Ponchielli: La Gioconda
Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, soprano (La Gioconda), Ebe Stignani, mezzo-soprano (Laura), Camilla Rota, mezzo-soprano (La Cieca), Alessandro Granda, tenor (Enzo Grimaldo), Gaetano Viviani, baritone (Barnaba), Corrado Zambelli, bass (Alvise Badoero). Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan, Lorenzo Molajoli, cond.  Excerpts from operas by Rossini (Guglielmo Tell), Bellini (Norma), Donizetti (Lucrezia Borgia), and Verdi (I Lombardi, Ernani, and La forza del destino). Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Ebe Stignani, with Enrico Molinari, baritone.

Naxos 8.110112-4 (3 Discs). (B) (ADD) TT: 2:49:21
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Giordano: Andrea Chénier
Lina Bruna-Rasa, soprano (Maddalena di Coigny), Luigi Marini, tenor (Andrea Chénier), Carlo Galeffi, baritone (Carlo GÈrard), Anna Masetti-Bassi, mezzo-soprano (La Contessa di Coigny, Madelon). Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan, Lorenzo Molajoli, cond. Excerpts from operas by Boito (Mefistofele), Verdi (Aida), Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana), Puccini (Manon Lescaut and Tosca), and Giordano (Andrea Chénier). Lina Bruna-Rasa, Carlo Galeffi.
Naxos 8.110066-67 (2 Discs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:25:59
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Verdi: La traviata
Mercedes Capsir, soprano (Violetta), Ida Conti, mezzo-soprano (Flora, Annina), Lionello Cecil, tenor (Alfredo), Carlo Galeffi, baritone (Germont). Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan, Lorenzo Molajoli, cond.  Songs and arias by Frontuara, Benedetti, Bellini, Giordano, Granados, and Lehar. Mercedes Capsir.
Naxos 8.110110-11 (2 Discs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:14:30
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Three recent issues on the budget Naxos Historical "Great Opera Recordings" series feature several elements in common. Dating from the years 1928-1931, each represents the particular opera's first complete recording using the electrical process (the Gioconda is the very first studio recording, acoustic or electric). All of the recordings feature performing forces from the La Scala Opera House in Milan, under the direction of Lorenzo Molajoli.

In addition all three issues have been remastered by Ward Marston, one of the leading figures in the restoration of historical recordings. To gain some perspective on Marston's contribution to this field, I think it is instructive to read Roland Graeme's review in "The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera" of the 1931 La Scala Gioconda, originally recorded by Italian Columbia. Graeme laments the recording's "dim sound," and further notes "(t)he orchestra and chorus are obviously proficient, however indistinctly reproduced." To be sure, the Naxos issue of this Gioconda sounds like a vintage recording, with compressed dynamics and consistent (though not obtrusive) 78 rpm surface noise. But Ward Marston's remastering of this recording allows the soloists, chorus, and orchestra to emerge with admirable presence, clarity, and definition. I previously owned this Gioconda as reissued on CD by Eklipse. That transfer was quite fine, but there is no question that Marston's superlative work signifies a vast improvement. Indeed, each of these Naxos issues benefits from Marston's care and artistry. Given his excellent restorative work and Naxos's budget price, all of these releases merit consideration.

Pride of place, however, goes to the 1931 Gioconda. In many ways, it remains one of the finest recordings this opera has ever received. It most certainly preserves a spectacular interpretation of the title role. The great Italian dramatic soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi is one of the few who have been able to surmount all of Gioconda's considerable dramatic and technical hurdles. Her voice radiates incredible warmth, power, and beauty, from an uncommonly rich lower register (she began her career as a mezzo) to a gleaming top. Her command of a wide dynamic range is also testament to an extraordinary technique. The floated B-flat that concludes Gioconda's "Enzo adorato! Ah! come t'amo" in Act I is handled with beauty and poise, as is the coloratura in the opera's closing moments. Arangi-Lombardi's dramatic involvement is never in question. Nevertheless, she maintains a nobility of declamation that allows Gioconda to emerge as a dignified and sympathetic character, perhaps most notably in her superb assumption of the opera’s final act.

Arangi-Lombardi's Gioconda alone would justify purchase of this set. But there are many other pleasures. The immortal mezzo Ebe Stignani, 27 at the time of this recording, is a radiant and youthful Laura. Baritone Gaetano Viviani is certainly much less well known than either Arangi-Lombardi or Stignani. Nevertheless on this occasion he gives a performance that is every bit the equal of his legendary colleagues. Viviani's vibrant baritone, with its dark coloration and brilliant upper register, evokes comparison with the legendary Tita Ruffo in his prime. Viviani's characterization of the malevolent Barnaba is also first-rate—his final confrontation with Gioconda is absolutely spellbinding.

Not quite on this exalted level is the Enzo of Peruvian tenor Alessandro Granda. Some will find his occasional aspirates and sobs to be off-putting. Nevertheless, Granda possesses the kind of tenor voice that is all too rare in today's operatic world, an instrument of tremendous focus and presence, with a laser-like ability to cut through the large ensembles. Granda also possesses temperament and top notes aplenty, as well as a keen understanding of how to give a phrase a sense of shape and momentum. His identification with the heroic and romantic Enzo is obvious throughout. Despite Granda's intermittent lapses, I can't think of another tenor singing today who could better his Enzo. Bass Corrado Zambelli offers a rich, Italianate voice, but not much dramatic insight, for the role of Alvise.

The La Scala Chorus and Orchestra perform admirably under the propulsive direction of Lorenzo Molajoli. There is no question that La Gioconda has its shortcomings, more in the horribly convoluted plot than in Ponchielli's often masterful score. Nevertheless this 1931 La Scala recording reflects a time when performers took La Gioconda's musical and dramatic aspects quite seriously. Throughout, this is a performance brimming with passion and commitment. The result is a glorious representation of a flawed but glorious work. Naxos's inclusion of ten operatic excerpts featuring Arangi-Lombardi in superb form only adds to the desirability of this reissue.

While the 1931 La Scala Andrea Chénier is not as significant a recording as the Gioconda, there is still much to enjoy. I particularly like the sense of theater that pervades throughout. All of the singers throw themselves into their roles with an abandon often missing in today's studio recordings—and for that matter, many current live performances as well. The heightened emotions and sense of desperation are, to my mind, entirely appropriate for an opera in which the guillotine is literally hovering above the heads of the protagonists.

All of the principals certainly possess the resources for a work that requires voices of considerable heft and point. Tenor Luigi Marini is not particularly subtle in the title role, but he knows how phrase in a convincing manner (he does a particularly fine job of sculpting ChÈnier's first act narrative) and offers the kind of ringing upper register so crucial to this role. Soprano Lina Bruna-Rasa's rapid vibrato, often strident top notes, and rather driven chest register certainly do not add up to the most radiant of Maddalenas. Still, her all-out passionate approach to the role is quite compelling on its own terms. Similar qualities are to be found in her performances of seven 1928 studio recordings of operatic excerpts included as an appendix to this set.

Finest of all the principals, at least in terms of vocal endowment, is Carlo Galeffi. His warm baritone sails through the role of GÈrard with ease and considerable dramatic fire. On the negative side, Galeffi seems preoccupied with embellishing Giordano's score with sobs at almost every turn. Nevertheless, it is a remarkably handsome voice, and one used with great technical (if not uniformly artistic) care.

It is also a pleasure to hear such fine singers as Salvatore Baccaloni and Giuseppe Nessi in smaller roles. Lorenzo Molajoli leads the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra with his customary precision, fire, and drive. I am sure that many will find the performers' approach in this 1931 Andrea Chénier to be overly melodramatic. And I would certainly not recommend this recording as a first choice, both because of its performance eccentricities and sonic limitations. Nevertheless, if you like Andrea Chénier and/or are interested in exploring how verismo opera was performed in the first part of the 20th century, I think you will find this set of great value.

The 1928 La Scala La traviata is less impressive. The sonics, while not poor, are the most compromised of the three sets, both in terms of lack of dynamic range and occasional distortion. The performance features the traditional stage cuts to Verdi's score—and then some. Alfredo's exchanges with Anina, Giuseppe, as well as the messenger who delivers Violetta's letter of departure, all are absent, making for some rather awkward plot transitions.

This is also Lorenzo Molajoli's least successful effort of the three sets under consideration. A broad and delicately shaped Prelude to Act I promises much, but as the opera progresses, Molajoli all too often rushes his singers, as in a frantic "Sempre libera," where he and soprano Mercedes Caspir are, at certain points, clearly at odds. Likewise, the initial meeting between Violetta and Germont jogs along in a manner that robs this pivotal scene of much of its emotional impact.

Mercedes Capsir brings an attractive lyric coloratura soprano to the role of Violetta. Predictably she is at her best in Act I. But Capsir possesses neither the vocal weight nor dramatic insight to make the most of the ensuing tragedy. It is a perfectly competent performance, just not a particularly compelling one. And given the number of fine interpretations of Violetta available on disc (Maria Callas, Anna Moffo, and Renata Scotto are among my favorites),"competent"just won't do. Capsir is heard to much better effect in the seven songs and arias that conclude the set. There, she sings repertoire that emphasizes her strengths—charm, a lovely basic tonal quality, and coloratura facility.

Tenor Lionello (Lionel) Cecil is a rather tremulous Alfredo. Strongest among the principals is Carlo Galeffi, whose lyric baritone approaches the ideal for the elder Germont. His gorgeous voice and flowing legato count for much in this role. Galeffi's interpretation tells us little about the character of Germont. Still, if I were seeking the best reason to purchase this set, it would be for Galeffi's Germont. And given Naxos' budget price, that may well be incentive enough.

K.M. (May 2001)