on 6 January 2015
If you know the Abbado recording of "Simon Boccanegra" (DGG, mid-1970's), you'll know how lovely and distinctive much of the orchestral writing is. Pretty obviously, you're not going to get that on this 1951 recording, originally on Cetra and based on an Italian Radio broadcast that was one of a series in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Verdi's death. When I owned it briefly on vinyl, the sound was so bad that the singers seemed to be singing duets with themselves! Well, re-mastering has cleared that up, but the sound is still pretty rough, and the choral work especially gets pretty raw treatment. So why bother getting it?
Partly for the reasons that Ralph Moore lays out -- here you have the 22-year-old Antoinetta Stella and the 27-year-old Carlo Bergonzi taking the opportunity to get themselves heard, and it's impressive. The firmness of Stella's singing, and her fearless attack on the high notes is quite thrilling, even if the top can sound a bit raw (though that might be a limitation of the recording). Bergonzi is impressive both for the cleanness of his line, the dramatic force of his singing (unusual for him), and, at those times when he's in good relation to the microphone, the beauty of his voice, recognizably his at such times, even though he had only recently made the change from baritone to tenor. My other reason, in addition to Ralph Moore's, was precisely to hear one of Bergonzi's earliest recordings. He died in July 2014 at 90, arguably as good a tenor as any in the last 50 or 60 years. But there's much to like in the recording apart from the younger generation: Walter Monachesi is Paolo (as he would be on the famous EMI recording with Gobbi just four years later) and he is powerful and aptly dramatic and rock-solid of voice. Mario Petri is Jacopo Fiesco, and he has the firmness and the low notes to make Fiesco's implacability palpable. Boccanegra himself is Paolo Silveri, a baritone with a sense of the authority in declamation that the role demands and an easy top of the voice for the tender moments. In other words, it's a cast that deserves a better recording, but I'm glad to take what Italian Radio has given us. There are some cuts in the score that are regrettable -- Boccanegra's refusal of Amelia's hand to Paolo, for one -- but Molinari-Pradelli drives things along energetically. The overall impression I get from the recording is that everyone involved was committed to the project.
NOTE: the observations above give the impression that Stella and Bergonzi were youngsters in an older cast, but I have since found out that that's not really the case. Silveri (1913-2001) was only 38 and Petri (1922-85) just 29. Moral: don't hesitate to google!
In almost any discussion of the few extant recordings of "Simon Boccanegra", this one is overlooked in favour of the 1977 Abbado prizewinning set but if it were not for the boxy, congested mono sound - hence the reduction of one star - this one would be as good a choice as any other. There are lots of reasons for preferring it, not least the first appearance of Carlo Bergonzi as a tenor after he re-trained from baritone. You can still hear more than a trace of baritonal heftiness in his sound - the voice was to acquire more squillo a few years later - and I confess that at first I strained to recognise the Bergonzi we know, excellent though his singing already is in his debut tenor recording role. This is also the recording debut of that estimable soprano Antonietta Stella, who, at 22, sounds a little nervous and tentative at her entry but soon gains in confidence - this was a radio broadcast - and sings with real passion. She tends to be slow starter in all her recordings but the voice is far from ordinary.
The surprise of the recording is Paolo Silveri. I have always enjoyed his fine, easy top notes and the smoothness of his vocal production, but here he finds an interpretative edge which makes him every bit the equal of Cappuccilli in both his studio recordings - and frankly I think he has the more purely beautiful voice, too. Nobody approaches Gobbi in either his studio recording or the live Gavazzeni performance (see my reviews) for really inhabiting the role; Silveri rather throws away the dramatic possibilities of the cursing of Paolo in the Council Chamber scene, but his singing per se in the great "Plebei! Patrizi! Popolo" aria is superlative. I enjoy Silveri's performance in the old "L'Arlesiana" with Tagliavini (again; see my review) but this is the best I have ever heard him sing and I feel that it is time to revalue him alongside great contemporaries like Gobbi and Bastianini. In addition, we have Mario Petri in sonorous voice as Fiesco and the skilful, sensitive direction of the ever-reliable Molinari Pradelli at the helm. The admirable Paolo is the same singer as in the Gobbi studio set; Walter Monachesi is here in fresher voice.
I have grown to admire and enjoy this opera more and more over the years; it is a very subtle, mature work - which is why Verdi thought it worthwhile revising with Boito's assistance. There is one small cut in which Paolo is refused the hand of Amelia (Maria) and decides to abduct her, but the text of that scene (in Italian only) is in the libretto; otherwise the opera is complete on two cheap discs (if you get the latest "Cetra Opera Collection" from Warner Fonit). It is a worthy addition to any collection as long as you don't mind the congested sound but the Abbado is still the best bet if you want only one, modern recording - and yet everyone should hear Gobbi, too in either the Opera d'Oro live set or the EMI studio recording. We are spoilt for choice - and I haven't even yet mentioned the famous classic, historic set with Tibbett, Martinelli, Rethberg and Pinza - what a cast - which is hors concours.
on 12 February 2013
This is a great recording of Boccanegra. Silveri doesn't do a lot but he sings with a rich, warm voice. Stella sounds like she's heralding the arrival of Tebaldi with her slightly shouted top notes. Bergonzi is fascinating here - it's almost as if he's singing unchecked; later to soften his tone in order to preserve it. But for me the find is Mario Petri, who owns a deep penetrating bass voice that has volume from the bottom to the top. To my mind he is better than Giulio Neri who got the nod over him for so many of the Cetra recordings. The sound for 1951 is very good and as a whole it sits only just behind Gobbi's studio recording and Abbado's DG classic. At the time of this review the price makes it the bargain of the opera cd section.