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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Songs: Ave Maria [06:49], In solitaria stanza [03:47], Nellíorror di notte oscura [03:47], More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta [02:53], Non tíaccostare allíurna [04:09], Stornello [01:51], Il tramonto [03:25], Ad una stella [02:58], Il mistero [04:25], Lo spazzacamino [02:31], Il poveretto [02:34], La seduzione [02:48], Brindisi (1st version Ė autograph score) [02:11], Chi i bei dì míadduce ancora [02:44], Líesule [08:18], Brindisi (2nd version Ė published edition) [02:13]
Dennis OíNeill (tenor), Ingrid Surgenor (piano)
rec. 27-29 October 1997, St. Silasí Church, St. Silasí Place, London
NAXOS 8.557778 [57:24]

Not so long ago I was reviewing a selection of 18 Verdi songs sung by the rising young soprano Norah Amsellen, and complained that she brought the entire box of operatic tricks to bear on music which really called for a Bellinian purity of line. The latest in Naxosís ongoing exploration of the deleted Collins catalogue brings 16 of the songs (13 are common to the two discs) recorded eight years ago by a British artist who has made the Italian style his speciality. OíNeill certainly sounds like a typical Italian baritonal tenor (put simply "baritonal" means more like Domingo than like Pavarotti), with a supple, even emission rising to a heroic top C. I thought his Italian pretty authentic and tried him "blind" on my Italian wife, who didnít even realize she was not listening to a native singer.

As well as making the right sound, he also adopts very much the right style, phrasing warmly but simply and above all musically. In other words, he seems to agree that these songs are to be sung with a Bellinian purity of line.

However, little in this world is perfect and I have a few queries to make. First of all, I donít think he should have sung "Stornello" at all. In lieder, mélodie and the like I am prepared much of the time to suspend disbelief and listen to women singing menís songs and vice versa. But in this case, in spite of his adroitly adjusting the pronouns and adjectives so the text seems to be a masculine one, in reality the situation doesnít transpose that easily. The joke about the original situation is that this pert little girl, emancipated before her time, is protesting against male infidelity and saying that now sheís going to do her own thing (the text covers similar ground to Shakespeareís "Sigh no more ladies"). In Verdiís Italy, and in much of rural southern Italy even today, her going against conventions was both hilarious and outrageous. Transpose it to a man and you just get male-chauvinist piggery of a kind that hasnít died out yet, and the man sounds a beastly cad.

I also donít think he should have sung "Lo spazzacammino". Yes, I know chimney-sweeps are invariably male - certainly in Verdiís day they were - but they were also usually very young boys and it is clear Verdi was writing for the sort of light, bright, high soprano who would sing Oscar in "Un Ballo in Maschera". For one thing, that sort of soprano could manage the trills on the high As whereas OíNeill can only offer a slow-motion waver; Amsellen, a lyric soprano, couldnít bring this one off either. Frankly, he sounds like a fish out of water in this piece.

Thirdly, on a disc not exceptionally full, it was a pity to include both versions of the "Brindisi" rather than something else, when the differences amount to so little. Furthermore, OíNeillís generally faithful observance of Verdiís markings goes awry here. This piece (in both versions) is larded with little accents on the off-beats and on the wrong part of the word. OíNeill "corrects" the accents so the words come out with their natural stress. The singer who does what Verdi asks for will sound so rolling drunk (itís a hymn in praise of wine, of course) that you wonder if heíll get to the end. OíNeill sounds like a sober chap singing a pretty tune.

I also have a query about "Líesule". After so much respectful adherence to Verdiís markings, he makes several changes to the line here, ending on an unscripted top C. Is there an alternative edition to the Ricordi volume I have (or manuscript variants?), or could OíNeill just not resist the temptation to prove, after so much tenorial good behaviour, that a tenor is after all, as Hans von Bülow put it, "not a voice but a disease"? Since the record has notes by the distinguished Verdi scholar Julian Budden, it is perfectly possible that he drew OíNeillís attention to some variants, but his notes make no mention of this.

For the rest, it is all as admirable as I described it at the beginning. Only a sneaking suspicion came into my mind that it might be a little too well-mannered and that maybe Amsellenís "bad behaviour" had a point after all. What it amounts to is a matter of vocal personality and surely vocal personality and vocal good manners donít have to be mutually exclusive? It may well be that the LP recorded for RCA many moons ago by the young Margaret Price has the best of both worlds, but alas I have never heard it. Of the two discs under discussion OíNeillís, which is very well recorded, can certainly be recommended in spite of the above reservations; Amsellenís can be recommended only to those who believe that Verdi was such a rotten composer that no amount of vocal hamming can be too bad for him.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Rohr



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