Bridging the Channel

It’s kind of shocking, when you really think about it, that the kind of international operatic model that the Royal Opera now operates on barely existed only 50 years ago. Until around 1960 most of the performances at the Covent Garden were given in English and the casting choices were enough to make the Vicar of Wakefield hyperventilate with glee.

It was only the guest appearances of European stars and the increasing influence of the internationally flavored Glyndebourne festival that slowly turned the tide at Covent Garden. This period is documented by two new CD releases.

Our first recording comes from 1955, a year after Rafael Kubelik took over musical administration of ROH and pledged to be as devoted to singing in the vernacular as his predecessor, Karl Rankl had been. Italian and German were languages reserved for special performances, and luckily this Tosca, featuring the Covent Garden debut of Renata Tebaldi, was one of those special occasions.

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli leads an unsubtle performance in the best Italianate manner: the loud parts are LOUD and the soft parts are soft. The orchestra and chorus performance is strong with the exception of the chorus’s surprisingly poor Italian. The sound is excellent and the singers are captured with satisfying closeness. There are a few brief gaps in the tape that are edited unobtrusively.

In this recording, Tebaldi receives a very short burst of entrance applause. If the audience knew what was to follow, they would have stopped the show cold. From her first entrance, Tebaldi is clearly having an exceptional outing. Her sound is at its richest and warmest, and she uses the words incisively to create a portrayal of a sensitive and high-strung woman. “Vissi d’arte” is gloriously phrased but Act Three is the summit of the performance, with a gripping narration of Scarpia’s death climaxing in a blazing high C.

Ferruccio Tagliavini is a full-throated Cavaradossi. He takes some time to warm up and the first aria is “tenor-y” in all the negative ways (forced, staid and reedy) but by act three he is in fine form, giving an anguished, nuanced rendition of “E lucevan le stelle.” The quality of Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia is well known, and he is as nuanced as ever here but not in quite good a voice as he was for the Serafin/Callas recording a year earlier. The Te Deum, even if Gobbi pushes a bit at the climax, is remarkable.

The supporting cast is an all-Anglophone mixed bag. Michael Langdon’s Angelotti comes off the strongest, and David Tree’s elderly sounding, mushy-italianed Spoletta is maybe the worst I’ve ever heard. Howell Glynne is a fussy Sacristan: whether that is a good or bad thing I leave to the listener to determine. Noreen Berry’s Shepherd is plaintively sung, and Rhydderch Davies is a solid Jailer. Ronald Lewis makes no impression, but is understandable because he’s singing Sciarrone.

Now, compare that list of names to the supporting cast at the Glyndebourne festival’s production of Falstaff five years later. The cast features six Italians, a Mexican, a Spaniard, a Swiss and a Welshman. The only resident of the United Kingdom onstage in this marriage of Verdi and Shakespeare is appropriately Falstaff himself, Geraint Evans. This was nine years before he gained a knighthood and the honor is clearly deserved as evidenced by this performance. He delivers “Va, vecchio John” with intoxicated glee and the “L’onore” monologue is a lesson in vocal colors.

Ilva Ligabue is a sparkling Alice, one of her best roles, and Sesto Bruscantini’s Ford partners Evans beautifully in their act two scene, matching every trick with one of his own and ending the scene with a stunning rendition of Ford’s monologue. Oralia Dominguez is a solid Quickly but she doesn’t steal the show the way that one can in this role; scene-stealing honors go to Hugues Cuénod’s hilariously priggish Dr. Cajus. Mariella Adani and Juan Oncina as the young lovers are well matched if a tad anemic. Anna Maria Rota makes much of little as Meg, and Falstaff’s cronies are in the capable hands are Mario Carlin and Marco Stefanoni.

Vittorio Gui conducts a frothy, finely-tuned performance. There’s a magical opening to act three and the deflating balloon that is the transition from Ford’s aria to Falstaff’s entrance is handled extremely well. The finals scherzo is taken at something less than the usual breakneck pace, to its benefit. The Royal Philharmonic crackles under him. As to technical matters, the performance is captured in clear but variably distanced sound. The singers are usually very close, but on occasion they disappear altogether, which probably has something to do with microphone placement.

Documentation, as it always is on the Glyndebourne label, is extensive. Amongst the documentation is a brief article about John Barnes, the man responsible for this performance’s being preserved. We should fall down on our knees and thank him.