About this Recording
8.111028-29 - ROSSINI: Turco in Italia (Il) (Callas, Rossi-Lemeni, Gavazzeni) (1954)

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Il Turco in Italia

Callas’s Fiorilla is the tenth complete opera recording she made, the only one for EMI [Columbia/Angel] that she undertook of a then unknown work, and which she would later sing at La Scala, Milan. She had sung it first at the Eliseo, Rome in 1950, in its first revival in more than ninety years: half-a-century ago the majority of Rossini’s operas were unfamiliar and rarely if ever performed, save for Il barbiere di Siviglia and Guglielmo Tell, and an occasional L’Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola. Sessions took place at La Scala at the end of August and beginning of September 1954.

The conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni tells ‘how the performances at the Eliseo were my first encounter with Callas. She was already quite famous, but as Kundry, Isotta, Norma and Turandot. I soon learned the capacity she had for artistic discipline … she rose to a remarkable musical level and mastered all the technical difficulties. She was a revelation in opera buffo … how studious she was and never tired of rehearsing. She adapted her voice to the needs of the comic style; it was one of her great gifts: the ability to adapt. … The voice was very equal in scale, with a great diversity of colour and with a binding legato. … She had such a success. People still speak of her Fiorilla.’ This recording was first published the following April, at the time the new Zeffirelli production was introduced at La Scala. As Zeffirelli recalled, it was backstage a couple of years previously during a rehearsal for his production of La Cenerentola that Callas came to, she was so amused, remembering her Roman success in comedy, that she asked whether he might be interested in producing Il Turco in Italia.

One of those particularly memorable moments in many of Callas’s performances, barely suggested in the score, comes in the duet between the ageing husband, Geronio and his flighty wife, Fiorilla: ‘Per piacere alla Signora’. After timorously rebuking her for flirting with Selim, the Turk, she rounds on him. ‘Ed osate minacciarmi! Maltrattarmi! Spaventarmi! … Mi lasciate ... Vo’ vendetta … Via di qua. Per punirvi aver vogl’io. Mille amanti ognor d’intorno far la pazza notte e giorno, divertimi in libertà….’ How delicious is her mock rage! The way she literally flings the words in his face; the expressive variety she utilizes: ‘Leave me!’, ‘Vengeance’, ‘I’ll have a thousand lovers night and day, etc., etc.’ It is not necessary to understand every word of the Italian libretto so telling is her delivery.

La Scala was the home of Il Turco in Italia; it had had its première there in 1814. As with many operas when Italy was simply a geographical expression, composers were often content to cannibalise; in those days travelling from Milan to Naples, depending upon which road one took, even if they were passable and in good condition, might involve three, perhaps four different frontiers, each with its own immigration and customs. After moving to Naples Rossini was content to poach several pieces from Il Turco in Italia. For example the duet referred to above, ‘Per piacere’, he also included [with the same text by Romani] in La Gazzetta a new opera he wrote for the San Carlo two years later. The edition of Il Turco recorded here, and used, presumably at the Eliseo, Rome and La Scala, is typical of its time, with curious cuts of varying length, only a modicum of appoggiaturas and with hardly any embellishments. Not until comparatively recently with the establishment at Pesaro of the Fondazione Rossini has diligent research been undertaken. A recent recording, taking advantage of this scholarship, is a more complete and careful version, but unfortunately it suffers from a Fiorilla whose florid singing is full of aspirates [audible exhalations of breath]; so obviously is her voice caught in her throat, the analogy she conjures up is that of a turkey gobbling.

Now that Callas’s recordings are coming into the public domain Naxos has chosen to complete this album, not with recordings made higgledy-piggledy, when her voice was only a thin echo of what it had once been, but those that she recorded directly after completing Il Turco in Italia. Later in September 1954 she journeyed to London, some 35 miles to the northwest, to Watford Town Hall, and there recorded two recital discs. From the Coloratura Lyric Album included here is Rosina’s Una voce poco fa from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Of all the innumerable recordings of this classic it ranks second only to that of Luisa Tetrazzini [1871-1940]. When it was first issued a year later, in September 1955 as I recall, it created a sensation. Although Serafin’s slow tempo does not encourage any sparkling virtuosity, her florid singing is immaculate - no turkey gobbling here. Then, before the bel canto revival was underway, she sings unwritten embellishments unashamedly, as in Tetrazzini’s day. They can be found in the Ricordi edition of Ricci’s collection; she executes them all accurately and expressively. At the beginning of the second verse, ‘Io sono docile’, so musical is her singing that her voice seems to pre-echo the succeeding flute passage. Then, the difference between how she produces the last note at the end of the cadenza in the first verse, a high B, wholly in head voice, from the same note at the end of the aria, in which she mixes middle with head voice. Later performances survive of her singing it, but it is typical of her, none is as assured vocally or musically.

No less extraordinary is the Bell Song from Lakmé, which so many coloraturas reduce to a tiresome vocalise. As she narrates the story of the bells she supports her voice aloft in the longest-breath legato, bringing to her singing a considerable range of expression; each note is cleanly and clearly marked and throughout she makes all manner of dynamic shadings. In both verses, at the end of the phrases, ‘La magica squilletta dell’incantator’ [the magic bells of the enchanter’] and ‘la squilla dell’Indian incantator’ [‘the bells of the Indian enchanter’], which occur immediately before Lakmé imitates the bells, she seems subtly to anticipate them by finding a matching timbre to suit them. She shows just how much more music there is in this aria than the average coloratura suggests.

Following World War II Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (1920-1991) was one of three important basses in Italy, with Boris Christoff and Cesare Siepi. Half Russian and born in Istanbul, he made his début in 1946 at La Fenice in Venice, as Varlaam in Boris Godunov. In 1947 he went to the United States to appear with a new company in Chicago as Timur in Turandot, and there met Callas, who was to sing the title rôle. It folded, however, before it began. In New York they auditioned with the tenor Giovanni Zenatello, then retired, who was Artistic Director at Verona arena. As a result in August Callas made her Italian début, as Gioconda, and Rossi-Lemeni was Alvise. In 1948 he sang at La Scala Milan and the San Carlo Naples. In 1949, again with Callas, he appeared at the Colón in Buenos Aires. In the early 1950s his career took him to Covent Garden, London, San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan New York, the Paris Opéra and, again with Callas, to the Lyric Chicago. His stage personality was impressive yet he did not establish himself at any of these. His voice had no ring on the tone and was not properly supported; air escaped through it like leaking gas. Although at first he sang Boris, Don Giovanni, Méphistophélès in Faust, Boito’s Mefistofele, Filippo in Don Carlo, Guardiano in La forza del destino, Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Colline in La Bohème, Ramfis in Aida, Oroveso in Norma, Giorgio in I Puritani, by the mid-1950s he was undertaking buffo and character rôles: Caspar in Weber’s Franco Cacciatore, Dulcamara, Selim in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, Becket in Pizzetti’s Assassino nella cattedrale and Lazaro di Jorio in La figlia di Jorio, Lunardo in Wolf-Ferrari’s Quattro Rusteghi, Cerevek in Mussorgsky’s La fiesta di Sorocinzi, and Bloch’s Macbeth. He appeared in several world premières and after 1965 became a stage director. For EMI [Columbia/Angel] he recorded Giorgio, Oroveso and Selim with Callas, for Cetra, Filippo, and for Philips, Rossini’s Mosé.He was married to the distinguished soprano Virginia Zeani.

Nicolai Gedda [b.1925] is one of the greatest lyric tenors of the twentieth century and unquestionably the most versatile. Born in Stockholm, his father was a Russian who sang in the Don Cossack Choir; after a brief interval in Leipzig, where the family went when his father was appointed cantor with the Orthodox Church, they returned to Stockholm in 1934. There it was that young Nicolai discovered his voice and began his studies with a distinguished teacher, Carl Martin Ohmann. He made his début in 1951 in the altitudinous tenor rôle of Chapdelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau. His career over fifty years took him to pretty well all the leading opera houses throughout Europe and America, and he sang a vast repertory in pretty well every language, in operas like Oberon, Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov, La Sonnambula, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, I vespri siciliani, L’elisir d’amore, Der Barbier von Bagdad, Mireille, La traviata, I Puritani, Faust, among many others. Equally renowned as a concert singer, he appeared in recital with piano and in liturgical works with orchestra. His recording career was no less exceptional; one of the busiest undertaken by any singer, it also included operetta and other music he did not venture in public. Even in the 21st century, at Covent Garden, he was still singing and in for him a new rôle, the Archbishop in Pfitzner’s Palestrina.

The career of singing actor baritone Mariano Stabile [1888-1962] goes back to another age. Born in Palermo he made his début there in 1911, as Marcello in La Bohème; for more than a decade he undertook other lyric rôles, but without making any particular effect. Not until his La Scala triumph, under Toscanini as Verdi’s Falstaff, and he was nearly forty, did he come into his own. Thereafter he appeared mostly as Falstaff, Don Giovanni and Gianni Schicchi in Milan and elsewhere in Italy, and with occasional visits to other European cities, Vienna and Salzburg, as well as across the Atlantic at Chicago and Buenos Aires. Even in the 1930s his voice, records suggest, does not sound much different from the way it does on this recording: dry and wobbly, he seems always to have been more actor than singer. Still, though we cannot see him, there is his enunciation of the text to enjoy.

The conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni [1909- 1996] was born in Bergamo. Like others in the pre-war period he began his studies as a composer, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome and later, with Ildebrando Pizzetti, at the Milan Conservatory. He made his début as a conductor in 1940. After the war from 1948 he appeared regularly at La Scala Milan [between 1965/8 he was Artistic Director] and was engaged at the Bolshoy Moscow, Glyndebourne, the Metropolitan New York and Chicago Lyric. At Florence in 1955 he conducted his own amplified edition of Mascagni’s Le maschere; at Edinburgh in 1957 the same La Scala Zeffirelli production of Il Turco in Italia but without Callas; and at La Scala in 1962 an all-star Meyerbeer’s Ugonotti with Sutherland, Simoniato, Cossotto, Corelli, Ganzaroli, Tozzi and Ghiaurov. As well as a number of opera recordings, he was also a writer, publishing music criticism for Corriere della Sera, and studies of various opera composers, as well as guides to their works.

Michael Scott
is the author of Maria Meneghini Callas

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