07 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Bellini, Donizetti, & Rossini – ROMANTIC SONGS (L. Marimpietri, U. Benelli, E. Fabbro; DECCA 480 8138)

CD REVIEW: Bellini, Donizetti, & Rossini - ROMANTIC SONGS (DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8138)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), and GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Romantic Songs – Songs by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini¹ plus Arias by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini²—Lydia Marimpietri, soprano¹; Ugo Benelli, tenor¹; Enrico Fabbro (Erik Smith), piano¹; Graziella Sciutti, soprano²; Wiener Philharmoniker²; Argeo Quadri, conductor² [Recorded in Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, Italy, 10 – 13 July 1967¹, and Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 16 – 22 October 1960²; DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8138; 1CD, 79:43; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Rare is the season in any of the world’s major opera houses that does not include any of the bel canto masterpieces of Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini. In the repertories of many theatres, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Bellini’s Norma are the pillars that buttress the bel canto repertory. Surprisingly, however, these masters of bel canto, universally acclaimed for the melodic fecundity of their operas, are not favored with equivalent appreciation for their contributions to the ruddy vein of Nineteenth-Century Art Song. Indeed, the observer whose acquaintance with Art Song repertory is molded primarily by recordings must be excused for failing to know that Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini composed songs at all. When so many shadowy musical niches are being illuminated by the curiosity and ambition of today’s artists, the smaller-scaled lyrical offspring of the fathers of Figaro, Lucia, and Norma remain unaccountably overlooked. With its dual aims of restoring to both unheralded recordings by celebrated singers and extraordinary performances by less-remembered voices the recognition that they deserve, DECCA’s Most Wanted Recitals! series is a fitting vehicle for the rediscovery of the Romantic Songs of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. This disc is thus the lovingly-overhauled vintage vehicle for the homecoming of these seductive songs, and a more charming pair of Italian drivers than soprano Lydia Marimpietri and tenor Ugo Benelli could not have been found.

Originally recorded in 1967*, this recital of jewels from the undisturbed trove of bel canto songs benefited from its inception from the high standards of sonic excellence maintained by DECCA, exemplified by the engineering and production work of Stanley Goodall, Erik Smith, and Gordon Parry. Newly remastered for release on compact disc by Victor Suzán Reed, the recording retains a natural balance among voices and piano, and any vestiges of the recording’s age have been largely eliminated without the ‘bloom’ of the vocal reproduction being diminished. Neither singer often escalates beyond mezzo-forte, but the recordings are refreshingly free of distortion. The clarity of the sound enables full appreciation of the subtle but robust inflections of Erik Smith’s—billed as Enrico Fabbro—accompaniments. In each of the fifteen songs, Mr. Smith provides precisely the right atmosphere for the text, and he both supports and slyly guides the singers’ interpretations. The legendary John Culshaw had a hand in the 1960 recording of the arias sung by soprano Graziella Sciutti appended to this disc: these tracks, too, have been affectionately remastered and sound nearly as well on disc as on vinyl.

Duties in performing the bel canto songs are shared equally by both singers. Largely neglected by record labels and grossly under-appreciated by listeners in both the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Ms. Marimpietri was gifted with a light but unfailingly beautiful voice and superb musicality that served her well in a broad repertory. Perhaps most remembered for her resplendent Drusilla in Raymond Leppard’s edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms, subsequently recorded—albeit in truncated form—by HWV/Angel, and her fun-loving but resolute Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, also seen at Glyndebourne and the Proms, she also excelled in music ranging from Bach [a recording of a ‘live’ RAI Milano performance of Bach’s BWV 243 ‘Magnificat’ under Hermann Scherchen’s baton is a true collector’s item] to Boito and contributed sterling performances of secondary rôles to several notable recordings: Dircé in Cherubini’s Medea with Maria Callas, Suor Genovieffa in Suor Angelica and Nella in Gianni Schicci with Victoria de los Ángeles, and Walter in Catalani’s La Wally with Renata Tebaldi, for instance. Ms. Marimpietri opens this disc with a ravishing account of Bellini’s ‘Il fervido desiderio,’ her articulate but never affected diction heightening the dramatic impetus of Bellini’s languid melodic lines. Her singing of Donizetti’s ‘Me voglio fa’na casa,’ ‘Meine Liebe,’ and ‘A Mezzanotte’ is consistently refined but never at the expense of simple, open-hearted emoting. Two of the finest songs included in this recital, Bellini’s ‘L’abbandono’ and ‘Almen se non poss’io,’ receive from Ms. Marimpietri performances of grace and subtle wistfulness. Rossini’s ‘La partenza’ (Soirées musicales No. 3), one of its composer’s most hypnotic creations, enjoys in Ms. Marimpietri’s handling serenity and attention to detail that would prove equally ideal in the Lieder of Mozart, Schubert, or Schumann. 

With a discography containing acclaimed studio performances of Rossini’s Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (opposite Teresa Berganza’s Rosina), Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola (wooing the Angelina of Giulietta Simionato), and Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri (partnering the Isabella of Lucia Valentini-Terrani), Mr. Benelli’s career as a first-rate tenore di grazia is reasonably well-documented on disc. Though his career at the Metropolitan Opera consisted of only a quartet of successful performances as Don Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro in 1986, Mr. Benelli was heard in many of the world’s most important opera houses, and the longevity of his career is evidence of an ironclad technique. His singing of Rossini’s ‘La gita in gondola’ (Soirées musicales No. 7) and ‘L’orgia’ (Soirées musicales No. 4) exemplifies his authority in the music of the Poet of Pesaro. Tracing the sensibilities of the texts, Mr. Benelli often employs head resonance as the vocal lines ascend, but when he produces top notes in full chest voice they have the ease and resonance familiar from his opera recordings. Bellini’s ‘Bella nice che d’amore’ and ‘Per pietà, bell’idol mio,’ the latter so memorably sung by Renata Tebaldi, are performed to perfection by Mr. Benelli, his artistry filling the vocal lines and enabling him to avoid stretching his slender, silvery voice unduly. Donizetti’s ‘Amore e morte’ and ‘Eterno amor e fè’ draw from Mr. Benelli displays of consummate supremacy in bel canto, and his singing of Bellini’s Arcadian ‘Malinconia, ninfa gentile’ exudes the quiet melancholy that permeates the song’s text. Ms. Marimpietri joins Mr. Benelli in Rossini’s ‘La serenata’ (Soirées musicales No. 11), and their voices combine exquisitely. It is unfortunate that texts and translations of the songs are not included with this release, but the clarity with which both singers enunciate facilitates communication of the words. Fundamentally, the singers’ instinctive grasp of Rossini’s, Donizetti’s, and Bellini’s idioms enables even the listener with no knowledge of Italian to comprehend the sentiments of each song.

Though gratitude is due to DECCA for a well-filled disc, it is also regrettable that additional material featuring Ms. Marimpietri and Mr. Benelli could not have been found to supplement their recital of Romantic Songs; Ms. Marimpietri’s contributions to the long-unavailable DECCA recording of excerpts from Verdi’s Falstaff mentioned on the original LP jacket reproduced in lieu of liner notes, for example. Still, the arias sung by Graziella Sciutti (1927 – 2001) make an interesting finale to the disc. Ms. Sciutti was the quintessential Italian soubrette of the third quarter of the Twentieth Century. A lovely, lively stage creature, she brought vitality to an array of French, German, and Italian rôles. Her principal métier was Mozart repertory, but she was also celebrated for her performances of lyric coloratura parts, particularly in Vienna. The selections on this disc exhibit all of the hallmarks of Ms. Sciutti’s singing: the brittle, razor-sharp timbre; the pin-point articulation of coloratura; the innate cheerfulness of manner; and the tendency for her intonation to sag at the ends of phrases, especially in descending passages. The performances of Despina’s arias ‘In uomini, in soldati’ and ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ from Così fan tutte and Susanna’s ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ from Le nozze di Figaro are typical Mozartean fare for Ms. Sciutti and are capably, coyly sung. Less representative of her discography in general are the three bel canto arias. Her accounts of Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and ‘Oh! quante volte’ from Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi are not new to compact disc but are welcome reminders of the singer’s slightly unconventional but convincing way with bel canto lines. Contrary to the statement on DECCA’s disc insert, Ms. Sciutti’s recording of ‘Convien partir’ from Act One of the Italian version of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment has also previously appeared on CD. This, though, is the performance by which Ms. Sciutti should be memorialized. Though characteristically breathy, the tone is beautiful and secure up to a glistening top B♮, the phrasing of Donizetti’s cantabile melody is unforced, and her command of the delicate acciaccature is natural. A couple of pitches are flat, but these are five minutes of the most appealing singing that Ms. Sciutti ever recorded in studio. Ably supported in all six arias by the Wiener Philharmoniker and conductor Argeo Quadri, she offers many glimpses of the musical and dramatic vibrancy that won the hearts of so many audiences.

Throughout the label’s history, DECCA releases have been appreciated for their complementary artistic and technical quality. The new Most Wanted Recitals! series has the noble goal of reintroducing some of the label’s most interesting recordings to circulation. If the quality of Romantic Songs is typical of releases in the series, it is a goal dazzlingly fulfilled. Certainly, this disc remedies a glaring omission in the discography of Nineteenth-Century Art Song. Perhaps the honest, heartfelt singing of Lydia Marimpietri and Ugo Benelli might even inspire some of today’s adventurous young artists to explore these sweet blossoms of pure bel canto.

*Note: Mr. Benelli has confirmed that his selections on Romantic Songs were recorded in London, not in Rome as stated in the insert accompanying the DECCA CD, whilst he was in the UK for the 1967 Glyndebourne Festival production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, in which he sang fifteen performances of Nemorino between 26 May and 6 July.