Cher Public

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.

  • Clita del Toro

    In 1955, Tebaldi’s voice WAS glorious (at about age of 33), but it was a slow downhill path from there. By 1959, her voice was not voice of 1955 voice or earlier. I was lucky to have seen her Desdemona and Aida in 1955 at the Met.
    I can well Imagine how great she sounds in the Tosca recording described above.

  • perfidia

    But 1960 seems to have been a great year for her Tosca. There is the one from the Met where she is superb. I used to have her final scream on my answering machine to scare away phone solicitations. It worked. She might not have been in very fresh voice in 1960, but the power and femininity of her tone were just right for the part.

    • Nero Wolfe

      I love the idea of the scream on my message machine! I am going to try that. Thanks.

    • Camille

      I just loved that scream of Tebaldi’s.

      Once, many moons ago, I was playing the record in the front part of the house and my boyfriend, in the other room, came rushing in to see what was wrong-- had I fallen, what had happened, thinking it was me shrieking my bloody head off. It taught me to play that with caution. When she was good, she was utterly stupendously divine.

      Too bad I never thought to get rid of solicitors; nice idea ideed!

      • manou

        British solicitors might not be amused.

        • armerjacquino


          ‘How come my lawyer never leaves a message..?’

  • papopera

    I remember that era at the ROH, they called them “guest artists” (read foreigners ) and raise the price of tickets.

  • Regina delle fate

    Glad that you loved the Falstaff, Baritenor. It’s a joy isn’t it, rough edges and all? Ligabue is close to perfection as Alice -- she was still divine in the role when she made her last RO appearances in Falstaff in 1974. More recent Glyndebourne Falstaff have had Anglo-American casts rather than Italians and they have suffered as a result. Listening to this performance made me wish I had been ten years older. My first Falstaff at Glyndebourne had Richard Cross in the title role, Kay Griffel as Alice and Richard Stilwell or Ben Luxon (I can’t remember) as Ford. Tony Rolfe-Johnson was the Fenton, I’m sure of that.

    • armerjacquino

      I’ve never been to Glyndebourne, but their production of FALSTAFF made it to the Proms in 1988 or so and it was absolutely wonderful- the very, very great Desderi in the title role, Necessary Import Nancy Gustafson as Alice, Eva Lind as Nanetta and Felicity Palmer having the time of her life as Quickly, under Haitink.

      I’ll never forget the stadium cheer which erupted at the end.

      • manou

        armer -- of course Gustafson had a very direct and close connection with Glyndebourne in the person of Brian Dickie.

        So Very Necessary Import.

  • MontyNostry

    In my limited experience of Sir Geraint, his Italian has sounded somewhat British. Is that the case on this recording too? And does anyone know why Ligabue’s legacy is so Alice Ford-heavy?

  • Byrnham Woode

    Ligabue is indeed the fine Alice in both the Solti set (Decca/RCA) and the Bernstein (Sony). She also did excerpts for Decca at a time the company wouldn’t spring for its own complete recording. These ar her most prominent commercial recordings I believe.

    So her legacy is top-heavy with Alice Ford because she was called on for the part so often. Did other “A list” sopranos felt it was beneath them?