Forgotten Artists - An occasional series by Christopher Howell
20. Ferruccio Scaglia (1921-1979)
Forgotten Artists index
It could be a good quiz question. Which conductor gave the first performances in his country of Shostakovich’s second, third and fourth symphonies, published salon music for violin and piano, gave several premières of works by contemporary American composers, recorded the second violin part in a two-violin concerto by Vivaldi and was a fine interpreter of rare operas from the verismo school? Well, since this article is about Ferruccio Scaglia, you will have guessed that it must be him. If the question had come out of the blue, I doubt if many people, even in Italy, would have got it.
I arrived in Italy in 1975 and followed Italian Radio (RAI) programmes on and off, time permitting, particularly during the 1990s. Especially fascinating was the Filodiffusione, which drew heavily on RAI’s archive recordings. The name of Ferruccio Scaglia came up quite often and I wondered vaguely who he was. He is not one of those Italian conductors who turn up regularly on old Cetra recordings, so his name is virtually unknown outside Italy. As far as I can find, he very rarely conducted outside his native land at all.
Biographical information is sketchy. I’ve managed to put together a number of leads, but the figure and personality of Scaglia remain elusive.
The Dizionario Biografico Treccani tells us that Ferruccio Scaglia was born in Turin in 1921 and first studied violin at the Conservatoire of that city. Our earliest glimpse of him comes in the January 1937 Rassegna Mensile della Città of Turin, where we learn that he had obtained his diploma the previous summer with full marks and had recently given a concert for the GUM (Gruppo Universitario Musicale). The programme included Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, a Sonata by Fauré – quite an enterprising choice in Italy those days – and, unaccompanied, the Bach Chaconne. He made, according to the article, an “undoubtedly favourable impression, both for his technical achievement and for his artistic maturity”.
Scaglia next moved to Rome where he attended a post-diploma course with Arrigo Serato (1877-1948). Serato is considered a major figure of the twentieth century Italian violin school, but seems to have retired from public playing around 1926, dedicating himself to teaching, too early to have left any recorded evidence of his playing.
Various mentions of Scaglia as a violinist crop up during the war years. In 1939 he was a founder member, as second violin, of the Quintetto Chigiano. The first violin was Riccardo Brengola and on 31 March 1940 we find Brengola and Scaglia playing a two-violin concerto by Vivaldi at La Fenice, Venice, under the direction of Bernardino Molinari. Scaglia soon left the Quintetto Chigiano to pursue solo playing and conducting. By the time the group made its first recording, he had been replaced by Mario Benvenuti. Scaglia shows up as soloist in Bolzano on 26 February 1943, so we might note in passing that this young man in his early twenties seems not to have been called up for military service. Does his rather short life testify to poor health?
During the war, Scaglia married the daughter of a conductor. Scaglia’s father-in-law was Achille Consoli (1886-1948). A native of Catania, he had settled in the picturesque seaside town of Camogli, in Liguria. He conducted at the Teatro Sociale of that town, but as a chorus master Consoli was by no means a provincial figure. He had been active in that role at the Teatro Costanzi of Rome (now the Rome Opera House) during the 1920s and was regularly called to instruct the chorus of La Scala during the war years and until his death. Scaglia’s abilities as an opera conductor were considerable, as we shall see, and do not seem to derive from specific apprenticeship, as a répétiteur, for example. Maybe his father-in-law passed on some hints.
In 1944 the Scaglias were living in Camogli and gave birth to a son, Franco. Franco Scaglia (1944-2015) became a writer and journalist of some repute. Like his father, he dedicated much of his career to the RAI. It would seem that the first Signora Scaglia either predeceased her husband or they divorced – much more likely the former, since divorce became possible in Italy only in 1975. On his death in 1979, Scaglia left a widow called Rosy Serrato Scaglia. She was still living thirty years after his death, so she was probably considerably younger than him.
In 1949 or 1950, Scaglia made what appears to have been his only recording as a violinist – once again in a two-violin concerto by Vivaldi. This time the first violinist was Edmondo Malanotte and the Complesso dei Solisti del Collegium Musicum Italicum was conducted by Renato Fasano (Cetra AT 0161-2). Meanwhile, in 1946 or thereabouts, Scaglia had a series of transcriptions and pieces for violin and piano brought out by the Milanese publisher Carisch. These were Chopin’s Preludes 3, 4 and 23, nicknamed respectively “Tristezza” (Sadness), “Lamento” and “Gioco di Naiadi” (Naiad’s Games), Liszt’s “Sogno d’Amore” (Liebesträume”), “Tango” and “Canto Stiriano” by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino and a “Viennese” of his own, which seems to have been based on popular themes.
By 1950, however, Scaglia’s activity as a violinist was intersecting with that of conductor. On 9 and 10 September 1948 he is named as Maestro Sostituto to Igor Markevich at the Venice Biennial in a ballet programme consisting of La Nymphe de Diane, memories of Délibes’ Sylvia by Aurel M. Milloss (who was also choreographer for the entire programme), Dallapiccola’s Marsia and Stravinsky’s Orpheus. The first two were world premières, the latter the European première. Maestro Sostituto doesn’t mean he actually conducted, but he did much of the preparation and would have been considered competent to take over if Markevich had been indisposed. During the 1949-50 season, he conducted performances of Coppélia at the Rome Opera House. At the 1950 Venice Biennial, on 18 and 19 September, he conducted a ballet programme in his own right. Milloss was again the choreographer and the programme consisted of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince and Milloss’s own Ballata senza Musica. The literal translation of the latter is “danced without music”, so perhaps a conductor was required only for the Bartók. Unless, Cage-like, the conductor conducted without music too.
Presumably around this time, Scaglia made the first of his very few official recordings as a conductor. These were of two pieces by Vincenzo Augusto Manno (1901-1981). Manno was a composer of light music with titles that imply a sort of Italian Eric Coates. A long series of 78s of his music was made by Cetra, mostly conducted by Tito Petralia, but a few by Manno himself. A few more were made by RCA Italiana in the early days of the LP. A pair of pieces, Solennità and Il Lago Sognante (The Dreaming Lake), was conducted by Scaglia with an unnamed orchestra. Another pair, Rondine giocoso (Playful Swallow) and Capitan Fracassa, was conducted by Pietro Argento, a fact that escaped me when I wrote the article on him in this series. Several of Manno’s recorded pieces can be heard at a site dedicated to him, but not, at the time of writing, those conducted by Scaglia.
The RAI Years
Accounts of the next few years are contradictory. According to the Dizionario Biografico Treccani and Wikipedia, Scaglia entered the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI in 1950 as a violinist, emerging as a conductor and becoming their principal conductor in 1960. According to the Dizionario degli Interpreti Musicali (TEA 1993), he worked with this orchestra as Maestro Sostituto to Fernando Previtali from 1950 to 1955, and was their conductor from 1960 to 1963. This seems more likely, since he had already worked both as Maestro Sostituto and as a fully-fledged conductor, so to enter as an orchestral violinist would have been a retrograde career move. Only the dates do not tally, because the same dictionary states that Previtali’s tenure ended in 1953, and that the orchestra’s conductor from 1959 to 1965 was Massimo Freccia. Quite a few sources corroborate this latter. Nobody seems to know who the principal conductor was between Previtali and Freccia. What is beyond doubt is that numerous RAI recordings exist of Scaglia conducting this orchestra, and the other RAI orchestras with a fair frequency too, during the 1950s and 1960s.
After the RAI
According to the Dizionario degli Interpreti Musicali, Scaglia was appointed Artistic Director to the Teatro Bellini of Catania in 1972. If so, it is a pity that the history of this opera house on its own site does not mention Scaglia anywhere. A bootleg issue exists of a 1972 performance of Cavalleria Rusticana from that theatre under Scaglia with Elena Souliotis and Angelo Mori, but he could equally have given this as a guest conductor. What is notable is that I know only two post-1972 RAI recordings, suggesting that he did in fact move elsewhere. I can find no reference to the cause of Scaglia’s death in 1979 at the age of only 58, but I am bound to speculate that health problems may have limited his activity in his last years. A photo found on internet makes him look much older than he could possibly have been, but since it is dark and undated I have not included it here.
An exhaustive YouTube search will produce a large number of Scaglia’s RAI performances. As with so many conductors almost forgotten even in their own country, these recordings owe their presence, not so much to Scaglia himself, as to distinguished soloists or rare repertoire. I am left wondering – the case of Pietro Argento left a similar question mark – what happened when he conducted a big symphony. I remarked at the beginning that he gave the Italian premières of Shostakovich’s second (13 October 1967), third (13 March 1970) and fourth (6 March 1965) symphonies. He also gave rare performances (for the time) of Mahler’s second (31 January 1959) and Nielsen’s fourth (17 December 1966). I don’t know if the latter was the Italian première, but it was never heard again in Turin, where the performance was took place, until Saraste conducted it in 2008. A hearing of some of these would show what Scaglia could or could not do. The following account is therefore somewhat provisional. Like the Pietro Argento article, it allows us a peep along the way into many other obscure corners of Italian musical life.
Concertos with Pianists
One recording under Scaglia that has enjoyed some circulation derives from a cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos given for the RAI in 1958 by Rudolf Serkin. 1, 3 and 5 were done in Naples with Franco Caracciolo, 2 and 4 in Rome, in June, with Scaglia.
My introduction to these two concertos was a budget label Philips disc in which Serkin was accompanied by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. LPs didn’t give recording dates in those days, but they must have been the 1954 versions. There was a stereo remake by the same combination in the 1960s. Dare I confess that neither the music nor the performances engaged me very much? Obviously, I found out in due course that the music was not to blame. I have returned to the disc over the years and have never quite understood why what are, on the face of it, excellent interpretations, discourage listening with their euphonious smoothness.
Hearing these two Italian performances has helped focus my reaction. In the first movement of no.2, Ormandy provides busy, rather breathless bustle. Serkin goes along with him and it’s a fine demonstration of trouble-free machinery. Maybe it’s the lack of the unexpected that makes it so unriveting. Scaglia starts considerably slower and unfolds the introduction with a certain Mozartian grace. This should be wrong for Serkin’s manly vigour, but actually the sense of Beethoven the young pianist breaking the bounds of the Mozartian format is both interesting and convincing. In the second movement, Ormandy leads off with a heavy religiosity suggestive of a Victorian oratorio, while Scaglia is heartfelt without overdoing it. It’s curious how Serkin seems to go along with whatever his conductor provides. The finale has more real joy in the Italian performance.
In the fourth concerto, Ormandy’s first movement is impressive in a majestic sort of way. Scaglia finds a sense of mystery that Ormandy does not attempt. Serkin’s playing in Rome is wonderfully alive, exploratory, as well as magical. Quite frankly, this is one of the most enthralling performances of this concerto I’ve ever heard. In the second movement, Serkin’s solo passages open vistas of liquid depth such as one rarely hears. The tossing back and forth of phrases between pianist and orchestra is truly inspired at the beginning of the finale. Serkin is sparkling, humorous and free-spirited. He had evidently realized by then that he could play as he wished and the conductor would not be caught out. I have always respected rather than loved Serkin. No doubt this performance is not the only evidence around that he was one of the greats, but evidence it certainly is. Of course, the Rome orchestra is not the Philadelphia, nor does the close, airless recording help them pretend otherwise, but they really play very well.
Am I suggesting, you might ask, that Scaglia was a better conductor than Ormandy? Well no, but I think that the Serkin/Ormandy act may have staled a bit. The unscripted nature of the Rome concert could have spelt disaster – an overawed conductor plodding along behind a soloist doing his best under the circumstances. Instead, it clicked.
On 11 April 1961, with the RAI Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples, Scaglia accompanied a very different pianist, Robert Casadesus, in Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. This performance came only two months after Casadesus had set down the concerto for Philips with the Concertgebouw under Hans Rosbaud. That version is celebrated yet not universally admired. The reservations expressed by Jonathan Woolf are typical of at least fifty per cent of the reviews I have seen. In particular, Jonathan draws attention to the discrepancy of scale between the pianist’s conception and that of the orchestra. I wonder if he would be any happier with the version under Scaglia?
In a sense, there is no contest. Listen to the fullness of the Concertgebouw sound in the opening chord, to be further developed in the first tutti, and you will think, what could be more splendid than this? The answer is, of course, nothing, provided there’s the right pianist to match it. Casadesus was a great Mozartian, and he treats this concerto, not as a half-way stage to Rachmaninov, but as a logical follow-on from Mozart’s last concertos. Crystalline, beautifully sung pianism that seemingly aims to defuse all the myths and accretions surrounding the so-called – not by Beethoven – “Emperor”. It’s an appealing view, probably more so today than in 1961, but it won’t work if it’s pitted against the Concertgebouw in full cry. The best that can be said is that, under Rosbaud, the orchestra is leaner and less bloated than it might have been under, say, Jochum, a possible choice for Philips in those years.
With the Mozartian-scaled Naples orchestra, it works. Casadesus takes the proper solo spotlight and converses happily with his reduced forces. Moreover, while no one could pretend that the Naples orchestra was on a par with the Concertgebouw, Scaglia sees that it plays with far more precision and cohesion that usual. There are a few slips, but nothing to prevent enjoyment, and indeed fewer slips than the pianist himself makes – with no studio remakes to help out he proves rather fallible. I couldn’t care less myself, but I wouldn’t like anyone to think I didn’t notice. Perhaps as a result of the presence of a public, or perhaps as a natural result of the smaller forces, the performance is marginally fleeter than the recording, and more than marginally so in the finale, which sounds laboured in the studio but just about manages not to here. Scaglia’s strings at the beginning of the slow movement are truly beautiful – like an enlarged string quartet rather than toned-down Mahler. The result, perhaps, of having a violinist on the rostrum – Rosbaud’s instrument had been the piano.
I should perhaps make it clear that I write as a strong admirer of Hans Rosbaud over a wide range of music. Maybe if he had been conducting the Naples orchestra – or some other chamber orchestra – the results would have been even better than with Scaglia. Or maybe not – this performance is one of the many pointers to just how good Scaglia could be.
My next items might belong equally under pianists and under modern Italians. On 10 March 1972, also with the RAI Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples, Scaglia joined Sergio Fiorentino in a performance of Casella’s Scarlattiana.
In 2012 I reviewed for MWI a 2009 Naxos recording of Scarlattiana in which the pianist Sun Hee You was accompanied by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia. I made a comparison with a 1959 RAI recording in which Casella’s pupil Lya De Barberis was partnered by the Naples orchestra directed by Franco Caracciolo. Having noted that De Barberis and Caracciolo were quicker overall by three minutes, I found that they gave the second movement a wry humour and made the rest fizz a bit more. I did remark, though, that these recordings under La Vecchia, if a bit on the cautious side, showed an attention to “nuance, texture and balance” that we didn’t usually get from the old RAI recordings. To deal with the last point first, the Naples orchestra is not wholly immaculate under Scaglia, but it plays much better for him in 1972 than it did for its principal conductor in 1959. “Nuance, texture and balance” are decidedly on the menu and my generalized comment about “old RAI recordings” is proved unfair.
I have listened again to De Barberis but not to Sun Hee You. Fiorentino and Scaglia are more than a minute shorter again, and it’s funny to find that that the “fizz” I praised in the performance actually sounds a bit po-faced compared with Fiorentino. Make no mistake, De Barberis gives a dryly humorous neo-classical performance which is probably what Casella told her wanted. But certain things cannot be taught if the pupil doesn’t have them by nature, and Fiorentino had rather a lot of these things. In a word, he had flair. With Fiorentino and Scaglia, the three quick movements go off with a sort of manic sauciness that had me thinking of Jean Françaix. The two slow movements – in which they are slightly slower than De Barberis and Caracciolo – have a quirky charm, making the most of Casella’s neo-classical Stravinskian harmonies.
To be fair, my off-the-air recording of the De Barberis performance is very dull-sounding, while the Fiorentino, available on YouTube, is much better, if a little aggressively in-your-face. All the same, this is a work that has never seemed to me more than mildly enjoyable. Fiorentino and Scaglia – who fully matches the soloist’s interpretation – actually make me want to hear it again.
Concertos with Violinists
The violinists here may be divided into “international” and “national” figures. One Italian violinist, Aldo Ferraresi, surely belongs to the former category too, and one could obviously argue the claims of some of the others.
Ida Haendel was the soloist on 11 January 1958, with the RAI’s Rome orchestra, in Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.5 K219. Scaglia provides a beautifully sprung and phrased accompaniment. I’ve rarely heard the Rome orchestra play Mozart with such cleanness, precision and transparency. Maybe at the time, Scaglia’s deliberate separation of the note-groupings in the slow movement would have been thought pedantic. More recent HIP-sters wouldn’t agree. Haendel herself is a tad more romantic – some slides, too. This is nevertheless superior Mozart playing and far more acceptable to modern ears than the performance of K218 by Christian Ferras that I discussed in my article on Pietro Argento. The slow movement is moving and the whole thing sounds like a real collaboration.
Christian Ferras was in Rome on 5 April 1964 to play the Violin Concerto no. 1 by Serge Nigg. This French composer (1924-2008) studied under Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire during the war, but in 1945 fell under the spell of Schoenberg apostle René Leibowitz. His Variations for Piano and 10 instruments (1946) was the first wholly dodecaphonic work by a French composer. Later he reacted against the drier aspects of the twelve-tone system. His first Violin Concerto was written for Christian Ferras in 1960. The idea seems to be to create a more euphoric, less angst-ridden alternative to the Berg Concerto.
Ferras clearly believed in the work, which he recorded for DG with the ORTF Symphony Orchestra under Charles Bruck in 1967. He gave it in a number of venues, including this performance with Scaglia and the Rome RAI Orchestra. The New York première on 16 November 1967 caused Billboard to comment that “the rhapsodic work seemed elusive to follow”. I am comforted by these words, since this is my own reaction. It may not help that Ferras is very closely – but very well – recorded. His characteristic quick vibrato and no-holds-barred passion hold the attention up to a point but become ultimately wearing. The few orchestral episodes – which Scaglia conducts with conviction but avoiding heaviness – come as a relief. The overall impression is of a somewhat shapeless outpouring of uninspired lyricism.
Scaglia’s own contribution, as violinist, to a Vivaldi concerto recording has eluded me. Two Vivaldi performances with leading Italian violinists of the day have come to light.
On 4 July 1958 he gave the 2-Violin Concerto in B flat R.529 with Riccardo Brengola, Angelo Stefanato and the Turin RAI orchestra. Unhurried tempi combine with buoyant rhythms and light textures – the harpsichord continuo is adequately present. After an insecure start – how much rehearsal time was there for a radio performance like this? – the violinists settle down to the sort of clean but vibrant playing we know from Italian groups of the time such as I Musici. A sense of enjoyment and discovery is conveyed. This is still good baroque playing of the pre-HIP kind.
In the Concerto in F for violin, 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings R.569, on 30 March 1968, the violinist was Giuseppe Prencipe. The other soloists, presumably drawn from the RAI’s Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples, are not named. Scaglia is again sturdy and unhurried – at least one HIP performance is shorter by three minutes – but buoyant. There is plenty of dynamic shading and the harpsichord is well in the picture. Excellent 1960s baroque playing.
Back in 1958, but on 21 May in Rome, Angelo Stefanato was once more on hand, this time in Wienawski’s Violin Concerto no.2 in D minor op.22. Stefanato (1926-2014) was a pupil of Vasa Prihoda. He combined a solo career with that of orchestral leader, serving in the latter role at various times with the RAI orchestras of Turin and Rome and that of the Santa Cecilia Academy. Having been closely associated with I Virtuosi di Roma since the 1950s, he became its Artistic Director following the death of Renato Fasano.
Stefanato and Scaglia seem in full agreement to approach Wienawski’s one-time war-horse – a rarity even by 1958 – from the Mendelssohnian end. The result is fresh, melodious and unfailingly musical. Only a few of the octaves and double-stopping episodes suggest slight technical limitations. Perhaps this is unfair since the other performances I know are not live – no doubt Stefanato could have tidied these moments up in the studio. The orchestra is notably clean and punctual.
It may be unfair, as well, to make a comparison with the recording by Mischa Elman. Elman takes his time, giving himself plenty of space for the double stopping passages that Stefanato plays up to tempo. In lyrical passages he has that personal, speaking quality we associate with violinists of an older school. But the slow tempi mean that Sir Adrian Boult’s London Philharmonic, while broadly sympathetic to the soloist, can seem ponderous during the orchestral episodes.
What cannot be denied is that the orchestral part takes on an added dimension with Sir Eugene Goossens conducting the Royal Philharmonic. Without indulgence, there is a colour and a sense of story-telling that relates the music to the world of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. The soloist on this recording (Capitol SP 8534) is the tragically short-lived Michael Rabin. He brings that extra security and sheer personality that demonstrate the difference between an international virtuoso and an excellent orchestral leader taking a turn as soloist.
Once again in Rome, on 30 June 1956, Aldo Ferraresi was the soloist in the Violin Concerto by Stjepan Sulek (1914-1986). Sulek was the leading Croatian composer of his day and, by a nice coincidence, a survey of his symphonies appeared on MWI while this article was in gestation.
I am not sure what Croatian music ought to sound like, and in 1951, when this was written, no doubt many were unkind enough to think that any contemporary music, written anywhere, ought not to sound like a natural extension of Smareglia, with a bit of Scriabin and Janacek along the way. Perish the lot of them, for it’s a gorgeous concerto, full of rapt, glowing lyricism, but also with moments of strength, fireworks and a dancing, feel-good finale that would go down a treat at the Proms.
Is the ambitious first movement, which accounts for slightly more than half the concerto’s 32 minutes, a shade over-extended? Here I have to say that the YouTube version I have heard (no longer to be found) seems to have been preserved on worn acetates, with a lot of crackly disturbance that made long-term concentration difficult. As I write, an 18-CD set of Ferraresi performances, including this one, is announced. Maybe it will sound better (see end note).
For I cannot imagine a finer performance. Excellent though the other Italian violinists discussed here were, Ysaye-pupil Aldo Ferraresi (1902-1978) was an artist of international stature, whether or not the international community fully recognized this at the time. As well as technical security and bravura where needed, he brings a lustrous outpouring of unfettered tone to the many lyrical sections. No wonder he was Walton’s preferred interpreter of his own concerto! With total participation from Scaglia, I should be inclined to take this Sulek performance, by the concerto’s dedicatee, as definitive. The problem, as I say, is the sound. As of now, no other recording seems to exist, so those attracted by the idea of Sulek had better make for the symphonies.
I’ve saved my greatest violin treat till last, nevertheless. On 7 November 1959, Alfonso Mosesti joined Scaglia and the RAI Rome orchestra for a performance of Leone Sinigaglia’s Violin Concerto. I enjoyed this concerto in a performance by Giovanni Guglielmo and the Turin orchestra under Mario Rossi, broadcast some time in the 1960s, but this by Mosesti (b.1924) is something else again. There’s an extra incisiveness and attack from Scaglia right from the start, and in the many lyrical passages soloist, conductor and orchestra just sing their collective hearts out. The sheer conviction of it all had me thinking of the Suk/Ančerl performance of the Dvořák, which is about the highest praise I know. The recording is close and overloaded, though – even this reminded me of early Supraphons – and becomes a bit overbearing by the end. The Guglielmo/Rossi recording allows more light and shade and possibly, on a bar to bar basis, their performance is a little subtler. But somehow, it lacks the burning zeal to make the concerto appear a masterpiece.
There remained the puzzling fact that Mosesti/Scaglia are faster than Guglielmo/Rossi, yet take two minutes longer. A score, downloadable from IMSLP, revealed all. Guglielmo/Rossi make a substantial cut in each of the three movements. Mosesti/Scaglia play the first two movements complete, but make the same cut in the last. I must say that, while I find the cuts in the first two movements niggling and ungenerous – and Mosesti/Scaglia prove that they are unnecessary – the missing passage from the finale does contain one rather odd passage, musically, and some double-stopping that would be hair-raising at Mosesti’s tempo. Since Scaglia was a violin pupil of Aldo Serato, the concerto’s dedicatee and first interpreter, is it possible that Serato himself persuaded Sinigaglia to remove the passage, and Scaglia knew this?
On YouTube you will find a 2013 video of a performance of this concerto given in Ferrara by Laura Marzadori, conducted by Marco Zuccarini. It is uncut and is moreover so expansive in its tempi that it adds ten minutes to the Mosesti/Scaglia performance (the cut passage, if the latter had played it, would have added about half a minute to their timing). Moreover, the slow tempi are allowed to linger still further in all the more lyrical turns. Tune into it at virtually any single point and it sounds gorgeous. But I think there’s a price to pay for all this dawdling, and what sounds loving at first can sound plodding as the music proceeds. Moreover, disaster strikes at one of the most exquisite moments in the entire concerto – the return of the main theme of the slow movement, accompanied by a bewitching flute counter-melody. The flautist enters a bar out and sticks to his mistake right through the whole passage, with magnificent disregard for the Ivesian dissonances all around him. The conductor pretends not to turn a hair, Marzadori continues with admirable presence of mind. Obviously, these things can happen in a live performance, but I don’t know if it was wise to put it out on YouTube. I can only hope these artists will have the opportunity to give another, trouble-free performance one day – and maybe a wee bit faster.
Mid-20th Century concert works
One Scaglia performance of a modern Italian work actually appeared on LP. This was Petrassi’s Coro di Morti, performed by the RAI’s Roman chorus and orchestra and issued on Adès 14070/Westminster XWN 18539.
Coro di Morti is a setting of verses by Leopardi. Petrassi himself conducted the première in 1941 and it marked a move away from the uncomplicated neo-classicism of his first works. The opening ritual tread may suggest Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms but there are also suggestions of jazz, ancient chant and wintery gleams of something more expressive. In the end, it creates a world of its own, and its spell seems to grow with every hearing. Not surprisingly, no one understood better than the composer himself how the disparate elements float around, disembodied, in a mysterious unknown region. Petrassi’s own recording, with forces of the Milan Angelicum, was issued in 1975 (LPA 5943) and was also taken up by the Musical Heritage Society in 1978 (MHS 3783). Composer’s recordings can have their drawbacks, but Petrassi was a fine conductor, not only of his own music.
Petrassi’s recording was not the first, however. Hard dates for Scaglia’s performance are lacking, but its US issue on Westminster was announced in Billboard of 28 October 1957. It was coupled with the first performance of Dutilleux’s First Symphony under Pierre Dervaux. The Dutilleux was completed in 1956, so that gives us the outside dates for the LP issue. It is not clear whether Scaglia and the Roman forces were actually engaged by Adès to make the recording, or whether an existing tape was licensed from RAI. The performance could in any case not be earlier than 1952, since the chorus master, Nino Antonellini, was appointed in that year. The good mono recording sounds closer to 1957 than to 1952. Either way, this is an important addition to the very slender discography of Scaglia recordings officially issued.
If Petrassi, obviously enough, understood what his music was all about, it cannot be said that Scaglia missed the point. With a closer recording, some of his louder passages seem a little more tangible, but the overall sense of disembodiment is caught. Moreover, Petrassi’s Milanese choir seems undernourished and sometimes strained, while the Roman choir contributes a fine performance. The two colossal climaxes unleashed towards the end point to the advantage of a full-time conductor against a part-time one. Without gainsaying Petrassi’s authority on the rostrum, he didn’t hold all the cards.
Coro di Morti achieved quite a number of performances while Petrassi’s fame was at its height. A 1954 performance under Hans Rosbaud seems to have survived, while later RAI broadcasts include one under Gianandrea Gavazzeni.
A virtually forgotten name today, even in Italy, is that of Mario Zafred, whose Harp Concerto was given its radio première on 11 September 1958 by the Rome orchestra with Clelia Gatti Aldrovandi as soloist.
Zafred (1922-1987) was a curious case. A journalist and a hard-line communist as well as a composer, he wrote regularly during the post-war years for the Italian Communist Party (PCI) newspaper “L’Unità”. Thus far, his career appears typical of the Italian intelligentsia in those years. However, Italian composers of the day usually combined membership of the PCI with avant-garde post-serial techniques that would never have been countenanced in the “worker’s paradise” for as long as Stalin was there to put the boot on them. An obvious instance was Luigi Nono. Zafred, on the other hand, was a strong upholder of the Zhdanov doctrine and made his “L’Unità” columns the platform for an ongoing attack on formalism, avant-gardism and anything else that failed to convey a comprehensible and edifying message to the man in the street. His own music, therefore, was tonal, only moderately dissonant and sometimes drew on melodic formulae of his native Istria – he was born in Trieste.
To be a sort of Italian Khrennikov was a harmless enough activity in a country where people had been free, after the fall of Fascism, to compose how they liked. His tirades did no damage to Nono, Maderna or Berio and, at worst, invited ridicule. Ultimately, he did no great damage to himself either. He was recognized as a well-schooled musician – a pupil of Malipiero and Pizzetti – and rose to be President of the Santa Cecilia Academy (1973-1983) and of the Sindacato Nazionale Musicisti (Musicians’ Trade Union) from 1983. Whereas in England, Glock’s BBC would have consigned him to the tonal scrapheap, RAI gave most of his major works – which include seven symphonies – a hearing. This radio premiere of his 1955 harp concerto can be heard on YouTube in perfectly acceptable sound.
On the strength of this piece, Zafred was a considerable composer. The harp is a problem instrument in some ways because, no matter what it plays, the result tends to sound delicately impressionistic. Zafred does not attempt to negate this feature, but he sets it off against a dark-hued orchestral palette. The brooding opening has a strong atmosphere and what follows does not disappoint. The first movement, in moderate time, suggests sombre, lurking passion. The second movement, in slow time, has some coolly entwining lines for solo wind. The finale sets off with powerful momentum but returns several times to the initial mood of brooding. An impressive work.
Clelia Gatti Aldrovandi (1901-1989) was one of the great names in Italian harp-playing – some say the greatest. Famously, she was the dedicatee of Hindemith’s Sonata. Italian composers, as well as Zafred, who wrote works for her include Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Casella, Pizzetti, Mortari, Rota and Petrassi. The performance sounds definitive to my ears. Scaglia is eloquent and trenchant where necessary.
Moving away from the Italian repertoire, Bloch’s Psalm 114 was sung by Angelica Tuccari (soprano) on an undated recording with the Rome orchestra.
Bloch’s “Deux Psaumes” for soprano and orchestra actually consist of three movements – an orchestral introduction and two Psalms, of which this is the last. It is included on an anthology dedicated to Tuccari – one of those names that come and go in Italian radio recordings of the 1950s and 1960s. Presumably the whole work was performed, since this piece on its own lasts less than four minutes. With a steady ostinato bass, it has rather more form and rhythmic impetus than many pieces by this composer. Scaglia is marginally more measured than the two modern conductors who have recorded the work, finding an epic grandeur as well as urgency. His approach seems preferable. Tuccari has a splendid voice and begins finely, but there is some questionable intonation towards the end.
A notable Italian première was that of The Epic of Gilgamesh by Martinů. This was given on 11 October 1958 by Lucille Udovich (soprano), Luigi Alva (tenor), Renato Capecchi (baritone), Plinio Clabassi (basso), Enzo Tarascio (speaker) and the Turin RAI Chorus and Symphony Orchestra.
Martinů’s oratorio was written in 1954-55. The composer was living in exile – in Nice – and set the text to an English translation. The first performance was sung in German, on 23 January 1958 under Paul Sacher in Basle. A Czech version was prepared in time for a performance at the Prague Spring Festival conducted by Vacláv Smetáček on 25 May 1958. Among the audience was Sir Malcolm Sargent, who was sufficiently impressed to organize the first performance of Martinů’s original English version. This took place at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios on 18 April 1959. Sargent was quick off the mark, but RAI and Scaglia were quicker still. This was all the more remarkable when Italy has rarely shown much interest in this sort of repertoire.
Although the original language of the oratorio was English, its admirers around the world have always preferred to hear it in Czech. While a performance in English could claim a certain authenticity, I suppose nobody today, even in Italy, would regard a performance in Italian as more than a curiosity. Still, if you wonder what it sounded like, and how the Italian forces coped with it, it’s up there on YouTube in good, if aggressively digitalized, sound.
The vocal line-up was an impressive one. Only the soprano may need an introduction to opera buffs. Lucille Udovich (1930-1999), of Croatian origin, was born in Denver, USA, but moved to Italy in the early 1950s and based her career there. After a slightly nervous start, she provides an object lesson to her Czech colleague on the Bĕlohlávek recording on how a Slavonic-sounding vibrancy can be obtained without recourse to wobble. Indeed, aside from the language question, the Turin version is very finely sung by the solo voices – the use of Italian seems to result in a lack of bite in the choral singing. It may be noted that the Italian solo singers go more for the long line than the Czech soloists – possibly as coached by Scaglia, since they are completely consistent in their approach. Without a score I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the orchestral playing, but the effect is fervent and disciplined, with some real piano-pianissimos of a kind that Italian orchestras often seem incapable of providing when playing their own native music.
Where this performance may still be of some interest is in the matter of tempi. The score suggests a timing of 50 minutes. By general consent, performances and recordings come in closer to an hour. Scaglia, at 51” 04’, takes Martinů pretty well at his word. A few spot checks of specific sections between Scaglia and Bĕlohlávek show a greater urgency in the Italian performance, whereas the Czech one is more conventionally oratorio-like. Still, no doubt a 50-minute performance in Czech could be managed if it were thought desirable.
Though not exactly a “modern” work, this seems the best place to discuss a more than decent black-and-white video that has emerged on YouTube of Scaglia conducting the RAI Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra in Ravel’s complete ballet Ma Mère l’Oye in Naples on 22 January 1966. It provides a rare opportunity to study the conductor in action. I am rather glad that I found it only towards the end of my listening, enabling me to reach most of my conclusions away from visual considerations.
Scaglia holds both arms well outstretched, wielding a longish baton with exemplary clarity. While many of his Italian colleagues used the old system of having the orchestra play behind the beat, Scaglia has them absolutely on the beat. You can always see exactly when the beat is coming and, in the various ritardandos or tempo changes, his intentions are always clear. He does not use many specifically expressive gestures – his left hand usually mirrors his right – and his face is impassive, except that his mouth tends to stay slightly open. The ultimate impression is of precise, unrelaxed control.
The orchestra responds with discipline, clarity of texture and tight phrasing that one would normally suppose only Celibidache could have obtained from them at that time – go to the video of them playing the Bizet Symphony under Luigi Colonna to hear how they played if the conductor didn’t do anything about it. The score is rendered with analytical textures and a cool intensity of expression. It’s a very fine performance that seems to leave the public cold.
It’s a question of charisma, I suppose, something that doesn’t appear on sound recordings, and that is only hinted at even by videos. Something that might be called the “Leinsdorf syndrome”, remembering how Erich Leinsdorf gradually emptied the Boston Symphony Hall with performances that often seem, on sound and even video recordings, to have been superior to many of those by his much-loved predecessor Charles Munch. I mentioned Celibidache, a frequent visitor to Naples in the 1960s. Just two weeks later, Celibidache conducted Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro with the same orchestra. He got very fine playing, but I would hesitate to say it was actually finer than that obtained by Scaglia – audio only, unfortunately. There is a certain euphoric surge which Scaglia does not attempt, maybe did not even want. This time the audience are rapturous, but I think that what got them was something that just doesn’t come over if you’re not there – sheer charisma. Maybe, too, there is such a thing as negative charisma, a sort of professorial dryness that likewise doesn’t come over when you hear the excellent results over loudspeakers – back to the Leinsdorf syndrome.
Contemporary concert works
An inevitable part of a “radio conductor’s” duties consists of sorting out contemporary works. Scaglia seems to have been very good at this and, as we shall shortly see, at least one of the composers concerned thought so too.
Alternanze, by Azio Corghi (b.1937), was performed on 7 December 1973 by the Rome orchestra. Corghi (b.1937) studied with Bruno Bettinelli and began to make a name for himself in Italy in the 1960s. His reputation grew internationally in the 1980s and, in the United States, he was called to give master classes at the Universities of Berkeley and Cincinnati. He is particularly known for his operas – Tat’ana was presented at La Scala in 2000. He established himself as a fairly undogmatic purveyor of mainstream modernism – Alternanze, a 10-minute work written in 1970, has all the plinks and plonks the BBC would have expected for inclusion at the Proms during the Glock years. Subsequently, he became interested radical re-elaboration of earlier works. Isabella (1996) is described as a “teen-opera” after Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, while Rinaldo is derived from Handel’s opera of that name and has a part for Les Swingles singers.
We are not told – or I have not been able to find out – what the “alternations” are in Alternanze. It is based on brief contrasting sections rather than development, though Scaglia actually seems concerned to find continuity in it. His performance is well-prepared if not very hard-hitting.
On an unidentified date, and with an unidentified – on YouTube – orchestra, Scaglia was joined by Giancarlo Sbragia (reciter) for Marezzo by Carlo Prosperi (1921-1990). Prosperi studied with Luigi Dallapiccola. To judge from this eleven-and-a-half-minute work, he followed in his master’s footsteps, showing a delicate but precise and varied tonal palette and a personal take on serialism that doesn’t exclude lyricism. It is a good deal more attractive than Corghi’s Alternanze and one senses a greater degree of conviction on Scaglia’s part too. Scaglia had already given the première of Prosperi’s Toccata e Fanfara (1955) at the Venice Biennial of 1955.
Marezzo was written in 1960 and is based on Eugenio Montale’s poem of that name, read complete. Giancarlo Sbragia (1926-1994) was a leading Italian actor of the day, who worked with directors such as Strehler, Antonioni and Ronconi. The music succeeds in evoking a plausible poetic atmosphere without distracting attention from the words – something not always achieved when recitation and music are combined.
Another interesting première given by Scaglia, on 2 July 1966, was that of Penelope’s Monologue by Richard Trythall. The orchestra was again that of Rome and the soprano soloist was Margherita Kalmus.
Richard Trythall was born in Knoxville, Tennessee (USA) in 1939. His first studies were at the University of Tennessee and by 1960 he was appearing in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s seasons both as composer and as pianist in his own works. He then went to Princeton University where his teachers included Sessions and Babbitt. After a year in Berlin, where his composition teacher was Boris Blacher, he won the Rome Prize in 1964 to study at the American Academy in Rome. An annual feature during this three-year fellowship was the opportunity for students to hear their orchestral compositions performed by the RAI’s Rome orchestra conducted by Ferruccio Scaglia. Trythall’s Composition for Piano and orchestra (1965), Penelope’s Monologue for soprano and orchestra (1966) and Costruzione (1967) were all premièred under Scaglia at these concerts. Trythall himself played the solo part in Composition. He has remained in Italy ever since and has been active both as composer and pianist. In the latter role he has premièred works by Italian contemporaries such as Donatoni, Castiglioni and Aldo Clementi. But he has also been a tireless champion of American piano music, covering the widest-ranging spectrum from Ives, Carter and Cage to Gershwin, jazz and New Age.
Penelope’s Monologue is a musical illustration of the last page-and-a-half of Joyce’s Ulysses. Starting from “the sun shines for you he said”, the text is given complete, partly sung, partly declaimed – in a form of Sprechstimme if I have perceived it correctly. The composer has said on his
website that “It was not my intention to ‘set’ the text or to compose an accompaniment for it. Rather I tried to create a musical process that mirrored the stream of consciousness which Joyce had constructed”. The use of a text from an acknowledged masterpiece can easily backfire, giving the impression that the words are much more interesting than the music. I think, though, that Trythall has found the way to create a work that can live independently. The 1960s modernist manner proves a good way of suggesting a stream of consciousness, as the disembodied, disjointed but inherently beautiful sounds drift in and out of hearing. The vocal line avoids traditional formulae, employing wide leaps and tiny semi-melodic cells, alternating with the declaimed passages. It helps that the soloist in the Rome performance, Margherita Kalmus, not only copes without apparent effort, but also manages to maintain a constantly luscious sound.
Margaret Kalmus was born in Vienna but acquired British nationality and sang in the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus from 1949 to 1959. The only traces of her after then suggest she went solo, specializing in contemporary music and basing herself in Italy, Italianizing her name to Margherita. In 1959 she sang in Rolf Liebermann’s Capriccio for orchestra, soprano and violin during the opening concerto of the Venice Biennial, conducted by Nino Sanzogno. Her performance was judged “excellent” by Piero Santi ("L'Approdo Musicale", no.7-8, Year II, July, December 1959). I find no further reference except this Rome concert. It seems strange that a singer so well qualified to present contemporary works in a favourable light was not called upon to do so more widely. In so far as one can tell without a score or a comparative performance, Scaglia seems to know what is needed. The composer has put this performance on his website and I presume this in itself indicates his approval.
Since I wrote that, Richard Trythall has confirmed to me, by e-mail, that he has the “highest regard” for Scaglia and has kindly supplied this memoir for inclusion in the present article:
I met Ferruccio Scaglia in the summer of 1965 when he was, I believe, the staff conductor of the Rome Radio Orchestra. At that time I was in Rome at the American Academy as a recipient of the Rome Prize in Music Composition. Maestro Scaglia was, among many other duties, the conductor for the RAI's annual orchestral concert dedicated to music written by the Composer Fellows of the American Academy in Rome. In that capacity, he conducted the first performances of three of my orchestral works: Composition for Piano and Orchestra, Penelope's Monologue and Costruzione in the period from 1965 to 1967. (The Rome RAI Orchestra was particularly adept at contemporary music. They performed a great deal of it and they performed it well.)
My recollection of him as a conductor is that he understood contemporary music very well and that he understood how to work with an orchestra. He commanded the respect of the RAI orchestra. They appreciated his workmanship, that he knew how to rehearse quickly and well, and I believe they enjoyed working under him. I saw his work, of course, while he was preparing complete concerts of new music that the orchestra had never played. Such programs can be particularly difficult for all concerned, but his approach was practical and effective and the concert results were musically right on target. So much so that I treasure those performances to this very day!
A further addition to Scaglia’s tiny official discography was a Remington recording – 2G1KY 16866-7 – so rare that even the Sound Fountain, normally the source of information for all things Remington, seems unaware of it. Frustratingly, the cover can be found on internet but not the recording. The work recorded was the First Symphony – “La lunga via” – by Valentino Caracciolo. Caracciolo (1918-1989) was Roman and, as far as I can find out, unrelated to the conductor Franco Caracciolo. In an article in an unidentified newspaper dated 15 September 1982, Diego Gelmini described Caracciolo as “the least contemporary of living composers”. According to this same article, the First Symphony was not performed complete until 1976. The Scaglia recording was therefore unrelated to a live performance and the sleeve-note relates proudly that the conductor and orchestra rehearsed and recorded the whole thing in a single three-hour session. This sleeve-note provides a rare reference to Scaglia’s career outside Italy, stating that he “has conducted in the leading theatres and concert institutions both in Italy and abroad”. Details please!
18th and early 19th century opera
Though RAI’s “house conductors” were principally engaged as concert conductors, they were expected to do a fair amount of opera. Scaglia’s operatic recordings are mainly concert performances given for the RAI, though a few live retrievals have turned up to supplement them
RAI put on quite a lot of operas by Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) in the 1950s and 1960s, often under Franco Caracciolo in Naples. In 1965 it was the turn of Milan, where La vanità delusa was performed on 20 January with the Milan RAI Orchestra and a cast consisting of Dora Gatta (Lindora), Giuliana Raimondi (La Marchesa), Maria Grazia Ciferri (Bita), Gino Sinimberghi (Scassaganasce), Carlo Franzini (Il Conte), Renzo Gonzales (Sempronio) and Gian Ciavola (Cecco).
The Wikipedia entry on this opera is declaredly a summary of the introduction to the recent critical edition by Simone Perugini (Artaria Editions, New Zealand, 2016). That sounds reliable enough so, summarizing the summary, La vanità delusa, also known as Il Mercato di Malmantile, was put together in a great hurry for a performance at the Teatro alla Pergola, Florence, in 1784. The librettist was instructed to write some of the arias so that the words would fit music from previously composed operas by Cimarosa and experts have detected two hands, other than Cimarosa’s, in the manuscript conserved in Naples Conservatoire and downloadable from IMSLP. According to Nick Rossi and Talmage Fauntleroy (Domenico Cimarosa, his Life and Works, Greenwood Press, 1999), the work had no great success (Wikipedia says otherwise). It was given in Paris in 1805 but not again until 1955 in Naples. A 2014 performance at Fabro, Tuscany, conducted by Perugini and using his edition, claimed to be the first performance in modern times. This apparent discrepancy might be explained three ways:
1. Neither 1955 nor even 1965 counted for Perugini as modern times, a sobering thought for a prehistoric monster like myself who can remember several events in 1965 and was at least toddling in 1955.
2. Perugini blithely assumed it must be the first performance in modern times but didn’t actually check.
3. Perugini considered the edition used in 1965 – probably the same as was used in 1955 – so utterly inauthentic that it wasn’t really a performance of La Vanità Delusa at all.
This latter point is worth examining. The 1965 performance uses an edition by Guido Pannain (1891-1977), a Neapolitan composer and musicologist. As played by Scaglia, large swathes of recitative are cut, together with a few entire arias. Furthermore, snips are made right, left and centre, sometimes just a couple of bars, sometimes a couple of pages. Obviously, I have no idea whether the cuts were made by Pannain, or whether Pannain’s edition (unpublished so far as I know) was complete and Scaglia – or someone else – made the cuts. I think it likely that Scaglia conducted whatever was played in Naples in 1955, from the logical assumption that RAI wouldn’t have gone to the expense of making new orchestral parts when they could use those of 1955. For the rest, Pannain has not fiddled around with the orchestration or the harmony – what is heard may not be all that was written, but nothing is played that is not authentic. A fair amount of work – whether by Pannain or by Scaglia – has gone into filling out the very rudimentary dynamics in the score.
I suppose some purists might feel that all this means that La Vanità Delusa was not really performed at all, but something else in its stead. But whittling down out-of-repertoire operas – and some repertoire ones – with the aim of making them more enjoyable was the name of the game in “prehistoric” times. Even today, you don’t always hear Marcellina’s aria in Figaro or Germont’s cabaletta in Traviata, but no one has gone so far as to suggest that the Callas performances of the latter were not performances of Traviata at all, but of something else. Just to play the devil’s advocate, 90 minutes of Cimarosa is about the right amount and the Cimarosa-lite opera played in 1965 was a very enjoyable affair. Particularly attractive is the ensemble punctuated by an elaborate flute solo.
Leading the cast was Dora Gatta (1928-1979). Many will know her as the Marcellina in Giulini’s 1960 Figaro – or maybe this was not really Figaro, since she didn’t get to sing her aria. Gatta was actually a leading lady in high soprano roles in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s. She’s certainly vivacious and characterful, though I wondered if the pert serving-girl manner was quite right for the Governor’s daughter. Gino Sinimberghi (1913-1996) is another singer better remembered in his native land. He was a good, musical tenor, if not a particularly personal one. His strength was his good looks and his acting ability, as a result of which he took part in a good many filmed operas. Scassaganasce means “jaw breaker” – the character is a quack dentist. It’s the sort of part more associated with comic basses, and Sinimberghi gets round it very well. All the others are adequate-to-good, though I thought the Countess a bit weak in timbre. Scaglia does not deny the comic elements in the score, but he never allows slapstick to get the upper hand – everything is resolved musically, with scrupulous phrasing and very clear articulation – the orchestra plays remarkably cleanly considering what it could get up to under other conductors. For once, the YouTube recording sounds about as good as a YouTube recording can, supporting my suspicion that remastered recordings made from the original tapes of all these performances could hold their own with other recordings from the same period.
Haydn’s L’Anima del Filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice was given on 23 March 1957 with Francesco Albanese (Orfeo), Onelia Fineschi (Euridice), Boris Christoff (Creonte), Renata Ongaro (Genio), Dimitri Lopatto (Plutone, quarto Corifeo), Walter Artioli (primo Corifeo), Arrigo Cattelani (secondo Corifeo), Eraldo Coda (quarto Corifeo) and the RAI’s Milan forces (chorus master Roberto Benaglio). I presume all four acts of the opera were performed, but the version to be found on YouTube has only the first three.
The modern history of this, Haydn’s last opera, began when H. Robbins Landon, backed by the Haydn Society, reassembled a score which had long been presumed lost, but was actually dispersed with bits and pieces of its manuscript scattered around Europe. The first result was a recording, set down in December 1950 under Hans Swarowsky. I have already discussed this in my article on Swarowsky. It was quickly followed by the première production of the opera at the 1951 Florence May Festival. The Florence cast was led by Maria Callas, Tyge Tygesen and Boris Christoff; the conductor was Erich Kleiber. The opera reached the UK in 1955 with a concert performance at the St. Pancras Festival. This was notable for the debut of Derek Hammond-Stroud. Another high-profile production came in 1967 when Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda sang the leading roles – and more, since Sutherland also sang the Genie’s coloratura aria herself – in Vienna and at the Edinburgh Festival. In recent times, Orfeo has been staged in several cities with Cecilia Bartoli as the star. Bartoli has recorded it with Christopher Hogwood. Despite all this, the opera has never quite overcome the general perception that Haydn just wasn’t an opera composer. It has not entered the standard repertoire. Whatever the dramatic shortcomings, the 1950 recording left no doubt that, from a musical standpoint, this is late Haydn in consistently inspired form.
The last two decades have seen a thriving industry in the retrieval of “lost” Callas performances. So if no tape of the 1951 Florence production has emerged, I’m sure it’s not for want of looking. Presumably this, and the 1955 St. Pancras performance, if that matters, are lost to us. Sutherland’s 1967 Edinburgh performance has been located and issued. Meanwhile, Christoff repeated his Creonte in this RAI performance under Scaglia. On the assumption – perhaps mistaken – that the complete (if slightly cut) performance exists in the RAI archives in rather better sound than we hear on YouTube, an official issue would be worth considering.
The star of the Swarowsky performance was Swarowsky himself. He gave the music vitality, elegance, poetry and pathos as needed. Furthermore, he had his wind well forward and obtained light, well-articulated textures from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, far less old-fashioned than we might have expected at that date.
Less old-fashioned, perhaps, than we hear under Ferruccio Scaglia. Nevertheless, Scaglia has his own validity. Whereas Swarowsky relates the music to Mozart, Scaglia draws parallels with the Gluck of Alceste. And he has the right singers for the job. In the all-important choral contributions the Vienna State Opera Chorus, for Swarowsky, make a better impression than Scaglia’s Milan RAI Chorus, though either way you get more vibrato than would be thought ideal today.
The weakness of Swarowsky’s recording has always been seen as Judith Hellweg’s Euridice, although her lieder-like manner is probably closer than RAI’s Onelia Fineschi to modern concepts. The problem is that, in the coloratura section of her first aria, she simply isn’t up to it.
Fineschi was one of the several Italian sopranos who would have achieved far greater recognition in a context not dominated by Callas and Tebaldi. We can only speculate as to how far this 1957 performance may reflect, if dimly, its protagonists’ memories of the Callas/Kleiber production. Compared with Hellweg, she has a fuller, gleaming voice with a typical, but well-controlled, operatic vibrato. Furthermore, she has at least something of Callas’s ability to charge the voice with emotion. Her second act aria “Del mio core”, with its preceding accompanied recitative, could hardly be better done – though Hellweg is good here, too. But in her first act aria, her coloratura is not all that good either.
As Orfeo, Francesco Calabrese’s firm, Italianate timbre – but without ranting – is fundamentally more to my liking than that of Swarowsky’s Herbert Handt. Unfortunately, Calabrese emerges as well-schooled but not very interesting. Handt has clearly thought a lot about how to express the music and his performance is much more involving.
The obvious draw for the RAI performance would be Christoff’s Creonte, of course, though Swarowsky’s Alfred Poell is excellent too, offering firmly focused, authoritative tone and rounded, musical phrasing. Christoff has his own special timbre but, unusually for singers of the “big black Russian bass” type, this does not preclude refined tonal shading.
Both Renata Ongaro and Swarowsky’s Hedda Heusser make a fair stab at their viciously difficult coloratura aria, though Heusser has the sweeter voice.
At this point in time, Scaglia’s Orfeo offers, more than anything, useful documentation on the rediscovery of Haydn as an opera composer – and on Christoff in an unaccustomed role. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in it, and those who heard it in 1957 got a very good idea of the riches the music contains.
A once-famous opera, Il Califfo di Bagdad by François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834), is to be valued principally as an example of the sort of cultural initiative RAI was regularly presenting in its halcyon days. It was performed on 30 July 1955 by Rodolfo Moraro (Haroun), Anna Maria Rota (Lemaide), Irene Gasperoni (Zubeide), Liliana Poli (Fatima), Arturo La Porta (Mesroul), Mario Carlin (Aga), Egidio Casolari (Capo del seguito di Haroun, un servitore) and with the spoken parts taken by Ernesto Calindri, Rina Centa, Enrica Corti, Emanuela Dariva, and Carlo Delfini. The orchestra and chorus were those of RAI Milan.
My own knowledge of Boieldieu is limited to a piano arrangement of the Overture to “La Dame Blanche”. This was in an album in my school music room and I played it often and loudly. It was once enormously popular but, so far as I recollect, I’ve never actually heard it on the orchestra to this day, nor seen a copy of the piano version since I left school. I was aware that Boieldieu had also written an opera called “Le Calife de Bagdad” which had once been popular. I’ve been meaning to see what it’s like for about forty years … Well, here it is, and in all truth it’s a fairly pallid offshoot of Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”. Written in 1800, it’s very simple, prettily melodic, nice in its way, but with nothing suddenly so lovely to make you say it’s worth hearing, if only for that.
Italians who were curious about it in 1955 – it had surely been relegated to the history books even then – got a good deal. They heard the opera in their own language, with the quite extensive dialogue spoken by actors. Today, this will still be a good deal if you are Italian and don’t know French or if, like me, you know Italian but have only schoolboy French. I have an idea, though, that singing it in Italian subtly changes the character, making it sound more like Cimarosa than a French piece. As for the actors, they do a spirited job, but I can’t help feeling the tone they adopt – the mother especially – transplants the drama to the world of the mid-century Italian petite bourgeoisie.
More importantly, what actually are we hearing? If you have a French recording – there’s a 1963 LP under Louis Fourestier with music only, available on YouTube, and a more recent CD with dialogue under Antonio de Almeida – you will have seen that the names of the characters are different and there are more of them. Moreover, there are two musical numbers that are not in the score downloadable from IMSLP. Fourestier doesn’t include them, nor does Almeida, to judge from the track lists. Scaglia also has a substantial section of the overture reprised as an orchestral interlude during the final chorus. The others don’t do this.
It seems, then, that the plot has been substantially reworked, introducing an extra character and finding a couple of arias for him to sing. As to whether this is a version of the opera Boieldieu himself prepared for Italy, whether the additional arias are taken from another Boieldieu opera, or whether somebody wrote them in 1955, is something only a Boieldieu scholar, if there is one, could tell us. The only clue lies in the announcer’s phrase “elaboration by Fritz Schröder”. Apart from these additions, and a few tiny cuts, the score is played as written.
Scaglia takes a strictly classical view. In the introduction to the overture, he is graver than Fourestier, and he gives the main Allegro a little more symphonic weight. In the first duet he is markedly slower, giving the singers more space to make their point. However, spot checks show that there are at least as many numbers where Scaglia is faster than Fourestier. It can be said that Fourestier treats the music more as a preview of Offenbach, light and frothy in the faster pieces, warmly romantic in the slower ones. I can see a case for either view. Scaglia gets spruce, elegant playing from the Milan orchestra, transparent in texture and never heavy even when slower. In the last number, for example, Fourestier has a zippy tempo, but Scaglia’s cocky march is just as infectious.
Scaglia’s cast makes a good team, nobody calling for special comment and nobody disappointing. Fourestier has Eda-Pierre and Berbié as the female leads and, if you’re curious but not sure if you want to part with good money for something you may hear only once, Fourestier is probably the safer bet.
Back on Italian territory, Rossini’s La Gazzetta was given, this time with the RAI’s Turin Chorus and Orchestra, on 8 January 1977. The cast was made up of Giorgio Tadeo (Don Pomponio), Rosetta Pizzo (Lisetta), Andrea Snarski (Filippo), Paola Barbini (Doralice), Vito Maria Brunetti (Anselmo), Pietro Bottazzo (Alberto), Teresa Rocchino (Madama La Rose) and Franco Federici (Monsù Traversen).
Much has been made of the fact that this opera received its first complete modern performance – following the rediscovery of the lost Act I quintet – in 2013. Accounts sometimes add that a performance was given by RAI in 1960, conducted by Franco Caracciolo, and a staged performance in Vienna in 1976. Other early performances were given in 1977, in Lugano under Bruno Rigacci, and in 1987, in Piacenza under Fabio Luisi. The Caracciolo, Rigacci and Luisi performances have all appeared on CD.
What nobody mentions, or seemed to know about until it turned up on YouTube fairly recently, is the 1977 Turin performance under Scaglia. But first, some clarification. Caracciolo’s 1960 performance, which I have used for comparison, may have used the RAI’s Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra, but it was given in the Teatro di Corte, Naples. The audible presence of a prompter and some heavy footwork on stage, particularly in the finale, confirm that this was a theatre performance, so the 1976 Vienna performance couldn’t have been the first stage performance in modern times.
Caracciolo’s cast consisted of Italo Tajo, Angelica Tuccari, Mario Boriello, Gianna Galli, Leonardo Monreale, Agostino Lazzari, Bianca Maria Casoni and Carlo Cava. If these are not names known to every man in the street, they are all well known to opera buffs as experienced and reliable singers of the time. I hope I won’t provoke a storm of furious hate-mail if I confess that nobody in Scaglia’s cast was known to me, though Tadeo’s and Snarski’s curriculums suggest that I perhaps should have recognized their names. Pizzo and Bottazzo have rather shrill, shallow timbres, but Paola Barbini as Doralice was sweet and neat enough to set me Googling. Her visible career seems limited to 1977 when, as well as La Gazzetta, she sang in Le Villi (also with Snarski) and in Leoncavallo’s posthumous, probably spurious, Edipo Re. Both were conducted by Kees Bakels. But, while the cast would be passable in the absence of anything else, I can’t think of a single member who isn’t bettered by his or her 1960 equivalent.
The comparison between Caracciolo and Scaglia is interesting, however. The Naples performance is pure theatre, of a sort that used to be taken for granted when Rossini was on the billboards. The recitative pours from the singers’ tongues, pretty well as if they are speaking, but just happen to be singing instead. In the musical numbers, Caracciolo is not unappreciative of Rossini’s orchestral colouring, or insensitive towards the few expressive moments, but here again, theatrical pace is his priority. At times in the plentiful stretti, singers’ and players’ feet seem to leave the ground entirely, spattering the air with consonants like a shower of April rain. For Caracciolo does not actually seem to be driving them – rather, it is a sense of natural exuberance that is released from the music.
This, as I say, is Rossini as he used to be done. New priorities came into play post-1960, and Scaglia seems to have been among those who set them. The recitative is carefully weighted to express the words in terms of musical and vocal values. The musical numbers are given a mix between Mozartian poise and Beethovenian drive. The tempi are somewhat slower – but not so much as you would think, Scaglia is just six minutes longer overall. The greater sense of tautness and tension actually makes them seem fast. There is no heaviness, rather a sense of pre-Stravinskian neo-classical chunkiness. This is the Rossini that emerged in the 1970s, with some classic recordings under Abbado. To judge Scaglia properly, we would need to hear him work all this out in the theatre, rather than in a concert performance where the singers no doubt had scores in front of them, and with a cast at least as good as Caracciolo’s. As it is, the results are sometimes laboured, and I can only be grateful that the opera emerged from oblivion in time for Caracciolo to give us an old-style performance with a cast of old-timers.
The rarest opera in this group is Catalani’s La Falce, performed by Antonietta Cannarile Berdini (Zohra), Luigi Infantino (Il Falciatore) and the RAI’s Milan Chorus and Orchestra on 7 February 1970.
“La Falce” (“The Sickel”), Catalani’s first opera, was completed in 1875. It is in one act only, to a libretto by Boito on an oriental subject. Even as one-act operas go, it is short – just forty minutes. A ten-minute orchestral prologue is intended to relate the story so far. An extended scene for soprano follows, also lasting about ten minutes. She is then joined by a tenor, who has some important solo sections as well as combining with the soprano. A chorus is heard during the last five minutes.
Catalani certainly broke away from the Verdian norm. He can be called Wagnerian, however, only in so far as he established a blueprint for an Italian through-composed opera. The orchestra, confidently and colourfully handled, is the binding factor. The voice-writing is inherently vocal, unfailingly melodious though without actually flowering into an honest-to-God “tune”. In short, the basic ingredients of the “verismo” operas to come are all here, though Catalani does not demand that his singers remain in their upper registers to breaking point and beyond, as Mascagni often did. I do not find here the personal touch of a Mascagni or a Puccini, but Catalani was their predecessor and the strongest influence on him was perhaps Massenet. The oriental colour comes and goes, most evident in some long, sinuous lines for the wind soloists. There are a few clinking “caravan” rhythms at the end.
Without either a score or a libretto, I find it difficult to judge the likely effectiveness of this opera on the stage. Given that it lasts about as long as a romantic symphony, I should rather press its claims in the concert hall, where it could make an enjoyable symphonic cantata.
The first official recording seems to have been made in 2005 under Silvano Frontalini. The brief sound-bites available on Internet suggest that I would be unlikely to prefer it, singer-wise, to the RAI performance.
Berdini is a surname that will ring plenty of bells with opera buffs, for Amedeo Berdini (1919-1964) was one of the finest Italian tenors of his day. In the last year of his life, tragically cut short by a heart attack, he had married Antonietta Cannarile, an up-and-coming soprano twelve years his junior (b.1931).
Cannarile Berdini displays an opulent timbre in the medium-high range and some rasping chest-tones – very useful in this type of opera. Her words are pretty clear and it is only in comparison with the tenor that we notice some moments of less than totally secure intonation. These barely detract from a highly effective performance.
Luigi Infantino (1921-1991) had made his debut in 1943 so was by now something of a veteran – he continued singing until 1973. As suggested above, he sings with complete technical security and a fine sense of style. Possibly, his voice had dried out a little by the time of this performance. It is more baritonal, less sappy than it was in the 1950s, but this is still a fine performance to remember him by.
RAI performances often show, orchestrally, a combination of authentic style and lax discipline. Not here. Scaglia combines precise ensemble with clear articulation and lucid textures. His pacing is unerring. Maybe a Gavazzeni would have generated a greater sense of occasion, even at the expense of some rough edges. But I never found Scaglia sold me short on atmosphere.
Catalani’s best known opera, La Wally, has circulated in a bootleg recording made at the Teatro Donizetti of Bergamo. The cast mixes some highly esteemed singers with other more provincial ones: Nicola Zaccaria (Stromminger), Giovanni Foiani (Il Pedone), Laura Zanini (Afra), Magda Olivero (Wally), Ida Farina (Walter), Silvano Carroli (Vincenzo Gellner) and Amedeo Zambon (Giuseppe Hagenbach). The performance was given on 10 September 1972.
David Chandler’s excellent article for MWI on Catalani saves me from attempting a job I could hardly have done as well as he has. What I can do is confirm the high quality of La Wally. So often, when discussing these fringe-of-the-repertoire pieces, one is reduced to say that, once allowance has been made for this, providing you can take that in your stride, if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief over the other, then the thing’s a minor masterpiece. Readers may note examples of this sort of reasoning elsewhere in the present article. But quite frankly, I cannot hear that La Wally is anything but splendidly constructed, musically rich and well-varied, and genuinely inspired in all the key moments.
The issue has always been Catalani’s apparent Wagnerism, supposedly grafted uneasily onto an Italianate melodic vein. In truth, his is a Wagnerism of manner rather than of substance, closer to a middle-European interpretation of Wagner. While he was quite likely unaware of Smetana’s and Dvořák’s work in this direction, he was doing much the same thing as them in his own terms. That is to say, the orchestra weaves a fairly continuous symphonic pattern, while the actual language is purely Italian, with plenty of space for folkloristic dances and broadening into quasi set pieces at pivotal moments. It provides, as Chandler observes, a blueprint for much that happened in Italian opera post-Verdi, excepting Puccini and Leoncavallo, but very much including Mascagni after Cavalleria Rusticana.
If there’s a caveat that you have to take into your stride, it is the fact that it is not verista and not very real. The various blood-feuds and kissing-games, not to speak of the Alpine backdrop with its final catastrophic avalanche, have to be taken symbolically. As happens with later Mascagni or Zandonai, and an Italian vein not entirely exhausted even post-war – see my discussion below of Viozzi’s Il Sasso Pagano.
With some of these supposedly off-centre operas, there is a surprisingly large unofficial discography – as I found when writing about L’Amico Fritz and Fedora. La Wally must be alone among operas of comparable importance not to have been recorded by Cetra in the early 1950s. Its first studio recording came only in 1968, on Decca, a late effort by Tebaldi and Del Monaco conducted by Fausto Cleva.
Yet things had looked better for La Wally when La Scala opened the 1953-4 season with it on 7 December 1953 – just ahead of Catalani’s birth centenary in 1954. This choice was perhaps influenced by Toscanini, who loved the opera, had propagated it earlier in his career and named his children Wally and Walter after two of its characters. Maybe someone hoped that Toscanini himself would have been tempted to conduct, but he did at least attend the performances, led by Giulini. In 1953, as in 1968, the lead singers were Tebaldi and Del Monaco, while the young Renata Scotto took the breeches part of Walter. Did anyone present suppose that the opera would never be heard at La Scala again? Maybe it will be one day, but 63 years on it has yet to be revived, and Catalani’s name has been absent from La Scala’s seasons since Gavazzeni’s 1968 performances of Loreley.
Tebaldi did what she could to keep the role alive, but often had to be content with isolated concert performances. The 1972 Bergamo performance with Magda Olivero is practically the only surviving one, until recent times, without Tebaldi. In order to focus on it, I have made an act-by-act comparison with a 1960 RAI concert performance by Tebaldi under Arturo Basile, and supplemented this by listening to the last act in the 1953 La Scala performance – which was broadcast and has survived in reasonable sound for what it is – and in the 1968 Decca recording.
The kindest thing that can be said of the actual recording of the Scaglia/Olivero performance is that it’s better than the Scaglia/Olivero Fedora discussed below The levels don’t go up and down disturbingly and once you have accepted that it’s tinny and with limited range, you can concentrate on the performance. Some Amazon commentators have gone overboard about the awfulness of the sound. I wonder if the version I found on YouTube is actually the Opera d’Oro transfer they are talking about, or whether the YouTuber has found something slightly better.
As far as Act 1 goes, the Bergamo performance has a lot going for it. The advantage of a properly prepared theatre performance compared with a minimally rehearsed radio production is evident in the way the various exchanges between the characters, even minor ones, all have point and motivation, whereas in the RAI performance they more or less have to fend for themselves. Scaglia’s precise baton technique ensures that several passages are clearly articulated and properly together, whereas under Basile the Milan RAI Orchestra provides the sort of “more-or-less” concept of togetherness we tend to expect from Italian orchestras. Both have a good Stromminger – Basile has Silvio Majorana. Neither Basile’s Walter, Pinuccia Perotti, nor Scaglia’s Ida Farina, have especially alluring voices, but Scaglia has evidently worked a lot with the latter to get an effective interpretation of her yodelling song – this is one of those awkward operas that begins with a major aria for a minor character. Basile’s Hagenbach is Giacinto Prandelli. His earlier recordings suggest that he was really a Donizetti-sized tenor who pushed himself to be more. There’s some insecure intonation at his first appearance. Amedeo Zambon, for Scaglia, has the right sort of voice, a sort of Italian Heldentenor. Nothing special to the interpretation, but he gets round the notes comfortably enough and that’s a good start.
My first impression of Magda Olivero was all in her favour. Tebaldi does no more than establish a sort of regal, haughty presence. She sings very well, though a few top notes suggest that time was passing even for her. Not long after this performance, in fact, she retired for a few years, before resuming her career. From Olivero you get an obviously old voice and some jaded tones, but you also get the tingle factor, for she throws herself into it heart and soul.
Later on, though, the Milan performance comes into its own. As often happens with hastily prepared radio performances under a conductor who knows what he wants, the thing gels as it goes along. The orchestra itself becomes more cohesive and the dances in Act 2 have a more Austrian lilt – Scaglia’s discipline makes them sound a little Prussian. Both conductors rise to the beauties of the third and fourth acts and I wouldn’t necessarily prefer one over the other. Most importantly, Tebaldi stops being a beauty queen and really acts the part. Her voice takes freer flight, though she ducks the top C she managed so beautifully in 1953. Olivero’s visceral attack comes to sound more like screaming and, all things considered, I can’t say Olivero is any longer offering a compensating involvement that you don’t get from Tebaldi – much better sung. Prandelli, too, appears less strained and on the whole manages the last act well, whereas Zambon seems to tire a little.
Of the two, then, the Tebaldi/Basile seems preferable, but what about the 1953 and 1968 Tebaldi versions?
While the 1953 recording cannot be called good, it does not actually sound worse than the 1972 Scaglia, and there is every reason to be indulgent towards it. The version I have is issued by Cantus Classics. Tebaldi was in absolutely fabulous voice, not a scratch on her rich, soaring timbre. She is also totally involved. Del Monaco, too, was at his finest, a glorious outpouring of generous tones, but with the suppleness and gentler tones he lost over the next decade. There’s luxury casting with the young Renata Scotto as Walter. Giulini shows in many details the difference between a great conductor and a very good one. He finds an urgency you mightn’t expect from him and the end is truly cataclysmic. If you want to hear the opera at its best, you really need to sacrifice modern sound and go here.
On the other hand, if you go to the 1968 Decca, you will hear the details of Catalani’s scoring much more clearly. Fausto Cleva conducts efficiently and effectively, though I thought him the least involved of the four conductors. Tebaldi still retains a good deal of her vocal qualities. The voice is a little darker, she uses more chest tones lower down and she has to husband her top notes carefully – as in 1960, she takes a variant to avoid the top C. But there is still enough to show we are listening to a great singer.
The years had dealt less kindly with Del Monaco. His forte top notes still ring out well, but lower in the range, and in any passages where he is, hypothetically, not singing at a steady fortissimo, he is painful.
So there you are. Olivero is for fans only, though for the point of view of this article, there is plenty to admire in Scaglia’s work. Otherwise, it has to be one of the Tebaldis – there are a few other live ones around, one with Bergonzi.
Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz was given by RAI forces in Rome on 14 September 1966. The cast was Gianna Galli (Suzel), Franco Bonisolli (Fritz Kobus), Giuseppina Arista (Beppe, the gypsy), Antonio Boyer (David, the Rabbi), Gabriele De Julis (Federico), Giorgio Onesti (Hanézo) and Anna Maria Borrelli (Caterina, Fritz’s governess).
L’Amico Fritz was Mascagni’s second opera, first produced in 1891, a year after his triumphal bow before the public with Cavalleria Rusticana. He deliberately set out to write a work as different as possible from the previous one, a charming and simple love story set in an undefined countryside – generally presumed, from the introduction of a couple of Alsatian folk melodies, to be somewhere in Alsace. In place of the crude passions of Verga’s Sicily, we have a tale of quietly burgeoning love, unacknowledged, then resisted and finally reaching fulfilment. The plot, in so far as there is one, is carried forward by David, a Rabbi with a sideline in matchmaking, and Beppe, the gypsy. The latter, a travesty role, actually has little to do with the story, but is rendered memorable by two arias, as well as the off-stage violin solo with which he is introduced. Criticism has insisted on the flimsiness of the story – Verdi thought it the silliest opera libretto ever written. Mascagni’s score rebuts such censure by providing an hour and a half of sheer enchantment. This is far less of a blueprint for verismo than Catalani’s La Falce had been. Though nominally through-composed, it is really a number opera, for it broadens into set-piece arioso at every opportunity. The tendency of the veristi to push the voice into its upper register and hold it there mercilessly is scarcely present except for one phrase in Suzel’s exchanges with David in Act II. This phrase practically throttles Carteri and Freni, but Galli shows that it can be managed. Harmony and orchestration are often imaginative and piquant. Bernard Shaw, in a famous squelch, thought it “an opera that will pass the evening pleasantly enough for you, but which you need not regret missing if you have business elsewhere”. Mahler, on the other hand, thought Fritz an advance on Cavalleria. Personally, I would suggest that, if it is given anywhere within your reach, you should make a point of rescheduling whatever business you have elsewhere. Not that you are likely to have many opportunities to do so. According to Wikipedia, Fritz is still in the “active repertoire” in Italy, but you could live here for more than forty years – as I have done – without noticing it. It has not been heard at La Scala since Gavazzeni’s performances in the 1963-4 season. Nothing much shows up elsewhere, but La Fenice, Venice, put it on this year and some smaller centres – Cagliari, Livorno, Modena and Ravenna – have heard it during the past decade.
In line with its fringe status, Fritz has enjoyed only three “official” recordings over the years: Mascagni’s own, made in 1942 for Cetra with Tassinari and Tagliavini, the EMI set with Freni and Pavarotti under Gavazzeni (1968) and, very much more recently, a recording vehicle for Gheorghiu and Alagna, conducted by Veronesi. Off the beaten track, there are more versions than you would expect. In order to focus on the pros and cons of Scaglia’s RAI recording, which seems to have been given without an audience, I made act-by-act comparisons with two others – an earlier RAI performance under Vittorio Gui, with Carteri and Valletti (1953) and Gavazzeni’s performance at La Scala, with Freni and Gianni Raimondi (1963).
Gui was a great Rossinian and pretty effective in Mozart and Verdi, too. In truth, he conducted a wide range of music magnificently well, not only Italian and not only operatic. But he was not especially noted as a conductor of verismo. There is clearly a fine conductor at work here, but there is also a suspicion of condescension. It is as though he were saying, with a Rossinian twinkle, “It’s not bad at all, this thing, is it! Who would have thought it?” At times, too, he goes at it hammer and tongs, as if to show that he, too, can tear passions to tatters when needs be. Alone of the three conductors, he has the orchestra at full stretch from the start of the Intermezzo, leaving himself nowhere to go. In short, of the three conductors, he is the one who seems to view Mascagni’s world from the outside. Alone of the three, he makes one short cut, in Act II.
Rosanna Carteri was a major soprano, somewhat shunted to the sidelines by the eternal Callas-Tebaldi rivalry. She could sometimes sing a little flat, but not here, where she is in glorious voice throughout, apart from the phrase noted above. She is, however, too sophisticated, even flirtatious, for this role – more a Manon than a Suzel. Cesare Valletti is excellent, with some exquisite semi-falsetto high pianissimos à la Lauri-Volpi. If I sense a certain lack of engagement, it probably stems from the conducting.
Gianandrea Gavazzeni was a man with a mission where the veristi were concerned, and fought to his dying day to keep them in the repertoire. In the first act, the gain seemed total. Under his direction, the opera was word-driven. All the rhythms and melodic patterns are at the service of the words, and are therefore often treated very flexibly indeed. The whole thing leapt to life. This, he had me thinking, is how verismo opera has to be performed. Two doubts came to my mind. Firstly, would he be able to repeat this in studio conditions and with a British orchestra extraneous to this tradition? Secondly, how much of this would get across to a listener who did not know Italian well? Would it appear to such a listener that the conductor was riding rough-shod over many details of the score?
Well, I’ve acquired the EMI set and the answer to the first question is that he couldn’t, quite. As for the second, there’s no doubt that he skates over the introduction to Act II far too hastily and is fidgety with the “Cherry Duet”. As the performance proceeded, I rather lost sympathy with his apparent desire to pep things up as much as possible. Furthermore, Gavazzeni has re-orchestrated large swathes of the music. After the “Cherry Duet” there is a section – “Bene arrivati! – in waltz time in which the singers are accompanied by countermelodies on the trumpet and trombone. Gavazzeni will have none of this vulgarity and replaces them with clarinet and bassoon. Gui plays what is written, seemingly shrugging his shoulders – “yes, it’s vulgar, but that’s not my fault”. Scaglia has realized that, by taking a slightly slower tempo, the trumpet and trombone assume an intentionally gawky, parodistic air – the sort of thing in the score that would surely have appealed to Mahler.
A little later, Suzel begins her Rebekah passage – “faceasi vecchio Abramo” – accompanied by the brass choir – evidently evoking the creaky village harmonium. Lucky Mascagni who had Gavazzeni to help him out – the brass are replaced by glutinous strings. Again, Gui plays what is written, but it is Scaglia who really evokes the domestic harmonium. I noted a few more “improvements” by Gavazzeni along the way.
All this is very puzzling. After all, the Gavazzeni EMI recording has been around for nearly half a century, acquiring iconic status over the years, and I have never read anything to the effect that Gavazzeni had used an edition of his own. Did he make the same changes in the studio? Well, yes, he did. Am I really the first person to notice? Incidentally, an earlier performance by Gavazzeni also exists (Naples, San Carlo 1951). Back then he played what was written. Terrible sound, but this performance has Beniamino Gigli as Fritz, so I suppose I shall have to listen to it complete one day.
Another feature of the EMI recording that I’ve never seen commented on is that the orchestra plays half a beat behind the singers, not just from time to time, which can happen, but pretty well systematically. I think this is because Gavazzeni belonged to that older school of Italian conductors who had the orchestra play after the beat, not on it. The first time I saw Gavazzeni conduct, in fact, I got the idea that the beat was up, not down. In reality the beat was down, but because of the delay, the orchestra entered as he went up to prepare for the next beat. This is fine with an orchestra brought up to the same tradition, such as La Scala in 1963. I suspect it created some coordination problems in London.
Gavazzeni’s Suzel in 1963, as in the recording, was Mirella Freni, much more the fresh, innocent peasant girl than Carteri. The recording was Pavarotti’s first complete opera on disc. In 1963, Fritz was taken by Gianni Raimondi. A fine performance, occasionally pushed by the conductor to excessive vehemence.
And so to Ferruccio Scaglia. He brings a keen analytical intelligence to the music. He seems concerned to bring out what is in the score, rather than apologize for it. On the second page of the Prelude, he brings out the parody elements of the syncopated imitation-accordion accompaniment. He has it wheezing away clearly all through, while with Gavazzeni it has to fit into the way he shapes the tune. The pulsating accompaniment of “Per voi, ghiottoni inutile” is the mainstay of the musical texture, not just something that’s there. As I pointed out above, he not only plays Mascagni’s orchestration in Act II, he understands the reason for it.
If this sounds didactic, I should add that he is highly flexible where the voices need it and has understood that Mascagni needs his space. He takes ten minutes longer than the other two, and many phrases acquire full colour and meaning with that little extra time. I found this performance the most generally moving of those I heard. I have only sampled Mascagni’s own performance, but my impression is that Scaglia may have studied it and taken it, not as a model for slavish imitation, but as his inspiration. While he took the point that Mascagni needs his space, he also realized that the elderly Mascagni sometimes overdid the elbow room.
Scaglia’s Suzel, Gianna Galli (1935-2010), had a career truncated at the age of 40 by a vocal disease that could not be operated with the technologies then available. She continued to express her love of opera by acting as manager to younger singers. She was the wife of the tenor Aldo Bottion. She specialized in light soprano roles and Suzel is a fine memento of her art. She has all the rosy-cheeked freshness of the young Mirella Freni and is more successful in negotiating some of the higher phrases.
The Fritz, Franco Bonisolli (1938-2003), developed a later reputation for tenorial – and sometimes personal – bad manners. Here all is well, a genuinely felt performance unfazed by Mascagni’s stronger demands.
I haven’t mentioned so far the Davids or the Beppes. Scaglia’s David is Antonio Boyer (b.1932). He has a bigger, more cavernous voice than Gui’s Tagliabue or Gavazzeni’s Panerai, reassuring in its fullness but slower to speak in the quicker exchanges. He really comes into his own in the Rebekah exchanges in Act II where, alone of the three, he has the power to bring the bring the scene to a proper climax.
I’m not sure that I’ve heard an ideal Beppe anywhere along the line. There’s an element of the hooty contralto to them all. But Giuseppina Arista, helped by Scaglia’s slower tempo, is the most moving of the three in the Act II romance “Oh pallida, che un giorno”. This is important, for it is by listening to this romance that Fritz discovers and acknowledges his own growing love in the following soliloquy “Ed anche Beppe amò!”
In conclusion, the version that presents L’Amico Fritz in its finest light is Scaglia’s. The sound, from YouTube, is obviously not a patch on EMI’s studio sound. But do RAI still have the original tapes? They should sound well, for the recording is only two years older than the EMI.
Another bootleg retrieval is Giordano’s Fedora. This was given at the Teatro Sociale of Como in February 1971 with a cast consisting of Magda Olivero (La Principessa Fedora Romanoff), Giuseppe Giacomini (Il Conte Loris Ipanoff), Mario D'Anna (De Siriex), Elena Baggiore [Eugenia Ratti according to other sources] (La Contessa Olga Sokarev), Angelo Mercuriali (Il Barone Rouvel) and Pietro Di Vietri (Dmitri), The orchestra and chorus were those of the Milan Angelicum.
I have already discussed Fedora at some length in a review for MWI of the Decca recording with Olivero, Del Monaco and Gobbi, conducted by Gardelli. I compared that performance with an off-air version from La Scala, given in 1993 under Gavazzeni with Freni and Domingo. I concluded that this latter would be preferable if officially issued. It has since come out on video and has been reviewed here by Robert J. Farr and Rob Maynard. Both confirmed my high regard for the Gavazzeni performance. I would only part company with Rob Maynard’s contention that the opera was little-heard between the 1930s and the 1990s. This seems to be true only with regard to the English-speaking world. If you are tolerant over sound quality, you can hear something like thirty live or radio performances, some more or less official, others less so, mostly but not entirely from Italy. You can hear the name part from Caniglia, Tassinari, Tebaldi, Stella, Pobbe, Zeani and Scotto. For Loris, you can choose from Prandelli, Tagliavini, Di Stefano, Prevedi and Campora. Interestingly, Aldo Bottion, who took the tiny part of Rouvel in the 1993 performance, sang Loris alongside Pobbe and Stella in the 1960s. You can hear Domingo in every decade of his career, starting from 1977. His Fedoras read like a generational catalogue, while he stayed always the same – Zeani (1977), Scotto (1988), Freni (1993), Dessì (1999) and Gheorghiu (2008). As I remarked in my previous review, it’s a two-singer or a three-singer opera according to who sings Des Sirieux. Old timers like Scipione Colombo and Saturno Meletti got quite a lot out of the part. You will, however, have to turn to more recent performances if you want Olga’s arias, which are traditionally cut and might just conceivably turn it into a four-singer opera if handled well. For conductors, you can hear Rossi, De Fabritiis, Molinari-Pradelli, Basile, Mannino, Annovazzi, Silipigni and Gatto. These latter names do, perhaps, point to the fact that it has remained a mainly “local” opera. The existence of performances under Matacic and Downes is the exception that confirms the rule – these conductors showed a particular interest in the verista repertoire.
Faced with such a wide discography, much of it available on YouTube, I could have got side-tracked into writing a freestanding survey of them all. This may come one day. Sticking to the job in hand, I have made an Act-by-Act comparison between the Scaglia Fedora and another with Olivero, given in Lucca under Napoleone Annovazzi in 1969. I have refreshed my memory of the Gardelli/Olivero recording and I have compared selected passages in as many others as I can find, just to get an idea of what the alternatives are. My comments on these other performances are clearly very provisional.
Magda Olivero was essentially a singing actress. In my review of the Decca recording I remarked that “the voice was not perhaps especially beautiful in itself and it did not age particularly well. It retained its body and power, but even when she recorded Iris for the RAI in 1956, and Tosca in 1957, it was not exactly a young-sounding voice and in 1969 it is definitely the voice of an elderly woman. We can admire the clarity of her diction, her breath control, her phrasing, her gut conviction, but on disc I find the somewhat jaded quality of the voice gets in the way of total enjoyment. Maybe this was not so in the theatre”.
These two live performances confirm the latter point. Without a close mike to pick up the wear and tear, it’s the strength and staying power that come over. All the same, these are not recordings for the faint hearted. The Lucca performance seems to have been captured on a small cassette recorder in the auditorium. It is unpleasantly shrill and tinny. Moreover, the Loris, Giuseppe Di Stefano, is a serious liability. If Mario Del Monaco, on the Decca recording, was reduced to tired belting by 1969, Di Stefano in 1969 could produce only tired barking. “Amor ti vieta” is a painful experience. If Di Stefano is your man, go to the 1961 performance from San Carlo, Naples, with Tebaldi as Fedora and Basile conducting. You will find a performance much more worthy of his high reputation, indeed a possible front-runner in the Loris stakes. Returning to Lucca, neither the Des Sirieux nor the Olga make much impression and the orchestra is obviously provincial. Annovazzi was a fine conductor, though. He drives the party scenes while relaxing affectionately, but never too much, in the more lyrical moments.
Another front-runner in the Loris stakes would certainly be Giuseppe Giacomini. At the time of the 1971 Como performance, he was 31 and seemed set for a great career. In the event, this didn’t quite happen. Here is not the place to examine why. Suffice to say that his Loris offered vocal splendour and full involvement in the role. Mario D’Anna’s Des Sirieux is one of the ones that make it into a three-singer opera and the Olga of Elena Baggiore (or Eugenia Ratti) is good enough to make one wish her first act aria had not been cut. All this means that Olivero herself has much more to bite on and react to. Whatever the virtues of her 1969 Lucca performance or the Decca recording, here she gives the performance of her life.
Scaglia, as compared with Annovazzi, is more concerned to preserve the conversational flow of the opera. It is, perhaps, the interpretation of a conductor as used to performing symphonies as operas. Everything leads up to a memorable third act. Como, like Lucca, was a provincial theatre. So much so that it seemingly had no resident orchestra and hired the adequately competent, if not ideally numerous, Angelicum Orchestra of Milan.
Unfortunately, while the recording is better than that of the Lucca performance, it cannot really be recommended except to specialists. The microphone seems to have been in one of the theatre wings. The result is that sometimes, as a singer approaches that zone, the voice booms out and you have to reach for the volume. On other occasions, the singers retreat to near inaudibility on the other side of the stage. Fedora’s dying moments are a particularly frustrating casualty.
So where does this leave us? Magda Olivero certainly does seem to have been the definitive Fedora. Her Decca recording documents faithfully the occasional wear and tear on her voice and places her against the painfully stentorian Del Monaco. I praised Tito Gobbi’s Des Sirieux before but, having sampled a good many others, I have to say that D’Anna, Scipione Colombo, Saturno Meletti and Vincenzo Sardinero, at the very least, offer fine interpretations that are better sung. There’s an Olga, Lucia Cappellino, who doesn’t make us regret the cutting of her first act aria. Worst of all, while Lamberto Gardelli gets good playing from the orchestra, he limits himself to accompanying proficiently. In my earlier review, I noted the superiority of Gavazzeni. My present listening session has helped me to focus on a larger problem.
If you look at Italian opera house playbills, you will see that the conductor is described, in full, as “Maestro Concertatore e Direttore d’Orchestra”. The “Maestro Concertatore” bit means that he has worked with the singers around the piano to create a cohesive theatrical interpretation, before putting it all together with the orchestra. This rather goes against the recording philosophy that prevailed from the 1970s, when a handful of big names were flown in and fitted together as they came. Obviously, a conductor who was happy just to tag along with them came in very handy. Hence Lamberto Gardelli acquired a certain reputation in the recording studios, while remaining disregarded in his native land. He did have a neat way with the orchestra, but listen to the beginning of his Fedora. Things coast along amiably till Fedora’s entrance and first aria. Gardelli allows Olivero to pull this out of context, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”. Attentive accompanying, but give a singer an inch and they’ll take a mile. I think Olivero knew this really, since she is happy to let Scaglia and Annovazzi shape her performance, creating a context for it. The upshot is that there is a difference in kind between Gardelli and every other conductor I have heard. Every single one of the old-style Italian conductors does – some better than others, of course – a job that Gardelli seems not even to know has to be done. His Fedora has all the tension of a lettuce leaf that has been kept in the cellar for a week.
At this point, it seems that, magnificent though Olivero’s Fedora is, it’s worth looking at the alternatives. As things stand, the answer seems to be the Gavazzeni/Freni/Domingo, though the Des Sirieux is nothing special and Gavazzeni, for all his love and authority, was very old and sometimes lets things slacken. Stronger Fedoras come from Tassinari, Pobbe, Stella, Scotto and the late lamented Daniela Dessì. The best all round performance may be the 1988 Barcelona production with Domingo in better voice than at La Scala, Scotto in fine form, a good Des Sirieux from Sardinero and conducting from Armando Gatto in the Gavazzeni mould, but letting things spin a bit more in the livelier moments. At present, you can find this in very poor quality video on YouTube, taken from Spanish Television. If Spanish Television has good copies in their archive, an official DVD release would win marginally over the Gavazzeni.
There is one opera from the regular repertoire in which we can hear Scaglia at work: Puccini’s Turandot. This was given on 15 December 1965 by Anna Di Cavalieri (Turandot), Gianfranco Cecchele (Calaf), Lydia Marimpietri (Liù), Giuseppe Valdengo (Ping), Mario Carlin (Pang), Tommaso Frascati (Pong) and Elio Castellano (Timur), with the RAI Rome Orchestra and Chorus.
Obviously, the potential comparative versions are practically endless, so I decided to limit myself to one. Since I have referred elsewhere to the “Leinsdorf syndrome” with regard to Scaglia, I thought it could be interesting to make my comparisons with the 1959 RCA version under Leinsdorf, also recorded in Rome, though with the Rome Opera Orchestra. This has a formidable cast – Birgit Nilsson (Turandot), Renata Tebaldi (Liù), Jussi Björling (Calaf) and Giorgio Tozzi (Timur).
In truth, if both conductors could be professorially rigorous to excess, neither is so here. In terms of discipline, they both get good playing from their Roman orchestras. On small points, I found a slight preference for Scaglia in Act I. He has a remarkable ability to hone in on the harmonic modernity of Puccini’s writing – something to do with his balancing of the bitonal elements and the dissonances. This is true all through the opera – there is an expressionist feel to the grating discords underpinning the Princess’s riddle scene. Leinsdorf is more concerned to evoke a postcard China, putting the action in a coloured picture frame.
Another point where I find Scaglia has an advantage is an issue that those who do not know Italian well may find difficult to understand. I’ve already aroused a reader’s wrath on this site by preferring Erede’s Bohème to Beecham’s. My reason was that Erede was able to find tempi that related to the natural rhythms of the Italian language, whereas Beecham sometimes forced the singers to adopt unnatural speech-rhythms. It’s the same here. I have no idea whether Leinsdorf spoke Italian, though I would assume that, given the strong component of Italian operas in his repertoire, he must have had at least a decent working knowledge of the language. Nevertheless, in the Ping, Pang, Pong scene, he pushes the singers a bit, while Scaglia gives them the space they need to express their words naturally. In Act II, on the other hand, Leinsdorf seems to be listening to his singers’ natural sense of pace, and the Ping, Pang, Pong scenes in this Act go beautifully under both conductors. But then in Act III, after “Nessun dorma”, Leinsdorf goes into overdrive, and his male trio sound squeezed. For what it’s worth, Scaglia seems to me to have a slightly better trio – though the Pong is common to both. The prospect of hearing “Toscanini’s baritone”, Giuseppe Valdengo, as Ping, may be the big draw for opera buffs.
Returning to Act I, I find that in “Signore ascolta”, Scaglia’s more flowing tempo is exactly right for the rhythm of the words, whereas at Leinsdorf’s slower tempo the words are uncomfortably stretched. Tebaldi can sustain it beautifully, of course, but this isn’t a late Beethoven string quartet, and I find more dramatic sense and truth in Lydia Marimpietri’s performance for Scaglia. Which seems a good point to discuss the casts.
Lydia Marimpietri is a soprano one comes across fairly often, but usually in smaller parts. Biographical information is in short supply, though she certainly had a fairly international career. She must have been on a high in 1965, for she produces an unreserved flow of lovely tone. Her vibrato is a little more generous than that of Renata Tebaldi, but it is emphatically not a wobble. Her phrasing and enunciation are always natural. Tebaldi, marvellously as she sings, never sounds like a humble servant girl. Her main object seems to be to show that she’s every inch as regal as the real Princess. My definite preference is for Marimpietri.
Scaglia’s Turandot was Anna de’ Cavalieri. This Italian-sounding name belongs to Illinois-born Anne McKnight (1924-2012). After an early career in the USA in which she sang Musetta in La Bohème and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Toscanini, she moved to Italy. Rather than listen to Italians trying to work out how to pronounce her name, she translated it literally into Anna de’ Cavalieri and achieved considerable success in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1960 she returned to the USA to sing in Dallapiccola’s Il Prigoniero under Stokowski, but failed to re-establish herself in her home country. She continued singing in Italy but retired rather suddenly in the late 1960s – I can’t find the exact date, but she was still singing Tosca in 1968. A quite extensive interview with de’ Cavalieri can be found on
OperaClick. She offers some thoughts on the role of Turandot but does not mention this specific production.
The RAI performance therefore marks a fairly late stage in a career which had lasted over twenty years. Nevertheless, it reveals a strong voice, if not a strikingly individual one, fully involved in the role and rarely strained by it. Such few signs of strain as there are actually help to imply a degree of vulnerability which makes her final capitulation to Calaf and to love the more credible.
Birgit Nilsson obviously has the advantage of an easily recognizable timbre and a sheer command that makes light of every difficulty. Is this ice-maiden too perfect for her own good? I thought not, since there is also a softness at the centre of her sure-fire vocal production which actually makes her seem less regally aloof than Tebaldi’s Liù. Doubts arose in her Act II exchanges with Liù, where the two singers seem to be competing for who has the most beautiful voice. Honours are about even, but they are insufficiently differentiated, whereas de’ Cavalieri and Marimpietri present two distinct characters. Then, in Act III, the sheer stream of vocal loveliness ended up by making this Turandot a bit too much of a chocolate cream Princess.
Scaglia’s Calaf, Gianfranco Cecchele (b.1938) was a new discovery at the time. He had begun to study singing only in 1963, and made his debut in 1964. In 1965, as well as this RAI Calaf, he appeared at La Scala and sang alongside Callas in Paris. Unfortunately, he allowed himself to be pushed into doing too much too soon and in the late 1960s had to withdraw from the scene on account of inflamed tonsils. After a period of retraining he was able to resume his career, which continued until 2006. Nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, he never quite achieved the highest rung of international fame. This 1965 performance stands, therefore, as a vivid reminder of just how great his initial promise was. He presents a generous, ardent Prince, unfazed by the demands of the role.
Jussi Björling was, by 1959, near the end of a singing and drinking career that stretched back to the 1930s. There are some signs of strain in Act I, otherwise there is little aural evidence of his precarious condition. Indeed, sheer vocal beauty risks, particularly in Act III, making him a chocolate liqueur Prince to match the chocolate cream Princess. “Nessun dorma” is elegantly turned, but it is as if a romanza by Tosti had been inserted into the proceedings – perhaps he had sung it on its own a bit too often. Cecchele and Scaglia are better at relating it to its context. Also, it may seem a niggling point, but his generally good Italian has difficulty in merging the final “n” of “nessun” with the “d” of “dorma”, with the result that he sings “Nessuna dorma”, both times. What’s the odds, you will be thinking if you don’t know Italian well. The trouble is it changes the meaning. Instead of “Let none sleep”, he sings “Let no woman sleep”. And it’s the sort of small point that, on a record, gets larger every time you hear it. Could no one have pointed it out to him? Remembering the debacle of the Rigoletto, where he stormed back to Sweden to record his arias in a sort of Karaoke because the conductor Jonel Perlea had told him to read the score, I suppose Leinsdorf could hardly have risked something similar by telling him to read the words. There are signs, too, that Leinsdorf found Björling difficult to manage. There are several points where singer and orchestra are out of phase, particularly in the interpretation of the upbeats, in a way that doesn’t happen with any of the other singers.
The part of Timur is less important but not negligible. Elio Castellano, for Scaglia, is OK, but Giorgio Tozzi finds more in the role. Indeed, he and Leinsdorf make a really moving episode out of Timur’s lament following Liù’s death.
One final point concerns the very end. We may doubt whether Puccini himself would have closed with a blowsy choral reprise of “Nessun dorma”, though without changing the end of the story – which he might well have done – it’s difficult to see how else he could have ended. Scaglia at least has it flow inevitably out of what came before. Leinsdorf gives it the full Broadway treatment – “Attit folks! ... Altogether now! ... NESSUN DORMA!”
Altogether, I find more heart in the Scaglia performance and, of the two, it would be my preference. Clearly, the choice is not limited to these two, but that would be another, very long story.
Traceable on YouTube are extracts, amounting to about 35 minutes, from a performance of La Bohème which Scaglia conducted at the Arena Sferisterio of Macerata on 11 July 1977 – the middle performance of three. The mainly stellar cast consisted of Raina Kabaivanska (Mimì), José Carreras (Rodolfo), Elvidia Ferracuti (Musetta), Rolando Panerai (Marcello), Carlo Cava (Colline), Giuseppe Morresi (Schaunard), Mario Ferrara (Benoit), Renato Ercolani (Alcindoro) and Maurizio Piacenti (Sergente). The extracts are, Act I from “Non sono in vena” to the end, with a small omission; Act 2: “Questa Mimì” and “Una cuffietta di pizza”; Act 3: “Donde lieta”; Act 4: from “Sono andati” to the end.
I hope I shall hear the whole of this performance one day. Carreras, in 1977, was in the first flush of his early maturity, offering gloriously unforced singing, perfect for the role. Kaibavanska was for decades Italy’s leading Puccini soprano. I have not always understood what the fuss was about, since the voice later developed a heavy beat and a vibrato that was far from microphone-friendly – hence her very limited recording career. Here, her voice is still a thing of untrammelled loveliness, while her involvement is total. Her solos are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Quite simply, I cannot imagine ever hearing the role better done. It helps that Scaglia produces diaphanous, almost Debussian sounds from his orchestra, over which nobody need force their tone. The audience seem to have realized they were hearing something exceptional. Final orchestral chords are habitually drowned by applause in Italy, but here a few early clappers are swiftly silenced and Scaglia is allowed to concluded in silence. Only after a stunned pause does a roar of approval burst out.
So far as one hears, the smaller roles are adequately taken. The sound, though obviously made in the auditorium, is better than average for this sort of thing, better than the Fedora or the La Wally I discuss in this article. There are coughers, an aeroplane passes overhead at the beginning of “O soave fanciulla” and a motorbike passes elsewhere – this is an open-air venue. Nevertheless, I hope the entire performance will surface before too long.
Modern and Contemporary Opera
In many ways, this is the most interesting section of this survey, since it introduces several figures whose names mean little today.
This could not be said, obviously, of Busoni, whose Arlecchino was performed on 25 August 1966 by Adriana Martino (Colombina), Tommaso Frascati (Arlecchino), Giorgio Gusso (Arlecchino, speaker), Petre Munteanu (Leandro), Giuseppe Valdengo (Ser Matteo del Sarto),
Rolando Panerai (Cospicuo), Paolo Montarsolo (Il dottor Bombasto), Antonio Venturi (narrator) and the RAI Rome Chorus and Orchestra.
An opera by an Italian composer rooted in that most Italian of all theatre traditions, the Commedia dell’Arte, ought to sound as if it has come home when performed in Italian, even if the composer did actually write it to his own libretto in German. It’s not so simple. Certainly, if you know Italian but not German, it’s a relief to hear the considerable spoken sections in a language you understand. However, certain key passages are sung in Italian anyway, and you lose the contrast if the whole opera is in that language. From that point of view, a translation into any language except Italian would be preferable. More seriously, the softer and sweeter Italian sounds take away some of the pungency from this proto-Weill (in 1913!) anti-opera. Moreover, apart from the narrator, the singers themselves have spoken passages which are noted with strict rhythms, though not pitch. These rhythms go by the board in a translation which doesn’t – and probably couldn’t – reproduce the German speech rhythms, thereby leaving the singers to speak freely against the orchestral background.
Arlecchino needs some spade-work before the listener can get the point of it – Weill would have rammed his point home and added a few damn good tunes along the way. So Busoni’s extraordinarily original piece, while seminal for much that was to come, will probably never be popular. Better to do your spade-work, then, with a proper German version, no matter what your own language is. On the other hand, Valdengo, Panerai and Montarsolo is not a trio of lower voices to be sneezed at, and they do not disappoint. Petre Monteanu is a good Leandro but Martino and Frascati impress rather less. Scaglia has the right feel for the gawky, strutting rhythms underpinning much of the work and does not romanticize the brief lyrical moments. My colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey, reviewing a reissue of the 1954 Pritchard performance, felt that Pritchard, at 53:35, hustled it along a bit, whereas the more recent Nagano, lasting almost ten minutes more, went a bit far the other way. Scaglia, at 60:29, probably has it right. It has to be said, though, that the orchestra is a bit rough and ready. Nothing really bad, and if the Rome orchestra had been playing under anyone else I might not even have commented, but somehow the exceptionally tight ensemble that Scaglia has accustomed us to is not quite there – the percussion lag slightly behind the beat at times, for example. As they do with many conductors, but not usually with Scaglia.
Perhaps this is the moment to discuss, breaking with chronology, the other known work in this section, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, set down for a television production on 24 December 1954 by Carlo Scopetti (Amahl), Jolanda Gardino (his mother), Dino Formichini (King Kaspar), Afro Poli (King Melchior), Carlo Cava (King Balthazar), Piero Venturi (a Page) and the RAI Milan Chorus and Orchestra.
The first Italian performance of Amahl e gli Ospiti Notturni, as it is called in translation, was given at the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, on May 9 1953, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, no less. The Italian libretto was prepared, not by Menotti himself, though one supposes he would have been able to do so, but by Piero Bellugi, who was shortly to make his mark as a conductor. Scaglia’s RAI performance at least took place in the right season. It can be found on YouTube as sound only and as a bleary but watchable black and white film. In common with other RAI opera films of the period, I take it that the pictures were mimed onto the recorded performance by unnamed actors – the mother seems to have been chosen as a Rosemary Kuhlmann look-alike.
This is an opera to be seen and understood, as well as listened to. For Italians, therefore, there could still be good reason to watch this film in preference to the original NBC broadcast, which is also on YouTube with rather sharper images. For others, I suppose it will only be a curio, though hearing it in Italian does relate it more clearly to the Italian pastoral tradition Menotti wished to evoke. If you have reason to hear it in Italian, the performance itself stands up well by beside the NBC original. Italy is not the place to go to for boy sopranos – think of the succession of ghastly shepherd boys who wreck every production of Tosca – but in Carlo Scopetti RAI found a good one. His voice is very beautiful in the slower songs. His phrasing is not always mature, but that is to be expected. His words are slightly less clear than those of his NBC counterpart, but on the other hand those of the mother, Jolanda Gardino, are slightly clearer than those of Rosemary Kuhlmann. Opera buffs will note the presence of Carlo Cava and, especially, the veteran Afro Poli. The chorus sound very woolly. Scaglia conducts fluidly and vitally – he is a couple of minutes swifter overall than Schippers on the NBC recording.
If Busoni’s Arlecchino is at least known to music lovers by name, this can hardly be said of Peragallo’s Ginevra degli Almieri, of which Acts I and II at least – there is a mystery here – were presented on 13 May 1961 by Marcella Pobbe (Ginevra), Giuliana Tavolaccini (Costanzo), Gino Sinimberghi (Antonio), Paolo Pedani (Francesco Agolanti), Leonardo Monreale (Puccio), Maria Teresa Mandalari (Ringraziata), Piero De Palma (Giannole), Renato Ercolani (Gismondo), Osvaldo Scrigna (Nicola), Marco Stecchi (Cerbone), Mario Marchetti (Samuele), Salvatore Gioia (musician), Adelio Zagonara (servant and troubadour) and the RAI Milan Orchestra.
Mario Peragallo (1910-1996) is a rather exceptional case in Italian musical history. He was born into a wealthy family of musical amateurs, but took composition lessons from Vincenzo Di Donato (1887-1967), a pupil of Respighi and a well-regarded composition teacher in his day. Peragallo may be considered an amateur himself only in the literal sense that he was not obliged to earn his daily bread through music. Peragallo’s published compositions from his first period, which ended with the outbreak of war in 1939, include a string quartet (1934) and a Concerto for orchestra (1939). Unpublished works include another string quartet (1933) and a Sinfonia lirica for voice and strings (1928-9). He achieved a certain success with two operas, generally classified as late examples of verismo: Ginevra degli Almieri, which was premiered under Tullio Serafin at the Rome Royal Opera in 1937, and Lo Stendardo di San Giorgio, which was given at the Carlo Felice, Genoa, in 1941.
The war years were also the years of Peragallo’s marriage and saw the birth of his three children. For five years he stopped composing. In the late 1940s, he took up his pen once more, this time as a disciple of modernism and an exponent of dodecaphony. Apart from his own work in this vein, he laboured tirelessly on behalf of Schoenberg and his school. In 1947 he organized a tour which enabled nine major Italian cities to hear the recently completed Ode to Napoleon, together with Pierrot Lunaire, which had not been performed in Italy since 1924. He was Secretary of the Società italiana di musica contemporanea from 1950 to 1956, then President from 1956 to 1960 and from 1963 to 1985.
Peragallo’s Piano Concerto was given at the Venice Biennial on 11 September 1950 by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting – both these artists showed an initial willingness to take up contemporary works that they did not carry into their later careers. His Violin Concerto (1953-4) is cited as a major Italian work from that period. Once again, though, it was with opera that he made his greatest mark. La Collina, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, was given in concert form under Antonio Pedrotti in Venice in 1947, and at La Scala under Nino Sanzogno in 1951. La Gita in Campagna, to a libretto by Alberto Moravia, was given at La Scala in 1954, again under Sanzogno. The harshly satirical musical style, the neo-realistic subject and the scenes by Renato Guttuso created a scandal and the work was withdrawn after two performances. It was presented in Germany and the United States, however, and eventually found its way back to Italy.
Another silence followed, this time lasting nearly twenty years. A few works were drafted during this period, but Peragallo finally returned to composition with Emircal, for orchestra, voices and magnetic tape, completed in 1980 in memory of Luigi Dallapiccola. He then continued to compose, if not prolifically, until at least 1992. A fuller account, in Italian, can be found in the Dizionario Biografico Treccani, available on Internet.
Peragallo’s transformation from traditionally-leaning to modernist composer as a result of war experiences may remind British readers of the path taken by Frank Bridge after the First World War. However, Peragallo’s transformation was much more radical and was punctuated by silences, whereas Bridge’s development was more gradual.
Was Peragallo’s unusual trajectory the result of an inner need or a desire to follow the crowd? It would be beyond the scope of the present article to examine a question which could scarcely be answered on the basis of the music currently accessible. All that can be said at the moment is that Ginevra degli Almieri is the work of a real composer with something to say.
The librettist for Peragallo’s two pre-war operas was Giovacchino Forzano (1883-1970), who had already worked with Puccini, Mascagni, Giordano and others. I discussed his involvement with Leoncavallo’s posthumous, and probably inauthentic, opera Edipo Re in my article on Pietro Argento. Forzano was also a playwright on his own account and, at Peragallo’s request, he reworked the libretto for Ginevra degli Almieri from a “historical drama” he had written for the theatre in 1927. This was not the first operatic treatment of the story – the earliest was by Paer (1800) and there have been others. It was also the subject of a 1936 film with Amedeo Nazzari and Elsa Merlini.
I haven’t seen either a score or a libretto of Ginevra degli Almieri, but I have found various versions of the story, which the opera seems to follow fairly closely. The events, supposedly true, took place in late 14th century Florence. Ginevra belonged to the wealthy Almieri family and was in love with the handsome, but poor, Antonio Rondinelli. Her parents, however, arranged a marriage deal for her with the rich dowry-hunter Francesco Agolanti. Locked in a loveless marriage, Ginevra begins to pine away, though the Agolantis prefer to blame her state on a plague that is conveniently raging at the same time. Her condition worsens till she is found apparently lifeless and is declared dead by the doctor. She is returned to the Almieris for burial in the family tomb.
It turns out, however, that Ginevra was only in some sort of coma. She comes round and, realizing where she is, finds the strength to shift the stone and escape. She first tries to return to her husband. When he sees her knocking on the door he is convinced that it is her ghost come to torment him – he has spent part of the day selling off her clothes to a wheedling Jew – and orders the servants not to open the door. She next tries her parents’ house but her mother, undecided whether she is a hoaxer or a genuine ghost, refuses to let her in. In a final act of desperation, she throws herself upon her first love, Antonio. Once he has overcome his amazement, he recognizes her and they swear eternal love.
All’s well that ends well – this story has been dubbed “the Juliet who lived twice”. The only trouble is that she is still married. When her husband hears what has happened, fearful of losing her dowry, he tries to order her back home and has Ginevra and Antonio hauled before the ecclesiastical court. The church authorities rule, however, that since she has been declared dead and buried, her marriage ended with her death and she is free to marry again.
The 1961 broadcast, as heard on YouTube, presents a problem. Those who search for it will find that a daunting length of two hours forty-six minutes is on offer. What actually happens is that the radio presenter – I imagine from a much more recent re-broadcast – announces Ginevra degli Almieri, Opera in Two Acts. After 80-odd minutes, the music comes to an end and the announcer repeats the previous information. The rest of the YouTube offering is taken up by a substantial part of a performance of Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo under Peter Maag. You will find this complete on YouTube under its own name if it interests you.
All well and good, but the title page to the vocal score describes it as an Opera in Three Acts. Though I haven’t actually seen the libretto, I have found a library entry that lists the acts and scenes. It is clear from this that the recording on YouTube contains the first two acts – culminating in a passionate love scene between the newly reunited Ginevra and Antonio. Missing is Act III, which takes place in the Bishop’s Palace.
Clearly, whoever organized the re-broadcast, believed he was dealing with an opera in two acts. So we must wonder:
- Was the 1961 performance complete and, if so, does the tape of Act III still exist?
- Were only two acts performed in 1961 and, in that case, did Scaglia decide to omit Act III (maybe the orchestral material does not survive) or did Peragallo himself make the decision (perhaps he thought the music inferior to the rest and suppressed it)?
I can only say that, even before I puzzled all this out, I found the shape of the opera unsatisfactory. It opens with a troubadour announcing that we’re going to hear the story of Ginevra degli Almieri and he’s going to tell it in his own way. Act II ends with a passionate love scene. A return to the original ironic mood is needed to round it off, if only a brief reappearance of the troubadour with a final announcement. Logically, the final act in the Bishop’s Palace would provide a proper conclusion to an opera that, up to that point, has moved with a steady dramatic hand.
Limiting my discussion of necessity to the first two acts, I found this an extraordinarily interesting opera. Stylistically, it has always been described as verista, but this is true only up to a point. The vocal writing is often strenuous, insisting on the upper registers in the manner of the later Mascagni or Zandonai. However, the words come over very clearly – rarely have I managed to follow an opera so easily with only a summary of the story on which it is based. The voices ring out firmly but do not sound at the end of their tether. This makes me think that the writing, though demanding, is not inherently ungrateful. Furthermore, while a composer like Zandonai piles on the plush with a decadent orchestral palette, Peragallo’s orchestration is spare and transparent, not at all thick, towards the climaxes. This also helps the voices to get through.
The harmonic style is sometimes very diatonic and simple, but then come moments of considerable dissonance. There are no cut or dried melodies, but there are some fine vocal phrases in the verista manner. But there are also abrasive moments, and the Almieri family send their daughter away, in Act II, to a sort of mock fugue. This might sound like a hotchpotch, but I don’t think it is. Rather, it is a style acutely poised between verismo and anti-verismo. It had me reflecting that the distance between zany post-verismo and the lyrical modernism of a composer like Prokofief is not as great as you’d think. As I described above, Peragallo’s final flight from his early style was a much more radical one, but he is already chafing at the bit in a very interesting way.
The performance of the torso is very fine. Elsewhere in this series I have already admired Marcella Pobbe as Tosca (under Pietro Argento) and as Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans (under Jonel Perlea). Here she really gives the performance of her life, singing with gleaming security and passionate involvement. Maybe she was born in the wrong place. In another world, she would have been singing roles like Elektra and Salome. The others are not especially beautiful as sheer voices, but all combine to make a satisfying experience. Scaglia gets finely cohesive and coloured playing from the Milan orchestra and seems to have persuaded all concerned that they are reviving a forgotten masterpiece. Just possibly they were – so where is the rest of it?
Another barely remembered work, Viozzi’s Il Sasso Pagano, was performed on 23 December 1964 by Giuseppe Taddei (Don Matteo), Vito De Taranto (Il Preposito), Jolanda Gardino (Romana, perpetua), Ugo Benelli (Pieri, nipote di Don Matteo), Marisa Salimbene (Rosute, fidanzata di Pieri), Aldo Bertocci (Il Dottore) and the RAI Milan Chorus and Orchestra.
Giulio Viozzi (1912-1984) was born in Trieste and taught at the Conservatoire there from 1939 until 1976 – excepting a short interval in which the Germans imprisoned him for refusing collaboration with Mussolini’s Republic of Salò. He achieved success at first with a series of orchestral works on themes relating to Trieste and Istria (the ex-Italian part of Croatia). Signally, his Ditirambo (1955) was given a performance at La Scala under Lorin Maazel. From the early 1960s, his language became more abstract, with greater attention to counterpoint. He came to opera fairly late, with Allamistakeo (1954). Il Sasso Pagano (The Pagan Stone), first produced in Trieste on 10 March 1962, is generally cited as his masterpiece.
In my article on Pietro Argento, I discussed Antonio Smareglia, Nozze istriane and the “Trieste problem”. Though Viozzi does not sound like Smareglia, he shares with him – at least as far as this work is concerned – a tendency not to sound Italian. Nevertheless, the “Trieste problem” is not generally brought into play where Viozzi is concerned. For one thing, whereas Nozze istriane evokes a strongly defined local environment, Il Sasso Pagano could really belong to a small village community anywhere in Christendom. More problematic, by 1962, was the fact that Viozzi was seemingly impervious to modern developments from dodecaphony onwards. Yet, unlike Pasquale di Cagno, he did not rail against them. Viozzi’s own teacher, Antonio Illersberg, had introduced Dallapiccola to Schoenberg, so Viozzi was clearly not unaware of more recent developments. According to Fabio Nieder, a pupil of Viozzi’s who subsequently embraced the avant-garde, “Viozzi was not an avant-garde composer, but he respected contemporary music and criticized those who affirmed they did not love it”. Nieder recalled Viozzi, moreover, as “a complete musician who really understood music, he knew what music was and he was a maestro in the true sense of the word” (interview in Il Piccolo, 26 June 2013).
Il Sasso Pagano takes place in a small mountain community. Near at hand is an ancient stone to which the villagers attribute magic powers. The opera opens with a conversation between the Parish Priest, Don Matteo, and his visiting Superior, in which it emerges that the stone is actually a statue to Baal, a relic from a civilisation that had lived there two thousand years before. Don Matteo is horrified and declares he will sweep it away and all its works. The Superior is more tolerant, suggesting that the real problem to deal with is the villagers’ ignorance. Also passing by is the village doctor, who finds it all rather amusing.
Thus far, we may well be witnessing a comedy based on some quaint old folkloristic customs, though the prelude has warned us that tragedy is impending. Ignoring his Superior’s advice, Don Matteo becomes fatally obsessed by his mission to rid the village of the statue, reaching the level of psychodrama in the dream episode. In his final attempt, single-handed, to uproot the statue, he is crushed to death by it. The stone rolls calmly back into its original position as the villagers vainly come to his rescue.
This strange tale might read like a manifesto for ancient superstitions as preferable to Christianity, were it not for the more reasonable view expressed by the Superior. Rather, it is an attack on bigotry. The villagers – Don Matteo’s housemaid, his niece and her fiancé – appear benign in their simple ignorance, as does the more worldly-wise doctor, while Don Matteo, in his way at least as blindly ignorant as the rest, becomes an increasingly sinister figure as his obsession grows.
If Viozzi’s musical style owes nothing to the fashionable avant-garde, neither is it a rear-guard blast of verismo. It is a spare, sharp-edged language well-suited to the evocation of ancient mysteries and hidden psychological currents. The writing is eminently vocal even while avoiding lyrical flights. Does it sound as if I’m writing about Benjamin Britten? Well, I did try to picture how it might sound sung in English. Or could it sound like Shostakovich if it were sung in Russian? More no than yes to both of these, but this is the sort of mid-20th-century ballpark to which the opera belongs. If you like these composers, you should like this. Moreover, you should find it an extremely effective, well-constructed opera. It would provide plenty of opportunities for an imaginative producer, since its symbolism can be read at several levels. Particular highlights for me were the scene where Don Matteo’s niece and her fiancé hold tryst by the stone while Don Matteo, unseen, offers a virulent running commentary, the orchestral dream-sequence and Don Matteo’s final scene.
The opening performance in Trieste was recorded and has been issued. I haven’t heard this: An Internet commentator says the sound is good.
However unfashionable Viozzi’s musical language was, RAI were interested enough to transport the original conductor and cast to Milan to set down the opera 23 December 1964. This is the version I’ve heard. It is available on two YouTube channels, both of which seem to be using the same source, a woolly and overloaded one. If RAI have the original tapes, I hope they will be issued one day, for this is an opera that should be heard, and one that is unlikely to be produced again in the near future – though a concert performance was given in Trieste in 2002 on the twentieth anniversary of the composer’s death. It is also a performance that will not easily be bettered. The part of Don Matteo is a terrific vehicle for a lyric-dramatic baritone and Giuseppe Taddei, then at the height of his powers, gives it his all. Aldo Bertocci is an excellent Doctor and the presence should be noted of the fairly young Ugo Benelli as the fiancé. Jolanda Gardino’s vibrato has spread a bit since she sang the mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors nine years earlier (see below), but this is a character part and she’s fine for that. Scaglia conducts with a sure sense of structure and growing inevitability.
The least deserving cause among the operas discussed here would seem to be Renzo Bossi’s La crociata degli innocenti, given on 3 February 1962 by Luisa Malagrida (Vanna), Maria Manni Jottini (Vienda), Marco Stecchi (Pellegrino), Amedeo Berdini (Odimondo), Nicoletta Panni (Novella), Afro Poli (Stroppo), Maria Teresa Mandalari (Madre) and the RAI Milan Chorus and Orchestra.
A web search for information about Renzo Bossi runs up against the problem that Renzo Bossi is also the name of the son of Umberto Bossi, the creator of the secessionist Northern League political party. Renzo Bossi is also something of a politician himself – please don't ask me to enlarge on what “something” means in this case. Refined research-criteria show that Rinaldo (Renzo) Bossi (1883-1965) was also the son of a more famous father – Marco Enrico Bossi, the celebrated organist and Italy’s leading composer of romantic organ music.
The Bossi dynasty was an extensive one. Renzo first studied with his father but attended finishing courses in Leipzig, where his conducting coach was Nikisch. For much of his career, he was Professor of Composition at Milan Conservatoire. He was also active as a conductor and musical journalist. He laboured hard to obtain just recognition for his father’s work, but he also produced a portfolio of compositions that, if fairly slim considering it covers half a century, nevertheless includes a symphony and several operas. The last two, “Nell’anno mille” (1956) and “La crociata degli innocenti” (1962) have been described as “concert operas”. Since they were performed by the RAI, perhaps this should be read as “radio operas”, a genre that RAI promoted energetically in those years.
La crociata degli innocenti has a libretto derived from D’Annunzio. As originally conceived, it represented a mid-way point in the long-running attempt by D’Annunzio and Puccini to collaborate on an opera – an attempt that inevitably failed, given that both men were deeply suspicious, when not openly disdainful, of each other’s artistic credo. La crociata degli innocenti at least reached the drawing-board. Puccini showed enough interest for D’Annunzio to present him, in 1913, with a fully versified first act and draft sketches for the other three. Puccini rejected it, remarking to a friend that “D’Annunzio has given birth to a shapeless monster, unable to walk or to live” (information from Julian Budden: Puccini, his Life and Works, OUP 2002).
D’Annunzio published La crociata degli innocenti in a magazine in 1915 as “sketches for a verse-mystery in four acts”. It appeared in book form in 1920. Meanwhile, he also adapted it as screenplay for a silent film, directed by Blasetti in 1917. The film has not survived.
Renzo Bossi seems to have got busy on Crociata as soon as he had finished his previous opera, L’anno mille. Correspondence on the use of D’Annunzio’s text exists from 1956 to 1961 between the composer and Emilio Mariano. Mariano (1913-2010) was a scholar and professor who practically devoted his entire existence to the study of D’Annunzio, and whose granddaughter Vera Luise he married in 1956. From 1955 to 1979 he was superintendent of the archives of the Vittoriale, the eccentric mansion built to D’Annunzio’s own specifications on the shores of Lake Garda.
Various synopses of La crociata degli innocenti can be found. It has a typical D’Annunzio mediaeval setting in which the hero, the shepherd Odimondo, loses his innocence to a prostitute and – to cut a long and complicated story short – is finally redeemed, if that is the word, by the massacre of a boat-load of children destined for the slave trade. At the end, Odimondo is purified, but bereft of all those he had loved. I found it difficult to relate a lot of what I was hearing to this synopsis, but in the absence of a score or at least a libretto, I cannot say what changes were made. The recording available on YouTube, in listenable sound, breaks off at 62’ 11”. At this point the music is quietening down after what is obviously the destruction of the ship, so I presume a final scene by Odimondo is missing.
At the beginning, my ears pricked up. We will not expect an 80-year composer in 1962 to turn dodecaphonic, but the suggestion of Zandonai filtered through Roussel at least reassures us that he was not attempting to reconstruct the opera that Puccini didn’t write, or that his own father might have written. Unfortunately, this is not maintained. The follow-up is immensely professional in the way it has all been put together, but in a characterless heightened-recitative manner over a busy orchestral backdrop that could fit any subject matter, or none. There is neither the mysticism nor the eroticism inherent in the text and which would be needed to give a sense, even an unpleasant sense, to the operation. The vocal writing is of the heavy verismo type, with long stretches in the upper register and big leaps whenever strong expression is required, which it all too often is. This is most noticeable in the female leads, who make rather heavy weather of it. The vastly experienced Afro Poli (1902-1988) and the magnificent Amedeo Berdini show that it can be made to sound natural.
Nevertheless, one of the leading ladies needs a brief mention. Maria Manni Jottini (1921-2007), when she was simply Maria Jottini, won a popular song competition called by EIAR (predecessor of RAI) in 1939. She became an enormously popular purveyor of frothy little ditties and was dubbed “the Nightingale of the Radio”. A couple of these – quite enough, I should say – can be heard on YouTube. At the end of the forties she married, retired from singing, and became a mother. But that was only a hiatus in her career. At the end of the 1950s she was back again as a fully equipped light operatic soprano. This performance reveals a rather shrill-soubrette-like timbre, not really right for the job in hand, but her Oscar in “Un Ballo in Maschera” was well thought-of, and I can believe this.
So it is for Berdini – Poli’s role is less important – that this performance has some claim on collectors. Scaglia gets excellent playing from the Milan orchestra. His pacing has an unobtrusive rightness and he inspires his forces to a semblance of conviction must surely have been the fruit of skilful simulation.
Given Scaglia’s ability with contemporary music, it is perhaps surprising that only one work has emerged that might be classified as such: Gino Negri’s Giovanni Sebastiano. This was performed on 12 December 1967 by Mario Basiola (Giovanni Sebastiano), Alfredo Mariotti (Psychiatrist), Franca Mazzola (Caterina), Rosina Cavicchioli (the mezzo-soprano), Gennaro De Sica and Lavka Taskova Paoletti (Nurses), Tommaso Frascati (Giancarlo), Roberto Brivio, Nanni Svampa, Gianni Magni and Lino Patruno ("I GUFI" [doomsayers]) and the RAI’s Turin Orchestra.
Gino Negri (1919-1991) studied composition with above-mentioned Renzo Bossi in Milan, but soon broke away from the academic environment. In the 1940s, he was attracted by Roberto Lupi’s “Gravitational Harmony” theories – one day I’ll try to find out what these were. Dodecaphony followed in the 1950s, but in truth, systems served him only as targets for brickbats. His role in post-war Italian music was mainly that of agent provocateur, more an anti-composer than a composer. If there is a leading thread to his vast output, it is music theatre, but in the 60s he tried his hand at popular song – Una goccia di cielo was presented unsuccessfully at San Remo in 1961. In the 1970s it was the turn of television jingles and film music, though these did not stem the tide of larger stage works. He was also a prolific writer, mainly on music matters, but producing occasional works of fiction too.
Such a curriculum suggests a dabbler rather than a deeply inspired artist, but it is difficult to tell. A few of his works were successful in their day – “Antologia di Spoon River” (1946) was heard in Copenhagen and Amsterdam as well as in Florence and Turin – while others, such as the Pirandello-derived “Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore” (1948) were never performed at all. “Diario dell’assassinato” (1975) was presented at the Piccola Scala in 1978 by Milva who, in her heyday, ought to have guaranteed success for anything. Nevertheless, it was withdrawn after a single performance.
Giovanni Sebastiano (1967) was one of his most successful ventures. It was one of RAI’s “radio operas” and won the Premio Italia of that year. It was subsequently produced several times in the theatre. “Giovanni Sebastiano” was the Italianization of Johann Sebastian and relates the traumas of J.S. Bach at the hands of modern psychiatric treatment. It is basically a collage of musical quotations, not only from Bach, put together with a sure hand and an acerbic harmonic sense. The singers’ words are very clear, but I would hesitate to say I worked out everything that went on. I should love to do a spoiler by telling you how it ends, but the version on YouTube breaks off after 40’ 10”. The publisher Sonzogno gives a timing of 50 minutes and, in a work like this, anything could happen in those last ten minutes. Still, enough remains to suggest that Negri should not be allowed to fall entirely from view. Some of his gags are far more difficult to bring off than they sound. Any one of us could lie in bed and imagine Bach awakened from a psychiatric trance to find himself in the midst of a 60s pop group singing a spoof version of Beethoven 9, but not many could give such hilarious point to it. I hope this recording survives complete somewhere – there’s something very authentic about it that would be hard to match. There are occasional signs of vocal strain, but this is of no importance. Scaglia seems fully at home, integrating the disparate elements perfectly.
The name of Mario Basiola may raise eyebrows – this is the son and namesake of the great baritone of the 1930s and 40s. Mario Basiola II also enjoyed a successful career.
As a footnote to this section, I think – YouTube can be like that at times – I’ve heard Scaglia conducting the Intermezzo from Pratella’s L’Aviatore Dro. The composer and opera are sufficiently interesting to justify discussion.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880-1955) is down in the history books as one of the group of Italian composers – the other principal one was Luigi Russolo – who aimed to apply Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. Pratella’s own Manifesto dei musicisti futuristi was published in 1910. Less extreme than Russolo, Pratella was already gradually withdrawing by the time he wrote L’Aviatore Dro in 1920, though this did not prevent him from employing Russolo’s Intonarumori (“noise machines”) in the score, presumably to represent the aeroplane. It does not appear during the intermezzo, at least not in this performance.
The English Wikipedia entry on Pratella makes the extraordinary claim that L’Aviatore Dro was performed at La Scala in 1996. This needs nipping in the bud before it gets repeated everywhere. The 1996 production, the only one in modern times, took place in the theatre of Pratella’s home town of Lugo, near Ravenna. It was the last opera conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, then 85. The leading soprano was Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, whom Gavazzeni had controversially married at the age of 82 (she was 38).
Pratella had studied with Mascagni, and in fact Mascagni was the only pre-Futurist Italian composer in whom he saw any value. This was not a matter of pious respect for his old teacher; he genuinely respected Mascagni’s attempt to renew his language, though he felt he had not gone far enough. Under the circumstances we should not be surprised – though we surely are – to find that much of the Intermezzo sounds as if it has strayed from one of Mascagni’s lesser-known works. And yet, if the language is not as new as we had expected, the terrain maybe is so. There’s something of the dried-up neo-romanticism that began to emerge towards the end of the 20th century. Rather than work logically toward climaxes it gets stuck in a minimalist sort of way. It makes a virtue of not getting anywhere. This may, of course, be because he was unable to do anything any better – we need to hear more of his music to judge. But, given that Pratella’s Futurist Manifesto included “liberation from well-made music”, we will give him the benefit of the doubt. While the music does not apparently reject traditional language, it rather interestingly negates the purpose to which such language is usually put. This very much aligns it with modern neo-romanticism, so maybe it is time for a closer look at Pratella.
The YouTuber who put this Intermezzo up claims not to know who the conductor is. The comments below suggest it must be Scaglia. Certainly, Scaglia conducted the intermezzo and at least part of Act III of this opera at a concert with the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra in 1969. The recording has all the characteristics of a RAI recording of that period while the careful phrasing and strong climaxes are plausibly the work of Scaglia.
I concerti Martini e Rossi
Any conductor working for the RAI was inevitably required to do his duty by the Concerti Martini e Rossi. These were put on by the celebrated drink producer as a means of placing its market image in the world of culture. It was also enlightened enough, it must be said, to see the advantages, not only for its own products, of bringing culture, in this case operatic culture, to the masses. The Concerti Martini e Rossi had a simple formula: two singers would present four arias each, sometimes combining in a duet or two if this could be managed without acrimony, while the orchestra was allowed to shine in an overture and an intermezzo. The formula proved enormously popular. The concerts were given in major cities all over Italy and were broadcast on the national network from the earliest days of radio, in 1936, through to 1964 (omitting only 1944). Greater and lesser singers appeared. Those involving the former are often re-broadcast and some have circulated on CD. The purely orchestral pieces are usually omitted from such compilations. Naturally, Scaglia conducted quite a few. I discuss those I have heard ordered by voice types, starting with a soprano.
Lina Pagliughi (1907-1980) was born into an Italian family living in Brooklyn, New York. For most of her childhood they were based in San Francisco, where she was encouraged by Tetrazzini. At the age of fifteen she moved to Milan and remained in Italy for the rest of her life. She made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1927, with such success that she was engaged to take part in a recording of the opera made in that same year. Her success was not confined to Italy, but two factors limited her career. One was her refusal to travel by air, with the result that foreign tours became long and complicated. The other was her figure. Even in an age which had not yet invented the word fattism, belief was not easily suspended as the tiny but enormously stout lady waddled on stage. The disparity between what people saw and the graceful elegance of what they heard was insurmountable and she withdrew from theatrical performance in 1947. Her singing remained unimpaired and she made numerous fine contributions to RAI productions through to 1956, after which she concentrated on teaching.
Two groups of arias seem to date from 1952 and 1954. The first, with the Milan orchestra, has Batti, batti, o bel Masetto from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma, Quel guardo il cavaliere … So anch’io la virtù magica from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Flammen, perdonami from Mascagni’s Lodoletta. The second, with the Rome orchestra, has Ah, non credea mirarti from Bellini’s La Somnambula, Bel raggio lusinghier from Rossini’s Semiramide, Addio del passato from Verdi’s La Traviata and, again, Flammen, perdonami from Mascagni’s Lodoletta.
It’s important to realize that we have here a pre-Callas type of soprano. Her voice is light, her emission easy, her words clear. And yet, while it first it may seem a voice lacking “body”, it conveys emotion in a way some of the “pre-Callas” sopranos seemed not to. There are many valuable lessons here. Her use of portamento is too beautifully controlled to be called “swooning”, and humanizes the vocal line in Bellini and in the Traviata aria too. She is above all musical in the coloratura sections. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all comes in the Mascagni. We know that Mascagni had a tendency to push his singers up high and keep them there to breaking point. The sheer body of much modern voice production means that they push and push till what should be the climax becomes a scream. The crucial phrase in this aria is at the climax. Pagliughi shows that this music really works with a lighter voice. She doesn’t push, she soars. It never sounds difficult, and her little inflections, slight gulps and sobs, do not disturb the line.
This is not Scaglia’s show, but he supports her well and shows that he, too, has a fine way with the elegiac lines of Bellini. He also knows how to pace Mascagni.
In September 1958 Fiorenza Cossotto was 23 and on the threshold of the international career we all know. Over the previous couple of years she had appeared in small roles in major theatres and in a few recordings. This was in the process of changing. The Bellini aria here was a foretaste of a role, Romeo, that she was to sing for RAI the following month under Maazel. In 1958, too, she had appeared for the first time in a leading role abroad, at Wexford, garnering success that was soon to bring her to Covent Garden. Her programme, with the Milan orchestra, contained Oh tu, bell’anima from Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, Non conosci il bel suol from Thomas’ Mignon and S’apre per te il mio cuor from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila.
The choice of two French arias sung in Italian – as per the titles – shows she was still leaning on ex-Conservatoire repertoire for her choice of “famous arias” – the fruit, moreover, of a Conservatoire system that, in those days, was still happy to have everything sung in Italian and dished out regardless of the singer’s suitability for the entire role. Dalila entered Cossotto’s repertoire in the 1970s; Mignon never did and it is difficult to imagine it ever could have been “hers”.
At this stage, Cossotto was displaying a sumptuous voice, even and finely controlled. She does not differentiate between the characters and a consecutive hearing of the three arias – something that was presumably not required of the 1958 audience – becomes rather soporific. Still, the technical base was magnificently there. Scaglia seems happy to let her display her timbre in all its glory. If her felt any inclination to move her on, he does not show it.
The one tenor I’ve heard is Salvatore Gioia, in two items from a concert on 27 January 1958 with the Milan orchestra – Una furtive lacrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore and E’ la solita storia from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. Gioia (1934-1999) was Sicilian and made his debut in 1956. He quickly made a name for himself as an up-and-coming tenore di grazia. Alas, certain eccentricities in his conduct rapidly turned into something much worse. The small role in Peragallo’s Ginevra degli Almieri, noted above, in May 1961, must have been among his last, for later that year he was committed to a mental asylum in Milan. Some accounts say he was discharged in the 1970s and attempted to resume his career. Unfortunately his voice, after years of inactivity – except, it is related, for some impromptu duets with the soprano Lina Bruna Rasa, who had been committed to the same asylum – had lost its sheen. Even more unfortunately, the fact that he was discharged does not necessarily mean he was much better. 1978 was the year of the “Basaglia Law”, which effectively closed Italian mental hospitals except for those inmates who actually felt they needed to stay – the Catch 22 implications are obvious.
The two famous arias from the Martini e Rossi concert reveal an attractive light tenor with an easy, flowing production and exemplary diction. He could have been a leading light in the Rossini and Donizetti revival that came into being not long after his career had ended. A couple more recordings by Gioia are discussed below. Scaglia conducts attentively.
The least interesting, I’m afraid, is Piero Cappuccilli who sang, on 29 November 1966 with the Milan orchestra, Forse in quel cor, from Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, and two items by Verdi: Il balen, from Il Trovatore, and Urna fatale, from La Forza del Destino. Cappuccilli’s fine, even voice is not in doubt, though he is occasionally fractionally below pitch. Unfortunately, he works his way through his not very varied selection without displaying a great deal of interest.
Giuseppe Taddei, on the other hand, on an unknown date with the Milan orchestra, presented a well-varied selection with a couple of rarities: Resta immobile, from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell, Adomastor, Re delle Acque, from Meyerbeer’s L’Africana, O casto fiore, from Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore and Nemico della Patria from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. The Massenet, tenderly as it is sung, loses a little from being in the “wrong” language; the vivacious Meyerbeer piece loses much less. Taddei is obviously in his element in Rossini and Giordano, the latter making a rousing conclusion.
The sonorous bass-baritone Mario Petri (1922-1985) is still highly regarded in Italy. His appearances elsewhere were too few to have made him more than a dimly-remembered name. Nevertheless, he sang in productions alongside Callas and owed his early fame to Karajan, for whom he sang Don Giovanni at La Scala in 1950. From the 1960s he added cinema acting to his accomplishments, appearing in several adventure and costume films, including one with the inimitable Italian comic actor Totò. On an unknown date, with the Rome orchestra and chorus, he sang Del future nel buio, from Verdi’s Nabucco, the Death of Boris, from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Wotan’s Farewell from Wagner’s Die Walküre.
The Nabucco aria shows a commanding presence over a considerable vocal range. Nothing in his biography suggests that Russian opera or Wagner were particular specialities of his. He sings both in Italian, of course. Nevertheless, he sings Boris’s death scene with passionate dignity and without overdone histrionics. In Wagner, too, he shows the advantage of singing the music rather than barking it.
Scaglia seems anxious to prove to anyone listening that he would be the right man to conduct these operas complete in the theatre. In the case of Nabucco, his no-holds-barred approach suggests he would not have played down the crudity of early Verdi. In the case of Mussorgsky and Wagner, we can only regret there were no takers, so far as I know. In particular, the 15-minute from Die Walküre sounds like real Wagner conducting to my ears. It has all the right incandescence without running out of control, it is flexible yet finely structured, each climax capping the previous one. Scaglia draws attention to the key moments without getting bogged down by them. Poor man, it certainly sounds as if his life’s ambition might have been to conduct the Ring.
A group of recordings by Boris Christoff seemed to have been made at the same concert as Pagliughi’s Rome group, in 1954. The arias were: Oh tu la cosa mia più cara, from Gluck’s Iphigènie en Aulide, The Miller’s Song, from Darghomyzhky’s Rusalka, Vaarlam’s Song, from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Aleko’s Aria from Rachmaninov’s Aleko.
The sound is frustratingly overloaded on my off-the-air version and I note that Christoff compilations tend to prefer similar groups recorded at Concerti Martini e Rossi in the 1960s under Mannino and Antonellini. Indeed, there is nothing here from Christoff’s repertoire that cannot be heard in better sound elsewhere. This cannot dim the splendour of Christoff’s inimitable voice, nor the clarity of his Italian diction in the Gluck. Scaglia is punctual and lively and contributes to the overall effect of the Aleko aria.
From the same forces is a performance, dated 14 September 1958, of the aria “Qui donc commande?” from Saint-Saëns’s Henri VIII. This can be heard on YouTube in quite passable sound. The extract breaks off at the end so what followed? Is it possible that Scaglia conducted a concert performance of the complete opera for RAI?
One more LP
Scaglia’s tiny discography contains at least one further LP. This was of Overtures and Arias by Bellini, issued by the Musical Masterpieces Society on MMS-2169. It contained – not in this order – the Overtures to Il Pirata and Norma, three pieces – Come per me sereno, Son geloso del zeffiro errante and Ah, non credea mirati from La Somnambula and Oh, quante volte e quante from I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The singers were Fiorella Ortis, soprano, and Salvatore Gioia, tenor. The orchestra, presumably that of the RAI, was named as the “Orchestra Filarmonica di Roma”. The sleeve dedicates a full three lines to Scaglia, but it does shed some light on his international appearances – Madrid and Barcelona are named.
Salvatore Gioia’s sad career has been described above. I can find little information about Fiorella Ortis, except that hers is the voice dubbing actress Paola Bertini in a 1952 film of La Somnambula. A fan of Gioia’s has put up on YouTube performances involving this tenor of Come per me sereno and Son geloso (the items on the disc in which the tenor participates). He has given no indication of the orchestra and conductor, or of the soprano in the second piece, but given Gioia’s brief career and the small amount of recorded material extant, I feel they must come from this LP. A few clicks confirm that the origin is an LP. Gioia sings with exemplary ease, fluency and musicality, confirming that this was not a minor myth created by the cruel truncation of his career, but a genuine promise. Ortis is in the Pagliughi mould, but with a few difficult moments – such as a forced top note at the end of the second extract – and a certain tendency to proceed note by note rather than attend to the long line. In this she is shown up by Gioia, but they combine well. Scaglia is attentive and poised.
Ferruccio Scaglia seems a somewhat anomalous figure on the Italian scene. Italians are great believers in having the right paper qualifications for the job, yet, so far as I can discover, Scaglia’s diploma was in the violin. Almost every other Italian conductor of his generation proudly proclaims his conducting teacher on his curriculum – usually, at that time, it was Bernardino Molinari. Nor did he rise to conducting through the usual channels, either as an orchestral player (though there is some doubt over this) or as a répétiteur in the opera house. Another path towards conducting is often composition and here, too, apart from a salon trinket, if he had a portfolio of compositions, he made sure nobody knew about it.
A self-made conductor, it appears. Yet he can be seen displaying an extremely clear beat and he can be heard obtaining an unusual degree of discipline from the RAI’s generally happy-go-lucky bands. He was not a top-liner, as violinists-turned-conductor often are, and he was an appreciated interpreter of contemporary works. This latter, combined with his rigorous, disciplined approach to both conducting and interpretation, suggests he belongs among “radio conductors” with modernist tendencies such as Hans Rosbaud or Ernest Bour, or maybe Franz André. And yet he conducted late verismo works that modernist-oriented conductors would not have touched with a bargepole, interpreting them, it must be said, not in the sense of upholding past traditions, but in the sense of an analytical discovery of what they may still have to offer us. It would be necessary to hear his performance of mainstream works – his Shostakovich premières, his Mahler 2, his Nielsen 4 – to get a full picture of what he could or could not do. Yet his Ma Mère l’Oye stands up well, as does his Turandot.
In one respect, perhaps he was not an anomaly in Italy. His career trajectory certainly implies that opera was his prime love. After leaving the security of his “radio conductor” job, he did not reach the major opera houses. Yet, not long before his untimely death, he was conducting Bohème with a top level cast. Possibly, then, he was cut off when on the verge of a breakthrough.
End note: The 18-CD set dedicated to Aldo Ferraresi became available just as I was finishing this article. Rather than delay the article further, I refer readers to Jonathan Woolf’s very detailed review. I will limit myself, for now, to noting that, as well as the Sulek, the set contains Scaglia-accompanied performances of Paganini’s 1st Concerto (Rome 19 January 1966) and the concerto by Mario Guarino (Milan 30 July 1969), and that Jonathan refers to the “ever-dependable Scaglia”.