Notes and Editorial Reviews
We are well into the era of gramophonic scholarship when new sets keep arriving with an extra disc to provide what in the literary world would constitute appendices or textual notes. The latest is Bellini’s opera on the star-crossed lovers, itself star-crossed in a different sense when Maria Malibran, cast as Romeo at Paris in 1832 and dissatisfied with her part in the tomb scene, persuaded the management to substitute a version from an opera on the same subject by Nicola Vaccai, written and successfully produced some five years before Bellini’s. This proved to be not a mere one-off arrangement, as other star-Romeos, such as Marietta Alboni, were quick to see its advantages. Listeners can now judge for themselves, the whole of Vaccai’s finale, just over 30 minutes long, being given on the third CD. Included also are two passages from earlier in the opera, where Romeo’s part has been ornamented by Rossini, friend of Malibran and, as perhaps one should have suspected, himself instigator of the ingenious substitution.
So, rather as with another Romeo and Juliet opera, Gounod’s in the recent EMI recording (6/98), two critical duties have priority: to compare other recordings and assess the value of the additional record. The competition is really a straight one-to-one affair, for the third currently available recording (under Claudio Abbado) is of a live performance with the part of Romeo sung by a tenor and so destroying the fine blend and contrast of voices central to Bellini’s purpose. The rival version currently available is under Riccardo Muti, taken live from the Covent Garden stage in 1985. Perhaps it should be said that the performance I attended remains alight in memory as one of those rare occasions when the ideal suggested by the term bel canto did seem to materialize. Edita Gruberova and Agnes Baltsa were the lovers, both on shining best form, their voices pure in quality, extensive in range, beautifully managed and used with intense feeling for the drama and emotion inherent in the music. On record, inequalities in Gruberova’s singing obtrude in a slight and passing fashion where ‘in the flesh’ they were scarcely noticeable; hers is still a touching and imaginative performance of great distinction. Eva Mei, in the new set, does well but is not in that class. Vesselina Kasarova, on the other hand, certainly provides a match for Baltsa in vibrancy of timbre and fervour of expression. Where she lets herself down, and then rather badly, is in producing her low register in a way that seems inescapably imitative of Marilyn Horne. After the first few occurrences it becomes faintly comical; in some years’ time, if she continues in this way, it is likely to sound grotesque.
The male singers are of secondary importance in this opera, capable even so of swaying the balance in comparisons such as this. It might seem that the presence of Ramon Vargas in the cast would do just that, but his sympathetic voice makes Tebaldo (Tybalt) too likeable, whereas Dano Raffanti’s harder, less romantic tone suits better. Covent Garden’s Gwynne Howell is also a better Capulet than the rough-hewn voice-character of Umberto Chiummo. The part of Lorenzo (a doctor and not a friar in this version) suits the baritone voice better than the black bass of John Tomlinson; but it cannot be said that Simone Alberghini confers distinction.
If the new recording is to be preferred it must be on other grounds. The conducting might be one of them: Muti is tense and exciting but Roberto Abbado has Bellini’s lyricism within him (hear the finale to Act 1, for instance). He elicits fine playing from the Munich orchestra and the recorded sound gives less sense of confinement than in Covent Garden. But ultimately I think we come back to the bonus record and Nicola Vaccai. Workmanlike rather than inspired, it still makes an interesting comparison. Kasarova sings with intense co viction so that one quite sees Malibran’s reasons for preferring it. Moreover, the extra CD is a gift, the price being as for a set of two: well worth consideration.'
-- Gramophone [9/1998]