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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1737)
Livietta e Tracollo – Intermezzo in 2 Acts
Elda Ribetta (Livietta), Dino Mantovani (Tracollo), Complesso Strumentale del Teatrino di Villa Olmo/Ennio Gerelli
Recorded 25th May 1956, Teatrino di Villa Olmo, Como, Italy
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801)

Il Maestro di Cappella – Intermezzo giocoso
Giuseppe Taddei (Il Maestro di Cappella), Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Mario Fighera
Recorded 21st December 1954, Turin
WARNER FONIT – Cetra Opera Collection 5046631412 [57:15]

I have often complained that the inadequate documentation of these Cetra reissues has sent me scurrying to the Internet in order to find out something about the performers. So congratulations this time not only for good notes on the music and a synopsis – as is usual – but also biographies of the three singers and one of the conductors – nothing about Fighera, and I can only add that he appeared regularly with the Turin orchestra at that time. Not that Taddei will be a new name to most music lovers, and opera collectors will know of Ribetti and Mantovani too, though their appearances with the major companies were generally in minor roles.

Where Cetra have not changed is in providing us with the librettos in Italian only, and I wonder if I would have enjoyed this disc as much as I did if I had not been fluent in Italian myself, for the slender plot of Pergolesi’s Intermezzo requires full understanding of the various gags, as in the scene where Livietta speaks in French and Tracollo, hearing a word or two here and there which sounds like an Italian word, answers at total cross-purposes. Italian speakers will also relish in full the delivery of the recitatives, as natural and vivacious as speech itself. Another gag is Tracollo’s singing falsetto on his first entry – listeners not expecting this will think they are hearing a not very good counter-tenor. Still, there are some nice arias – Livietta’s "Caro, perdonami" is most imaginatively realised by singer and conductor – and admirers of Stravinsky’s "Pulcinella" will hear some familiar phrases along the way.

We like to think that we have learned how to sing baroque music only in the last two or three decades, but when both singers have such bright, well-placed voices without a trace of excessive vibrato or heavy-duty operatic delivery it is difficult to see what advances have been made. The conducting is also clean and lively. Just two features will date the performance a little. Very likely such music would now be played with one string per part; and if a slightly larger group were employed, there would still only be one double bass. I’m not suggesting that the orchestra here is enormous, but the sound is a little bass-heavy, in spite of the liveliness of the playing itself. The other oddity is that, while a harpsichord accompanies the recitatives, it stays silent when the orchestra is playing. All the same, the performance is most enjoyable and a valid tribute to the pioneering work of the Villa Olmo company which revived no fewer than twenty-four works of this kind in a single year. The recording is remarkably good for the date.

The recording of Cimarosa’s little jeu d’esprit is more what we expect from Cetra, the voice well caught and to the fore, a rather woolly orchestra in the background. But it’s not bad and the main thing is Taddei. Although he took on plenty of big roles during his long career (Guglielmo Tell, Scarpia, Hans Sachs ...) he was also a famed Mozartian and made a special study of baroque vocal style. So he enters fully into the spirit of the piece without ever seeming too big for the part. He was the first singer in modern times to perform this work, for the RAI in 1953; the success of this performance led to the present recording, which uses an edition by Maffeo Zanon, who orchestrated the recitatives.

Here is another piece where I feel that only listeners well versed in Italian are going to get the most out of this sketch of a singer rehearsing a not very co-operative orchestra but, again, a translation would have helped. I have another reservation, but maybe this is inherent in the piece. When the Maestro pulls up the various sections – "What are you up to, my dear oboe? ... Damned double bass, what the devil’s happening here? ... Please, oh please, pay attention and learn to count properly ... " – the instruments in question have actually been playing quite nicely. And conversely, when he goes into raptures after the violins have got their little phrase right, their performance here is unremarkable. I’m wondering if the orchestra should have entered into the spirit of the thing and played deliberately badly in order to be corrected more convincingly. But on the other hand, would such a farcical approach, however hilarious in a live performance, stand repeated hearings?

More recent recordings have been made by Claudio Desderi, Fernando Corena and József Gregor. The latter has an obvious coupling in Telemann’s "Der Schulemeister" but has been criticised for an exaggeratedly farcical approach; the other two come in rather mixed company – Desderi in a rag-bag programme of "La Scala at the Bolshoi", Corena as the filler for a complete "L’elisir d’amore" where the conducting of István Kertesz has found little favour. So Taddei sounds like the best buy. A modern version of "Livietta" comes from Nancy Argenta and Werner van Mechelen with La Petite Bande under Sigiswald Kuijken, a very well filled double bill (80 minutes) with "La Serva Padrona". But I think that opera buffs who get this to add another Taddei performance to their collection will not regret having the Pergolesi.

I have mentioned the excellent notes, which are anonymous. Not so the English translator, Nigel Jamieson, who gets into the booklet three times over. But I wonder if his work was tampered with, since entire pages go without a hitch, to be followed by some very unfortunate expressions indeed. A recurrent grammatical mistake comes in such sentences as "The Stabat Mater written for soprano, contralto strings and organ, that immediately spread throughout Europe, was transcribed ...". Unfortunately, you can’t substitute "which" with "that" when the relative pronoun is a non-defining one. And what are we to make of this? "Ennio Gerelli, a trace of whose career can still be found at the Municipale di Reggio Emilia in a Dido and Aeneas performance by Purcell and in a Voix humaine performance by Poulenc in 1970 ...". And I always thought Purcell died young! Of course, even a perfectly competent translator can come a cropper if music is not his subject. Thus we learn that "Among the certain instrumental works by Pergolesi are the Concert for violin, strings and continuous ...". Surely anyone with a smattering of knowledge about classical music knows that "concerto" and "continuo" remain unchanged in English. Then we discover that Pergolesi wrote an "Oratory" La Fenice sul rogo. But an "oratory" is a building for prayer, a sacred story set to music is an "oratorio" (the same word does for both in Italian). Curiously, the poet Metastasio is transcribed into Latin as "Metastasius" and it is explained that "Between the 15th and 17th century the interlude, with praise and songs, included other spectacular elements such as ballet and pantomime." If you don’t see where "praise" comes into it, neither did I. Consulting the original Italian text I find they are laudi, a type of sacred song common at the time. There is no English translation so the word must be left as it is, maybe italicised; any good English musical dictionary will explain it.

Christopher Howell

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