Archives’ mission to bring to wider notice the work of Peter
Maag through the publication of tapes surviving in radio archives
has hit the jackpot here. This is rather more than the umpteenth
RAI broadcast of an opera given in concert form, useful as some
of those recordings have been.
alas, Naples hits the front page news in Italy with depressing
regularity as a result of the spiralling violence of its organized
crime. Almost fifty years ago, when culture still meant something
to those governing Italy, things were different. Naples may
have been chaotic even then, but in 1958 the San Carlo Theatre
and the RAI got together to create the “Autunno Musicale Napoletano”
– all this is set down in Davide Annachini’s splendid note –
as a sort of Neapolitan answer to Milan’s Piccola Scala and
Florence’s Teatro alla Pergola. A series of baroque and early
classical operas were to be presented in the Court Theatre of
the Palazzo Reale.
enterprise opened on 27 September 1958 with a star-studded “Don
Giovanni” – Petri, Bruscantini, Ligabue, Alva and Sciutti, conducted
by Sanzogno and produced by a young man of whom great things
were expected. His name was Franco Zeffirelli. The event was
broadcast live on television. I wonder if it survives?
next season also opened with Mozart. This time it was “Figaro”
and it marked the Italian debut of Peter Maag, much of whose
subsequent career was to be built around that country. In later
years Maag’s interpretations were dominated by a romantic warmth
that seemed a throwback to earlier times. In the 1950s his Mozart
was a fizzing harbinger of the historically informed performances
of twenty years later. As we listen to the Overture we are struck
by sizzling vitality of the strings’ articulation, the rasping
colour of the wind playing and the lean, detailed phrasing.
are also assured about certain other aspects of the production.
The name of the “Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli” may
strike terror among collectors of pirate opera recordings and
indeed it could be a lackadaisical band at its worst. Formed
originally for the rediscovery of the Italian baroque repertoire
and for the propagation of small-band Haydn and Mozart it was
a pioneering effort parallel to England’s London Mozart Players.
It was, in fact, guest-conducted from time to time by the LMP’s
Harry Blech. Unfortunately the parallel does not end there since
both Harry Blech and the Scarlatti’s Franco Caracciolo lingered
on far beyond their sell-by date. Caracciolo was still at the
head of the band when it became the first of the RAI orchestras
to be axed in the early 1990s.
guest conductors such as Celibidache could do wonders with it
and so, apparently, could the young Peter Maag. Not only in
the overture but throughout, string articulation is taut and
many phrases are given a vividness and point we rarely hear.
There are no long, all-purpose legato lines; instead there is
that sharp definition of tight melodic cells which Harnoncourt
and Co. thought they’d discovered much later. Even the acid
tone of the principal oboe is turned to creative use.
can also rest easy about the recording. Stereo broadcasting
reached Italy in 1961 but evidently experiments had been going
on for some time since this is not only a stereo recording but
an exceedingly vivid one, with separation even verging on the
gimmicky. You can almost hear each single stringed instrument
in the overture. And when the voices come in they are not in
front of the orchestra, as often in those days, but in a natural
position behind it, and can be heard moving across the stage,
or further back. In short, you hear the opera as if you are
sitting in the stalls, about five rows back from the orchestra.
ignores the applause at the end of the overture and swings straight
in to a headily paced account of the first duet. I’ve already
described his orchestral style. His pacing is equally upfront.
In almost every case he shaves a few seconds off the famous
1955 version under Erich Kleiber. But it is not only a matter
of being faster. In Figaro’s fourth Act aria “Aprite un po’
gli occhi”, while Kleiber resolves the orchestral accompaniment
with great elegance, Maag has the violins jabbing at the upward
grace-notes so that we really feel Figaro’s boiling rage. This
is often Figaro’s “other” aria, an also-ran beside the universally-known
“Non più andrai”. Here it makes its point. Just sometimes Maag
takes a tempo slightly slower than one would expect in the context.
Cherubino’s “Non so più cosa son” is not a single burst of impetuosity
but an extremely detailed exposition of adolescent emotional
awakenings, while Susanna is allowed the space to characterize
each phase of Cherubino’s disguise in “Venite, inginocchiatevi”.
In the Act IV finale “Contessa perdono” is very slow indeed,
arguably too slow for an andante. I imagine that Maag wishes
to point out this moment as the moral climax of the opera, and
it shows that, while his interpretation may often seem a blueprint
for later “authentic-brigade” performances, his aim is not actually
musicological but rather that of communicating the best possible,
and theatrically effective, overview of the piece. I grew up
with the Kleiber recording which I bought on LP while still
a student. While never quite finding a version to surpass it
I have increasingly been finding it dated. Long ago it seemed
anti-romantic but much water has flowed under the bridge since
then. It is interesting to find it was already flowing so swiftly
in Maag’s 1959 interpretation.
cast is worthy of the occasion. English readers will be puzzled
at Annachini’s description of this as an “entirely Italian”
cast when two members obviously aren’t. This is the one slip
in an otherwise excellent translation that usually manages not
to read as a translation. What Annachini said was “un cast ‘all’italiana’”
– “an ‘Italian-style’ cast”. The German and French translators
took this literally: “ein Casting ‘all’Italiana’” and “une distribution
‘à l’italienne’”. What I suppose Annachini means is that even
those members who are not Italian sing the language as to the
manner born – he specifically praises Streich’s diction and
Blankenburg’s sounds excellent to my ears. The recitatives are
in fact handled with extreme naturalness by everybody, respecting
speech rhythms and fully understanding when to dash off mouthfuls
of words and when to hold things up for more emphasis. The recitatives
have always been considered a plus-point of the Kleiber set,
too, providing a theatricality which compensates for any minor
flaws along the way. I can only say that this is more vivid
still, perhaps because it is alive but above all because the
“Italian-style” cast could confidently communicate the words
knowing that the public would understand them.
of note is the accompanying harpsichord. Back in the 1950s the
harpsichordist often stuck to the bare chords in the score but
here is the sort of imaginative, illustrative approach we have
come to take for granted more recently. Here, too, the performance
sides more with the modern versions than with its contemporaries.
least-known of the principal singers would appear to be Figaro
himself. Of Heinz Blankenburg, Annachini can only tell us that
his “activity in Italy seems to be a somewhat meteoric appearance
that left very few traces after this Figaro”. Unsurprisingly,
Blankenburg’s own website has more to say. In spite of his name
he is American, was born in 1931 and had an international career
lasting a good many years – including appearances at Glyndebourne
– but was particularly associated with the Hamburg opera house.
In later years he went into operatic production and is still
active in the USA as a voice coach. Andrew Porter described
him in the New Yorker as “someone whose performances are to
be collected and prized”. Strange how some artists can have
notable careers yet be ignored by the recording world. As far
as mainstream recordings are concerned, I can only track down
his Masetto in the Leinsdorf “Don Giovanni”, recorded in Vienna
a few years after this Figaro. He also sang in the first recording
of Penderecki’s “The Devils of Loudun” and a DVD seems to exist
of a 1967 Hamburg “Figaro”, which may be sung in German. He
reveals a well-placed, technically secure voice, fully in command
of the role. He perhaps lacks the vocal personality of a Cesare
Siepi or a Sesto Bruscantini, but his contribution is still
an engaging one, well aligned to Maag’s conception.
Streich is, on the contrary, probably the best-known singer
here, a favourite of both Furtwängler and Karajan. Her Susanna
was already set down – and much-praised – in the first of the
studio recordings under Karl Böhm. I haven’t heard this but
I have heard others by the same conductor and have little doubt
that I’d enjoy Streich’s extraordinarily vivid portrayal most
wrote about Marcella Pobbe some time ago when Warner Fonit issued
a portrait of her, including another performance of “Porgi amor”
from the same year, this time under Bartoletti in Milan. I remarked
that, in spite of the very poor sound she appeared to be an
“exquisite Mozartian”. Pobbe is generally remembered as one
of the generation of sopranos – including Carteri, Frazzoni,
Cerquetti and Gavazzi – which struggled to find a niche for
itself amid the Callas-Tebaldi rivalry but would be more than
welcome today. There are occasional suggestions in the not-quite-clean
style of this “Porgi amor” that she would have been more at
home in Verdi, but I don’t wish to exaggerate and by the time
she reaches “Dove sono” she has settled down to give a finely
poised account. She has the “classy” sound we expect of a Countess.
She is also quick on the uptake in her recitatives in a way
her other recordings that I know had not led me to expect.
other singers probably circulated little outside Italy but appeared
regularly in Cetra and RAI recordings. All give strong performances.
Bianca Maria Casoni is fully alive to Cherubino’s adolescent
awakenings – it’s a more vulnerable, less comic portrayal than
usual. She is encouraged by Maag to give unusual and often original
interpretations of her two arias – the exceptionally long caesuras
at the end of “Non so più cosa son”, for example.
Cesari is a technically secure and suitably commanding Count
– interestingly, many of the characters in this opera seem to
play a dominating role in it while not actually having a lot
to do. He makes the most of his opportunities in the aria.
Monti made a number of distinguished appearances on disc, often
with partners of the highest level: Nemorino in “L’elisir d’amore”
in 1952 and a cast including Tito Gobbi, Almaviva in the first
of Victoria de los Angeles’s recordings of “Il barbiere di Siviglia”
(under Serafin), Beppe in the Callas “Pagliacci” and Elvino
in “La Sonnambula” twice – first with Callas, then with Sutherland.
He is a real stylist and makes a suitably odious Don Basilio.
His aria, usually cut in those days, is included.
on the other hand, loses her aria – the one cut of any moment
in what is otherwise a pretty full text. This is inevitable
given the decision to cast a fairly mature-sounding mezzo-soprano
in the role. This is traditional but cannot be what Mozart intended
since, when the aria arrives, it is the one technically-demanding
coloratura aria in the whole opera, requiring a real soprano
or at any rate a high, light mezzo-soprano. Fernanda Cadoni
gives an excellent performance of the traditional kind but I
presume the aria would have been beyond her. On the Kleiber
recording the desperate remedy is taken of having the aria sung
by Susanna but this is hardly a solution that could be attempted
Susca makes his mark as Bartolo and Elvina Ramella finds more
than usual in Barbarina. But, like any good – I am inclined
to say great – opera performance, this one adds up to far more
than the sum of its parts, thanks to the inspiring presence
us be sanguine about the defects. I have praised the sound,
given the date and the source, but it’s not state-of-the-art
2006 digital stereo. I have praised the orchestra, which goes
far beyond its usual achievement, but it isn’t the Vienna Philharmonic
– or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment if your preferences
lie in that direction. Applause breaks in after most of the
arias, sometimes prolonged, during which the orchestra unceremoniously
takes the opportunity for a spot of far from surreptitious tuning.
There are a number of things that are done more noisily in Italy
than anywhere else in the world and orchestral tuning is one
of them, so be ye warned! Like any live performance, there are
a few spills as well as thrills along the way. The prompter’s
voice is heard pretty clearly at times.
with repeated hearings I should find these factors increasingly
impairing my enjoyment. Still under its spell as I write, I
can only say that no other recording known to me brings to life
the characters and events in the Count’s household as this one
well as the essay by Annachini, the booklet gives a synopsis
in four languages and the complete libretto in Italian.