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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Parisina (1833)
Montserrat Caballé (soprano) – Parisina; Jerome Pruett (tenor) – Ugo; Louis Quilico (baritone) – Azzo; James Morris (bass) – Ernesto; Eleanor Bergquist (soprano) – Imelda;
Opera Orchestra of New York/Eve Queler
rec. live, Carnegie Hall, New York, 6 March 1974
MYTO 2 MDCD 0002 [65:49 + 72:13]

It was on 17 March 1833 at Teatro della Pergola in Florence that Parisina was first seen and heard. The libretto was written by possibly the greatest librettist of the period, Felice Romani. It is based on Lord Byron’s poem, to which there is a real-life background during Niccolò III’s time; the early 15th century. In brief the story goes as follows:

The Duke of Ferrara, Azzo d’Este (baritone), is a hot-head, suffering from jealous rages – a modern diagnosis might be ‘psychopath’. He has remarried after the death of his first wife. Forced into this marriage young Parisina is constantly sad – weeping is second nature to her – since she is deeply in love with Ugo, Azzo’s son from his first marriage. Azzo suspects that she is unfaithful with Ugo and sends him away to the war, ordering him never to return, which Ugo does anyway. At a tournament Ugo is the winner and Parisina is the one who hands the trophy to him. The ladies at court are amazed that she actually smiled when she honoured him. At night Azzo creeps into her bedroom, hears her whispering Ugo’s name and wants revenge. Ugo is thrown in jail and decapitated and when Parisina sees his dead body she also falls lifeless to the ground.

The opera, Donizetti’s 36th, was a great success and it was performed all over Europe, even reaching New York in 1850. After some decades it disappeared from the stage and wasn’t revived until 1964. The recording issued here is from a concert performance at Carnegie Hall a decade later, where it was mounted as a vehicle for Montserrat Caballé, whose creamy voice was in superb shape that evening: evenly produced, ravishing pianissimos and a perfect trill. The role is not really in the virtuoso class with breakneck coloratura and excursions into the stratosphere. Instead it is bel canto in the real sense of the word where phrasing, beauty of tone and a seamless legato are the main ingredients. Ms Caballé never puts a foot wrong and the audience is ecstatic during long rounds of applause, which could have been trimmed a bit.

By her side she has Louis Quilico as a sturdy and evil Azzo and tenor Jerome Pruett as an ardent Ugo, light and lyrical and with easy top notes. The young James Morris is an excellent Ernesto, sonorous and powerful, and another relative new-comer at the time, Eleanor Bergquist, reveals a fine bright voice in what little she has to sing. I wonder what became of her – the only other recording I can remember was Massenet’s Le Cid on CBS, also conducted by Eve Queler, with Domingo and Bumbry in the leading roles.

Eve Queler has done sterling service in the operatic by-ways for many years and she elicits freshness and forward movement in her reading of a score that may not be one of Donizetti’s most memorable. Nevertheless he is mostly reliable and there is some inventive scoring. The chorus that opens the short third act has a beautiful orchestral introduction and there are several fine arias.

So far so good then; where is the drawback? Since this is obviously not a professionally made recording one has to be rather indulgent about the sound. The orchestra sounds scrawny. There is some overloading in concerted passages. The omni-present bumps and coughs have to be contended with and, worst of all, a horrible imbalance. The orchestral fortes tend to drown the voices – the chorus are quite well caught, though. The soloists are so variously recorded that some of them seem to sing off-stage. I suspect that the recording was made from one of the front rows in the stalls, probably acceptably centred. However, the microphone was too directional and in the first act only Quilico and Caballé – thank God – can be properly heard. Quilico and Morris have a long duet scene where they seem to stand fifty metres apart. When Ugo (Jerome Pruett) appears and has a dialogue with Ernesto (Morris) both singers are somewhere in the wings. Poor Eleanor Bergquist appears to be in her dressing-room. During the interval before act 2, someone has, luckily, reshuffled the chairs and suddenly James Morris is right on top of the microphone allowing us to appreciate his healthy and generous tone. On the other hand Jerome Pruett is left to his fate on the outskirts of the stage throughout the performance.

I used the singular form ‘microphone’ but I believe it is some kind of primitive stereo recording. Probably an integrated stereo microphone was employed and there’s evidence of this because when I changed over to headphones, through which I heard most of the opera, I got a feeling of space around the orchestra and the singers. Even so I was not able to pinpoint directions. It was very clear, though, that close to the right of me was a man, seriously afflicted by laryngitis, who all through the performance regularly coughed straight into my ear. I’m glad I wasn’t there in person, but I could almost sense the viruses flying around.

I am afraid that this issue can be recommended only to die-hard Caballé aficionados and even they have to be very indulgent. This is a pity, since she sings so marvellously, but even though I am a great admirer of Montserrat Caballé I will have to use my persuasive powers quite extensively before I play it again. The booklet, by the way, wasn’t that inspirational. A simple tracklist, saying who sings where, but no timings anywhere. There is a synopsis, but of the general kind that relates the story but without specified references to the tracks; maybe Keith Anderson at Naxos could provide a crash course?

Göran Forsling




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