Notes and Editorial Reviews
Tullio Serafin, cond; Antonietta Stella (
); Giuseppe Di Stefano (
); Tito Gobbi (
); La Scala O & Ch
TESTAMENT 2211 (2 CDs: 119:09
Text and Translation)
Walter Legge was, among other things, a shrewd businessman, always on the lookout for
excellent talent that could promote EMI ahead of its European and American rivals. He patiently dealt with artistic temperament if it promised him something rewarding in the end, and that explains the lengthy negotiations that were patiently pursued by EMI with Maria Callas. A deal concluded in 1952 would prove highly remunerative to both record company and star, but it had to include an opt-out clause for three operas that Callas was to record for Cetra. One of these was
, which left Legge looking for another female lead when EMI sought to record the work. Ultimately, he decided upon Antonietta Stella, an upcoming young lyric soprano. This didn’t please Callas at all, who came to see it primarily as an act of betrayal by her mentor and friend, Serafin. It would be several years before she would agree to record with him again.
The resultant recording was by no means the dead loss that some critics have called it over the years. Stella’s primary failing was that she wasn’t Callas or Tebaldi, as has been noted repeatedly in the past. On her own, she boasted an attractive lyric voice with the heft of a spinto. It was mezzo in coloration with a focused top, and very even in tonal production throughout an extensive range. True, there’s no soul in “Ah, fors’è lui,” and her “Follie! Follie!” is careful; she lacked Callas’s agility. But “Sempre libera” displays a solid voice, used with some distinction, while “Libiamo” reveals numerous colors. She’s dramatically at her best in the great scene from act II with Gobbi. Perhaps taking her cue from the baritone’s restrained and nuanced performance, Stella bestows some ethereal singing on “Ah! Dite alla giovine,” lingering slightly over “sventura.” “Dammi tu forza, o cielo,” too, comes from the heart, and “Addio del passato” has a veiled quality during its primary section that fits this Violetta well. “Ah! Gran Dio! Morir sì giovine” has anguish (and the tone swells beautifully at the start), as does “Prendi, quest’è l’immagine.” Heard on its own, then, this is a distinguished assumption by a singer who was perhaps too heavy for Violetta’s fach, but had significant compensatory value to offer.
As for Di Stefano, he’s in his element on this recording, and the voice is still the responsive, beautiful instrument that had caught the operatic world’s attention several years earlier. “Un di felice, eterea” has surely never been sung so meltingly, yet with perfect poise. If “De’ mieie bollenti spiriti” seems more like a gloriously successful vocal exercise under Di Stefano’s ministrations, “Ogni suo aver tal femmina” has real fire, and “Parigi, o cara” is a gem of unforced tone.
Gobbi could over-emote on occasion, but not here. His fast vibrato, excellent enunciation, and fine display of legato make this one of the most attractive of Germonts on record merely to listen to from a musical perspective. For dramatic sense, this assumption remains one of the two finest I’ve ever heard, alongside Mario Zanasi (Covent Garden, live, 6/20/58, with Callas, Valletti, and Rescigno: currently out of print). There is a wealth of expression alone in the way Gobbi softly emphasizes the reiterated “No, no” at the end of “Ura siccome un angelo,” much less the way he shades so much of “Di provenza” in an understated way.
Serafin conducts a lovingly relaxed, beautifully sculpted reading, very attentive to his singers, and ever willing to give them interpretative space while nudging matters forward. Never short on drama, this remains perhaps the most lyrical exploration of this delicate score on commercial discs.
The sound is typical of studio operatic recordings of the period, with singers very close to the microphone. Significantly, both Di Stefano and Gobbi seem closer than Stella, possibly because her large voice posed problems for contemporary engineering techniques. Factor in a good essay on the genesis of this
and an English-Italian libretto, and you have a fine souvenir of an underrated performance that will perhaps now receive its due.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
Antonietta Stella (Soprano),
Tito Gobbi (Baritone),
Giuseppe Di Stefano (Tenor)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra
Written: 1853; Italy
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