Anna Moffo (27 June 1932 – 9 March 2006) completed her studies at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship. This radiant-voiced lyric-coloratura soprano was propelled to stardom in Italy when she was unexpectedly asked to sing Cio-Cio San in a 1956 television broadcast. Her international career bloomed until a vocal crisis beginning in the late 1960s, and brought on by overwork, curtailed it prematurely. Moffo recorded a controversial Thais in 1974 and then in 1976 produced a final, creditable recording of Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re.
Following Sony/RCA’s failure to produce anything worthy to commemorate Anna Moffo’s death, this Gala issue constitutes a welcome, if rather incongruous, compilation of four disparate composers in Handel, Bellini, Verdi and Respighi.
Moffo is only in her mid-twenties in these live recordings, all made in Milan in the 1950s.
It is a lovely novelty to hear Messiah sung in mellifluous Italian which works rather well, although I wonder why it was thought appropriate to provide the complete work in which Moffo is only one of four equally prominent soloists whereas we are given only excerpts of La sonnambula in which Moffo is the star – perhaps it was the rarity value of the Messiah which motivated its inclusion in toto. Only two of the voices here are major: Moffo is touching and brilliant while Ivo Vinco, although authoritative and sonorous, is hardly fleet or flexible. The tenor occasionally indulges in some late Gigli-style sobs but he is fluent and musical. The alto is more than competent. The contribution of the chorus reminds me of the 1957 Barbirolli Dream of Gerontius with RAI forces; energetic, impassioned and forthright – apparently at home in the idiom. The sound is harsh and glaring; bass is lost and it’s rather wearing on the ear. There is also a lot of intrusive, percussive coughing.
The La sonnambula extracts and complete Falstaff are mono soundtracks of movies both made for TV in 1956 by Radiotelevisione Italiana. The Falstaff was telecast 9 May 1956 and both have been released on DVD. It’s a pity that from time to time, especially in the scene between Falstaff and Ford (“Signor Fontana”) at the end of CD 3, a fair amount of tape drag creates unpleasant pitch fluctuations. Drop-outs occur quite frequently and the sound becomes muffled, especially at the beginning of the ensemble when the women sing about Herne’s Oak in Act 3. Nonetheless, it is still very listenable, especially when the quality of execution is so high.
The extracts from La sonnambula comprise essentially Amina’s opening and closing arias and her extended duets with tenor Danilo Vega’s Elvino. He was previously unknown to me but he has a sweet, true tone, lovely legato and a little steel in the voice when required.
There are three stalwart Italian basses of the period in this compilation in Vinco, Calabrese and Clabassi and similarly three experienced and distinguished conductors: the veteran Serafin’s interpretation of Falstaff rivals that of Karajan made in the same year but is often more genial, affectionate and less sparkling – although he takes the opening of Act 3, recapping Falstaff’s humiliation in the laundry basket at a terrific lick. Bartoletti is sensitive and indulgent with his singers, Molinari-Pradelli wholly reliable.
The Falstaff is a classic performance in better sound than the 1949 Cetra recording conducted by Rossi. It also offers a stellar cast. Taddei is sharp and witty, if not as nuanced as Gobbi but he has firmer, stronger top notes and creates a fully rounded character. The cast has many similarities to, and three of the same singers in common with, Karajan’s famous studio recording headed by Gobbi. There are three classic accounts of Falstaff from the 1950s: Gobbi with Karajan, Valdengo with Toscanini and this one. The real Verdi enthusiast will want all three and perhaps add the recording conducted by Victor de Sabata from the same period, with the venerable Stabile as the most subtle of Falstaffs - despite being in his early 60s and not having a lot of voice left - and Tebaldi as Mistress Ford. Baritone Scipio Colombo was also unknown to me but he has a light, virile, attractive voice which contrasts well with Taddei’s fruitier tones. The three ladies who impersonate Alice, Meg and Mistress Quickly all have secure, refulgent voices and make the most of the quickfire dialogue. Amusingly, Rosanna Carteri, who retired very early, is barely older than Moffo even though she is playing her mother.
Moffo is lovely throughout although some will consider her scoops and slides to be persistent faults rather than stylistic choices. It would be futile to pretend that her characterisation of Amina is as telling as that of Callas but the security, purity and warmth of her tone are a joy. Her incarnation of Nanetta and Luigi Alva’s Fenton are very little different from the delightful performances familiar from the Karajan version.
As a bonus, we have a seven minute duet from Respighi’s La Fiamma. We first hear a little from the uncredited tenor Giacinto Prandelli, then some from Moffo but it is Mara Coleva who then takes centre-stage and sings Silvana with great power and intensity, often sounding uncannily like Magda Olivero. I am surprised by how Moffo, despite having an essentially lyric instrument, sings with abandon to produce a kind of thrilling, verismo heft to match Coleva; no wonder she wore out her voice comparatively early. The complete set is available, very reasonably on Opera d’Oro and is well worth investigating, despite the limited mono sound.
If you are a Moffo fan and tolerant of live, mono sound from the 1950s, you will welcome this issue despite its sonic shortcomings and eclectic content, especially as it is available at a bargain price.