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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

An occasional series by Christopher Howell
 16. PIETRO ARGENTO (1909-1994)

All articles in this series

Some months ago, my colleague Jonathan Woolf reviewed a large box of recordings by the Italian violinist Aldo Ferraresi. This included the Elgar Concerto, fairly rare in Italy even today. The conductor was Pietro Argento and Jonathan described the conducting as “first class”. Argento is not one of those Italian conductors who crop up regularly, on old Cetra opera sets for example. Only one other hit shows up from a search of MusicWeb International, and that is my own reference to Argento’s conducting of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Rubinstein as the soloist. I suggested that Argento and the orchestra came close to scuppering the whole thing. Nevertheless, I had become “Argento-aware” over the years through various off-the-air tapes. A YouTube search turned up several more. Enough to make me want to look into this conductor more closely. I don’t think we’ll find a great conductor at the end of the trail, but we will encounter some interesting rarities along the way.

Since the Internet is really the sum of numerous personal initiatives, the presence or not of information about an artist is very much a question of chance. Argento’s native town of Gioia del Colle, now a municipality in the metropolitan area of Bari, has not forgotten him. Available on their site is a long article by Francesco Giannini from which you might get the idea he was one of the greatest conductors who ever lived. Another article, by Alfredo Giovine, at the Centro Studi Baresi and dated 1968, would seem to be the source for part of Giannini’s information. For the rest, one Italian dictionary I consulted (Dizionario degli Interpreti Musicali, TEA – UTET 1993) has a brief paragraph on him. As ever, this information is sometimes contradictory.

Pietro Argento was born in Gioia del Colle on 7 March 1909. His father played the flugelhorn in the local band and gave Pietro his first lessons. A scholarship enabled him to enrol in Naples Conservatoire in 1924. The scholarship was not wholly adequate, but Argento managed to reduce his costs by completing the course in seven years instead of ten. While in Naples, he studied composition with Cilea, as well as violin, oboe, piano, organ and conducting. Subsequently, he enrolled at Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he studied conducting with Bernardino Molinari.

Hereafter, my sources get sketchy on dates and appointments. He appears to have conducted a band in Noci (near Bari) in 1932-3 and made his debut with a full orchestra in Foggia in 1935. The TEA-UTET Dictionary states that he was permanent conductor of the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra. It gives no dates and the same dictionary, in its entry under this orchestra, makes no reference to Argento. However, it names no conductor at all for the period 1973-1978 so it is possible that Argento was their conductor for at least some of those years. Certainly, Argento conducted all four RAI orchestras frequently. His CV on a concert programme from 1952 described him as “one of the conductors of Italian Radio”. He appeared regularly in the seasons of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, then in the Teatro Argentina, from 1943 till at least the late 1950s and held a post with the Bari Symphony Orchestra. This was founded in 1968 and its first three conductors were Gabriele Ferro, Pietro Argento and Bruno Campanella – I have no exact dates for what seem to have been brief tenures.

A little more information is forthcoming on Argento’s appearances abroad. In 1943 he conducted in Bodenbach. From 1960, he was a regular visitor to the Soviet Union. On his second visit to Moscow, in 1962, he was invited to donate his baton. Together with a signed photograph, it is said to be still on display at Moscow Conservatoire. He also became the first western conductor to record with a Soviet orchestra. It would be interesting to know what he recorded, better still to hear it. On his third visit to the Soviet Union, in 1965 or 1966 (contradictory information), the authorities commissioned a bronze bust of him from the sculptor Lev Kerbel. A replica of this bust is displayed at the Teatro Rossini in Gioia del Colle. During this same Soviet tour, the Georgian audience at Tblisi called him “Nasc” (“Ours”), though it is not certain whether they were most impressed by his conducting or by his physical resemblance to Stalin. He gave two further concerts at the Bolshoi in 1968. Other countries mentioned are Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Egypt, Czechoslovakia and France, where he conducted the closing performance of the Champs Elysées season in 1965.

In Italy, he received a Gold Medal from President Segni in 1963. His curriculum vitae in 1952 stated that he had taught conducting at Cagliari, Bologna and Naples. According to the TEA-UTET dictionary, he taught at the Santa Cecilia Academy from 1952 and was named Accademico di Santa Cecilia in 1977.

Argento conducted the music for three films: “Tormenti d’Amore” (1956), “Addio Sogni di Gloria” (1957) and “I Cavalieri del Diavolo” (1959). He wrote a few books and studies on music, including one on Beethoven’s Symphonies (Studi critici estetici sulle Sinfonie di Beethoven, Cagliari 1948), and two on Neapolitan music and musicians from Puglia who contributed to it (Il Teatro Napoletano dalla fine del 1700 alla fine del 1800, Naples 1952 and I Puglesi esponenti della Musica Napoletana, Naples 1960). The title of his essay ‘La Musica è una cosa seria non seriale’ (“Music is a Serious not a Serial Matter”, Rome 1965), suggests that dodecaphony did not appeal to him. He left various compositions, including a Sinfonia Italiana in G minor. No further reference to Argento emerges between 1977 and his death on 15 January 1994. In 1998 an International Music Competition was instituted at Gioia del Colle in his name. In 2009 his native city commemorated the centenary of his birth by naming a street after him.

My sources state that Argento made recordings for RCA, Angelicum, Urania and Mercurium (do they mean Mercury?). One very curious disc, made with the “Rome Symphony Orchestra” and issued on a label called QUE, consisted of an orchestral suite from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. If this doesn’t sound very enticing, sweet little Oriental girls were thought to be a draw even back then. Billboard (13 May 1957), choosing it as “Cover of the Month”, tells the tale.

“Madame Butterfly” is personified – thanks to the beautiful shot of a Japanese lovely. Admirers of Japanese flavour will see their cup of tea in this dish. … One glance will show why Pinkerton returned. The model is Machiko Kyo, star of “Gate of Hell”, “Teahouse of the August Moon” and other internationally exhibited flicks.
Another disc in the same series, this time with the “Rome Festival Orchestra”, offered an orchestral suite from Tosca with a cover that offers a new slant on Joseph Kerman’s famous definition of the opera as a “shabby little shocker”. I have no information about the model in this case.

Of Argento’s official discs, I have heard a few of those made for the Angelicum label, so I will start my discussion here. LP collectors will occasionally have met the name of the Milan Angelicum, so I permit myself a digression.

The Angelicum – Symbol of a Milan that once was
When I came to Milan in 1975, the Angelicum was the Mecca of ex-pat Brits, Americans and others who struggled with the Italian language. It was also the Mecca of young Italians hoping to pick up a bit of English without having to work too hard. Every week, on Sunday afternoons and one weekday evening if I remember rightly, a film was shown in English, a recent one too. In particular, I remember seeing there Barry Lyndon, Passage to India and, more memorable than either, A Dry White Season.

The Angelicum’s success was maybe its undoing. Others got the idea. One cinema had an English film three evenings a week. Unburdened by the religious organization underlying the Angelicum, they could put on things like Last Tango in Paris without embarrassment. Then came the age of home video, allowing Italian viewers to go back and forth at will over the difficult bits. At one time, Milan had three video stores dedicated to the sale and rental of English-languages videos only. Then came DVD with language options and subtitles if you wanted them. Later still came YouTube and downloading.

I’m not sure when the Angelicum stopped screening English-language films. I daresay many others like me gradually stopped going and simply realized, sometime in the mid-nineties, that it had closed. The trouble is, the English-language films were the money-raisers for a wider cultural programme. In particular, the Angelicum had a small orchestra playing weekly concerts. Another early Milanese memory is of hearing a concert there with ever so many Bach keyboard concertos end to end. I don’t remember who played or conducted but I do recall some solid, unexceptional musicianship. I also noted a certain vibrancy to the string tone that the smoother British equivalent orchestras didn’t have.

So what was the Angelicum and what happened to it?

If you look at an aerial map of Milan, you find that the Church of Saint Angelo, which fronts on Piazza Sant’Angelo, has a religious complex of some size at its rear, placed around an oblong cloister. None of this is visible from the street or much known by the public. In 1939 Father Enrico Zucca had the Angelicum built beside the church, a large building in plain brick. This created a square too small for proper appreciation of the Church’s baroque façade which once, as the old print above shows, dominated the surrounding space. In today’s piazza, the high buildings surrounding it and the tall trees within it let in the rain while keeping out the sun. Surfing around on the internet for a suitable photo, I realized that this snap of my own, taken around 1987, tells a truth that my photographic skills would never have achieved if I had actually tried. The bright sun on the white buildings opposite fails to penetrate the grey cobbles, while the trees dwarf the figure of St. Francis hunched over the fountain, preaching to the birds, scarcely noticeable until someone points him out to you. And lastly – an almost Magritte-like touch – the street lamps appear to be lit in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. This, then is the scene that greeted the countless ex-pat Brits and Americans and young Italians thirsty for foreign culture as they queued up outside the Angelicum.

For, if the Angelicum was no great success architecturally, Father Zucca had an ambitious and enlightened cultural programme embracing all aspects of the arts. The Orchestra da Camera dell’Angelicum was established in 1940. Its first conductor was Ennio Gerelli, who remained till 1959 (some sources give a different date). Initially, all the players were women. I don’t know how long that lasted.

For a number of years, too, the Angelicum operated its own record label. The first issues, in 1952, were Historia Divitis (LPA 5901) and Diluvium Universale by Carissimi (LPA 5902). The soloist included the tenor Herbert Handt and the Angelicum Choir was trained by Ruggero Maghini, famed for his work with the RAI Chorus of Turin. The conductors were, respectively, Umberto Cattini and Ennio Gerelli. A 1959 catalogue shows the existence of a considerable repertoire based principally on the exploration of Italian choral and instrumental music of the baroque and classical periods. Gerelli himself actually conducted few of the recordings. Outstanding among Italian conductors were Bruno Maderna and Carlo Zecchi. Others included Carlo Felice Cillario, Carlo Franci, Aladar Janes, Francesco Mander, Ennio Porrino and Luciano Rosada. A few foreign guests included Edmond de Stoutz and Ernst Maerzendorfer. Particularly interesting were Manuel Rosenthal conducting Albinoni and Durante and Fabien Sevitzky, nephew of Koussevitzky, conducting Haydn’s 95th Symphony and L’Isola Disabitata overture.

During the 1960s the catalogue expanded to embrace a series of oratorios by Lorenzo Perosi. Franco Caracciolo and Carlo Felice Cillario were among the conductors and one had a solo from the young Mirella Freni. If this sounds like a return to the Angelicum’s religious roots, there were also at least two operas. In 1958 Silvio De Florian set down Zandonai’s L’Uccellino d’oro and ten years later Lovro von Matacic, no less, conducted Ugo Bottacchiari’s L’Ombra. These did not come out on the Angelicum label, they simply engaged the Angelicum forces.

Gerelli was succeeded by Umberto Cattini (1959-1960), Riccardo Allorto (1960-1968), Bruno Martinotti (1968-1973), a triumvirate of Riccardo Allorto, Angelo Ephrikian and Vittorio Parisi (1973-1977), Guido Turchi (1977-1989) and Marc Andreae (1990-1993). An examination of these names shows an Italian tendency to express conflicting trends within a structure by quietly pressing appointments that run against the official line. Martinotti and Turchi were composers in the contemporary mould and principally interested in the contemporary repertoire. Most revealing of all was the appointment of Marc Andreae. Grandson of Bruckner pioneer Volkmar Andreae, Marc Andreae had just completed a 20-year stint with the Radio Svizzera-Italiana Orchestra of Lugano and is the one name on the list with a real international reputation. It is as though somebody, in the face of the gradual winding-down of the Angelicum activities, deliberately set in motion a countertrend aimed at increasing the orchestra’s prestige worldwide.

For winding down it was. Father Zucca had died in 1979 after a long illness. Maybe not everyone around him had agreed with his cultural project. Certainly there had been an element of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” about his open-door policy towards the secular world. And join ’em he did. Rich and poor (especially the former), politicians, financiers, secret services … Wherever you turn among the occult mysteries of modern Italian history, from the theft of Mussolini’s corpse to the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, Father Zucca is in there somewhere. A lot of it sounds wildly improbable, but that can be said about most Italian post-war history.

Whatever, and with the loss of income from the English-language films clearly a factor, the Angelicum Orchestra was disbanded in 1993. A new orchestra, “Milano Classica” was founded in the same year by ex-members of the Angelicum Orchestra and it plays in a restructured art-nouveau building, “Palazzino Liberty”, in another part of the city. The Angelicum auditorium remains as a host structure if someone wants to book it, and the Angelicum has no cultural presence now in the city. On the other hand, it is the centre of “Mondo X”, an organization that does a lot of work to rehabilitate drug addicts, and some might feel that is more the sort of work a church should be doing.

I should maybe state that my list of conductors of the Angelicum comes from Dizionario degli Interpreti Musicali (TEA – UTET 1993). It doesn’t entirely match other information I’ve seen around but alternative lists are so confused as to suggest that a clutch of guest appearances and a few recordings have been interpreted as an actual appointment. I’ve seen claims that Antonio Janigro led the orchestra, but with no dates, and I’ve seen claimed appointments for Carlo Felice Cillario, Luciano Chailly and Gianfranco Rivoli that their biographies don’t substantiate.

Argento’s contribution to the Angelicum recording programme consisted of works by Cambini and G.B. Martini, which I’ve heard, and by Buccioni, Gianella, Gianfrancesco Giuliani and Zavateri, other Italian composers of the 18th century, which I haven’t. He also set down a suite from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.

Giovanni Giuseppe Cambini (1746-1825) does not seem on this showing much more than an agreeable sub-Mozartian small-talker. The two movements of the Sinfonia Concertante no.1 in F are strangely undifferentiated. Argento takes leisurely but well-sprung tempi, nicely phrased and making the most of such piano/forte contrasts as are available. Modern listeners will note, and maybe regret, the absence of a harpsichord continuo, but textures are light enough for this not to be too serious. The soloists are Aldo Redditi (violin) and Roberto Caruana (cello). Neither is immaculate but on the whole the composer is as well served as he deserves (LPA 978).

From Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784) we have a Sinfonia Concertante per violin e cembalo obbligato, with Aldo Redditi (violin) and Gianfranco Spinelli (harpsichord) and a Concertino con cembalo e violoncello obbligato with Gianfranco Spinelli (harpsichord) and Roberto Caruana (cello) (LPA 978). Again, Argento confirms a preference for leisurely tempi in this repertoire, nicely poised and observant over dynamic contrasts. All very agreeable. The music says little but it’s difficult to feel Argento has omitted anything that might have helped. At the end of the second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante, where Martini produces something vaguely approaching poetry, Argento does not sell us short.
Accompanying Soloists
When a conductor is little-remembered, his presence in the world of bootleg recordings, blogs and YouTube channels tends to be a default one – as accompanist for distinguished soloists or conductor of music outside the normal repertoire. We’ll start with the former.

One lesser known pianist is perhaps present on YouTube at her own initiative. This is Maria Elisa Tozzi, with an undated performance of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D in which Argento conducts the Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli della RAI.

Maria Elisa Tozzi was born in Rome on a date that no internet information is so ungentlemanly as to divulge. She studied with Carlo Zecchi and later assisted him in his teaching courses. Her curriculum tells us she has given over a thousand concerts in 53 countries. Her Wikipedia entry adds that she was the first Italian pianist to perform Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, in 1963 under Armando La Rosa Parodi. Usefully, if less momentously, she was the first Italian to play the Third Concerto by Moscheles, with Franco Caracciolo. This can be found on the internet. In 1965 she was one of the pianists in a Roman performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces under Pierre Boulez. She appears to be still performing, though much of her career has been dedicated to teaching. She taught at the Santa Cecilia Academy of Rome from 1973 to 1994, for example. She has, moreover, developed a long-standing musical relationship with the composer Helmut Laberer, many of whose works she has performed.

It might seem a penny-in-the-slot reaction to compare an Italian female pianist of this generation with Maria Tipo, but she gives the Haydn concerto the sort of vital, musical and stylish performance one associates with Tipo in this repertoire. Some interesting things happen in the cadenzas. Haydn provided his own, but Tozzi expands and varies them to good effect. Argento obtains lively and clear-textured playing from the Naples orchestra, so this is a fully enjoyable performance.

More enjoyable, I suggest, than a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.4, K218, given on 21 February 1958 by Christian Ferras, again with the Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli della RAI. Argento starts off nicely, but it’s difficult to judge his Mozartian credentials from this. Ferras was never highly regarded in 18th century repertoire and he inserts some ungainly slides as well as drifting occasionally into a slower tempo. The central movement has a certain poise, though both artists agree to play at a steady mezzo forte all through. Possibly the dynamic indications in the Breitkopf score I followed are editorial accretions. Even so, Mozart presumably didn’t want it to sound all the same. The finale is cleaner in style from Ferras, but it’s a bit joyless from all concerned.

As I indicated at the beginning, I have had an off-the-air sound recording of the performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, given by Artur Rubinstein on 17 May1968 with the Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra, for a long time and wasn’t very impressed. I now find that a video version is available on YouTube. Does it seem any better for the experience? Well, I’m afraid it does seem to mark a low point in Argento’s career. The humdrum first statement by the wind band of the second theme in the first movement doesn’t get any better with repetition, and there’s no getting away from the fact that Rubinstein then enters and plays the theme at a totally different tempo.

However, since a number of normally competent conductors apparently clammed up when conducting for Rubinstein, perhaps a reminiscence of mine can throw light on what tended to happen. In 1974 or 1975, Rubinstein played a Chopin Concerto and Saint-Saëns 2 at a concert during the Scottish National Orchestra season. The conductor was Alexander Gibson, who has surely proved extensively that he was a safe if not always inspired accompanist. A member of the orchestra told me that Rubinstein shunted Gibson onto the sidelines at the rehearsals and rehearsed the orchestra himself. At the concert, Gibson followed politely. I suppose this was Rubinstein’s habit with conductors who were in no position to do anything about it – surely no one could have shunted Fritz Reiner onto the sidelines and lived to tell the tale! It’s not really the ideal way to inspire confidence in all concerned. But, if Rubinstein himself had taken control of the rehearsals, perhaps he had actually wanted this theme to sound brisk and prosaic, so that he could then enter and show how beautifully he could play it.

What he could not have wanted was that the wind, around 7:30 of this same movement, should enter a bar early, creating some strange harmonies and not getting straightened out till several bars later. Since the camera is entirely trained on Rubinstein at that point, it is not possible to say whether Argento miscued the orchestra, whether he made some nervous gesture that the orchestra thought was their cue, or whether the players miscounted and entered on their own initiative. There are a few other queasy moments. On the other hand, the flute launches the second movement very nicely and it is by no means all a write-off. Rubinstein is often splashy but shapes the lyrical moments beautifully and sets up a splendid rhythm in the finale. The video also conserves his two encores – beginning with a Chopin Second Scherzo rather more cavalier over dynamics than his studio recording and with some spectacular fluffs, but with the Rubinstein grand manner intact. Then follows the Falla Ritual Fire Dance. At a couple of points Rubinstein’s hands fly up and down like a parody of a parody by Morecambe and Wise. Outrageous show-biz – an old man’s equivalent of a young girl playing in a tiny red dress and six-inch heels, really – but it’s hugely exciting and the audience love it.

Italian cameramen have a nice way of homing in for a few seconds on amusing irrelevances. During the Chopin scherzo we see a couple of orchestral musicians exchanging smirks over a particularly spectacular handful of wrong notes. Best of all, two young ladies are seen at the end applauding half-heartedly, all the while chewing gum with their mouths wide open. Assuming they are still alive – they would be around seventy now, I guess – I wonder if their grandchildren have seen it?

Click to enlarge

Before leaving the Rubinstein episode, it should be noted that Argento had accompanied Rubinstein at least twice before. The first occasion was at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, on 23 November 1952. Rubinstein played Chopin’s Second Concerto and Liszt’s First. The programme began with Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict overture and the cellist Luigi Chiarappa played two pieces by the contemporary Italian composer Dante D’Ambrosi. The other occasion was less than a month before the Turin concert, on 30 April 1966 in Palermo, with the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana. Rubinstein played Franck’s Variations Symphoniques and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. The orchestra began with Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino Overture and, rather enterprisingly, Morton Gould’s Two Spirituals. We must suppose that Rubinstein had fairly happy memories of the 1952 concert, otherwise why on earth should he have accepted two engagements with the same conductor fourteen years later?

Another live performance of the Tchaikovsky, dating from 23 May 1962, has enjoyed a bootleg issue. Here, Argento accompanies Van Cliburn and conducts the Radio Svizzera-Italiana Orchestra of Lugano. There are no mishaps, although Argento introduces the second theme of the first movement just as prosaically as he did for Rubinstein. For the rest, I’ve never really got onto the Van Cliburn wavelength. Most of this is good enough, with occasional lunges of bloated emotion that verge on overkill. Rubinstein has better rhythm in the finale.

Logically, the conductor who muffed some important cues in the Tchaikovsky should have been unhorsed at every twist and turn of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. This was performed by Aldo Ferraresi and the Turin RAI Symphony orchestra on 22 March 1966. Happily, all was well, and more than well. Test the opening orchestral section for Argento’s understanding of the idiom. All the shifts of mood and tempo are unfailingly charted. Ferraresi, too, is properly free with all the rallentandos and tenutos, and Argento keeps with him well.

This is one of the swiftest preserved performances of this work. While expansion is allowed where it is specifically called for, both Ferraresi and Argento are particularly strong on the elements of swagger and ebullience. This allows the inward moments to emerge properly without undue holding back. Only the main theme of the slow movement seems to lack the repose that some bring to it. When Ferraresi enters, it is clear that this is his tempo, not just Argento’s. Overall, however, this movement is finely shaped. Note how beautifully Argento handles the orchestral passage at fig. 59. I wonder if he ever directed any of the purely orchestral works for RAI.

If the Rubinstein concert was a low point in Argento’s career, he must surely have been proud of both the Elgar and the concert of 13 November 1964, also with the Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra, in which he accompanied Mstslav Rostropovich in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto and Britten’s Cello Symphony.

The review of this concert by Andrea Della Corte (La Stampa, 14.11.1964) referred to “novelties” by Britten and Shostakovich. The Britten, premiered by Rostropovich and Britten in Moscow on 12 March 1964 and heard by the same performers at the Aldeburgh Festival on 18 June 1964, was obviously the Italian premiere. The Shostakovich had its premiere by Rostropovich and Mravinsky on 4 October 1959. One supposes it had reached Italy in the intervening years, but maybe not. During 1960 it was heard in both London and Edinburgh by Rostropovich and the visiting Leningrad Philharmonic under Rozhdestvensky. In 1961 it was recorded by BBC television with Charles Groves conducting the LSO. This has been issued by Medici.

In London in 1961, Rostropovich benefited from the fail-safe LSO and the ever-musicianly Charles Groves. The result lends a certain neo-classical order to the proceedings. In Turin, nothing goes seriously wrong except for a few blips from the horn and a certain raucousness possibly approximates more to our idea of what a Russian orchestra sounds like. I realize this is not the result of special stylistic awareness by the conductor, the orchestra would have sounded much the same if Groves had been conducting them. I do find, though, a certain extra tension in the Turin performance, which is very slightly faster overall. There is a sense of the orchestra sharing the soloist’s manic drive. At the other end of the scale, Argento extracts some exceptionally hushed pianissimos from the strings in the slow movement – not something that can be taken for granted either from this orchestra or from this conductor. No doubt Rostropovich’s best Shostakovich 1 is to be sought elsewhere, but his Turin audience got a good deal.

Perhaps I should preface my discussion of the performance of Britten’s Cello Symphony by declaring a lack of interest verging on indifference. Britten’s work post-Peter Grimes leaves me pretty cold at best. What follows should be read in this light.

I prepared myself by listening to the Moscow premiere in which Rostropovich was conducted by Britten himself. I have not heard the celebrated recording that Rostropovich and Britten set down shortly after the British premiere. I have read that Rostropovich wrote to Britten, on receiving the final copies of the discs, that he “could have wept”, because he had played the work many times since and could now have played it so much better. Just where this Italian performance fits into that scheme is not clear. Presumably, during the year or so after that Moscow premiere, Rostropovich gave French, German and American premieres at the very least. It would interesting to hear them. It is strange that such a prolific recorder did not return to the piece later.

Be all that as it may, the Russian performance did not create a pleasant or even involving impression. The Italian performance engaged me far more. It seems to me that the premiere performance, maybe from excessive concern that everything should be right, resulted in a sort of democratic equality of incident that is ultimately counter-productive and laboured. The musical discourse in Italy seems far more fluid, there is more sense of an overall shape. Rather than suggest that Argento had the key to the piece that eluded the composer himself, I suggest that Rostropovich himself had acquired greater familiarity with the music in the meantime, could relax more without striving to prove every single point. All the same, part of the overall structuring, seeing the wood as well as the trees, must surely stem from Argento. And I love the jazzy, parodistic way the Turin trumpeter – even with a cracked note – introduces the last movement. This sounds heavy and bombastic in Moscow. I suppose the composer didn’t actually want it jazzy, but this final movement, which inadvertently (or not?) borrows largely from the “they all ran after the carving-knife” part of Three Blind Mice did not please all of Britten’s admirers and here it makes sense.

But let me point out again that these comparisons are with the Moscow premiere not with the Decca recording, which may well be quite different.

British Music
The Elgar and Britten performances serve to introduce the fact that Pietro Argento, Soviet traveller and Stalin look-alike, showed more sympathy for British music than Italian musicians normally do even today, let alone back then.

More of a curiosity than anything else is a Suite in G by Thomas Augustine Arne, played on 30 June 1964 by the harpsichordist Mariolina De Robertis and the Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli della RAI. This puzzler (there is no such piece in Arne’s worklist) turns out to be four movements from the composer’s 8 Sonatas for harpsichord. To be precise, they’re I/2, V/2, III/3 and VII/1, thickened up a bit and with the phrases tossed about between harpsichord and orchestra. All transposed to the common key of G. It would be interesting to know who did it. It’s not unattractive but on the whole I’d rather have less or more. That is, either real thing, with just the harpsichord, or else an outrageous Stokowskification that transforms it into something sui generis.

Mariolina De Robertis has a record of the Goldbergs in the catalogue, but is particularly known for encouraging new repertoire for the instrument. Composers such as Sciarrino, Donatoni and Aldo Clementi have written works for her. An exaggeratedly rococo, heavily bewigged grace informs the proceedings here, the result of heavy registrations and rather more strings than necessary.

Rather more interesting is a performance of the Serenade op.12 by Lennox Berkeley. This was played by the Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli della RAI on 31 July 1960.

I know this piece from Berkeley’s own Lyrita recording and supposed it to be a slightly drab work. Here it proves not to be. Perhaps it is just the difference between a real conductor and a composer who I recall saying in an interview that conducting was something he could “just about manage”. Quite likely, a comparison between Berkeley and any other professional conductor would go the same way. Whatever, under Argento, the music is twice as eventful. In the fast movements there is a sense of relish in the harmony changes and the off-beat accents, the second movement is played con amore and the last has a fine intensity.

I have no date for the performance of Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto, in which Argento and the Naples Alessandro Scarlatti orchestra accompanied Sheila Hodgkinson. The sole Google hit for this oboist reveals that she played the cor anglais part in a Telemann concerto in Naples in 1963, joining forces with such better-known names as Conrad Klemm (flute) and Luigi Alberto Bianchi (viola). Maybe the Vaughan Williams belongs to about the same time. The impression is of a career that failed to take off, but if any reader knows better I would be delighted to add a corrective footnote.

I grew up with the 1952 Leon Goossens/Philharmonia/Walter Susskind recording of this work and, perhaps unfairly, refreshed my memory before listening to the Naples performance. It would be idle to claim that Hodgkinson has quite the fluent ease with which Goossens tosses of the roulades as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Nor does she have quite the range of sweet tone, particularly in the extreme upper range, that Goossens commanded. Here, though, we are up against the conundrum that, the more celebrated the player, the better the instrument he/she can afford. It would be grossly unfair, moreover, to suggest that Hodgkinson was not fully in command of what she was doing. Indeed, for a live performance before a public likely to be suspicious of Vaughan Williams, it’s a highly confident affair. It would be idle, too, to claim that the Naples orchestra, which was probably playing the piece for the first time, has the same refinement and natural euphony as the Philharmonia strings at their early peak.

However, it doesn’t all go Goossens’s/Susskind’s way. My reaction to this concerto, over the years, has been a certain puzzlement as to why I am not enjoying such obviously lovely music as much as I ought to be. The all-enveloping warmth that takes over about two minutes from the end rather gives the game away – up till then Vaughan Williams himself has been going off at half-cock. I realize now that sheer ease of execution is a double-edged weapon, especially with a conductor like Susskind whose bland suavity sweeps any hint of emotion under the carpet. His conducting was not ever thus – was he afraid to teach Brits how to play their own music? Hodgkinson is a shade tougher and Argento prizes some counterpoint out of the texture as opposed to a generalized cushion. As a result, the music babbles less of green fields and speaks more of the real world. The corollary is that, in those last two minutes, the same sudden illumination doesn’t arrive – it seems too easy a solution. You can’t win ’em all, I suppose. Maybe my ideal performance would be somewhere else again. Meanwhile I’m rather fond of this Naples one.

Two rare Italians
I know only two recordings of Argento conducting the rarer Italian orchestral repertoire, but they are both very interesting.

Ennio Porrino’s Preludio in modo religioso e Ostinato (1942) has been put up on YouTube without information about either the orchestra – presumably a RAI one – or the date.

Ennio Porrino was born in Cagliari, Sardinia, in 1910 and died in Rome in 1959. Among his teachers was Respighi and his symphonic poem Sardegna (1932) achieved a certain success in its day – Stokowski gave it at the Carnegie Hall in 1949. Fascist Italy was in full sway by 1932 and a degree of lip-service to the regime was probably unavoidable unless you went into voluntary exile. However, writing the Marcia del Volontario as the national anthem of Mussolini’s short-lived “Repubblica di Salò” would seem to go beyond just grinning and bearing it. Evidently others thought so too, after the war. Most of his colleagues wriggled out of their embarrassing associations easily enough – many of them “discovered” that they had really been communists all along. Porrino was shunted into the position of substitute librarian to Naples Conservatoire and his career took a little time to recover. By 1951, however, he was teaching at Rome Conservatoire and he became director of the Conservatoire of his native Cagliari in 1956. An international competition bearing his name was instituted in Cagliari in 1981.

Porrino was strongly influenced by the folklore of Sardinia and the Nuraghe – the mysterious ancient stone constructions testifying to a prehistoric population of which little is known. His masterpiece is said to be his last work, the opera I Shardana. It was first produced at the Teatro San Carlo of Naples just six months before Porrino’s early death. A new production was seen in Cagliari in 2013.

The Italian Wikipedia entry gives a fairly long list of Porrino’s compositions. It is nevertheless at least partially incomplete since the Preludio in modo religioso e Ostinato is missing. It exists both as a piano solo and in the orchestral version played by Argento.

The English Wikipedia entry on Porrino – which is completely different from the Italian one – states that, according to Casella, he became one of Respighi's disciples, championing an Italian national music movement and openly opposing composers such as Casella, Dallapiccola, and Malipiero for their Modernist music. This does not really tally with what we hear in this piece which, while melodic, has a certain harmonic abrasiveness and sturdiness of outlook that seem closer to Casella himself than to any other Italian composer working at that time. The opening evokes hieratic mystery and it builds up passionately. The Ostinato is launched over a sort of boogie-woogie piano that does not entirely dispel the air of ancient mystery. A curiously impressive 2-movement piece lasting 13:42 in this performance. Argento obtains strongly committed playing.

Of at least equal significance is the Introduzione, Passacaglia e Finale (1934) by Giovanni Salviucci. This was given on 13 November 1964 by the Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra. It was the opening work in the Rostropovich concert already discussed.
Salviucci was born in Rome in 1907. His studies at the Santa Cecilia Academy, with Ernesto Boezi, concentrated on ancient polyphony, but after taking his diploma he had lessons from Respighi, resulting in a spate of symphonic poems and suites with titles such as Samarith, Saul, Campagna Romana, Serena and La Tentazione e la Preghiera. Next he came under Casella and, starting with the Chamber Symphony for 17 Instruments of 1933, began a series of works that embraced a more modernist outlook. In 1937, when not yet thirty, he was struck down by an incurable disease, having completed only the introduction to what was intended as his first opera.

Only three days after his death, Nino Sanzogno conducted the first performance of the Serenade for Nine Instruments at the Venice Festival. Other distinguished Italian conductors took up the cause over the years – Caracciolo, Previtali, Gavazzeni and Giulini. The latter may raise eyebrows, but in his earlier years as conductor of the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra he did his fair share of modern Italian music. What may come as a surprise is that, as late as 14 March 1982, he conducted a performance of the Introduzione, Passacaglia e Finale in Los Angeles.

It’s easy to make up myths about artists who died young. To tell the truth, any Salviucci myth has passed the average Italian music lover by, but those who delve deeper maintain that, had he lived, he would have been a major force in Italian music, one to rival his slightly older contemporaries Petrassi and Dallapiccola. On the strength of this triptych – though maybe “Introduction, Passacaglia, Finale and Epilogue” might have been a better name – Salviucci could well have been the real thing. I was impressed by a general experience rather than memorable themes, but this often happens with this sort of music and, even at first hearing, I was struck by the grave beauty of the last part of the Passacaglia and the Epilogue. We complain about neglected Brits, but if Salviucci had been British, I think we would have had his handful of mature works set down by Lyrita in the 1970s and again by Chandos in the 1990s.

It will not surprise us that Giulini takes about a minute and a half longer than Argento – 16:15 compared with 14:41. But the differences are evenly distributed between the movements and going back and forth between them one does not notice particularly that one is faster than the other. The difference may amount more to the richer body of sound offered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the warmer acoustic of their hall. In terms of interpretation, the two conductors differ remarkably little – one might almost be listening to the same conductor reacting to different orchestras. What cannot be doubted is that the American orchestra has some better players. The brazen horn playing near the start of the Finale can be enjoyed for its own sake – the Turin player is just about coping. During the epilogue there is a clarinet entry whose dulcet tones in Los Angeles are memorable in themselves, while the timbre in Turin is more homespun. All the same, Argento gives an excellent idea of the piece and insists on a wide dynamic range from the orchestra – in this he is not second to Giulini. Nevertheless, the label “great” didn’t get attached to Giulini by accident and there is a degree of extra tension overall in his performance. Quite enough to make one regret that he did not explore this repertoire more in his later years – or at least set this piece down officially – instead of repeating the same pieces again and again, slower and slower.

Mostly rare operas
In its heyday as a cultural force, RAI covered an enormous range of rare operas, particularly Italian but not exclusively so. In some cases these versions, most of which circulate on YouTube, some sounding better than others, remain the only ones.

This is not quite true of any of the operas I am about to discuss except Di Cagno’s Maremma. In most cases, though, these versions still offer strong challenges to anything that has come since.

Pietro Mascagni’s Silvano was given on 23 October 1973 with Gianni Iaia (Silvano), Giovanni Ciminelli (Renzo), Renata Mattioli (Matilde), Lucia Danieli (Rosa) and the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra.

Silvano, a “Drama of the Sea in Two Acts”, was completed in 1895. It was Mascagni’s fifth opera, coming between Guglielmo Ratcliff, and Zanetto. Silvano and Zanetto both represent a move towards shorter operas – Silvano lasts about 80 minutes – based on gentle poetic atmosphere more than story or drama. Silvano is a tale of love, jealousy and passion, at the end of which Silvano shoots his rival Renzo. But if we do not appreciate it first and foremost as an opera dominated by the sea, we will lose sight of its real poetic nature. The sea of Silvano is neither a place of romantic adventure or of elemental power. It gently washes the shore at the beginning of each act. Still, mysterious, timeless, it is more the sea of a Japanese print. It dwarfs and envelops the characters, who act against its backdrop a tale of inadequacy rather than outright nastiness. The seal on this poetical sheen is nevertheless placed by Mascagni’s fecund inspiration, which produces one gorgeous melody after another. If you don’t care for what is happening on stage you can just shut your eyes and listen to a sort of Italianate Rachmaninov symphony with voices. Strange that Mascagni, not usually a modest man, thought little of it in later years. This opera – which lasts 84:50 in this performance – might make a good theatre companion for another short sea-dominated opera, Vaughan Williams’s “Riders to the Sea”, just because it’s so totally different.

The singers are a typical RAI cast, little known to those who do not listen to old RAI performances. Best known, perhaps, is the one who has least to do, Lucia Danieli (1927-2005) who sings Silvano’s mother Rosa and who sang Suzuki in the Callas/Karajan “Butterfly”. She certainly has a big, strong voice and a powerful delivery.

Working backwards in order of importance in the opera, Giovanni Ciminelli (1929-2002), who sings Silvano’s rival Renzo, is known to me from a RAI recording of Spontini’s “Milton”. He is said to have been a fine Scarpia. To judge from his rough-hewn, but well-sung, portrayal of Renzo, I should imagine Scarpia was just up his street.

All I can find out about Renata Mattioli, who sings Matilde, is that she sang in a fair number of RAI productions in the 50s and 60s, including a “Guglielmo Ratcliff” under Parodi. She was still active as a competition adjudicator until at least fairly recently. She has a nice voice and is only occasionally pushed excessively by Mascagni’s verismo demands. By the side of Danieli and Ciminelli, the voice seems on the small side, but since she is a weak creature, blown by the winds of the moment, this is not a fatal flaw.

Gianni Iaia (1924-2011) surfaces from time to time in a 1956 performance of Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell under Mario Rossi, where Tell was taken by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. From Rossini to verismo may seem a big step. Or maybe not. At the première of the opera, at La Scala in 1895, the part of Silvano was taken by Fernando De Lucia, a Rossinian tenore di grazia turned verista. So operas of this type were not originally sung automatically on full throttle. For much of the time, Iaia resolves Mascagni’s high-lying lines with musicality and a degree of sweetness. That he is sometimes pushed beyond his limits may mean that he was not quite such a supreme example of the voice-type as De Lucia presumably was, rather than that the voice-type in itself is wrong. He is also somewhat weak in the middle-range, which means his dramatic exchanges with Renzo and Rosa are underpowered on his side. On the other hand, his scenes with Matilde go very well. His set-piece aria “Spento è il sol”” – sometimes excerpted – is a normal tenorial performance in the first part. In the second part, Argento draws playing of hushed poetry from the orchestra, to which Iaia responds. In a generally observant performance, dynamics-wise, it is noticeable that Iaia sings his final phrases at the end of the scene with his mother forte, rather than the written piano. The orchestra follows suit. Frankly, I do not see how such a vocal line could be sung piano, except using falsetto, and I cannot imagine it would be effective in that way. I discuss below certain other departures from the vocal score which may not be purely arbitrary decisions by the conductor. All things considered, then, Iaia gives a good but not supreme assumption.

One of Argento’s earliest RAI assignments, in 1954, was a performance of this same opera, also in Milan. The singers were Renata Heredia Capnist (Matilde), Aldo Bertocci (Silvano), Filippo Maero (Renzo) and Vittoria Palombini (Rosa). This version was once available on LP, possibly in cut form, but I have not heard it.

Presumably, Argento remains the only conductor to have performed this opera on two separate occasions. His experience pays off in his delicate, flexible unfolding of the orchestral colours. His gentle rubato in the female chorus in Act II is exemplary. Compare his caressing touch at the beginning of Act II with the crude dismissal of the same music by Yvone Zita in a 1989 performance from Rio de Janeiro that can be heard on YouTube.

As remarked above, there are a few departures from the score. There are two cuts, one of a mere four bars, the other a couple of pages towards the end. Whether they are really necessary, they tighten the action in the score’s few dramatic moments. There are a few changes to the words, to the underlay of the words and to the vocal lines. Finally, there are a few commas inserted where the music, according to the vocal score, should flow onwards. Opera conductors of the older type tended to act as “guardians” of musical effectiveness, invested with the authority to make changes of this kind if they felt it necessary. I wonder, though, if the full score and orchestral material available from the publisher, Sonzogno, actually contains adjustments made at early performances with Mascagni’s authority. If the cuts, for example, are pasted over in the parts, it would not be easy to reinstate them. As well as being an act of misplaced piety if Mascagni ordered them anyway.

My conclusion is that Mascagni lovers should cherish this set. A future version could be better sung, though I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for this. It is unlikely to be better conducted.

Less successful is a performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, given on 25 October 1963 with Angelo Lo Forese (Marcello), Guido Mazzini (Rodolfo), Fernando Lidonni (Schaunard), Giorgio Tadeo (Barbemousche), Osvaldo Scrigna (Visconte Paolo, Colline), Walter Brunelli (Gaudenzio), Antonio Petrini (Il signore del primo piano), Bianca Maria Casoni (Musetta), Florida Assandri Norelli (Mimì), Maja Sunara (Eufemia) and the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra.

When a Leoncavallo opera that is not Pagliacci is given – and it doesn’t happen often even in Italy – the choice is usually between La Bohème (1897) and Zazà (1900). The latter is possibly the most original in its treatment. La Bohème fascinates some with its “alternative” treatment of a well-known operatic subject, but is bad box office with a public that “likes what it knows”.

La Bohème was a deliberate challenge to Puccini – both composers knew the other was working on the same subject. Puccini got his out first, in 1896. Even if he had not, it is unlikely that history or the public would have preferred Leoncavallo’s treatment. Leoncavallo tried to wrest victory from defeat by presenting a revised version under the title of Mimì Pinson in 1913. Nobody seems to know anything about this at all.

A better title, taking a leaf from the composer’s own book in Pagliacci! might have been Boemi!. Most opera-lovers know, if only from reading about it, that this opera has the roles reversed compared with Puccini’s work. Marcello is the leading tenor and Musette (n.b. not “Musetta” here), though a mezzo-soprano, has more to do than the soprano Mimì. Rodolfo is a baritone. This is really the story of Musette and Marcello, though it ends with Mimì’s death – this is where the story is closest to the Puccini version. Marcello and Musette, though together again, take a back seat in the final scene. The most moving part of the opera belongs to Mimì after all. An opera in which the leading parts step back at the end is an oddity, at the very least. Another oddity is the strong contrast between the lively first two acts, in which the Bohemians cavort around irresponsibly with music that sometimes suggests Lehar more than Puccini, and the other two, which deal with separation, reconciliation and tragedy. This makes more sense if we consider the opera under the putative title of Boemi! The story, that is, of the Bohemians collectively and the mess their way of life got them into.

But something would still be missing. After Puccini’s Mimì” has sung “Mi chiamano Mimì”, the opera is all hers, and we are all hers too. This is due, not only to Puccini’s genius in providing such music at such a point, but also to his theatrical know-how in demanding that the librettist should trim the story down to concentrate on just two characters. Nevertheless, if we can keep comparisons out of our mind, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable opera, with vigorous ensemble work in the first two acts, plenty of good tunes and colourful orchestration.

Another objection has always been that Leoncavallo’s idiom sounds too much like Puccini to help us set aside the comparison. Yes and no. I would agree that Mascagni, as time passed, became more and more like a rarefied, atmospheric post-Puccini. Even a little-known work like Silvano, which predates either of these “Bohèmes”, has a poetical atmosphere all of its own, whether or not you think it works as effectively in the theatre as the best of Puccini. Leoncavallo seems to inhabit a world as much post-Verdian as Puccinian. The vocal phrases in the scene between Marcello and Musette in the third act, for example, have a Verdian breadth and “slancio”, even while they are underpinned by orchestration and, at times, harmony belonging to a later generation. In other words, Leoncavallo was a natural development from such composers as Ponchielli and Catalani, who were tending towards a post-Verdian style even while the master was still in full production. I find it difficult to define, in my mind, a distinct “Leoncavallo personality”. Maybe this would come if I knew more of his work.

A useful, but not infallible, site called Operadis, lists six recordings of Leoncavallo’s “La Bohème”, including one in French. It does not list the 1963 RAI production, which has therefore presumably never had even a bootleg existence. It can be found on YouTube. If opera buffs have never shown much interest, it is probably for the lack of even a single “great name”. Molinari-Pradelli’s 1958 performance at the San Carlo Theatre of Naples, for example, had Bastianini as Rodolfo. Here is a typical RAI cast, with Bianca Maria Casoni the biggest name, and a strong Musette. It’s a good ensemble performance such as you might find in a provincial theatre. Nobody is outstanding, but nobody lets the side down and everybody knows their business. Angelo Lo Forese, whose name does sometimes crop up, is an effective Marcello, so the principal axis works well.

Before discussing Argento’s conducting, I should point out to present-day purists that the first two acts are very heavily cut; the last two have just the odd snip. As with other operas discussed in this article, I have no idea whether these cuts have any authority from the composer – could it be that we are really listening to his 1913 revision? On a practical level, the two hours left seem to be enough. Even as it is, the two “comic” first acts are slightly longer than the other two. Would the work not be thrown out of balance if they lasted longer still? This is a question I could only answer by careful comparison with a complete version. I have not investigated other performances, but I note that more recent sets under Wallberg and Latham-Koenig only last about ten minutes longer and I find it difficult to believe that all the missing pages could be played in so little time, even using faster tempi – and some of Argento’s tempi are already pretty swift.

Setting aside the issue of completeness, Argento is particularly effective in the operetta-style first acts. There’s a lift and a lilt, a way of taking up new themes with affectionate but not overdone “Viennese” upbeats followed by subtle rubato, that suggest an easy familiarity with this type of music. As for the rest, I must charitably suppose that the effort of getting those big ensemble scenes together – more or less, since Argento’s best friend could hardly claim that ensemble is tight – took up most of the rehearsal time. There’s a generalized energetic surge to the other two acts, but none of the careful penetration of atmospheres and timbres that Argento displayed in “Silvano”. A lot of it seems too loud. All things considered, this remains a fair way of knowing a little-known opera, but it is not the best of Argento.

More than a rarity, Leoncavallo’s Edipo Re is a “case”. This was performed on 29 July 1972 by Giorgio Lormi (Edipo), Linda Vaina Colaciuri (Giocasta), Giorgio Vertecchi (Creonte), Maurizio Mazzieri (Tiresia), Saverio Durante (Un Corintio), Franco Castellana (Pastore) and the Rome RAI Chorus and orchestra.

Not long after the composer’s death on 9 August 1919, his widow Berthe, who had inherited a situation of considerable financial embarrassment, contacted the great baritone Titta Ruffo (1877-1953), one of the finest Canios and then based in Chicago. Her late husband’s last work, complete in short score, was a one-act opera on the subject of Oedipus Rex. If Ruffo was interested in creating the part of Edipo, she would arrange to have the orchestration completed. Ruffo was interested, so Berthe’s next move was to appoint Giovanni Pennacchio to make the orchestration.

Giovanni Pennacchio (1878-1978) was a marginal figure in Italian music. Essentially associated with the world of band music, he conducted the Municipal Band of Catania from 1926 to 1950. He also curated the band music library of the publisher Sonzogno for many years. Shortly before the Second World War he moved to Ricordi, for whom he made many band transcriptions. Listed compositions are mainly band and light music published at the beginning of the century. He wrote an opera, Enrica e Redenzione, about which nothing seems to be known. He lost no time in fulfilling Berthe’s commission and Edipo Re had its première in Chicago on 13 December 1920. Gino Marinuzzi conducted.

The opera was not especially successful and it languished until, in 1939, it occurred to someone in EIAR, predecessor of RAI, that there was an opera by Leoncavallo that had never been heard in Italy at all. A performance for broadcasting purposes was given in Turin on 13.10.1939. The Edipo was another major artist – Mario Basiola (1892-1965), who had been appreciated at Covent Garden in that same year in Il Trovatore and La Traviata. These performances, conducted by Vittorio Gui, have survived. So too, fortunately, has Edipo Re, which can be found from various sources in sound that is reasonable for what it is. The conductor was Giuseppe Podestà.

Another 19 years passed before Edipo received its first staged performance in Europe. This took place in Siena on 15.9.1958. Lorenzo Testi sang Edipo, the conductor was Bruno Rigacci. If a recording of this has survived, I’ve never seen any reference to it.

While the Siena performance didn’t exactly open the floodgates, the opera began to assume a fringe existence. A German-language performance was given in Linz under Nello Santi in 1960. A recording of this has circulated but I haven’t heard it. It was given at the San Carlo Theatre of Naples in 1968 under Armando La Rosa Parodi. Subsequently to the 1972 RAI performance, it was performed in Hilversum under Kees Bakels in 1977 and in Vienna under Dennis Russell Davies in 1998. A further staged performance, at the Teatro Regio of Turin, in 2002, had Renato Bruson as Edipo. Yoram David conducted.

Then it happened. No one had apparently thought to query the copious production that had flowed from Leoncavallo’s posthumous pen. Apart from Edipo Re, there had been two posthumous operettas, Il Primo Bacio (1923) and La Maschera Nuda (1925). After Berthe’s death Jeanne Puel became legal heir to the estate and further posthumous works continued. These were perhaps never taken seriously and catalogues of his music do not usually refer to them. Mention is occasionally made of an opera called Tormenta, on which he was supposedly working when he died. And indeed, in 1931 Jeanne Puel deposited for copyright with the Library of Congress Tormenta, trama lyrique en 3 actes de Ruggiero Leoncavallo.

In 2007 Konrad Dryden published Leoncavallo: Life and Works (Scarecrow Press). Dryden’s conclusion was that Leoncavallo had little, probably nothing, to do with any of these works, including Edipo Re, except insofar as bits of his real music were grafted into them. In the case of Edipo Re, the arguments seem to be:
- 1. Not a scrap of the music for this opera is to be found among Leoncavallo’s surviving papers.
- 2. Surviving correspondence to or from Leoncavallo contains no reference to it as “work in progress”.
- 3. Leoncavallo had always written his own librettos for his serious operas while this had a libretto by Gioacchino Forzano.
- 4. Part of the final scene “Miei poveri fior” is lifted from the soprano aria (with chorus) “Addio mio fedel” that ushers in the last section of Leoncavallo’s opera Der Roland von Berlin (1904). This fact had been noticed before; Dryden goes further and states that practically the whole of Edipo derives from Roland.
- 5. The orchestration is unvaried and unimaginative.

Point 5 can surely be disregarded, since no one ever claimed that the orchestration, at least, was not by Pennacchio. For what it’s worth, given subject matter that calls for something grimly impressive rather than a kaleidoscope of colour, the orchestration sounds perfectly effective to me.

Point 4, taken in isolation, need mean only that Berthe was not telling Ruffo the absolute, complete truth, but only to the extent that the opera petered out in the last scene, leaving Pennacchio to draft in some little-known but genuine Leoncavallo to finish it off (“Miei poveri fiori” starts less than five minutes before the end). The claim that practically all of Edipo came from Roland is far more damning, obviously. Nor does it seem wholly unfounded. The opening bars are an obvious variant of the opening of Act II of Roland. At figure 6 of the same Act, the strings strike up the broad melody that underpins much of the more lyrical writing in Edipo. The beginning of Edipo’s final scene comes from Roland’s Act III “Figlia, mia figlia”. The orchestral intermezzo “L’attacco”, from Act IV of Roland, is used for the orchestral-choral interlude that prepares for Edipo’s final scene. This is just from a cursory examination of the score of Roland, but it seems more than enough to be going on with.

Point 3 is obviously true. But it is also true that Gioacchino Forzano (1883-1970) had written the librettos for Leoncavallo’s operettas La Reginetta delle Rose (1912), perhaps the only Leoncavallo operetta to have enjoyed a modicum of success, and La Candidata (1915). His most famous libretto was for an opera that came out about the same time as Leoncavallo was composing Edipo, if he actually did – Gianni Schicchi. It is also true that Leoncavallo had toyed with the idea of writing an opera for Titta Ruffo on the subject of Prometheus back in 1911, and the librettist was to be Colautti. So perhaps Leoncavallo felt on shaky ground as a librettist of classical subjects.

Points 1 and 2 seem conclusive. I only wonder whether Pennacchio’s papers survive. Also whether anyone has examined Pennacchio’s sole opera, just to get an idea of what he could or could not do. I wonder about Forzano, too. If Leoncavallo was already dead when Berthe asked him for a libretto, then he must have been in on the hoax. Another musician who might have known what was going on was Salvatore Allegra (1897-1993). He completed – if nothing more – Leoncavallo’s operetta La Maschera Nuda and wrote a good few operettas on his own account. He then turned to “real” opera, beginning with Ave Maria which was performed at La Scala in 1932. He was also a prolific writer of film scores. Described as “the last of the veristi”, he must have seemed an anachronism after the war, but not so much so as to prevent RAI from engaging him to conduct broadcasts of at least three of his operas between 1959 and 1964. These can be found on YouTube so Allegra’s technical capacity to put an opera together need not be a matter for speculation.

And here comes something very interesting. I quote from “Salvatore Allegra, l’ultimo dei veristi” a very detailed essay with worklist by Giuseppe Ferrigno, published by the Istituto Bellini of Caltanissetta.

In 1919, after the death of Maestro Ruggero Leoncavallo, his wife, Mrs. Berta Leoncavallo, met the young Salvatore Allegra and, having appreciated his qualities as artist and composer, appointed him to complete, transcribe and adapt the compositions which her late husband had not succeeded in completing. The Sicilian musician set to work immediately and by 1920 he had already completed Leoncavallo’s last work, “Edipo Re”, which was performed on 13 December of the same year at the Opera Theatre of Chicago (USA). In 1925, he completed “La Maschera Nuda”, by the same composer, an operetta in 3 acts to a libretto by Ferdinando Paolieri and Luigi Bonelli”.

Could this be proved, I wonder? Pennacchio’s curriculum hardly implies he could put together a fine opera using bits of original themes from another opera and – putatively – a few sketches left by Leoncavallo himself. Allegra’s curriculum suggests that he would have been perfectly capable of doing so.

For this is the disturbing thing about the probable hoax. Edipo Re is a very fine opera. It is strongly constructed, moving inevitably towards its climax, opening into lyrical passages – the scene between Edipo and Giocasta culminates in some really lovely pages – and saving the best for last. The final scene with Edipo alone is really splendid. The passages that come from Roland are not just conscripted in, they assume a different character, suited to the new context, they develop differently. Whoever wrote it was a real composer. I suppose it’s not quite a great opera, but was even Pagliacci quite that? My feeling is that, if this isn’t the real thing – and it looks as if it isn’t – I’ve seen no evidence that the real thing could have been better. If this is Allegra’s work (or Pennacchio’s), then he’s done something like Anthony Payne did with Elgar’s Third Symphony.
Of the recorded Edipos I’ve heard, Mario Basiola is incomparably the best. Giorgio Lormi for Argento and Giulio Fioravanti for Parodi are regally impressive in a generalized sort of way. Basiola conveys from his first words the inner torment of the character. He is capable of great power, but he also shows that verismo doesn’t have to be one big shout. And he truly sings off the words. His performance brings a new dimension to the opera. All the same, Lormi is impressive in his one-sided way. His first entry suggests he may have problems with intonation, but this is not typical. Fioravanti has a smaller, less regal-sounding voice. In truth, I don’t think he had the natural voice for the part. However, it is evident that Parodi, the only one of these conductors actually preparing for a theatrical production, had worked very hard with all his singers to give proper weight and meaning to each phrase. Once one has got over the disappointment that the voice is not ideal, it’s a rewarding assumption.

Parodi is, in fact, the most theatrical of the conductors. He tends to be volatile and nervous in fast passages, while drawing out the slower ones. Argento takes equal care over dynamic shading – all three conductors realize that, with an opera that could be noisy, it’s essential to make the most of the gentler moments. With Argento, the music unfolds inevitably, almost symphonically. I can see a case for either view. Podestà gives Basiola the space he needs but is often more urgent – he takes eight minutes less than Argento. Parodi is also slightly faster overall.

The rest of Argento’s cast is good, and he has the best Giocasta in Linda Vaina Colaciuri. Rina Corsi, in 1939, makes a lovely sound but shows that, even then, there were some singers who apparently sang with a plum in their mouths. The contrast with Basiola’s crystal-clear diction is not to her advantage. Luisa Malagrida, for Parodi, is clear in her words. Her voice doesn’t quite live up to her surname, which means “ugly shout”, but the timbre is hard and vinegary. Parodi has perhaps the best Creonte in Luigi Infantino. In short, if you’re not too fussy about old recorded sound, the 1939 performance with Basiola is the one to hear. I knew the opera in Argento’s performance for well over twenty years before I listened to the others as a preparation to writing this and it still seems an excellent representation of the work. The later Turin performance with Bruson is available, or has been, in video and is presumably of interest.

From little-known works by well-known composers, we move to a composer who has gone down a black hole with the culture to which he belongs. Antonio Smareglia’s Nozze Istriane was given on 6 May 1961 with Franco Pugliese (Bara Menico), Renata Mattioli (Marussa), Guido Mazzini (Biagio), Luigi Rumbo (Lorenzo), Nestore Catalani (Nicola), Dora Minarchi (Luze) and the Milan RAI Chorus and Orchestra.

The first reaction of many people, on being told that Smareglia is most remembered for his opera “An Istrian Wedding”, may be to ask, “Where’s that?” Istria is currently part of Croatia (with a small part in Slovenia). It is the western peninsula of the deep indentation that almost divides present-day Croatia in two. It changed hands several times over the last few centuries – Austria, France, Venetian Republic – and was part of Italy between the First and Second World Wars. The various post-war treaties assigned the territory to the newly-formed state of Yugoslavia and it is now mostly part of Croatia.

If you leave the Croatian coastline, the countryside certainly looks like Italy. Italianate, Renaissance townships crown many of the vine-covered hilltops. You might have wandered into a time-warp and stumbled upon a part of Tuscany about fifty years ago. Most of the people there can talk to you in Italian, though by now it is an Italian tinged with a Slavonic accent. Older Italians will still insist to you that this is really part of Italy and the people are really Italians. By now, this must surely be a mere pious belief. Four generations have passed, besmeared with Tito’s forced transportation of large swathes of the population, and I cannot believe that modern teenagers from the Istrian side of Croatia feel any particular affinity with a country, Italy, that they may never have even visited.

The post-war treaties involved the usual political compromises, together with uneasy feelings about Istria under the Fascist regime – was it really part of Italy? Or was it occupied territory? The convenient solution was to consign that whole part of Italian history to a black hole and pretend it never was.

So that’s the first part of Smareglia’s problem. He was born in 1854 in what was then called Pola and is now called Pula. His father was from a nearby village then known as Dignano. Its present name is Vodnjan. It was this village that inspired Nozze Istriane. The accompanying photo shows that local costumes and customs still live on there.

Much of Smareglia’s musical upbringing was Austrian. He trained first in Vienna and Graz, though he later studied at Milan Conservatoire under Franco Faccio. While in Milan he frequented Boito and the “Scapigliati”, the rebellious group of artists, literary and pictorial as well as musical, based around the salons of Benedetto Junck and others. His first works had little success in Italy, not least because he fell out with the all-powerful Giulio Ricordi. He had better luck in Vienna in 1889 with Il Vassello di Szigeth, which also reached the Metropolitan, New York. Cornelius Schut had a successful debut in Prague in 1893 and was subsequently produced in Dresden, Munich and Vienna. Nozze Istriane was first produced in Trieste – then an Austrian city – in 1895, followed by successful performances in Vienna, Berlin and Prague. From Trieste to Venice doesn’t seem far, but it took ten years for the opera to get make the journey there for its first Italian performance. In the meantime, in 1897, Smareglia’s next opera, La Falena, had been well received in Italy. La Falena was part of a trilogy, completed with Oceana, premiered at La Scala under Toscanini in 1903, and L’Abisso, first performed under Serafin in 1914. Meanwhile, in 1900 Smareglia had become blind as a result of an unsuccessful cataract operation. With his son Mario acting as his principal amanuensis, he was able to complete the above-mentioned trilogy and to make a thorough revision of Cornelius Schut, renamed I Pittori Fiamminghi. During his years in Trieste, Smareglia struck up a friendship with James Joyce, who was teaching English there in the early years of the 20th century. Joyce prophesied – wrongly unless things change – that Smareglia would “be remembered for centuries after his death”. The composer’s last years were spent in Grado, just inside the present-day Italian state, in the region of Venezia Giulia.

You might wonder at this point if Smareglia was really an Italian composer at all. For a time, while in Trieste, he identified with the “Irredentista” movement, that is to say the movement politically committed to recognition of Trieste as an Italian city. During the First World War, though, he was criticized for not supporting this movement. The librettist of Nozze Istriane was Luigi Illica, a regular librettist for Puccini, Mascagni and Giordano. The librettist for his later operas was Silvio Benco, a died-in-the-wool “Irredentista”. Smareglia’s operas, though sometimes first performed in translation, were written in Italian. Nevertheless, Italy has largely ignored him. Only the Teatro Verdi of Trieste has given his work with any regularity. A trawl around YouTube will turn up performances, mostly from that theatre, of the six mature operas. As of now, I have not listened to any but Nozze Istriane and will only record that, according to “those in the know”, Nozze Istriane is not actually the best of them. A later article, maybe …

Smareglia represents what Italians call the “Trieste problem”. His music is too middle-European for the Italians but too Italian for the middle-Europeans. Certainly, the first impression you get as the darkly passionate opening paragraph begins, is distinctly middle-European. Not quite as tangy as Janacek, but it could easily be by Foerster or Novak. We might remember that this opera was translated into Czech and performed in Prague. A chromatic phrase near the beginning seems to have been picked up by Dvořák and used in “Rusalka” for the Watersprite’s curse.

Nozze Istriane is a through-composed score that reveals immense orchestral and constructional expertise. It combines Wagnerian richness, though not heaviness, with folkloristic elements. It is also concisely constructed. At 106:10, this performance is about five minutes longer than the two Trieste performances (1972 under Manno Wolf-Ferrari and 1999 under Tiziano Severini) that can also be heard. All the same, you understand what Italians mean by the “Trieste problem”. The vocal writing is far more melodic than you would get from a sub-Wagnerian. On the other hand, it never quite blossoms into set-piece arias. In terms of general operatic style, probably Dvořák is the best point of reference, though Smareglia does not quite have that composer’s lyrical genius when the time comes to launch into arioso. It is a fine opera, just missing that last touch of something-or-other that turns an opera that’s well worth hearing into one you can’t live without.

The RAI performance seems to have been issued on LP, while CD issues have preferred the later Trieste performances – that of 1972 has the additional draw of Maria Chiara as Marussa. Argento is at his best here, drawing plenty of dynamic shading and moments of real poetry from the orchestra, while giving overall shape to the individual acts. There’s a typical cast of singers who hardly seem to exist but for the RAI – the Marussa, Renata Mattioli, has already been appreciated, with minor reservations, as Matilde in Silvano. The same reservations apply here. She seems a little over-stretched in the strongest moments. At these times, Maria Chiara’s natural gifts prevail, but there are nothing like so many such moments in Smareglia as in Mascagni. I became rather fond of Mattioli’s timbre as I listened to this and I am not sure she does not give the better portrayal of the poor girl’s plight. The 1999 Marussa, Svetla Vassileva, is secure and demonstrates that a Slavonic timbre is no bad thing in this music, but she is less involving than Mattioli or Chiara. Argento’s cast has a rather hooty-contralto Luze – but on the other hand, Wolf-Ferrari’s Eleonora Iancovich is not sufficiently differentiated in timbre from Chiara. Otherwise, Argento’s cast is equal to the others when it is not slightly better. A CD issue would be worthwhile.

I should just add that I found a libretto on the Internet and there are considerable discrepancies between what is in the libretto and what is sung. The third act is very substantially different. However, all three performances differ from the libretto in the same way. Possibly, the published libretto is what Illica provided for Smareglia, who then altered it, or had it altered, during the composition of the opera. We may remember that Puccini, too, often required revisions of Illica’s work.

Pasquale Di Cagno’s “etching in one act”, Maremma, is about as far off the beaten track as you could get without actually exhuming an opera that has never been performed at all. It was given on 26 November 1966 by Angela Vercelli (Mara), Luigi Infantino (Giosè), Giuseppe Zecchillo (Turi), Ennio Buoso (Il pastore) and the Rome RAI Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. What follows has already been posted in this series as a separate article on Di Cagno.

Pasquale Di Cagno was born in Bari on 27th January 1888. A child prodigy, he was playing the guitar at the age of four – wonderfully, one of my sources says – and the piano at the age of six. He had some compositions published in 1909 and in 1911 won a competition for a song with orchestral accompaniment. He moved to Milan in 1912 and by now was attracting the attention of such luminaries as Mascagni and Puccini. His first opera, Frida, was well received in Bari in 1924 and at the San Carlo Theatre of Naples in 1932. He also attracted attention as a conductor, after standing in for an indisposed Toscanini at La Scala. Toscanini intended to produce Frida at La Scala, but the Fascist regime was increasing its grip and Toscanini was forced to leave the country.

The two sources on which I am relying are a 1968 essay by Alfredo Giovine and the entry by Salvatore De Salvo (1991) in the Treccani Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. Both are worth seeking on the internet if you can read Italian. Unfortunately, both are short on dates for the next part of the story. Probably they are not easy to establish.

Frida was followed by the one-act Passiflora and the three-act Ondina, which Di Cagno apparently considered his masterpiece. His work was not wholly operatic. There was an orchestral Suite in five movements, while a “Chanson-Dance” for voice and piano was broadcast by Radio Bari in 1933. De Salvo dates the first draft of Maremma to this period. Another passing reference on the internet dates it to 1929. Both Giovine and De Salvo relate that Di Cagno entered Maremma for a competition held by La Scala, using the pseudonym Costante Costanti. Neither gives the date of this competition. According to Giovine, the pseudonym was adopted because there were prejudices held against him. “Since he rebelled against acceptance of the usual compromises that degraded the principles of his art, he was boycotted so strenuously that no remedy was possible”. It would be nice to know what actually happened. Giovine also tells us that Di Cagno was outspoken against “the iconoclastic fury of dodecaphony that began to undermine our glorious melodrama”. But dodecaphony found no favours with the Fascist regime either and I wonder if this episode belongs to the post-war years. Whatever, the true identity of “Costante Costanti” got about and the opera was rejected.

Di Cagno faded from view, both as composer and conductor. The archives of the publisher Sonzogno, including manuscript materials of Di Cagno and the plates they had been preparing for an edition of Ondina, were destroyed during the war. Neither Giovine nor De Salvo attempts a catalogue of what survives in performable state and what does not. Maybe nobody knows. Probably nobody would perform them anyway, but it would be nice to have a list. A “Chromatic Improvisation on a Waltz Theme” and a “Gavotte and Scherzo” are mentioned by De Salvo, without any indication of the instrumentation.

So utterly had Di Cagno disappeared from the scene that Giovine felt the need to correct an evidently prevalent perception that he had moved to the United States. It seems he never left Milan. His son Walter, on the other hand, emigrated to America and made an attempt to make his father’s music known. As a result, several of Di Cagno’s works were performed in the Carnegie Hall in 1961 during a concert entitled “Half a Century of Italian Music”. This reflected back to Italy and, in August 1965, the RAI put on a programme of Di Cagno’s music. The composer just lived to hear this – he died on 27th October 1965. He never heard, therefore, the first performance of Maremma, which RAI gave on 28th November 1966. The first staged performance was given at the Teatro Petruzzelli of Bari on 27th January 1968. Have there been other productions? The applause preserved at the end of the RAI performance sounds more like respectful appreciation than a standing ovation.

Without a score, libretto or even a synopsis, I can record only generalized impressions. The Maremma is a large and once rather wild region of Italy covering parts of Tuscany and Lazio. At the time to which the opera refers, it was a zone of unhealthy marshlands – drained during the Fascist regime – populated by horse-riding cattle breeders called “Butteri”. A “Buttero” can be seen wading the swamp in the photo reproduced. The opera is clearly verista in style, with a pastel-pastoral orchestral backdrop and a chorus of, presumably, local villagers. Much of the first part is taken up with a love duet between Mara and Giosè. “Love duet” here means, as often in verista pieces, sections sung in alternation, the singers coming together just for the climax. The match is apparently not approved by Mara’s family, since Turi can be heard demanding his daughter back – Zecchillo is clearer with his words than the others. The result is a confrontation between Giosè and Turi, concluding in the former’s death and Mara’s distraught final solo. As I say, I hope I’ve got all this right with only the singer’s words to base myself on.

It’s a simple, conventional story, but it’s also straightforward in its construction and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work on stage if the music makes it worthwhile. The general timbre is close to Mascagni in pastoral vein – a through-composed score with a well-wrought, colourful, orchestral basis. It tends to be leisurely in its unfolding, and is inclined to be less individual when the tempo increases – the chorus work towards the end, for example. As with so much verista opera, the vocal writing is unfailingly melodic, without ever branching into actual melody. Here one must be careful, though. For one thing, vocal writing that is melodic without actually branching into melody tends to be considered an excellent thing when Richard Strauss writes it, but proof of incompetence when the composer is Italian. For another, those melodic phrases that don’t quite seem to be melodies can often prove to be real melodies when one hears them for the fourth or fifth time – and I haven’t done that yet. So let me just say for now that my attention was always held.

Another feature that Di Cagno has in common with other verista composers is a tendency to use the voices in their upper registers and to keep them there. The result is that, whenever an opera of this kind is revived today, it all too often emerges as one long scream, and the buffs tell us that, of course, in the days when they were written, there were singers who could really manage them. 1966 is a fair compromise between our own day and the days when singers “could really manage them”. Both Vercelli and Infantino have attractive voices – in the case of Vercelli there are times when I’d change that word to “beautiful”. The other two singers have less to do but are also effective. For entire stretches, Vercelli and Infantino negotiate their soaring lines in a manner that suggests they must be very grateful to sing, if you can. Then Di Cagno pushes them up one step further and there are signs of strain.

A modern conductor might have done them no favours by insisting on a metronomic beat, or dragging the tempi. Argento is old enough to have learnt his art from the flexible conductors of the past. He gives the singers the space they need. His conducting is loving but not indulgent – he keeps it moving. The orchestra play well, the choir is a bit rough and ready.

What is the future for this opera? I don’t see why it shouldn’t work on stage, given the right singers. The rustic setting might make it a good companion for Cavalleria Rusticana as a change from Pagliacci. It lasts 42:32 in this performance. On the other hand, the right singers are not so easily found. They might be better employed in one of the many operas by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano or Cilea that are hardly better known and possibly deserving of precedence. Given that the RAI performance would probably not be bettered by a modern one, Di Cagno’s cause should be reasonably served by a wider dissemination of this recording. It would make a short CD, so I wonder if anything remains of the 1965 broadcast concert.

I have heard just one opera from the standard repertoire conducted by Argento – a 1965 televised performance of Puccini’s Tosca. This had a cast consisting of Marcella Pobbe (Tosca), Gianni Raimondi (Cavaradossi), Cornell MacNeil (Scarpia), Carlo Castrucci (Angelotti), Virgilio Carbonari (Il Sagrestano), Mario Carlin (Spoletta), Vico Polotto (Sciarrone), Michele Pasino (Un carceriere) and Mauro Busi (Un pastore). The Chorus and Orchestra of the Ente Autonomo Teatro Comunale dell’Opera di Genova were performing in the Teatro Margherita of Genoa.

In the 1950s RAI made various filmed operas using the lip-synch technique and a studio production. Whatever their frustrations, they preserved some fine performances. Here is a real performance, filmed “as is”. The version to be found on YouTube has a slightly wonky black and white picture that tires the eyes. To judge from RAI’s periodical revisitations of its archives, I’m not convinced that the original, if they still have it, would be much better. Perhaps we of the digital age have forgotten what we put up with when we didn’t know any better. The recording is rudimentary for the orchestra but captures the voices quite well except under extreme pressure. The sound buckles under the blows of the “Te Deum” and there is a moment of warping at the end of Act 2. It didn’t stop me from appreciating the performance.

A certain historical interest now attaches to the venue itself. As most music lovers will know, Genoa’s opera house is the Carlo Felice, but for many years it had two. The Teatro Doria was inaugurated in 1853. It was revamped and renamed the Politeama (or Teatro) Margherita – after the then Queen of Italy – in 1885. Both this and the Carlo Felice emerged badly battered from the Second World War. The rebuilding of the Carlo Felice was the subject of projects, cancelled projects, new projects, and newly cancelled projects such as only Italian officialdom could devise. It finally reopened in 1991. The Teatro Margherita was less affected by political currents and reopened in 1957. From 1962 to 1991 it hosted the municipal opera company of Genoa. It was generally felt too small for the job and the municipal opera company transferred to the Carlo Felice on its reopening. The Margherita tottered on as a prose theatre for a couple of years, closing in 1993. The building reopened as a department store in 1998. So here we have a souvenir of a solid, traditional production of Tosca with a few glimpses of the theatre itself as the public applaud at the end of Acts I and III. Argento himself is seen as he comes on before Act III, brings the orchestra to its feet for the applause and begins to conduct with almost semaphoric clarity.

Cornell MacNeil needs no introduction as Scarpia. In a long career, he sang the role 92 times at the Met alone. A look at the list of official and unofficial issues, some in video, from 1959 through to 1985, suggests that 1965 might well have been the time to capture the voice in its pristine glory and the interpretation in its full maturity. A more magnificently sung Scarpia could hardly be imagined, in terms of vocal lustre as well as technique. Few can have been more suavely spine-tingling, either.

Gianni Raimondi (1923-2008) had an international career but for some reason made few recordings. He sings with total security, an even outpouring of fine tone. He is also believably in the part. If “Recondita armonia” is sung over the public address system, as it were, he manages much more varied tone in the third act. “Lucevan le stelle” is properly built up from gentle beginnings, its long phrases as finely controlled as I’ve heard. “O dolci mani” is tender and honeyed. It does seem strange that Raimondi was consistently passed over in favour of colleagues who were in obvious decline or else stentorian bawlers. One contemporary who was none of these things, obviously, was Carlo Bergonzi, but was Cavaradossi quite his part?

Marcella Pobbe (1921-2003) was one of the large group of Italian sopranos consistently ignored by a system that seemed unable to recognize more than two sopranos at a time – and they had to be Callas and Tebaldi. And yet, leaving aside Callas as a special case – and no longer at her best in 1965 – it is difficult to imagine who else might have done better. The tone is strong and even, but with emotion inside it. It is not so regally strong that she should be singing Turandot. She throws herself into the fray in the second act. She spits out “quanto” with a venom that Callas herself could not have bettered and is memorable in “davanti a lui …”. Her third act is perhaps her best of all, since she has the sweetness to express tender love as she contemplates the happy future she imagines awaits her and Mario. I’ve heard better deliveries of “quest’era un artista” though.

Some performances I’ve heard by Pobbe show that she could sing flat on her higher notes on occasion. There’s little of that here but she did have me wondering in a phrase early on in “Vissi d’arte”. Fortunately she then picks up and brings it to a fine conclusion.

One contemporary Tosca who might be mentioned was Magda Olivero. She was essentially a “singing actress”. She lived and conveyed the part, but her voice as such, with its wide vibrato, was less lustrous than that of Pobbe. The official discographic world was no kinder to Olivero than it was to Pobbe. A good number of live versions with Olivero, plus a RAI version, have come out over the years. The OPERADIS site is not infallible but, of the 250 recordings it lists of Tosca, the only one with Pobbe is this one. We should be glad of it.

Of the other singers, Virgilio Carbonari’s Sacristan is pure ham-comedy. He clearly enjoys himself and I suppose the audience did, but this is not really the place for such a show. The shepherd boy at the beginning of Act II is as awful as they all are – why is this? The others make no particular impression either way and it is not in the nature of the opera that they should.

The orchestra sounds understaffed. The rudimentary nature of the recording probably hides a host of shortcomings, but collectively they play with proper conviction. In a well-known work, as in rarer ones, Argento has an excellent sense of tempo and continuity. We have suffered recently from “original” Puccini interpretations. Here the singers have space but there is no dragging or febrile hurrying, everything follows on naturally, each act has its overall shape. It may not be great conducting, but it’s very good. And there’s something more, for this is an occasion in the opera house where everything goes right, the company really comes together and everyone gives a little more than their best.

Just one complete opera, of those I have heard conducted by Argento, is not from the Italian repertoire – Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. This was performed on 2 February 1971 by Ferruccio Mazzoli (René), Claudio Desderi (Robert), Roberto Merolla (Vaudemont), Mario Borriello (Ebn-Hakia), Manlio Rocchi (Almerique), Alfredo Colella (Bertrand), Radmila Bakocevic (Iolanta), Lucia Danieli (Marta), Angela Vercelli (Brigitta), Silvana Mazzieri (Laura) and the Milan RAI Chorus and Orchestra.

I have not been able to establish the earlier Italian performance history of this work – maybe there is none. Its modern history seems to date from 1980, when Juri Ahronovitch conducted a production at the Turin Regio Theatre. Milan heard another concert performance in 1989, when Vladimir Delman gave a performance that has been issued on disc, but which has so far eluded me.

The Ahronovich and Delman performances were, or course, given in Russian. In 1971, the habit of singing Russian and Slavonic works in Italian translation had not entirely died. Through the 1950s and 1960s, RAI had given numerous performances of the Russian repertoire in translation, many of them notable either for the conductor – Rodzinski headed several – or the singers. Indeed, some of Boris Christoff’s major Russian roles seem to have survived only by courtesy of the RAI, sung in Italian.

On this occasion, too, one of the leading singers took the trouble to learn a role in translation that she presumably already knew in Russian – the Serbian soprano Radmila Bakocevic. She has the right Slavonic timbre for Iolanta, without the excessive wobble that sometimes goes along with that. She is thereby able to give a reasonably youthful impression, although her career had begun in 1955. Only one or two strained high notes – not all of them – mar an excellent performance.

Excellent without reserve is Ferruccio Mazzoli as King René. A slight suspicion that he is trying to be a Boris Christoff clone does no harm here. He gives a strong, well-sung and kingly performance.

All the same, for the performance to interest opera buffs, there would have to be a “name” singer, or at least a “niche” one. Just possibly there are two here, but neither puts in a particularly collectible appearance. Claudio Desderi was at the beginning of his career – his debut was in 1969. As we know, his repertoire developed along the Mozart-Rossini-Donizetti axis. He has a reasonable stab at Robert, but the sound is wrong. Furthermore, his favoured expressive means is a drop to a honeyed mezza voce, sometimes even when the score requests an increase in tone.

Mario Borriello was born, according to the source you consult, either in Brindisi in 1913 or Vienna in 1914. Similarly, he died either in 2000 or 2005. His debut came in 1942 and he is frequently to be found on recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, often in very distinguished company indeed. One of my helpful sources adds that his career continued till his mid-fifties. Here he’s in his late fifties and the voice does sound rather worn. But he was an artist and by husbanding his words he conveys a lot of character. Probably it was more effective live than on record.

Of the others, Roberto Merolla gets painful on his top notes and Manlio Rocchi, in a small part, has an unpleasantly strident timbre. Lucia Danieli and Angela Vercelli have already appeared in this survey. The former confirms her whopping voice but not much more. Vercelli confirms that she was an attractive singer, but it’s a small part.

I have no comparisons, but Argento evidently knows how the music goes. There are very many changes of tempo and mood, and he hits them all off convincingly. The orchestral response is colourful if hardly immaculate. He understands that this is the gentler Tchaikovsky – it had its premiere in a double bill with Nutcracker. I hope one day to hear the Delman since, if anyone could wring Tchaikovsky’s anguished soul from the music, he would be the one to do it. The conclusion must be that the Milan and radio audience got a fair idea of the opera. Even apart from the language question, there seems little reason to return to the performance today unless you have a particular interest in the conductor or one of the cast.

A few odds and ends can complete this section.

20 minutes of extracts from Massenet’s Manon, given by the Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra in 1975 with Magda Olivero as Manon and Giuseppe Vendittelli as Des Grieux, have been issued in various formats. They are clearly not part of a complete performance, since the first extract lacks a contribution from one of the comprimari. Several Olivero performances of Puccini’s Manon have survived, but this may be all we have of her in Massenet’s. She does not seem a natural for the part. As we know, Olivero was a singing actress who threw her all into whatever she did. Even at this fairly late stage in her career, her voice is bright and firm, indeed less troubled by the sometimes excessive vibrato she displayed earlier. She takes a very free approach to the score. In her first extract, “Je suis encore toute étourdie”, anyone who didn’t know the opera might suppose they were listening to a mad scene, culminating a manic cackles of witch-like laughter. “Adieu, notre petit table” penetrates every possible detail, omitting only to note that Massenet asked for “simplicité”. For fans only, really. Vendittelli has a good solid voice and Argento follows the diva’s every twist and turn. This is the only French music I have heard from him, so it is difficult to know if this is how he really wanted the music to go. This is the latest recording by Argento that I have heard.

Three arias were sung by the tenor Daniele Barioni on 23 January 1968. Undated, but I suspect from the same concert, are two arias sung by the mezzo-soprano Luisella Ciaffi. The Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra plays.

Luisella Ciaffi – sometimes billed with her married surname Ricagno added – was born in Turin in 1933. She sang regularly at La Scala for two decades beginning in 1962. She taught at Turin Conservatoire from 1978 to 2000. She begins with a truly excellent “Nacqui all’affanno” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. All the fireworks are scrupulously controlled and the voice is even over the range. This control does not exclude character, however. Her other aria, “Acerba voluttà” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, is well sung but the voice does not quite billow out sumptuously is one expects in this repertoire. Argento’s orchestra is untactfully noisy.

Daniele Barioni was born in Copparo (Ferrara) in 1930. He has a fine, resonant, even voice. He sings “Io la vidi” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, “E’ la solita storia” from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana and “Un dì all’azzurro spazio” from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. His particular expressive device is the insertion of an expressive gulp in the vocal line. It’s effective in small doses, particularly in Cilea and Giordano. One would have to hear him in an entire opera to know whether he doses his gulps knowingly or whether he subjects us to overkill.

Lastly, excerpts, at least, exist from Franchetti’s Germania under Argento’s direction.

A few conclusions
The Tchaikovsky/Rubinstein video and, up to a point, the small glimpse we get of Argento in the Tosca film, give some idea of his technique. It’s a straightforward, unadorned beat, generally quite energetic. What I do find surprising is that he appears to beat with the orchestra. At the start of Tosca Act III, he raises his baton, holds it high briefly, then the orchestra begins as the baton starts to descend. Near the beginning of the Tchaikovsky there are several bars where the orchestra comes in on the first beat and Rubinstein is fairly free with the upbeat. Argento holds his baton high, waiting for Rubinstein to arrive. When Rubinstein arrives, his baton descends. But in conducting, as Boult succinctly put it, everything must be anticipated. If the orchestra comes in punctually, I can only assume they did it by listening to Rubinstein. If they had waited for Argento to move, they would have been late. Or was there some telepathic means by which they knew in advance when the conductor was going to let his baton fall?

Video performances can be found on YouTube of two other Italian conductors who studied with Bernardino Molinari: Franco Caracciolo and Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. With both of these, the beat can be clearly seen arriving before it actually comes. All the same, conducting is a strange thing and, although Argento came unstuck with Rubinstein, most of the time his performances hold together reasonably well.

The nature of the repertoire in which I have heard Argento means that conclusions need to be cautious. Would his Beethoven Fifth or his Tchaikovsky Fifth have been flatfooted or at least decently lively? Or even fiery and magnificent? How did he cope with symphonic structures? One supposes he didn’t go to the Soviet Union to conduct Porrino and Salviucci, but what did he conduct and with what results?

On the strength of what I have heard, the case for Argento as a conductor of the highest stature is unproved. The claim by Giannini and Giovine that Thibaud, Gieseking and Fischer (which Fischer?) wished to have Argento as their regular collaborator is curious – could it be substantiated?

All the same, Argento proved during this survey a reliable guide to a range of little-known works – Silvano especially – and he had a good way with Tosca. I shall certainly listen with interest to anything else that turns up.

© Christopher Howell 2016



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