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  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni K.527

Giuseppe Taddei (Don Giovanni, baritone), Maria Curtis Verna (Donna Anna, soprano), Carla Gavazzi (Donna Elvira, soprano), Cesare Valletti (Don Ottavio, tenor), Antonio Zerbini (Il Commendatore, bass), Italo Tajo (Leporello, bass), Elda Ribetta (Zerlina, soprano), Vito Susco (Masetto, baritone)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI/Max Rudolf
Recorded 28th June 1955, Turin
CETRA OPERA COLLECTION, WARNER FONIT 0927 43561-2 [3 CDs: 54:48, 51:21, 56:58]


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Though Cetra used to be considered valuable above all for Italian operas that were not otherwise available, this set shows that at least some of its all-Italian (or nearly so) versions of Mozart’s Italian operas deserve a second look. The more so when we no longer have to endure Cetra sets in strident sound; this is forward and clear and equal to practically anything from the same date.

The conductor Max Rudolf was born Max Rudolph in Germany in 1902, began to work in the German Opera House in Prague in 1929, emigrated to the USA in 1940 and started his association with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1945, becoming its artistic administrator from 1950-1958. In that year he moved to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1970. There followed three years at the Curtis Institute and appointments in Dallas and New Jersey. He conducted for the last time at the age of 90 and died in 1995.

Something of a legend in his adopted country, Rudolf did not figure much in the major companies’ recording programmes and his name probably does not mean very much to European listeners. A number of records made with Cincinnati SO were available on LP in the UK in the 1970s and failed to make an impression. I suppose you could say that in the present instance he offers above all clean textures and a good deal of energy rather than great insights (I certainly thought this during the overture), but in the opera pit this counts for much. He sees that the drama unfolds at the right pace and negotiates a labyrinth of tricky tempo changes in the first act finale without putting a foot wrong. Many of his tempi are challengingly fast and we should note that, while the Mozart of many contemporaries who were judged his superior in their day (Böhm for instance) now sounds heavy, Rudolf’s does not.

Most lovers of this opera will have Taddei’s performance of Leporello in the famous Giulini set made a few years after this. They will surely welcome the chance to put his Don alongside it. This is a Don Giovanni who maintains the veneer of a gentleman and is all the more dangerous for it. His half-voice in the serenade is a remarkable piece of vocal control. By his side is Italo Tajo, a skilled practitioner of small parts on disc over a period of many years. His vocal acting is excellent and in his scenes with Don Giovanni his rather overbearing, truculent Leporello sometimes seems to be getting the upper hand. In their recitatives they really strike sparks off each other; there’s no match for Italians doing this sort of thing in their own languages. His actual voice is revealed, especially in the company of Taddei’s sharply focused vocal production, to be a little cavernous and woolly, but it’s a splendid performance even so.

Cesare Valletti (1921-2000) later sang Don Ottavio both at the Met and at Salzburg. His way with the part is more openly passionate than, say, Anton Dermota’s gently besotted lover; it’s a stronger type of voice than we would be likely to use for Mozart today. On the other hand, any attempt to make Don Ottavio a little less one-sided as a character than usual is all to the good.

In my recent review of Carla Gavazzi’s Adriana Lecouvreur I told what I know about her, and refer readers there. Even taking into account Taddei, she could be a principal reason for getting the set. She has character; from the moment she enters her words have a life that holds the attention. However, you are also warned that this is a way of singing Mozart to which we are not used today. She unhesitatingly uses chest tones on lower notes, her vowels are often bitingly brilliant and she at times applies a rapid vibrato. She throws herself passionately into the coloratura passages and, while I don’t suggest the notes are not there, it’s a far cry from the "string of pearls" concept of Mozartian passage-work that is more common. For her, also the coloratura has to mean something. Unorthodox Mozart, but done with such conviction to make you wonder if her way is not the right one after all. Though Gavazzi’s career was curtailed and her records were few, the evidence is that she was an artist of some importance.

Maria Curtis Verna is the one non-Italian in the cast, though since she was established in Italy at the time of the recording she certainly sounds idiomatic enough. Born Mary Curtis, she acquired an extra Italian surname and Italianised her first name, and was much admired in Italy for a few years (at about this time she also recorded Aida, with Franco Corelli, and Un Ballo in Maschera, with Tagliavini and Valdengo, both for Cetra). After this she returned to the USA, varied her name again to Mary Curtis-Verna, and appeared regularly at the Met. I can trace no recordings from her later period. She also became active as a teacher.

It’s a rich, almost mezzo-like voice. Indeed, certain signs of strain in the upper register suggest she may actually be a pushed-up mezzo more than a real soprano, but I must say the coloratura in Non mi dir is safely negotiated and she is impressive in Or sai chi l’onore. Her style is not always clean, without the compensation of Gavazzi’s strong personality, and her vocal production perhaps relies on volume more than perfect focus. She is the weakest link in a strong cast, but is by no means to be dismissed.

Elda Ribetti’s main claim to fame is that she sang Oscar in the 1943 Ballo in Maschera with Gigli and Serafin. She has a soubrettish voice, but with more body than usual for this sort of part and gives a strong performance. I can find no information about Vito Susco but this is an acceptable Masetto, and once again he and Ribetti really know how to make the recitatives fly off the page.

Antonio Zerbini (1924-1987) offers a good Commendatore without the last ounce of massive authority needed to drive the climatic moment home.

It hardly need be stated at this stage that the above information does not come from the booklet which, as is the way with these Cetra reissues, offers an introductory note, in Italian and English, and the libretto in Italian. Regarding the performers, the merits of Taddei are extolled, which most of us know anyway, but nothing is offered on the more elusive ones. We do get photos of all of them, however.

With so many important versions of Don Giovanni in the catalogue I suppose this is not exactly a first choice, but it adds up to more than the sum of its considerable parts and if it did happen to be the only one on your shelf you’d get all the right ideas about the opera. Opera buffs will want it for Taddei, Valletti and the little recorded Carla Gavazzi.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Robert J Farr



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