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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Fedora – opera in three acts (1898) [89:44]
Magda Olivero (La Principessa Fedora Romazoff – soprano); Lucia Cappellino (La Contessa Olga Sukarev – soprano leggero); Mario Del Monaco (Il Conte Loris Ipanoff – tenor); Tito Gobbi (De Siriex – baritone); Kiri Te Kanawa (Dimitri – soprano); Sergio Caspari (Un piccolo Savoiardo – boy soprano); Riccardo Cassinelli (Désiré – tenor); Piero De Palma (Il Barone Rouvel – tenor); Peter Binder (Cirillo – baritone); Virgilio Carbonari (Boroff – baritone); Silvio Maionica (Gretch – bass); Leonardo Monreale (Lorek – baritone); Athos Cesarini (Sergio, Nicola); Aron Bokatti (Michele); Pascal Rogé (Lazinski – pianist)
Choeur de l’Opéra de Monte Carlo
Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte Carlo/Lamberto Gardelli
Riccardo ZANDONAI (1883-1944)
Francesca da Rimini – opera in four acts (1914): Excerpts [41:52]
Act II: E’ ancora sgombro il campo del comune? [06:58]
Act III: No, Smaragdi, no! [05:34]; Paolo, datemi pace! [07:35]; Ah la parola che i miei occhi incontrano! [06:29]
Act IV: Ora andate [07:51]; E così vada s’è pur mio destino [07:25]
Magda Olivero (Francesca – soprano); Mario Del Monaco (Paolo il Bello – tenor); Virgilio Carbonari (Giovanni lo Sciancato/Il torrigiano – baritone); Annamaria Gasparini (Biancofiore); Athos Cesarini (Il balestriere);
L’Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte Carlo/Nicola Rescigno
rec. April/May 1969 (Francesca), May 1969 (Fedora), Salle Alcazar, Monte Carlo. ADD
DECCA 475 7622 [64:14 + 67:45]


Even in Italy, Giordano’s second best-known opera is fringe repertoire. Just one brief aria, Loris’s “Amor ti vieta”, is regularly excerpted. Over the years, though, the two leading roles have proved sufficiently attractive to important singers to prompt revivals. In 1969, as well as making this recording, Olivero sang it in Lucca (with Di Stefano, conducted by Napoleone Annovazzi) and Dallas (with Prevedi, under Rescigno). In 1971 she returned to it in Como with Giacomini and with Ferruccio Scaglia conducting. Other post-war Fedoras have included Renata Tebaldi (Naples, 1961 with Di Stefano and Sereni under Arturo Basile), Virginia Zeani (Barcelona, 1977 with Domingo under Alfredo Silipigni), Renata Scotto (Barcelona, 1988 with Domingo under Armando Gatto), Marcella Pobbe (under Molinari-Pradelli, no other info) and Maria Guleghina (Covent Garden, 1995 with Domingo under Downes). Mirella Freni has been a fairly frequent exponent of the role (La Scala, 1993 alternating Domingo with Carreras under Gavazzeni; Barcelona 1993, with Carreras under Stefano Ranzani, Covent Garden, 1994 with Carreras under Downes). My list has concentrated on the soprano role, but as you can see, I’ve mentioned some pretty important tenors along the way. Incredibly, an internet search revealed that bootleg recordings of all these performances are available from one source or another, though I tremble to think what many of them sound like. Freni and Domingo were together again at the Metropolitan in 1997 under Roberto Abbado and a DVD of this is available from DG.

As regards recordings, Cetra were unsurprisingly first off the mark, setting it down in 1950 with Maria Caniglia, Giacinto Prandelli and Scipio Colombo in Milan under Mario Rossi. Warner have been busily restoring the Cetra catalogue to circulation but they don’t seem to have reached this one yet. Two other early recordings presumably derive from broadcasts. From Walhall there is a performance in German with Maud Cunitz and Karl Friedrich under Kurt Schröder (Frankfurt, 1953). From Eklipse comes what sounds like a typical Cetra or RAI line-up with Pia Tassinari, Ferruccio Tagliavini and Saturno Meletti under Oliviero De Fabritiis (Milan, 1954). But the only modern alternative to the present recording, apart from the DVD I’ve mentioned, is on Sony with Eva Marton and José Carreras recorded in Hungary under Giuseppe Patané (issued in 1987). It doesn’t seem to be available at present.

The opera is based on a play by Sardou and proves to be a swiftly plotted affair bristling with spies, nihilists, police informers and the like. The love between Fedora and Loris is born of misunderstandings and betrayals and much of the last act is a fine example of two people speaking at cross-purposes. The famous tenor aria – also developed as an orchestral intermezzo and alluded to at the end – is not really the only good tune. An equally memorable one soars out of the orchestral strings even before the curtain has risen, and this comes back frequently during the work in different guises. Arias are kept brief yet several of them seem as worthy of separate performance on recital records as many more familiar ones. Most commentators have hit upon the originality of Fedora’s and Loris’s dramatic exchanges in Act Two taking place with only the accompaniment of a pianist playing spoof Chopin. The off-stage chorus and shepherd boy, with accordion, may seem like mere local colour when they open Act Three, but intrude poignantly on the final scene and indeed have the last word. Not an essential opera, maybe, but a very good one.

I have compared this performance with an off-the-air tape of the 1993 La Scala revival (Freni/Domingo/Gavazzeni). Since I have to conclude that this is the better performance, I will point out that it appears to be available from Legato Classics BUT I have no idea of the quality of the sound so you should not purchase it without sampling first.

When this recording appeared in 1970 it was widely received as a blast from the past. Quite apart from the opera itself, which had supposedly dropped from the repertoire for ever, all three leading singers were considered as having done great things in the ’fifties and early ’sixties and it was a bit surprising to find they were still going.

Magda Olivero was born, according to which reference book you use, some time between 1910 and 1914. Her stage debut was in 1933 in Gianni Schicchi. She quickly acquired a high reputation, was considered by Cilea his ideal Adriana Lecouvreur and sang Liù in the first recording of Turandot (1938 with Gina Cigna conducted by Ghione). Incredibly, that and the present Fedora are the only complete operas she officially recorded. In about 1940 she married and withdrew from the scene but returned ten years later at the request of Cilea. Her final stage appearance was in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine at Verona in 1981. In 1993 she recorded, with piano accompaniment, extracts from Adriana Lecouvreur for Bongiovanni and finally announced her retirement in 1994. She is still active, adjudicating competitions and the like.

Her many admirers have expressed amazement that she made so few recordings. Certainly, she should have made more, but I think there is a reason. She was by all accounts a great singing actress and no one can question the security of her vocal technique – the length of her career proves this. But the voice was not perhaps especially beautiful in itself and it did not age particularly well. It retained its body and power, but even when she recorded Iris for the RAI in 1956, and Tosca in 1957, it was not exactly a young-sounding voice and in 1969 it is definitely the voice of an elderly woman. We can admire the clarity of her diction, her breath control, her phrasing, her gut conviction, but on disc I find the somewhat jaded quality of the voice gets in the way of total enjoyment. Maybe this was not so in the theatre.

If we work from her average birth date, Olivero was 57 when she made this recording. At the time of the La Scala performance, Mirella Freni was 58, yet nobody thought of her as a singer from the past. Furthermore, she gained in dramatic conviction with the passing years. Her voice is sometimes taken to its limits by Giordano’s writing, yet it never loses its lustrous sheen, while her interpretation yields nothing to Olivero’s.

Still, there are positive features to Olivero’s Fedora and at least it gives us some idea of what her singing was like. Regarding Mario Del Monaco, the story is quickly told. A loud and unsubtle artist at the best of times, his voice was irredeemably hoarse and frayed by 1969 except, oddly, at the very top, from A flat upwards. “Amor ti vieta” is a painful experience.

Del Monaco was then 54. In 1993 Domingo was 52. In many ways his story is parallel to that of Freni for, as we all know, his career was far from over. He, too, is taken to the limit by Giordano’s vocal writing, but the rich quality of his voice remains intact. He has never been an especially imaginative interpreter, but there is at least a degree of interpretation compared with Del Monaco’s barking.

Whether Fedora is a two-singer or a three-singer opera depends on who sings De Siriex. At La Scala Alessandro Corbelli does a good job but it remains a two-singer opera. Tito Gobbi, as we know from his Sharpless, could make quite a lot of not very much. Basically, the role has a rollicking aria in Act Two – “La Donna Russa”, adapted from Alabieff – and a dramatic piece of news-breaking in Act Three. Gobbi was then 54, but bass voices seem to age less than tenors. Maybe the tone is a little jaded on the upper notes but then one never did go to Gobbi for sheer tonal beauty – for that you went to Giuseppe Taddei. No, Gobbi is certainly one good reason for getting this.

The other parts are smallish and are well-taken. There is just one of the comprimari who has a nice voice but sings syllabically as though unaware of what she is saying, and I’m afraid that’s Kiri Te Kanawa, then at the very beginning of her career. You may be surprised to see the name of Pascal Rogé in the cast but Lazinski doesn’t sing, or even speak, he plays, and very beautifully too. La Scala’s Arnold Bosman is somewhat heavy-handed. Incidentally, Olga’s Act Two aria “Il Parigino è come il vino” is omitted. It is not one of the score’s most inspired moments but without it “Amor ti vieta” arrives too quickly. It is included at La Scala.

Gardelli is reliable enough but even before the voices have entered he has released a splurge of vulgar brass that Gavazzeni manages to keep under control. The intermezzo based on “Amor ti vieta” is pleasant enough under Gardelli but Gavazzeni caresses it and builds it up so that while it lasts you think it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Great conducting and it gets an ovation. For much of the time there’s not a lot of difference but when the conductors do differ – mainly in the Third Act – Gavazzeni’s solutions are invariably more illuminating.

So there you are. You can try to find the Gavazzeni – sampling it first. Or you can hear Freni and Domingo on DVD four years later. No doubt the Cetra will reappear sooner or later but it won’t have modern sound. The Sony could be interesting if it is reissued. Or you can buy this. You will get a magnificent Des Siriex, an imperfect souvenir of a great singing actress, a ghastly sample of a stentorian tenor in decline and acceptable conducting.

Francesca da Rimini is of course a character from Dante, but Zandonai’s opera is based in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play on the same subject which gave the story a typically decadent twist. D’Annunzio-based operas make a fascinating chapter in the history of early 20th century Italian music. In spite of several by Zandonai’s more famous teacher Mascagni and by his more highly-regarded contemporary Pizzetti, Francesca da Rimini is the only one which has so far attained even a foothold on the general repertoire. In Italy it gets an occasional revival and in 1984 it re-entered the Met repertoire with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, conducted by James Levine. This team made many notable recordings but Francesca is a work they didn’t repeat in the studio. However, a video of the Met production, directed by Brian Large, was issued in 1999. Since the production was praised for its visual aspects, those wishing to know this work should probably be directed to this.

Even back in 1970, when these extracts appeared on LP, Gramophone’s Andrew Porter had to point out that Zandonai was not well represented by extracts since the composer’s elaborate web of thematic cross-references could only be appreciated when heard whole. At that time he could only advise readers to seek out the 1952 Cetra recording with Caniglia, Prandelli and Tagliabue, conducted by Antonio Guarnieri. This set has a particular interest in that Guarnieri is sometimes claimed as the third of the great trio of Italian conductors, on a level with Toscanini and De Sabata. Very little recorded evidence exists to support this view.

Since 1970 the opera has had a shadowy existence on disc. By 1981 Cetra was practically moribund as far as new productions were concerned but was living handsomely off Italy’s “20-year law” according to which copyright lapsed on live performances and broadcasts after only 20 years. They therefore brought out a set of LPs, in passable mono sound, based on a 1961 Trieste production with Leyla Gencer, Renato Cioni and Anselmo Colzani, conducted by Franco Capuana. If Magda Olivero made too few discs, to the best of my knowledge Leyla Gencer made no official ones at all. And yet her reputation, at least in Italy, was enormous. At La Scala, she was one of the very few sopranos the so-called “widows of Callas” were prepared to put up with after the diva’s withdrawal from the scene. During the 1990s Italy was brought to heel by an EU directive and copyright on live performances and broadcasts now lapses there after 50 years, as it does in most other countries, so this recording will not see the light of day again before 2011, unless someone thought it worthwhile negotiating an official release with the copyright holders.

In 1988 RCA issued a recording with Raina Kabaivanska, William Matteuzzi and Matteo Manuguerra, conducted by Maurizio Arena. Kabaivanska is yet another soprano famed as a great singing-actress but who has recorded little. In her case, though, the problem is a spreading vibrato which does not take kindly to the microphones. A further recording was issued in 1997 by Schwann with Elena Filipova and Frederic Kalt under Fabio Luisi. Neither of these appears to be available at present. Indeed, apart from the Met video, your only hope of hearing the entire opera at the moment lies with the pirates, who are offering Kabaivanska and Domingo under Queler and the 1959 La Scala revival which had Olivero and Del Monaco, presumably in fresher voices than on the extracts of ten years later, under Gavazzeni.

For better or worse, my comparisons have been with the now-banned 1981 Cetra. They tell a similar tale to that of Fedora. Olivero’s voice does not sound young, but she is still capable of exquisite high pianissimos and once or twice even shames Del Monaco into an attempt at something less than fortissimo. In a way these extracts show, even more than Fedora, what a formidable singing-actress she must have been. However, Leyla Gencer was also a great singing-actress by all accounts – she certainly sounds it here – and her voice retains a golden lustre even in the heaviest moments.

Del Monaco’s bull-at-the-gate approach – without the vocal quality of his earlier years – is once again a severe trial. Renato Cioni was for a short period one of Italy’s great hopes for a new tenor. I don’t quite know what happened but he faded away and is mostly remembered for his participation in the first Sutherland Lucia di Lammermoor. He is far more musical and attractive than Del Monaco.

Giovanni lo Sciancato would have been a fine role for Gobbi but we can hardly blame Decca for not engaging him to sing the two lines that are all we hear of the part in these extracts. Anselmo Colzani, who died earlier this year, was a favourite at the Met and puts in an impressive performance.

When I listened to the Trieste recording I was entranced by an opera with an individual orchestral sound and atmosphere, quite unlike any other I know. I realize now that Franco Capuana deserves a lot of credit for this. I just don’t find that sound or that atmosphere on the Decca extracts. Rescigno sounds plausible enough if you haven’t a comparison but his treatment of the score as a mish-mash of Puccini and Richard Strauss actually does it a grave disservice. All things considered, we must hope that a reissue of the Trieste performance will not be delayed too long after 2011.

The Decca issue has a handsome booklet with synopses, librettos and translations of both operas. It is a little frustrating to learn that the original LP issue of Fedora also had an essay by William Weaver, but that’s what they call progress. There is the usual cock-up in writing Italian names which include a “Di” or a “De”, so we get “Mario del Monaco” and “Piero de Palma”. The 1970 Gramophone review added a third mistake: “Kiri te Kanawa” (her first appearance in those pages?). At least they were consistent!

Though it will probably be quite useless, let me try to clarify once again this matter, since readers may wonder why we should write Mario Del Monaco but Francesca da Rimini. When the “Di” or “De” is part of a person’s surname, it has a capital letter and he goes in the phone book under “D” – Del Monaco, Di Stefano, De Sabata, etc. In olden times people didn’t always have clearly identifiable surnames and so the town they came from got added. “Da Rimini” wasn’t Francesca’s surname – she was actually a daughter of Guido Minore da Polenta – she was “Francesca from Rimini”, just as her father was “Guido the Younger from Polenta”. Thus Leonardo was identified from the other Leonardos in the town by the nickname “Leonardo from Vinci” – Leonardo da Vinci. The same goes for Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and so on. They came from Palestrina and Caravaggio, even if we think of these today as their actual names. In this case we write a small “d”. A similar situation applies if the nickname tells us something about the person. So Francesca’s husband was known as Giovanni lo Sciancato – John the Crippled – while his younger brother, Francesca’s lover, was Paolo il Bello – Paul the Beautiful. Again, we write a small “d”.

Christopher Howell


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