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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La fanciulla del West (1910) [127:07]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) - Minnie; Jošo Gibin (tenor) - Dick Johnson; Andrea Mongelli (baritone) - Jack Rance; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) - Jake Wallace; Renato Ercolani (tenor) - Nick; Antonio Cassinelli (bass) - Ashby; Enzo Sordello (baritone) - Sonora; Florindo Andreoli (tenor) - Trin; Giuseppe Costariol (baritone) - Sid; Dino Mantovani (baritone) - Bello; Dino Formichini (tenor) - Harry; Antonio Costantino (tenor) - Joe; Leonardo Monreale (bass) - Happy; Giuseppe Morresi (bass) - Jim Larkens; Gabriella Carturan (soprano) - Wowkle; Carlo Forti (bass) - Billy/Castro; Angelo Mercuriali (tenor) - Pony Express Rider
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Lovro von Matačić
rec. July 1958, Teatro alla Scala, Milan.
no libretto; notes and detailed synopsis in English, French and German
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 81862 2 9 [56:43 + 70:24]


There is evidently some sort of a “story” behind this recording. The note by Stephen Jay Taylor tells us that it was originally planned around Callas, Corelli and Gobbi. Alas, he does not explain who dropped out first and why the others went down like skittles.

As far as I can make out, the inspiration to record “Fanciulla” twice in one year – the Decca with Tebaldi/Del Monaco/MacNeil/Capuana preceded the present one by a matter of months – was a revival of the opera at La Scala in 1956 under Antonino Votto in which Corelli alternated with Del Monaco and Gobbi was Rance. Minnie was Gigliola Frazzoni, an outstanding soprano of the generation that was sacrificed to the Callas/Tebaldi rivalry – see my review of her “Tosca”. This was Frazzoni’s most celebrated role. It was by all accounts terrific and some sort of a bootleg version seems to be available.

Decca stepped in first. Given Frazzoni’s success in the role, what better could they think of than ditch her and insist on Tebaldi, whom they automatically engaged for all Italian operas? Votto stuck up for Frazzoni, so they ditched him too and recorded in Rome with Franco Capuana. I recount all this without disrespect for the celebrated recording which emerged, and which I have unfortunately not heard.

But if Tebaldi was to record Minnie, EMI had to do so too, and so plans went ahead for a Callas version, regardless of the fact that she had never sung the role, and never did. Logically she would have been better suited to Minnie than to Mimž or Butterfly, but it was not to be. It would be nice to know how the present line-up actually came about. Maybe Votto shot himself in the foot again by still wanting Frazzoni. Here too, I intend no prejudice against the recording that was actually made. It’s just a pity that the eternal rivalry between two singers and the willingness of EMI and Decca to abet it should have resulted in a misrepresentation of an age which was in reality rather well-endowed with fine sopranos, any of whom would be very welcome today. Another such was Carla Gavazzi, who set down the first “Fanciulla” of all in 1950 for Cetra, with Vasco Campagnano and Ugo Savarese under Arturo Basile, a recording still very much in the running – see reviews by myself and Ian Lace.

Birgit Nilsson once recalled to Edward Greenfield that she had learnt the role of Minnie specially for this recording and in a great hurry. She was then forty and had already achieved international prominence. As far as the notes are concerned there is no suggestion of insecurity. Everything is negotiated with complete ease and a consistently beautiful, even tone with a golden sheen on it, from the lowest notes to the highest. Nilsson was not an emotionally reticent singer. She finds tenderness here, vehemence there, but it’s an interpretation in embryo, you don’t really feel she’s living the part.

Turn to Carol Neblett, whose 1977 performance at Covent Garden with Domingo and Milnes under Mehta put the opera on the UK map and was recorded by DG the following year. She has been particularly associated with the role – a later Covent Garden performance under Santi is available on video – and presents a much rounder character. In order to do so she adopts a quite different vocal style, more verista, the top notes with a wider, “dangerous” vibrato and often engaging the chest tones surprisingly high. It sounds thrilling and a bit risky, but since her career apparently continues to this day, I take it she knows what she’s doing.

Go back to Gavazzi and you realize that Neblett is reviving an honourable tradition. The blazing top notes and raunchy chest tones are very similar. The descriptions I have read suggest that this was Frazzoni’s way, too. Either Neblett modelled herself on these recordings or she worked with a coach well versed in this particular style. However, Gavazzi is more vivid still. She sometimes inserts laughs or sobs in the line in a way that might seem over the top, but she does it so naturally that I think she gets away with it. I see that in my earlier review I compared Gavazzi and Neblett to the latter’s considerable disadvantage. Now that Nilsson is added to the equation I am more struck by the similarities between the other two though Gavazzi still gets my vote.

The Brazilian tenor Jošo Gibin was born in 1929. According to such information as I could find, he made his debut in 1959 as Calaf at La Scala. Perhaps this was actually his European debut or something of the kind, since it seems unlikely that La Scala would engage a Calaf who had never sung on the stage before. His Dick Johnson from the previous year hardly suggests a potential Calaf. The voice is well-trained, not large and a little strained at the top. His reedy vibrato is attractive but I would think him more a tenor for Donizetti. Heard in large doses and at full stretch the sound becomes mournful and a little irritating. This latter may be a personal reaction but I don’t think anyone could claim he compensates with more than a generalized interpretation.

No doubt about Domingo’s magnificent singing alongside Neblett. Fresh from a stage triumph he also enters vividly into the role. Going back to 1950, Vasco Campagnano has a more purely “tenory” tenor and, like Gibin, there is an occasional suspicion that he is stretched by the top notes. And yet his conviction and his detailed handling of the words make this the most involving performance of the three.

Andrea Mongelli (1901-1970) made his debut as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust” in 1923. His is a big, well-focused voice without much legato or variety of tone. His Jack Rance emerges as a one-dimensional, cardboard figure, a pocket Scarpia. Sherrill Milnes and Ugo Savarese both reveal a more complex person, rough but not dastardly given where and what he is. This time I slightly prefer Milnes who was then at the peak of his vocal beauty. Savarese is a little more effortful in the upper range but his is nonetheless an impressive performance.

The smaller roles generally go better in the two Italian performances, those of 1950 showing greater involvement in line with the performance as a whole.

Lovro von Matačić was much appreciated in Italy and did the rounds of the RAI orchestras to the end of his days. He gets very fine playing from the orchestra and is a warmly idiomatic Puccinian. Just occasionally he is brusque alongside the more flexible Mehta and he dawdles here and there. Ultimately, this is another case where the performance seems that little bit less lived in. Some found Mehta a shade swift when the records first appeared, yet a comparison with Basile in 1950 shows that he was returning to an older, more urgent Puccini tradition.

Yet I have to say that Basile does it better still. In a recent comparison of the Beecham and Erede “BohŤmes” I noted that Erede’s tempi seemed based on the natural speech rhythms of the words, and so it is here. The words speak to you more in this performance than in the others. At the same time Basile has a sure feeling for the ebb and flow of the score and screws up the tension for some terrific climaxes. The mono recording is fair for the date.

Of the three, then, it is the old Cetra which I find the most moving and involving. It leaves me in no doubt that I am listening to a masterpiece. If you need more recent stereo sound, the Mehta is a fine alternative in a similar mould. The Matačić is excellent, really, but fails to tug the heart-strings – the essential ingredient in any Puccini performance. I regret that I am unable to advise readers about where the much-acclaimed Tebaldi/Capuana stands in all this. Nor, for that matter, the less lauded Zampieri/Domingo/Pons/Maazel (on both CD and DVD), Jones/Viotti and Marton/Slatkin. Those with a taste for bootlegs might note that, as well as the Frazzoni/Votto, the famous 1954 Steber/Mitropoulos from the Met is available from some sources.

Christopher Howell 



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