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Francesco CILČA (1866 – 1950)
L’Arlesiana (1897)
Federico - Giuseppe Filianoti (tenor); Rosa Mamai - Iano Tamar (soprano); Vivetta - Mirella Bunoaica (soprano); L’innocente - Kyoung-Eun Lee (soprano); Marco - Jin Seok Lee (bass); Baldassare - Francesco Landolfi (baritone); Metifio - Juan Orozco (baritone)
Opernchor und Kinderchor des Theater Freiburg; Camerata Vocale Freiburg
Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg/Fabrice Bollon.
rec. Konzerthaus Freiburg, Rolf Böhme Saal, Freiburg, Germany, 12–17 July 2012. DDD
CPO 777 805-2 [61:41 + 44:16]

Cilča was doomed to be in the company of others like Mascagni, known as "one-opera-composers". That verdict is fair on neither man, but it has stuck and their other works are rarely performed. This opera, distinguished by the curious fact that the eponymous Arlésienne never makes an appearance, had the considerable advantage of having Enrico Caruso especially requested by the composer for its premiere; this after Caruso had sung Turiddu in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana in 1897, earlier the same year as the premiere of this opera. This in turn led to Caruso taking the leading role in 1902 in Cilča's most celebrated work Adriana Lecouvreur, for which Cilča is now chiefly remembered.
 
Despite its attractions, which include more tunes than is sometimes the case in verismo operas and three arias which have found their permanent place in the concert repertoire, L’arlesiana is not an opera which has received many recordings. Of the ten to date, eight are live and of variable artistic and technical quality. The tenor here, Giuseppe Filianoti made a live recording in 2007 under Eve Queler and the Vivetta there is Latonia Moore. That said, I am not encouraged by the presence of Marianne Cornetti as Rosa Mamai, although admittedly I have not heard it. The 2004 Bongiovanni live recording is certainly not as well cast.
 
The sole studio recording, made in Hungary in 1991 and conducted by Charles Rosekrans has been issued by EMI Classics; it isn’t bad but features a wobbly Rosa Mamai in Elena Zilio and an average Federico in Péter Kelen. Hence first choice for the discriminating collector hitherto has remained the earliest recording, under Arturo Basile, in what is apparently a Torino radio broadcast first issued on Cetra LPs. This has now been re-issued under the super-bargain Documents/Membran label in a 24 bit re-mastering and in very attractive package. Unfortunately, like this new one, it comes without a libretto. which indicate a recording date of 1951. However, a combination of my own ears and the fact that Gianna Galli, who sings Vivetta, was born in 1935 and, despite having commenced her professional career at a young age, was hardly likely to have been singing that role at sixteen years old, indicates that the recording was in fact made in 1955; this also explains why it seems to have been made in good, if narrow, stereo. Coincidentally, Galli managed Filianoti’s career, dying recently, in 2010.
 
That 1955 version has a starry cast: the famous "honey-voiced" Ferruccio Tagliavini, his then wife Pia Tassinari, and the under-recorded baritone Paolo Silveri, who recorded a number of excellent sets for Cetra in the 1950s. Silveri shows off his plangent top notes, even though he is supposed to be an elderly shepherd, and quite upstages the elderly-sounding bass who is the rival in love to the hero. Otherwise, the supporting cast is excellent. It includes the lovely silvery-voiced aforementioned soprano Gianna Galli and Loretta di Lelio (no less than Mrs Franco Corelli) as the supposedly handicapped child who recovers his wits.

Derived from concert performances, this CPO set is the first recording really to challenge the old Cetra favourite with a cast almost as good. Neither Tagliavini nor Filianoti brings to Federico the ideal combination of tenorial heft and delicacy which the role’s creator, Enrico Caruso was able to offer. I suspect that in the case of the former, his determined delicacy was a conscious artistic choice, whereas Filianoti is somewhat handicapped by a rather grainy, cloudy tone. He lacks the ringing top notes demanded at the climax of his celebrated aria, “Il lamento di Federico” and eschews the top B made so thrilling by the likes of Björling in recital albums. Nonetheless, he is a committed, intelligent artist whose timbre frequently reminds me of the American tenor Neil Shicoff; he sings the role convincingly within his vocal limitations. A point of interest in this recording is the inclusion in the Act III duet between Federico and Vivetta of an aria, “Una mattina”, discovered in the composer’s manuscript by the tenor singing it. Its orchestration was reconstructed by Mario Guido Scappucci and is pleasant enough in its lyrical, ecstatic manner but nothing very memorable and here slightly marred by a strained top A.
 
However, for me the vocal standout is Georgian Iano Tamar. Her dusky-coloured dramatic soprano falcon is ideally suited to a role which may be sung by any soprano with a gutsy lower register, yet her voice reminds me most of Agnes Baltsa. The aria “Esser una madre č un inferno” was famously recorded for Columbia in 1935 by just such a soprano in Claudia Muzio. Tamar matches both Muzio and Pia Tassinari for gorgeous tone and trenchant emotion. Apparently roles such as Eboli, Kundry, Elektra and Santuzza – a kind of younger Rosa Mamai – are all within her repertoire and one can hear why. I look forward to hearing her again, live or recorded.
 
Almost as good are baritone Francesca Landolfi and soprano Mirela Bunoaica. She has a plangent voice-type familiar to us in her compatriots Angela Gheorghiu and Ileana Cotrubas. His vibrant, flexible baritone always falls gratefully on the ear, even if he cannot bring to his opening aria “Come due tizzi accesi” the same expressive nuances given to it by Tito Gobbi in another famous account. Comparison with Simon Keenlyside’s much more recent recording are in the British baritone’s favour for sheer beauty of sound.
 
The supporting roles are more than adequately sung, although Kyoung-Eun Lee’s soprano is rather too fruity to depict a boy convincingly.
 
The Freiburg orchestra is warm and expressive although the extra freedom of Basile’s conducting gives the RAI recording the edge over Fabrice Bollon. Within a tightly constructed plot there is much lovely music here, from the tuneful overture, through the dramatic ensembles and showpiece arias, to the impassioned Intermezzo, to the thud of the bass drum as Federico hits the earth.
 
The recorded sound is excellent with almost no audience noise apart from a couple of stray coughs. It clearly benefits from the immediacy of the performance. I wonder that this work has not been successfully revived more often. This recording may not eclipse the vintage Basile account but it makes a strong case for a comparatively neglected work.
 
Ralph Moore