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Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur - opera in four acts (1902)
Magda Olivero (soprano) - Adriana Lecouvreur; Juan Oncina (tenor) – Maurizio, Count of Saxony; Sesto Bruscantini (baritone) - Michonnet; Adriana Lazaarini (mezzo) – The Princess of Bouillon; Enrico Campi (bass) – The Prince of Bouillon; Piero de Palma (tenor) – The Abbot of Chazeuil; Elena Barcis (mezzo) – Mlle. Jouvenot; Anna di Stasio (mezzo) – Mlle. Dangeville; Vittorio Pandano (tenor) - Poisson; Augusto Frati (bass) – Quinault
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli/Oliviero de Fabritiis
rec. live, 27 August 1963, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh. ADD
TESTAMENT SBT21501 [69:17 + 63:06]

I am not sure why Testament saw fit to issue this 1963 live recording. If you want to hear Magda Olivero in this, her greatest, signature role, there are already several better options where she is either better partnered or recorded in better sound, or both. The mono sound here is thin and dry, and distorts in climaxes, but is also plagued by a constant rushing background noise almost like the sound of a blow-torch; strange. There is also a fair amount of ill-timed clapping, often covering the music.

Two superior options are the famous 1959 live recording from Naples also starring Corelli, Simionato and Bastianini. Then there's the stereo recording from Amsterdam in 1965, where the fifty-five-year-old diva is still in finest voice and gives what is possibly her finest rendition of Adriana. However, that recording shares a major disadvantage with this Edinburgh performance in the presence of a weak tea tenor as Maurizio. Admittedly, the competition is daunting if we look to Corelli, Del Monaco and a young Domingo in warmest voice in the superb 1976 Levine studio recording with Scotto. However, the role demands a verismo tenor of real heft and presence – and that isn’t Juan Oncina. He was an excellent lyric tenor who in the latter years of his career attempted to move up from Rossini and Donizetti to meatier roles. Apparently he was here a last minute replacement for Flaviano Labò, who would have been far preferable. In truth Oncina simply cannot fill the swelling lines of Maurizio’s music and ends up sounding like breakfast for Olivero’s grand Adriana. Too often he sounds more like a comprimario than the heroic lead. The start of “L’anima ho stanca” is really limp and he fails to inject sufficient power into big phrases like “Bella tu sei, tu sei gioconda”. I cannot conceive of anyone fully enjoying this beefiest of verismo operas without the presence of a tenor of the Corelli type with ringing top notes and a real swagger in his sound. Oncina’s pleasant tenore di grazia is always a size too small. The otherwise all-Italian cast imported into Scotland does not let the side down but is bettered elsewhere, especially in Naples and for Levine.

The sound on that Naples performance isn’t hugely better but I find it preferable to this Testament set, as it is more immediate and without the background noise. It also has the unparalleled cast as listed above. Yet another very viable live option is the 1976 Tokyo performance conducted by Masini with Caballé doing the most beautiful things without losing dramatic impact and partnered by a youthful Carreras in ringing, plangent voice. If you want a more modern, studio recording your choice still stands between the 1961 Decca set with Tebaldi and Del Monaco or the aforementioned Levine version on CBS.

When it comes to assessing the relative merits of baritones who have recorded the role of the gentle, quietly despairing Michonnet, the honours are more even. Many a great baritone has included this part in his repertoire for its lyrical line and opportunities to generate pathos. Sesto Bruscantini here may honourably stand shoulder to shoulder with Bastianini, Capecchi and Milnes. He did not possess the amplest voice compared with the likes of that cohort but he is sensitive, sonorous and subtle, even if no-one approaches Gobbi’s tour de force in his delivery of “Ecco il monologo” in his 1963 recital album for EMI.

The role of the Princess of Bouillon has attracted big-voiced, stentorian mezzo-sopranos of the carpet-chewing variety. There is no shortage of high-voltage assumptions in the catalogue, starting with the great Giulietta Simionato who is present in both the live Naples and Tebaldi studio recordings. Just as imposing are Fiorenza Cossotto with Caballé and Obraztsova for Levine. It must be admitted that neither Mimi Aarden in Amsterdam nor Adriana Lazarini here in Edinburgh is as good as those three famously voluminously-voiced singers. Both are more than adequate but Lazzarini's big mezzo is rather blowsy, with scratchy top notes that tend to flap.

The supporting cast, headed by veteran Piero de Palma, is fine and de Fabritiis alternately drives and caresses Cilea’s lovely score with an appearance of utter ease and familiarity. The Neapolitan orchestra is excellent apart from some sour tuning from the oboe in track 17 on CD1.

Returning to the raison d’être of this issue, Olivero’s voice is by no means conventionally beautiful but her legendary presence and intensity as an actress in combination with her wonderful control over dynamics, exquisite messa di voce and sheer commitment to the role make ownership of at least one of her recordings of “Adriana Lecouvreur” compulsory for the opera buff. However, I would not advise that this relatively expensive Testament issue be a first choice when the Naples performance is available on the Opera d’Oro budget label, offering rather better sound and a considerably more impressive cast. Furthermore, Testament provides in the notes biographies and three personal reminiscences, including one by Olivero herself, but bafflingly not even a synopsis, let alone a libretto.

Ralph Moore


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