It is said that old men dream dreams. This is usually the comment of young bloods on the predilection of their seniors and betters casting an envious eye over any passing trim ankle or buxom lass. Whilst not immune to such diversions - after all window-shopping is harmless - the cast of this DVD caused my reverie to travel back on the magic carpet of time and reflect, perhaps introspectively, on my long addiction to singing and opera.
The addiction caught hold young, in the early 1950s, after attending one of Gigli’s farewell concerts (only Frank Sinatra managed more) and attending my first live opera performance. The latter was Faust
performed by Sadlers Wells. The cast was magnificent by any standards, featuring Harvey Allan as Mephisto, Roland Jones in the eponymous role and the redoubtable Amy Shuard as Marguerite. The production was made more memorable to my youthful eyes by the use of ultra-violet light. Mephistopheles’ flashing and glowing eye effects remain with me in the memory over sixty years later. But opportunities for expensive visits to live opera were rare and it was the gramophone that held the key to the jewel box of opera. It was the era of the emergence of the LP when instead of eighteen or twenty sides an opera was encompassed on three discs. Each of the ‘major’ companies vied with each other to build up a catalogue of opera with their signed artists. They all started with the disadvantage that the Cetra label already had an extensive catalogue often deriving from Italian studio broadcasts with home singers not signed to other labels.
Cetra’s roster of singers included the likes of Giuseppe Taddei and Ferruccio Tagliavini whose name caught my eye here. With his honeyed head voice, well supported middle register and elegant phrasing he had been seen as the natural successor to Gigli and destined for world renown. World War Two deprived him of that fame. But his 1953 recording of Bellini’s La Sonnambula
(Warner Fonit 8573 87475) where his honeyed head voice and phrasing on the breath in Prendi’m l’anel ti dono
alongside Lina Pagliughi as Amina is a thing of wonder. Likewise, his Duke in Rigoletto
alongside Taddei in the name part in the following year persuaded my father to prefer that performance to the Callas Di Stefano-Gobbi version, a sentiment I still share (see review 1
and review 2
). I also knew that, as the decade progressed, and Tagliavini took on heavier roles, so he lost that light lyric character. This is very evident in his performance alongside Callas in the latter’s stereo remake for EMI of Lucia (see comment in review of complete Callas studio opera recordings
). So it is in this performance. There is more edge to the tone here: he cannot convey the ingénue that is Nemorino, even before the visual image of a rotund middle-aged man of several chins. Thus my hopes and dreams of seeing my idol were smashed despite the audience being in raptures after Una furtiva lagrima
(Ch. 21) which gave the excuse to break role and take several bows. Oh that they had known how he sang that aria ten years before!
Like the others in this VAI series, this performance is one of a number of opera productions presented in Japan by Lirica Italiana
from the mid-1950s onwards. This series aimed to introduce the Japanese public to the best of European opera. The number of Japanese singers on the international stage today is perhaps a measure of their success. The recordings were in black and white and mono for transcription on Japanese TV. The mono sound is often thin and wiry with the words in Japanese text embedded in the film. The subtitles in English are overlaid on the Japanese characters. The removal of these Japanese characters in the transfer from film to DVD was not possible without serious deterioration of the quality and consequently has not been attempted. As that quality is already rather visually woolly this would have made the venture wholly commercially unsustainable. The picture is not as sharp as we are used to in other recordings that exist from a similar period. Further, in respect of this performance, the visuals for the arrival of Dulcamara and the preceding chorus (Chs.7 and 8) have been lost and are in sound only.
The question inevitably arises as to the appeal and viability of the release. For the opera addict such performances give a glimpse, albeit grey and woolly, of singers who are otherwise only names. Similarly opera buffs will be interested in the production style. No producer concepts here. The opera is played straight, as the composer intended, in sets he would have recognised. Of the other singers Aldo Noni is more soubrette than lyric, but conveys a characterful Adina. Artura La Porta is a vocally penny-plain Belcore lacking swagger. The physically imposing Paolo Montarsolo as Dulcamara is in his vocal and acting element dominating the scenes in which he appears. The diction of the soloists should give later interpreters food for thought. On the rostrum Alberto Erede handles Donizetti’s music as to the manner-born; elegant phrasing and pointed rhythms being the order of the day.
Robert J Farr