Notes and Editorial Reviews
Carlo Sabajno, cond; Nicola Fusati (
); Apollo Granforte (
); Maria Carbone (
); Tamara Beltacchi (
); Piero Girardi (
); Nello Palai (
); Corrado Zambelli (
); Enrico Spada (
); Teatro alla Scala, Milan O & Ch
OPERA D’ORO 9005, mono (2 CDs: 118:42)
This wonderful recording was recommended to me by the dead hand of Herman Klein, the famed British voice teacher and music critic who reviewed this recording when it was first issued on 78s in 1932. In that review, he had many complimentary things to say about the conducting of Sabajno as well as the singing of the principals, his lone caveat being that as he heard the set on his 78-rpm gramophone the voice of the Iago was a bit too similar for him to that of the Otello. But what really caught my eye in Klein’s review was his assertion that Nicola Fusati’s voice and manner were almost identical to what he remembered of the role’s creator, Francesco Tamagno, when he sang it in the London premiere of 1889. Tamagno’s co-creator Victor Maurel was the Iago in that performance, but the Desdemona was the very young Nellie Melba, whose voice, of course, sounded absolutely nothing like that of Maria Carbone, yet Klein had very high words of praise for her singing of this role.
Now, here’s the interesting part. Without ever having heard the recording before, I asked a collector friend of mine if he had it and what he thought of it. He replied that he did own the recording, but had not listened to it in many years because he disliked it; and what he disliked most about it was Fusati, whose voice he described as weak and worn and whose interpretation he termed poor and underdone. Well, I still wanted to hear it, so I bought a copy. And I’m glad I did, because I consider this the best performance of the opera I’ve ever heard, even finer that Arturo Toscanini’s for reasons I will detail below.
To start out, there are a few things you must accept and understand about this recording. First, of course, is that the 1932 mono sound is not ideal for this work; even Toscanini’s 1947 broadcast has better sonics. In addition, the transfer here seems to have been affected from a very fine LP pressing to CD, but with the vinyl background hum left in. This can be minimized by reducing the bass a bit. Another thing to consider is that although Fusati’s singing is clean and musically accurate, he does not lay heavily into dramatic overacting, or what I tend to refer to as operatic ham, sliced thickly. I’m guessing that this is what upset my collector friend, who tends to like over-the-top Otellos. I don’t, but I admit that the one I like most, Jon Vickers, gave more in terms of vocal acting in his 1974 recording under Karajan. But then, many people mistakenly believe that Tamagno’s 1903 recordings of three excerpts from this opera—the “Exultate,” “Ora e per sempre addio,” and “Niun mi tema”—represent the style of how the work was sung at its inception after exhaustive rehearsals by Verdi himself. This is far from the case. I will remind my readers that when Toscanini conducted Tamagno in the role later in the 19th century, and the famous tenor insisted that his distortions of the musical line were sung the way Verdi wanted them, the conductor was able to verify the truth of this because (as luck would have it) Verdi was staying in a nearby hotel at the time. After Verdi vehemently denied that Tamagno’s later phrasing was correct, the tenor grumbled that composers were always changing their minds.
Now we can move on to the reasons why I consider this the overall best
on records. First, there is Sabajno’s conducting. In several of his other complete opera sets, particularly those which included the over-vehement tenor Pertile (
), Sabajno was forced to adapt his tempos to match the quirky phrasing and dragged-out high notes that this tenor insisted on. Here, no such concessions are made. Sabajno’s conducting, in fact, could very easily be mistaken for an early Toscanini performance, so taut and rhythmically buoyant is it. In fact, just about the only place where I heard him relax the written tempos further than the score dictated was in the “Era la notte” and the introductory phrases to “Si, pel ciel,” and in fact the only error in singing I heard was that Granforte was late (by one beat) singing the soft high note at the end of the first-named aria. Otherwise, the overriding feeling one gets from this recording is that it is
a studio recording, but rather that it sounds like a live performance. The vocal acting throughout—with the exception, as I’ve already noted, of a few moments in Otello’s role—is of an almost unbelievably high caliber; and, moreover, each and every singer (including the chorus) does his or her utmost to match rhythmically what Sabajno is laying down in the orchestral part. In essence, it almost sounds like a symphony with voices, except that, as I said, the performers are actually acting out each and every part.
This is especially true of Piero Girardi, who I feel is the greatest Cassio I have ever heard. Indeed, it is partly because of his remarkable interpretation—the only Cassio I’ve
heard who interprets the part—that I rank this recording so highly. But he is not the only star of this show. So too is Apollo Granforte, a baritone whose hefty voice often sounded unwieldy on records, but not here. Indeed, he manages to lighten his tone remarkably well in the opening scene of act 2, and in “Era la notte,” and when called upon he actually produces a bit of a flutter in place of the written trills. I’ll always give good marks to any baritone who at least attempts the trills—and his descending chromatic runs in the first act “Brindisi” are even more cleanly sung than Giuseppe Valdengo in the Toscanini performance (in fact, more cleanly sung than any Iago other than Tito Gobbi).
Maria Carbone, who made only two recordings—this
and a complete
(in Italian, as Micaela) before retiring to get married—is not exceptional vocally. She sounds like a typical Italian lyric soprano of her time, the voice very vibrant like that of Rosetta Pampanini, but like Pampanini she was obviously an exceptional vocal actress. One of the great delights of this recording, in fact, is that when listening to it you are less aware of hearing
voices in the parts
as you are of hearing
the characters themselves
, and this is especially true of Carbone. From first note to last, what you get is the sound of Desdemona reacting to Otello’s moods and the dramatic situation. She avoids plunging into melodramatic sobs and a self-pitying tone, as for instance Claudia Muzio did in her recording of “Dio ti giocondi” with tenor Francesco Merli, but her interpretation is all the more moving for that. One point in particular I commend to your listening is the famous fourth act scene. Most sopranos—and this includes not only Mirella Freni, Renata Tebaldi, and Kiri Te Kanawa, but also Herva Nelli—sing it rather straight. This, to me, simply will not do. In this scene, even in the “Willow Song,” Desdemona must sound
She must sound as if her life is in peril
and she knows it.
I’ve heard only two recordings of this scene that were sung in this fashion: one, the old acoustic Victor recording by Frances Alda, made during the time she was singing the role under Toscanini at the Met, and second, the 1961 stereo recording by, of all people, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Carbone is the third such I have heard sing it thus, and in doing so she brings out the feeling of terror that underscores this otherwise placid-sounding music.
As for whether or not Fusati sounds, as Klein insists, like a young Tamagno, I do admit that in one respect—the sheer overwhelming power of the voice—he does not, but then again, neither did anyone else, not even the famed Giovanni Zenatello. Yet in other respects, particularly the timbre of the voice as well as all his vowels and consonants (excepting the letter “a,” whether short or long), he sounds like he could be Tamagno’s less powerful younger brother, with less dryness and “braying.” Nor am I the only one who has noticed this. Several commentators around the Internet have made statements like, “You know, it’s odd but at times he sounds like Tamagno.” And he does, despite my friend’s protestations to the contrary. In a phrase such as “Ora e per sempre addio,” then, Fusati does not sound like Tamagno on the “a” sounds in “Ora” or “addio,” but in the other vowels and consonants he does.
A final word on the sound. Although this recording, like many of those from the late 1920s and early 30s, has a flat, two-dimensional sound, Sabajno makes the most of this. Even Klein mentioned in his review that you hear details here that you would never catch in the opera house, and this is particularly true of the mandolins that underscore Desdemona’s act II entrance with the chorus of maidens. Yet it is this remarkable, I would even say unique, combination of rhythmic acuity in both orchestra and voices, along with interesting interpretations, that makes this
stand out for me as one of the greatest performances of all time. Of course, like most budget labels, Opera d’Oro does not include a libretto, but if you already have a recording you are not entirely crazy about that has a libretto, do yourself a favor: buy this set, replace the CDs and keep the libretto you have. Voila, a great
, one I am sure you will return to again and again.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Otello by Giuseppe Verdi
Apollo Granforte (Baritone),
Maria Carbone (Soprano),
Piero Girardi (Tenor),
Nello Palai (Tenor),
Corrado Zambelli (Bass),
Tamara Beltacchi (Mezzo Soprano),
Nicola Fusati (Tenor),
Enrico Spada (Bass)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Written: 1887; Italy
Date of Recording: 1932
Venue: Milan, Italy
Length: 120 Minutes 40 Secs.
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