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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) Simon Boccanegra
Paolo Silveri (baritone) – Simon Boccanegra; Antonietta Stella (soprano) – Maria/Amelia; Mario Petri (bass) – Jacopo Fiesco; Carlo Bergonzi (tenor) – Gabriele Adorno; Walter Monachesi (baritone) – Paolo Albiani; Giorgio Giorgetti (bass) – Pietro; Walter Collo (tenor) – Captain of the Cross-bowmen; Bianca Furlai (soprano) – Amelia’s Maid-servant
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of RAI, Rome/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
Recorded in Rome, 21 November 1951
WARNER FONIT 5050467-7906-2-9 [72:12 + 50:47]


 

Of all the mature Verdi operas, i.e. from Rigoletto onwards, only I vespri Siciliani and Simon Boccanegra can be regarded as not belonging to the standard repertoire. These two, and especially Boccanegra, appear now and then in the opera house and on record. Since the advent of the LP there have been a handful of complete recordings, the one under consideration being the first. It was followed, and superseded, in 1958, by an EMI recording conducted by Gabriele Santini and with the legendary trio: Victoria de los Angeles, Tito Gobbi and Boris Christoff. After that we had to wait for almost twenty years for an RCA offering, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni with Ricciarelli, Cappuccilli and Raimondi. The young Domingo took the part of Gabriele. DG recorded Giorgio Strehler’s production at La Scala a couple of years later, Abbado conducting, Cappuccilli again singing the title part with Freni, Carreras and Ghiaurov. This version has ever since been regarded as "definitive", even if I retain a soft spot for the Gavazzeni. Finally there was a live recording on Capriccio from Tokyo in the early 1990s. This was led by Roberto Paternostro and featured Renato Bruson, Mariana Nicolesco, Roberto Scandiuzzi and Giuseppe Sabbatini. There, in a nut-shell, is to the best of my knowledge, the recorded history of Simon Boccanegra.

Although containing numerous pages of wonderful music, this opera is still somewhat forbidding in its darkness. The story is full of melancholy and the music, and especially the scoring, is consistently clad in dark colours. Moreover the cast is dominated by dark voices, the only female voice being Boccanegra’s daughter Maria.

The opera was first performed in 1857 but was not a success, even though some critics found it interesting. It was taken as indicating a new direction in Verdi’s writing, which was to culminate in Otello thirty years later. One can hear foreshadowings of the latter work in Boccanegra. Verdi’s interest in a united Italy is reflected in his choice of subject, since the historical Simon Boccanegra, Doge of Genua, had the same ambitions. Never quite satisfied with the first version, Verdi in 1880 got an opportunity to rework the opera with the libretto revised by Arrigo Boito who later made the masterly librettos for Otello and Falstaff. This version, which is the one commonly performed, was premiered at La Scala in February 1881. It is interesting to read the cast list which contained, among others, as Gabriele, Francesco Tamagno, who was to become Verdi’s first Otello, as Boccanegra, Victor Maurel, who sang and acted the part so convincingly that Verdi later wrote Iago’s part for him, and as Fiesco the legendary Édouard de Reszke. It was a great success, not least because by then the audience was ready for it, while in 1857 they still expected music of the Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata kind. There is actually a recording of the ur-Boccanegra, released about a year ago by Opera Rara. It is a BBC production, recorded in the 1970s with John Matheson conducting and Sesto Bruscantini, a bit late in his career, singing the title part. I haven’t heard that performance but according to reviews it shows why the later version is preferable. It is quite drastically reworked and performed by a sympathetic conductor, who can move the drama forward, and a great singing-actor in the title part. This opera can make its mark on stage and, as here, on record.

The first sounds we hear on this recording are unfortunately not very inviting. The orchestra is muddy and unfocused, the bass notes are boomy and climaxes are distorted. This is of course what we have come to expect from Cetra recordings of this age. To some degree it improves during the course of the performance but it is still variable. The distortion is recurrent and there are also background noises, although this was not a public performance. The chorus has an important role in this opera and is of course also affected by the bad recording. When we reach the end of the prologue (CD1 track 5) both orchestra and chorus are suddenly quite acceptably recorded. Boccanegra’s banging of the door of Fiesco’s palace is uncannily realistic. Gradually we also realize that the conductor, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, a well-known name in Italian opera recordings, has a lot to say about this score. He moves things on with real dramatic thrust and there is not a dull moment in this performance. He also manages to create some atmosphere, as in the start of act, the finely wrought prelude to Amelia’s aria (CD1 track 6) which is well played with tremolo strings and features a fine clarinet soloist. A thousand pities that he wasn’t offered a recording that could do full justice to his efforts.

Luckily the solo voices are generally well caught although even they are afflicted by distortion, but not to such a degree that it makes the listening experience unpalatable. And the solo singing is the sole reason for acquiring this set. Here Cetra have managed to gather five outstanding singers, two of whom were to become great international stars. They are caught very early in their careers. Antonietta Stella had made her debut just a year earlier and is heard at the age of 22. We recognize the timbre of the voice, a little colourless in the middle register but with ringing spinto high notes. She happened to come to notice at about the time Tebaldi and Callas were rising stars. In comparison with them Stella pales a little, but it was still a fine voice. At her first entrance (CD1 track 6) with the aria Come in quest’ora bruna, it is possible to detect a slight nervousness, but when that has been overcome she sings with steady tone. Even so, her singing is bland and faceless and this to a certain degree can also be said of many of her later recordings. To be honest she improves through the opera, and there are many delights along the way. The duet with Gabriele, Vieni a mirar (CD1 halfway through track 7) shows her to much better advantage and the duet with Boccanegra, Orfanella il tetto umile (CD1 track 10) is even better. For her finest singing - and at her best she is on a par with Tebaldi - we have to go to the second act duet with Gabriele, Tu qui?... Amelia! (CD2 track 3). This was indeed an auspicious recording debut!

The other newcomer, Carlo Bergonzi, started his career in 1948, but as a baritone. His debut as a tenor came in 1951, so this is the early Bergonzi as we have been used to hearing him. The first phrases we hear from him are sung off-stage, but it is at once obvious that here is a classy voice. When he appears full-on, we hear the sound that we have come to love through the years. He has every once of the expected elegance, fine shadings, melting pianissimo and amazing breath-control. Once or twice he is over-emphatic, or should we say, over-enthusiastic, but for most of the time he is his usual stylish self, some intrusive "h"s apart. The aria Sento avvampar nell’anima (CD2 track 2), one of Verdi’s most intense tenor arias, is also one of the high-spots of this recording. He recorded that aria again on the famous Philips album with (practically) all Verdi’s tenor arias, but that was nearly twenty-five years later, By that time Bergonzi was 50 and, although still singing wonderfully, he had lost some of the bloom so apparent in this early recording. His soft singing (Cielo pietoso, rendila ...) is just as marvellous as we know it from his Decca and DG recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s.

The very first voice we hear - a steady, powerful, darkish baritone with a true ring to it - is just cut out for Boccanegra but it is in fact the much smaller role of Paolo. The singer, Walter Monachesi, was probably also relatively early in his career; I remember hearing him 25 years after this recording was made and he was still singing well. He has a monologue at the beginning of act 2 and it is magnificently sung.

Boccanegra himself is sung by Paolo Silveri who was one of the leading Italian baritones during a period when there were several of them. During the ’forties and early ’fifties names like Carlo Tagliabue, Gino Becchi, Tito Gobbi, Ettore Bastianini and Aldo Protti were prominent; Silveri ranks among them. He is to be heard also on the Cetra La Gioconda, recently reissued by Naxos, with Callas. There we hear a big, sturdy voice which easily portraits the evil Barnaba. I have always thought his tone quite dry, but as Boccanegra, recorded a year or so earlier, he is in very good shape, his voice a shade lighter than Monachesi’s, with a little lisp, but with lots of character. The scene between Boccanegra and Fiesco (CD1 track 4) is a piece of brilliant music-drama with two good actors. Boccanegra’s Del mar sul lido, towards the end of the track is excellently sung. In Plebe! Patrizi! (CD1 track 12), when Boccanegra addresses the people, Silveri hasn’t Gobbi’s ability to colour the voice, to give the character a face with vocal means alone. This is nevertheless strong, confident singing of a kind you can’t always take for granted today. And he has gleaming high notes where Gobbi even as early as 1958 loses quality. In the death scene he is greatly involved and is truly moving. Indeed Paolo Silveri’s assumption of this role is very satisfying. Mario Petri, known also as a good buffo, has a sonorous and clean bass voice. He too seems to be a very good actor. He can shade the voice in fine nuances and has steady black low notes. Il lacerato spirito (CD1 track 3), one of Verdi’s finest bass arias, displays his capacity admirably. The smaller roles are also well taken. For me this was a very pleasant surprise and it actually gave me new insights into this opera.

There is a cut in act 1, scenes eight and nine, which is of little importance. The libretto in the booklet even prints the missing lines, so we can get to know what is left out – if we understand Italian, that is, since there is no translation. A summary of the plot is given, in both Italian and English, and as usual Warner Fonit reprint the original artwork from the LP box.

Hi-fi buffs need not bother to buy this issue, but readers interested in some of these singers, or good singing in general, should give it a chance. As I said, you need some tolerance towards the sound quality. Also if it is this particular opera you are after, then you also need one of the more modern versions: Abbado or Gavazzeni.

Göran Forsling



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