Notes and Editorial Reviews
Lorenzo Molajoli, cond; Rosetta Pampanini (
); Francesco Merli (
); Carlo Galeffi (
); Gino Vanelli (
); Giuseppe Nessi (
); La Scala O & Ch
PREISER 20060, mono (68:31)
The latest entry in Preiser’s “Paperback Opera” reissues of classic mono recordings from the HMV, Columbia, and Cetra catalogs is this spectacular 1930
It was one of an extended series the label made of Italian and German operas in the early years of electrical recording, and despite the best efforts of rival HMV, Columbia’s series is unquestionably the better of the two. Both labels were able to procure the services of nearly every member of La Scala, from the principal singers down to the last chorister and orchestra player, with the maddening exception of music director Arturo Toscanini. For reasons that still remain unclear, Toscanini adamantly refused to conduct a single note of either series, despite the fact that most of the operas recorded were prepared, rehearsed, and conducted by him in live performance, and that many of the productions put on disc still bore the stamp of his tempos and phrasing in many places. Historians explain his reticence to record for Columbia because he was very loyal to Victor and its affiliated labels—it was for this reason, for instance, that he pulled out at the last minute from recording the 1930 Bayreuth production of
which was his baby from the start—yet this still doesn’t explain his aversion to recording for the British version of the dog-and-phonograph label.
on HMV and
Madama Butterfly, Il Barbiere di Siviglia,
was a Toscanini production of special interest because he had led the world premiere of the opera in 1892. Of course, he also conducted the world premiere of
but at least he left us a recording of his own of this most popular of operas—in his later, more streamlined style, to be sure, but still bearing his stamp. Speculation has raged for decades as to how much this recording reflects his interpretation, considering that Lorenzo Molajoli was an established conductor in his own right, a year or two older than Toscanini, and indulged in sometimes slower tempos and more portamento than Toscanini himself did during this era. In relistening to the recording, however, I instinctively feel that about 90 percent of it reflects the Toscanini approach of that era, not only in the somewhat quick (but not maniacal) tempos, but also in particulars of phrasing. None of the singers here hang onto their high notes like a dog worrying a bone, which was a particular bane of Leoncavallo, yet Carlo Galeffi takes the traditional, unwritten high A at the end of the Prologue, a “tradition” created by Mattia Battistini that Leoncavallo himself abhorred (he once fired a baritone who refused to omit it in a production he led) and that Toscanini supposedly avoided as much as the unwritten high B at the end of “La donna è mobile.” Still, Molajoli succeeded, much better than rival conductor Carlo Sabajno on HMV, in producing the same luminous clarity of orchestral texture that Toscanini himself did.
There are four moments in this performance where, to my ears, Molajoli’s tempos are too slow to represent Toscanini’s approach: the Prologue, the first half of Nedda’s aria, the Intermezzo, and the cute little tune (“Pagliaccio mio morito”) that Nedda sings before and after the Harlequin’s serenade in act II. If, however, you are willing to use an audio editor to speed up these sections a little bit (by two or three percent), you’ll find that the performance gells very well and that there is not a dull moment in the entire 68 minutes. Indeed, this is the most “alive” studio recording of
ever made, far more vibrant than the celebrated de los Angeles-Björling-Warren-Merrill recording of 1953. Galeffi’s voice has a prominent vibrato that may not appeal to modern listeners, but his Tonio is a living, breathing human being, even in the Prologue where most baritones just sing out and don’t interpret one whit. Rosetta Pampanini is alternately haughty and coy, just the way you’d expect Nedda to be, and she has the trill for the “Ballatella” that de los Angeles did not. The ever-dependable Giuseppe Nessi is splendid as Beppe, and Francesco Merli creates a dramatic, evolving Canio. The one interpretation that will sound the oddest to modern ears is Gino Vanelli’s Silvio. Seventy years of bland, vanilla-sounding British and American Silvios have led listeners to expect consistently smooth legato singing in every note of this character’s music, yet if one listens to one of the most celebrated baritones of the 19th century, Mattia Battistini, sing this same duet, one will hear a similar dramatic approach to interpretation and the same occasionally clipped phrasing. As the estimable critic Herman Klein once pointed out, true
the smooth, unmodulated, consistently flowing sound one heard from many such singers on record in the early decades of the 20th century, but much closer to what Battistini gave us then and what Vanelli gives us here. Moreover, if one knows anything at all about Toscanini’s approach to singers, one will know that he, too, subscribed to this theory. Legato singing does not always mean a homogenous, flowing approach with no peaks or valleys. There must always be an undercurrent of drama.
held the boards for so long, and had so many routine performances, that hearing this recording is like a shock to the system, like hearing the world premiere. Having not heard this recording in many decades, I don’t recall if the wonderful, luminous reverberance one hears on this reissue was added for this edition or was in the original recording, but either way it makes the voices and orchestra sound quite natural. No libretto is included, but a recording of this vintage is usually for collectors only, anyway. Is this a first-choice
? If you don’t mind old mono sound, and if you use an audio editor to increase the tempo of those slow sections I mentioned by about two percent, I think so. I’ve not heard one better in a half-century of collecting. Only the February 1948 Metropolitan Opera broadcast with Florence Quarteraro, Ramon Vinay, and Leonard Warren comes close, and in that performance one must tolerate a bland Silvio (Hugh Thompson), brass players who crack all over the place, and the miserable Met chorus of that era. This one is much finer in every respect.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
I Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo
Francesco Merli (Tenor),
Carlo Galeffi (Baritone),
Rosetta Pampanini (Soprano),
Giuseppe Nessi (Tenor),
Gino Vanelli (Baritone)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Written: 1892; Italy
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