19 December 2015

CD REVIEW: Voices from the Past — Walhall Eternity Series features Lucille Udovich in Ponchielli’s LA GIOCONDA (WLCD 0337) and Renata Tebaldi in Puccini’s LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (WLCD 0355)

CD REVIEW: Walhall Eternity Series' releases of Amilcare Ponchielli's LA GIOCONDA (WLCD 0337) and Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (WLCD 0355)[1] AMILCARE PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886): La Gioconda—Lucille Udovich (La Gioconda), Flaviano Labò (Enzo Grimaldo), Mignon Dunn (Laura Adorno), Aldo Protti (Barnaba), Norman Scott (Alvise Badoero), Luisa Bartoletti (La Cieca), Tulio Gagliardo (Zuàne), Italo Pasini (Isèpo), Guerrino Boschetti (Un cantore); Coro y Orquesta Estable del Teatro Colón; Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 28 July 1970; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0337; 3 CDs, 200:28 (including Act One from a 1958 performance of Madama Butterfly); Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del West—Renata Tebaldi (Minnie), Daniele Barioni (Dick Johnson), Giangiacomo Guelfi (Jack Rance), Piero de Palma (Nick), Carlo Cava (Ashby), Mario Borriello (Sonora), Athos Cesarini (Trin), Attilio Barbesi (Sid), John Ciavola (Bello), Angelo Mercuriali (Harry, Un postiglione), Virginio Assandri (Joe), Egidio Casolari (Happy), Giuseppe Morresi (Jim Larkens), Giorgio Onesti (Billy Jackrabbit), Lola Pedretti (Wowkle), Silvio Maionica (Jake Wallace), Bruno Cioni (José Castro); Coro ed Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI; Arturo Basile, conductor [Recorded ‘live,’ RAI Roma, 28 June 1961; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0355; 2 CDs, 130:29; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

For every opera lover, there are performances that are like old friends. In the course of a lifetime of listening and opera-going, new acquaintances are made, allegiances change, and relationships are betrayed by disappointments, unmet expectations, and missed opportunities, but those ‘old friends’ are always welcome. Perhaps they only visit occasionally and sometimes turn up in new garbs that alter their appearances, but their hearts and souls remain constant. Neither the 1960 Buenos Aires performance of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda nor the 1961 RAI Roma broadcast of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West released on the Walhall Eternity Series label is new to collectors, but there are many folks among the ranks of opera aficionados for whom these performances are much-loved old friends. Though not new releases in the strictest sense, these Walhall editions are now more widely available in North America [on CD, at least: digital downloads are unavailable due to the intricacies of copyrights] thanks to distribution by NAXOS, and this is a valuable instance of familiar performances arriving in newly-cut suits of technological clothes that show off their handsome figures as never before.

Many of the extant recordings of performances dating from Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón in the 1960s remind today’s listeners of an era in which Verdi sounded like Verdi, Wagner sounded like Wagner, Puccini sounded like Puccini, and all sounded well-prepared, adequately-rehearsed, and unfailingly professional. The Teatro Colón’s ranks of ‘local’ talent ensured reliably capable singing of secondary rôles, and this Gioconda benefits from strong casting across the board. Tulio Gagliardo, Italo Pasini, and Guerrino Boschetti depict Zuàne, Isèpo, and the nameless Cantore with fervor. As Alvise, American bass Norman Scott (1921 – 1968) sings powerfully, traversing Ponchielli’s music with a voice silenced far too soon by the singer’s early death. Always audible in ensembles in Act One, he seizes his opportunities to excel in Act Three, voicing ‘Sì! morir ella de’! Sul nome mio’ and ‘Là turbini e farnetichi’ resonantly. In Alvise’s scenes with Laura, Gioconda, and the chorus, Scott sings with solid tone and dramatic presence, confirming what a blow the premature loss of his artistry was to the operatic community. Italian mezzo-soprano Luisa Bartoletti is not the most glamorous La Cieca imaginable, but she at least does not wobble, and her account of the famous ‘Voce di donna o d’angelo’ is phrased with feeling and ably vocalized.

Italian baritone Aldo Protti (1920 – 1995) possessed a fine voice of the type that lends credence to the cliché concerning singers who, appreciated but not universally fêted during their careers, would be widely acclaimed were they singing today. Protti was an effective, memorable Rigoletto, and he here proves an idiomatic, steely Barnaba. In his opening scene, the voice exudes menace and bravado. Protti sings ‘O monumento! Regia e bolgia’ with unstinting energy, his upper register secure and thrilling. Sparring with Gioconda throughout the opera, he manages to make Barnaba’s perversion bizarrely sympathetic: one almost wishes that Gioconda would explore the possibility that the uncompromising Barnaba might prove a viable romantic alternative to the inconstant prig Enzo. His character’s animalistic appetite for control, a psychosis that goes beyond mere lust, is viscerally conveyed by Protti’s singing in Act Four. With Gioconda cornered like a frightened viper, Protti depicts a Barnaba who does not fear her strike. Even in a decade during which baritones of the renown of Cornell MacNeil and Giuseppe Taddei appeared in Buenos Aires, Protti was an extremely valuable addition to the Teatro Colón’s roster, and in this performance he is a Barnaba in the grand Italian tradition.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, either in 1928 or 1931 [biographies of the singer are divided on this point, but the later year seems to be more prevalent among credible sources], mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn was throughout a long, diverse career encompassing many of the great German and Italian rôles for her Fach one of America’s most accomplished and dependable singers. Her performance in this Argentine Gioconda is a credit to her considerable talent and ironclad technique. All sweetness and femininity in Act One, this Laura’s titanium core shows through in Act Two, Dunn’s singing in ‘Stella del marinar!’ and the duet and then trio with Enzo and Gioconda formidably secure and throbbing with emotion. Her highest tones often stunning, Dunn sounds as though she might have sung Gioconda as credibly as Laura. In the scene with Alvise in Act Three, the mezzo-soprano’s timbre is arresting, its vein of copper complementing the bronzed patina of Scott’s voice, and the superb trio in Act Four inspires Dunn to unleash a flood of incredible vocalism. Like many of the Teatro Colón performances of this vintage that have circulated on ‘pirated’ recordings, this Gioconda was clearly first and foremost a vocal event. Dunn’s Laura is rarely subtle, but her healthy, hearty singing of this difficult part earns her favorable comparison with Ebe Stignani and Giulietta Simionato.

Italian tenor Flaviano Labò (1927 – 1991) portrays Enzo Grimaldo as a golden-throated Romantic hero of the stand-and-deliver variety, and deliver he does. His ringing ‘Assassini! quel crin venerando’ in Act One is followed by singing of Corelli-like brilliance in the duet with Barnaba, ‘O grido di quest’anima.’ Enzo’s well-known aria in Act Two, ‘Cielo e mar,’ is hardly the most distinguished music that Ponchielli gave him, but Labò sings it excitingly, rising without undue effort to top B♭.The tenor’s best singing is done in the edge-of-the-seat duet with Laura and the trios with Laura and Gioconda. Like Dunn’s Laura, Labò’s Enzo is not a nuanced impersonation, but it is an uncommonly capably-voiced, authentically Italianate one.

A native of Denver, Colorado, soprano Lucille Udovich (1930 – 1999) is now little remembered despite having enjoyed an estimable career, especially in Italy, where, among other portrayals, she was particularly admired for a fiery, luminously-sung Turandot in a television film that partnered her with Franco Corelli’s Calàf. Vocally and temperamentally, there are similarities among Udovich’s Gioconda and those of her fellow American expatriate Anna de Cavalieri and Zinka Milanov, whose Croatian heritage she shared. Udovich’s effort at the famous floated top B♭ in Act One is not the sound of rapturous beauty that Milanov’s almost always was, but Udovich reaches Gioconda’s highest notes with considerably less struggle than many sopranos have managed. She easily dominates Act One, as any Gioconda should do but few achieve without coming to grief. In both the duet and trio in Act Two, Udovich sings with raw emotion without wholly sacrificing tonal allure. Her account of ‘O madre mia, nell’isola fatale’ in Act Three is one of the most effective on disc, the directness of the sentiment delivered unaffectedly. Udovich’s performance of Gioconda’s pivotal scene in Act Four, ‘Suicidio! in questi fieri momenti,’ is grand but deeply personal—and sung with sweep and sincerity that recall the Giocondas of Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Maria Callas. As Udovich sings them, ‘A te questo rosario’ and ‘Ora posso morir’ are as moving as ‘Suicidio.’ The final confrontation with Barnaba is sung with abandon, Udovich matching Protti’s vocal and dramatic largesse. Udovich is the centerpiece of a Gioconda that satisfies as almost none has in recent years, one in which Ponchielli’s music is genuinely, meaningfully sung and efficiently conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

Though the recorded sound quality is inferior to that of the Gioconda performance, Act One from a 1958 Teatro Colón performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly offers tantalizing introductions to the Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton of Antonietta Stella and Labò, rôles that they did not record commercially, as well as the Sharpless of Giuseppe Taddei. Though both better-known during her career and more remembered now, Stella was, like Udovich, an underrated singer. Her misfortune was being a very good Cio-Cio San in the era of Callas’s and Renata Scotto’s great interpretations of the part. In the selections provided by Walhall, Stella, Labò, and Taddei sing well and audibly interact with one another not as singers collecting paychecks but as artists bringing characters to life. Most importantly, these are people for whom Puccini’s musical language is a native tongue. How many performances of Madama Butterfly anywhere in the world in the years since 1958 have featured Italians in all three of the lead rôles?

Italian singers in their natural habitat is also a prime attraction of the second of these Walhall releases. Conducted with red-blooded Romanticism by its leading lady’s one-time paramour Arturo Basile, the RAI Roma La fanciulla del West is an exhilarating performance that is redolent of the stage despite its made-for-broadcast provenance. With native sons Piero de Palma as Nick, Carlo Cava as Ashby, and Mario Borriello as Sonora [a biography on the NAXOS website states that Borriello was actually born in Vienna, but Italian sources are unanimous in citing Brindisi as his natal city] among the near-ideal supporting cast, there is a robust showing by the RAI ‘home team.’ Especially noteworthy is Silvio Maionica’s galvanizing performance of Jake Wallace’s ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei.’ The action may be set in California, but only in Italy do minstrels sing so beautifully.

Few baritones past or present have brought greater vocal amplitude to the dastardly sheriff Jack Rance’s music than Giangiacomo Guelfi (1924 – 2012). A great bear of a man with a voice to match, Guelfi is wholly in his element as Rance, but his singing in this performance is not all barking and blustering. In Act One, there is a surprising rush of tenderness in his voicing of ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie,’ and his phrasing of ‘Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito’ exudes feelings deeper than carnal desire. Guelfi’s vocal acting in the life-or-death poker game in Act Two raises the stakes of the whole performance. The bitterness of this Rance’s acceptance of Minnie’s choice of Johnson in Act Three is that of a man who realizes that his only chance at true happiness is exiting his life on the arm of another man. Guelfi is too little represented on recordings, but this performance is a wonderful document of his artistry.

Daniele Barioni’s (born 1930) platinum-bright tenor was, in terms of sheer vocal heft, small for Johnson, but he sings the rôle so well that, particularly in the context of a broadcast performance, this is insignificant. In Act One, the open-hearted—and open-throated—immediacy with which Barioni sings ‘Chi c’è per farmi i ricci?’ and ‘Vi ricordate di me?’ is engaging, but the ardor that emanates from his accounts of ‘Amai la vita, e l’amo’ and ‘Oh, non temete, nessuno ardirà!’ is profoundly touching. Barioni soars to the heights of ‘Un bacio, un bacio almeno!’ and ‘Or son sei mesi’ in Act Two with spirit befitting a bandito in love, and he pours his soul into ‘Non chiudete la porta.’ Johnson’s Act Three aria ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano’ is one of Puccini’s finest inspirations, and Barioni sings it splendidly, focusing on the lyricism that courses through the music rather than brute strength. Barioni is a Johnson whose reform seems complete, and his portrayal is so free from artifice that it is possible to believe that, for the duration of this performance, it is Johnson’s heart that beats in Barioni’s chest.

Minnie is a rôle in which the inimitable Renata Tebaldi (1922 – 2004) shone. After Mimì’s delicate embroidered flowers and Cio-Cio San’s shimmering silks were no longer good fits for her, Tebaldi remained relatively comfortable with Minnie’s Bible and six-shooter. The challenges of Act One are here met with charm and sass, this Minnie’s ‘Dove eravamo? ... Ruth...Ezechiel‘ being more than just a Sunday School reading lesson. Tebaldi phrases ‘Laggiù nel Soledad, ero piccina’ with the spirit of a true verista, and she rises fearlessly to the top C: the note does not come easily, but it comes, and the soprano’s connection with the character is compelling. She articulates ‘Oh, Mister Johnson, siete rimasto’ with the winsome innocence of the first pangs of love. The simplicity with which she voices ‘Io non son che una povera fanciulla’ in the love duet conveys a panoply of feelings, the most gripping of which is burgeoning love that seems to frighten and gladden Minnie in equal measures. Tebaldi infiltrates the core of her character’s apprehension in Act Two, her voice gleaming in ‘Buona sera!’ and drenched with uncertainty in ‘Oh, se sapeste.’ Any listener who doubts the psychological depth of Tebaldi’s artistry should carefully study her singing of ‘Che c’è di nuovo, Jack?’ and ‘Siete pronto?’ in this performance: here, in the context of an unstaged broadcast performance, is as sagacious a portrait of the steadfast Minnie as has ever been recorded. In Act Three, Tebaldi sings with an imperturbable sense of purpose, uniting dramatic sensitivity with vocal opulence in her voicing of ‘E anche tu lo vorrai.’ From start to finish, this is a delightfully authentic Fanciulla del West, rough around the edges as its subject allows it to be, but at its center is a magnificent wild rose of the Sierra Madres in the person of Renata Tebaldi’s Minnie.

How nice to hear you both again, old friends; and sounding so well!