The name Ettore (originally Héctor) Panizza is not very
well known today, though he was held in high esteem seventy
and more years ago. Richard Strauss admired him deeply. He was
born in 1875 in Buenos Aires, where his father was a cellist
at the Teatro Colón. His father also became his first
teacher. He later went to Italy and the Milan Conservatory.
It was also in Italy that he commenced his conducting career.
Up to the beginning of the war he also appeared regularly at
Covent Garden. During and after the war he worked at La Scala,
until 1932 when he moved to the US. Between 1934 and 1942 he
was the principal conductor of the Italian repertoire at the
Metropolitan Opera, succeeding Tullio Serafin in that capacity.
The reason why he is largely forgotten is no doubt that he made
few if any commercial recordings. Fortunately there are a number
of live broadcasts from the Metropolitan that have been preserved,
among them a terrific Otello, from 1938 with Martinelli,
Tibbett and Elisabeth Rethberg (see review). The present L’elisir d’amore
may not be in that class but it has still many good things on
offer. Good sound is not one of those things but it isn’t
really bad either. The transfers by Ward Marston are from a
set of 5 double-faced 16 inch glass base lacquer-coated discs
taken off the air in Providence, Rhode Island. The sound is
rather aggressive, but it is a clean sound that lets us hear
a lot of instrumental detail. Orchestral tuttis tend to be hard
on the ear. The orchestra play well but the Metropolitan chorus
of this period was not always the most homogenous of bodies.
Panizza was no friend of leisurely tempos but he never rushes
the music and he is pliable towards the singers and allows them
space to inflect their solos.
Three Metropolitan mainstays and a fourth singer whose name
is little known are heard in the leading roles. Salvatore Baccaloni
(b. 1900) was widely regarded as one of the foremost buffo basses
of the 20th century. He had a magnificent voice and
immense comic talent but I believe that he should be seen as
well as heard to make real impact. He is expressive,
he knows how to colour the voice, his enunciation is impeccable,
he has that special sense for timing but - and this is a strong
‘but’: he often becomes a little too much, there
is too much business. He was, though, a great favourite at the
Metropolitan, where he appeared more than four hundred times
during more than twenty years. Francesco (Frank) Valentino (b.
1907) was not far behind, with close to three hundred performances
during twenty-one seasons. He was Marcello in Toscanini’s
famous 1946 recording of La bohème, but not a
particularly good one. His throaty tone and rather unsubtle
singing here has little of bel canto feeling, but I admit
that his brusque manners suit his character, sergeant Belcore.
The third mainstay is the Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão.
She was born in 1902, made her debut at the Metropolitan in
1937 and stayed there until 1952, taking part in well over two
hundred performances. She was granted an uncommonly long life,
passing away as recently as 1999. Ms Sayão was one of
the loveliest lyric sopranos of the era, testified not least
by this and other live broadcasts from the Metropolitan. Here
she is a youthful and sprightly Adina, nuanced and with apt
coloratura (try CD 2 tr. 16!). Even better are the duets with
Nemorino, where the two singers inspire each other to great
things. Nemorino, some readers say, that’s the odd man
out, isn’t it? Bruno Landi, never heard of him!
Well, the loss is definitely the listeners’. Here is a
tenore di grazia, nimble, nuanced, beautiful tone, honeyed delivery
but with brilliant top notes in reserve for the big moments.
Cesare Valletti on the old Cetra recording from 1952 is the
touchstone for many, Nicolai Gedda’s 1964 recording another,
and isolated recordings of the famous Una furtiva lagrima
by Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini and Leopold Simoneau are
versions to return to. Bruno Landi may not be quite in their
league but he is not far behind. Readers being tempted by my
panegyrics will feel disappointed when hearing the opening of
his entrance aria Quanto e bella (CD 1 tr. 4), where
he sounds small voiced and undernourished, but I suppose he
is entering backstage. After a few bars he is up front and can
be enjoyed in all his glory. Una furtiva (CD 2 tr.14)
is certainly delicious.
A few words about the singer. Landi was born in 1900, the same
year as Baccaloni. He made his debut in 1925, as the Duke in
Rigoletto, and sang for the next ten years in Italy.
In 1935 he went to South America, where he was immensely popular.
He returned to Italy and now sang at La Scala. In 1938 he made
his Metropolitan debut, again in Rigoletto, and remained
there until 1946, returning in 1951 for a single appearance
in Il barbiere di Siviglia. According to the Metropolitan
Opera Data Base he sang in 56 performances in a handful of operas.
Besides the two already mentioned he appeared in La bohème,
La traviata, Don Pasquale and L’Elisir d’amore.
There are a couple of other live recordings with him.
Let me, just for the record, point out that Giannetta is sung
by Mona Paulee, who had made her Metropolitan debut in this
same role a few weeks earlier and continued to sing cameo roles
until May 1946 in a total of 158 performances. Her biggest role
wasSiebelin Faust, which she sang only
once, probably as understudy for someone who had to cancel.
There is another ‘soloist’ as well, and a true legend:
Milton Cross, the announcer for the NBC broadcasts from the
very first one in 1931 until his death in 1975. During these
43 years he missed only two broadcasts!
Everybody needs at least a couple of good recordings of this
delectable opera. The Cetra set with Valletti, The Decca recording
with Di Stefano at his freshest, the EMI recording with Gedda,
a later Decca with Pavarotti and the Sony (originally CBS) with
Domingo. The present issue can’t compete on sonic grounds
and neither Valentino nor Baccaloni are ideal but Sayão
and Landi are. A flawed performance saved by the tenor and the