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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il Turco in Italia - dramma buffo in two acts (1814)
Selim - Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass); Fiorilla - Maria Callas (soprano); Geronio - Franco Calabrese (bass); Don Narciso - Nicolai Gedda (tenor); Prosdocimo- Mario Stabile (baritone); Zaida - Jolanda Gardino (mezzo); Albazar – Piero de Palma (tenor)
Chorus and orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. 31 August-8 September 1954, La Scala, Milan
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO175 [77.15 + 35.42]

This was Rossini’s thirteenth opera, and perhaps that unlucky number accounts for the reason it has long been thought a poorer relation to its more successful cousin, L’Italiana in Algeri. It has a softer edge to the comedy and the story of Fiorilla and her menfolk is less far-fetched than that of Isabella and her many admirers. The opera certainly ranks below Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, and L’Italiana in Algeri in terms of the number of stagings that it receives.

The centerpiece of the opera is the spoiled and wilful married woman, Fiorilla. She is beautiful and manipulative, which allows her to tie all of the men in her life, including the Turkish newcomer Selim, into veritable pretzels. One could be forgiven for thinking that Rossini had pre-destined the role of Fiorilla for Callas’ many talents as it suited her down to a T. In 1954 EMI decided to record her in a role which she had first sang onstage in Rome in 1950. A later production at La Scala which was directed by Franco Zeffirelli followed in due course, and it seemed as though the time was ripe to offer it on disc. It was a brave decision for EMI because success was by no means assured even with Callas’ name on the album cover. Rossini operas were still untried territory on record at a time when most Wagner operas were not thought to be worth taking the risk to record for the consumer market.

Pristine Audio have been gradually releasing new remasterings of the complete operas starring Maria Callas, in an almost chronological order. Their previous efforts have all been sourced from the best available first edition vinyls that are available. They have also added their wonderful XR ambient sound processing, about which I have commented so favorably in some of my past reviews of their products. This one is no exception to the sterling work they have been doing. Andrew Rose is credited with the remastering here and he has provided sound of stunning warmth and clarity. Just one example is the vividness with which the pizzicato strings and solo clarinet emerge from orchestral introduction to the Act One finale. The ambient stereo effect is totally convincing; I would have sworn that I was listening to true stereo sound. In previous releases Pristine has identified areas where the original tape machines varied in their relative pitch as the recording proceeded. They do not identify anything specifically here, but I note that Act One, which is complete on the first CD, is a full six seconds longer than on any prior release, including the excellent transfer by Mark Obert Thorn for Naxos: review. I believe that these extra six seconds spread out over the first CD are the reason that the voices and orchestra sound just a bit more naturally placed than in earlier versions.

The most memorable person in the cast is of, course, Callas. Her voice was in its finest state during these sessions. Her tone is bewitchingly lovely and she plays with Rossini’s notes as deftly as she plays with the men in her life. In her Act I duet with her husband Geronio, she manages to suggest that the fake sobbing sounds are actually driven by a sort of laughter. The dark storm clouds that on occasion she coloured her voice with suddenly emerge in her solo introduction to the Act One finale. This is the genius that makes one want to return to Callas some 67 years after the sessions occurred.

Selim was sung by the bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni who often sang with Callas. In these sessions he was captured in slightly hollow voice but there is no sign of the woofiness of tone he usually displayed in his other recordings. His comic acting emerges well enough without the benefit of visuals. You can get a sense of his broad acting style from the cover photo which derives from the La Scala production. Franco Calabrese, as the long suffering husband Geronio, posses a richer and more virile sounding voice than one is accustomed to hearing from buffo basses. He sounds strong enough to make his tolerance of Fiorilla’s antics rather mystifying. He partners well with Callas in their scenes together. The young Nicolai Gedda was EMI’s substitute for Cesare Valetti, who sang Narciso in the Milan performances, and he is a languidly dreamy Narciso indeed. Is this really the same singer who made such a dramatic impression as the pretender Dmitri on Issay Dobrowen’s Boris Godunov recording from 1952? Mariano Stabile, who was Arturo Toscanini’s choice to sing Falstaff at La Scala in 1921, was 66 by the time he came to record the role of Prosdocimo, the poet searching for an opera plot. He was sounding his age, offering some dryness tone to my ears. His comic timing is very assured and he balances well with Calabrese in their duet together. Jolanda Gardino has a fruity sounding voice as Zaida, the gypsy who is Fiorilla’s rival for Selim’s attentions. Giandrea Gavazzeni conducts the Milan ensemble with a sure but unhurried hand. Rossini’s orchestration emerges clearly and affectionately. This was recorded before there were any critical editions of the Rossini works, so there are numerous cuts to the score, the saddest being Fiorilla’s big scene of remorse in Act Two. Callas would have astounded listeners with her chance there for emotional and vocal display.

Rossini lovers will no doubt choose one of the complete stereo recordings of Il Turco in Italia and for good reason. Riccardo Chailly’s on Decca or Neville Marriner’s for Philips remain the two most recommendable versions on CD. This 1954 La Scala recording demands to be included in any collection mainly for a star performance that is not to be missed on any account. Pristine’s is now the preferred version to purchase of this classic recording. I doubt that I shall ever go back to my old EMI CDs again after hearing this. Warner would be smart to engage Pristine to remaster much of its old catalogue. They have proved repeatedly that they are second to none in refurbishing recordings for today’s market.

Mike Parr



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