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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 10 February 2009
N.B. This is now available at super-budget price in an excellent Naxos re-engineering.

The opera semiseria "La Sonnambula" is a slight thing compared with the grandeur and complexity of the tragedia lirica "Norma". Both were first performed in 1831, but are worlds apart; "La Sonnambula" has a formulaic plot, little depth of characterisation, banal action and could be said to consist of little more than a pleasing succession of pretty tunes. Unless, that is, excitement is injected through the sheer virtuosity of a charismatic diva who has coloratura fireworks and an unearthly, limpid beauty of utterance at her disposal - in other words, unimpeachable bel canto technique. Visconti understood this when, in his La Scala production upon which this recording is based, he had Callas come front stage to deliver the second verse of Ah! Non giunge with the all the house lights turned up. The story is told of Callas demurring when he asked her to play Amina dressed as a simple village maiden but wearing a diva's diamonds; he reminded her that the audience had come to see the famous Maria Callas sing Amina. Furthermore, it was more likely that a conductor such as the young Bernstein would invest "La Sonnambula" with more verve than a traditionalist like Votto - as the 1955 live recording confirms.

Not that Votto does a bad job; he conducts with the right lilt and charm. Mono sound is much less of a disadvantage in so light and graceful a piece and Votto delivers gracefully the minimal accompaniment required to the arias and the simple, rustic choruses. He never obtrudes and ensures that the ensemble concluding Act 1 is a highlight.

The raison d'être of this set must be Callas. Hers was never a voice as sheerly beautiful as that of Sutherland or Sills but the compensations are many and it is a pleasure to hear in a role which makes no inordinate demands on her vocal technique beyond its capability. She successfully lightens her voice throughout; it is strange to think that only the following September she would record Turandot - not entirely successfully. So many things are right here: the heart-stopping downward portamenti; the lapidary staccati; the subtle variation of vibrato to enhance emotion; the haunting, plaintive cantilena - all these are immediately and gratefully encountered in Come per me sereno and the subsequent aria Sovra il sen. There is little edge or beat except in the stratospheric E-flats at the end of Act 1 and of course in the concluding showpiece Ah! Non giunge - and here, despite the wobble, she amazes with a spectacular diminuendo. Callas creates a vulnerable, infinitely touching Amina, full of pathos - and her characterisation is matched by peerless vocalisation. The last fifteen minutes provide a suitably climactic conclusion to a thrilling performance; this is a great bel canto singer in full flight.

Her supporting cast are more than adequate, although some are bettered elsewhere. Many have complained about what they hear as the slightly whining tone of Nicola Monti but I find him perfectly acceptable; he was, after all, thought good enough to partner Sutherland in her first studio recording, too. His voice is of the light, attractive kind probably envisaged by Bellini himself: it is sure of intonation, artfully modulated and produced with a minimum of vibrato. The duet Son gelosa is delightful and he is a model of grace in such phrases as "mio bene". True, his mezza-voce is not as honeyed as that of Valletti or, especially, Tagliavini but they are all three of the same voice type - with the significant difference that Monti's high C in Ah vorrei trovar parole is a bit of a bleat and he has far less heft in reserve. Nonetheless, he combines sensitively with Callas and understands the idiom perfectly. A young Fiorenza Cossotto lends distinction to the small role of Teresa and the ubiquitous Zaccaria sings the Count smoothly and nobly; it is only when you hear what Cesare Siepi makes of Rodolfo that you realise what is missing in Zaccaria's assumption. A blot on the set is Eugenia Ratti's pert, acid Lisa; hers is the edgy "Minnie Mouse" type of soubrette voice that I can well live without.

However, there are other options. I am very attached to the 1952 Cetra recording conducted by Capuana, which is almost contemporary but seems to come from an earlier age. It features a wonderful cast: Tagliavini, who has the most apt and beautiful voice of all those tenors who have essayed Elvino; Pagliughi, at the end of her career and bereft of the money notes but making the most convincing and childlike of Aminas with her clear, infinitely touching innocence and purity; and Siepi, who brings extraordinary warmth and sparkle to a potentially dull rôle. It is the most consistent and authentic version of "La Sonnambula" and I would not part with it. As much as I admire Sutherland, her first recording is blighted by her droopy characterisation and indistinct words; her second was recorded too late and is compromised by Pavarotti's inappropriate, gung-ho style. I like the modern Naxos version with Luba Organasova and Raúl Giménez: she, warm and vibrant, if rather anonymous; he, stylish and experienced - but it has little "star quality". I have not yet heard the new set with Bartoli and Flórez, but the reports are that she does exactly what I feared, and pulls the music about self-consciously while appearing to be recorded in a different acoustic to accommodate the smallness of her voice; he is as good as you would expect.

There are two important live recordings: the aforementioned 1955 Bernstein/ Callas occasion and the 1961 New York performance with Sutherland. The sound is pretty dire in both. They have their adherents, but for a studio recording the choice remains between this Callas version and the Cetra (Warner-Fonit) classic.
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on 3 March 2015
Very pleased with purchase. As described. Many thanks
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