How do they do it?
£9.99, or your local budget price equivalent,
for a double CD. OK, there is no libretto:
but there are 41 cue points in total
with a synopsis for each track. Additionally
there is an interesting and lengthy
background article on the opera. More
importantly there is a producer’s explanatory
note. Finally the new Naxos box (well,
new to me) with its centrally hinged
disc holding flap is a real improvement
on the edge swung predecessor. We really
cannot ask for more.
So what is the rationale?
Mark Obert-Thorn, our redoubtable producer,
comments on three problems: first, detail
obscured by the venue of the original
recording; second, the extraneous noises
on the master tapes and finally, pitch
variations to be "found between
sections recorded at different times
on some previous editions". He
continues, "For this restoration
I used the best portions drawn from
eight LP copies".
Therefore we should
be in for a treat and within the limitations
of any historical recording that is
precisely what this is. This is Callas
and Di Stefano performing vocal gymnastics.
It was tempting to write ‘performing
vocal callisthenics’ and to leave you
to draw any pun, but ‘light exercises’
it is not.
It is an almost unbelievable
plot with some less than perfect lines.
But this powerful cast overcomes any
such problems and carries the listener
forward on a wave of self-belief. This
is not an Elvira descended into madness:
this Elvira slips from sanity and back
again in a performance more distrait
than demented. Arturo is made to appear
a patriotic if thoughtless hero rather
than an impetuous twit. Giorgio becomes
the emotional uncle convincingly
in loco parentis. Riccardo would
lead even the timid into military action.
Stir into that pot the obviously symbiotic
relationship between Serafin and Callas,
and the interdependence between them
and all other performers. Here is the
catalyst for a dramatic production of
Serafin’s pacing is
superb. Whilst the dynamics of the orchestral
introductions are idiosyncratic and
the storm not particularly convincing,
there is a full round sound with the
smooth early brass, later becoming stirringly
martial in Suoni la tromba. Indeed
the inevitable underlying military themes
are drilled out to great effect with
occasional orchestral over enthusiasm
drowning the singers in its wake. Curiously
the orchestral depth of sound appears
to increase as the opera progresses
– perhaps a consequence of a different
LP being used.
Strong dynamics, lyricism
and a crisp delivery distinguish the
chorus. Sadly even this restoration
lets them down in that too often the
chorus becomes a fuzzy or husky sound
with consequent reduction in diction
definition. Similar problems occur for
the orchestra at forte: there is a blurring
or crumbling of sound. Fortunately these
disappointments do not beset the soloists.
Others have written
of the developing hard edge to the Callas
voice. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is
unequivocal is her manifest understanding
of the role. The brilliant crystal clarity
of her upper notes (with the occasional
non-Bellini high), the naturally relaxed
runs (with the occasional non-Bellini
glissando), and the floated notes all
remind us of the remarkable voice the
world so enjoyed.
Nothing less can be
said of Di Stefano. His is a truly beautiful
tone with some remarkable colours: his
entrance aria A te, o cara puts
this in perspective immediately. The
portrayal of the loyal cavalier and
the devoted lover is carried off almost
effortlessly. His duets with Callas,
particularly Finì…me lassa
allows each to develop a legato
of almost infinite beauty.
If the bass of Rossi-Lemeni
has a slight tremolo, it serves to heighten
the intensity of his feelings for his
niece. Cinta di fiori is an excellent
example of heart-tugging emotion. A
deep brown warm tone second to none.
Panerai, as Riccardo,
suffers from some unfortunate placing
of microphones – a problem not capable
of total rectification. From time to
time he seems lost within strong orchestral
moments. That said his lament / cavatina
Ah! per sempre io ti perdei has
a phrasing and colouring second to none
with exemplary clarity of diction.
Equally clear is Mercuriali
as Bruno. A small but important role
despatched with sharp and clear-timbred
accuracy. Carlo Forti as Valton is a
firm voiced bass. Angelo Cattelani as
the widowed Queen has the occasional
wobble with a touch of shrill at forte.
Otherwise she portrays well the escaping
queen, with some wonderfully coloured
lower register notes.
This was a Walter Legge-assembled
cast and the one point which that (almost)
guarantees is a superb vocal balance
between all participating voices. So
it is here - even when off-stage. The
glorious sound of the first ensemble
O di Cromvel guerrieri drifts
from the castle.
For plot development
much depends on Panerai and Rossi-Lemeni.
Despite the cuts in opera length reducing
the interchanges between them, a crude
arithmetical exercise still puts them
on stage/recording for longer than the
other characters. They are quite excellently
balanced with complementary dark tones.
Callas and Rossi-Lemeni
in recitative sound the caring uncle
and distraught, becoming delighted,
niece. A quel nome (cued at Odi…Qual
suon si desta?) has a tonal balance
which delights. What of those showpiece
ensembles into which Bellini put such
effort? The vocal balance is outstanding
in dynamics, tone and lyricism.
By any standard this
is an excellent CD. I thought I heard
just one click but would put no money
on it. There is some sound disturbance
to which I have referred: there were
the occasional extraneous noises (early
on which was initially a bit off-putting):
but do not worry. This is ‘£10’ worth
of marvellous music.