Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals

From that moment on only Die
went unto the boards as snobbery wanted operas to be
performed in their original language, even when 90% of the public didnít
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 donít 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 ìTaddei impresses
more by way of his volume than richness of phrasingî. 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 Taddeiís voice (he
made his dÈbut 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 buffoís.

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 ëAm stillen Herdí and ëMorgenlicht leuchtendí 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 Capecchiís 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 doesnít 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, Wotanís ëLeb Wohlí from Walk¸re.
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.

Jan Neckers

Vincenzo Bellini: Beatrice di Tenda.

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 didnít forget to consult the divaís 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 Belliniís 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 conductorís 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 Gencerís 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 Gencerís
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 Sutherlandís beauty of sound together with Gencerís sense of

Jan Neckers

Pietro Mascagni: LíAmico Fritz.

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 donít 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 didnít 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 ëo buon
dottoreí instead of the original ëo buon rabbinoí.

A live recording of LíAmico 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
Pavarottiís finest recordings and it says a lot of Moritz Rosengarten
(Deccaís 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 companyís 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 actís ëStrane
eventií) or Pavarotti (a miracle in Ah! Ditela per me) goes for nothing.
Moreover Raimondiís 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 mezzoís 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 Scalaís 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.

Jan Neckers

Gioacchino Rossini: LíItaliana in Algeri.

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
oneís 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 composerís 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 Alvaís Lindoro. He
sounds squeezed and a little dry; without charm or cunning in the voice. This
isnít a slave who finally sees the possibility to get his freedom and his
girl at the same time. Here too it is remarkable that Alvaís coloratura
sounds so sketchy to us, though one has to take into account the date of
performance: six years before Azio Corghiís 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

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. Iím 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 Abbadoís hands. Claudio Scimone would give him an object
lesson in Rossini style five years later when he recorded his
LíItaliana 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.

Jan Neckers

Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale.

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
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.
Donizettiís 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
didnít accept provincial Italian house practice anymore on their commercial
recordings. The main cut is the fine cabaletta of Ernesto, following his
ëPovero Ernestoí 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 ëComíË
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 doesnít 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 wouldnít
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 Donizettiís little amusing farce
where a new wedded older man, a pharmacist, is cheated out of his wedding
night by his young brideís lover. As the ëgay young sparkí 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.

Jan Neckers

Vincenzo Bellini: La Sonnambula.

Edita Gruberova (Amina), JosÈ Bros (Elvino), Roberto Scandiuzzi
(Rodolfo), Dawn Kotoski (Lisa), Gloria Banditella (Teresa), Tim Hennis
(Alessio), Andreas Mogl (Notario). M¸nchner 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 listenerís personal taste for Edita
Gruberovaís 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
itís 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 Eís which were no longer hers as at the time she was
already 52. What will eventually decide all is the listenerís 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 formerís often sour sounds and the latterís 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
Iím glad that for once this is an exception. At the time tenor JosÈ 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. Iím 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 Gruberovaís favourite conductor
nevertheless doesnít 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
divaís own label but still agreeable to look at.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von N¸rnberg
product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von N¸rnberg
product_by=Giuseppe Taddei (Hans Sachs), Boris Christoff (Pogner), Renato Capecchi (Sixtus Beckmesser), Vito Susca (Fritz Kothner), Luigi Infantino (Walther von Stolzing), Carlo Franzini (David), Bruna Rizzoli (Eva). Orchestra e Coro di Torino della RAI conducted by Lovro von Matacic. Recorded on 2 February 1962.
product_id=Myto MCD 066.338 [4CDs]