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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana - melodrama in one act.
Santuzza, Zinka Milanov (soprano); Turridu, Jussi Björling (tenor). Alfio, Robert Merrill (bar); Lola, Carol Smith (alto); Mamma Lucia, Margaret Roggero (mezzo)
The Robert Shaw Chorale
RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini
Recorded January-March 1953 in Manhattan Center, New York. ADD
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn

This is the fourth and last of the recordings conducted by Renato Cellini (1912-1967) during his period on the music staff of the Metropolitan Opera. Celliniís health was not robust and he left the demands of the Met to become Musical Director of the New Orleans Opera Association. In my reviews of Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258) and Il Trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41) I found Celliniís conducting unobtrusive and idiomatic. Faint praise? An era of more dynamic, and often egocentric, maestri was to follow on record and at the Met. These conductors often put their interpretations ahead of the composerís intentions. Cellini didnít. Listening to the musical performance here I am struck by the natural lyrical beauty of the result and the equally natural evolution of the opera. There are no periods of either over-driven or pulled-about tempi for transient or spurious effect. The singers are supported, not stretched, by tempi or dynamic. The whole drama unfolds naturally, just as it should.

The cast represents the outstanding standards at the Met at the time. The role of the wronged Santuzza, is sung the Croat-born naturalised American Zinka Milanov (1906-1989). She is a pure voiced dramatic spinto with tone and temperament to spare. I admit to preferring a mezzo in the role with Cossotto for Karajan (DG) being my ideal. Milanov is to my ears the best of the sopranos that are to be heard on recordings, including Callas and Caballé. She projects the role with bite and precision reflecting the agonies of her circumstances as she reveals Turriduís behaviour; first to his mother and then to the husband of his latest dalliance. The promiscuous cad Turridu is sung by Jussi Björling. His plangent clear tone allied to dramatic thrust is a joy. In the LP and subsequent period, only Bergonzi for Karajan has matched the beauty and intensity of Björlingís singing in this part. The tonal purity and diction of those two wonderful tenors does not detract from the dramatic impact of their characterisation of the role. Robert Merrill (b. 1917) as Alfio is a little dry-toned, certainly as compared to his Silvio on the Pagliacci. His tone is certainly more rounded and fuller on the Beecham La Boheme recorded in 1956 and the recent CD issue by Decca in their Classic Recitals Series recorded in1963 (479-396-2). That is to cavil somewhat, for his pitching is true and the dramatic thrust of his committed singing greatly adds to the drama. The minor parts are well taken and all the singers exhibit good diction to go with their exemplary phrasing. The chorus provide vibrant and idiomatic support in the Easter Hymn (tr.6). The usual theatre cuts of the period mean around eight minutes of the score are missing.

The recording was made a few weeks after the companion Pagliacci and at the same venue. Mark ObertĖThornís restoration is outstanding. He consistently manages superb results from LP originals. Yes, there is a little distortion on the concluding high note at the end of track 11. But this is a far better sound than I ever got from the LPs despite spending a fortune on my playing deck, arm and stylus.

This issue provides an excellent artefact of a period and generation of singers whose strengths are increasingly appealing as time passes. It also serves to remind us of a conductor intent on interpreting the composerís intentions rather than imposing his own view. Letís not diminish the inherent strengths of this recording. Those strengths command for it a place alongside whatever more modern recording you might have on your shelves.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Göran Forsling
This issue provides an excellent artefact of a period and generation of singers whose strengths are increasingly appealing as time passes. ... see Full Review

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