Historical opera: Cerquetti, Corelli, Di Stefano and Bruscantini in Bellini, Verdi and Rossini

Review Published: 31 March 2008


NormaThese three live recordings of popular operas from the less frequently performed end of the standard repertoire all date from 1958. All feature predominantly Italian casts, although La forza del destino also includes some stars of the Met in New York, all were made in Italy, and all suffer from some flaws which mean they cannot be recommended without qualification. Listening to them was an interesting experience, because I was anxious to discover whether there were any compelling reasons to add them to the catalogue. The array of live recordings available these days is so vast that one wonders if there is enough discernment exercised in deciding what to release to the public.

The performance of Bellini’s Norma from Rome on 4 January 1958 is the most interesting of the three releases discussed here. The title role is assumed by Anita Cerquetti, a soprano who emerged in the 1950s and shot to fame very quickly, but who retired from the stage in 1961 for personal reasons. Although she had established herself alongside Callas and Tebaldi as one of the pre-eminent lirico spinto sopranos of her day, the brevity of her career meant that she had the opportunity to make very few studio recordings and so her renown has dwindled to the extent that today, few people are aware of her having existed. It is therefore very fortunate to have available a recording of Cerquetti in a complete opera, and, what’s more, in a pinnacle of the Italian soprano repertoire. Norma is a role that current administrations of the world’s great opera houses are having immense difficulty casting, and Cerquetti stands comparison not just with Callas, but with the other great twentieth century Normas, Caballé and Sutherland (Tebaldi did not include the role in her repertoire).

Cerquetti’s performance is extremely impressive, showing off her trademark refined line in abundance, a timbre that is pleasing if not extraordinarily beautiful, even production throughout the range, accurate fioritura, strength, and not least, stamina – lets not forget that this is a single live performance of a very gruelling role. It perhaps lacks some of the nuance and passion that other interpreters have brought to the part, never quite crossing the line from beautiful phrasing into the truly mesmeric that some of her colleagues have achieved, or indeed ever having the dramatic abandon that is sometimes called for. But as a complete account of the score it is a magnificent achievement, and I can’t think of a soprano singing today who could surpass Cerquetti as Norma.

The supporting cast is excellent, with no less a Pollione than Franco Corelli, and a strongly and beautifully sung Adalgisa from Miriam Pirazzini. Gabriele Santini conducts the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a version of the score that includes most of the standard cuts and transpositions. The orchestral and choral forces sound better rehearsed than in many comparable live performances, and Santini’s pacing of this rather epic opera is first class. The sound quality is not ideal, containing rather too much fuzz to appeal to people with a low tolerance for live recordings. However, for the collector after a strongly performed, straight-forward interpretation of the piece to compare with the perhaps more distinctive and idiosyncratic divas mentioned above, or for somebody after a document of a wonderful and unjustly forgotten singer, this release has much to recommend it.

Forza del DestinoThe recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino has far superior sound quality. Details are very spartan in the accompanying booklet which consists of little more than a track listing, but I suspect it may have been a performance for radio broadcast, rather than actually live in the theatre.

Zinka Milanov, who sings Leonora, was past her best by 1958 with an inevitable loss of flexibility in her technique, but hers is still an impressive performance, with the voice retaining a great deal of its youthful freshness. She is a committed artist in a delightfully old fashioned style and rises to all the challenges of the role with spirit. There is a slight roughness around the edges in comparison with today’s more drilled school of singing, but she manages to instil the music with an energy and vivacity which conveys the spirit of a live performance in a way that few artists manage.

Milanov is well matched by Giuseppe Di Stefano as Don Alvaro in terms of style, but for me, his abandon is slightly excessive and I long for a little more suavity in his singing. His character is, after all, from an aristocratic line, something which I feel his contemporaries Bergonzi and Del Monaco captured with more veracity, without holding back on Italianate passion. Part of Di Stefano’s trouble may be that he was simply over-parted, with the role of Don Alvaro making excessive demands on his fundamentally lyric instrument.

Leonard Warren, in the role he was singing the night he died on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in 1960, is his usual excellent self when it comes to Verdi repertoire, injecting far more colour into Don Carlo’s music than many baritones manage. The remaining cast members are good without being excellent, and the orchestra and chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia under Fernando Previtali give a sound, if undistinguished account of the score. I found this Forza a rather varied performance with little about it that will make me return to it on a regular basis. That said, there is probably a contingent of Milanov fans who would not be without it, and there are some pleasing extras featuring Di Stefano and Renata Tebaldi in Puccini.

Turco in ItaliaThe recording of Rossini’s Il Turco In Italia, which was made as a RAI broadcast under Nino Sanzogno also suffers from uneven casting, although the weak links have fewer redeeming features than was the case with Forza. Renata Mattioli, as Zaida, has inconsistent vocal production that makes for some unpleasant sounds, particularly in her middle register. Of more serious concern is the Fiorilla of Graziella Sciutti. Although in other contexts I have found her a charming artist, here her timbre sounds rather thin and curdled, and her accuracy in the coloratura is simply not sufficiently consistent to do justice to Rossini’s score.

The central performance of Sesto Bruscantini in the title role is very good indeed, playing to all his major strengths in both vocal and character terms. His delivery of the text is wonderfully instinctive and droll and has a peculiar quality about it that makes one hang on his every word. His rich voice is on great form throughout the range, with such a pleasing depth to it that one forgets he went on to sing higher baritone roles such as Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Agostino Lazzari’s Narciso is spot on, and Franco Calabrese is wonderful as the hen-pecked Don Geronio. Sanzogno has the measure of Rossini style, although I wish more regard had been paid to the amount of time which elapses between tracks – this may be down to Sanzogno or the producer of this release, Alessandro Nava. Too often, momentum lags unnecessarily simply because numbers do not succeed each other quickly enough.

Unfortunately, the sound quality once more leaves something to be desired, having very much a radio feel about it. For some reason, the impressive sound achieved with Forza has not been recreated here. It is a great pleasure to hear Bruscantini as Selim, but the recording quality, and the unsuitability of Sciutti for the role of the leading lady mean this Turco cannot be recommended without significant reservation. That said, any student of Rossinian singing style should have a listen to the male protagonists on this recording who are not only excellent individually, but function as an ensemble to great effect.

By John Woods