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Favourite Recordings of Ten Donizetti Operas
A Survey by Ralph Moore

Donizetti wrote more than seventy operas, and while some are undisputed masterpieces, others are clearly somewhat routine and even humdrum, but always invariably at least partially enlivened by his feeling for the long, melodic vocal line and a sense of the dramatic particularly attuned to the pathos of noble despair – hence the plight of Lucia, afflicted queens Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda and even lovelorn swains like Edgardo, Ernesto and Nemorino is especially well delineated. I do not for one moment claim to be acquainted with all his operas; while I have been diverted by the admirable efforts of such as Opera Rara to record his lesser-known works, I confess that very few of them strike me as worthy of revival in the repertoire; nonetheless I include below several comparative rarities whose place is justified by both the music itself and the performances of it.

I have hitherto included only one Donizetti opera in my surveys, that being by far the most celebrated, Lucia d Lammermoor, for which I chose a favourite recording in my Untouchable and Most recommendable survey. That is Richard Bonynge’s 1971 recording with Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes and Ghiaurov all in peak form. I acknowledge the attractions of accounts by Callas, Moffo and Sills but both Callas versions are cut and vocally flawed, and I don’t think any approach the scale and splendour of that Decca recording. In fact, all three Decca recordings of the major operas made over three consecutive years from that partnership of Bonynge, Sutherland and Pavarotti – the 1967 La Fille du regiment, 1970 L’elisir d’amore and the 1971 Lucia d Lammermoor - will always be front-runners. Close runner-up to Sutherland is Beverly Sills, whose recordings also receive proper attention below.

Nonetheless, that still leaves a lot of other operas and recordings to be considered. I do not think that it is especially heretical or controversial to observe that not all of Donizetti’s prodigious output rises to the same level as Lucia di Lammermoor. However, I also do not think Donizetti has been especially well served in the recording studio; there are surprisingly few commercial recordings of some quite prominent works and of those many are, to my ears, badly flawed. Otherwise, live recordings can fill the gap, but when writing these surveys, I tend to keep the general listener in mind rather than the buff or aficionado of historical recordings, and most punters want decent sound. Apart from Lucia, the notable exception to my observation that recordings of major Donizetti operas are somewhat sparse, is L’elisir d’amore, of which a dozen stereo, studio versions have been made – but again, I find many of them to be majorly lacking in some regard, with either weak or coarse singing, or one egregious failure in the casting.

The following is therefore not a comprehensive survey but a selection of ten recordings of more popular and/or better-quality operas which are in my estimation recommendable. Including Lucia, that makes eleven – surely more than enough Donizetti for the average listener. More specialist devotees can explore the Opera Rara catalogue and the more obscure operas, some of which have been revived as vehicles for divas such as Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé and Nelly Miricioiu.

The Recordings:
 
Anna Bolena

Romani’s libretto is excellent as long as you accept that there is very little true historicity about it. At three-and-a-quarter hours, it has its longueurs, hence I am not too exercised by any cuts. The ne plus ultra of Annas was sung by Maria Callas but our souvenir of that assumption resides in a live, 1957 mono recording of the revival La Scala mounted for her, in which she is not especially well partnered, so for a more satisfactory, all-round experience we need to look elsewhere, while retaining her recording for her unparalleled sensitivity and vocalism.

Extraordinarily, there are only three studio recordings and of those, two are fatally compromised by the vocal estate of the singer of the eponymous leading role. Sutherland recorded her Anna too late in her career and Elena Souliotis was already all over the vocal shop while still only in her mid-20’s when she made her recording for Decca. The start of “Al dolce guidami” suggests a voice in tatters, unable to sustain a line. She plunges into her lower register but also screeches, screams and squeals up to a D sharp at the end of “Giudici ad Anna!” By all means, try her via the excerpts on YouTube and see if you think it is worth putting up with her precarious technique in exchange for the drama and excitement she generates – and she is very well supported by a starry cast but it’s not for me.

That leaves this recording:

Julius Rudel – 1972 (studio; stereo) DG; Westminster
London Symphony Orchestra
John Alldis Choir
Anna Bolena - Beverly Sills
Enrico - Paul Plishka
Giovanna - Shirley Verrett
Percy - Stuart Burrows
Rochefort - Robert Lloyd
Smeton - Patricia Kern
Hervey - Robert Tear

Unlike virtually every other recording, this offers the score complete, which is a questionable bonus, given that it could withstand some judicious pruning. The sound is at first rather wiry in orchestral passages but first-rate for clarity and Rudel is sharp and precise throughout. The voices seem rather distant and reverberant but that is suggestive of the opera house.

Sills is, as usual, somewhat shallow of voice and sings some lines an octave up but is always pushing for more drama in her utterance. She suggests Anna’s youth and vulnerability – if not quite, perhaps, her dignity, but her stream of pearlescent tone and flawless ornamentation are a delight. “Al dolce guidami” is wonderfully sung but without the hooded, haunted quality Callas brings to it; there is still a hint of the showpiece about it rather than a deeply felt lament. The young Shirley Verrett is in rich, majestic voice, making a pleasing contrast with Sills’ brighter timbre and Patricia Kerns’ smoky, flexible mezzo completes a trio of very well-contrasted female voices. Plishka has a beautiful voice even if he is not the most animated of kings, but his black, focused bass is a big improvement over the woolly Rossi-Lemeni with Callas.

The young Robert Lloyd and Stuart Burrows complete what was probably as fine a cast as could then be assembled. Burrows is as elegant as ever and negotiates the tricky ornamentation of his arias with aplomb, right up to the C sharps required, even if his portrayal is sometimes more refined than passionate. I hear no lack of passion, however, in the boiling ensemble which closes Act I, where the singing is thrilling, but perhaps the finest passage of all is the Act 2 confrontation between Anna and Giovanna where the latter admits her guilt; both women are vocally on fire, hurling out secure top notes and plunging into their lower registers while sustaining great emotional tension in their delivery of the words.

The chorus and orchestra are exemplary. Whatever its minor failings, overall, this recording is unchallenged.

If you are prepared to venture beyond the studio, however, I must put in a word for a live radio broadcast recording from 1958, conducted by the ever-reliable Gavazzeni and starring two great singers in Leyla Gencer and Giulietta Simionato with a strong supporting cast including two excellent basses and something of a drawback in the stentorian, less-than-elegant tenor Aldo Bertocci.

L’elisir d’amore
 
As I said in my introduction, unlike so many of Donizetti’s works, this opera has received a fair number of studio recordings but I find only a few of them to be satisfactory.
 
I do not share the enthusiastic responses of some listeners to Molinari-Pradelli’s 1955 recording. I find him a bit stolid, Gueden rather shrill and not at all Italianate and, for all that he was a famous exponent of the role, Di Stefano as Edgardo lacking in elegance – he is often hard voiced and injects intrusive h’s into runs. Corena, too, I almost invariably find coarse and not especially idiomatic as an Italianate buffo.

Evelino Pidň’s 1996 recording looks attractive with what looks ostensibly like the young dream pairing of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Gheorghiu is especially appealing but the recording is scuppered by Alagna already over-singing and sounding throaty, a dull Dulcamara and a dreadful Belcore from Roberto Scaltriti, whose career was sadly curtailed because he sang permanently on constriction out of the side of his mouth – as was apparent from my seeing him on video. Nor do I want the later, decorated, lower-pitched version of “Una furtiva lagrima” given here, which is a real disappointment and should have been included only as an appendix. Alagna’s earlier recording under Marcello Viotti found him in much sweeter voice but was hampered by a dull cast including an Adina who sounds too mature, lacking girlish charm.

For me, the recordings which best merit consideration are as follows:

Gianandrea Gavazzeni – 1952 (live radio broadcast; mono) Warner Fonit (Cetra) Urania; Cantus
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Roma
Adina - Alda Noni
Nemorino - Cesare Valletti
Dulcamara - Sesto Bruscantini
Belcore - Afro Poli
Giannetta - Bruna Rizzoli

The prime attraction here is the mellifluous tenor of Cesare Valletti, pupil of Schipa, but his co-singers are top-notch Donizetti specialists, too, and the sound here is very listenable mono. I have often observed that Gavazzeni was never less than superlative as an opera conductor and he is once again wholly reliable here. Alda Noni is a pert miss of an Adina, somewhat brittle – she was essentially a soubrette soprano leggero - but very adept and good enough to be invited by Richard Strauss to sing Zerbinetta in the Ariadne auf Naxos celebrating his 80th birthday in 1944.

Bruscantini is a model of fleet elegance, lighter of timbre than most Dulcamaras with an attractively fast vibrato and complete mastery of the text. Poli has a firm, beefier voice more appropriate for the macho, but essentially decent, military man Belcore (“Goodheart”) and their exchanges are thistledown light. The whole recording is pervaded by a strong sense of ensemble and the sound is clean, slightly distanced mono.

John Pritchard – 1976 (live; stereo) Gala
Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus
Adina - Yasuko Hayashi
Nemorino - José Carreras
Dulcamara - Geraint Evans
Belcore - Thomas Allen
Giannetta - Lilian Watson

John Pritchard – 1977 (studio; stereo) CBS/Sony
Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus
Adina - Ileana Cotrubas
Nemorino - Plácido Domingo
Dulcamara - Geraint Evans
Belcore - Ingvar Wixell
Giannetta - Lilian Watson

Pritchard’s 1977 studio recording was rightly well received, but those of us who saw the original, live, Covent Garden production realised that Domingo’s usurpation of Carreras as Edgardo for purposes of the studio recording was a big loss – and a mistake. Domingo sings very well but gives us a pleasant, generalised Nemorino when instead we can still have Carreras in the live performance on Gala, in pretty good sound. He is in meltingly beautiful, youthful voice and gives us a Nemorino of puppyish charm; after all, “Nemorino” means “Little Nobody” and pathos is crucial to any portrayal of him; both Carreras and Pavarotti do a better job than Domingo. Carreras’ “Una furtiva lagrima” is quite rightly given enthusiastic applause, after he ends on a superb diminuendo. (By the time of his live recording with Scimone in 1984, the vibrations of his voice had loosened somewhat.)

Ileana Cotrubas was among the most winning and delightful of Adinas, suggestive of real emotional depth rather than being a self-possessed young miss, and her performance is the best thing about the studio recording – but, rather unexpectedly, the celebrated Madama Butterfly Yasuko Hayashi is here almost as winning an Adina as Cotrubas. The exchange of the ebullient, pointed Ingvar Wixell for Thomas Allen here was certainly no loss, as both are excellent but Allen in particular is a laser-voiced, strutting, preening Belcore. Lilian Watson is a spirited Giannetta in both recordings. Geraint Evans is again hammily amusing in the typically experienced buffo style but there is also a bit of bluster and shouting, and a rather loose vibrato mars his line. Both recordings are attractive but my preference lies for this one with Hayashi and Carreras.

The question is, do Bonynge, Sutherland, Pavarotti and co. do it even better?

Richard Bonynge – 1970 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra - English Chamber Orchestra
Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Adina - Joan Sutherland
Nemorino - Luciano Pavarotti
Dulcamara - Spiro Malas
Belcore - Dominic Cossa
Giannetta - Maria Casula

Bonynge sometimes gets a bad press, perhaps because occasionally perhaps he did indulge his wife too much with slack tempi to match some droopy singing but for the most part he was and is an expert bel canto conductor and I find his direction here to be exemplary. He, the NPO and his singers are ideally served by crystalline Decca sound; you could not find a better chorus than the ubiquitous Ambrosian Singers in the 70s.

This is a big-scale performance; even Maria Casula’s Giannetta has a bigger, beefier sound than we usually here in that supporting role. The second voice we hear is Pavarotti and he immediately vividly depicts Nemorino as a thoroughly likeable, lovestruck lad; every note pings and every syllable is ideally inflected – this is no “stand and sing” performance. The voice per se is a miracle of sweet power and precision – just lovely; nobody, but nobody - except Schipa? - sings “Una furtiva lagrima” so feelingly and so delicately. Sutherland always had a slightly cloudy middle voice but she is bubbly and just sounds as if she is having fun because she is. She really makes something of the Tristan narrative, and the high notes and roulades are of course superb. Dominic Cossa has a neat, pleasing baritone with the right virile sound for Belcore and a secure top A. His characterisation is not especially striking but he certainly does not let the side down – even if we could do with a bit more swagger. I have read criticism of Spiro Malas’ Dulcamara but I actually find his slightly hoarse bass more attractive than many; it is even throughout its range and he certainly invests the text with life, verve and variety.

In brief, everything here works in unison and this holds its place at the head of the pack.

(Textual note: Bonynge and Sutherland replace the usual Act 2 cabaletta with a more intricate and demanding one written not by Donizetti but by Charles de Beriot for his wife, Maria Malibran – which is a bit naughty but the music and performance are spectacular.)

Gabriele Ferro – 1986 (studio; digital) DG
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Adina - Barbara Bonney
Nemorino - Gösta Winbergh
Dulcamara - Rolando Panerai
Belcore - Bernd Weikl
Giannetta - Antonella Bandelli

This is primarily a light and lively account in best digital sound – but I am rather taken aback by the cautious tempo Ferro sets for the opening chorus; after that, all seems well enough for a while but the tempo for the march introducing Belcore is surely too brisk. The same fault is apparent in his Don Pasquale (see below).

I usually very much like the lead singers here but am always wary of later recordings by Bernd Weikl as his voice gradually developed an unattractive pulse - almost a bleat – and my first reaction on seeing the veteran Panerai cast as Dulcamara was surely his lean baritone would not have enough juice in it for a role usually associated with fruity bass-baritones? Fortunately, Weikl is here still in youthful voice and presents a seductive military figure – and he was always a good vocal actor. Then I must say that I was taken by surprise by the depth and richness of Panerai’s distinctive baritone – and it makes a change to have such a firm voice as opposed to a rocky, aging bass. He is of course a consummate vocal actor and makes most of the words as well as singing beautifully.

Gösta Winbergh had an attractive tenor but he is perhaps a shade grainy and effortful compared with the honey-voiced Pavarotti – who isn’t? – and he does not have a great range of tone and timbre. Nonetheless, he duets winningly with Bonney and he sings his big aria with passionate sincerity.

Barbara Bonney ‘s sweet, trilling soprano is in many ways ideal for Adina, especially as she can inject some element of the “civetta” – flirtatious coquette – into her tone but there is sometimes a lack of weight in her soprano leggero and she is occasionally swamped in ensembles.

This does not usurp my first choice of the Bonynge recording but remains highly enjoyable.

James Levine – 1990 (studio; digital) DG
Orchestra & Chorus - Metropolitan Opera
Adina - Kathleen Battle
Nemorino - Luciano Pavarotti
Dulcamara - Enzo Dara
Belcore - Leo Nucci
Giannetta - Dawn Upshaw

Given the lamentable turn of events involving James Levine’s disgrace shortly before his death, my heart always sinks a little when reviewing, let alone recommending, him, but regardless of his behaviour the man presided over some superb recordings and this is beautifully played and conducted.

Fortunately, I am on this occasion spared any recommendation dilemma, as although Kathleen Battle’s soprano is very similar to that of Barbara Bonney - which I mean as a great compliment - it is also true that this recording suffers from a number of disadvantages, starting with Nucci’s Belcore: he is already wobbly and lumpy of line and scoops in graceless fashion up to every high note. I also have an aversion to Dawn Upshaw’s gulpy, pouty soprano, which is similar to that of Edita Griuberova (see Maria Stuarda below). As Dulcamara, although he is adept in the patter, Enzo Dara has a thin, tremolo-ridden tone. Finally, good as he is here, there is a noticeable deterioration in the sweetness of Pavarotti’s tone compared with his younger self.

I include this recording, therefore, more as a caveat, and unless you are a Battle fan, I direct you in preference towards any of the others above.

Lucrezia Borgia

Ionel Perlea – 1966 (studio; stereo) RCA
Orchestra & Chorus - RCA Italiana
Lucrezia Borgia - Montserrat Caballé
Gennaro - Alfredo Kraus
Maffio Orsini - Shirley Verrett
Don Alfonso - Ezio Flagello
Jacopo Liveretto - Franco Ricciardi
Don Apostolo Gazella - Franco Romano
Ascanio Petrucci - Ferruccio Mazzoli
Oloferno Vitellozzo - Fernando Iacopucci
Gubetta - Vito Maria Brunetti
Rustighello - Giuseppe Baratti
Astolfo - Robert Amis El Hage

Richard Bonynge – 1978 (studio; stereo) Decca
National Philharmonic Orchestra
London Opera Chorus
Lucrezia Borgia - Joan Sutherland
Gennaro - Giacomo Aragall
Maffio Orsini - Marilyn Horne
Don Alfonso - Ingvar Wixell
Jacopo Liveretto - Graham Clark
Don Apostolo Gazella - Lieuwe Visser
Ascanio Petrucci - John Bröcheler
Oloferno Vitellozzo - Piero De Palma
Gubetta - Richard Van Allan
Rustighello - Graeme Ewer
Astolfo - Nicola Zaccaria

Again, there are only two studio recordings; fortunately, both are very good, with unbelievably starry casts by today’s standards, and choice between them would be a matter of taste were it not for what are, for me, two crucial factors in favour of the Bonynge recording. First, as a result of his research, two extra pieces of music written for the tenor by Donizetti after the premiere have been re-incorporated into his recording; these are the beautiful aria at the beginning of Act 2, “T’amo qual dama un angelo” and right at the end, as Gennaro is dying, “Madre se ognor lontano”. This would be less of a deciding factor if the music were not so good and were it not for the fact that it is sung by the under-recorded Giacomo Aragall, whom I prefer by a considerable margin to Alfredo Kraus – so that, for me, swings it, regardless of the merits of both sets.

Sutherland moons and swoons a little but in 1978 is still in finest voice; having said that, the young Caballé is enchanting: purer and more poised than Sutherland, floating notes delectably. Alfredo Kraus sings elegantly but as I said, I prefer Aragall’s plangent tenor to Kraus’ reedy timbre. Marilyn Horne deploys all are coloratura skills in her butch depiction of Orsini but I find Shirley Verrett more attractive as a vocal persona - less extreme and more playful. Interestingly, on the Bonynge recording, Alfonso is sung by the vibrant baritone Ingvar Wixell but Perlea has the equally excellent bass Ezio Flagello and I think his darker sound better suits the villainous, vengeful character.

In short, therefore, for all that ultimately favour the Bonynge, I would not want to be without either recording.

Rosmonda d’Inghilterra

David Parry – 1994 (studio; digital) Opera Rara
Philharmonia Orchestra
Chorus - Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Rosmonda Clifford - Renée Fleming
Leonora di Guienna - Nelly Miricioiu
Enrico II - Bruce Ford
Arturo - Diana Montague
Clifford - Alastair Miles

This is my sole Opera Rara inclusion and it is indeed a rarity, being one of only three recordings in the catalogue – the other two being live performances from Ulster and the Bergamo Festival, neither quite of this quality – and one of Renée Fleming’s earliest recordings in the company of a very fine cast.

The opera itself is interesting in that following its 1834 premiere and a short run, there was only one revival in 1849, then it was forgotten – for a variety of reasons detailed in the full booklet essay by Jeremy Commons - until Opera Rara staged two concert performances in 1975. I had not revisited it for some years before embarking upon this survey, and there is no denying that it is not as consistently melodically inspired as Donizetti’s best works, but it still contains some fine things: the Act 1 duet between Rosmonda and Arturo and the climactic ensemble with which the Act culminates being cases in point. Early critics opined that Act 2 was inferior; I am inclined to agree with them.

The voices here, however, could hardly be better. Nelly Miricioiu almost upstages Fleming with her reckless attack on Leonora’s music and is heart-breaking in her aria “Caro sebben colpevole” and the ensuing duet with the king (the which observation helps counteract my assertion that the music in the second Act is not as striking). Bruce Ford as Enrico sustains sweet, but heroic, tone throughout the murderously high tessitura of the role. Diana Montague’s warm, agile mezzo makes much of the smaller role of Arturo. Alastair Mile’s sonorous bass is at its best as the king’s old tutor – none of which detracts from Fleming being the star; in fact, the excellence of her colleagues simply provides the perfect backdrop for her to display her fresh, yet luscious, soprano to advantage. Her creamy tone and facility in the ornamentation – trills, runs, leaps, pianissimi, portamenti – are a delight and her top notes are fearless. She makes much of her showpiece aria “Io fuggirň quel perfido” and the cabaletta “Senza pace”, with more stratospheric notes up to a D sharp – again, lifting the quality of Act 2.

David Parry’s conducting is exemplary; he gives his voices plenty of time yet whips up tension in those big dramatic moments and he has one of the finest orchestras at his command.

One for the connoisseur, perhaps – but in the end, it’s just great singing.

Maria Stuarda
 
For all the merits of Rosmonda, the leap in melodic inspiration marked by Lucia di Lammermoor the following year is sustained in this opera, which was premiered three months after Lucia; they both contain far more memorable numbers. Regard it, if you will, as a personal foible on my part, but I cannot abide two of the lead singers - Gruberova and Araiza - in Giuseppe Patanč’s 1989 studio recording, which for me leaves these two recordings as the best options:

Aldo Ceccato – 1971 (studio; stereo) DG; Brilliant
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Chorus - John Alldis Choir
Maria - Beverly Sills
Elisabetta - Eileen Farrell
Leicester - Stuart Burrows
Talbot - Louis Quilico
Anna - Patricia Kern
Cecil - Christian Du Plessis

Richard Bonynge – 1975 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Maria - Joan Sutherland
Elisabetta - Huguette Tourangeau
Leicester - Luciano Pavarotti
Talbot - Roger Soyer
Anna - Margreta Elkins
Cecil - James Morris

I have read oddly contradictory reviews of these recordings, which only goes to demonstrate how arbitrary and subjective personal and critical response can be. On one hand, we are told Ceccato’s direction is sluggish, Sills is vocally erratic and wilful in her ornamentation, Eileen Farrell is over the hill and Burrows too prim and proper. Then I read that Ceccato – incidentally, de Sabata’s son-in-law - directs a thrilling, red-blooded performance in which both Sills and Farrell excel and Burrows is the epitome of impassioned elegance. Hmm.

Well, time to quote Brendan Beehan’s famous and witty aphorism: ““Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.” I can only provide my own honest, virginal assessment.

Given that Elisabetta’s two bravura arias come first, I have to say that Farrell finds much more drama in her music than Tourangeau. The voice is huge – a tad unwieldy at times, yes, and there are occasional moments of indeterminate pitch, but those flaws are the result of her singing with such attack and abandon; she makes an ideal fire-breathing queen. Tourangeau sings her music transposed down a semitone with more excursions into her strong, cupped lower register and sings rather more sedately. I like her – admittedly rather peculiar – voice, but some do not and for me Farrell is markedly more involving.

The two tenors singing Leicester are very different but both are excellent: Burrows’ plaintive, expressive manner conveys more pathos but does not preclude animation; Pavarotti’s brighter, more Italianate timbre is more suggestive of youthful passion but he also sings with great tenderness, as in “Era d’amor l’immagine”.

Sills is in best voice and her pure, soaring sound is best for conveying the inner and outer beauty of a character whom both Leicester and Elizabeth agree is “an angel”. She is admirably contrasted with Patricia Kern’s firm mezzo and Farrell’s dramatic soprano. Sutherland sounds decidedly mature and a bit mushy-mouthed compared with Sills and the huskiness marring her middle voice is no asset, but her power and agility are still very much in evidence. The great confrontation scene in both recordings is very effective but Sills actually finds far more lower register and venom when hurling out her riposte to Elisabetta and I also find her more touching in the final scene. On balance, I turn first to Ceccato when I want to hear this opera.

it should be noted that there are a few cuts in Act 3 of Bonynge’s recording and he is decidedly brisker than Ceccato; it runs to 123 minutes whereas Ceccato’s is a nearly half an hour longer. Surprisingly, he is consistently more leisurely than Bonynge but not slack and I prefer how he gives his singers more time to caress their bel canto lines.
 
Charles Mackerras – 1982 (live composite; stereo) Chandos NB: in English
Orchestra & Chorus - English National Opera
Maria - Janet Baker
Elisabetta - Rosalind Plowright
Leicester - David Rendall
Talbot - John Tomlinson
Anna - Angela Bostock
Cecil - Alan Opie

I include this not as a first choice but what I have got into the habit of oxymoronically calling “an indispensable supplement”, because although it is live and in English, Tom Hammond’s translation is in fact excellent, there aren’t too many obtrusive noises and the singing is of the highest order. Singing the eponymous role transposed down to suit a mezzo-soprano, in accordance with the custom established as far back as Malibran’s day, Janet Baker was in her late 40’s at the time of this recording; a little wear and strain is creeping into top notes but otherwise that wondrous voice is in prime, burnished condition and this provides yet another example of her ability to pierce the heart of both the text and the listener with the superlative control and nuance of her delivery. She frequently sings pianissimo with great delicacy and negotiates the coloratura adroitly, but also has the heft to deliver the big moments.

Her co-singers are top-notch, too; Rosalind Plowright, still in her soprano phase, has something of Miricioiu’s ferocity as a stage animal, wielding her big, powerful voice confidently and making the most of the widely acknowledged high-point of the opera: the (fictional) confrontation and slanging match between the two queens culminating in “Royal bastard!” as a satisfying rendition of “Vil bastarda!”. David Rendall’s lean, vibrant tenor and John Tomlinson’s trenchant bass are both distinctive.

(If you don’t want or cannot find the complete set, there is also a Chandos single-disc of highlights: “Janet Baker sings scenes from Mary Stuart”, which include Act 2 complete and excerpts from Act 3.)

Roberto Devereux

Charles Mackerras – 1969 (studio; stereo) DG
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Elisabetta - Beverly Sills
Duca di Nottingham - Peter Glossop
Sara - Beverly Wolff
Roberto Devereux - Róbert Ilosfalvy
Lord Cecil - Kenneth MacDonald
Sir Gualtiero Raleigh - Don Garrard

Mackerras made the sole studio recording of this opera, which is probably the least-known of the “Three Queens”. Sills apart, the principal singers here are not as impressive as in the other two recordings in that group, so I was almost tempted to include the live recording of Rudel’s from the 1977 Aix-en-Provence Festival performance for comparison, especially as Carreras so outshines Ilosfalvy, but it is in mono and Caballé is in rather screechy voice, so the general collector must default to this one – and the stereo sound here is excellent.

Mackerras directs a spry, alert account; his drive and energy are evident from the overture which begins – incongruously to British ears – by quoting “God save the Queen”. The first solo voice we hear is the secure, rich-voiced Beverly Wolff and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus is, as ever, impeccable, so everything starts well. Sills is in peerless voice – at her peak – and in her first aria amply demonstrates her almost unparalleled facility in trills and “floating a note”. Great music it might not be – but great singing it is and she revels in the opportunities it presents. Kenneth MacDonald as Cecil, however, is the possessor of a hard, throaty tenor and Ilosfalvy is only marginally better, especially if we recall Pavarotti, Carreras and Burrows in the primary Donizetti tenor roles. His basic tonal production is nasal and constricted and his line lumpy. Peter Glossop sounds like just what he was – a great Verdi baritone who has strayed into bel canto repertoire; I love him in certain things but here he does not sound apt or comfortable; the vibrations of his voice and hard “Iago” timbre do not sit well with the elegance of the music. It is amusing to see three now justly celebrated basses, Gwynne Howell, Richard Van Allan and Don Garrard in minor roles at the outset of their careers. However, Sills has much more music than anyone else and it is for her you would buy this set. The relative deficiencies in her co-singers do not prevent me from endorsing this, particularly as she is in such sovereign voice and relative to bel canto casts we could field today, this is perfectly satisfactory – and besides, it is the best we are going to get.

La fille du regiment/ La figlia del reggimento

Richard Bonynge – 1967 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Covent Garden
Marie - Joan Sutherland
Tonio - Luciano Pavarotti
Sulpice - Spiro Malas
La Marquise - Monica Sinclair
Hortensius - Jules Bruyčre
Caporale - Eric Garrett
Un Paysan - Alan Jones
La Duchesse - Edith Coates

In truth, there is very little competition to this studio recording in French, so it is just as well that it is so good. As with their L’elisir made three years later, also with Spiro Malas, you can hear that Sutherland and Pavarotti are enjoying themselves and they have a sterling team of comic singer-actors around them, including stentorian contralto Monica Sinclair, who specialised in the operatic versions of Lady Bracknell and portrayed indignant aristocrats to a T.

Beyond the fact that Pavarotti, as he aged and became somewhat immobile on stage, would occasionally default to “stand and sing” mode, I don’t know why he was accused of being indifferent to the words he was singing; there are countless examples of his caressing and inflecting the text with great sensitivity – as per here. He also had a keen sense of humour and that shows. Oh – and apart from that, he sings like a god…the succession of nine high Cs in “Ah! mes amis” has passed into legend.

Sutherland is still in youthful voice, trilling, tossing off roulades and soaring aloft insouciantly to sustained E flats as if taking a holiday from being covered in blood as Lucia but without jettisoning any vocal baggage. Malas interacts fluently and amusingly with her and if nobody’s French is perfect, neither is it offensive.

For the opera-lover used to stabbings, suicides and betrayals this makes for a joyous change of scene, as the music is still of the highest quality. I cannot imagine it ever being surpassed.

If you want a version in Italian, the options there are also limited. There is a 1960 mono recording with Moffo and Campora made for a film but I am not keen on Campora’s tight, husky voice with its fast vibrato bordering on a tremolo. Perhaps surprisingly, I favour this vintage, mono, radio broadcast:

Mario Rossi – 1950 (live radio broadcast mono) Warner Fonit (Cetra)
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Marie - Lina Pagliughi
Tonio - Cesare Valletti
Sulpice - Sesto Bruscantini
La Marquise - Rina Corsi
Hortensius - Eraldo Coda

Obviously the sound is nothing like as good as the Decca recording but Lina Pagliughi was one of the finest lyric coloratura sopranos of her generation - although not everyone will respond to her very sweet, “girlish” sound. The young Valletti has a fine, bright tenore di grazia but he transposes his high Cs aria down a semitone. Bruscantini is of course a model of elegance – perhaps rather too much so for a bluff soldier – and has a real stage actor’s way with the words. Rossi was an old hand and conducts with zest and flexibility; his Torino forces were responsible for many a fine Cetra recording in the 50s.

This gives a good snapshot from a historical perspective of immediate post-war Italian operatic practice but I cannot imagine anyone really preferring it to Bonynge’s version in the original French rather than its later Italian re-casting.

La favorite/La favorita
 
I do not think this opera is the very best of Donizetti’s works but it has several famous arias and has attracted some very celebrated singers as per below, so it is still worthy of inclusion in my mini-pantheon.

There are only three post-war studio recordings of this opera but we must also throw into the mix the Cetra radio broadcast which, although a live broadcast, is virtually the same as a studio recording. All of them are good in their own way, allowing for the fact that the two 1955 recordings are cut and the Italian text is a flawed and bowdlerised version of the original French – of which there is only one commercial recording.

Angelo Questa – 1955 (live radio broadcast; mono) Warner Fonit (Cetra); Palladio; Urania - in Italian
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Alfonso - Carlo Tagliabue
Leonora - Fedora Barbieri
Fernando - Gianni Raimondi
Baldassare - Giulio Neri
Don Gasparo - Mariano Caruso
Ines - Loretta Di Lelio
 
Alberto Erede – 1955 (studio; stereo) Decca; Urania – in Italian
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Alfonso - Ettore Bastianini
Leonora - Giulietta Simionato
Fernando - Gianni Poggi
Baldassare - Jerome Hines
Don Gasparo - Piero De Palma
Ines - Bice Magnani

Taking these two earliest recordings first, they stand close comparison as they have much in common in addition to their exact contemporaneity. They share the same “traditional cuts”: the ballet music -which is surely no great loss - some in Fernando’s scene and aria at the end of Act I, the second verse of Leonora’s cabaletta "O mio Fernando", the scene which follows it and the final scene.

Both Questa and Erede presided over many a fine recording from that era and know how the music should go; they both have good orchestras and chorus at their disposal, too, although the Florentine band sounds superior to their Torino counterparts. Both have distinguished casts with some big names in them and better than anything we could muster today, but there are pluses and minuses regarding both: for some, the biggest distinguishing factor might be that Decca’s sound – even better in Urania’s remastering - is in fine, narrow stereo, whereas the Cetra recording is in mono - albeit perfectly clean and listenable.

The singers present the classic “swings and roundabouts” choices. Raimondi is a subtler artist than Poggi, with a considerably more attractive basic timbre than Poggi’s tight, lachrymose sound. Both singers transpose “Spirto gentil” to avoid the C sharp and still falter, in that Raimondi wobbles on it whereas Poggi belts it out unmusically but he does take the C sharp – again, in strenuous fashion - in his first aria "Una vergine, un angelo di Dio", while Raimondi sticks to the downward transposition of a semitone. Pavarotti – see below - trumps both with a superb top D but I would still sooner listen to Raimondi over sustained passages rather than endure Poggi’s whine.

Barbieri was a fine singer with a formidable lower register and oodles of baleful temperament but although she was billed as a mezzo-soprano, she could struggle with top notes and I think she chose to sing in that tessitura because that was where the big roles – and the money – in Italian opera lay, not in the contralto range. Simionato had a brighter, lighter voice although she, too, had heft a-plenty and she manages Leonora somewhat more easily than Barbieri, who avoids the written top Cs here. While Simionato still has the depth, there is also an extra vibrancy to her tone – and that ease up top. I don’t want to denigrate Barbieri through odious comparisons – she is still a compelling artist and it is only when considered alongside Simionato that she appears to be slightly lacking. I still much enjoy her singing; how beautifully she swells the F on “Ah, sě” halfway through “O mio Fernando” and I love her plunges into that trenchant lower register.

Comparison between Bastianini and Tagliabue is even more interesting, in that the range of criteria for excellence is so distinctly illustrated by their differences: Bastianini is sappy, virile and resonant, with so much more voice than his elder colleague on the point of retirement, yet Tagliabue, with his greying voice and diminished resources, helped by Questa’s gentler pace and more yielding phrasing, gives his younger colleague a lesson in expressivity, extracting the pathos from the text and music and leaving Bastianini floundering in brute noise. Yet what a noise it is!

Finally, we have two superb basses to consider in Giulio Neri and Jerome Hines. Neri, whose life was prematurely truncated by a heart attack, had the blackest bass ever, and even takes an unwritten low C in “Splendon piů belle”; Hines is scarcely less impressive in that arietta – without taking the low C option; both are incomparable.

As you may be able to tell, choosing between these two recordings for the better Italian version would be nigh on impossible were it not for the next recording- which undeniably has a weaker Alfonso than either but is otherwise preferable overall. However, in true, greedy operaphile fashion, I continue to want to own all three.

Richard Bonynge – 1974 (studio; stereo) Decca – in Italian
Orchestra& Chorus - Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Alfonso - Gabriel Bacquier
Leonora - Fiorenza Cossotto
Fernando - Luciano Pavarotti
Baldassare - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Don Gasparo - Piero De Palma
Ines - Ileana Cotrubas

This is part of the wave of Donizetti operas made by Bonynge for Decca in the 60s and 70s, but is notable for the absence of Joan Sutherland – for the very good reason that there is no role for her here. The leading lady role was written by Donizetti for a mezzo-soprano at the insistence of the director of the Paris Opéra, for which the work was composed - and whose mistress was a mezzo. A young Ileana Cotrubas here takes the only soprano, comprimario role of Ines – and sings it very prettily.

The undoubted star of the show, for all that his co-singers are a distinguished bunch, is Pavarotti, once again in sovereign voice, as demonstrated from the power and sweetness of his delivery of his first hit aria “Una vergine, un’angel di Dio”. At the end of Act I, he strikes a high D effortlessly and sings flawlessly throughout, making the most of the most famous aria, “Spirto gentil” (originally “Ange si pur” which Donizetti lifted from the abandoned Le Duc d’Albe for the tenor Duprez. I refer you to my review of that opera for further information), rising to a fine C sharp. Ghiaurov is in smoothest, most voluptuous voice, his bass rolling out like a fine Turkish carpet. Fiorenza Cossotto, too, is in her prime deploying her big, flexible voice somewhat formidably but displaying the wonderful warmth and richness of timbre which made it unmistakable. Her own big aria, “O mio Fernando” is sung with admirable poise and beauty of tone. I am invariably less enthused by Bacquier’s husky, “shouty” baritone but he does not appear until Act 2 and actually has less to do than the other three principals. He always sings expressively, however, even if he is not ideally steady and mellifluous. With such an ensemble, the concerted pieces, such as the climax to Act 2, cannot fail to be stirring. Bonynge’s direction is suitably energised and lyrical by turns.

Marcello Viotti – 1999 (studio; digital) RCA - in French
Münchner Rundfunkorchester
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Alphonse - Anthony Michaels-Moore
Léonore de Guzman - Vesselina Kasarova
Fernand - Ramón Vargas
Balthazar - Carlo Colombara
Inčs - Abby Furmansky
Don Gaspard - Francesco Piccoli
Un seigneur - Lorenz Fehenberger II

Fitting neatly onto two discs and containing a booklet with the French libretto and translations into English and German, this is the only studio recording of the original French version, although there are also two live recordings, one on the Ricordi Fonit Cetra label conducted in Milan by Donato Renzetti and another on Dynamic conducted by Fabio Luisi; both can be hard and/or expensive to acquire. In any case, this one conducted by Viotti is certainly as good as either of those and probably better. There has been criticism of the “international French”, inevitable when non-native speakers undertake it, but it’s really not so bad; Vargas’ French is better than Kasarova’s, however. He is a neat, very “modern” tenor, more inclined to caress rather than project his music and in general the performance here – perhaps in function of being sung in a more sophisticated, Gallic style – seems so much more restraint than its Italian precedents. He certainly makes a pleasing job of “Spirto gentil” however, capping it with a ringing C sharp not much inferior to Pavarotti’s consummate Italian version.

Continuing my theme regarding the refinement of this account, I observe that Carlo Colombara’s assumption of Balthasar is so diffident and polite in comparison to the gigantic Neri, Hines and even Ghiaurov that it almost recedes into the background. Anthony Michaels-Moore is likewise so elegant as to be almost effete and it does not help that his constricted baritone has little of the dark core we hear in the voices of Tagliabue and Bastianini. Finally, Abby Furmansky is a similarly competent but entirely unmemorable Ines. Viotti’s conducting is correspondingly discreet; at times, I would like more momentum and passion. One begins to feel that one is looking at La favorite through the wrong end of a telescope – or rather, hearing it through noise-reduction earphones.

Fortunately, Vargas’ singing invariably gives pleasure and Kasarova is on hand to inject some blood into the veins of this recording. Her French might be a little indistinct but her vibrant, hooded tone, thrilling top notes and evident involvement provide the listener with constant aural stimulation. Her voice is in fact rather similar in some aspects to that of another singer from an earlier generation which also divided opinion: Huguette Tourangeau – and again, as with the Canadian mezzo, I enjoy it. I would still turn in preference to the illicit Italian version but if you want this opera in French, here it is.

Don Pasquale

Donizetti was inspired when composing this work; its genuine warmth, good humour, quickfire exchanges in the witty dialogue and the stream of melodies constantly enliven it, elevating it to a place among his greatest achievements. Both the DG and Decca recordings made in 1964 exhibit vocal weaknesses, as does Heinz Wallberg’s 1979 recording on Eurodisc, despite the presence of Lucia Popp, and of the singers on Roberto Abbado’s 1993 studio recording, only Thomas Allen is to my taste. That still leaves some interesting versions, beginning way back with:

Carlo Sabajno – 1932 (studio; mono) Frequenz; Arkadia; EMI
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Don Pasquale - Ernesto Badini
Norina - Adelaide Saraceni
Malatesta - Afro Poli
Ernesto - Tito Schipa
Un notaio - Giordano Callegari

I keenly appreciate that it is eccentric, perhaps perverse, to recommend a recording 90 years old as I write but it has always scrubbed up well from what was in the first place a remarkably good recording for its era. My argument for its advocacy simply depends upon my repeated experience of listening to it, whereby I am swiftly absorbed by its immediacy to the extent that I completely forget its age. Orchestral detail comes through clearly and there is very little distortion; voices are well placed and in short you could easily believe that this is a mono recording from the 1950s. I happen to have the Frequenz issue which is perfectly satisfactory – but there are many different issues on a variety of labels.

Badini has a somewhat lighter, neater voices than we are perhaps used to but he and the young, alert and stalwart Poli are so adept at enunciating their words clearly and amusingly without losing the musical line that there is no sense of vocal inadequacy. Badini was a Toscanini favourite and you can hear why: he sings “off the words” and has an unfailing rhythmic sense and is nimble enough to encompass the patter and coloratura. Good as both Badini and Poli are, it is the presence of Tito Schipa which makes this recording immortal; his inimitably sweet, seductive timbre, immaculate breathing and phrasing make this one of the imperishables of the gramophone. He has two plaintive, plangent arias at the beginning of Act 2 and the end of Act 3 which allow him to demonstrate his gifts to perfection, the first duetting with a trumpet which comes across the years so vividly. Playing this once more for the purposes of this survey captivated me so entirely that once again, I forgot the purpose of my listening to it – and that’s the effect of great music-making reaching out to the listener from the past across almost a century.

Adelaide Saraceni retired early from singing owing to ill health, yet nonetheless lived to be nearly a hundred and was a prominent teacher in Milan. She is light, agile and charming if just occasionally a little shrill but otherwise able to colour her voice at will. The love duet with Schipa, “Tornami a dir che m’ami” in thirds and her waltz-time finale are delightful.

The house conductor of the Gramophone Company - the forerunner of HMV - Carlo Sabajno directs an entirely idiomatic, alert, beautifully paced recording. It may be old but it’s gold.

Mario Rossi – 1952 (live radio broadcast; mono) Warner Fonit (Cetra); Preiser; Cantus
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Don Pasquale - Sesto Bruscantini
Norina - Alda Noni
Malatesta - Mario Borriello
Ernesto - Cesare Valletti
Un notaio - Armando Benzi

Recorded by three of the same artists with the same orchestra and chorus for Cetra in the same year as L’elisir d’amore (see above) this is similarly excellent. Likewise, conductor Mario Rossi was another wholly dependable and idiomatic stalwart of the opera house and the Cetra recording studio, presiding over the Turin orchestra for nearly a quarter of a century (see La figlia above), all of which combines to make this yet another success for the Cetra label.

Mario Borriello completes the impressive line-up. Noni’s trilling, soubrette soprano is perhaps an acquired taste but it is well suited to depicting Norina first as the shrinking innocent then the exigent shrew. Valletti is once again a paragon of the tenore leggero/di grazia – and light and graceful is exactly what his singing is; his frequent recourse to falsetto does not preclude his digging into a strong full voice as required, such as at the end of “"Com' č gentil” before the concluding soft A flat. “Tornami a dir” is a swoon-inducing highlight.

Furthermore, the quickfire delivery of the dialogue makes the performance is genuinely witty and amusing – and the legato singing of the lyrical passages is always a pleasure.

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli – 1955 (studio; mono) Philips
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli
Don Pasquale - Renato Capecchi
Norina - Bruna Rizzoli
Malatesta - Giuseppe Valdengo
Ernesto - Petre Munteanu
Un notaio - Claudio Adorni

Here’s an interesting cast assembling some really quite famous names under a vastly experienced conductor, including another of Toscanini’s favourite baritones and the ever-under-rated Renato Capecchi – although perhaps Petre Munteanu is known only to cognoscenti. It’s such a pity, therefore, that this recording just missed being made in stereo as despite my advocacy of the preceding vintage set, I concede that limited, slightly tubby mono sound is a disadvantage, but the voices here are still nicely to the fore even if the orchestra is a bit occluded, and the listener soon adjusts.

I really like the energy of the Neapolitan orchestra and Molinari-Pradelli’s drive, evident right from the overture. He conducts with lilt and affection, too, when the occasion demands. Capecchi makes his baritone sound like a fat buffo bass-baritone without losing focus or going lumpy and he is a master of the text. Valdengo by contrast, although he was a justly famous Falstaff, lightens his incisive baritone to portray Malatesta aptly. In brief, both singers know just how to colour their voices and are well contrasted in timbre and affect, which is not always the case. Their singing is a joy, in the best Italian tradition and their diction, too, is an object lesson in clarity – their high-speed patter/laughing duet goes swimmingly.

Munteanu has a sweet, slightly grainy, plangent timbre somewhat reminiscent of Schipa and I love the sound. His love duet with Bruna Rizzoli is charming. She, in common with so many sopranos of an earlier age, has a slim, bright, penetrating sound which can sound a little “piping” to modern ears but she is a scrupulous musician who exudes charm and has an excellent technique, including a neat trill. She plays a pert, winsome minx and the “slap” moment is very effective. I could do without the silly-voiced notary, but let that pass…

Choice for a modern, stereo recording, however, surely resides between the following two recordings.

Riccardo Muti – 1982 (studio; digital) EMI
Philharmonia Orchestra
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Don Pasquale - Sesto Bruscantini
Norina - Mirella Freni
Malatesta - Leo Nucci
Ernesto - Gösta Winbergh
Un notaio - Guido Fabbris

This has for years been my go-to modern recording and it is a pleasure, after auditioning so many vintage recordings, to turn to the warm, spacious, digital sound here. I say “modern” but it only just caught the digital era and is already forty years old as I write – and three of the principal singers are no longer with us, while Maestro Muti is now eighty years old.

Both the gusto and lyricism Muti brings to the music are evident from the overture. He could sometimes harry singers and rush the beat but here is considerate and even leisurely as befits a bel canto opera which gives priority to the singers’ legato and beauty of tone – but the patter songs fizz gratifyingly, too.

Sesto Bruscantini was always quite light and dry of voice compared with fruitier counterparts but he is in the Badini tradition and was a master of sly inflection of text; he brought the same gifts to his portrayal of Don Alfonso in Cosě fan tutte. He is a veteran in his mid-sixties here, yet he preserved his voice remarkably well – and in that regard and also in voice type he was very similar to his slightly younger contemporary Rolando Panerai, so he is well suited at this stage of his career to the role of Pasquale. There are times when one can hear that he runs a little short of breath and lacks the heft and resources to compete with a full orchestra but he covers his waning powers adroitly.

The young Leo Nucci is not yet here exhibiting the bad vocal habits which soon began to mar his baritone and proves himself to be an agile vocal actor, even if there are already hints of bleat and scoop beginning to creep into his delivery.

Gösta Winbergh makes an attractive tenor lead and in fact sounds sweeter here than he did for Ferro as Nemorino three years later (see above); “Cercherň lontana terra” and “Com’č gentil” - appropriately distanced in the sound picture - are both beautifully sung with both power and delicacy. Typically, the purist Muti does not let him sail up to the traditional top B at the end of the latter but instead he holds a lovely, soft diminuendo on the lower E; nor are Nucci and Bruscantini allowed to cap their patter duet “Aspetta, aspetta” with the usual top F. He is well matched with Mirella Freni’s Norina and their duet is a highlight, taken more slowly than usual and dreamily sung. While I am happy to accept the tradition of a soubrette singing that role, it is such a pleasure to hear Freni’s warm, golden lyric soprano launch into the chivalric tale, trill intact, agile in coloratura. with plenty of heft behind her top notes but without the shrillness which can infect smaller, lighter voices.

This might not be perfect but neither does it exhibit any real weaknesses.

Gabriele Ferro – 1990 (studio; digital) Erato
Orchestra & Chorus - Opéra de Lyon
Don Pasquale - Gabriel Bacquier
Norina - Barbara Hendricks
Malatesta - Gino Quilico
Ernesto - Luca Canonici
Un notaio - René Schirrer

This recording was the fruit of an unusually long three-month rehearsal and preparation time for performances first at Lyon then at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and the benefits of the artists’ collaboration and familiarity with other are evident in the ease and slickness of their exchanges. (You may watch the documentary about it on YouTube.)

The impact of the lovely digital sound is compromised by an unusually lugubrious start to the overture with Ferro trying too hard by injecting too much rubato but that’s not a serious fault; then he goes hell-for-leather in the coda. Extremes of tempi are, however, a feature of his conducting both here and in his L’elisir (see above) and they are occasionally irksome.

Gino Quilico has a beautiful lyric baritone and presents a refined, subtle Malatesta which on disc can come across as rather too restrained, whereas his impact on film is greater, owing to his handsome appearance and acting skills. He ornaments his line discreetly and comes across as quietly sly – hardly a “Bad head”! - making a change from the usual more overt, robust depiction. Luca Canonici is a soulful, doleful Ernesto with a slightly “masked”, grainy tenor – pleasant enough if rather plaintive of timbre and a bit pinched up top.

The main interest here lies with Barbara Hendricks’ Norina. She is an artist beloved in France and has an instantly recognisable colour to her voice which is rather different from most sopranos who tackle the role. The middle is smoky yet the top is an odd mix of purity and huskiness; she manages to sound both innocent and calculating by turns. She is fluid and agile in the coloratura with some beguiling, rounded top notes and has obviously thought her characterisation of Norina very carefully, such that it builds into a properly filled-out conception.

Unfortunately, for me the set has one major blot; despite his adept comic timing and amusing inflections, the aging Bacquier – he was 66 here - is very dry and rocky of voice, relying on a lot of bluster and groaning. Given that he is portraying a daft old git who isn’t so bad at heart, that can mostly work dramatically, but vocally he can hardly hold a line firm, so passages like “Ah! un foco insolito” are almost parlando and do not come across as very musical. His shtick was no doubt entertaining on stage – but this is opera, and still needs to be sung.

All the solo voices and performances here, in fact, are somewhat offbeat and while that make the listener hear the work afresh, in the end I find the performance inconsistent and a mite puzzling.

As you will by now have gathered, despite my liking for Quilico and Hendricks, my overall preference lies firmly with the Muti recording.

Poliuto
 
The plot of Poliuto is relatively straightforward, involving conversion, martyrdom and a love triangle, yet it ran into trouble with the censors and its lead tenor committed suicide before it could be performed. Eventually it was doubled in length and premiered in French at the Paris Opéra as Les martyrs – with a ballet added, naturally – but was never performed in its original Italian in Donizetti’s lifetime.

I make an exception of my preference for recommending studio recordings given the quality of the cast here. There is also a live performance from Vienna in 1986 with Ricciarelli and Carreras, which has the advantage of stereo sound and the full score running to two and a half hours. While their singing of gives great pleasure, both artists are slightly past their best, with something of a pulse or beat in their tone, and Juan Pons, good as he is, is no Bastianini. Ricciarelli’s plaintive timbre is well suited to depict Paolina’s suffering but she is one-dimensional compared with Callas. Carreras is similarly gentle and plangent, but he lacks the steely heroism of Corelli’s trumpet tones and both singers sound rather small-scale, unable to offer the same thrills as this:

Antonino Votto – 1960 (live; mono) EMI/Warner
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Poliuto - Franco Corelli
Paolina - Maria Callas
Severo - Ettore Bastianini
Callistene - Nicola Zaccaria
Nearco - Piero De Palma
Felice - Rinaldo Pelizzoni
A Christian - Virgilio Carbonari

Callas chose this opera to return to La Scala after a two-and-a-half-year absence, having fallen out with the manager, Ghiringhelli as a result of his machinations. Previous to that had been the Rome scandal; she had caught a cold and tried to perform in a gala performance of Norma before the president and various luminaries, but had felt obliged to retire after the first Act, not wanting to continue giving a substandard performance.

She was thus understandably nervous about re-launching her career in Italy and had also for some time not been practising as assiduously as of yore, wanting to live her life “as a woman” rather than a diva. She therefore chose to ease herself back in as Paolina, a relatively small role and one not as demanding as some in the repertoire. Furthermore, the part was simplified and the opera cut such that it lasted less than two hours. Nonetheless, singing Paolina still required a big voice capable of agility and, in particular, of expressing suffering, sorrow and pathos – Callas’ forte. Furthermore, despite its neglect, the opera contains some of Donizetti’s best music.

Her first entrance is greeted with a rapturous welcome from the audience and Votto has to start again. She is at first audibly cautious but as she launches into her first aria “Di qual soavi lagrime” the old magic is returning, and despite some wobble in alt, her top B is working and her lower register is as telling as ever. From Act 2 onwards, she sounds as we want to remember her, and even briefly holds a top E flat at the close of the finale. In Act 3 there are many touches such as only she could provide, such as her application of portamento and execution of the descending scale passages in “Un fulgido lume” - and her top C is intact.

Corelli is in the absolute plenitude of his powers and not only sings with brazen power but also considerable sensitivity. There never was a voice like it for sheer visceral thrills unless it was Del Monaco in his prime – though whether it was good taste on his part to inject a rather abrupt and unmusical D flat into the quartet in the first scene is questionable.

The voice-fancier’s rapture is crowned by the presence of heroic baritone Ettore Bastianini, sonorous bass Nicola Zaccaria and the tenor comprimario par excellence Piero De Palma. Bastianini’s grandstanding matches that of Corelli and although his role involves him spending a lot of his time being stern and cross, he is like Corelli in that as well as being in glorious voice, belting out ringing top Gs and A flats, he is capable of singing in honeyed tones during his exchanges with Callas.

I have seen Votto rudely labelled as a mere hack by some critics but as far as I am concerned, he presided over some fine recordings with Callas who evidently liked him and this is no exception. He might not be a fireball but he does everything right.

The audience applaud enthusiastically and express their appreciation vociferously after the set-pieces but don’t usually interrupt the music itself. The mono sound, now remastered to be brighter and further de-hissed by Warner, will never be a treat and the choruses still suffer from distortion, but it is an improvement over the first issue on CD by EMI and presents no difficulties to the listener’s pleasure.

Recommendations:
 
I give options for those operas which have both French and Italian incarnations. While I give preference to more modern recordings in stereo sound, mostly from Decca and DG, it must be said that the clutch of Cetra live radio broadcasts in the 50s is almost invariably of high quality, with wholly idiomatic conducting and superb singing, so by no means discount them – as long as you don’t mind their mono sound – which has usually, in any case, been well remastered. For me, they serve as highly desirable supplements to the stereo recordings.

Anna Bolena: Rudel – 1972
L’elisir d’amore:
Mono: Gavazzeni – 1952
Stereo: Bonynge – 1970
Lucrezia Borgia: Bonynge – 1978
Rosmonda d’Inghilterra: Parry – 1994
Maria Stuarda: Ceccato – 1971
Roberto Devereux: Mackerras – 1969
La fille du regiment/La figlia del reggimento: Bonynge – 1967 (French); Rossi – 1950 (Italian)
La favorite/La favorita: Viotti – 1999 (French); Bonynge – 1974 (Italian)
Don Pasquale:
Historical: Sabajno – 1932
Mono: Molinari-Pradelli – 1955
Stereo/digital: Muti – 1982
Poliuto: Votto – 1960

Ralph Moore



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