One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             



Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS


Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Tancredi (1813): O Patria! – dolce e ingrata patria!; Di tanti palpiti; Dove sono io? …; Ah! Che scordar non so; Oh Dio … lasciarti io deggio
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Nabucco (1842)*: Ben io t’invenni… Anch’io dischiuso un giorno … Salgo già del trono aurato, Il Corsaro (1848): Egli non riede ancora … Non so le tetre immagini, Don Carlo (1867): O don fatale, Ernani (1844): Surta è la notte … Ernani, Ernani involami, Un ballo in maschera (1859): Ecco l’orrido campo … Ma dall’arido stelo; Morrò, ma prima in grazia
Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo-soprano), Cappella Coloniensis/Gabriele Ferro (Rossini), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nello Santi (Verdi), with *Ivo Vinco (bass), Ambrosian Singers
Locations: Schulzentrum Lindlov, Cologne (Rossini), All Saints’ Church, London (Verdi)
Dates: 6th-18th October 1978 (Rossini), July 1978 (Verdi)
WARNER FONIT 0927 43350-2 [57’ 50"]

What is a mezzo-soprano ? part (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7),(8),(9)]

What is a mezzo-soprano (11)?

Or rather, "When is a mezzo-soprano not a mezzo-soprano?" And firstly some bad marks to Warner Fonit for having prepared the booklet with precious little reference to the actual contents of the disc. Let us pass over as "normal" the fact that the (untranslated) texts don’t always begin exactly where the sung extracts begin; let us pass over as "regrettable" the fact that the essay by one of Italy’s leading voice experts, Rodolfo Celletti, has been poorly translated. If Cossotto herself should happen upon it and read that such a renowned critic has defined her voice as "slightly hollow" she at least will be able to check back to the original Italian and find that he said no such thing; "rather dark" was his unexceptionable description. And what will she or we make of the description of Verdi’s phrasing, with its "continuous transitions from broad and temple fragments to agitated interjections"? Unfortunately the idea still reigns in Italy that translations are not worth wasting good money on, you can always find a second cousin or a brother-in-law who once spent a summer shoplifting in Hastings or getting mugged in Brighton and who will do it free. You can imagine the domestic scene:

He: Eh, Filumena, how do you say "ampio" in English?

She (banging the pots and pans): "Ample", Pasqualino.

He (sipping his grappa): Eh, "temple", that’s what I thought, "temple".

Let us pass over less readily the fact that Celletti’s essay is a general appreciation of Cossotto. Was it written specifically or is it an all-purpose essay intended to "do" for any Cossotto disc? The pity of this is that the record itself raises a number of important and interesting questions which Celletti himself would doubtless have welcomed the opportunity to discuss.

First of all, by adding extracts from the complete Tancredi to turn an under-filled LP into an under-filled CD, we are given a direct juxtaposition between "original instruments" (under Ferro) and thoroughly traditional 20th Century-style Verdi conducting (under Santi). Now I have said before, and I will say it again, that the "original instruments" issue is something of a red herring since if you play them well enough people will hardly notice the difference. Or, put the opposite way, a "normal" symphony orchestra with reduced strings and a detached non-legato style of string playing will sound practically the same as a period band. It’s the style that makes the difference. In the present case the wind make a particularly cool, mellow sound which is wholly pleasurable; the strings show occasional signs (but not too many) of that rough, ill-tuned effect which some people found so ear-catching when the original instrument movement was in its infancy. Though come to think of it, the orchestras of Italian provincial theatres have never needed to call upon original instruments to make sound like that.

That Cossotto, at a time in her career when she could have contented herself with carting her Eboli, her Azucena, her Amneris and her Santuzza around the world, should have taken part in such a project demonstrates a sense of cultural curiosity and a musical open-mindedness which can only be applauded. But does she then apply a traditional prima donna style regardless of the context? I think not. She was in any case wont to use remarkably little vibrato – as the Verdi extracts show, her voice was rich enough and dark enough without – but I get the impression that she is here "straighter" still. She also despatches her moments of agility with absolute precision, helped out, in the Italian manner (but not excessively) by aspirates. In other words, she has identified with the aims of the project. Among these aims, it would seem (and I consider this far more important than mere musicological correctness), are those of alerting us to the fact that Rossini is a composer of high seriousness. If you compare the most famous aria, "Di tanti palpiti", with the Marilyn Horne/Henry Lewis version which recently turned up on Decca’s "The World of Rossini" (473 143-2) your initial reaction might be to smile at the jaunty introduction under Lewis and think this is lovely. The trouble is it sounds such a rubbishy piece of music; with Cossotto and Ferro it has a meaning. Horne, by the way, does her agility without aspirates which some will prefer, but for me it is Cossotto who reveals Rossini’s true stature.

In another way Cossotto was taking a courageous risk in singing with original instruments, for they are lower in pitch than modern ones. It is not so easy to change a lifetime’s habits when it comes to pitching notes and in any case if there is a chink in Cossotto’s technical armoury it is her tendency to be fractionally under the note; always a risk with very rich, dark mezzo voices. In the Verdi this obtrudes just occasionally; in this Rossini it happens rather more regularly, enough to be a little disconcerting, and I suspect that the problems of pitching lower than usual are the cause.

When it comes to the Verdi pieces any experienced listener is going to raise his eyebrows. There’s a sample of Cossotto’s classic Eboli, to be sure, but Abigaille, Elvira and Ernani are all soprano parts, and so, I believe, is Medore (it’s not as if Il Corsaro is sung often enough to speak of "standard practice"). So yes, one fine day she decided to kick the traces and sing soprano. Can she do it? Well yes, she can. Does she sound under strain? Not really. In the middle of the selection we are reminded of the familiar Cossotto and there is no denying that she sounds totally at home as Eboli, the smoulderingly dark tones of her lower-middle register allied to years of familiarity with the words and the music. The other are audibly "instant interpretations" but vivid and well thought out even so. And she shows that she can carry a full, bright, "lirico-spinto" or "dramatic soprano" tone right to the top of her range. But surely her high notes must sound strained? No more so than those of Callas (the obvious comparison for Amelia in Ballo), frankly. Maybe even less so. Her high C in the Ernani aria does not sound exactly free of effort, but Gabriela Tucci, a distinguished lyric soprano from those same years, does not make it sound any easier. A recording of this piece by Mara Colleva suggests that there could be advantages in using a lighter voice-type altogether, but that is another story. This recital provides completely convincing evidence that Cossotto could perfectly well have trained as a lyric-dramatic soprano and sustained all the parts included here. Indeed, I wonder that she did not go a stage further and give us, on a companion disc, such choice morsels as Isolde’s Liebestod, the closing scene of Salome and maybe a glimpse of Beethoven’s Leonora.

Am I being ironic? Not really. There is the right gleaming tone on the upper notes for these roles and I daresay she would have made them sound less of a continuous scream than certain of their regular practitioners. So the question is, why did she train as a mezzo?

Well, this recital goes to prove that there is more personal choice in the matter than you might imagine. However, I think we would have lost more had we been deprived of her in mezzo roles than we have by not hearing her in soprano ones. The Don Carlo piece shows that it is in her middle-to-lower register that her timbre is most distinctive. The soprano voice we hear is maybe a more all-purpose affair. So on balance it seems that she (and her teachers) made the right decision.

It was also a well-calculated decision from a career point of view. Cossotto trained in an operatic environment so dominated by Callas that only Tebaldi managed to hold her own. Think of all the Stellas, the Pobbes, the Cerquettis that fell by the wayside. And Callas’s domination might have been expected to last longer than it did. The young Cossotto could well have imagined that her future career, as a soprano, would have been spent wearing her voice out while waiting in the wings. By training as a mezzo she appeared alongside Callas (in Medea at Covent Garden) as early as 1959.

If we are to believe the booklet, by the way, she also sings here as Ernani, but no such luck ("Ernani, involami" is sung by Elvira). If she had any ambition to take on tenor roles she kept them to herself. And maybe her husband, the bass Ivo Vinco, briefly heard here in the Nabucco excerpt, would have drawn the line. As it is we have an extraordinarily interesting record and I only wish the presentation had spelt out why it is extraordinarily interesting. The RPO, incidentally, patently enjoyed playing traditionally big-boned Verdi under an old-school Italian maestro who knew his stuff.

Christopher Howell


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.