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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Simon Boccanegra - opera in a prologue and three acts (1856-57 and 1880-81)
Simon Boccanegra - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Jacopo Fiesco/Andrea - Boris Christoff (bass)
Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra -  Victoria de Los Angeles (soprano)
Gabriele Adorno - Giuseppe Campora (tenor)
Paolo Albiani - Walter Monachesi (bass)
Pietro - Paolo Dari (baritone)
Captain of the Crossbowmen - Paolo Carolo (tenor)
Amelia’s Maidservant - Silvia Bertona (mezzo)
Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Gabriele Santini
rec. 25–30 September, 1 November 1957, Opera House, Rome. ADD. Mono
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110119-20 [62.12 + 78.09]


Experience Classicsonline

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.

Walter Monachesi (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 higher-lying tessitura.

Gabriele Adorno 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.

If occasionally 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 very personal.

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.

Robert McKechnie 

see also Review by Simon Thompson



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