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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor

Giuseppe Manacchini (Enrico Ashton, baritone), Lina Pagliughi (Lucia, soprano), Giovanni Malipiero (Edgardo, tenor), Muzio Giovagnoli (Bucklaw, tenor), Luciano Neroni (Raimondo, baritono), Orchestra Sinfonica dellíEIAR di Torino
Ugo Tansini
Recorded in Turin, 17th-24th May 1939
WARNER FONIT 8573 87492-2 [2 CDs: 68í20"+36í07"]


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Having experienced chronically shrill sound on the 1952 Cetra Guglielmo Tell, I found the prospect of a 1939 recording from the same source rather daunting. The weedy, wavery sound of the opening orchestral bars seemed to bear me out, but in fact the voices are recorded firmly and clearly, very much forward in the Cetra manner but not strident, and the odd patch of wow is not as disturbing as the beginning had led me to fear. All things considered this is about as good as Iíve heard from a set of that date.

The "they-donít-sing-like-they-used-to-any-more" brigade might usefully be obliged to listen to the Enrico and the Edgardo here, not so much for delectation as in the same spirit with which one rubs a puppyís nose in its mess to teach it better manners. They have sound, well-produced voices, I grant them that, but they go through the recitatives with the expressiveness of a blacksmith and apparently no awareness of what they are singing about (strange, when they are singing in their mother tongue), precious little legato and, in the case of Manacchini, no inherent musicality in the voice. The tenor, Giovanni Malipiero (1906-1970), does make a pleasanter sound and at the end manages "Tu che a Dio spiegasti" with some style and even some piano. He was actually quite a popular artist in the 1930s and 1940s. Even so itís all pretty wooden and Iíd like to think that, whatever our faults today, we donít sing like that any more.

The reasons for buying this set are two (or three: the orchestra is a fine body): the conductor and the soprano. Ugo Tansini (1874-1944) had been one of the principal conductors of the orchestra of the EIAR (the predecessor of the present-day RAI) since 1925. He had played under Toscanini and shapes the faster music with much of that masterís brilliance, and above all with a lithe touch which never lets the music become merely rowdy. The slower melodies are well-shaped without falling into sentimentality, keeping the accompanying figures rhythmically trim and fully alive. He never mistakes Donizettiís gentler swing for Verdian "slancio". At a time long before the current Donizetti revival was dreamed of, at least one Italian conductor got it all right (he makes the traditional cuts, though).

Lina Pagliughi (1908-1980) was born in New York of Italian parents (donít think Iím copying all this out of the booklet: it only contains a brief description of the opera and a synopsis in English and Italian, plus the Italian libretto). She came to Italy to complete her studies and remained there, making her debut in Rigoletto in Milan in 1928. She appeared at Covent Garden in Rigoletto in 1938 and continued to sing until at least 1959, but she was apparently a whale of a woman, so much so as to prejudice her chances in the theatre even in the days before fattism was much of an issue. The theatreís loss was radioís gain, for she was a regular choice of the RAI in the post-war years when a light soprano was needed, amazing visitors to the studios with the delicate, bird-like sounds that came out of her handsome frame.

This is what you might call a pre-Callas Lucia, with a bright but sweet, almost girlish timbre, pure and effortless right to the top notes, clear and accurate in coloratura. While she is not inexpressive, especially in comparison with the other lead singers, her voice is not a vessel for emotive force as Callasís was. Listen to her sing "Il pallore, funesto, orrendo" (Disc 1, track 13, just after the beginning). If you didnít know the opera, and if you didnít have the words in front of you, would you honestly know if she was singing about something happy or something sad? Callas leaves you in no doubt.

The other thing which makes her sound a singer of yesteryear is her vowel-sounds. Here the aria to try is "Soffriva nel pianto" (Disc 1, track 14). The "I"s very definitely rhyme with "tree", the "E" are like the "E" in "get", the "A"s like the "aa" in "baa-lamb", and the "O"s are anything but round. This produces the very brilliant, almost schoolgirlish voice production we often associate with pre-Callas sopranos. Listen to the same passage from Callas and you will hear the vowels rounded out with a touch of "O" in all of them, producing a warmer, more liquid sound. That there were two schools of thought even in 1939 is shown by the Raimondo on these discs. Near the beginning of the second CD he announces, not "un fiero evento" but "on fioro ovonto". Throughout his following aria he appears to have a frog in his throat and, if his voice seems further away from the microphones than the others, this is probably not because it was so but because this style of singing shoves the voice back in the throat, making it project far less. On the other hand, it does produce a more honeyed, more musical sound and this aria is the one I enjoyed most of those not sung by Pagliughi. But thereís no doubt heís gone too far in the other direction. Callas showed that it is possible to round the vowels without losing the voice, but then she could afford to because she had a naturally strong, hard-hitting voice and what worked for her wonít work for everybody. Geniuses are dangerous models.

Since this set is basically of interest for Pagliughi, I wonder if it might not have been enough to issue a single CD based on her contributions. Alternatively, the same performance is also on Naxos (I havenít heard it but the transfer is well spoken-of) with the second CD padded out with a selection of further arias from Pagliughi, so it does sound a better buy.

Christopher Howell


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