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Giuseppe Di Stefano sings Verdi and Puccini
Full listing at the bottom of the review
Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor)
NIMBUS Prima Voce NI7957/8 [76.16 + 72.04]

Experience Classicsonline

This new Nimbus issue of two CDs features extended extracts from the best of the recordings made by Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921-2008) between 1950 and 1956. It also features some of the finest singers and conductors of the 1950s; chief among these is Maria Callas. These discs serve to commemorate her greatness almost as much as that of Di Stefano.

Seasoned collectors and Di Stefano fans will probably have most of the complete recordings, but anyone who wants to know what the fuss is about need only buy this set to find out. Over the years, I have moved my position on Di Stefano’s voice; while I always admired the classic recordings of “Rigoletto” and “Tosca” I often balked at the too open, almost “shouty” quality of his top notes. That said, I increasingly value the combination of subtlety, energy and commitment he brought to his singing. For a more complete picture of his talents, it is perhaps necessary to hear some of his live recordings, such as the famous San Francisco “Salut demeure”, in which he executes an extraordinary diminuendo on the climactic high C of “la présence” – a feat which Rudolf Bing described as “the most beautiful sound I ever heard come out of a human throat”. We do not have that here but there is plenty else to admire. I for one was not familiar with the extracts from the 1950 “La Bohème” made in very distinguished company. It proves to be one of the most moving and accomplished interpretations I have ever heard - especially the searing closing scene. What a pity that it is not part of a complete recording. Having only just reviewed the equally attractive “La Bohème” which Di Stefano recorded with Callas, I am struck again by the tenderness and pathos of his Rodolfo.

The recital opens with extracts from “Un ballo in maschera”, The role of Ricccardo always suited Di Stefano ideally, and although his interpretation does not erase memories of that other prince among tenors, Carlo Bergonzi, Di Stefano has the boyish élan, the smile in the voice, the seamless legato and the temperament to do the music full justice, without having to push his voice too far into spinto territory.

Like his contemporary, Callas, Di Stefano had a mere ten years or so at the top. Like her, too, he could do nothing by halves and this took its toll, especially when he began to push in rôles simply too robust for his beautiful lyric tenor. Having said that, his account of Manrico’s “Di quella pira” is entirely convincing and gives little indication of the travails to come – unless one is perturbed by the rather snatched and, yes, yelled, final top C. How fortunate it was that his and Callas’s golden years coincided. They were co-stars in recordings of all the operas here - although the aforementioned “La Bohème” is preferred on this compilation. This perhaps on the sensible grounds that everyone knows the Callas version and will be grateful for a souvenir of Di Stefano in his early prime accompanied by the sterling talents of Albanese and Warren. The contractual obligation resulting in the misfortune of Callas being unable to record “La traviata” for EMI, having already done so for Cetra, is newly to be regretted when one hears the rather careful and anonymous Violetta of Antonietta Stella. It should have been Callas who committed her most celebrated role to disc with Di Stefano. As a consolation, a decent live 1958 performance from Covent Garden, with Callas partnered by the excellent Cesare Valletti, is now again available.

Reactions to De los Angeles’ Butterfly have always been mixed. I find her a little shrill but suitably girlish and vulnerable and it is nice to have a snippet of Gobbi’s knowing, incisive Sharpless. “Addio fiorito asil” really shows off Di Stefano’s plangent top and honeyed mezza-voce. “Ah son vil” is suffused with remorse and manages to elicit from the listener rather more sympathy for the feckless Pinkerton than, for example, Jonas Kaufmann manages in the latest recording.

The benchmark “Tosca” is too well known and its manifest virtues too often praised to make it necessary for me to rehearse them once more. This is the definitive recording and nothing else has ever rivalled or ever will rival it. The “Rigoletto” has almost the same status. I would imagine that anyone who does not already possess these recordings will acquire them on the strength of these extracts.

The set comes with no libretto but an extensive and informative note by Alan Bilgora. There are two errors in the listing of track seven on Disc 2 (the Trio from Act 2 of “Butterfly”): it should read “Io so che alle sue pene”. The transfers by Nimbus are impeccable; there always was a hint of overloading in the originals but with performances of this quality one doesn’t give that a thought.

Ralph Moore

CD 1
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un Ballo in Maschera
La rivedrà nell’estasi (with Eugenia Ratti, soprano)
Di’ tu se fedele
È scherzo od è follia (with Eugenia Ratti, soprano, Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano, Silvio Maionica and Nicola Zaccaria, basses)
Teco io sto…non sai tu (with Maria Callas, soprano)
Forse le soglia…Ma se m’è forza
(rec. 1956)
Questa o quella
È il sol dell’anima…Addio, addio (with Maria Callas, soprano)
Ella mi fu rapita!...Parmi veder le lagrime
La donna è mobile

(rec. 1955)
La Traviata
Libiamo…Un dì felice (with Antonietta Stella, soprano)
De’ miei bollenti spiriti
Colpevol sono so tutto… Parigi, o cara (with Antonietta Stella, soprano)

(rec. 1956)
Il Trovatore
Quale d’armi fragor… Ah si ben mio… Di quella pira (with Maria Callas, soprano)
(rec. 1955)
CD 2
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème
Che gelida manina
O soave fanciulla (with Licia Albanese, soprano)
Dunque è proprio finite? (with Licia Albanese and Patrice Munsel, sopranos and Leonard Warren, baritone)
O Mimi, tu più non torni (with Leonard Warren, baritone
Sono andati? (with Licia Albanese and Patrice Munsel, sopranos, Leonard Warren and George Cehanovsky, baritones and Nicola Moscona, bass)

(rec. 1950)
Madama Butterfly
Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malìa (with Victoria de los Angeles, soprano)
Io so che alle sue pene (with Tito Gobbi, baritone)

(rec. 1954)
Dammi i colori… Recondita armonia (with Melchiorre Luise, bass)
Mario! Mario! (with Maria Callas, soprano)
E lucevan le stelle… Ah! franchigia a Floria Tosca…O dolci mani (with Maria Callas, soprano)
(rec. 1953)

Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan (Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Tosca)
RCA Victor Orchestra (La Bohème)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Rome Opera (Madama Butterfly)
Conductors: Antonio Votto (Un ballo in maschera), Tullio Serafin (Rigoletto, La Traviata), Victor de Sabata (Tosca), Herbert von Karajan (Il Trovatore), Renato Cellini (La Bohème), Gianandrea Gavazzeni (Madama Butterfly)

NIMBUS NI7957/8 [76.16 + 72.04]






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