Romantic Opera Duets – Placido Domingo & Renata Scotto

Domingo recorded quite a few duet recitals in the 1970s, with Sherrill Milnes (1970), with Katia Ricciarelli (1972), with LeontynePrice (1974) and this one, with Renata Scotto, in 1978, which is, in many ways, the most successful.  For a start, the material is refreshingly unhackneyed, and, although we are vouchsafed only four excerpts, they are quite long (the shortest 8’52”), which makes for a more satisfying listening experience than lots of shorter pieces. The original LP had the French items, which are no doubt better known on the first side and the Italian ones on the second.

Scotto was at the high watermark of what was often referred to as her second career. In the 1960s she had recorded for EMI and DG, but signed to CBS/Sony in the 1970s appearing on many complete sets and recording recitals of Verdi and verismo. The voice was never a conventionally beautiful one and by this time could turn squally and shrill on top notes, but the compensations were many and included her superb musicality, her dramatic involvement, her attention to the text and her natural, unforced, excellent diction. As you can hear here, her French was less idiomatic than her Italian but you can at least hear the words clearly, and it is the French items I enjoyed most on this recital, though that could possibly reflect my preference for the material in question. I’ve never been a big fan of verismo.

Domingo is his reliable self, the voice in good shape, but at this time in his career his performances could seem a little generic, and there is not much difference between his Roméo and his Des Grieux, his Loris and his Giorgio, however musical his actual singing.

Both singers are attentive to the different styles required of the composers in question, but it is Scotto who is better at vocal characterisation, adopting an appropriately more seductive tone for Manon than she does for the girlishly innocent Juliette.  Her Fedora also sounds more mature and commanding than her Luisa in the Mascagni opera, which is a sort of verismo mirror piece to Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable duet recital, both in terms of the singing and the music tackled, and it is an excellent showcase for both singers.

Franco Corelli – Great Operatic Tenors

This two-disc compilation is drawn from the EMI catalogue and includes arias taken both from complete sets and recital discs.

People often go misty-eyed at the mere mention of Franco Corelli and he still inspires a huge following among opera lovers. For many he can do no wrong, and certianly the voice was a magnificent one, unique and no doubt a God-given gift. For me it’s more often a case of (to paraphrase the song from A Chorus Line) voice ten, artistry three. Not always, I hasten to add, and, if the performances on this set are anything to go by, he did respond to a strong hand at the helm. Predictably the best of them tend to be taken from complete sets, particularly those conducted by Zubin Mehta (Celeste Aida), Lovro von Matacic (Vesti la giubba) and Tullio Serafin (Pollione’s Meco all’altar di Venere from the second Callas Norma), which is arguably the best of all).

These are all on Disc One, where elsewhere there is just too much can belto sobbing. Manrico’s Ah si, ben mio, from the Schippers complete set, is delivered at a relentless forte (why not his stunning Di qella pira, I wonder?), as are the excerpts from the Santini recording of Andrea Chénier. Worst of all is the graceless, over-loud version of Roméo’s Ah, lève-toi, soleil, sung in execrable French. Listen to this and then to Bjørling, Kraus, Gedda or Alagna to hear how beautifully poetic the aria can sound.

Disc 2 has even less to commend it, I’m afraid. The best performances are taken from a recital record with an unknown orchestra under one, Franco Ferraris. Cavaradossi’s Recondita armonia lacks poetry, but E lucevan le stelle is much better, though he rather ruins the final measures with an excess of sobbing. Cielo e mar is also a fine, sensitive performance, with the added bonus of those gloriously free and ringing top notes.
The less said about some of the other items though, the better. After the operatic arias, we are treated (I’m not sure that is the correct word) to a selection from, presumably, a record of sacred arias, all in absolutey ghastly arrangements. Handel’s ubiquitous Largo from Semele is mangled almost beyond recognition, the Schubert and Bach/Gounod Ave Marias sung through a sort of treacle soup, and Rossini’s Domine Deus from the Petite Messe Solenelle bludgeoned to death. Franck’s Panis angelicus, taken, by the looks of things, from another album, doesn’t fare much better, nor, surprisngly does Lara’s Granada from the same album. Not entirely Corelli’s fault, as the arrangement is quite possibly the most ghastly I’ve ever heard, the tempo pulled around so much the piece loses any sense of flow. What price Wunderlich’s gloriously ebullient and sunny version for DG? Corelli sounds plain angry, but who can blame him when the accompanment is so awful?.

Fortunately the final two items somewhat redeem this sorry mess. The arrangements might not be much better, but in Cardillo’s Core ‘ngrato and De Curtis’s Torna a Sorriento, one just basks in the Mediterranean warmth of Corelli’s glorious tenor. It is moments like these that remind us of why we listen to him.

Renata Tebaldi – I Primi Anni di Carriere

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This four disc set is of recordings made in the 1940s and early 1950s, when Tebaldi was in her twenties. It is a mixture of live and studio recordings, so sound quality varies quite a bit. It is also a convenient grouping together of four different discs issued by Fonit Cetra in 2002, which no doubt explains why we get so many different performances of the same aria. Given that there is little difference between them, you may decide you don’t need to listen to four different performances of La mamma morta and of Desdemona’s Willow Song.

And of course the first thing we need to say is that it was an extraordnarily beautiful voice, even throughout its range, firm and rich, her diction admirably clear, though, even at the beginning the very top could sound strained and off pitch. The top C climax to her 1950 Cetra studio recording of Aida’s O patria mia is hard won and slightly under the note and the voice’s greatest beauty lies in the middle register, though many of today’s sopranos would also kill for the richness down below. Nor is she an unfeeling performer, though, at this stage in her career, it can tempt her into excess, especially when singing live, and she tends to sound lacrymose rather than truly moving. She goes way over the top in Desdemona’s Willow Song, and she is much more restrained, and consequently more moving, in the Decca Karajan recording. The other thing to say about Tebaldi is that, however beautiful the voice, however firm the delivery, however musical her singing, her performances rarely stay in the memory, nor does she ever really light up a phrase or a line the way others can. Performances of some of this same music, by such as Muzio, Callas, Caballé, De Los Angeles and Schwarzkopf resonate in my mind’s ear, and I can often recall individual details. With Tebaldi I never can. I can recall the sound of the voice, but little that is specific to the music she is singing. In these early performances, I found that she often over-characterises the music, introducing sobs and emphases which detract from the beauty of the sound, rather than make it more dramatic. It is somewhat akin to watching a hammy actor.

A few specifics then about the discs themselves. Disc 1 covers studio recordings made for Decca and Fonit Cetra in 1949 and 1950, arias from Aida, Madama Butterfly, Faust, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Otello, La Boheme, Mefistofele, La Wally, Andrea Chénier and, most surprisingly Susanna’s Deh vieni from Le Nozze di Figaro, though she makes a very heavyweight Susanna, and this is the least successful item on the first disc. Recorded sound here is fine here, and there is certainly much pleasure to be gained from the voice itself.

The prize of Disc 2 is some extended excerpts from a 1951 concert performance of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco with Carlo Bergonzi and Rolando Panerai. Though she is taxed by some of the coloratura, the role suits her well. Also excellent are the two extracts from a 1950 performance of the Verdi Requiem under Toscanini, with Giacinto Pradelli, Cloe Elmo and Cesare Siepi. It is somewhat dimly recorded, but you can hear how fine she was in this work. Why Decca never recorded her in it is beyond me. A welcome surprise is Elisabeth’s Dich, teure Halle (in Italian) from Tannhäuser. It is also good to hear the young Di Stefano in a 1950 concert performance of the Act I duet from Madama Butterfly.

Disc 3 is entitled Gli Inediti, which is presumably of previously unissued recordings. This time she sings the Countess’s Porgi amor but, though more suited to the character, Mozart is not really her métier. The excerpts from a 1949 performance of Andrea Chénier wih Del Monaco are prime examples of that hamminess I alluded to, but she gives us a lovely performance of Louise’s Depuis le jour in Italian. It lacks Callas’s quiet intensity and mounting rapture, but is much more securely sung and works well on its own terms. The disc closes with a small piece of history; a 1945 performance of the love duet from Otello, with the then almost sixty year old Francesco Merli, though recording here is at its dimmest. Nevertheless it affords us a glimpse of the great tenor in one of his most famous roles.

The fourth disc pits Tebaldi against her teacher, Carmen Melis. Excerpts from Tebaldi’s first recordings of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, which I personally prefer to her later recordings under Serafin, and arias from Manon Lescaut and Tosca, all very fine. Melis is caught in excerpts from Tosca and Massenet’s Manon. She is a singer who is new to me, and I must say I found her very impressive, and actually more communicative than her pupil, though the top C at the line Io quella lama gli piantai nel cor is a little precarious, and she takes the upper option on the word cor. The Manon excerpt is Manon’s N’est-ce plus ma main (in Italian) from the duet with Des Grieux, and she is wonderfully seductive and persuasive.

Tebaldi is a central singer in that she demonstrates most of the virtues of good singing. The voice is a beautiful one, the line always firmly held, her legato generally excellent. Her only faults are a lack of a trill and clumsy execution of fast moving music (hardly necessary in most of the music she sang) and a slightly short top. (I remember that in her interview with Luca Rasponi for the book The Last of the Prima Donnas, she bemoans the ever rising pitch of modern orcehstras, which must have been a nightmare for her.) My preferences are well know, and I prefer singers who have something more specific to say about the music they assay, but the set is one I still enjoy dipping into from time to time.

Jussi Bjørling – A collection of Swedish 78s.

These two CDs gather together most of the 78s the young Bjørling made in his native Sweden between 1933 and 1949, the earliest made when he was a budding tenor of twenty-two.

Most are vocal gems, but one or two (the rather loud and penny plain Je crois entendre encore, and the unpoetic duet from La Boheme with Anna- Lisa Bjørling on the second disc, for instance) are less than great.

The voice itself was a magnificent one, no doubt about it, with a silvery purity throughout its range, the high notes free and easy; just listen to his joyfully ebullient 1938 performance of Offenbach’s Au mont Ida from La belle Hélène, sung in Swedish, but with terrific swagger, the top notes flying out like lasers. From a few years ealier we have a plaintively sensitive performance of Valdimir’s Cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor, the legato line beautifully held, his mezza voce finely spun out. Also from 1938 we have a thrilling performance of the Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat mater, with a free and easy top D flat at the end, and it is prinicpall for Italian and French opera that Bjørling will be remembered and there are plenty of examples here of his wonderfully musical performances in that genre.

We find him ideal in Verdi, Donizetti and Puccini alike, in Myerbeer, in Massenet and in Gounod (a glorious rendering of Faust’s Salut, demeure). Some regret the absence of a true Italianate tone in the Italian items, but he will never resort to sobs and aspirates to express emotion, and, personally, I find his comparative restraint very attractive. It is true, he is not always imaginative with his phrasing, and nowhere will you get the kind of psychological introspection you would hear in a performance by someone like Vickers, but his singing is always musical, and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the voice itself, which Italianate or not, is a thing of great beauty.

Some of the very best of these 78 recordings are included on Volume 1, stand out items for me being the aforementioned Faust aria, his wonderfully musical and sensitive Ah si, ben mio from Il Ttovatore, and his poetic, but thrilling version of Nessun dorma from Turandot.  There is also plenty to treasure in Volume 2, which includes the Offenbach and Borodin, but also a sensitvely prayerful  Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem, Des Grieux’s lovely Dream from Manon sung with liquid, honeyed tone (his ardent Ah, fuyez is on the first disc), and his  poetic Cielo e mar, from La Gioconda.

The second disc finishes with a couple of unexpected examples of his work in Lieder, a gorgeously lyrical Beethoven Adelaide, and a beautifully restrained and rapt account of Strauss’s Morgen.

Anyone who loves the tenor voice and gloriously musical and sensitive singing (not always the same thing) should have these recordings in their collections.

Jon Vickers – Italian Opera Arias

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Now this is great singing.

In the 1993 notes that accompany this re-issue of the one recital record Jon Vickers ever made, Vickers says,

At the time of the Italian Arias recording the field of opera was a totally different world than today. One sought to prove oneself worthy of association with the opera houses, general administartors, conductors, producers and singers one admired – even was in awe of. There was a humbling consciousness of the great history of places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala, Bayreuth, Vienna and Salzburg. Emphasis was upon delving as deeply as possible into the psychological depths of the text illuminated by the genius of the composer’s music. To dare to indulge any particular personal ability was to invite derision from colleagues and thunderous disapproval by public and press alike as being in bad taste and imposing of oneself upon a great work of art.

To be honest, I’ve listened to plenty of live performances from those days when bad taste and personal indulgence brings the house down, but his statement does give you a snapshot into the way the man worked, of his seriousness and dedication to his art.

This recital disc was recorded at the same time as his first recording of Otello under Tullio Serafin, when his ony Wagnerian role was Siegmund, and you were more likely to hear him as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Radames, Canio or Don Carlo. Later of course he want on to tackle Tristan and Parsifal, though he never sang Siegfried, and he dropped out of scheduled performances of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, due to his religious scruples, saying he could not empathise with the character and that, in any case, the opera was blasphemous in character.

First impressions when listening to this disc are of the sheer size of the voice, and the power – a power that can be reined back to a merest pianissimo, then unleashed at will, like an organist pulling out all the stops. The other is intensity. Whether singing gently or loudly, there is a concentration and intensity that makes each short aria into a mini monodrama, and an ability to focus in on the meaning of each word and note. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing thrown away.

From a purely vocal point of view, it was still a very beautiful instrument back in 1961, and an aria like Cielo e mar is sung not only with golden tone, but with a true sense of wonder, and a way of pulling in and out of full voice that never destroys the long legato line.

Where many Italian tenors will add extraneous sobs and aspirates to indicate emotion, particularly in an aria like Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana, Vickers achieves an even deeper vein of emotion by never straying from the written notes, but simply (as if it was simple) intensifying his sound. In this he ressembles Callas, whom he revered so much having been Giasone to her Medea on many occasions.

One of the stand out tracks on this recital for me is Chénier’s Un di all’azzurro spazio delivered with mounting passion, but also somehow giving us a sense of the intellectual in the man. Canio suffers like no other, and yet he doesn’t have to break down in sobs at the end to make us feel it. His Otello developed into one of the towering creations of his, or any other, age, but even here, with the arias taken out of context, he conveys all the man’s pain and suffering.

Listening to this recital today at a distance of some years has been a peculiarly emotional experience. Jon Vickers was, and remains, unique, and we are unlikely to hear his ilk again.

Callas sings Maddalena in Andrea Chenier – La Scala 1955

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Andrea Chénier is an oddity in Callas’s career. The opera belongs to the tenor, Maddalena’s being a somewhat muted presence, confined to one aria and a couple of duets, both of which are led by the tenor. Of course she shouldn’t have been singing it at all, as the opera she was scheduled to sing at La Scala after the season’s opening La Vestale was to have been Il Trovatore, an opera much more conducive to her gifts. The story goes that the tenor, Mario Del Monaco pleaded indisposition. He did, however, feel well enough to sing Chénier rather than Manrico, and La Scala made the substitution. Who knows the vicissitudes of tenors? Maybe he feared being up against Callas in one of her greatest roles (Leonora), maybe he expected her to step down, as, not knowing the opera, she would have been perfectly within her rights to do. As it is, Callas accepted the challenge of learning the role in just a few days, though one wonders why she bothered. Maddalena was very much a Tebaldi role and a large portion of the house was against her from the outset. After these six performances she never sang the role again, and her appearance in the opera was soon forgotten, especially after the spectacular success of the next three productions she appeared in at the house.

Warner don’t appear to have found a new sound source for this performance, and this transfer sounds very much like the old EMI, regardless of claims of improvements in pitch. I guess you can’t do much with a sow’s ear.

Aside from the Aida she sang before her official debut, and Il Trovatore in 1953, this was the first time Callas was singing in a regular repertory opera at La Scala, and despite her intelligent and sensitive reading of the score, a portion of the audience were against her from the outset, no doubt more used to a much more forthright “can belto” style of singing verismo, . There were even rumours being bandied about that it was she who had demanded the substitution in order to steal away one of Tebaldi’s most successful roles. (Considering Callas never even sang Tosca at La Scala, this is a ridiculous assumption, not born out by the facts.) It is rather ironic, though, that it is Callas’s rendition of the aria La mamma morta, which achieved popular success after it was featured in the movie Philadelphia.

So how does the performance itself stand up after all this time, with all its attendant scandal consigned to the history books? Well, pretty well actually. It was a La Scala stalwart and the audience respond enthusiastically throughout, even giving the comprimaria, Lucia Danieli’s short solo as Madelon in Act III a rousing reception.

Protti, not usually the most subtle or imaginative of singers, makes a powerful Gérard and all the smaller roles, of which there are many, are cast from strength, with Votto much more at home in this opera than he sometimes is in bel canto. Del Monaco shows precious little sign of any indisposition and has a rousing success in a role that he was particularly well known for.

So, what of Callas? Whether it can be attributed to the weight loss or the shift in her repertoire, it cannot be denied that the voice is not as rich as it was when she sang Kundry, for instance, back in 1950, and those who prefer to hear the fuler tones of a Tebaldi, a Milanov or, in more recent times, a Caballé, will no doubt find her wanting. However she digs as deeply into the character as the music will allow her to go, and gives us a more psychologically complex character than is usually the case. As usual a mere line, a word of recitative speaks volumes, such as her whispered Perdonatemi to Chénier, when she realises she has offended him. There is no doubt that this Maddalena realises exactly what Chenier is talking about in his Improviso.

The girlishness in her voice has completely dissipated in Act II, and in Act III she delivers a scorching La mamma morta, though the climactic top B goes a little awry, causing a faction of the La Scala audience to voice its disapproval. Note however how the tone colour she uses at the beginning of the aria mirrors the cello solo introduction. As ever Callas’s musical sensibilities are sans pareil.

Both she and Del Monaco sing the final duet with mounting ardour and fulsome tone, and one wonders why they decided to make downward transposition at the end of the duet.

Still, however musically satisfying her Maddalena, it is a side issue in the Callas career, and one wonders why she bothered with it at all. Her greatest genius was revealed in operas of an earlier period, and she had ahead of her in that same season some of her greatest successes at La Scala, first the Visconti/Bernstein La Sonnambula (next up in the Warner box set), a Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, and, finally that season, the production that changed for ever people’s perceptions of Italian opera production, the renowned and controversially successful Visconti/Giulini La Traviata.

 

Maria Meneghini Callas Sings Operatic Arias

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Recorded 17-18, 20-21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

This recital, the second Callas recorded for EMI, was designed to show off her versatility, so we get one side of verismo, and one of coloratura, with Boito’s L’altra notte from Mefistofele bridging the gap. It caused quite a stir at the time. The coloratura side was of material more associated with singers like Galli-Curci and Pagliughi; the verismo items more likely to be the preserve of Ponselle and Muzio, or Callas’s contemporary, Tebaldi. There is no doubt that Tebaldi could not have attempted any of the coloratura items on the disc and the gauntlet was effectively laid down. The range too is phenomenal, and takes her up to a high E natural (in the Vespri aria, and the Bell Song), a note unthinkable from a soprano who could bring the power she does to an aria like La mamma morta.

Of the operas represented, Callas had only sung Mefistofele and I Vespri Siciliani on stage at that time, though she would go on to sing Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (and make a very successful studio recording) and Maddalena in Andrea Chenier. But, as is her wont, even in isolation, Callas is able to enter fully into the character and sound world of each character that she is singing.

She starts with two of Adrianna’s solos from Adrianna Lecouvreur, a role that would no doubt have suited her dramatic gifts down to the ground, though, truth to tell, the opera is pretty tawdry stuff. I have the recording with Scotto and Domingo, who make the very best case for it, but I still have little time for it. That said, Callas is brilliant at conveying Adrianna’s humility in the first aria, her pain and sadness in the second. Her recording of La mamma morta is well known, and became quite a hit after it was featured in the Tom Hanks Oscar winning movie Philadelphia. Notable is the way Callas’s tone colour matches that of the cello in the opening bars, and the way she carefully charts its mounting rapture. Some may prefer a richer, fuller sound. None have sung it with such intensity.

Ebben ne andro lontana, a glorious performances, is full of aching loneliness, its climax solid as a rock, but the prize of this first side is without doubt the crepuscular beauty of Margherita’s L’altra notte from Boito’s Mefistofele, a sort of mini mad scene, which Callas fills with a wealth of colour and imagination. One notes the blank, colourless tone at L’aura e fredda, even more drained and hopeless on its repeat, the baleful sound of her chest voice on E la mesta anima mia; and does any other singer so accurately encompass those coloratura flights of fancy as her soul takes wing on Vola, vola? This is the stuff of genius.

The second side also has its attractions. Rosina’s Una voce poco fa is a mite slower than it was to become in the studio set, but Callas’s ideas on the character are perfectly formed, and she already uses that explosive Ma to underline Rosina’s less than docile temperament. Her runs, scales and fioriture are as elastic as ever, and the little turns on the final faro giocar have to be heard to be believed.

The Dinorah aria is a rather empty piece and I sometimes wonder why she even bothered with it. There are some magical echo effects and her singing is wonderfully fleet and accurate, but it’s not a favourite of mine. I’m not a big fan of the Bell Song either, to be honest. Callas lavishes possibly more attention on it than it’s worth, but in so doing at least makes it a little more interesting than the birdlike warblings we usually get. The opening has a mesmeric , almost improvisational air about it, and the bell imitations are clear and true. I remember once playing this track at a friend’s place one summer evening, the window open, while a bird (I have no idea what it was) sang for all its worth on a branch just outside.  It was as if the bird was singing in response. The high E she sings at its climax is clean as a whistle, but it does sound like the very extreme of her range. Best of all the coloratura items is her breezy, elegantly sung Merce, dilette amiche from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, which is lovely in every way and ends on another epic high E.