In the early years of the LP – read 1950s – there were four
versions of L’Elisir d’amore available: a Cetra set from Turin,
conducted by Gavazzeni with Cesare Valetti, Alda Noni, Afro
Poli and Sesto Bruscantini; an HMV from Rome, conducted by Nino
Sanzogno with Marguerita Carosio, Nicola Monti, Tito Gobbi and
Melchiorre Luise; this Decca set and an HMV (or Columbia) set
from La Scala conducted by Tullio Serafin with the young Luigi
Alva, Rosanna Carteri, Rolando Panerai and Giuseppe Taddei.
In the late 1960s Molinari-Pradelli recorded it again, now in
Rome and for EMI, with Nicolai Gedda, Mirella Freni, Mario Sereni
and Renato Capecchi, who during the intervening years had changed
over from Belcore to Dulcamara. These are the five sets that
could be considered in the historic category. I haven’t heard
the Cetra set but suppose the technical quality must rule it
out. Musically I have always been extremely fond of Don Pasquale
with roughly the same cast. Nor have I heard the Sanzogno, which
was for many years hidden in EMI’s archives and wasn’t unearthed
until 2000, when it was given a very positive review in Gramophone
by John Steane. I heard the Serafin set many years ago and remember
Alva as a honeyed Nemorino in the Valetti mould, Taddei a superb
Dulcamara and Panerai a virile Belcore. Serafin’s conducting
is much more alive than that of the penny-plain Molinari-Pradelli.
The latter is not much different on the later set, which nevertheless
is highly competitive. Gedda and Freni are splendid, Capecchi’s
Dulcamara is preferable to his Belcore and Sereni is as reliable
After this overview we can turn our attention more directly
to the Decca set, which has been more or less continually available
for more than half a century. The sound, in an early stereo
recording, is dated but acceptable, in spite of some distortion,
and the playing of the orchestra can’t be faulted, whereas I’ve
heard much better choral singing.
The solo singing is a different affair. The only non-Italian,
Hilde Güden was a lovely lyric soprano in Mozart, German repertoire
but also in many Italian roles. Her Gilda for Decca at about
the same time as this issue, is a pleasure and in the 1960s
she recorded a complete La traviata for DG, opposite
Fritz Wunderlich. It’s true that it was sung in German, but
her style and voice were truly idiomatic. As Adina she is well-nigh
ideal: glittering, charming and haughty, depending on the situation.
If in doubt just listen to her in act II Prendi, per me sei
libero (CD 2 tr. 10). It is also a pleasure to hear Di Stefano
in a role where he has no need to press the voice beyond its
natural limits. Quanto e bella (CD 1 tr. 3) is lovely,
the long duet with Dulcamara is lively and theatrical and here
Molinari-Pradelli is more inspired than elsewhere. Una furtiva
lagrima, well known from numerous compilations, is elegant
and sung with feeling, and Adina, credimi in the finale
of act I (CD 1 tr. 17) finds him on top form with ardent lyric
singing of the utmost beauty.
Fernando Corena – only half-Italian but with a diction that
surpasses that of most other singers – is in his element as
Dulcamara. Though not the possessor of a world-class voice he
is so expressive and theatrical that it would be a shame to
complain. Renato Capecchi was not really the bel canto baritone
that Donizetti had in mind. Though expressive and virile his
voice is too heavy to be ideal. Luisa Mandelli is a good Giannetta.
All the above-mentioned recordings of L’Elisir have
a lot of positive features to make them recommendable. For me
the present version, in spite of the lacklustre conducting of
Molinari-Pradelli and a less than ideal Belcore, is still the
historic recording of the work. However, first choice, irrespective
of age, is the thirty-year-old (and isn’t that so respectable
an age that it is on the verge of being historical as well?)
Pritchard recording on Sony from Covent Garden, with Ileana
Cotrubas, Placido Domingo, Ingvar Wixell and Geraint Evans.
But just as I am writing this I hear Di Stefano’s Una furtiva
lagrima in my headphones –and Gosh! What beauty, what feeling,
what charisma! I could never be fully satisfied with just one
version of this opera and this old Decca recording is certainly
on my shortlist.
There is no libretto, no synopsis, no notes at all – just a
cast-list and a track-list. Never mind – it’s the singing that
counts, and it will – forever!