I well remember
the day that the late Richard Bebb, somewhat cautiously, invited
me to look at a 78 album containing a large number of sides
of a super-rarity, Leoncavallo’s Chatterton. I’d thought
that he had the entire set but it transpires that he and Sir
Paul Getty had the entire thing between them. As I leafed through
the album pages I felt as if I was in the presence of a surviving
missal, or an Abyssinian parchment.
to overstate how rare these twenty-eight 1908 sides actually
are. No one collector or archive holds all of them. The opera
was conducted by the composer and the process by which he came
to direct the opera for the recording – fees, negotiations
– are splendidly set forth in Marston’s typically extensive,
splendidly illustrated booklet.
One of the most
bizarre features of the recording was the doubling of the role
of Chatterton. Tenors Francisco Granados and Francesco Signorini
alternate the role; as to why, no one seems quite sure, though
speculation is advanced. Signorini was an excellent singer and
a thoughtful musician but Granados was a blusterer as one can
hear as early as Charley! Holger! which launches the
opera. Signorini was a decade older than his colleague but shows
in his exchanges with Quinzi-Tapergi’s Giorgio how superior
he is in every way imaginable. Annita Santoro is little known
– there’s a paucity of biographical information about her though
we know that she was born in 1885. Rather laconically the notes
about her opine that “it is to be hoped that, in order to appear
to be a young boy (she is Young Henry, a “pants” role) she intentionally
adopted the sound she makes on this recording.” This piece of
drollery relates to the very tight fluttering vibrato she adopts
– most audibly in her Act II exchange with Chatterton Là…là…presso
a quel tavolo. It is indeed a bizarre sound.
The other cast members
are certainly of acceptable to middling standard; the orchestra
doesn’t sound too well prepared and doubtless it wasn’t even
with the composer at the helm. I realise that I’ve not gone
into details regarding the opera as such – its effectiveness
or otherwise or the historical circumstances that gave rise
to Leonvacallo’s taking Chatterton’s life as the theme of his
opera. That however is, I think, of lesser importance. This
exceptionally rare set can give only a limited theatrical impression
of the work in toto – and though there are some fine scenes
it’s not a convincing theatrical work.
Coupled with it
is the 1907 recording of Pagliacci, again said to have
been conducted by Leoncavallo but here as likely to have been
directed by Carlo Sabajno - or Sabaino as the booklet prefers.
Francesco Cigado is a confident, virile Tonio, full voiced and
fine. Canio is Antonio Paoli, who doesn’t possess a beautiful
voice as such but who phrases with real artistry and eloquence.
Nedda is Giuseppina Huguet whose voice is quite light; she’s
a little withdrawn when it comes to characterisation. Ernesto
Badini cuts a dash as Silvio, a singer with a real gift for
“putting it across.” And then there’s Gaetano Pini-Corsi as
Beppe. He came to the recording after a full decade and a half
singing at La Scala and proves an invaluable addition to the
cast; still only in his mid forties he sings with fluency and
imagination. Once again the orchestra is uneven.
Seriously high praise
is due to this two-disc set. There is a libretto in Italian
with English translation for Chatterton; not for Pagliacci,
which is a less pressing matter. The transfers have brought
out a wealth of detail whilst remaining true to the original
source material. The voices are immediate and forward. The booklet
is up to the customarily high standard set by this company.
You could spend a lifetime looking for even a few of the sides
of Chatterton and you still wouldn’t find them. This then is
really what restoration is all about – an amazing rarity transferred
with care, presented with authority, and made universally available.