, October 2004
"Poor Mascagni and his debut opera (indeed most of his oeuvre) have suffered a lot of criticism through the years: cheep, crude, banal, badly constructed, unsophisticated orchestration; the list could be amended by adding any invective you can think of. And still it has been played more than most other operas, and I have loved it for more than forty years. I learnt it through the early 1950s Cetra recording complete with miserable sound, a third-rate tenor and an over-aged baritone (Carlo Tagliabue). But both he and the Santuzza, Giulietta Simionato, were real singing-actors and could get under the skin of their characters. I still have a listen to those crackly old records once in a while.
But of course there have been better ones, and the first really good one was the one under consideration, sung by some of the regulars of the Met from this period. An RCA recording of the early 1950s, in mono of course, transferred to CD not from the master tapes but from vinyl records. The opera is directed by a workaday conductor, today largely forgotten is it really worth our attention? Well, it is mono; there is a limited dynamic range and it has a tendency to overload in heavily scored passages but I suppose that was inherent in the original tapes too. That sonic wizard, Mark Obert-Thorn, has created a very good transfer with a clean, open sound-picture. He captures the strings very well no hardness, no shrillness. And the voices leap out of the speakers with great presence. As for the conductor, he was a real pro, conducting some performances at the Met but, more important, loads of recordings: four complete operas and lots of separate arias and the like. Maybe the most famous of them all are the five duets that Björling and Merrill made in 1950, including the Pearl Fisher duo. Listen to the very start of this Cavalleria recording: soft, smooth strings - and the strings are so important in this opera - fine, natural shadings, building up to that first important climax with the cymbal clash. And so he continues, judging tempos well, never rushing things, not even in the most dramatic passages, and not dwelling too long in softer parts of the score, trying to squeeze out as much sentiment as possible and so over-sentimentalizing, which some conductors do - listen to Sinopoli! Cellini is a conductor to trust.
But the main reason for acquiring this recording is still the singing. Yes, we have the Robert Shaw Chorale here and very good they are! And the choral passages are very important; setting the scene from the outset: idyllic spring feelings against which the forthcoming, cruel drama is unfolded. Then there is the building up of the central Regina Coeli scene, before everybody goes into the church. The chorus take a very active part in the drinking scene and the off-stage murder of Turiddu in the finale.
Even more central, though, are the three main characters: the wronged Santuzza, the jealous Alfio and the playboy-like Turiddu, who in the end realizes what he has done – when it is too late. Of these three Robert Merrill really had one of the most beautiful, most secure baritone voices imaginable. In the nineteen-fifties he was at the height of his powers. At the same time he was no deep actor, his characters often seem more two-dimensional than they need to. In this portrait of Alfio I was surprised to find him shading down his voice and even changing the tone colour, both in the duet with Santuzza and in the exchanges with Turiddu before the killing.
Zinka Milanov was, at the time of this recording, not yet fifty but sounds even older than that; a distinct drawback. A beautiful instrument it is and she uses it to good effect, being really involved and especially memorable in the duet with Alfio, immediately before the Intermezzo. This, by the way, is beautifully played, the big melody with organ perfectly judged in tempo. Again, fine shadings - no vulgarity here!
Back to Milanov: I get the same feeling as when hearing a recording of parts of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, performed by one of the leading actors of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm during the first decades of the 20th century but here recorded when past eighty. She has all right inflections, can be alluring, haughty, girlish – it is so perfect, but it is an old woman’s voice and it is ... wrong! In the same way I admire Milanov and wish she had been twenty years younger.
And so we come to the tenor, maybe I should write The Tenor. In a part that has been bawled, shouted, roared and sobbed by tenors of all sorts, it is a relief to hear a musical interpretation. Jussi Björling never had one of those giant voices of the Del Monaco or Corelli type, but he could project it and thanks to the lighter, more silvery quality he was still able to shine through even the most compacted orchestral texture. You could listen to almost any of these Björling tracks to hear what I mean. Listen to the Siciliana (track 2), built into the orchestral introduction where his legato singing (long lines, amazing breath control) accompanied by a quite prominent harp, is so nicely displayed. Go then to the Santuzza–Turiddu duet (track 8) which sounds more like a mother–son duet than a dialogue between two young lovers. Here he is impassioned, proud, callous. There is golden tone, there is intensity. There is no sign here of the Nordic coolness of which he has been accused. And the phrase "Bada, Santuzza, schiavo non sono" is darkish, almost baritonal. He may not have been a very impressive actor on stage but his voice-acting is here second to none. And in the final pages of the score the drinking song (track 14) is so intense again although never distorting the line. Listen also to "Mamma, quell vino è generoso" (track 16) with that plangent tone expressing remorse, anguish. He shades the voice down memorably before the outburst "s’io non tornassi" (If I should not return) but there are no sobs! This recording should be compulsory listening for any young tenor aspiring to be a good Turiddu.
When this version was new it was very easy to recommend it to prospective buyers, since the competition wasn’t that keen. Since then recordings have come and gone. Which one to buy today? There is actually a second recording with Björling, made only a year before his untimely death in 1960. It is in much better sound, stereo of course, recorded in Florence, with another pro at the helm, Alberto Erede. Erede sports a good Italian cast with the still young Renata Tebaldi as Santuzza. I just listened to a few excerpts with Björling to be found on a recital in the Grande Voce Series on Decca. His voice is still in wonderful shape, freer actually, than in the RCA recording. It has become a fraction darker but most obviously it is much more powerful – Otello doesn’t seem too far away. His acting is also more confident. I haven’t heard the complete recording, though. Almost contemporaneous with this recording is another Decca, conducted by Tullio Serafin and the magnificent trio Del Monaco, Cornell MacNeil and Giulietta Simionato. If you want a real blood-and-thunder version with all the sobs and fortissimo being the prevailing nuance, this one is for you. It is unquestionably thrilling and impressive in an animal way.
The best buy, though, has still to be the Karajan recording on DG. It was made in the mid-sixties with the La Scala forces and with Bergonzi as Turiddu. And he, like Björling, is a man of nuances, lighter of voice than most Turiddus. Karajan also has the most impressive Santuzza of all, Fiorenza Cossotto, then barely turned thirty. This is a performance: gleaming tone, flashing eyes (yes, you can almost see them) and passionate. I was lucky enough to see her in this very part in Verona, more than twenty years after this recording was made. Her voice wasn’t so pure any longer, her vibrato had widened, but the intens