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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La fanciulla del West (1910)
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) - Minnie; Jošo Gibin (tenor) - Dick Johnson; Andrea Mongelli (baritone) - Jack Rance; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) - Jake Wallace; Renato Ercolani (tenor) - Nick; Antonio Cassinelli (bass) - Ashby; Enzo Sordello (baritone) - Sonora; Florindo Andreoli (tenor) - Trin; Giuseppe Costariol (baritone) - Sid; Dino Mantovani (baritone) - Bello; Dino Formichini (tenor) - Harry; Antonio Costantino (tenor) - Joe; Leonardo Monreale (bass) - Happy; Giuseppe Morresi (bass) - Jim Larkens; Gabriella Carturan (soprano) - Wowkle; Carlo Forti (bass) - Billy/Castro; Angelo Mercuriali (tenor) - Pony Express Rider
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Lovro von Matačić
rec. July 1958, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
No libretto
PRISTINE CLASSICS PACO177 [56:43 + 70:24]

There can be few operas which start as unpromisingly with the words 'Hello, hello ... doo dah doo dah day ... ", but Puccini's score of the Wild West triumphantly rides over such a clumsy opening to produce a quite magnificent work, regarded by the composer himself as his greatest opera. Written shortly after the earlier successes of La bohŤme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910 with Toscanini in the pit, Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson, Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Pasquale Amata as Rance, it could not have had a more auspicious start in life, yet has failed to hold much of a place in the operatic repertory since. Occasionally, it turns up and causes a sensation, as the Antonio Pappano led production did earlier this year at the Berlin State Opera, which had the German press in raptures, wondering where the work had been all their lives and agreeing with the composer that this was indeed his best work after all. Another such occasion was in the mid 1950’s at La Scala, when the work was revived to spectacular acclaim under the baton of Antonino Votto, in which Franco Corelli alternated with Mario Del Monaco as Johnson and Tito Gobbi was Rance; Minnie was taken by Gigliola Frazzoni, who was, by all accounts, sensational. Decca therefore decided they had to record the work and so duly set about making plans, albeit replacing Frazzoni with their own in-house star soprano, one Renata Tebaldi. Votto, to his immense credit was outraged and insisted upon Frazzoni, so they dumped him and instead went to Rome with Franco Capuana on the podium. Meanwhile ...

Over at EMI, of course, whatever Decca could do, they would do better, so they also planned a recording of the same work for the same year (1958) with Maria Callas, Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi, in what surely must rank as one of the greatest opera recordings never made. You would have thought Minnie would be a better fit for Callas than either Mimž or Butterfly and even Turandot, Puccinian heroines that she did record, but for various reasons, all three principals dropped out and instead were replaced with a ‘newcomer’ named Birgit Nilsson, plus Jošo Gibin and Andrea Mongelli, a daring line-up, but without the star-dust glitter of established Italian opera stars it was on the back-foot before it was released, a situation further compounded by the disappointing sound afforded to it by EMI when it did came out, especially when compared to the then state-of-the-art sonics Decca lavished on their own release. This Nilsson Golden Girl has only been granted sporadic episodes in the record catalogue since.

The liner-notes on this new Pristine release refer to both the original poor sound (quoting Edward Greenfield’s comment from his 1992 Gramophone review of the CD release as sounding “noticeably coarser” than the rival Decca recording), plus the current unavailability of this set (previously reviewed on MusicWeb in its EMI garb here) as justification for this release on both CD and download. At this point, I do feel duty-bound to advise readers on how Pristine operates for, unless you live in Japan, the only way you can buy their releases is via their website, where you have a choice of compact disc or download (as either mp3 or 16 bit/24 bit FLAC). With all formats and in most cases (subject to copyright laws, etc), you will also receive pdf copies of full scores, vocal scores and libretti, usually with translations (plus a complimentary mp3 file of the recording immediately if you order the CD, at which point you also receive the pdf materials) – an important point to note for those of you may shop for their musical fixes via second-hand outlets. With this particular release, you receive the full score, plus a photocopy of an ancient (possibly original) Ricordi Italian only libretto, as well as the piano vocal score, if I suppose you wish to singalong with Minnie & Co. Usually too, Pristine work wonders in improving the sound from the original recordings - and they have certainly done so with this original EMI release where the sound has been opened up considerably, fuller and richer than before, allowing the listener, this one included, to re-evaluate the recording on a level playing field, maybe for the first time. Certainly, if the late Edward Greenfield were to hear the results on this new transfer he would have been much impressed. So if that is the case, then surely the question is: how does this new, spruced-up Birgit Nilsson’s Golden Girl measure up to the competition?

In Ralph Moore’s marvellous series of opera conspectuses, he neatly summed up the problem with La Fanciulla on record by saying that the best performances of all were live ones from the 1950’s conducted by Mitropoulos in Florence (1954 – see review) and Votto at La Scala (1956), but with both the listener has to be extremely tolerant with regards to the poor sound. Ultimately – and therefore the true competitors for this newly released Pristine set - he felt the most recommendable set overall was Zubin Mehta’s recording for DG made at Covent Garden in 1978 (see review), but also reserved special affection for the old Decca set conducted by Franco Capuana with the forces of Santa Cecilia (see review), albeit musing over the missed opportunity in the latter of hearing Gigliola Frazzoni recording her signature role in decent sound.

Indeed, it does seem strange that Frazzoni was not engaged for that recording, or indeed for the rival EMI project, for which Birgit Nilsson was hired instead - Nilsson had to learn the part especially for the recording as well. My initial thoughts before listening to a note, was that she would sound like a gun-toting Valkyrie set loose in the Wild West, were (as always) proved well wide of the mark. In 1958, Nilsson actually had quite a nice voice - her RCA Turandot from around the same time and her Bayreuth debuting Elsa under Jochum a couple of years before, all reveal a sound which, whilst recognisably hers, is far richer and warmer than I, for one, expected. Maybe it was all those Brunnhildes and Elektras throughout the 1960s that eventually added a certain Nothung-like steel to her sound, but here with Puccini in 1958 I have no complaints. Of course, she nails all those top notes in a way that Tebaldi (or indeed anyone) cannot quite in the rival Decca recording, yet there is a warmth to her portrayal that I ended up hugely respecting. Carol Neblett on the Mehta recording is also extremely good, inevitably somewhere between the Italianate richness of Tebaldi and the laser-like power of Nilsson, plus she brings the experience of having lived the role onstage which perhaps makes her the most nuanced portrayal of all three in the high drama of the card scene. That said, there is no doubting the sincerity of Nilsson’s own interpretation – towards the end of Act I when Minnie and Johnson suddenly find themselves alone in the saloon, she sings “Mr Johnson, siete rimaste indietro” (“Mr Johnson, you are left behind”) with so much coy shyness and charm that even Mirella Freni would have been jealous. Similarly, her appeal to the miners at the end of Act III, "E anche tu lo vorrai, Joe", shows a vulnerability and tenderness that is as moving as any. This isn't to disrespect either Tebaldi's or Neblett’s portrayal incidentally, which are both equally convincing and wonderful in their own way; Nilsson's Minnie is a fearless lass though, befitting for what is effectively a good-looking lady out alone in the man's world that was the Wild West and so if you don't think this is quite how the role should be played, then perhaps Carol or Renata are the golden girls for you. It's just I was surprised how at the end I couldn't quite choose between the three of them.

Perhaps even more surprising, is Jošo Gibin - as far as I can make out, this is the only commercial recording this barrel-chested Brazilian tenor made. He is of course, the polar opposite of Decca's Mario del Monaco, who sounds to me a bit too much as if the Moor of Venice's ship had been blown off-course and had docked in the New World, rather than Limassol; perhaps too much the bad boy Ramerrez than his alter ego Dick Johnson. In volume three of Opera on Record, Edward Greenfield commented upon Gibin's "beautiful shading of tone and dynamic" in this recording and his "very distinctive timbre"; he does of course have a smaller voice than MdM, as well as Domingo (for Mehta on DG), but he is an ardent as well as sensitive partner to his Minnie, even if he doesn’t quite possess the vocal glamour of his younger colleague in the Covent Garden recording. For this reason, as well as for his more subtle interpretation than del Monaco, I think Domingo’s is probably the finest portrayal of the three but, as with our Minnie’s above, it is far closer than you may think and all three are excellent renderings of the part.

When Karajan was recording Aida for Decca, he was overhead grumbling about his Amonasro with: "Who is this cowboy?", perhaps understandable when the evening productions he was conducting of the work feature a certain Tito Gobbi. So you would expect this “cowboy”, one Cornell MacNeil, to be more appropriately cast as the Wild West sheriff Jack Rance in the Decca recording, especially when compared to Andrea Mongelli for EMI, “just” another rarely recorded Italian baritone from the 1950’s (where have they all gone?!). Not quite. The problem with MacNeil is that his sound is too "nice" - at the end of Act II, having lost that all important card game with Minnie, Rance bids her "buona notte", MacNeil sounds for all the world as if he is politely acknowledging the neighbours after an evening’s stroll; Mongelli snarls it, disgusted with himself at losing a game of cards to the barmaid who (unbeknown to him), had in fact cheated. Sherrill Milnes, on the DG set, follows the instructions in the score more closely at this point, singing his “buona note” coldly and by a man dumbfounded (to have lost the card game). Elsewhere, he utilises his richly lyrical voice to produce a rewarding interpretation of the type of role, evil and suave, that he was especially good at. He probably just about edges it over MacNeil and Mongelli on this occasion, but once more there is surprisingly so little in it.

La fanciulla is also one of those operas which gives its smaller roles a chance to shine and it has to be said that in this respect, all three sets do us proud. Jake Wallace's wonderful little song at the beginning of Act I, "Che faranno i vecchi miei" (based upon the old American folk-song, “Old Dog Tray”) is sung by Giorgio Tozzi on the Decca and Nicola Zaccaria on EMI plus, Gwynne Howell on Mehta/DG; there is little to choose between the three in a part that is often poorly cast. If the two earlier sets contain stalwarts from Italian opera houses in the 1950’s, whose naturalness and familiarity with the idiom was their birth-right, then the later DG version includes the cream of British singers from the 1970s who were part of the Covent Garden stage production upon which this recording was based and in turn bring a tightness of ensemble born of having performed the work onstage together. Again, you would be hard-pressed to choose between the three recordings.

Which brings us to the podium. Zubin Mehta’s Puccini credentials will always be immortalised in the yet-to-will-it-ever-be-beaten Decca/Sutherland/Caballť/Pavarotti Turandot, However I've not heard much of Franco Capuano's work, but he does conduct the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia rather well, I thought, if perhaps slightly too lovingly. Nor would I have necessarily considered Lovro von Matačić, former member of the Vienna Boys Choir, to be especially suited to Italian opera, but listening to the three sets side by side, has proven to be instructive. The Decca provides remarkably atmospheric sound which suits Capuano's warm and loving, if perhaps a tad too relaxed approach, whilst Pristine’s remastering of the EMI reveals it to be slightly more detailed, therefore allowing von Matačić to draw out a richer tapestry of sound than Capuano contemplates. There are three points where I thought this was especially evident, the first being the entry of Minnie in Act I, which surprisingly Capuano rather races through, whereas Matačić 's slower tempo allows his Milanese players time to properly prepare for and execute a glorious climax. Mehta by contrast bludgeons his way through this passage. Later on in the Act, when Minnie and Johnson suddenly find themselves alone in the saloon, there is a short orchestral passage just before Minnie asks why “Mr Johnson” has not gone with the others to hunt for the bandits. In Mehta’s hands it is very beautifully played, dreamily so too under Capuana, yet it is von Matačić who is the most memorable here. Aided and abetted by his expert Milanese players, he encourages his first oboe to play the melody simply, to then be joined by his colleague on the second desk, inspiring them to bring out the Klang of the sound, with the result that it all sounds like a mouth organ, meltingly sentimental and astonishingly evocative of just how you would imagine the Wild West would sound. A couple of bars later when the violins pick up the same melody, Matačić brings them further forward in the orchestral palette when compared to Mehta and Capuana, with the result that the music positively swells up from beneath the vocal line, blossoming in a way that suggests the realisation of mutual love between Minnie and Johnson. This is remarkable conducting by any standard. As is the card game in Act II, where Matačić is infinitely more dramatic than the more laid-back Capuano, although it must be acknowledged that Mehta is also exceptional here as well, helped no end by more vivid and impactful sound too. In the end though I actually felt it was the Croatian conductor who had the greater all-round measure of the score of the three, matching the drama of Mehta, the dreamy beauty of Capuana, but with a richer orchestral response than both which, I must say, surprised me.

It could be argued that the work Puccini has regarded as his finest has in many respects been his unluckiest. If the EMI recording failed to land its original super-star line-up, it was then hampered by poor sound and whilst the subsequent two studio recordings on Decca and DG were successes, the only two later commercial recordings after them have, for various reasons, been disappointing – Leonard Slatkin’s studio account for RCA/BMG from 1991 has a weak trio of principals, even if I retain much affection for the superbly rich playing of the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra. Maazel’s recording on Sony, live from La Scala the same year, has disappointingly boxy sound, plus a Minnie whose top notes could quite easily assist her clients’ mining endeavours equally as well as any stick of dynamite. It is therefore the two earlier recordings from Decca and DG, plus this newly restored EMI from Pristine which remain the most recommendable. In this respect, I have to agree with Ralph Moore in his conclusion that Mehta’s fine sounding recording with its excellent trio of principals plus supporting cast, complete and without the “traditional” cuts on both the earlier Decca and EMI sets, has to be the library choice, in particular for any new-comers to the work. However, whilst Mehta conducts excitingly, he does seem to miss that vein of warm nostalgia which I find present in La fanciulla, of men living a tough life, away and missing their families and loved ones and I think Capuano and, especially, von Matačić capture this dimension very well indeed with casts that, if not surpassing it, can also stand toe-to-toe with the later DG recording. So, for once, La fanciulla has been lucky that Pristine has now taken it upon themselves to take this 60-year-old EMI recording and have worked their audio magic upon it, thus allowing it to be compared on its purely musical merits with the rival Decca and DG recordings, perhaps for the first time, rather than being relegated to “third place” due to its sound. Therefore, if you happen to agree with Arturo Toscanini that the work is one “great symphonic poem”, then perhaps you too would be inclined to investigate the brilliant conducting of Lovro von Matačić leading the expert La Scala orchestra on this recording if you haven’t already, as well as the better-than-expected principals. In conclusion for me, for the time being, I feel that this Nilsson Golden Girl has returned triumphantly to the catalogue and is now my personal top choice for this underrated work – so thanks to Pristine’s wizardry and just like Minnie in the card game, we are now all winners as a result.

Lee Denham

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