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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chéniera (1896) [106’21]
Beniamino Gigli (tenor) Andrea Chénier; Maria Caniglia (soprano) Maddalena di Coigny; Gino Bechi (baritone) Carlo Gérard; Giulietta Simionato (mezzo) Countess di Coigny; Vittoria Palombini (mezzo) Madelon; Maria Huder (soprano) Bersi; Italo Tajo (bass-baritone) Roucher; Giuseppe Taddei (baritone) Fouquier-Tinville, Fléville; Leone Paci (baritone) Mathieu; Adelio Zagonara (tenor) Abbé, L’Incrdibile; Gino Conti (bass) Majordomo, Dumas, Schmidt; Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Oliviero de Fabritiis.
Andrea Chénier (1896) Un dì all’azzurro spaziob [4’04]; Io non amato ancorc [3’06]; Nemico della Patriad [3’27]; La mamma motrae [4’30]; Sì, fui soldatof [2’50]; Come un bel dì di maggiog [2’56].
bGiacomo Lauri Volpi, cAntonio Cortis (tenors); dCesare Formichi (baritone); eClaudia Muzio (soprano); fFrancesco Merli, gAureliano Pertile (tenors); b-gorchestra
From aLa voce del padrone DB5423-35, HMV bDB2263, cDA1154, gDA1185, Columbia dCQX16522, eLCX28, fD14705. Rec aMilan in November 1941, bJuly 1934, cSeptember 19th, 1930, dSeptember 1st, 1927, eJune 5th, 1935, fMarch 6th, 1928, gJanuary 30th, 1930. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110275/6 [128’34: 53’41 + 74’53].


The rôle of Giordano’s revolutionary poet is taken in this set by the great Beniamino Gigli (he had sung this at his London debut in 1931). Although recorded in Milan in 1941, this recording did not reach Great Britain until a decade later because EMI’s head office in England had cut off ties following the outbreak of hostilities between Italy and Britain in 1940.

This lovingly transferred issue must surely constitute one of the highlights of Naxos’s ‘Great Opera Recordings’ series. Surface noise offers minimal distraction, and the tone of the individual voices comes through magnificently. If Gigli was no longer in the first flush of youth at the time (he was in his fifties), the combination of a still-remarkable voice and a wealth of experience paid huge dividends. Take Chénier’s first big aria (‘Colpito qui m’avete … Un dì all’azzurro spazio’ from Act I). Gigli gives us a miracle of gradual opening out from the tentative beginnings to passionate lyric outpouring. Fabritiis’s accompaniment helps at all stages, tracing and underlining the shifting moods (Fabritiis also conducted Gigli recordings of Tosca and Butterfly). Try, also, Chénier’s affecting plea at ‘Sì, fui soldato’ (Act 3).

The cast is an impressive one, and one that works together to give a memorable account of Giordano’s opera. Maria Caniglia, a lyrico-spinto soprano, takes the part of the feisty and dedicated Maddalena. A regular partner of Gigli’s (recording Tosca, Un ballo in maschera and Aida with him), she acts as the perfect dramatic foil. Her harp-accompanied ‘Al mio dire perdono’ (Act I) sums up the basis of her portrayal as essentially young and pure. Her ‘La mamma morta’ (Act III), where she tells of her mother’s death, is a marvellously touching recollection, the strings’ dark hues perfectly underlining the emotion of the aria. The final section of the entire opera, wherein Chénier and Maddalena enjoy a final declaration of their love, is magnificently tender and tells explicitly in sound of the success of these two singers’ assumptions of their roles and their complete rapport with their characters.

Florentine baritone Gino Bechi takes on the part of Carlo Gérard. Between 1939 and 1953 he was the leading Italian dramatic baritone at La Scala. His ‘Nemico della Patria’ (Act III) is dramatically true: one can hear his character’s growing determination as he overcomes his qualms about his denunciation of Chénier by focusing on his jealousy. The seriousness of intent here is almost visceral. At other times, he can be commanding and powerful (towards the end of Act I, for example). A memorable assumption of this role.

Another major name on the operatic circuit of the time was mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato. Here she is the Countess di Coigny. Her voice is full and rich, her approach confidant and her pitching pure. Giuseppe Taddei (as Fléville, doubling as Fouquier-Tinville) is marvellously focused (try ‘Passiamo la sera allegramente!’ from Act I). Gino Conti takes on several roles here; Italo Tajo is Roucher. Conti (as Schmidt) and Tajo make a lasting impression (at least they did on this listener) at the beginning of Act IV. After a desolate orchestral introduction (masterly handled by de Fabritiis), their darkly shaded exchange as Chénier writes his poem is remarkable. This short passage (1’18) acts as the perfect lead-in to Chénier’s ‘reading’ of said poem (‘Come un bel dì di maggio’).

Vittoria Palombini’s portrait of hesitancy (Act II, ‘Ecco l’altare’) is masterful; she is superbly touching later on, in Act III also (‘Son la vecchia Madelon’). Adelio Zagonara’s light tenor suits L’Incredibile well. Leone Paci is a Mathieu who shades his lines effectively (he also has the distinction of being the first voice heard in both Acts II and III). Maria Huder’s soprano suits Bersi well, although she verges on the shrill. She is appropriately proud at ‘Temer? Perché?’ (Act II), as she describes her feelings of freedom and of being a daughter of the Revolution.

Steering everyone with the confidence and ability of a Naval Admiral, de Fabritiis captures the shifting emotions in the orchestral flow completely naturally. His experience in the opera pit shines through in his flexibility and in the way he follows his singers like a shadow. Moods are invariably apt – try the very opening (the de Coigny family’s preparations for the evening reception), which sparkles infectiously (and how superbly the violins navigate their difficult parts).

Malcolm Walker’s notes are, as usual, informed and fascinating. Only one production complaint this time – on my review copy, CD2 is given in the booklet as having a duration of 0’00 (the back of the box gives 74’53). Maybe some annotations on the appendix of Arias from this opera sung by ‘Various Artists’ would have been nice. Comparative listening such as this approach encourages is a fascinating experience, one that offers much scope for absorbing alternative readings as well as widening our appreciation of Chénier’s recording history.

Some great names of the past are chosen. Giacomo Lauri Volpi’s 1934 HMV recording of ‘Un dì dall’azzurro spazio’ begins with the singer in tremulous voice, but his outpouring at around 1’30 is a thing of wonder. Gigli is nice and strong over his full range, ardent and thrilling at the climax, also. Musically, these are two contrasting responses to the same text and as such offer a stimulating listening experience. Gigli, as part of the complete recording, seems to be so much more inside the words and music, it must be said; with Lauri Volpi it sounds like a snippet.

Antonio Cortis sings ‘Io non amato ancor’ with somewhat chopped up phrasing, and the 1930 recording favours the orchestra too much. Much better is Cesare Formichi’s ‘Nemico della Patria’, although his orchestra is scrappy. Bechi’s version (CD2, Track 5) is more dramatic, and the music flows better because of de Fabritiis’s superior understanding of Giordano’s harmonic workings.

The great Claudia Muzio sings ‘La mamma morta’ with all the hysteria one could ever want (and listen to the portamento-obsessed solo cellist!); Caniglia is more tender in approach. Francesco Merli’s ‘Sì, fui soldato’ lacks some body to the tone, and is not really commanding or proud in comparison with Gigli (who is simultaneously more lyrical). It has to be admitted that Aureliano Pertile’s ‘Come un bel dì di maggio’ is an excellent and fulfilling way to end the entire product. Despite the somewhat distanced perspective, his phrasing is beautifully lyrical (Gigli, as part of the complete opera, is lighter, but no less impressive).

A fascinating release from just about every angle, therefore. This Chénier will not disappoint.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Robert Hugill



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