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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra (1881 version) [140:00]
Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Simon Boccanegra
Boris Christoff (bass) – Jacopo Fiesco
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) – Maria
Giuseppe Campora (tenor) – Gabriele Adorno
Walter Monachesi (bass) – Paolo Albiani
Paolo Dari (baritone) – Pietro
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Gabriele Santini
rec. Opera House, Rome, September and November 1957, ADD. Mono
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110119-20 [62:12 + 78:09]
also REGIS RRC2083 [62:12 + 78:09]
Experience Classicsonline

It is good news to have this immortal performance reissued for us to enjoy again at budget price.  Of these two versions the Naxos is in much better sound, but first to the performance.

This Boccanegra was among the last of the great EMI opera recordings to be made in mono; it’s from the same time as Sawallisch’s great Capriccio.  Considering that stereo was around at the time there’s an unavoidable sense of a missed opportunity when listening to this recording. It would be far more competitive today if the sound were better.  If you can put this aside, however, you’re in for a treat.  It remains a mystery to me why this opera is not far better known.  Its 1881 revision was Verdi’s first collaboration with Boito and it produced the fantastic Great Council Scene of Act I.  Verdi also revised much of the existing music to create a marvellously rich texture which ranks alongside the rest of his late masterpieces. 

For much of the era after the Second World War Tito Gobbi was the Boccanegra of choice all across Europe and this recording captures his performance at its best.  He is vulnerable and touching in the Prologue as he bargains with Fiesco and receives the tragic news of his lover’s death. Then his voice finds an innate nobility for the rest of the opera in his appearances as Doge.  His reading carries undeniable authority and grandeur, like a granite outcrop around which all the other characters must orientate themselves.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but I found him oddly one-dimensional once you get into the second half of the opera.  The recognition scene of Act I is overwhelming, but after that he seems to have plenty of nobility but not much else.  His death scene in Act III is statuesque and firm, but we surely need more flexibility in the best readings of this part.  I couldn’t help but think of Piero Cappuccilli whose reading of the part for Abbado on his (still matchless) DG recording is subtle, inflected and endlessly fascinating.  I can only conclude that Gobbi must have been more compelling in the theatre and that the studio conditions didn’t quite suit him.  Still, the good far outweighs the mediocre and much of what you hear is a real master-class in singing. 

The other soloists are every bit as good as Gobbi and in some cases even more satisfying.  Victoria de los Angeles is a remarkable Amelia. She sings with a rich, throaty character that one would expect from a mezzo, lending her characterisation a maturity and depth that others tend to lack.  At the same time her top notes are ringing and clear, showing rare security at both ends of her range.  Her excitement at her first view of Adorno in Act I and her contribution to the Trio of Act II are only two highlights from a magnificently rounded performance.  As for Adorno himself, this recording makes me wonder why I had heard so little of Giuseppe Campora.  His tenor carries a heroic ring to it, especially in the first scene with Amelia, but he also has the strength to ride the great ensemble in the Council Scene. He feels every inch the hero both here and in the final scene where he is invested as the new Doge.  He is perhaps a little less focused in his big Act II aria where he loses a little punch. He fades a little into the background for the trio, but he is still a worthy spinto tenor.  Christoff, always an arresting presence, here takes full command of the role and dominates each scene in which he appears.  He is at his best during the truly titanic confrontation with Boccanegra in the final scene, and Il lacerato spirito feels like grief memorialised.  Monachesi is a thoroughly nasty Paolo who responds with particular horror to the cursing in the Council Scene. 

Santini is a real master at pacing and shaping Italian opera, as his many recordings testify.  For a master-class in how this is done just listen to the prelude to Act I: beautifully subtle nature-painting which unfolds slowly but purposefully, flowering at just the right time before the soprano’s entry.  The Rome Opera Orchestra follow him like a flock to its shepherd, and the chorus sing with gusto in the various scenes where they are required to rebel and intrigue. 

All told then this is a great performance of a truly great opera.  So which edition to choose?  Well the Naxos edition wins fairly easily.  There has long been a market for the re-mastering of these old recordings once their 50-year copyright expires. This one seems to have slipped through the cracks of EMI’s own budget labels so Regis and Naxos have quite correctly jumped at the same time.  However, Naxos has done a far better job at re-mastering a recording where tape hiss was always on the high side.  Mark Obert-Thorn is fast acquiring a reputation as the best in the business at this sort of thing and he has managed to all but eliminate any intrusive tape hiss on this recording.  The opening scene in particular, with all its comings and goings and plotting, comes up with special clarity. You could nearly convince yourself that you were listening to a staged stereo version.  He also seems to have stripped away most of the fug that surrounds the orchestral sound, and the opening of Act I, so subtle and filigree in its orchestration, comes up better than ever before.  In contrast to this there is still very obvious and intrusive tape hiss in the Regis recording, and this never goes away.  You can perhaps get to the stage where you zone it out, but why should you when the Naxos takes care of it so clearly?  There is distortion at the climax of the great ensemble in the Council Scene, something Naxos manage to avoid.  There are also other little irritating things about the Regis release, such as mistiming the beginning of certain tracks: CD 1 track 6 or CD 2 track 2, for example.  There is really no need for such a schoolboy error and Regis need to pay more attention to the detail here.  When both are at super budget price this makes the choice a no-brainer. 

So well done Naxos for re-releasing and re-mastering such a great recording and cleaning it up so that it sounds better than ever.  Enjoy it for a taste of a great ensemble performance the like of which we just don’t tend to get these days.

Simon Thompson


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