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Mirella Freni and Cesare Siepi in Concert
Otto NICOLAI (1810 – 1849)
The Merry Wives of Windsor
1. Overture
Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
Philemon et Baucis
2. Que les songes heureux
Arrigo BOITO (1842 – 1918)
3. L’altra notte in fondo al mare
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Simon Boccanegra
4. Il lacerato spirito
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
5. Vissi d’arte
Gianni Schicchi
6. O mio babbino caro
Giuseppe VERDI
Don Carlo
7. Ella giammai m’amò
8. Tu che la vanità
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni
9. Overture
10. Madamina, il catalogo è questo
11. Là ci darem la mano
Mirella Freni (soprano: 3,5,6,8,11); Cesare Siepi (bass: 2,4,7,10,11)
Orchestra della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana/Bruno Amaducci
rec. Palazzo dei Congressi, Lugano, 1985
Audio: Stereo; Video: 4:3/Color/NTSC
VAI 4482 [75:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Two favourite singers in favourite repertoire. That’s no bad thing to have available for occasional watching. Not that the visual aspects are in any way tempting. The hall – in Palazzo dei Congressi in Lugano – is dull and the colours are a bit watery. The image is rather muddled – not at all sharply focused - and the camerawork is unimaginative. On the other hand, there is very little one can do besides registering what happens on the platform. The soloists and the conductor march in and out. There is long, thundering applause and the camera visits the audience from the same angle each time. During the orchestral music some of the instrumentalists are spot-lit, first and foremost the leader. From a position somewhere behind the orchestra we get some pictures of the conductor at work, obviously having problems with his fringe which continually falls across his face.
That said, honest and straightforward filming, albeit dull, is far preferable to some producers’ ideas. We have become used to fussy tracking, zooming in and out, close-ups on artists and even members of the audience, finding interesting details in the ceiling or having a camera circle a singer or conductor. When the video production becomes the main attraction and the music is reduced to wallpaper – that’s what I call bad TV or video. I wouldn’t want to see this concert very often but it does have merit.
The sound is fully acceptable, the orchestra play well and there are fine solo contributions from the woodwind. The long cello solo in the orchestral introduction to Philip II’s monologue from Don Carlo is exquisitely played. Both singers had long and distinguished careers behind them when this was recorded in 1985. Siepi was past 60 and had made his debut while still a teenager during the war. His early recordings from the late 1940s were issued by Nimbus not long ago and were enthusiastically received by myself (see review) as well as by my colleagues Jonathan Woolf (see review) and Robert Hugill (see review). What impressed most of all, considering that he was not yet 25, was the maturity of the voice as well as the readings. His account of Philip’s monologue from Don Carlo has few equals. This character is really a man – one who has lived a long life and attained power as well as been struck by misfortune. The dark brooding from 1947 is perfectly in character. Thirty-eight years later he has reached the right age; his voice has lost surprisingly little in quality. There is a slight widening of vibrato, it’s true. The reading has mellowed but it is a real treat to have both. When Rudolf Bing started his regime at the Metropolitan in NY in 1950 he brought Siepi to the house and his first assignment was as Philip II in the new production of Don Carlos. West Hill Radio Archives have recently issued the broadcast from a few days after the premiere. This is in refurbished sound and with quite extensive excerpts from the telecast of the premiere as bonus. This was thought to have been lost but a primitive sound recording by an amateur has surfaced. This Don Carlos, with Jussi Björling in the title role, is due for review within a couple of weeks. It is also valuable for letting us hear Siepi in one of his greatest roles – one that for some reason he was never allowed to record complete commercially.
His real signature role was Don Giovanni, of which there exist two studio recordings as well as a number of live tapes. One of these, from the premiere of the Zeffirelli-Solti production in February 1962 (see review), is especially interesting since Zerlina is the young Mirella Freni. It is again fascinating to compare the two singers almost twenty-five years later in the well-known duet. The years have not passed completely unnoticed but the freshness in Ms Freni’s singing is still remarkable. On his own Siepi sings not one of the Don’s arias but Leporello’s Catalogue aria. This he manages well technically but it is a bit low-key – a valet who is probably contemplating his retirement. In the nowadays rarely-heard aria from Gounod’s Philemon et Baucis Siepi shows that his lowest register is still in fine fettle and his legato is impeccable. There is slightly more strain and more vibrato in Fiesco’s aria from Simon Boccanegra.
Mirella Freni at fifty has retained her youthfulness, vocally as well as in appearance. Though her voice has acquired more weight, allowing her to sing arias from what I like to call the Tebaldi repertoire, she can still lighten the tone and sing a lovely girlish O mio babbino caro. Tosca’s prayer is also begun softly and inwardly. Her power of living the part is touching. There is an uncommonly long orchestral introduction to L’altra notte and there, as in the long and strenuous aria from the last act of Don Carlos she impresses greatly with her sheer volume. As always she is careful with the fine nuances – always her true hallmark.
This is a DVD that will probably give just as much satisfaction when played on an ordinary CD-player. Occasionally I may be tempted to show it on-screen as well, primarily for Mirella Freni’s charming personality.
Göran Forsling


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