Today we have got so used to the drawbacks with live recordings
that we hardly raise an eye-brow when there are stage-noises
or other extra-musical inclusions. Applause can be irritating
at repeated listening, but it is understandable that they aren’t
edited out since this would involve a lot of extra work, not
least re-record certain passages in a silent hall. Opera visitor
seem very reluctant to save their applause until an aria or
act is finished. Now, this is not a greater problem with the
present production than with a number of similar issues and
generally it is quite possible to enjoy this performance without
too much irritation. The balance between pit and stage is quite
good, better in fact than in several other sets in Naxos’
ever-growing series of recordings from Italian opera houses
The chorus and orchestra may not be in the class of the big
opera houses’ forces but they aren’t bad either
and Antonio Fogliani leads a generally well-paced performance
that includes also the Wolf Crag scene. Moreover there is a
special frisson to have a glass-harmonica in the Mad Scene instead
of the flute we normally hear. The glass-harmonica was Donizetti’s
original idea but good players were obviously sparse. To my
knowledge there has been only one previous recording of the
opera with glass-harmonica and that was the Thomas Schippers
set with Beverly Sills and Carlo Bergonzi, set down almost 40
So far so good then, but before you place your order for this
set, dear reader, I would recommend you to continue reading
a little while. Now I come to the most vital point: the singing.
Good singing is vital for any opera recording, especially when
we don’t see the singers and can savour their stage presence
and vivid acting. Lord Enrico Ashton is the first of the central
characters we meet. We have browsed the synopsis and we know
that he is an evil person. When he opens his mouth we also hear
that he is. Luca Grassi, who sings the role, has a powerful
and coarse voice, his tone is rather guttural and he rarely
bothers to find any softer nuances than forte. Cruda funeste
smania is a wonderful opening aria for a good baritone but
however evil the character is it has to be song with beautiful
tone, with some kind of elegance and style. After all this is
a bel canto opera and bel canto means ‘beautiful
singing’. Here the beauty is missing and the style is
of the kind possibly acceptable in a verismo opera. No points
In the next scene Lucia, his sister, appears and expectations
are high: Désirée Rancatore we read in the cast
list and she is a well-known name in this kind of repertoire.
Perhaps we should say ‘was’ - she is a wobbler.
We know that different persons react differently to vibrato
and through the years we have become hardened - but this is
a bit too much. After her first big aria we notice a couple
of positive features, however: she has impressive top notes,
the voice in itself is beautiful and she knows what she is doing.
She gives a three-dimensional portrait of Lucia.
Then the third part in the central drama, Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood,
makes his entrance. When he starts singing we suddenly pay attention.
Here is a lyric tenor, perhaps a size too small for the role
- he has to force to balance his singing partners - but it is
a rather flexible instrument and he has done his homework and
learnt the difference between f and p. In other
words, he phrases sensitively and the somewhat whitish tone
makes us think of Alfredo Kraus. Not that he is quite in that
class but that we venture to mention Kraus at all is positive
enough. Roberto De Biasio says the cast list, and the name rings
a bell: he was the tenor on two other recent Naxos operas: Maria
Stuarda and Lucrezia Borgia. On both he made a very
good impression. Nice to hear him again. Let’s hope he
is on good form in the final scene, which is the tenor’s
But before that we have to evaluate Raimondo Bidibent, the chaplain.
We have heard a few phrases from him already but it wasn’t
enough to decide whether he is good or bad. As a character he
is in fact both, but one wants to regard him as a basically
noble person and when we reach the end of CD 1 and the scene
where he convinces her that she should obey her brother and
marry Arturo, we can conclude that he isn’t so bad after
all. He is no Pinza and he isn’t a Ghiaurov or Ramey,
to name two basses from more recent times, but he is what an
Italian would call ‘passable’.
The mad scene confirms the impression that Rancatore is an expressive
singer but that the vibrato is annoying and her coloratura technique
isn’t as fluent as Sutherland’s or Sills’
- but it is ‘passable’.
We have also found that Alisa is squally and that neither of
the two comprimario tenors is worth writing home about. The
third tenor, however, confirms in the last scene that he indeed
is something to write home about. Here he sings with glow and
commitment and suddenly his voice even sounds that size bigger
than we had thought in the beginning. He sings the moving Tu
che a Dio spiegasti l’ali, which always has a special
effect on the lachrymal ducts, with all the emotions laid bare.
This is the finest moment in this performance and the best,
perhaps only, reason to add this set to the collection. It is
cheap but it is worth paying a couple of euros or pounds more
to get Sutherland, Sills, Gruberova, Studer or Rost instead.
see also review by Robert