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CD: Crotchet

Raina Kabaivanska Live in Concert
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia: Overture [8:02]
L’assedio di Corinto: Giusto ciel [6:25]*
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello: Piangea cantando (Canzone del salice) – Ave Maria [17:43]*
I vespri siciliani: Overture [9:11]
La Traviata: Act III: Prelude [4:21], Addio del passato [5:12]*
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut: Act III: Intermezzo [5:32]
Tosca: Vissi d’arte [3:40]*
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur: Act IV: Prelude [4:20], Io son l’umile ancella [3:48]*
La Bohème: Quando men vo [2:53]*
Raina Kabaivanska (soprano)*
Orchestra della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana/Nino Bonavolontà
rec. live, 19 June 1987, Palazzo dei Congressi, Lugano (Switzerland)
Extra: Giorgio Gualerzi interviews Raina Kabaivanska [25:03]
FABULA CLASSICA FAB29913 [60:19 (concert) + 25:03 (extra)]
Experience Classicsonline

Most readers will need no reminding that Raina Kabaivanska is one of the major singing actresses of our age, with a particular specialization in verismo. Readers who rely for their knowledge on recordings, however, may barely know of her at all. Briefly, she was born in 1934 in Bulgaria but came to Italy in her early twenties for further study and has remained there ever since. In 1961 she appeared at La Scala, singing in “Beatrice di Tenda” alongside Joan Sutherland. In 1962 she was called to sing at the Metropolitan and thereafter appeared in practically every theatre of importance, alongside the greatest singers (Del Monaco, Pavarotti …) and under the greatest conductors, including Karajan. She has been noted especially for her Tosca and for her reinstatement in the repertoire of semi-forgotten works – especially outside Italy – such as “Adriana Lecouvreur” and “Francesca da Rimini”. Her career is by no means over; in 2008 she added the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” to her repertoire. But she has made few recordings and those few have reinforced the view that, while as a singing actress she may be able to communicate a total experience, the voice in itself has a vibrato that doesn’t record well. She has in any case been a reluctant recording artist. In the interview which follows the present concert she states quite bluntly that there are artists who are good at singing in the theatre and artists who are good at making recordings, and she is one of the former.
This 1987 recital, however, does not suggest that vibrato is a problem. Her tone is always full, controlled and steady. In concert she “acts” the concert artist. That is to say, she makes few theatrical gestures, but adopts a slightly regal pose, one that immediately conveys authority. The acting is done with the voice, which always combines emotional weight with tonal beauty. Kabaivanska was a singer I had previously had problems in relating to, but here it is easy to see what the fuss was about. Only the slightly odd choice of Musetta’s waltz as a closing item caused me some misgivings, since the voice seems too fundamentally heavy for this piece. However, this item should be heard in relation to the comments she makes during the interview about the role, which she does not see in the traditional way.
Somewhat curious, I fished out the only other example of Kabaivanska’s singing I have, a concert she shared with Carlo Bergonzi at Lucca in 1973, with arias from “Manon Lescaut” and Act III of “Tosca”. I realize now that the “vibrato problem” is not what is normally understood by that term, that is to say a great big wobble à la Gwyneth Jones. Rather, hers is a small, tight vibrato, rather fast, with the result that in top notes in the more dramatic moments of “Tosca” the voice, at least on record, can actually seem too straight, or “white”. It didn’t help that in 1973 she had Maurizio Arena’s noisy orchestra to contend with. Even so, she comes across as one of the best Toscas of recent years. In 1987 she had a more tactful conductor, but maybe the voice itself had also acquired greater body over the years.
The reader will have noticed that only about half the programme is actually sung, the rest consisting of preludes and intermezzos under a conductor not many will have heard of. Is it so much wasted space?
It might make a good quiz question. Put 30 seconds or so on YouTube, choosing a shot where the conductor is seen from a certain distance. With his tall, lean, erect figure, receding white hair, heavy spectacles, long baton and clear-cut gestures, you might just convince someone you’ve found footage of Mravinsky conducting music Mravinsky never conducted. Closer up, you see that he isn’t quite as emaciated as Mravinsky, and though he gets playing of considerable tension from his orchestra, it clearly isn’t the Leningrad PO, nor does he inspire that level of fanatical fervour. As to the gestures, I’m reminded of Vernon Handley’s explanation that the main difference between his technique and that of his mentor Boult was that he conducted more beats since he was used to preparing semi-amateur groups with a minimum of rehearsals. Not for the likes of Nino Bonavolontà the luxury of twenty-plus rehearsals for works in the standard repertoire. His gestures are well primed to obtain reasonable precision, dynamic shading, colouring and balance with the least possible fuss. I don’t know if he always found the inspiration he shows here, but it’s clear from the opening of the Rossini that he means business, the various intermezzi are not just makeweights and he has the players swooning into the big tunes the way Italian orchestras used to in the days of Serafin et al. With all due respect to Kabaivanska, the piece I enjoyed most of all in the entire programme was the Intermezzo from “Manon Lescaut”. Quite frankly, I haven’t heard Puccini conducted like this since Gavazzeni included this same piece in one of his very last RAI concerts.
Nino (really Giovanni) Bonavolontà was born in Rome in 1920. His father, Giuseppe Bonavolontà (1886-1957), was a Neapolitan composer of popular songs, of which the best known is probably “Fiocca la neve” (1927). His elder brother, Mariuccio (1913-1960), under the pseudonym of Mario Riva, can be seen as an actor in a number of films, including some with the wonderful Italian comedian Totò. He achieved his greatest popularity, however, as a TV personality. His musical quiz programme, “Il Musichiere”, is claimed to be the first of its kind.
Much of Nino’s career was spent in Sardinia, where he was not only conductor of the Cagliari opera house but also director of the city’s Conservatoire. He did much to encourage local talent – Giusy Devinu was a particular beneficiary – and to rediscover Sardinian composers. Elsewhere in Italy he conducted from time to time for the RAI while his numerous appearances abroad included a considerable period in Spain. However, he was mainly limited to the provincial operas houses and his encounters with the greatest singers were usually confined to concerts like this one – Fabula have issued another with Teresa Berganza (1990). He made no records as such that I can trace but a few live appearances have circulated. He was on the podium for Pavarotti’s first RAI performances – some arias in 1967 – and his 1972 RAI edition of Giordano’s “La Cena delle Beffe” with Giangiacomo Guelfi in the cast has also been made available. His career had a curious pendant in 1994. Though a Socialist until a few years previously he allowed himself to be used by the first Berlusconi government as a pawn with which to oust the Municipality of Rome’s candidate, the lawyer Vittorio Ripa de Meana, for the post of “Subcommissario” to the Rome Opera House. The principal aim of the exercise, as far as the government was concerned, was to enrage left-wing Mayor Rutelli. To those who asked Bonavolontà if he felt he was being “used”, he disarmingly replied that he knew he was but someone had to do the job. Maybe he hoped to end his career with an important post in the opera house of his native city, but a “Subcommissario” is neither a Superintendent nor a Music Director. The claim that at least a musician was getting the job all too easily met the response that he was a “Series B conductor” and that “he wasn’t Abbado”. He faded from view and his death in 2007 seems to have been noticed only in the Sardinian press. Possibly I have over-praised his performances here, but I expected a time-beater and I found a real conductor, which was certainly a pleasure.
The DVD is completed by an interview with Kabaivanska conducted by the major Italian opera critic Giorgio Gualerzi. The menu at the beginning offered various language choices. What I was actually served up with was Italian with no subtitles, which was fine for me but won’t be for everybody so I trust that a version with either a dubbed translation or subtitles is in there somewhere. Kabaivanska speaks with a notable Slavonic accent but is very articulate and frank about her career and the music she sings. It seems that the interview was recorded to make up a TV portrait of her into which the arias from the concert would be slotted. As it is, after each aria is discussed and introduced, there is a short pause, after which the interview continues. It will be evident from my comments above that I, at least, am glad we have instead the complete concert including the orchestral items. Incidentally, Kabavainska reveals amazingly that she has never had an agent. She conducts personally all negotiations for her appearances. I doubt if a young singer who tried that today would get anywhere, whatever his or her gifts.
The booklet has a useful introduction to Kabaivanska’s art by Arrigo Quattrocchi, apparently marred by his bad taste in describing her in the past tense as though her career were over. Reference to the original Italian text reveals that he did no such thing; the translator confused the Italian verb tenses.
A warm welcome, then, to a video that provides full justification of the Kabaivanska legend, with the added pleasure of a little-known conductor to be discovered.
Christopher Howell

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