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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Don Pasquale (1843) - highlights
Sesto Bruscantini (bass-baritone) – Don Pasquale; Mirella Freni (soprano) – Norina; Leo Nucci (baritone) – Dottor Malatesta; Gösta Winbergh (tenor) – Ernesto
Ambrosian Opera Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, June and July 1982
EMI CLASSICS CDC 7 54490 2 [63:26]

This spirited performance of one of the best buffo operas lays claim to be one of the foremost recordings. Ever since it was first released on LP, almost 25 years ago it has held an honoured place in my collection, next to the old Cetra recording from 1952. They have the main protagonist in common. In 1952 Sesto Bruscantini was in his early 30s and a mercurial old bachelor. He allowed a great deal of ‘business’ to be added to the written music, in accordance with old traditions. Thirty years later he is arguably even more suited to the role age-wise and the performance is more straight, possibly due to Riccardo Muti’s more puritan attitude. Muti was always a stickler for the original score and rarely allowing any frills. This does not imply that the comedy is underplayed but there are places where I prefer the more light-hearted atmosphere of the old recording with Mario Rossi at the helm. I nowadays own it in a CD transfer on the German Line Music label. The sound quality, though still comparatively ancient, is a good deal better than on the Everest LP transfer from the late 1960s, through which I learnt this music. EMI’s recording with Neville Boyling as balance engineer and John Mordler as producer is as close to perfection one can expect from an early digital source.

Riccardo Muti has always put an unmistakable personal stamp on his readings, especially of operas, and in a way he is the hero of this recording – for better or worse. I wouldn’t call his reading inflexible but he holds the proceedings on a tighter rein than Rossi, who is more lenient with the singers and gives them time to linger over phrases of special importance. Muti is stricter but still allows the singers some freedom. The result is a taut performance where the tension never slackens. This is even more noticeable when one listens to the complete opera but his stamp is very obvious even in these excerpts. The choice of numbers is sensible and in several places we get quite long scenes of uninterrupted music. The only problem for someone who knows this music is that whenever there is a cut one regrets that not everything could be included.

Tempos are brisk without being rushed and rhythms are springy throughout. On this account Muti wins over Rossi hands down. On the other hand Rossi’s reading is warmer and since the libretto is so heartless – which is my only objection concerning this opera – warmth is what to some extent can remedy Malatesta’s callous intrigues. But Muti can also be warm and the cello soloist is given space to caress the beautiful solo in the overture with sensitive phrasing.

The cast could hardly be bettered. Of course Bruscantini can’t disguise that he is an elderly gentleman, but he has preserved so much of his voice that it hardly matters and he is of course a master of turning a phrase memorably. Leo Nucci’s Malatesta is simply his best performance on record. Bella siccome un angelo is sung with such elegance and sap in the voice and such seductive phrasing that he twists Don Pasquale round his little finger.

Gösta Winbergh almost challenges Cesare Valletti, the best Ernesto since Tito Schipa, with his lyrical, plangent tone and impeccable legato and his Com’è gentil and the following duet Tornami a dir are models of beauty and elegance.

At the time of the recording Mirella Freni had been taking on heavy roles such as Aida, Tosca and Elisabetta in Don Carlo, but when she returned to her former lyrical territory she was just as beguiling as ever. The tone is slightly harder than it was twenty years earlier but her singing is still a wonder of freshness and agility.

In the ensemble scenes, of which there are plenty, especially in the second act, the voices blend admirably and patter duet by Malatesta and Pasquale is spirited if not as breakneck as in some performances. With the Ambrosians turning in a virtuoso version of the chorus in act 3 and the Philharmonia on their toes, this is a highlights disc to savour. The booklet has Julian Budden’s admirable notes from the original 1984 issue but no sung texts. Incidentally my review copy got stuck towards the end of track 18, Ernesto’s Com’è gentil, which was a pity since it is so well sung, but I can’t believe that this defect is inherent in every copy.

Göran Forsling




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