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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma (1831)

Gina Cigna (Norma, soprano), Tancredi Pasero (Oroveso, bass), Giovanni Breviario (Pollione, tenor), Emilio Renzi (Flavio, tenor), Ebe Stignani (Adalgisa, mezzo-soprano), Adriana Perris (Clotilde, soprano), Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro dell’EIAR di Torino/Vittorio Gui
Rec: Teatro Nuovo, Turin, 25th August-7th September 1937
WARNER FONIT "CETRA OPERA COLLECTION" 0927 43646-2 [2 CDs: 70:08+69:55]


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This was the first near-complete Norma on disc (it combines some then-traditional cuts with a few more excisions dictated by side-lengths). It is a relief to find that the 1937 sound, as restored here, is no worse than that of many Cetra recordings of 15 years later and better than some I’ve heard. The voices are firm and well-caught, with only a few high notes damaged by distortion. If the orchestra at the start sounds thin and suffers from wow, it is still possible to appreciate the Toscaninian whiplash attack Gui is obtaining from an ensemble which sounds to be a far finer body than the post-war RAI orchestras that succeeded it (though it might be added that those orchestras consistently played better for Gui than for almost any other conductor). His dynamic and dramatic direction is equally sensitive to the score’s more atmospheric moments (the introduction to "Casta diva" is ideally gentle without getting becalmed) and he never allows weight to degenerate into heaviness. He is also a true opera conductor in the way he supports his singers. In short, this is as finely-conducted a Norma as any since.

It is strange how Italian opera recordings were for many years led by able "house-conductors" rather than the greats of the day such as Toscanini and Gui. That Vittorio Gui was a great conductor is unquestionable and his absence (so far) from the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" series does no credit to the organisers. Born in 1885 he was the founder of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1933 and his international career included a much-appreciated period at Glyndebourne (1952-1964). The fame of the Rossini operas he recorded with Glyndebourne casts has led him to be labelled as a Rossini specialist. He was in fact a very fine interpreter of a wide range of music, not only operatic, and the Italian Radio archives contain a wealth of material which deserves to be better known. He was an excellent exponent of Brahms, and the combination of fire and humanity with which he conducted certain Richard Strauss tone poems explains why Bruno Walter invited him to Salzburg as his protégé in 1933. He had a special love for the French repertoire, which he conducted with much perception.

Gina Cigna was born in Paris in 1900 of Italian parents. She first trained at the Paris Conservatoire as a pianist but quickly found that her real love was singing. At first a mezzo, she found her upper notes by sheer hard graft and, following her debut at La Scala in 1927, presented herself as a soprano in 1928 and never looked back. She remained Milan-based from then onwards. Her major complete recordings were the present Norma and Turandot (a role she sang 500 times). She was also the first Italian interpreter of Richard Strauss’s Daphne (1942) and of Kostelnicka in Janáček’s Jenufa (1945). Local patriotic tempers were ruffled when she was invited to sing at Covent Garden on the day of the coronation of King George VI in preference to Dame Eva Turner. In 1947 she was involved in a serious motor accident while travelling to a performance. Typically she went on to give the performance all the same, but the effort cost her a grave heart attack and she was told she would never sing again. RAI archives contain a tape of her singing melodies by Chausson and Fauré in 1952 but as far as the operatic stage was concerned her career was over, paving the way for a long and much appreciated career as a teacher, her pupils including Ghena Dimitrova and Lucia Valentini-Terrani. She continued to be fêted in the salons of the Milanese great and good until her death at the age of 101 in 2001.

There is a general impression that Italian opera before Callas was sung by rather light sopranos with voices that were brilliantly agile but which had not much body to them. The 1939 Pagliughi Lucia di Lammermoor in this same series (8573 87492-2) which I reviewed some months ago seemed to prove the point. In part this sharp brilliance derives from vowels that are less rounded than tends to be taught today, and in this respect Gina Cigna occasionally proves to be a singer of her time. On the other hand, she has a magnificently full tone, perhaps deriving from her mezzo origins, carrying a fine body of dark expressive sound right up to her highest notes. In this she sounds more of a post-Callas than a pre-Callas singer and as sheer singing (her technique was very secure) it is superior to Callas. However, though far from inexpressive, she was not a singing actress in the same way and tends to rely on a more generalised regality of utterance. Her rendering of her last aria, Deh! Non volerli vittime, goes beyond this and is her finest moment. A magnificent performance in any case.

As is that of Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa. Stignani (1903-1974) made her debut as Amneris in 1925 at the San Carlo Theatre, Naples, appeared at La Scala the following year and was a regular there until 1953. Her last appearance was in Florence as Ulrica in 1957. With a magnificently strong, darkly expressive mezzo voice she was the natural choice of singer in a long series of pre-war recordings and can be heard again as Adalgisa alongside Callas in the 1954 recording under Serafin. There also exists a pirated recording of a 1952 performance at Covent Garden in which Callas and Stignani are conducted by Gui and where Clotilde is sung by the young Joan Sutherland. The only reservation I have does not regard her performance as such but derives from the fact that when she and Cigna are singing together the relatively mezzo timbre of the latter plus the fact that both adopt a firm and ringing public-address style of delivery means that the two are scarcely differentiated. A casual listener to their exchanges might hardly notice that two voices are involved. In 1960 Walter Legge adopted an original solution to the problem of differentiating between a "dark" soprano and a mezzo when he cast Callas alongside a great singer from a quite different tradition, Christa Ludwig.

Tancredi Pasero (1893-1983) made his debut in Turin in 1917. He was a regular at La Scala, and also at the Metropolitan from 1929-1933; his last appearance was in 1950 as Wotan. Though remembered as a great exponent of Italian bass roles he also included Boris Godunov, Gurnemanz, King Mark and Pogner in his repertoire, though I think I am right in saying he sang them only in Italy, and in Italian. His magnificently strong tones and dignified delivery are suitably priest-like for the role of Oroveso.

Less remembered of the four principals is Giovanni Breviario (1891-1974). His career was not very long (1924-1938) and he never reached the most prestigious theatres (the Carlo Felice, Genoa, was the nearest he got). I can’t say I’m surprised. The voice is fair and he is not unmusical. He rises decently to the final scene with Norma but his aria reveals technical limitations. I won’t go so far as a French Internet site, which has described his performance as "catastrophique", but he is certainly way below the level of the others.

The minor parts call for no particular comment. A performance in 1939 sound is clearly not a recommendation for first-time buyers, but opera specialists will surely value it for the performances of three out of four principals, and also for the conductor. In view of the purchasing public at which it is aimed I feel that in place of a brief introduction and summary of the plot in two languages, followed by the libretto in Italian, we should have been told rather more about the artists themselves, a deficiency I have remedied above to the best of my ability; some information about the early history of opera broadcasting in Italy (the performance was first broadcast and appeared on disc only later) might have been interesting.

Christopher Howell



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