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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia Di Lammermoor - An opera in three acts to a libretto by Salvatore Cammerano based on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott
Lucia - Maria Callas (soprano)
Edgardo - Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Enrico - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Raimondo - Raffaele Arié (bass)
Arturo - Valiano Natali (tenor)
Alisa - Anna Maria Canali (mezzo)
Normanno - Gino Sam (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Tullio Serafin
rec. 29-30 January, 1, 3-4, 6 February 1953, Teatro Comunale, Florence. ADD
First issued as Columbia 33CX 1131 and 1132
Appendix (on CD 2):
Highlights from Lucia di Lammermoor performed by legendary singers - (1910-1952)
Cruda, funesta smania…; II tuo dubbio è omai certezza; La pietade in suo favore

Robert Merrill, (baritone); Ezio Pinza, (bass); Luigi Vellucci, (tenor)
RCA Victor Orchestra and Chorus/Renato Cellini. rec. 8 March 1952, Manhattan Center, New York
Matrix: E2-RC-0063-1; First issued on LM-1710
Ah, talor del tuo pensiero; Verranno a to sull' aure
Amelita Galli-Curci, (soprano); Tito Schipa, (tenor)
Orchestra/Rosario Bourdon. rec. 7 September 1928, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix: CVE-30910-3; Unpublished on 78 rpm
Chi mi frena in tal momento

Maria Barrientos, (soprano); Charles Hackett, (tenor); Riccardo Stracciari, (baritone); Jose Mardones, (bass); George Meader, (tenor); Emma Noe, (soprano)
with Orchestra. rec. 18 March 1920, New York
Matrix: 49768-3; First issued on Columbia 79000D
Dalle stanze ove Lucia

Ezio Pinza, (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Sabajno. rec. 11 July 1923, Milan
Matrix: CE-1279-2; First issued on HMV 2-052242
[Ardon gli incensi;] splendon le sacre faci*;
Spargi d' amaro pianto
Toti Dal Monte, (soprano)
Orchestra/Rosario Bourdon. rec. 28 October and *5 November 1926, Camden, New Jersey Matrices: CVE-36742-4 and 36743-2
First issued on Victor 6611
Tombe degli avi miei…; Fra poco a me ricovero

Beniamino Gigli, (tenor)
Orchestra/Rosario Bourdon. rec. 10 April 1925, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix: CVE-32501-1 - Take unpublished on 78 rpm
Tu the a Dio spiegasti l’ali

John McCormack, (tenor)
with Orchestra. rec. 23 March 1910, New York
Matrix: C-8740-1; First issued on Victor 88249
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110131-32 [69:01 + 76:30]
 

This version of Lucia Di Lammermoor is the first complete opera recording made by EMI with Maria Callas. Recording sessions were made following performances in the Teatre Communale, Florence in 1953 and the recording was issued a year later. Although described as complete the opera is in fact severely abridged as was not unusual at that period. The recording was harsh and in places distorted and there is no doubt that much better recordings with Callas were achieved after Walter Legge became her producer. Naxos claim that their CD corrects many of the deficiencies of the recent EMI edition on CD; I have not been able to check the veracity of this claim but there is no doubt that Mark Obert-Thorn has produced acceptable sound based upon early LPs (and likewise from 78 rpm recordings included in the Appendix on CD No. 2).
 
This recording is the one that really launched the reputation of Maria Callas as one of the greatest singers of the mid-1900s. Many of today’s younger listeners are surprised at the reputation of Callas and listening to some of the recordings made towards the end of her career, when frankly her voice had deteriorated badly, one can understand the scepticism. In this recording Callas was probably at her best vocally and exhibits a certain fullness that began to disappear with her weight loss a couple of years or so later. The bel canto singing for which Donizetti had written had more or less disappeared and parts such as that of Lucia had been replaced by a light coloratura style that was pleasant to the ear but usually sadly lacking in weight or drama. Callas re-introduced the accuracy and weight of tone required by true bel canto and brought to life the drama of the ‘mad scene’ with stunning effect. She gives a tragic dimension to Lucia which was unknown at the time and which really transforms the opera. Later singers, such as Sutherland have equalled or surpassed Callas in tone but arguably Callas in this recording is unsurpassed in drama.
 
There is no doubt that Callas is the star of this performance but it would be unfair not to acknowledge the strengths of the all-important male singers - in fact the male voice dominates the action in this opera more than in most – including the final scene which is unusual. Giuseppe Di Stefano who had one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of his time, is outstanding as Edgardo – as the young lover in the first act, conveying anger in the second and remorseful grief in the third. Sadly when in 1973-4 he accompanied Callas in her farewell tour, both singers’ voices has sadly deteriorated. Tito Gobbi is not generally associated with the bel canto repertoire but sings with uncharacteristic beauty of tone here. Raffaele Arié was a well-respected bass who did not leave many records. He sounds well here as Raimondo, but his part suffers badly in the cuts made in the opera. The supporting singers and chorus are all good and overall the recording has no real weakness vocally.
 
The orchestra does not play as important a role as for example is found in the operas of Verdi and Puccini. Berlioz had been a little disappointed with the score when he came to London to give the first English performance in 1847 – which included a chorus of 120 singers. However a good conductor is essential for the success of Lucia Di Lammermoor and with Tullio Serafin you have one of the best conductors of Italian Opera of the time; his contribution was all-important to keep the action going. He had a mentoring role opposite Callas and was to conduct many of her performances, both live and recorded.
 
Highlights from Lucia Di Lammermoor performed by legendary singers
In track 1 of this Appendix we have a contemporary rather than historical alternative to our main performance; the sound and performance is not greatly different but perhaps Robert Merrill is slightly smoother than Gobbi, with the latter having more ‘character’. Track 2 has Amelita Galli-Curci who was renowned as a coloratura soprano giving a take of the part of Lucia – although her top range is impressive, her voice is distressingly thin; Tito Schipa however sounds well.
 
The sextet from Act 2 is regarded by many as the epitome of operatic ensemble writing and in Track 3 of the Appendix we have an impressive set of singers recorded in 1920, Riccardo Stracciari and Maria Barrientos are especially noteworthy; however in a comparison with Callas, Gobbi etc one would struggle to decide a winner although the recording of the later version shows a greater dynamic range. Ezio Pinza is a much respected bass singer but the comparison of Track 4 with Raffaele Arié indicates that the latter sounds more lyrical and less strained.
 
Tracks 5 and 6 of the Appendix have Toti Dal Monte as Lucia in the famous ‘mad scene’; she has a good coloratura but is completely outclassed by the weight of tone and drama of Callas here. Alas in Spargi d' amaro pianto Dal Monte’s voice is all over the place.
 
I am a strong admirer of Beniamino Gigli and was looking forward to hearing Track 7; unfortunately Gigli was perhaps having an off-day in both tone and lyricism - no doubt this is why the track was not published on 78 rpm; here he is thoroughly outclassed by Di Stefano.
 
If I had to chose the best tenor ever, I have no doubt that my vote would go to John McCormack and this is vindicated in the final track of the appendix where his beauty of tone and control of voice approaches perfection. This draws the set to a great conclusion.
 
Although a libretto is not provided, there are fine notes written by Michael Scott who is a well-known opera expert. The set is well presented in a double case that actually enables the two discs to be accessed with ease. A lot of work has been put by Naxos into making this set a success and it has paid off.
 
Arthur Baker

see also review by Robert Hugill


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