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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il Turco in Italia - dramma buffo in two acts (1814)
Libretto by Felice Romani based on an earlier libretto by Mazzola written for Seydelmann, a contemporary of Mozart, and performed in Dresden in 1788.
First performed at the Teatro alla Scala Milan, 14 August 1814.
Selim, womanising Turkish Prince captivated by Fiorilla, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass); Fiorilla, capricious wife of Don Geronio, Maria Callas (sop); Geronio, elderly husband of Fiorilla, Franco Calabrese (bass); Don Narciso, servant and lover of Fiorilla, Nicolai Gedda (ten); Prosdocimo, a poet and friend of Geronio, Mario Stabile (bar); Zaida, enamoured of Selim, Jolanda Gardino (mezzo)
Chorus and orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. La Scala, Milan. August, September 1953. MONO
APPENDIX: Coloratura arias sung by Maria Callas. MONO
Il barbiere di Siviglia, Una voce poco fa
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)

Dinorah, Ombre légère (Shadow Song)
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)

Lakme, Où va la jeune Hindoue? (Bell Song)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

I vespri siciliani, Mercé dilette amiche (Bolero. Act 5))
rec. 21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall.
Philharmonia Orchestra /Tullio Serafin
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn. From English Columbia label LPs
NAXOS HISTORICAL GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS 8.111028-29 [76.55 + 60.31]

Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri launched Rossini on an unstoppable career that saw him become the most prestigious opera composer of his time. This burgeoning reputation did not guarantee the success of his next two operas, both commissioned by La Scala, Milan, where they were only modestly received. The first, Aureliano in Palmira, opened the Carnival (winter) season on 26 December 1813. Giovanni Velluti (1761-1861), the last of the great castrati, sang the hero Arsace. It was the only time that Rossini wrote a work for castrato voice. Despite its modest reception Aureliano in Palmira was given fourteen times in the Milan season. The second of the Milan duo, Il Turco in Italia, Rossini’s thirteenth opera, was initially seen by the Milanese as a repeat of L’Italiana in Algeri and they thought themselves short-changed. The work’s originality and quality were quickly recognised and Il Turco spread to other Italian cities, and abroad, where, whilst not being as original or enjoyable as L’Italiana in Algeri, it was received with acclaim.

The role of Fiorilla is a gift for a singing actress with coloratura flexibility. Maria Callas instigated a revival of the work at Rome’s Elissio Theatre in 1950 after it had been largely forgotten for the best part of a century. What she was like on the stage as Fiorilla can only be imagined. What is certain is that the performances were in the period when she carried significantly more weight than at the time of this recording. In the eight months previously she had lost 25 kilos and become the svelte and chic prima-donna that the world came to know. As her body mass was reduced so was the strong tonal colour of her voice which became somewhat thinner. As far as the role of Fiorilla is concerned that is of little matter as the role is of the capricious and flighty wife of an elderly husband who puts herself around male company in general. She takes a fancy to Selim who in turn has spurned Zaida, his long time lover. The plot is complicated by the fact that a poet, Prosdocimo who is looking for a story for his next play sees in the circumstances of the various liaisons the perfect situation for his plot. All ends well with Fiorilla duly contrite about her behaviour and Selim and Zaide back together. The poet has his plot and only Narciso seems without his earlier innamorato.

Il Turco in Italia was the sixth opera recorded by Callas under her contract with Columbia/Angel. For other works either side of it Walter Legge seemed more concerned with his diva filling holes in his company’s catalogue. It was, after all, being eclipsed by Decca with their diva Renata Tebaldi, recording her in roles of which she had stage experience. This recording was the exception. It was also unusual in that Rossini operas on record were few and far between. Apart from the Il Barbiere, EMI’s Il Comte d’Ory under Gui, and a 1958 recording by Philips of Mosé, with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the title role, the catalogue lacked recordings by the composer well into the LP era. Even the present one is a very abbreviated version at around 113 minutes compared with the 146 minutes on the CBS recording with Montserrat Caballé as Fiorilla.

The work itself is full of humour and felicitous situations brought about by Prosdocimo as he seeks to complete his plot. The accent is on duets, trios and ensembles rather than solo display arias that characterise both Rossini’s other opera buffa and his Naples opera seria. The young Nicolai Gedda as Narciso stands out among the supporting cast in one of his earliest recordings. His light and heady perfectly pitched tone is a particular pleasure (CD 1 tr. 23). Franco Calabrese as Geronio is adequate rather than distinguished while his fellow bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, as Selim, is often tonally woolly (CD 2 trs. 2-3). The baritone Mario Stabile as the poet Prosdocimo has biting incisive diction but is not always perfectly steady whilst the Zaida of Jolanda Gardino is thin and tweety (CD 1 tr. 6). These are minor deficiencies in a performance that is dominated, in this abbreviated version, by Callas’s Fiorilla. Her singing is flexible with the odd thin patch at the very top of the voice (CD 1 trs 8-9). For the most part her coloratura is secure and her voice well supported. There are none of the sour notes that came to characterise so many of her assumptions as the society figure replaced the singer. As so often with Callas it is her capacity to infuse a phrase with meaning and expression that distinguishes her performance and this recording. The conducting of Gianandrea Gavazzeni ably and sympathetically supports Callas’s performance. Unlike Serafin in the appendix of Rosina’s aria, he eschews appoggiaturas and embellishments.

The welcome appendices include Callas’s recording of Rosina’s Una voce poco fa and the Bell Song from Lakmé. These are taken from the recording sessions in London that followed shortly after those for Il Turco in Milan. At the time these performances caused quite a stir. Since then we have heard other sopranos such as Sutherland in this repertoire. With her greater body of tone, and aided by Decca’s superlative recording, Sutherland is often now seen as queen in this repertoire, although it must be said that she has neither the clarity of diction nor the capacity of characterisation of Callas.

The mono recording on this pair of CDs is exceptional for presence and body. It is a credit to Mark Obert-Thorn and his team’s restoration work on two sets of British LP pressings. The issue is also very generously tracked. This is a particular virtue in an opera such as Il Turco and which is divided into no fewer than forty four tracks, making it very easy to follow Keith Anderson’s excellently clear track-related synopsis.

More complete stereo versions have followed this groundbreaking recording although that involving Cecilia Bartoli under Chailly’s baton is the only one currently available (Decca 458 924-2). The young Ramon Vargas and some of the best Italian buffa singers of the day partner her. Whilst embellishments are to the fore, so too are far too many aspirates for my comfort. For those who are being introduced to this delightful work by this affordable recording and want a more complete version of the work, I suggest they wait for Caballé or for Marriner’s (Philips) with Sumi Jo as Fiorilla to re-appear in the catalogue at mid-price.

Robert J Farr

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