17 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (R. Scotto, A. Kraus, S. Bruscantini, P. Washington; Myto MCD00335)

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (Myto MCD00335)

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Lucia di Lammermoor—Renata Scotto (Miss Lucia), Alfredo Kraus (Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood), Sesto Bruscantini (Lord Enrico Ashton), Paolo Washington (Raimondo Bidebent), Luciana Boni (Alisa), Ottavio Taddei (Lord Arturo Bucklaw), and Enzo Guagni (Normanno); Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Bruno Rigacci, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Teatro Comunale, Florence, Italy, on 23 July 1963; Myto Historical Line MCD00335; 2CD, 126:08; Available from ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

For listeners who love bel canto, the operas of Donizetti, or the artistry of Renata Scotto, the 1963 Florence production of Lucia di Lammermoor needs no introduction. Recorded in performance at the Teatro Comunale four years after she recorded the rôle for Ricordi under studio conditions at La Scala, Ms. Scotto remains a wide-eyed, fresh-voiced protagonist, capable of making the most decorative of Donizetti’s music dramatically significant. A Lucia with an inadequate Lucia is naturally a lost cause, but failures among the opera’s supporting rôles can also prove devastating. There is no question that Renata Scotto is the raison d’être for this release, but her colleagues also have much to offer.

Sonically, this new remastering by Myto is a marked improvement upon the ‘pirated’ recordings of this performance that have long circulated on various labels. Considering its vintage and venue, and that Italian audiences are not known for sitting on their hands or waiting until intervals to discuss the merits of a performance, the acoustics of the recording are generally good. The provenance of the recording remains enigmatic: the sound quality suggests a broadcast, but certain intrusive page turns and the proximity of coughs hint at a clandestine vantage point in the auditorium. There is enough stage noise to suggest that this was a suitably swashbuckling production, but heavy footfalls and hosts of bumps and thumps never truly undermine enjoyment of the performance. Individual voices sometimes wander out of the aural space, but balances are mostly maintained with admirable consistency. Distortion is minimal, but caution is advised whenever Ms. Scotto approaches sustained notes above the staff: there is considerable peaking on her E♭s in alt in the Mad Scene, and even the syncopated top B♭s in the cabaletta are troublesome for the recording equipment, professional or otherwise. The top D♭ with which she ends the Sextet is virtually inaudible, almost certainly a victim of microphone placement.  The Maggio Musicale Chorus and Orchestra are eager and proficient, but greater precision of ensemble would be appreciated. Still, these are Italian musicians performing Italian music, and, under the capable if occasionally self-indulgent direction of Bruno Rigacci, there are doses of chiaroscuro and slancio that evade the best efforts of more recent performances.

Ideally, the secondary players in a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor should sound as though they could stage their own production of a suitable score were the principals suddenly indisposed. If that is not the case in this performance, there at least is a higher standard of musicality among the supporting cast than is now typical. Tenors Enzo Guagni as Normanno and Ottavio Taddei as Arturo are on frolicsome form, Mr. Guagni’s Normanno spreading ill-conceived gossip with lecherous intent and Mr. Taddei’s Arturo splendidly indignant and wounded to the very core of his pride. Both gentlemen sing capably. It should be noted that some sources cite Paolo Federici as the singer of Arturo in this performance, but there is better circumstantial evidence to support Myto’s attribution. Virtually no information about Paolo Federici survives, but Mr. Taddei was a respected tenor who, among scores of leading engagements in his native Italy, sang Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor alongside Carlo Tagliabue’s Enrico in Pisa: based solely on his verifiable credentials, Mr. Taddei is the more likely candidate. Among admittedly underwhelming competition in the rôle, Luciana Boni is an above-average Alisa who actually sounds like young Miss Lucy’s age-appropriate confidante rather than a superannuated duenna.

It is not surprising that Raimondo was deprived in this performance of his lovely aria ‘Ah! cedi, cedi, o più sciagurre,’ reducing his part to far lesser importance than Donizetti intended, but bass Paolo Washington makes the most of what is left to him. He is an alert, sonorous presence in ensembles, and he is among the few recorded Raimondos with equal security on both the low F♯ and the top E required in his call for calm following the Sextet, ‘Rispettate in me di Dio la tremenda maestà.’ The horror and heartbreak with which Mr. Washington’s Raimondo recounts his encounter with the deranged Lucia are gripping. Had he been granted his full part, Mr. Washington would have been an even more successful Raimondo, but he nonetheless makes a very positive impression. He is one of those underrated singers who, though his name on the cast list alone might never prompt the purchase of a recording, seldom disappoints.

Donizetti’s music for Enrico, Lucia’s domineering brother, unites dramatic bel canto with strong foreshadowing of the young Verdi’s writing for the baritone voice. The singer who is stylistically comfortable as Verdi’s Nabucco, Macbeth, and Rigoletto will also find Donizetti’s Enrico a congenial part. Italian bass-baritone Sesto Bruscantini is indelibly associated with basso buffo rôles, particularly those in Rossini’s operas, in which his resonant voice and ebullient personality shone, but he also devoted an estimable portion of his career to Verdi’s ‘big sing’ baritone rôles. Taking into account only his work in opera buffa, it is easy to overlook what a finely-wrought, genuinely beautiful voice Mr. Bruscantini possessed. Ms. Scotto’s 1959 Ricordi recording of Lucia paired her with the Enrico of Ettore Bastianini, one of the most refulgently-voiced baritones of the Twentieth Century, but Mr. Bruscantini in this Florence performance does not prove noticeably inferior. As an actor, Mr. Bruscantini is Bastianini’s superior, in fact, and he has an even more instinctive feel for the bel canto lines in Enrico’s music. In his entrance aria, ‘Cruda, funesta smania,’ Mr. Bruscantini sings powerfully but with excellent command of the musical filigree. A couple of climactic top notes stress him, but he copes with complete braggadocio. ‘La pietade in suo favore,’ his cabaletta, is rousingly sung. Mr. Bruscantini is at his best in the scene with Lucia, ‘Soffriva nel pianto,’ in which he conveys Enrico’s bitterness, fear, and growing desperation in singing of ample thrust, tempered by real tenderness for Lucia, and he joins Ms. Scotto in a stirring account of ‘Se tradirmi tu potrai,’ ended with a ringing top G. His fury in the Sextet and the scene that follows it is so great that he can barely spit out the words, and his shock and remorse in the Mad Scene are tellingly portrayed. Enrico suffers greatly from the brutal cutting of Donizetti’s score that was standard practice in 1963, so there are a number of missed opportunities, the most regrettable of which is the excision of the Wolf’s Crag scene. Mr. Bruscantini might reasonably come to mind as an ideal Don Pasquale or Dulcamara, but in this performance his singing of ‘serious’ Donizetti is no less authoritative. Unexpectedly, this is one of the best-sung performances of Enrico in the discography.

The rôle of his début at London’s Royal Opera House in 1959, Edgardo remained in the repertory of Alfredo Kraus throughout his long career. He partnered a staggering array of accomplished Lucias: solely at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he last sang Edgardo in 1993, his Lucias were Gianna D’Angelo, Roberta Peters, Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto, Dame Joan Sutherland, Lucia Aliberti, Mariella Devia, Marilyn Mims, Ruth Ann Swenson, Sumi Jo, and Martile Rowland. This 1963 performance finds him on excellent form, but his best performances of Edgardo came later, when he relied upon his exemplary technique and aristocratic artistry rather than the youthful pliancy of his voice. At his first entrance, Mr. Kraus is immediately recognizable, and, though a nasal and somewhat monochromatic instrument, the voice glows with ardor. In ‘Sulla tomba che rinserra,’ he sings rapturously, blending artfully with Ms. Scotto. Not surprisingly, even the prodigiously-gifted Mr. Kraus ducks the top E♭ in ‘Verrano a te,’ but he soars easily to the B♭s. He spars thrillingly with Mr. Bruscantini in launching the Sextet, ‘Chi me frena in tal momento,’ and his denunciation of Lucia in the following scene is impassioned but stylish. The depth of feeling that Mr. Kraus brings to his elegant singing of Edgardo’s ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ and the exquisitely beautiful ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,’ some of the most inspired pages that Donizetti ever wrote, is arresting. It is dumbfounding to recall that, in years past, performances of Lucia di Lammermoor often ended with Lucia’s Mad Scene: the loss of Mr. Kraus’s euphoric singing of the opera’s final scene would be an affront to Donizetti and nothing short of criminal.

Ms. Scotto is a predictably imaginative Lucia, but this performance is a study in vocal compromises. Her opening recitative is lustrously managed, and her singing of ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ brims with youthful exuberance. She and Maestro Rigacci rush through the cabaletta, ‘Quando, rapito in estasi,’ conveying the character’s ecstasy but wreaking havoc on Donizetti’s rhythms. The interpolated top D in the cabaletta’s coda is wiry and unsteady, but this is very much an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ performance in which caution is thrown to the wind. Ms. Scotto runs out of breath in the opening phrase of ‘Verrano a te’ but otherwise joins Mr. Kraus in a mercurial account of the duet. Ms. Scotto’s singing in Lucia’s scene with her brother, ‘Soffriva nel pianto’ is poised and very touching, and the measure of defiance in ‘Se tradirmi tu potrai’ is invigorating. Here, too, the top D that she adds to the conclusion is unstable. Some of Ms. Scotto’s finest singing comes in the Sextet, the top line of which she limns with true distinction. There are more uneven top notes in the stretta of the Part Two Finale, but the impulsiveness of Ms. Scotto’s singing is pulse-quickening. The intimidating test of Lucia’s Mad Scene prompts Ms. Scotto to increased concentration. She mostly adheres to the traditional ornamentation in the cadenza, but she is one of the few recorded Lucias who actually seems to believe that the flute with which she is dueting is the absent Edgardo’s voice. Here her ascents to top C are focused and secure. The E♭s in alt that crown both the cadenza and the cabaletta, ‘Spargi d’amaro pianto,’ are erratic but undeniably impactful. In this performance, Ms. Scotto’s singing is a source of ambiguity: vocally, she is an effective but not especially memorable Lucia, but the dramatic acuity that she brings to a rôle that, prior to the intervention of Maria Callas, was a perch for mechanical songbirds is special. This Lucia is not the work of a perfect vocalist, but it emphatically is the work of a great artist.

In Italy, the land of the genre’s birth, opera can still be a contact sport. This 1963 Florentine performance of Lucia di Lammermoor is Italian opera at its most zestful. An idiomatic cast compete like footballers on the pitch, and the crowd cheer their efforts with enthusiasm and encouragement. Not all of the singers’ shots find the goal, but this new edition of a long-admired performance really scores.

Soprano Renata Scotto in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at the Metropolitan Opera, 1965 [Photo by Louis Mélançon; © The Metropolitan Opera]Il dolce suono: Renata Scotto as Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera, 1965 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera]