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