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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele (1868).
Nazzareno de Angelis (bass) Mefistofele; Mafalda Favero (soprano) Margherita; Antonio Melandri (tenor) Faust; Giannina Arangi-Lombardi (soprano) Elena; Rita Monticone (mezzo) Pantalis; Giuseppe Nessi (tenor) Wagner; Emilio Venturini (tenor) Nereo; Ida Mannarini (mezzo) Marta
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Lorenzo Molajoli.
Appendix:
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816) – La calunnia [3’53]a. Mosè in egitto (1818) – Invocazione [4’29]b.
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Nabucco (1842) – Sperate o figli [3’48]c; Tu labbro dei veggenti [4’20]d. Don Carlo (1867) – Ella giammai m’amò [7’16]e.
Mefistofele rec. Via San Antonio, Milan on November 19th-December 27th, 1931 and issued on Italian Columbia GQX1130/1163; a November 5th, 1927 (English Columbia D18042), b October 4th, 1959 (English Columbia GQX10207), October c 1st, d 2nd, 1928 (both English Columbia D18059), e November 7th-8th, 1927 (English Columbia L2071). ADD
NAXOS GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS 8.110273/4 [153’57: 78’53 + 75’04].


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Nazzareno de Angelis’s reputation essentially rests on one role: the titular hero of the present opera. De Angelis (1881-1962) sang Mefistofele over 500 times across a career that lasted upwards of 35 years. His other major role was Rossini’s Mosè, an excerpt of which appears in the appendix to the present set, but this Mefistofele is his only complete opera recording. De Angelis’s reputation remains huge, and one should be grateful to Naxos for enabling us to remind ourselves why, and cheaply. Much care has gone into this production, from Ward Marston’s excellent work on the sound to Malcolm Walker’s knowledgeable notes.

De Angelis had a big voice (with ‘big’ in capitals, really), one that fitted Boito’s ‘hero’ perfectly. He first sang the role of Mefistofele on October 10th, 1919 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Apparently the audience cheered for nearly an hour and the scene was set …

Part of his success in assuming this role is that the range seems to fit his voice so well; part is also the rich bass, so flexible (and so good at pitched, ‘Mephistophelian’ laughter). It is easy to imagine de Angelis projecting right to the very corners of the largest opera houses, so vibrant and resonant is his instrument. His repertoire also included Wotan, King Marke, Gurnemanz and Hagen. After hearing this set, that Wagnerian roster comes as no surprise.

One of the most popular excerpts from Mefistofele is ‘Ave Signor’, from the Prologue. The almost Berliozian lightness of the orchestra acts in contrast to de Angelis’s entrance, which can only be described as huge. This is imposing singing and vocal acting and delivers the climactic point of the ‘Prologue’. But for sheer power, try the darkly commanding passages around the ‘Death of Faust’ (Epilogue). The other oft-excerpted section is the ‘Ballad of the World (‘Ecco il mondo’, end Act 2). De Angelis, predictably, provides stupendous singing … absolutely magisterial. Not only does the devil have all the best tunes, he has all the best opportunities and, obviously, the best interpreters. De Angelis’s final held note is wonderfully self-indulgent.

Molajoli prepares the ground excellently. The brass-laden opening to the opera is not only dramatic but also glowing with grandeur in this recording. Despite some (understandable) lack of depth to the recording, orchestral detail comes through well. Perhaps the indistinct chorus of the Prologue is not inappropriate anyway (the angels are supposed to be heard through clouds and mist). But the chorus is little short of magnificent at the start of Act 1 (‘Easter Monday’). This is virtuoso, jubilant singing. There is no doubting the electric atmosphere (even if the recording does get congested at high levels).

Mafalda Favero (1903-1981), who takes the part of Margherita, was at La Scala from 1928-43. She also took the roles of Liù, Norina and Zerlina at Covent Garden, 1937-39. It is certainly easy to imagine her as Zerlina (Don Giovanni) or Norina (Don Pasquale). Favero is rather tremulous to begin with (Act 2 Scene 1). Act 3 (The Death of Margherita) is her big chance, and she warms, from rather nervous beginnings, towards a tender duet with Faust. She is remarkably touching as she prepares for her own death at the end of this act. Her Faust is Antonio Melandri, who debuted at La Scala in 1946 (as Calaf) and who enjoyed an international career. In Act 3 he seems less convincing than his Margherita (his repetition of ‘Pace’ does not ring true, especially on direct comparison to Favero’s replies). He supplies typical Italian tenor fodder in Act 1 Scene 2, nicely sung but little more. In this scene Faust and Mefistofele appear together – perhaps in less august company Melandri would come off better.

All of the smaller parts are well taken. The duet between Elena and Pantalis (Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Rita Monticone) in Act 4 is really lovely. Here, as elsewhere, Molajoli inspires his instrumentalists to express real feeling. He has the gift of making his tempi seem just right and of moulding his phrases with the utmost care.

The Naxos synopsis is incomplete. There is no précis of the ‘hymn to love’ at the end of Act 4 (track 10 is omitted entirely); a shame, as other elements of presentation are fine. Perhaps this was a review-copy quirk?

The de Angelis fillers are, as often with this company, generous and fascinating. The Barber excerpt, a blustery ‘La calunnia’ emerges almost preternaturally clear for its 1927 origins, and that goes for orchestra as well as voice. Next some more Rossini, but not nearly so well known. As mentioned above, Mosè was an important opera for de Angelis, and again one can hear why. He is astonishingly tender in half-voice. This is a really beautiful piece (there is also a wonderful trill at the end. One can actually hear the alternation of two separate notes, quite a rarity for a vocal trill!).

Two Nabucco excerpts add some Verdi to the proceedings. The lovely legato line of ‘Sperate o figli’ is unfortunately offset by an orchestra whose ensemble is suspect. ‘Tu sul labbro dei veggenti’ has many lovely moments during the course of its sadness, but does uncharacteristically give the impression of meandering somewhat. Which is a criticism that could never, ever be levelled at King Philip’s aria from Don Carlo, ‘Ella giammai m’amò’. The solo cello (excellent) prepares the way, but it cannot compete in expressiveness with de Angelis. De Angelis does not dwell on the King’s misery, and it becomes powerfully expressive as a result: no degeneration into mere surface self-pity here, instead an exposition of Philip’s tormented mind. The dynamism near the end is entirely in keeping with the interpretation.

This is an unforgettable set which acts on the one hand as a monument to a great singer, and on the other a reminder of how involving and expert Boito’s one masterpiece really is.

Colin Clarke

 

 



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