|Les Introuvables du Chant Verdien|
I’m a sucker for box sets of opera, particularly the EMI Les Introuvables series. I now have sets devoted to Mozart and Wagner, and individual sets for Christa Ludwig and Victoria de los Angeles (on vinyl LPs--still not transferred to CD). Now comes this new set devoted to Giuseppe Verdi to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. All the music sung here was recorded in the era of 78 rpms, and this set has been well transferred to CD by Keith Hardwick. There are 136 items on these eight CDs, and I’m not going to discuss each item individually. But the listener will be well rewarded for the time it takes to listen to this entire set.
Verdi singing is today very different in style. Verismo singing had an enormous influence at the turn of the century, which was just when the recording industry was in its infancy. Yesterday’s artists were very vivid singers. The women covered less in their lower registers often singing with a liberal use of the “chest” voice. By comparison, today’s singers are often more musically scrupulous and tidier in matter of the written score and in pitch. Most of the singers represented here were very well known for their artistry both vocal and dramatic. Modern audiences might have some difficulties listening to such emotive singing, but the opera buff will revel in these voices. Their like will never return and it’s wonderful that EMI was able to gather such a distinguished roster. The latest singers in this survey bring us up to the vocal primes of Boris Christoff, Jussi Bjorling, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Rolando Panerai, Martha Modl, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Mario del Monaco, and a few others—the last generation to record in the era just before the appearance of the 33 rpm long-playing black vinyl records. But on to the singing.
One of the most compelling items from Il Trovatore is the great German mezzo, Margarete Klose, who fascinates in “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” (1937). She is a scrupulous musician and the voice sounds wonderful here, less plummy than Fedora Barbieri (who muscles her way through “Stride la vampa!” (1949), but with authority and superb diction. Bjorling’s top C in “Di quella pira,” is launched from the note below it and it’s thrillingly free, but Cesar Vezzani, singing the same cabaletta (1929) is more individual with his words (sung in French) and even more heroic in tone. Frida Leider’s “D’amour sull’ali rosee” (1922) has always fascinated me. Her singing is so expressive and those trills. Dame Eva Turner (1928) is equally fascinating, if a bit too desperate in mood.
Nazzareno de Angelis was a superb bass, famous for his Mefistofele. Here he performs Zaccaria’s “Sperate o figli,” (Nabucco 1928) and his singing offers everything in this rep that I find lacking in Christoff in Italian opera. Beautiful depth to the tone, a free-floating legato and perfect vowels, that command attention.
Enrico Caruso is represented by his famous duet from La Forza Del Destino with Scotti (1906) and the even more famous “La donna e nobile” from Rigoletto (1908). But I really paid attention to his splendidly phrased “Ah la paterna mano” from Macbeth (1916).
Martha Modl is vivid in “La luce langue” (1951), and while she is a flawed singer, that timbre is unforgettable. What a splendid Lady Macbeth she must have been. I suppose I’ve heard Margherita Grandi’s Sleepwalking scene before, but it didn’t really register until now. It’s beautifully shaped, the text is clearly projected and she is ably supported by Sir Thomas Beecham (1948). The pianissimo top D flat that caps the scene is really something. I’ve complained about Tito Gobbi’s top for years, but he is such a compelling force of nature, and his “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto, was captured in 1950 when his top still had some impact. That diction is marvelous as well as the liquid legato. I’ve not encountered Joseph Schwartz too often, but he gets two selections from Rigoletto -- “Cortigiani, vil razza damnata,” and “Gia tre lune…Veglia, o donna,” sung exquisitely with Claire Dux (both in 1919). Even in German, he’s a superb Verdi baritone, and I would now like to investigate more his recorded output.
The section devoted to La Traviata offers some rare items. In quick succession, we are treated to three outstanding coloratura sopranos singing Violetta’s Act I “Ah fors’e lui.” Russian soprano Antonia Neshdanova’s (1906) recordings have been prized by collectors for years. She’s an elegant singer with a scrupulous technique and a real feeling for the drama at hand. Maria Kousnezoff (1920 -- unknown to me, and presumably another Russian) is excellent too -- though the very top of the voice is thin. Still she’s impressive. Tetrazzini (1911) follows, and here is a voice that radiates joy. The easy virtuosity, the real Italian diction (those gorgeous vowels), and that beautiful timbre are wonderfully combined in one superb artist. There’s the sense that she’s loving the very act of singing. Fernando de Lucia’s famous 1906 recording of “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” is loads of fun for his very individual way with the music (which no conductor would tolerate today), and did anybody have as beautiful a voice as Giuseppe di Stefano did in 1947? Here’s another master of Italian diction and the tone is so velvety. There’s a riveting, if sometimes strange, souvenir of Elisabeth Schwartzkopf’s Violetta from Act II, handsomely partnered by Rolando Panerai (often underrated, it seems to me). I see this was first issued in 1986, despite the fact that it was recorded in London in 1953. I’m one of those people who cringe through a lot of Schwartzkopf’s recorded work. I cannot ignore her mannerisms and she’s not the world’s most natural Verdian (I like her work on the Giulini Verdi Requiem even less). Still her Violetta compels attention and Schwartzkopf captures the feverish state of the courtesan’s mind as she struggles and eventually relinquishes Alfredo to his father. Certainly there were better Verdi recordings to consider from Nellie Melba’s output before deciding on the very-late-in-the-day “Ditte all giovine” with John Brownlee from 1926 (the year of her final performances at Covent Garden). Yes Melba still has a feel for the line, but the tone is way too mature, and those Marchessi-ized Aussie vowels are a hoot. Helga Roswaenge and Maria Cebotari (1943) are the deeply moving Germont Pere and Violetta (in German) in “Che fai? Nulla! Scrivevi?” Matia Battistini has the reputation for being the king of baritones of his day, but in “Di Provenza” from 1911, his low notes disappoint (as they always did). The glory of that voice was his top. Margherita Carosio had a fine career as a lyric coloratura, but is mostly famous for cancelling a series of I Puritani performances that Maria Callas stepped into, alerting the opera world of the arrival of a new type of coloratura. Carosio was a lovely singer whose soft singing is haunting, and when she adds the volume, she’s somewhat reminiscent of a young Scotto. I’d be thrilled to hear a singer today spin such magic as she does in this 1946 recording of “Teneste la promessa…Addio, del passato.”
Two great Italian dramatic sopranos who are relatively unfamiliar to me are Celestina Boninsegna and Giannina Russ. They were famous in Italy, in Spain and in South America for their Aidas, Normas, and Leonora’s. Boninsegna recorded “Madre, pietosa Vergine” in 1906, and Russ’s “Ritorna vincitor,” came one year earlier. Today either lady would receive an ecstatic reception in the opera houses of the world with standing ovations. If the rest of their work in La Forza Del Destino and Aida comes up to the level of these recorded performances, then both ladies would be the equal of anyone who has recorded these roles before. And that would include Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle, Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price. Both are elegant musicians, with big, vibrant voices. There are none of the kinds of outrageous veristic touches that could often disfigure the work of Eugenio Burzio (who nevertheless, delivers a vivid gallows aria (1906) from Act II of Un Ballo in Maschera). I also enjoyed Esther Mazzoleni (1909) singing Elena’s exquisite “Arrigo! Ah parli a un core” from I Vespri Siciliani. Can you imagine four such singers, Italians all, endlessly touring the Italian opera houses in roles that are impossible to cast today?
Dramatic sopranos of the late 20s and 30s included Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Gina Cigna, Bianca Scacciati (curiously absent on this compilation) as well as the splendid spintos Dusolina Giannini and Hina Spani. Ponselle and Rethberg were wowing them at the Met during this period. What riches (and Eva Turner was there as well). Arangi-Lombardi was an arisotcratic singer with a dark, plush instrument (she began her career as a mezzo). Her musical manners tended to be muted next to the histrionics of a Cigna, but for accuracy, style, and a long singing line, few were Arangi-Lombardi’s equal. Cigna had a huge voice (she was the first recorded Turandot), but she could file it down to the delicate of pianissimos.
Australian soprano, Florence Austral’s brilliant opera career was cut short by multiple sclerosis. But in the 20s she sang all three Brünnhildes, Aida, Mozart’s Countess and Isolde. Her 1927 recording of “Ritorna vincitor,” is a model of Verdian clarity. A big discovery in the Aida group, was Russian soprano Natalia Yushina, singing as assured a “O Patria Mia,” as I’ve ever heard, despite a forte high C (that’s okay, Rethberg and others shouted this note too). There is no biographical data and I would like to know more about her, and hear her other recordings (assuming there are any). The prodigiously gifted Rosa Ponselle can be heard in two tracks—“La Virgine degli Angeli,” (La Forza Del Destino 1928) ably supported by Ezio Pinza’s vibrantly sung Padre Guardiano, and “Pur ti riveggo,” (Aida 1924) with Giovanni Martinelli. At her best, Ponselle’s tonal beauty was breathtaking and few Verdi sopranos had her imaginative way with the text. Martinelli remains for me an acquired taste, despite his fine phrasing. I rather liked “io l’ama sempre…Gia I sacertdoti” sung in German with Sabine Kalter (another name new to me—and one of the many new reasons to acquire this set) and Richard Tauber singing convincingly, and in German (1923).
Ebe Stignanni was a force of nature—a big, pure voice, dark and rich, authoritative, and sincere. Her Aida, Act III, “Ohime!…morir mi sento,” (1946) has few equals (Simionato and Minghini-Cataneo perhaps). How I wish I had heard her live, but I do love her records. Moving on to Otello, there are two fabulous “Era la notte,” recordings. I never heard of Eugenio Giraldoni (1905), but what a silky, insinuating Iago he must have been. Lawrence Tibbett’s vibrant 1939 account is justifiably famous. Lotte Lehmann is a touching Desdemona, auf Deutsch, in a 1924 Willow Song, and so is Yvonne Gall, singing the scena in French (19031). Tiana Lemnitz’s poised, radiant “Ave Maria,” (1938 and also in German), ends on an endlessly sustained, ppppppppppp top A flat, that is one of the aural wonders of its day. Jose Luccioni is exciting in “Ora e per sempre addio” (sung in French). How wonderful these French tenors were! This 1948 recording was done around the time of his classic Samson (just remastered on Naxos).
In the final CD, Aureliano Pertile sings a gorgeous “Quando le sere al placido,” (Luisa Miller, 1927) which he magically softens for the second verse. I’m not always a fan of this tenor who often pushed his voice unpleasantly on recordings. But this is one of his best. Irene Minghini-Cattaneo lets her big, steady mezzo ring out eloquently as Ulrica (Un Ballo in Maschera (1930) without sounding silly. For once the role doesn’t seem like a jokey witch. In Amelia’s two big arias, we get the above-mentioned Burzio followed by Hina Spani, a splendid Verdi soprano who sings with plenty of passion, power and precision (1927). Melanie Kurt (in German--1914) and Elisabeth Rethberg (1930) both sing “Morro, ma prima in grazia,” and let their shiney timbres convince with no unnecessary theatrics.
Two favorite Verdi baritones -- Riccardo Stracciari and Heinrich Schlusnus -- are always a pleasure to encounter. Stracciari (1906) is in thrilling form for “O vecchio cor,” from I Due Foscari and Schlusnus, a leading baritone who excelled in Verdi roles in Germany and Vienna in the 30s, sings Carlos’ “Morir…Urna fatale” from La Forza Del Destino (1928). Both should be amongst everyone’s favorite choices.
There were few singers on this collection that didn’t appeal to me, but only a few. Surprising was Emmy Destinn. Perhaps the microphones just don’t capture the unique overtones inherent in a voice this big. “D’amour sull’ali rosee,” (1916) is caught a bit late perhaps. High notes get pecked at or sound disconnected to the rest of the voice, and “O Patria Mia,” which she recorded eight years earlier, sounds unsettled to my ears and the top C sounds like a train whistle. Salomea Kruszelnicka may have been a famous singer in her day, but her Verdi lacks warm tone, and she pulls at the line in a very unmusical way. There’s scads of rubato in her “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” (1906) and some suspect intonation too. One of these days, I’m gonna sit down and pay very close attention to Dame Clara Butt. This is the oddest sounding voice I’ve ever heard, and she’s particularly strange singing Eboli’s “O don fatale,” (1915). Sometimes her contralto sounds like a tenor. Another controversial singer is Rosa Raisa. A star of the Chicago Opera for years, she sang her way through most of the dramatic soprano repertoire. Her 1921 recording of Elena’s “Merce, dillete amiche,” from I Vespri Siciliani, scores well for fluency, but it’s a whiteish voice, lacking color. I would have thought Mario del Monaco would be exciting and vocally fresh in a 1951 “Ora e per sempre addio,” from Otello. Instead, he’s just his usual loud and loutish self.
Isn’t it odd that in a collection of Verdi arias and ensembles assembled by EMI, that Maria Callas is strangely absent. A mainstay of the EMI operatic catalog, Callas should be represented by just one recording. Maybe none of her records were issued on 78s. Victoria De los Angeles is also absent (and I know she made 78s). As long as we have French tenors, where is Thill? No biographical material is offered on any of the singers and I noticed one glaring mistake in the booklet. Schipa is accompanied by piano, not an orchestra in Fenton’s “Da labbro il canto” (Falstaff 1921).
I hope young singers will listen to these wonderful artists, not to imitate, but to hear another style of singing that has all but vanished today. Quite a few of these recordings were amongst the first ever made of these arias, and succeeding generations added their own touches to their own versions. I guarantee that the more than eight hours spent by your CD player will be intoxicating, edifying and just sheer fun.
Each CD is packed with over 70s minutes of music (one is 69.48), and I paid about $55 for the set (or just under $7.00 per CD)—a real bargain. These things never stay in print very long, so I suggest that those of you who love these compilations as much as I do, run.
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