Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Ernani - Caballe, Prevedi, Christoff - Radio, 1968

I don't quite understand the outrage of other reviewers in regard to the cuts made in this recording. To be sure, there are some, and they are of course regrettable. But are they really so detrimental? The orchestral prelude to Silva’s rousing cabaletta and its repeat, some of the maidens' choruses, an occasional line or two, a few repeats more perhaps. Nothing really so terrible. It is preposterous to claim that this ruins Verdi's dramatic concept or something like that. The plot of Ernani is quite ludicrous enough anyway. This is an opera to be experienced solely for its melodic richness and vocal glory.

The cuts in this recording are hardly concerned with the best music in the opera. The legendary live Ernani from 1957 (Cerquetti, del Monaco, Bastianini, Christoff – Mitropoulos) omits Silva's cabaletta completely. Now this is unforgivable, if not exactly uncommon in those ancient times. What a bitter irony! When great voices were anything but rarity, so were hideous cuts that mutilated their parts. Today everybody insists on performing complete scores, yet there are very few singers – if any! – who can do them justice. When was the last time that you heard live Alfredo’s “O mio rimorso” or the Duke’s “Possente amor mi chiama” properly sung?

The bottom line is this. The cuts in this Ernani, fairly substantial though they may be, are in no way horrible enough to spoil the pleasure of this eminently resilient work.

It should be said that the cast here is significantly inferior to the one in the aforementioned 1957 live recording; then again, the latter is simply impossible to beat. Nor are you well-advised to purchase this set if you insist on good sound. You had much better grab the Bergonzi/Price/Sereni/Flagello/Schippers one from 1967, in a fine studio stereo and with lots of gorgeous singing, in many ways quite on par, or even superior, to this recording. But without the dubious benefit of such comparisons, this 1968 radio performance is well worth the time of any Ernani-fan who's not yet familiar with it.

My only two mild complaints are the sound in general and Bruno Prevedi in particular. Since this is a radio performance, that is a concert performance recorded in a radio studio more or less in one take and then broadcast, one is right to expect better sonics considering that the recording was made in November 1968. If one didn’t know that, one might reasonably conclude that it is at least a decade older, perhaps two. Oper d’Oro advertise it as “Live broadcast, Milan, March 25 1969”, but in fact it was not live at all; at best, the whole thing was done without any editing, but without any live audience or stage either (March 25 is the date of the broadcast, not of the recording). The voices are well captured and rather forward, but the orchestra often sounds muddled and/or distant. That said, if one doesn’t suffer from audiophilia, the sound is quite listenable and enjoyable.

Bruno Prevedi starts rather shakily but improves greatly as the opera progresses. By the time of the great trio-finale you might be convinced that this guy has remained unjustly obscure and underrated. Certainly, he has neither the dramatic and vocal power of del Monaco, nor the stylish elegance of Bergonzi. But Prevedi does have a fine, resonant and expressive voice. Unfortunately, his shaky beginning includes a perfunctory and sloppy “Mercè, diletti amici” as well as merely workmanlike “O tu che l'alma adora”.

The rest of the cast, however, is well-nigh blameless. The dark bass of Boris Christoff is not as fresh as it was eleven years earlier in Florence, let alone seventeen years earlier (1951) when he made his impossible-to-be-surpassed recording of the cavatina and the caballetta (the latter with the repeat!), but he is still – for me – far and away the finest Silva on record. The poignant “Infelice!... e tuo credevi” and the martial “Infin che un brando vindice” are irresistible. In the dramatic recitatives he is commanding. Note also the ravishing mezza voce of “Io l'amo... al vecchio misero”, the short arioso (just four lines) in the end of Act II in which Silva remembers his love for Elvira in front of Carlo.

Peter Glossop may not be Italianate enough for some of the more pretentious among “connoisseurs”, but the man has a fine baritone nonetheless for that. He is captured in his absolute prime here, and he makes for a powerful, authoritative and even menacing Carlo. Again as in Prevedi’s case, I ultimately get the impression of a singer-actor who has seldom received the credit he deserves.

Montserrat Caballe will be the central attraction of this set for many listeners. I am not one of them, but I do see their point. She is in stupendous voice here, tossing off “Ernani, involami” as if it were “Jingle Bells”. She starts that well from the very beginning and she never tires of stunning the poor listener with vocal torrents until the very end. Soaring high notes or shimmering thrills, no matter. In the old times, with this glorious voice of hers, Caballe could do anything. Elvira is by far the least dramatic and the most operatic of the main parts. So make yourself comfortable, forget the preposterous libretto and the magnificently simplistic characterisation, and immerse yourself in some of the finest soprano pyrotechnics on record.

Gianandrea Gavazzeni is let down by the constrained sound. He is a fine conductor, though, and he knows how to squeeze every ounce of drama from the score without resorting to speed or bombast.

The presentation of Opera d’Oro is unusually lavish – this is from their “Grand Tier” series, mind you – but it could be improved a bit. The booklet comes with an essay about the opera and the cast by Robert Levine in which he goes out of his way to praise both. For instance, his claim about Gavazzeni’s conducting being “like a house-on-fire” is possible to believe only if one has never heard Mitropoulos. Nevertheless, Mr Levine’s shrewd points about Christoff’s visual presence on record or Prevedi’s unjust obscurity are worth considering. He also addresses the tiresome issue of the cuts, wisely making no fuss about them.

The booklet contains the full libretto (including many of the cuts!) in the original Italian together with an English translation by Mr Levine. Apparently Opera d’Oro’s proof-reader was on holiday during this release, because the libretto is often sloppy, e.g. stage directions appear non-italicized, the ensembles are not always marked, and other such niceties. Still, it’s really nice to have a libretto handy; even though it hardly matters in Ernani, it does enhance the drama.

All in all, this is an unjustly neglected recording. Fans of the early Verdi and Caballe or Christoff completists are not likely to be disappointed with it. The “Grand Tier” Opera d’Oro set is the one to have. Despite certain sloppiness, the presentation is way above their usual (and dismal) level. The sound leaves a great deal to be desired, but you won’t find a better one on other labels. The cast, especially if you resist the passion for comparisons, is truly excellent. The leading trio supplies Verdi’s youthful exuberance with the right dose of vocal splendour and lurid melodrama, constantly supported by Gavazzeni’s athletic conducting. Give it a try.

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