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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
La Favorita (Italian version) (1840)
Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) (Leonora di Gusman), Gianni Raimondi (ten) (Fernando), Carlo Tagliabue (bar) (Alfonso XI), Giulio Neri (bass) (Baldassare), Mariano Caruso (ten) (Don Gasparo), Loretta di Lelio (Ines), Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Angelo Questa
Recorded 23rd November 1955, Turin
CETRA OPERA COLLECTION, WARNER FONIT 0927 43617-2 [2 CDs: 61’48"+74’55"]


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Comparative versions:

French version: Vesselina Kasarova, Ramón Vargas, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Carlo Colombara, Francesco Piccoli, Abbie Furmansky, Bavarian Radio Chorus, Munich Radio Orchestra/Marcello Viotti

Recorded 11th April 1999, Munich

RCA RED SEAL 74321 66229-2 [2 CDs: 77’41"+72’18"]

Italian version: Giulietta Simionato, Gianni Poggi, Ettore Bastianini, Jerome Hines, Piero di Palma, Bice Magnani, Florence May Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Alberto Erede

Recorded 1955

DECCA, not currently available

Not so long ago I reviewed the Kasarova version of "La Favorite" and since I recommended it very strongly readers may not thank me if I say that this reissue changes things a little.

In one sense there is no contest at all. From RCA we get the opera complete, sung in the language in which Donizetti wrote it (French), and a fine-sounding modern recording. The performance would have to be pretty poor – which it most certainly is not – to induce me to give a general recommendation instead to a 1955 recording of the bowdlerised Italian version of the opera, one which, moreover, observes a number of traditional cuts.

However, while for the general music lover the situation is very clear, opera buffs will have noted some important names in the cast and will want to know if they meet expectations.

First of all, a word about versions. Philip Gossett, in his notes to the RCA recording, states that the Italian adaptation is a "scandalous debasement" of the opera. It is true that if you start looking in detail you find many places in which the Italian translators, with the excuse that they had to get past the censor, have gone their own way. Fernando and Baldassare’s exchanges at the beginning of Act IV, for example, are not translations at all but new words (without a lot of meaning) entirely. Even where the original is more or less followed the intention seems to have been to replace Eugène Scribe’s very clear and comprehensible text with one so abstrusely archaic and poetical that even Italians today have some difficulty in grasping its meaning. But the libretto of an opera is basically a peg to hang the music on and I think the importance of all this can be exaggerated. The only real difference to the music itself is the exclusion of the Ballet Music, inevitably included in the French version, and that is no great loss. I am not going to dismiss a good performance of this opera simply because it uses the Italian version, or think badly of Italian opera houses that still prefer it, or indeed of opera houses elsewhere that opt for it when they have a mainly Italian cast. In view of the fact that Kasarova’s recent "Nuits résplendissents" album has been trashed in some quarters on account of her allegedly execrable French, some might add that it is better to have it in good Italian than in bad French. My own review of that disc made no comment and I feel the matter has been exaggerated. Kasarova and her colleagues sing "international French" rather than "true French", but I don’t see why she has been particularly singled out for attack, or imagine that non-French listeners are going to be shocked out of their seats. Still, having Italian sung by Italians (with just one exception) is a plus-point for the older recordings.

It is a curious coincidence, considering that the opera’s discography is not long, that the two most important recordings of the Italian version were made in the same year, 1955, and involved the two leading Italian mezzo-sopranos of the day, Fedora Barbieri and Giulietta Simionato. The Decca recording has long been out of the catalogue but oddly enough it was transferred to CD in 1994 as the supplement to a magazine called "La Grande Lirica" and published by the Gruppo Editoriale Bramante. Since it bears the stamp of the SIAE (the Italian equivalent of the Performing Rights Society) it must be legal though no mention is made of its Decca origin and listening on headphones reveals a surface hiss which suggests a direct transfer from the LPs. Your chances of finding this eight years on are probably smaller even than those of finding the LPs secondhand, but since a friend was able to lend me a copy I have included it in the comparison. It may yet be reissued, if not by Decca themselves then by somebody else, since it comes out of copyright in three years’ time anyway.

The Warner Fonit has a typical Cetra sound with the voices well forward and strong and a dryish acoustic. If the original LPs had that famous Cetra fierceness that put many collectors off, it has been tamed and I quickly adjusted to the sound. The Bramante transfer of the Decca presumably does not represent the best results that could be obtained if Decca’s own engineers were to remaster the original tapes but it’s quite pleasing even so. There is more space around the sound than with Cetra and a warmer reverberation. The voices are well caught. A degree of distortion at climaxes is probably not on the original tapes.

Both performances make identical choices regarding cuts, which principally involve Fernando’s scene and aria at the end of Act I, the second verse of Leonora’s cabaletta "O mio Fernando" with the scene that follows it and, most damagingly, the final scene of all, which is for me the one cut that actually bleeds.

It is evident from the Overture that Angelo Questa (1901-1960) has a less good orchestra than the other conductors, but it is also evident that he is trying for more colour and phrasing than they do. In the opening scene chorus and orchestra are blended together with genuine imagination and throughout Act IV his realisation of the score’s darker tints is very fine. On the whole this sensibility towards Donizetti’s timbres leads him towards slightly slower tempi, but he can let fly very excitingly when he feels it is called for, as in the finale to Act III or the final duet. Erede conducted a good many Decca sets in the 1950s and I can’t say his direction struck me one way or the other. I wouldn’t get the discs for his conducting alone, but he gives his forces the lead and the space they need. Viotti sometimes lingers over corners in the first two acts, finding additional poetry here and there. Later he seems to be nudging things on rather, particularly in "O mio Fernando", which feels rushed. It can be observed that an uncut performance at Questa’s tempi, however desirable musically, would have spilled onto a third CD. Questa with cuts is two minutes longer than Viotti without. Were one or two tempi tightened up for this reason?

But what of the casts, you’ll be asking by now, and a big advantage is scored by Cetra with the presence of Giulio Neri (1909-1958). He was one of the few Italian basses to have a big black sound in the Boris Christoff mould. He was a terrific Mephistopheles (in Boito’s opera), a part he recorded, again with Questa conducting. His fury at the end of Act II, abetted by Questa, is awe-inspiring, and his sonorous tones are memorable in his brief aria at the beginning of Act IV. Jerome Hines on the Decca sings very well but without this special authority. For Viotti, Carlo Colombara gives a much more restrained, intimate performance. Apt, maybe, for a "French" opera. But what Neri and Questa have done is to add a whole new dimension to the work. Baldassare is no longer a misery who keeps turning up but the pivot around which the action turns.

Another strong point is Carlo Tagliabue (1898-1978) as Alfonso. He was nearing the end of his career (he retired in 1957) but signs of age in the voice, which still retains a firm, golden quality, are used artistically to create a king who has regal dignity but also humanity. It may be that the name of Ettore Bastianini is more remembered today than that of Tagliabue. However, one of the things he is remembered for is singing Germont père alongside an impassioned Callas and with an inspired Giulini in the pit, and managing no more than a dogged impassivity. His performance here tells the same tale; a fine voice and good singing but he does not create a character. Anthony Michaels-Moore is certainly a good deal better, restrained, understated with a warm-toned voice; it is a performance which, like Colombara’s Balthazar, is theoretically admirable but does not give the character his full importance.

In the small role of Don Gasparo, Mariano Caruso’s legato-less singing does not live up to his distinguished surname. Here the Decca scores with Piero di Palma, a lifelong specialist in minor roles who gives an excellent account. Francesco Piccoli also acquits himself well.

As Ines, Loretta Di Lelio has a rather girlish voice. Since, of the three singers, only her voice seems suited to "Dolce zeffiro", we must assume that Donizetti had such a voice in mind. The other two are more conventionally operatic and too heavy at this point. Elsewhere Ines has little to do and all three are perfectly adequate.

It is with the tenors that we find that the whole concept of Donizetti singing has changed over the years. Gianni Raimondi (b.1923) and Gianni Poggi (b.1921) were your typical big Italian tenors, used to parading their Verdi and their Puccini and their Mascagni before cheering audiences, and when they came to Donizetti they didn’t expect to do it any differently. This is already clear in Fernando’s first aria "Un ange, une femme inconnue"/"Una vergine, un angelo di Dio". Ramón Vargas essays a far more elegant, refined manner. To help maintain the sweetness right up to the high notes he mixes in a spot of falsetto, about 40% by the time he reaches his top C sharp. An Italian singing master of the old school would have kicked him down the stairs for this. But if you listen to your traditional Italian tenor, Gianni Poggi, belt out that top C sharp you’ll have to admit that Vargas is making a far pleasanter sound, by whatever means. Of course, if you have difficulties over the top C sharp (it is a very high note) then all you have to do is transpose the aria down a semitone. Raimondi, in fact, sings it in A flat instead of A. Whether you think this is a correct procedure (Donizetti’s key sequence of C-A-F is replaced by C-A flat-F) it is commoner than you might imagine, and maybe better than hearing the singer lunge for a note he can barely manage.

If this sounds like a clear win for Vargas, his top C in "Ange si pur"/"Spirto gentil" is pushed slightly sharp and one returns thankfully to the sheer security of the Italian singers. Arias apart, Vargas’s gentler manner means that for long stretches you seem to be hearing different music and for two-thirds of the way this seemed far preferable. Then doubts set in. Donizetti was after all an Italian not a Frenchman; his opera was written in French for France but his heart was still an Italian heart. Old-style Italian performers who went at Donizetti hammer and tongs in a "verista" style were plainly wrong, but he was after all the gateway to Verdi and the later part of this opera seems to want a heft and a "slancio" that Vargas is unwilling to provide, or when he tries he appears to be straining. At which point I began to feel there was much to be said for Raimondi, especially since he begins "Spirto gentile" in a honeyed head-voice a little in the manner of Giacomo Lauri Volpi, and really gives the most attractive performance of the three of this aria. There is less to be said, I feel, for Poggi. His brighter tones suggest the stereotype of the Latin lover; too uncomplicated for Fernando, especially since he is a little wooden in phrases that require particular expression.

And so to the leading ladies. Fedora Barbieri was a "low" mezzo, noted for her dark, intense tone, a quality which she carried up to her highest notes – but she didn’t go up very high; certain optional high Cs, usually at the end of an Act and gratefully seized upon by the other two, are avoided. Her extremely "committed" style allied to her dark timbre make for particularly powerful results as Leonora’s predicament worsens, that is to say in Act IV. It is elsewhere possible to feel that Donizetti had in mind a slightly higher and brighter type of mezzo; when the heroine if the opera is a mezzo and not a soprano she is nonetheless expected to dominate the ensembles as a soprano would, soaring above the rest of the company. And perhaps a touch more brilliance is expected in the cabaletta of "O mio Fernando" and in the final duet. So, while I find Barbieri’s performance both powerful and interesting, I feel that Simionato, who can do all these latter things, is absolutely ideal. Her voice, while retaining a mezzo richness, has a certain bright sheen to it. This gives her the necessary brilliance in the upper register so that she can dominate without forcing. But this same sheen is carried down through the middle register too. It is a very even voice; and thanks to this bright sheen she is able give her lines a certain sharp, elegant profile which the music of the early 19th Century needs. She is not such an evidently intense interpreter as Barbieri but all the same she is clearly involved in Laura’s predicament and rises to the last act.

In 1955 Barbieri and Simionato were, respectively, 35 and 45. I don’t know how old Kasarova was in 1999 (not even her own website gives her date of birth) but put it another way; in 1955 the younger of the two singers, Barbieri, had 15 years of career behind her. In 1999 Kasarova had barely ten. She is one of the most interesting young artists around and her rise to stardom is deserved. The upper part of her voice has a splendid sheen and security. Unlike Simionato, however, this sheen is slightly lost as the voice descends; this part of her voice has a slightly hollower sound. But the point of my age considerations above is that the work of equalising is long and arduous and it seems to me that in the discs made since "La Favorite" the process has continued. She is a committed and imaginative interpreter (though as I’ve already pointed out, Viotti has "O mon Fernand" go too fast) and I don’t retract any of the praise I gave her in my original review. But she is not yet quite in the Simionato league.

So where does that leave us? As I began by saying, in one sense there is no competition; the Kasarova is the one to have. But if you are not concerned over sound quality or the "right" edition, it has to be said that the situation is much less clear. The Cetra has the best conductor, the incomparably best Baldassare, the best Alfonso, the best Ines. It has the better of the two Italian tenors, and one with several points in his favour. It has a magnificent Leonora. The fact that it has the worst Don Gasparo is hardly an issue. Any dedicated opera fan is going to want to hear it. And if the Decca set were to be reissued it would not be a pointless exercise since it has the best Leonora.

Christopher Howell

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