Past imperfect

One of my adolescent pastimes was trolling the classical cut-out bins in record stores searching for overlooked gems or unfamiliar singers. Our local shop always seemed to have some old Cetra boxed sets featuring names such as Ebe Stignani, Giovanni Malipiero, Tancredi Pasero and Giulio Neri, who not only provided valuable reference points for my young ears but poignantly reconnected my European parents with their youths.  

It’s tempting to view these performances of Verdi, verismo and bel canto as somehow definitive. They have an idiomatic conviction that’s seldom duplicated today, except maybe by a singer like Ferruccio Furlanetto. And while the quality of the casts varied, it’s easy to overlook the tinny orchestral sound or questionable interpretive liberty when you’re soon enough transported by a rousing chorus or a exquisitely-paced trio or quartet.

The first four of 18 Cetra releases Warner Music plans to issue this year provided a nostalgic reunion with label’s post-war efforts, and an early palate pleaser ahead of the Verdi bicentennial. Though they probably won’t supplant any reference recordings in my collection, the releases capture key moments in the careers of important singers and ladle dollops of aural red sauce to listeners convinced today’s fare is just so much ketchup and water.

A 1954 Rigoletto captures the sweet tone and remarkable legato of Ferruccio Tagliavini before he started taking on heavier roles that are often blamed for ruining his career. “Questa o quella” and “La donna e mobile” are each dispatched with predictable flair, but Tagliavini really stands out for the way he stylishly anchors the third act quartet, including a ravishing “Bella figlia dell’ amore.”

Giuseppe Taddei’s jester may not match the raw fury of Tito Gobbi’s but is tender and heartbreaking in the second act scene during which Gilda confesses her lost honor and again, at the finale, on discovering that his revenge plot has gone horribly awry. Brooklyn-born Lina Pagliughi, at the tail end of her career, plays Gilda with a certain exaggerated daintiness but dramatically rises to the level of her cast mates in the third act. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI delivers a bracing accompaniment under Angelo Questa, though the mono sound and forward miking of the principals leaves the accompaniment sounding distant.

La battaglia di Legnano from 1951 was long the reference recording for this seldom-performed opera until Philips released its late 1970s set with Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli. Issued on the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death, it features the underrated Caterina Mancini as the ill-fated Lida, stuck in an unhappy marriage and in love with the knight Arrigo, whose only wish is to die protecting the Fatherland against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa.

Garibaldi stated the historic Battle of Legnano was an inspiration for his own effort to unify Italy, and Verdi’s score bristles with obvious references to the Risorgimento. Mancini is at her full-throated, agile best in Act 1’s “Quante volte come un dono” — an aria that became something of a calling card for Leyla Gencer a decade later.

The sturdy baritone Rolando Panerai, whose career spanned nearly six decades, delivers a spirited account of the Act 3 aria and cabaletta “Se al nuovo di pugnando” while Amedeo Berdini acquits himself well as the obtuse Arrigo, nailing “La pia materno mano,” perhaps the best-known piece in the opera. Unfortunately, not even the strong conducting of Fernando Previtali with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI can make a strong case for the work, which mostly references events offstage and suffers from an inferior libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.

More satisfying is a 1956 Aida with a young Franco Corelli, a decade before he recorded Radames with Birgit Nilsson for EMI. Though he hadn’t yet ironed out his conspicuous vibrato, the tenor’s top notes have a brilliant squillo, highlighting a portrayal that’s equal parts legato, power and style. There also are some classic soft diminuendos that can melt butter. With the good comes some bad. Corelli loiters on some high notes and adds a few unwritten ones in the Triumphal scene. His lifelong tendency toward scooping, under-the-note attacks is also quite obvious.

The rest of the cast would frankly have us turning backflips if they materialized today. Miriam Pirazzini, part of a golden age of Italian mezzos, may have been overshadowed by Giulietta Simionato and Fedora Barbieri but proves herself a totally gripping Amneris. “Maria” Curtis Verna, who had a distinguished career on both sides of the Atlantic, delivers a committed account of the title role, even if she could use a little more vocal color and shows some strain at the top.

Neri is an awesome Ramfis, and Gian Giacomo Guelfi an imposing Amonasro. As in the Rigoletto, Questa and the Turin orchestra manage to stay out of trouble while keeping the drama flowing and never getting bogged down in sentimentality.

Maria Callas had a brief association with Cetra that yielded her only studio recording of La traviata, in 1953. Not only were the results mediocre but the company prohibited her from re-recording the opera for five years after the release, forcing us to rely on live recordings to chart her development as Violetta.

The Cetra version is handicapped by the almost comically plodding conducting of Gabriele Santini, who makes a hash of most of the third act, including a somnolent “Addio del passato.” Callas’ “Sempre libera” has brilliant top notes but sounds oddly forced and squally. Other arias such as “Dite alla giovene” sound just plain uninspired. Ugo Savarese is a serviceable Germont in the pivotal Act 2 duet, while Francesco Albanese is an unmemorable Alfredo. Stick with the remastered live performances from La Scala, Lisbon and Covent Garden, which each have far more complete portrayals with better supporting casts.

The next installment of Cetra releases include Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in Il trovatore and Luisa Miller, a 1941 Forza del destino with Maria Caniglia and Stignani and a 1951 Un giorno di regno. Though they’ll surely provide more summertime fodder for vocal history buffs, their greatest value may be connecting younger listeners to an era of grand voices, uninhibited portrayals and big hearts.