> GIORDANO Andrea Chenier Callas [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)

Andrea Chénier (1896)
Mario Del Monaco (Andrea Chénier), Maria Callas (Maddalena di Coigny), Aldo Protti (Carlo Gérard), Silvana Zanolli (Bersi), Maria Amadini (Contessa di Coigny), Lucia Danieli (Madelon), Enrico Campi (Roucher), Enzo Sordello (Fléville)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Antonino Votto
Recorded live at La Scala, Milan, 8th January 1955
EMI CLASSICS CMS 5 67913 2 [2 CDs: 54’09"+53’36"]


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You’d expect there to be a lot to say about this but actually there isn’t much. In a way the small print on the back (always take a magnifying glass with you when you visit a record shop) says it all: "The technical imperfections of the original recording mean that the sound quality of this live performance is not of the overall standard normally to be expected". To begin with it might seem that they are exaggerating. The orchestra sounds like a 1930s film soundtrack, to be sure, but the voices, even though accompanied by the persistent rattle of mild distortion, stand out with a certain clarity. But then on comes Del Monaco and the poor microphones hit their high from the word go. It really is impossible to form any sort of judgement of his singing of "Un dì all’azzurro spazio". Microphone levels seem to have been adjusted after the First Act and much of the singing can be appreciated though explosive patches are always lying in wait and the other seriously compromised aria (it would have to hit the two most famous pieces, wouldn’t it?) is "La mamma morta".

Nothing is said about the provenance of this recording, which has been circulating in bootleg versions for almost as long as boots have been going on legs, with so many copies of copies of copies that I wonder if anyone really knows who had it first. It wasn’t recorded by somebody sitting in the audience, since the rapturous applause is actually rather distant, so it’s "off the air", but any hopes that an official EMI issue might have had access to "official" Italian Radio tapes can be forgotten about; presumably such tapes do not exist. The fact that a performance was broadcast does not necessarily mean that the radio station in question recorded the performance too, since broadcasting and recording rights are very different things. So all the EMI imprimatur means is that everything that can be done to improve the sound has been tried; but it was a pretty hopeless task.

Of course, it’s easy to see why fans of Maria Callas would want to hear the performance willy-nilly. John Steane’s note tells in full the story of how she learnt the role in five days when she was expecting to sing "Trovatore"; Mario Del Monaco had declared himself indisposed and unable to cope with Manrico, but willing to sing Chénier. It has been suggested that he feared being upstaged by Callas if he sang Manrico to her Leonora, while it is difficult for a tenor to be upstaged by Maddalena, whoever sings the part. In any case, it was not in Callas’s repertoire so she would have no alternative but to bow out (so the reasoning went) and leave the stage clear for the more docile Tebaldi who was well known in the part (which she had recorded for Cetra in 1953 - I reviewed a reissue of this not long ago: Warner-Fonit 8573 87486-2 – and which she sang 88 times during her career). But Callas was not so easily thrust aside and so came about this run of the only six performances she ever gave – here we have the first – as Maddalena.

Before dealing with Callas, let’s say something about "the others", especially when this is a tenor’s opera anyway. Leaving aside "Un dì", the sheer generosity of Mario Del Monaco’s full-throated timbre can be heard, and he is not entirely bereft of softer tones. "Come un bel dì" begins gently and builds up well. His entry "Ora soave" following Maddalena’s "Eravate possente" has the right emotional heft without any forcing of the tone. If you compare this moment on the 1953 Tebaldi recording the sheer inadequacy of the tenor José Soler’s voice is cruelly shown up. However, it is not for Del Monaco that people are going to put up with the poor sound on this issue since he recorded the role in stereo for Decca in 1957 with Tebaldi and Bastianini and with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting, so I will leave any further discussion of his assumption of Chénier for a reissue of that recording (which seems not to be available at the moment).

Aldo Protti (b. 1920) had a pretty distinguished career lasting from 1949 to at least the early 1980s. He had been appearing at La Scala since 1950 and had a repertoire of some 50 roles, of which Rigoletto was a particular speciality. He can be heard on a number of recordings, mostly for Decca, including the Tebaldi/Del Monaco/Karajan "Otello", but doesn’t seem to have recorded Gérard "officially". Gérards, like Scarpias, tend to bark at times and Protti is no exception. However, in view of the microphone’s way of compounding this with distortion of its own perhaps it is better to remember him by his properly recorded roles especially when, though good, he hardly seems out of the ordinary here.

Smaller roles are as idiomatically taken as you would expect from an Italian opera given in Italy’s premier opera house and Antonino Votto, often a slack conductor in the studio, is quite remarkably vital, to the extent of making me revise my opinion of him. Even so, other better recorded "Chéniers" have been well conducted too.

And so to Callas. She did, of course, leave us a studio recording of "La mamma morta", and nothing in that very perfunctory rendering suggests that she had any great feeling for the role. She is certainly a good deal more intense in that aria here, but even so, if you put her alongside the 1953 Tebaldi you will hear a much more detailed response to the text. At times Tebaldi is quite heartrending (try "E Bersi, buona e pura") where Callas is seemingly giving us a compendium of her well-known roles. As love answers, you can hear the quotation marks in Tebaldi’s performance and she builds up steadily to a climax whereas Callas goes at full tilt from the start. The sheer splendour of Tebaldi’s vocal instrument gives overwhelming impact to the climax. When Callas is engaged she can create a frisson by living dangerously; in this instance, better call a spade a spade and say she screams horribly (both in studio and in the theatre).

However, in "Eravate possente", which finds Tebaldi (in 1953) in slightly aggressive mood, the differences are smaller and she produces many illuminating moments along the way, even if they continue to remind us of her other more famous roles rather than this one. The last scene does have that something-or-other which only happens in the theatre, with Callas and Del Monaco really striking sparks of each other and Votto incandescent in the pit. The 1953 recording, very well conducted by Arturo Basile, is relatively studio-bound here, not least because Tebaldi’s main concern seems to be to show Soler what real singing means.

Seriously, I hope that first-time buyers will not see this set in the shops and get it, vaguely supposing that the "Callas version" is a safe bet; this is strictly for specialists. The principal modern versions are the Caballé/Pavarotti/Nucci/Chailly on Decca and Scotto/Domingo/Milnes/Levine on RCA, which allows you to choose your favourite tenor of today. If your hero among the "three tenors" is Carreras, then he recorded the role for Sony with Eva Marton and Giorgio Zancanaro under Giuseppe Patané, a version for which few have professed much love. Going further back I repeat my request for a reissue of the 1957 Tebaldi/Del Monaco, and Franco Corelli fans will remember his version with Antonietta Stella and Mario Sereni under Gabriele Santini. And, further back still, there is the pre-war Gigli, with Maria Caniglia and Gino Bechi conducted by Oliviero De Fabritiis. Del Monaco can also be seen on a film made for Italian television in the 1950s and reissued by the Bel Canto Society; he is partnered by Stella and Giuseppe Taddei and the conductor is Angelo Questa. I can’t tell you which of the above are available at this particular time, but these things come and go pretty rapidly. All of them, as well as the 1953 Tebaldi, are surely preferable to the present in view of the sonic limitations surrounding what is after all a half-baked assumption by the leading lady.

Christopher Howell

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