is evidently some sort of a “story” behind this recording. The
note by Stephen Jay Taylor tells us that it was originally planned
around Callas, Corelli and Gobbi. Alas, he does not explain
who dropped out first and why the others went down like skittles.
far as I can make out, the inspiration to record “Fanciulla”
twice in one year – the Decca with Tebaldi/Del Monaco/MacNeil/Capuana
preceded the present one by a matter of months – was a revival
of the opera at La Scala in 1956 under Antonino Votto in which
Corelli alternated with Del Monaco and Gobbi was Rance. Minnie
was Gigliola Frazzoni, an outstanding soprano of the generation
that was sacrificed to the Callas/Tebaldi rivalry – see my
review of her “Tosca”. This was Frazzoni’s most celebrated
role. It was by all accounts terrific and some sort of a bootleg
version seems to be available.
stepped in first. Given Frazzoni’s success in the role, what
better could they think of than ditch her and insist on Tebaldi,
whom they automatically engaged for all Italian operas? Votto
stuck up for Frazzoni, so they ditched him too and recorded
in Rome with Franco Capuana. I recount all this without disrespect
for the celebrated recording which emerged, and which I have
unfortunately not heard.
if Tebaldi was to record Minnie, EMI had to do so too, and so
plans went ahead for a Callas version, regardless of the fact
that she had never sung the role, and never did. Logically she
would have been better suited to Minnie than to Mimì or Butterfly,
but it was not to be. It would be nice to know how the present
line-up actually came about. Maybe Votto shot himself in the
foot again by still wanting Frazzoni. Here too, I intend no
prejudice against the recording that was actually made. It’s
just a pity that the eternal rivalry between two singers and
the willingness of EMI and Decca to abet it should have resulted
in a misrepresentation of an age which was in reality rather
well-endowed with fine sopranos, any of whom would be very welcome
today. Another such was Carla Gavazzi, who set down the first
“Fanciulla” of all in 1950 for Cetra, with Vasco Campagnano
and Ugo Savarese under Arturo Basile, a recording still very
much in the running – see reviews by myself
Nilsson once recalled to Edward Greenfield that she had learnt
the role of Minnie specially for this recording and in a great
hurry. She was then forty and had already achieved international
prominence. As far as the notes are concerned there is no suggestion
of insecurity. Everything is negotiated with complete ease and
a consistently beautiful, even tone with a golden sheen on it,
from the lowest notes to the highest. Nilsson was not an emotionally
reticent singer. She finds tenderness here, vehemence there,
but it’s an interpretation in embryo, you don’t really feel
she’s living the part.
to Carol Neblett, whose 1977 performance at Covent Garden with
Domingo and Milnes under Mehta put the opera on the UK map and
was recorded by DG the following year. She has been particularly
associated with the role – a
later Covent Garden performance under Santi is available
on video – and presents a much rounder character. In order to
do so she adopts a quite different vocal style, more verista,
the top notes with a wider, “dangerous” vibrato and often engaging
the chest tones surprisingly high. It sounds thrilling and a
bit risky, but since her career apparently continues to this
day, I take it she knows what she’s doing.
back to Gavazzi and you realize that Neblett is reviving an
honourable tradition. The blazing top notes and raunchy chest
tones are very similar. The descriptions I have read suggest
that this was Frazzoni’s way, too. Either Neblett modelled herself
on these recordings or she worked with a coach well versed in
this particular style. However, Gavazzi is more vivid still.
She sometimes inserts laughs or sobs in the line in a way that
might seem over the top, but she does it so naturally that I
think she gets away with it. I see that in my earlier review
I compared Gavazzi and Neblett to the latter’s considerable
disadvantage. Now that Nilsson is added to the equation I am
more struck by the similarities between the other two though
Gavazzi still gets my vote.
Brazilian tenor Joäo Gibin was born in 1929. According to such
information as I could find, he made his debut in 1959 as Calaf
at La Scala. Perhaps this was actually his European debut or
something of the kind, since it seems unlikely that La Scala
would engage a Calaf who had never sung on the stage before.
His Dick Johnson from the previous year hardly suggests a potential
Calaf. The voice is well-trained, not large and a little strained
at the top. His reedy vibrato is attractive but I would think
him more a tenor for Donizetti. Heard in large doses and at
full stretch the sound becomes mournful and a little irritating.
This latter may be a personal reaction but I don’t think anyone
could claim he compensates with more than a generalized interpretation.
doubt about Domingo’s magnificent singing alongside Neblett.
Fresh from a stage triumph he also enters vividly into the role.
Going back to 1950, Vasco Campagnano has a more purely “tenory”
tenor and, like Gibin, there is an occasional suspicion that
he is stretched by the top notes. And yet his conviction and
his detailed handling of the words make this the most involving
performance of the three.
Mongelli (1901-1970) made his debut as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s
“Faust” in 1923. His is a big, well-focused voice without much
legato or variety of tone. His Jack Rance emerges as a one-dimensional,
cardboard figure, a pocket Scarpia. Sherrill Milnes and Ugo
Savarese both reveal a more complex person, rough but not dastardly
given where and what he is. This time I slightly prefer Milnes
who was then at the peak of his vocal beauty. Savarese is a
little more effortful in the upper range but his is nonetheless
an impressive performance.
smaller roles generally go better in the two Italian performances,
those of 1950 showing greater involvement in line with the performance
as a whole.
von Matačić was much appreciated in Italy and did
the rounds of the RAI orchestras to the end of his days. He
gets very fine playing from the orchestra and is a warmly idiomatic
Puccinian. Just occasionally he is brusque alongside the more
flexible Mehta and he dawdles here and there. Ultimately, this
is another case where the performance seems that little bit
less lived in. Some found Mehta a shade swift when the records
first appeared, yet a comparison with Basile in 1950 shows that
he was returning to an older, more urgent Puccini tradition.
I have to say that Basile does it better still. In a recent
comparison of the Beecham and Erede “Bohèmes” I noted that Erede’s
tempi seemed based on the natural speech rhythms of the words,
and so it is here. The words speak to you more in this performance
than in the others. At the same time Basile has a sure feeling
for the ebb and flow of the score and screws up the tension
for some terrific climaxes. The mono recording is fair for the
the three, then, it is the old Cetra which I find the most moving
and involving. It leaves me in no doubt that I am listening to
a masterpiece. If you need more recent stereo sound, the Mehta
is a fine alternative in a similar mould. The Matačić
is excellent, really, but fails to tug the heart-strings – the
essential ingredient in any Puccini performance. I regret that
I am unable to advise readers about where the much-acclaimed Tebaldi/Capuana
stands in all this. Nor, for that matter, the less lauded Zampieri/Domingo/Pons/Maazel
(on both CD and
DVD), Jones/Viotti and Marton/Slatkin. Those with a taste
for bootlegs might note that, as well as the Frazzoni/Votto, the
famous 1954 Steber/Mitropoulos from the Met is available from