Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1868)
Lucrezia Borgia - Melodramma in a Prologue and Two Acts (1833)
Lucrezia Borgia - Montserrat Caballé (soprano); Gennaro - Alfredo Krauss (tenor); Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferraro - Ezio Flagello (bass); Mafio Orsini, a young nobleman - Shirley Verrett (mezzo); Astolfo - Robert El Hage (bass); Gubetta - Vito Maria Brunetti (bass); Rustighello - Giuseppe Baratti (tenor)
RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Jonel Perlea
rec. RCA Italiana Studios, Rome, Italy, 1966
SONY OPERA HOUSE 88697 575942 [60.53 + 73.22] 

I had thought about starting this review with the well-known introductory phrase “Once upon a time ...” But, second thoughts were that my worthy editor might just think I had lost it altogether and despatch my efforts and me to the trash skip! Further thought brought the reality that this 1966 recording could well be considered an early chapter in the human fairy tale that launched the international career of one of the greatest singers of the second half of the twentieth century. It became the precursor, over the next twenty odd years, of twenty-eight studio opera recordings for various major labels across the bel canto, lyrico spinto and verismo genres, many recital discs and innumerable pirate recordings, but that is to jump ahead.

The story starts somewhat like an opera, with a prologue some years before the main action, and concerns how a twenty-four year old guy called Allen Sven Oxenberg founded The American Opera Society with the intention of bringing, in concert, rare repertoire to New York audiences. He provided his audiences with the premieres of many works they had never heard before such as Medea, Giovanni d’Arco, Les Troyens and even Billy Budd. It was a time even before Callas had got her teeth into the bel canto repertoire and when she later fell out with Bing, intendant of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she brought that genre to Oxenberg’s audience in 1958 with Bellini’s Il Pirata for its American debut. Overnight the AOS became New York’s principal purveyor of star operatic attractions, even, in February 1962 upstaging the Met with Sutherland’s debut in the city singing the eponymous role in Bellini’s long forgotten Beatrice di Tenda. Sutherland was later joined by emerging American mezzo Marilyn Horne, the two singing Rossini’s rarely heard Semiramide for the Society, after which Oxenberg sought a suitable role for Horne alone. She was in something of a vocal identity crisis, able to encompass much that was in the treble clef including soprano roles as well as the coloratura mezzo repertoire. He sought a suitable vehicle for her, the AOS and the ongoing bel canto revival. He settled on the soprano title role in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for performance on 20 April 1965 at Carnegie Hall. With all tickets sold, and only weeks to go, Horne hit problems with her advanced pregnancy and pulled out.

Oxenberg called in vain the only two divas known to be conversant with the idiom, Sutherland and Gencer, both of whom were fully committed. An agent, Bernard Delfont, suggested a Spanish soprano who he had recently heard in Figaro at Lausanne. Her name was Montserrat Caballé. She had been singing professionally for ten years and in diverse repertoire that even extended to the likes of Strauss’s thickly orchestrated Salome, hardly bel canto (see review). She was at home learning the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for Glyndebourne. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and she contacted a well-known conductor working in Barcelona who advised she sing it like Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. Caballé’s biographers (Robert Pullen and Stephen Taylor. Indigo 1996 pp,101 et seq) tell the raging success of the soprano’s performance, and its aftermath, in New York and around the operatic world in a chapter entitled A Trip to Stardom. Suffice to say Caballé went from an unknown to the front page, as well as the arts pages, of the next day’s New York papers. Bing asked her to name her price and what she wished to sing for her debut in the Met. She also later returned to the American Opera Society in a series of bel canto sequels.

As well as opera houses, the recording company RCA came along with a contract to record Lucrezia Borgia the following year during their annual recording sessions in Rome. The conductor was to be Jonel Perlea the same as at the New York concert performance. Alongside Caballé they cast the Canarian tenor Alfredo Krauss, a tenore di grazia of recognised vocal elegance, particularly in the bel canto repertoire. The cast also comprised the young American mezzo Shirley Verrett and regulars from the Met and Rome opera houses. The recording features as one of esteemed Opera Magazine’s Thirty all-time great recordings (August 2002). I would not quite put it that high if only for the reason that Caballé, in her recordings of other works and recital discs from the bel canto repertoire surpasses her standards here. However, what is evident beyond doubt is that the recording captures the soprano’s capacity for vocal beauty, smooth legato and elegant phrasing as well as exhibiting the sublime floated pianissimos for which she became renowned, and more regrettably, the lack of a trill that she never acquired. I also suspect that five years or so later, with the likes of Norma and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux firmly in her repertoire, she would have given her husband Alfonso a harder time in the act two confrontation as she reminds him of how many husbands she has already seen off (CD2 trs.3-5). Somewhat different from the New York performance are the inclusions of the cabaletta to Lucrezia’s Com’e bello (CD 1 trs.5-6) and the concluding rondo finale that Donizetti reluctantly wrote for the creator Méric-Lalande at her insistence (Ashton. Donizetti and his Operas. 1983 pp.348-357) as Lucrezia herself dies at the sight of her dead son (CD 2 tr.18).

Krauss sings with his usual vocal elegance and somewhat reedy tone bringing out the positive character of Gennaro in a manner that reflected Donizetti’s writing. Previously, as Ashton points out, the composer had more often than not failed in this respect, leaving his romantic tenors rather flaccid. This is certainly not the case here as heard in the trios of both acts between Alfonso, Lucrezia and Gennaro ((CD 1 trs.8-10 and CD 2 trs.5-7). Shirley Verrett sings strongly and reliably as Orsini, perhaps missing a little of the character’s vivacity in her Brindisi (CD 2 tr.12). Ezio Flagello sings strongly, but without much vocal individuality, as Alfonso. The unusual numbers, and more extensive writing than normal for the comprimario roles, are portrayed adequately if without particular distinction. Perlea on the rostrum deserves more credit than he often gets on record.

The recording has come up well from what I remember of the LPs and earlier CD versions. The sound is typical of the period with the voices clear and well forward but some lack of atmosphere and presence. The booklet has full cast-listing, a track-listing and related synopsis, all in English, French and German.

The range of Caballé’s recorded repertoire, and something of her background, can also be seen in my review, and that of a colleague, of collections from recital and opera recordings she made.

Robert J Farr