Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Georges BIZET (1838-1975)
Carmen: Highlights (sung in Italian)
Pia Tassinari (Carmen), Franco Corelli (Don José), Margherita Benetti (Micaëla), Gian Giacomo Guelfi (Escamillo), Turin RAI Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Basile
Recorded 18th April 1957, Turin
Cetra Opera Collection
WARNER FONIT 5050466-3294-2-4 [56:38]


Your reaction to this will depend on your interest in operatic performing history. If you donít have a Carmen on your shelves, then you will presumably want it sung in the original French, preferably complete, in a manner approaching the French style, and in modern sound. This 1957 mono recording catches the voices well but gives the upper strings a papery brilliance and the bass line is tubby. Orchestral climaxes are too backward to have great impact. I wouldnít let this put me off if I was getting a great performance, but I am not so sure that I am.

Opera in the vernacular has a long and sometimes distinguished history. The first ever Carmen on disc was actually in German (1908, with Emmy Destinn). A proper French Carmen followed in 1912 while Italian Carmens were made in 1920, 1931 and 1933 (the latter with Aureliano Pertile). Further German versions were made in 1942 (under Böhm with Elisabeth Höngen in the title role) and 1961 (with Christa Ludwig under Horst Stein). The first English (or maybe American) Carmen seems to date from 1946, recorded at the Hollywood Bowl under Stokowski. A performance in Russian was recorded in 1952.

In post-war Italy there were few non-Italian operas in the repertoire at all; such as they were, they were invariably sung in translation. Furthermore, they tended to be sung as if they really were Italian operas, and a strong tradition grew up of wrong-headed, verista, performances of Carmen, Werther and Manon. But Italy has never had the equivalent of the English National Opera in London or the Volksoper in Vienna where everything is systematically done in the local language and I am not aware of any major (or even minor) opera house in present-day Italy which presents works in translation. The habit of singing Massenet in the style of Puccini nevertheless remains.

Opera in English has always maintained its position, though many feel that the English National Operaís policy is now outdated. Others clearly disagree since opera in English has undergone something of a revival on disc recently, and native English speakers wanting Carmen in this form will find an excellent one on Chandos. I am not aware of recordings being made in any other country today of operas in translation (but as they would not be intended for export, this doesnít necessarily mean there are none) and I think it unlikely that any Italian opera lover would now wish to hear non-Italian works in his own language; any interest aroused by the present disc would regard the singers.

Certainly, admirers of Franco Corelli around the world will be pleased to have this. As the booklet points out, his Don José was something of a reference point in the post-war scene. He sang the role for the first time at Spoleto in 1951 and gave performances every year till 1962, thereafter repeating it most years until his final run at the Arena di Verona in 1975. He made two commercial recordings, the first under Karajan in 1963 with Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni and Robert Merrill, the second under Maazel in 1970 with Anna Moffo, Helen Donath and Piero Cappuccilli. What the booklet doesnít mention is that it was not a performance that appealed much to Francophones, with its poor French and hell-for-leather verismo style. Still, the Karajan Carmen was a famous affair in its way, albeit not quite Bizetís way. The second set had, some thought, better French and the original dialogue (spoken by actors) in place of the recitatives (which are not Bizetís own). A television version was made by the RAI in 1956 under Nino Sanzogno with Belen Amperan as Carmen, and Bongiovanni have put out two "unofficial" versions (I have no information about the sound quality); a 1961 performance from the Arena di Verona, sung in Italian with Simionato, Scotto and Bastianini, is conducted by Molinari-Pradelli, while one of his last performances, from Macerata in 1974, has Grace Bumbry as Carmen and De Fabritiis as conductor. Those who like an Italianate Don José might find some point in hearing Corelli sing in his own language.

It certainly is impressive on its own terms, a glorious flood of generous tone. There is also a tendency to attack notes from below and a heavy recourse to portamento. But there you are, if you donít mind Bizet being treated like Mascagni youíll just bathe in it all, and the point of the disc is for voice-fanciers rather than Bizet admirers.

So what of the others, little-known outside Italy? Pia Tassinari was born in 1909 and was the wife of the tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini. Originally a soprano, she turned to mezzo roles in 1952. She sang Carmen frequently and closed her career with the role in America in 1962. She was noted for her powerful singing of verismo roles and this is a smoulderingly passionate Carmen from the start; reckless in her chesty tones and not always perfect of intonation, it cannot be said she finds any great variety of expression. Itís all hammer and tongs. I suggest that her recording of the role of Rosa Mamai in Cileaís LíArlesiana, also on Warner Fonit, is a better reminder of her art.

Gian Giacomo Guelfi did some good things, his Scarpia on the Basile Tosca for instance, but barking away at Escamillo is less of a good idea. Margherita Benetti, of whom little seems to be known except that she cropped up on these Cetra sets from time to time, has a solid voice, strongly projected, but wearing in its unvaried over-insistence. Hardly right for Micaëla.

All this is rather emphasised by the fact that Basile, unlike the singers, does realise that he is conducting French music not Italian, producing a lean, classical reading that could have been worth hearing with a different set of principals. The orchestral preludes and interludes are perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the disc. Any attempt to impose another style of singing would probably have been vain and he just concentrates on holding things together when the singers enter.

Not a disc for a general recommendation, then. Corelli fans will want it, and so may opera lovers who fancy a snapshot of how Carmen used to be performed in Italy.

Christopher Howell


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