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Rossini Gala: Spectacular Arias


Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Largo al factotum (grB); Una voce poco fa (duz); La calunnia è un venticello (jpD); La Cambiale di Matrimonio: Come tacer … Vorrei spiegarvi il giubilo (anw); La Cenerentola: Nacqui all'affanno (cny); Guglielmo Tell: Non mi lasciare .. O muto asil del pianto … Corriam! Voliam! (fmvC); S'allontanano alfine! … Selva opaca (btx); L'Italiana in Algeri: Pria di dividerci … Dite: chi è quella femmina? (cehilqD), Otello: Assissa a piè d'un salice (duz); Semiramide: Bel raggio lusinghier (aksA).
Joan Sutherland (soprano) (a), Renata Tebaldi (soprano) (b), Teresa Berganza (mezzo-soprano) (c), Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano) (d), Luigi Alva (tenor) (e), Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) (f), Leo Nucci (baritone) (g), Rolando Panerai (baritone) (h), Fernando Corena (bass) (i), Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass) (j), Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (k); Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (l), Vienna Opera Chorus (m), London Symphony Orchestra (n), Naples Rossini Orchestra (p), Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (q); Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna (r), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (s), Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Rome (t), Suisse Romande Orchestra (u), Vienna Opera Orchestra (v), conducted by Richard Bonynge (w), Alberto Erede (x), Sir Alexander Gibson (y), Henry Lewis (z), Franco Molinari-Pradelli (A), Giuseppe Patanè (B), Nicola Rescigno (C), Silvio Varviso (D).
Decca 458 247-2 [75'36]

It is a pity the weakest item is the first; Leo Nucci makes distinctly heavy weather of Largo al factotum and Patanè's orchestra is not so much vivacious as just plain noisy. Following this Sutherland and Horne give excellent accounts of, respectively, Bel raggio and Una voce poco fa but somehow they just miss that frisson which is the essential ingredient of a night in the opera house; then Pavarotti comes on and the spine begins to tingle. Since the great man nowadays lapses further into self-parody with every wave of his handkerchief, it is good to be reminded that back in 1969 he was a really great singer, quite in the royal line of Italian tenors which ran from Caruso to, well, somewhere in the middle of Pavarotti. After a pingingly accurate Nacqui all'affanno from Berganza, Sutherland and Horne both return to make a much more favourable impression. As Sutherland begins her Cambiale piece she appears to be swooning dangerously from note to note (the comparison with Berganza points this up), but by this means she is able to humanise the brilliant writing, giving it those vital Italian elements of dolcezza and morbidezza for which the English words "sweetness" and "softness" are no real translation. Now it is time for a slow aria, and as Horne gloriously unfolds the Willow Song one wonders why this piece is not heard more often as an alternative to the Verdi. But then one reflects that it is not so surprising since Shakespeare seems very distant, lovely as the music is in its own way, while Verdi breathed the spirit of Shakespeare as almost no other composer has. Ghiaurov's La calunnia is another high point while Tebaldi's firm-toned Selva opaca, exemplary in its breath-control through some very long phrases, is not one of her best-known recordings (it dates from 1955) and her fans will be glad to have it. After this string of arias the CD concludes by reminding us that Rossini was no less a master of the ensemble and the L'italiana extract, splendidly controlled by Varviso, leaves the listener in the best possible of spirits.

Just a few quibbles. The sound in this last piece has a notable bloom and draws attention to a problem which is as old as the CD itself; while the engineers have done a very good job in lining up all these recordings, made in different venues over more than thirty years, so that there is scarcely a jolt as we pass from one to another, in the process a lot of them have acquired a paint-stripping quality not to be found on the original LPs. Unfortunately I had no LP pressings of these particular performances to hand but I listened to an off-the-air recording of Horne singing the Willow Song in Milan in 1971 (the recording here is from 1965) and in spite of the obvious limitations the effect is warmer, more likeable. The very slightly more flowing tempo helps, too, and it is difficult to say whether this stems from another 6 years of experience of the piece, or whether the Milanese orchestra's natural Rossinian instincts cause it to nudge the conductor (Henry Lewis again) ever so gently into what it felt to be the right tempo. But it does lead me to my second point; that opera is a particularly difficult beast to control in the studio and live recordings, for all their faults, can often give us more musical, dramatic and even vocal truth than the most carefully prepared studio performance.

As for my third point, I know some readers will see red when I mention it, but a shadow hangs over a lot of this repertoire and its name is Maria Callas. Now a lot of "Callas-widows", particularly in Italy, make life impossible for anyone who sings roles and arias associated with their idol and this is plainly wrong since life goes on, the opera houses are still open and other singers have (and always had) things of their own to say. But one cannot pretend that Callas never existed, and anyone who has heard what she could do with the single word "ma" in Una voce poco fa is going to feel short-changed by Horne's performance here.

Enough of the grousing. This is not really a record for the specialist, who will want either complete operas or single-singer recitals. But for the relative novice to classical music who has enjoyed a record of Rossini overtures and is wondering where to go from there, the answer is surely to buy this disc. He will get a fine showcase of some of Rossini's finest exponents of the 50s, 60s and 70s. He will also get a useful introduction with full texts and translations, not something to be taken for granted these days, alas, and I sincerely hope he will get a jewel-case which doesn't fall to pieces like mine did.

Christopher Howell

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