It is unusual to commence a review by reference to engineering
matters. Traditionally they are either left to a final phrase
or two or ignored entirely. However, a recording that was made
fifty plus years ago and sounds quite remarkable must mean that
Mark Obert-Thorn, the Audio Restoration Engineer and Reissue Producer
deserves the earliest accolade. This mono reissue is an outstanding
achievement: not perfect, still the occasional ‘hissy bits’ but
put up with those for the joy of listening to 1950s greats: Gobbi
and Christoff in their mid-forties prime and de Los Angeles, Campora
and Monachesi a decade younger.
This is stunningly
good and will undoubtedly vie with the stereo 1977 Deutsche
Grammophon recording (449 752-2): Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov with
Freni, Carreras and Van Dam. I say that fully aware that that
recording took the BBC Radio 3 Building a Library award
in April 2000 and a Penguin Rosette.
To digress for one
moment, I like to think that Verdi would have enjoyed the irony
that there are now available some ten CD recordings of an opera
that initially flopped (1857). Only after significant revision
did it succeed (1881) but was still not seen in America until
1932 and in England until 1948.
This recording enables
us to hear Gobbi at his best. He gives a master-class in vocal
characterisation carrying Boccanegra from fearless corsair inviting
Fiesco to kill him, through grieving lover as he find Maria’s
body, and on to adoring father and conciliatory head of state.
Gobbi traverses the gamut of committed involvement from robust
declamation to those comparatively few bars of intense lyricism.
Del mar... (CD1 track 8), in the Prologue, positively
drips with emotion in what is effectively an historical recital.
Similarly in Il Doge vien... (CD1 track 17) he so builds
Amelia’s confidence that it is all too easy to understand why
she shares her secret that she is not in fact a Grimaldi. Conversely
he is the powerful Doge who has led Genoa for some twenty-five
years: so evident in the Council Chamber scene written for 1881.
He is matched in
every way by the Fiesco of Boris Christoff, steeped in nobility
and traditional honour - a less complex character, hating the
Doge but appalled at killing him when defenceless. Christoff’s
responses, first to Gobbi: Assassinarti (assassinate
you); and then to Monachesi: Osi a Fiesco proporre un misfatto?
(You dare to suggest a crime to me) resonate with pride, honour,
authority and contempt at the suggestions. Christoff brings
a deep, round, magisterial, rock-steady sound with intensity
of meaning to every word. Only twice is he allowed lyricism:
in the Prologue’s Il lacerato spirito (CD1 track 6) he
portrays a truly wounded soul of deep colouring and beauty of
tone. Later, with Gobbi, in Piango perche mi parla (CD2
track 24), in the almost overwhelming duet, he demonstrates
strength of sound throughout his range and does so with unwavering
focus and clarity.
Victoria de Los
Angeles also brings vocal strength, beauty of line and tone
with clarity of diction and theatrical involvement. Listen to
her warm timbre in Vieni a mirar... (CD1 track 13). Before
Campora joins her in the duet, she ends her introduction on
notes which she leaves hanging in the air. Her interaction with
Gobbi in the father/daughter recognition scene is full of warmth
and sweet tones with stunning clarity of sound on high and with
not a syllable missed.
(Paolo) is the true villain revelling in ink-deep colouring.
Again we have admirable vocal acting. He uses varied dynamics
for his manipulation of the crowd in the Prologue. He brings
a chilling, icy tone to the addition of poison to the Doge’s
carafe followed by vitriol to the succeeding interchanges with
Christoff. Similarly, when he is being led to the scaffold,
the meeting with Christoff affords us another opportunity to
enjoy Christoff’s distinctive bass timbre when set against the
similar but not so distinguished timbre of Monachesi’s slightly
is an uninspiring character. Giuseppe Campora sings this role
with verve and colour and with some ringing tenor highs. However,
his ringing tone is not as distinctive as that of Carreras on
the Deutsche Grammophon. His vocal acting is compelling. In
his solo, leading up to and including Cielo, pietoso, rendila
... he rouses himself to murder, recognises the folly of
that and then wants a pure Amelia, failing which he rejects
her; I did say that I find the character uninspiring. Campora
brings off this difficult succession of emotions with conviction.
Paolo Dari, as Pietro,
uses his rounded baritone to great effect. He leads the chorus
into nominating Boccanegra for Doge and delivers his asides
in the Council Chamber scene with enunciation that should be
required listening for those embarking on a singing career.
not sounding ‘immediate’ the chorus is mostly crisp, compelling
and, where necessary, clamorous. Whilst the orchestra occasionally
sounds a little thin, Gabriele Santini conducts with sensitivity
and keen attention to not crowding the singers. He affords them
every support with never a suggestion of competition. His tempos
are slightly slower than those set by Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon
but that is no disadvantage. Abbado seems to take a more active
role, sweeping the music along with a volume that occasionally
causes a loss of words.
As I have said,
there are ‘hissy bits’: they are intermittent but tend to be
where there is full orchestra or ensemble - not always, just
occasionally. Another excellent feature of the presentation
of this recording is the large number of tracks. This enables
one to pinpoint easily some specific section. There are twenty-nine
on the Deutsche Grammophon against forty-nine here and with
no loss of continuity. The booklet does not include the libretto
but contains a good synopsis for each track. There is a brief
opera history and short biographies of the lead singers.
So, after all that,
and having mentioned the Deutsche Grammophon recording several
times, which do I prefer? To which the unhelpful answer is:
elements of each. But you do not want a singer-by-singer analysis.
Let us approach it differently. Which would I give as a present?
To an operatic novice probably the Deutsche Grammophon but to
the experienced listener the Naxos would win every time. All
Finally, do you
have a recording of Gobbi, Christoff and/or de Los Angeles?
If not then this is definitely for you. And what about money:
about £8 for Naxos and £17 for Deutsche Grammophon. Personally,
I would not now be without either but then birthdays have made
a significant contribution to my collection. Go on, treat yourself:
this is Gobbi, Christoff and de Los Angeles in spectacular form.
see also Review
by Simon Thompson