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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Amore e morte [2.28]; Ah, rammenta, o bella Irene [4.34]; Una lagrima [3.52]; La mere et l’enfant [5.14]; Amor marinaro [2.03]; È morta [5.26]; Su l’onda tremolo [2.58]; L’amor funesto [4.56]; Giuro d’amore [2.44]; Il sospiro [3.14]; La ninna-nanna [7.34]; Le crepuscule [2.57]; La lontananza [2.00]; L’amor mio [2.37]; La sultana [5.54]; Il pescatore [8.33]
Dennis O’Neill (tenor), Ingrid Surgenor (piano)
rec. St Silas’s Church, St Silas’s Place, London, 24-26 February 1997 in association with BBC Radio 3. Previously released on Collins Classics.
NAXOS 8.557780 [67.04]

It is amusing perhaps to think of Donizetti putting pen to paper and turning out ten or twelve songs or canzonette ‘whilst the rice was cooking’, as he claimed, for a collection aimed at the wealthy amateur or aspiring professional artist. But outward humour is only one of the moods employed, as is shown in this selection of sixteen items from the much larger number that the composer completed. Indeed, it is a pity that Donizetti’s operas have drawn public attention away from the merits of his songs: they are under-represented on disc and definitely underperformed, even by those who would appear well equipped to do so. Why singers versed in the bel canto style do not take them into their repertoire is a mystery to me. Even if one thinks of these songs as chippings from a master’s bench then it must be admitted that they are chippings of the highest order, particularly when one takes into account Donizetti’s unerring ability to draw out the nuances of the texts he sets – by writers as varied as Schiller, Hugo and Metastasio – alongside more popular Neapolitan verses.
Dennis O’Neill’s lengthy involvement with Italian repertoire in general is in his favour as an interpreter of this material, and he is fortunate in having Ingrid Surgenor, a long time collaborator, as his accompanist. Whilst the recital starts pleasantly enough with Amore e morte, sung with even mezzo forte tone and clear diction by O’Neill, all too quickly it becomes apparent that he cannot avoid employing a forced voice in forte when forte is asked for. The second track, Ah, rammenta, o bella Irene, is a case in point. The next, Una lagrima, emphasises the divide within O’Neill’s voice with hushed passages that are most sensitively phrased, but these are countered by outbursts that destroy the vocal line by being more ‘can belto’ than ‘bel canto’. Others may take a different view, but to my ears O’Neill’s vocal production all too often sounds effortful. It takes greater willingness to shade and shape such forthright enthusiasm to hold interest over a sequence of tracks than is really on display here. This is a disc to take a few tracks at a time unless full-throated tenors are your thing.
The recording itself places O’Neill forwardly and centrally across both stereo channels along with Surgenor, whose piano is perhaps a little recessed to be ideal. As the recital proceeded I wished for a touch more individuality from her – the accompaniment to track 8, L’amor funesto, shows Surgenor at her best and even O’Neill expresses much in urgency without recourse to crude tone.  Julian Budden’s accompanying notes provide little more than a thumbnail sketch and the roughest of indications of what to expect within each song. The delight is in the simplicity, the drama or the operatic nature Donizetti brings forth as prompted by the text – perhaps with a more pliant, or dare I suggest, younger sounding voice we might approach what these songs really ask for in interpretive terms. Texts and translations are downloadable from the Naxos website.
Evan Dickerson


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