sempre libera” is clearly the end of the voice’s extension. The scooping which would mar many of Moffo’s later recordings is still absent. One easily believes (if one shouldn’t know the real facts) that here is a young soprano probably not more than a few years older than Violetta and thus utterly credible. Mr. Tucker’s sound may be not to everyone’s taste but he has a strong personal timbre and good top notes (indeed, Previtali allows him to drown the other singers in the ensemble at the end of act 2). His Alfredo however relies too much on sheer vocal force. He is not unstylish but piano and pianissimo are not in his dictionary. Those sounds he clearly reserved for his many fine recordings of popular love songs (so did Lanza) which probably tapped something deeper in his musical mind. As always Robert Merrill is a tower of strength; delivering every line with unfailing beauty and roundness of sound. And alas, also as always, not a single phrase remains stuck in one’s memory. One would offer a lot of money nowadays to hear such a baritone in the house but a bit boring he remains.

Franco Bonisolli: Recital.

Arias from Puccini, Giordano, Händel, Leoncavallo, Cilea, Ponchielli, Verdi, Donizetti, Massenet, Lehar, Sieczynski.

Myto 1 MCD 066.339

A worthy souvenir of the tenor, warts included. Myto doesn’t give us a date or a place when the recital was recorded. Judging from the sound of the voice I’d say between 1983 and 1988. And I don’t think Bonisolli would have sung “Wien, Wien, nur du allein (Vienna, Vienna, you alone)” in let’s say Rome or Madrid. Anyway this is vintage Bonisolli; a singer who succeeds in leading the listener into ecstasy or rage due to his vocal strengths or his unmusical sounds. Preferably, all in the same aria. Take “E la solita storia”. Bonisolli’s voice exemplary caresses and suits the dreamlike story until it’s time in the second strophe for sobbing, guffawing and interpolating an ugly high B (listen how Björling succeeds the same B without sounding vulgar). The tenor once more charms the listener in “Cielo e mar” until his intonation becomes suspect and he glides in and out of the right key. “Un di all’azurri” is at least sung homogenously; which means everything chopped up, shouted and suiting the tenor’s own idea of rhythm and tempi. And then he surprises us with a fine “Ombra mai fu”; brilliantly encores with “Wien” and gives us a magnificent high D in Land of Smiles. And which other tenor was ever so crazy to end a long evening with “Di quella pira” ? The end result therefore is a mixed bag though one has to admit this was a real voice. Nevertheless I‘ve a gut feeling that in the end Bonisolli knew his timbre was not the most sensuous and realized his top notes didn’t have the cutting edge of that other Franco. Therefore Bonisolli used some extra musical means to draw attention.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser.

Hans Beirer (Tannhäuser), Sena Jurinac (Elisabeth), Martti Talvela (Landgraf), Janis Martin (Venus), Victor Braun (Wolfram), Jeff Morris (Walther). Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Recorded live 1967.

Myto 3 CD’s 3MCD 062.325

When the Bundesrepublik came back into the fold of peoples and the Deutsche Mark started soaring due to the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) the great prima donna’s started to perform in Germany again. We owe two important live performances by Renata Tebaldi to this phenomenon. As they were broadcasted all over Western Europe I watched both of them almost 50 years ago. I was so disillusioned when I discovered Tebaldi’s Otello was not Del Monaco but the unknown tenor Hans Beirer. The gentleman had already many years of strenuous roles behind the belt but no recording firm had ever thought of offering him a single record. He was almost completely unknown to people outside the profession. Not without reason as his voice was second rate and his sense of Italian style owed more to bawling Siegmund than to singing Riccardo. Soon afterwards I became a subscriber to Opera Magazine where his name regularly popped up. I couldn’t understand why he was allowed to sing in a temple as La Scala. Nowadays when we see things in a more historical perspective reasons for his Scala performances are more easy to explain. Like all other major European theatres La Scala was slowly dumping old traditions; one of them singing opera in a language the audience could understand. This Tannhäuser was one of the first productions to be sung in the original German (as late as 1974 Jenufa was still performed in Italian).Another reason for the German version was the fact that no major Italian tenor could be found to sing the role of Tannhäuser. Gone were the Wagner-days of Gino Penno, Mario Del Monaco (Lohengrin at La Scala) or Giuseppe Di Stefano (Rienzi in the same theatre). So Beirer came in and at first the sound is not a thing of beauty; dry, unattractive timbre, resemblance with 70year old Rudolf Schock. But at the end of Act 1 the voice becomes more powerful while he never roars. During the rest of the performance he has found his Vickers-sound; beefy but with some shine on it. In short a real pro who absolutely knows how to pace. The same is noticeable in the long bonus scene from Siegfried recorded at San Carlo two years later (he was 58). There is not much lustre in his dialogue with Mime but when the forging song is there, so is the voice. As could be expected Sena Jurinac is a splendid Elisabeth. With her warm Slavonic sound (half-Italian, half German; combining the best of two worlds) she succeeds in making Elisabeth less virgin and more woman. Only at the top of the voice is the sound a bit frayed as she too was already a veteran of many operatic wars. Janis Martin is not especially erotic and in her clear light sound one already hears a soprano struggling to come out. In fact, on record Jurinac sounds more sensuous than Venus. Martti Talvela is an imposing Landgraf and Victor Braun delivers an excellent ode to the evening star. He too didn’t have much of a recording career and his big voice easily fills La Scala; at the same time showing warmth and charm. Sawallisch is sympathetic to his singers, never rushing them in what is after all a voice-wrecker for the tenor. It comes as a surprise though that the La Scala chorus sounds rather tame, less incisive and powerful than usual. Then one remembers that this generation was asked to sing for the first time in a completely foreign idiom.

Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto.

Margherita Rinaldi (Gilda), Luciano Pavarotti (Duca), Piero Cappuccilli (Rigoletto), Nicola Zaccaria (Sparafucile), Adriana Lazzarini (Maddalena), Plinio Clabassi (Monterone). Orchestra and Chorus of the RAI-Torino conducted by Mario Rossi. Recorded live 1967.

Myto 2CD’s 2MCD 064.330

This RAI-performance reminds me of a 1969 performance at De Munt in Brussels with almost the same cast. Cappuccilli and Rinaldi sang their Rigoletto and Gilda while Luciano was the duke (Luciano Saldari however was not a Pavarotti). The singers on this radio-performance are as excellent as they were in the theatre; filling the recording with well-focused sound and convincing vocal acting. Still a good evening in the theatre can sometimes fall a little bit flat when one relives the experience without the visual and aural surroundings and this is a prime example. Piero Cappuccilli is his well-known self; letting forth a stream of perfect sound in that brown colour only the real Italian(ate) baritone possesses. From top to bottom the sound is rock firm and he has a splendid G at his disposal as proven by the end of “Si vendetta”. I’ve seen and heard him countless times and he was always excellent and yet I think he was the Italian answer to Robert Merrill: a wonderful voice which rarely moved you (unless he sang his magnificent Boccanegra) or made you go back to his recordings. Margherita Rinaldi doesn’t put a foot wrong. She had a clear ‘virginal’ voice easily sailing to a D without the sharper edge of lesser Italian sopranos in this repertoire. Of course Myto gambles on Luciano Pavarotti’s appearance in the cast. He studied the role with Tullio Serafin, a real singer’s conductor who nevertheless according to Philip Gossett’s book on performance tradition, didn’t have much feeling or interest in historical belcanto. Pavarotti is splendid. He had been singing for six years and the overtones of a young and fresh voice are still there while the vocal technique is now very secure (the one chink in his vocal armour is his lack of a true piano). But Maestro Rossi is a Verdi-conductor in the Serafin-tradition: well-chosen tempi but no interest in the original score and preferring the provincial traditions. By 1967 all recorded Rigoletto’s already had the Duke’s cabaletta which is completely cut here. And singers already knew that “Parmi veder le lagrime” and the duet “ E il sol” had important cadenzas. None of it can be heard here though the tenor recorded them officially only a few years later. The rest of the cast is interesting. Plinio Clabassi (the former Mr. Rina Gigli) can still curse impressively as Monterone but his colleague Nicola Zaccaria is dull as Sparafucile. And that not everything Italian was gold is proven by Adriana Lazzarini. Several times I experienced her performances myself while visiting Italy and the hollow sound on this recording is exact as I remember her.

Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani.

Virginia Zeani (Elvira), Mario Filippeschi (Arturo), Andrea Mongelli (Giorgio), Aldo Protti (Riccardo), Vito Susca (Gualtiero). Orchestra and Chorus of The Teatro Verdi Trieste conducted by Francesco Molinari Pradelli. Recorded live 1957.

Bongiovanni 2 CD’s GB1195/96

As alternatives to official recordings go, this is one that can be recommended. The radio sound was not state of the art, even at the time, but it is the orchestra that suffers most. And the singers, all used to a healthy dose of Verdi and Puccini, will probably not earn kudos by Philip Gossett for their immaculate belcanto style. But voice and voice and voice again we get in generous doses. Best of all is Virginia Zeani of course. Together with Olivero and Gencer she may thank pirates for helping her name into the pantheon of sopranos. The fifties were her great years and what a shame she didn’t get more official recordings. From the first measure on one listens spellbound to the magnificent Rumanian. She may not be the great vocal actress Callas was but neither has she the sour sounds the American soprano made, even in her good days. Zeani’s voice is personal, throbbing with emotion and utterly fearless in the high register. Whenever possible and preferably at the end of an ensemble she takes the higher option and sends the audience into a delirium. As a coloratura she is no Sutherland as she was not raised in classical belcanto with its ornamentations but her involvement is so much greater than the Australian and she knows how to float her voice without becoming sugary. Indeed, it seems to me that Zeani combines the best of Sutherland and Callas. Enter Mario Filippeschi; known from his Pollione with Callas when not in his best voice (his recitals on Bongiovanni culled from live performances are far better). The voice is a bit unyielding, lacking suppleness for Bellini and has a slightly whining quality. One should not expect subtleties or even a great singing technique. There is no messa di voce as on the legendary “A te o cara”recordings by Alessandro Bonci and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. But if you like your tenors to have metal, even pure steel, and squillo and stamina in the voice this is the man to go for. The top notes are splendid and he is breathtakingly efficient when during “Vieni” he sails together with Zeani to a stunning high D (he was 50). Another veteran is Bass-baritone Andrea Mongelli. He too was a popular house singer throughout Italy though almost unknown elsewhere. He saved the recording of the early EMI-Fanciulla when he stepped in at the last moment for Tito Gobbi. His Riccardo is authorative and warm and the voice sounds homogenous from low to high in this bass-baritone role. Aldo Protti too, another big voice, is not the first baritone one thinks of in this repertoire. He is used to big outbursts of sound and though his emission is very easy one feels his phrasing is a little bit stiff. But he has reserves of power and typically for the time a fearless top. He easily takes the high G in his cabaletta (one verse only) and one hears he still has a few notes in reserve. Therefore when Mongelli and Protti meet in their big duets, all stops go out and the house almost becomes hysterical. One doesn’t associate Francesco Molinari Pradelli with Bellini and his is not the most subtle reading. He is nearer to Un Ballo or Trovatore than to Bellini but how could he otherwise with such powerhouses of voices in front of him ? This Puritani is a worthy testimony to a gone tradition, though not for Bellini puritans. It may not be fare for every day. But I’m sure we would screech our heads off if we would get a performance like this one now and then.

Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Renata Scotto (Lucia), Carlo Bergonzi (Edgardo), Mario Zanasi (Enrico), Plinio Clabassi (Raimondo), Mirella Fiorentini (Alisa). Orchestra and Chorus of NHK conducted by Bruno Bartoletti. Recorded live Tokyo 1967.

Myto 2 MCD 065.337

This recording is an issue only for those who collect every CD with the names of Scotto or Bergonzi on it. Is this a bad performance ? Far from it but as NHK broadcasted it on Japanese TV there is a (rather expensive) DVD available. So one can watch one of the four existing complete live performances by one of the greatest tenors of the post-war period (the other three being Aida, Elisir and Ballo while up to now nobody has ever thought of extracting his 1968 RAI-TV Inno delle Nazione from the vaults). Such a rare live visual document of tenor and soprano makes one more tolerant of the two barbarous cuts; the Lucia-Raimondi and the Edgardo-Enrico duets which when absent on record are unpardonable sins. Bergonzi himself had recorded only a few years earlier (with Moffo-Sereni) a really complete Lucia but he was notoriously sticking to Italian provincial habits. He was always rambling about “our great Verdi” when a producer didn’t stick to utterly conventional productions but the scores of that same “great Verdi” didn’t mean much to him when he could cut corners. In 1966 he was almost threatened with murder during a Dallas Rigoletto and he nevertheless refused to sing even a single verse of “Possente amor”; a cabaletta he had recorded for DG. Therefore I’d advise anyone to buy the DVD or the complete RCAset. Not that this Tokyo-perfrmance is inferior. The tenor sings with his usual ardour and feeling for the line. Of course in a live performance, the small sobs are a little bit more pronounced but his final scene, as always during the sixties, is a ‘tour de force’; an object lesson in belcanto which every student should student for beauty of tone and exemplary breathing. The bonus gives us some highlights from his first Werther in Naples in 1969, sung in Italian. Bergonzi, an autodidact and one to leave school too early, never learned another language than Italian and thus we are deprived of some possible great performances of French opera. Nevertheless Werther was one of the few roles (together with a Don José who is still missing) he studied in the original language 4 years later. It is a pity Myto didn’t use that far more rare interpretation than the Naples one which has already appeared on other labels.

Yes, I know the opera is called Lucia but Renata Scotto was never in the same league as the tenor. She officially recorded the role in 1959 for the short lived label of Ricordi (with Di Stefano-Bastianini). This is one of the five or six live-recordings available, almost all of them better than the early official recording. The voice grew and got more tragic undertones; the phrasing became more interesting (owing a lot to Callas). Still she never succeeded in overcoming completely one natural handicap. There is something acid in her voice; a sharp edge which makes some listeners uncomfortable. It is the sound non-operatic people always imitate to ridicule an operatic soprano. Granted, as I witnessed myself often during her prime, it was less obtrusive in the flesh but absent it never was. It is not very noticeable here in “Regnava nel silenzio” but as the performance continues it slowly makes its appearance. Her coloratura in the madness scene is fine though one nevertheless has more an impression of hard work than of natural talent. She remains a lirico with coloratura facility lacking however the easy top. The C in “Il dolce suoneo” is short and slightly flat and so is the E in “Spargi d’amore pianto” which ends in a small cry.

Baritone Mario Zanasi clearly thinks of Enrico as a kind of Amonasro. The voice is excellent but the style is more than rough and ready. Singing to the baritone means clearly to cling as long as possible to any high note on his road. This is a one dimensional portrait of a villain in which there is no place for mellowness, pity for the fate of his sister and remorse during the madness scene. I suppose Plinio Clabassi still had it in him to be a good Raimondi but as his big scene is cut there is not much to comment on. Angela Marchiandi however is one of the most wretched Arturos to be found on record. The singers conduct well and Bruno Bartoletti follows them nice and dry. Mitigating circumstances are that he has to work with an orchestra not well versed in this repertoire while his Japanese chorus is underpowered.

Jan Neckers

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