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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Boito Memorial Concert June 10th 1948. (Plus appendices)
Mefistofele, Prologue and Act 1
Mefistofele, Cesare Siepi (bass); Faust, Giocinto Prandelli (ten); Marguerite, Herva Nelli (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Arturo Toscanini
Nerone, Act 3 and Act 4 scene 1
Asteria, Herva Nelli (sop); Rubria, Giulietta Simionato (mez); Nero, Giocinto Prandelli (ten); Fanuel, Frank Guarrera (bar); Gobrias, Giuseppe Nessi (ten); Perside, Ebe Ticozzi (mez); Simon Mago, Cesare Siepi (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Arturo Toscanini

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Prelude to Acts I and III
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Arturo Toscanini. 7-8 August 1951
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C op.21.
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Arturo Toscanini. 24 June 1946


In his booklet essay, London Green puts Boito alongside Verdi at the creative centre of Italian music in the second half of the 19th century and places Toscanini as the fiery interpretative master of the first half of the 20th. This caused me to pause and think. Certainly without Boito there would have been no Otello or Falstaff. Nor would La Scala have flourished in the manner it did during Toscanini’s tenure as the theatre’s principal conductor; Boito was vitally influential to that appointment.

Boito’s first opera, Mefistofele, was premiered at La Scala on March 5th 1868 but was not a success. Unlike Gounod’s Faust, Boito based his opera on both parts of Goethe’s work. Thus, after Marguerite’s death there is the scene of ‘The Night of the Classical Sabbath’ introducing Helen of Troy. Despite the relative lack of success of the work, Toscanini regularly revived it at La Scala, memorably in 1901 with Caruso as Faust and Chaliapin, on his house debut, as Mefistofele. Toscanini regularly encouraged Boito to complete his life’s work, the opera Nerone. A premiere was planned for La Scala in 1914 featuring the conductor and Caruso both then based at the Met. However, the score was not finished and remained so at Boito’s death in 1918 aged 76. Over the following years Toscanini supervised the musical completion of Nerone and presented it at La Scala on May 1st 1924 with Pertile and Journet in the most elaborate and expensive production in the theatre’s history.

At the end of World War 2 La Scala was in ruins as a consequence of an allied bombing raid in August 1943. The theatre was rebuilt within a year of the end of the war. Toscanini who had personally subscribed one hundred thousand Lire towards the reconstruction was invited to conduct the opening concert on May 11th 1946. As a requirement of his participation the conductor demanded the reinstatement of his former chorus master, Vittore Veneziani. A Jew, he had been banished from the theatre by the Fascists. Two years after the reopening concert Toscanini returned to conduct fully-staged scenes from Boito’s two operas in commemoration of the composer’s death some thirty years before. Whilst most of the singers, the young Renata Tebaldi apart, had at the reopening been of the older generation of Italian singers, the Boito Memorial Concert featured the coming generation.

This Guild recording of the Boito Memorial Concert is derived from acetate discs of a broadcast transmission. Like many recordings from La Scala it has a rather restricted and boxy, sound. To this must be added further problems of odd extraneous noises and loss of focus on voices. These noises are not so numerous as to be a source of major distraction, although the rather airless acoustic takes some getting used to. It is certainly worth the effort to hear Toscanini and the La Scala chorus in full flow (CD 1 trs. 1, 5-7). An Italian chorus has a particular squilla, and when as well disciplined as here, and giving it their all, the thrilling sound makes the remaining hairs on my head stand on end. Cesare Siepi was seen in Italy as the natural successor to Tancredi Pesaro and Ezio Pinza in the basso cantante repertoire. As physically elegant as Pinza he was more lyric in timbre. Despite the soloists being set too far back on the sound-stage his lean and even (not thin) tone penetrates the proceedings (CD 1 tr. 5). His interpretation of Mefistofele is incisive as well as mellifluous. There is no wooliness or lugubrious tone. Siepi carries his vocal strengths into his interpretation of Simon Mago in the extracts from Nerone (CD 2 tr. 1). If Toscanini was keen to promote the coming generation of Italian singers he should have cast Tebaldi rather than bringing Herva Nelli, a favourite of his, from the Met; the great compared with the merely adequate. Of the other soloists only the Rubria of Giulietta Simionato, recently ‘discovered’ at age 37, evinces real quality with beautiful tone and well-characterised singing.

The appendices have no particular distinction and could have been better chosen. The brief radio commentary is in Italian. The booklet essay is informative and interesting whilst the singer biographies are a shade eulogistic. The performances of the Boito works were part of a great La Scala night. It is commendable of Guild to enable us to share a memorable night, and particularly to allow us to witness two great Italian singers who were destined to make a considerable impact over the next ten years or so - longer in Siepi’s case. Toscanini’s conducting and the singing of the chorus make this issue of these rarely performed works memorable.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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