Lorin Maazel’s Il Trittico

Excellent performances of Puccini’s tryptich, though, of the three, only Suor Angelica would be my absolute top choice.

A word first about the presentation of this budget release. These days I suppose we have become used to not getting texts and translations, but documentation n this reissue is really of the minimum, and tracking of the CDs is a ludicrous; just one track for Il Tabarro, and two each for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.

Nothing really wrong with Maazel’s conducting. I sometimes find him a fussy conductor, who draws attenttion to himself rather than the music, but I enjoyed these performances. His conducting is spacious and warm throughout, though I’d have to admit he misses some of the high spirits of Gianni Schicchi.

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Despite the excellent performances of Scotto and Domingo in Il Tabarro, I still prefer the old mono recording conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza, which is dominated by Gobbi’s darkly menacing, but troubled Michele. It is one of his greatest achievements on disc, and, good though Wixell is, he doesn’t begin to match Gobbi in emotional range. Scotto and Domingo are far preferable to their counterparts on the older recording, but Gobbi is irreplaceable.

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In Gianni Schicci, Gobbi is up against himself in an earlier recording, conducted by Gabriele Santini with a degree more urgency than we get here. Gobbi is as sharply characterful as ever, but the other soloists on that earlier recording are a tad more individual than those on this one, and it just generates a bit more fun and high spirits. Domingo, expertly lightening his voice, manages Rinuccio surprisingly well, but it’s still a bit like getting a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and Ileana Cotrubas is a charming Lauretta, if not quite eclipsing memories of Victoria De Los Angeles on the earlier recording.

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When it comes to Suor Angelica, I would have to admit that Scotto’s top notes can be afflicted with hardness and unsteadiness, but that she presents the most intense, most psycholgically penetrating traversal of the role I’ve heard. Between them Scotto and Maazel turn what is often a piece of quasi religioso sentimentality into a mini psychodrama about the effects of repression, almost echoing some of the themes in Powell and Pressburger’s darly intense movie Black Narcissus. Much as I like recordings featuring De Los Angeles and Ricciarelli, this one is much more gripping as drama. It’s defnitely the prize of the set.

Domingo’s first recording of Otello

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Quite aside from the recent sexual misconduct revelations, Domingo seems to come in for a lot of flak these days, but it is salutary to remember that this, his first recording of a role he became particularly associated with, was made over forty years ago. Towards the end of his career he turned to baritone roles (with qualified success, admittedly), but, by any standards, the man has had a long and illustrious career.

He made two further studio recordings of the role (one of them used for the soundtrack to the Zeffirelli film), and their are at least three official videos of him performing the role on stage, and a number of unofficial live accounts. This recording finds him early in his conquest of this signature role, but it is already well sung in. Records cannot of course capture his superb acting and powerful stage presence, but his Otello is still, even at this early stage of his career, a great performance. Some, and I am probably one of them, would prefer a voice with a bit more squillo on top. My favourite Otello remains Vickers, who has musicality, dramatic intensity and squillo, but I prefer Domingo to Del Monaco, whose singing can indeed be thrilling, but who tends to let volume compensate for a lack of real dramatic awareness.

There are other reasons to enjoy this recording. Levine’s conductiing, which derives from long stage acquaintance with the opera, is definitely one of his best Verdi recordings (though the recording itself is a tad congested in the climaxes) and Milnes is also caught at something close to his best, a suave, guileful and conniving Iago. Scotto, though she may not have Tebaldi’s beauty of tone, is a much more communicative and moving Desdemona, and this is one of her most succesful performances on disc. The voice occasionally spreads on top when under pressure, but her pianissimo singing is exquisite and her phrasing wonderfully musical.

Despite reservations about Rysanek’s Desdemona, the Serafin set with Vickers and Gobbi remains my favourite studio recording. That said, I would always want one of Domingo’s studio recordings as well. Though Domingo himself may be even more moving in his later two recordings and many, I know, would go for his last recording under Chung, with Studer and Leiferkus, I still prefer this early one. I’ve never been a big fan of Studer and Leiferkus sounds unidiomatic to me, for all his intelligence and dramatic acumen. The Maazel is let down by some weird recording balances and Diaz’s well sung but anonymous Iago, though Ricciarelli is also an affectingly touching Desdemona. So the Levine emerges as the winner for me.

The Scotto/Barbirolli Madama Butterfly

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This has always been one of my three favourite recordings of Madama Butterfly (the others being Callas/Karajan and De Los Angeles/Gavazzeni), and listening to it again today has been a most moving experience.

Though Sir John Barbirolli conducted a good deal of opera during his career, this and the Otello with James McCracken are, I think, the only studio examples of his work in the field, and I’ve always thought of this recording as being as much his as Scotto’s, which is not quite the case with the two aforementioned Callas and De Los Angeles sets. Barbirolli’s love for the score is evident in every bar, and he reveals many incidental details that sometimes get lost in more opulent readings, whilst he never loses track of the score’s ebb and flow. The Rome orchestra, though not quite on the level of those in Vienna and Milan, nonetheless play brilliantly for him.

He has at his disposal a uniquely Italianate cast, who all sing wonderfully off the words. Scotto, 32 at the time (oddly enough about the same age as Callas and De Los Angeles at the time of their recordings) is a superb Butterfly and presents from start to finish a fully rounded character. The microphone placing doesn’t always flatter her, and, just occasionally, one is aware of the intellect behind the characterisation, but she is still one of the most pathetically moving Butterflies on disc, even if she lacks a little of De Los Angeles’s natural charm.

Bergonzi is an ardently lyrical Pinkerton, maybe not quite as charming as Di Stefano with De Los Angeles, but singing with glorious, golden tone, and less stiff than Bjoerling who sings Pinkerton on De Los Angeles’s second recording. Panerai, who was a late replacement for Peter Glossop, is a superbly inciteful and sympathetic Sharpless and there is terrific support from the likes of Anna Di Stasio as Suzuki, Paolo Montarsolo as the Bonze and Piero de Palma as Goro.

Ultimately my favourite recording would still be Callas/Karajan but I find it so emotionally, so intensely shattering, that I can only take it once in a while (rather like Vickers’s Tristan). On the other hand, sonically, the stereo sound here is a great improvement on the boxy mono of that recording, though, in turn, not quite on the level of the glorious sound afforded Karajan on his second Decca recording with Freni and Pavarotti, which remains a first choice for many, I know.

There are other superb recordings, not least the early one with Dal Monte and Gigli, Tebaldi with Serafin, and Gheorghiu with Pappano. The opera has certainly been very lucky on disc, but my top three remain unchallenged.

Renata Scotto – Italian Opera Arias

 

The majority of this disc is taken up with Scotto’s first recital for CBS, recorded in 1974, a recording that might be considered the one which spearheaded the second stage of her career, when she became a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Having been absent from the catalogues for some time, an intense recording schedule followed. There would be another recital (of Verdi arias) for CBS, and throughout the seventies and early eighties she features on many complete opera recordings for CBS, EMI and RCA, often alongside Domingo, with whom she also recorded a recital of duets.

Scotto’s voice always had a slight tang to it. Admirably clean, it would never charm with the full rich tones of a Caballé, a Moffo or a Te Kanawa. The top of the voice, even in her earliest recordings, could glare and it was never the most comfortable part of her range. Nor was it ever a sensual voice, though she could sound sensual enough if necessary (not the same thing), but her command of line, impeccable diction and range of colour are most attractive. She may not quite ravish the ear in the high lying phrases of, for instance, Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta from La Rondine as does Te Kanawa in the famous recording which was used for the movie of A Room with a View, but she shades the line most beautifully and her control of her pianissimo is quite gorgeous. She characterises well too, so that each of these verismo heroines emerge as quite different characters. Occasionally intellect gets in the way and the interpretations can sound too studied, as they never do with Callas, but it would be true to say that, though she has absorbed the lessons of her predecessor in some of this material, she never copies her. Her interpretations are all her own.

In the 1974 items she is wonderfully supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Gavazzeni and it is good to have some less well known items such as the Mascagni arias and the aria from Le Villi, as it is to have the excerpts from the complete recording of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna and Puccini’s Edgar. Her Butterfly is better served by the Barbirolli recording and the duet with Obraztsova from Adrianna Lecouvreur makes very little sense out of context.

Nonetheless one of Scotto’s best recordings, and one that is worth returning to quite often.

Renata Scotto sings Verdi

 

When this recital first appeared in 1975, Scotto had been absent from the catalogues for some time. She was principally known on record for her Butterfly under Barbirolli (recorded for EMI in 1966) and for Mimi, Violetta, Gilda and Lucia (all recorded in the early 1960s for DG).

Butterfly was her calling card for many years, and the recording has remained one of the most recommendable (though, save for Liu in the Molinari-Pradelli Turandot, recorded in 1961, she appears not to have made any further complete opera recordings for EMI until she recorded Abigaille under Muti in 1977).

She first made her mark deputising as Amina in Edinburgh for Callas, who, in poor vocal health at the time, had refused to sing an extra uncontracted performance that La Scala had tried to thurst upon her. That was in 1957 and it would appear that, though she had considerable success on stage, recording companies were not so quick on the uptake. She herself has admitted that she could be a bit prima donna-ish in a “my way or no way” sort of manner, until she met her husband, Lorenzo Anselmi, who, according to Scotto, helped her to become more professional, and think more about the music.

She was at first known as a coloratura, but even in the early 1960s, John Steane notes that her high notes did not seem to come easily and could have a hard and pinched quality. She also had a great success as Butterfly, the role in which she had made her Met debut, but it soon became clear that this was the only repertoire Bing would call on her for. He refused to offer her anything else so she was absent from their schedules for a long time, returning in 1974 to sing Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, under Levine who became her champion. For many years, she was the Met’s house soprano, singing a completely new repertoire, which included Verdi roles like Leonora in Il Trovatore, Desdemona, Luisa Miller and Lady Macbeth.

This Verdi recital also marked the beginning of a new, fairly intensive recording schedule for her. In the ten years since her recording of Madama Butterfly the hardness on top has become more noticeable, and many of the louder notes above the stave are quite strident. There are however compensations in her musicality, her dramatic awareness, her deep legato and the firmness of the line. Then there is the added attraction of her attention to detail and her intelligent use of the words, though occasionally there is a lack of spontaneity. Art does not always conceal art.

There is a good mixture here of the familiar and the not so well known. In the former camp would be Lida’s aria and cabaletta from La Battaglia di Legnano, a fairly conventional piece whose cabaletta is nonetheless energetically exciting, and which Scotto attacks head on. There is a slight suspicion that the voice is a little small for the other early works here (Nabucco and I Lombardi), but she has an innate feeling for Verdian style and the cavatinas of both are beautifully moulded, the cabalettas propulsive and exciting. The voice takes on a lovely melancholy tinta for Elena’s Arrigo, ah parli a un core, which lies mostly in the middle register, though she eschews the written low F# in the cadenza, taking a higher alternative, and sings a bright and breezy Merce, dilette amiche. Best of all, probably because neither takes he much above the stave, are Violetta’s Addio, del passato, the reading of the letter absolutely heart-wrenching, and Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria, which is alive to every dramatic contrast, her singing full of anxious foreboding. Soon after this she would make a most touching Desdemona both on stage at the Met and on record in Domingo’s first recording.

Some may prefer a richer voice for this music, but few who are more vocally endowed sing with such specificity, such attention to the meaning of the text, such musicality and appreciation of Verdian style. Where other sopranos, like Souliotis and Sass, can be accused of being copycat Callases, Scotto can be said to have absorbed the lessons of Callas without losing her own individuality. This is a very good recital.

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.

Callas’s Studio Medea

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Recorded 12-19 September 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Wilma Cozart. Balance Engineer: Robert Fine

This recording of Medea has an unusual history. Medea had become a seminal Callas role, and she desperately wanted to record it. The opera was revived specially for her first in Florence in 1953, and she subsequently sang it in new productions in Milan (under Bernstein), Rome, Dallas, London, Epidaurus in Greece, and again at La Scala for the last time in 1961. Like much of her stage repertoire, Legge had little interest in it and agreed to release her from her contract, when Ricordi, who were launching a new label, approached her about recording it. EMI, no doubt finally realising its importance in the Callas canon, did eventually release it, but it has also been released by Mercury, Everest, and no doubt others.

However she was probably unwise to record it when she did, right after the Edinburgh performances of La Sonnambula when she was in ill health. Her voice isn’t exactly wobbly above the stave here, but it does lack power, a power that she recovers when she sings the role in Dallas the following year.

That said, when I first got to know this opera, and this recording, I had no other point of reference, and it seemed pretty good to me. It was only later, when I heard those barnstorming performances from Florence, La Scala and Dallas, that I found anything lacking, and it is only in comparison with herself that she fails. She is still a good deal better in the part than any other who attempted it, certainly a lot better than Gwyneth Jones and Sylvia Sass, who also made studio recordings of this Italian version. In other hands, Cherubini’s music can seem staid and formulaic. Callas breathes life into it like no other.

The version of Medea that Callas sang is actually a hybrid. Medée was originally an opera-comique in French with spoken dialogue. It was later translated into Italian, then recitatives were written by Franz Lachner for a German production. The version Callas performed was an Italian translation of the Lachner version, premiered at La Scala in 1909, over a hundred years after its first performance and 60 years after Cherubini’s death. Even so, each conductor Callas worked with (Gui, Bernstein, Rescigno, Serafin, Schippers) prepared their own version of the score, and made their own cuts. Consequently no two Callas performances are the same.

Serafin’s conception is essentially Classical, but his conducting varies from the somnolent to the dramatic. After a tautly conceived overture, the first scene up to Medea’s entrance drags on interminably. I understand the necessity to establish a pastoral air of peace and calm, into which the Colchian Medea bursts, but, quite frankly, at this pace it just becomes a bore. On LP I used to miss out the first side completely, and set the needle down part way through the second LP, when Medea makes her entrance.

Without foreknowledge of other performances by Callas, this is still a great performance of a difficult role. We lose some of the power and ferocity, but there are gains too. Ricordi il giorni tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta? is couched in the most melting tones, her duplicity in the scene with Creon, and the following duet with Jason brilliantly charted, and her scene with the children movingly intense. Vocally, for all that she is not in her best voice, she manages its angular lines and wide leaps with consummate skill, her legato still wondrously intact. Note also how, in this Classical role, her use of portamento is more sparing.

When it comes to the supporting cast, Scotto is less of an advantage than you might expect, Pirazzini rather more (though not quite a match for Barbieri in Florence and at La Scala or Berganza in Dallas). Picchi, who sang Pollione to Callas’s Norma in London in 1952, is rather good, though Vickers is even better in Dallas. Modesti makes a good Creon too, though I would prefer Zaccaria in Dallas.

So, all in all, still probably the best studio Medea you’re likely to hear, and the sound (stereo, but still rather boxy) is a lot better than what you will hear in Florence, Milan or Dallas. Nevertheless all three of those performances are preferable, regardless of sound quality, for the white hot intensity Callas brings to the role.