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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana - Melodrama in one act (1890)
Santuzza - Zinka Milanov (soprano); Turridu - Jussi Björling (tenor); Alfio - Robert Merrill (baritone); Lola - Carol Smith (contralto); Mamma Lucia - Margaret Roggero (mezzo)
Robert Shaw Chorale; RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini
rec. January 1953, Manhattan Center, New York City
RCA RED SEAL 88875 054492 [71.02]

In June 1948 CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System of America) stole a march on their biggest rival RCA (Radio Corporation of America) and brought to the marketplace their first commercial Long Playing records playing at a speed of 33rpm. There had been efforts as early as the nineteen-thirties to bring forward something different and better than the 78rpm shellac discs. The 78's limited playing time of a little over four minutes per side of a twelve inch disc was a great frustration to the development of opera recordings in particular. I well remember a La Traviata, much abbreviated, extending over no fewer than eighteen double-sided 78rpm shellac discs. In addition to the limited duration of a side being paramount over a conductor’s preferred tempi, the surfaces were noisy and the discs themselves very heavy. One had either to use steel needles or constantly sharpen fibre ones, the former eventually wearing out the discs. It had been stipulated by the CBS management that the new format was to play a minimum of twenty minutes per side. With the emergence of the new technology a new era of opera recordings dawned and as the years passed the length of sides with microgroove extended.

The advent of opera recordings on LP had the major recording companies scuttling about signing singers, often to exclusive contracts. RCA, as well as the National Broadcasting Company also owned the Victor Recording Company and the RCA Red Seal record division. Using the Red Seal motif they were quick on the draw, seeing as they had during the 78rpm days, the strength of the singers at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The Met, along with the re-opened La Scala could be viewed as the world’s leading venues for opera performances and singers. Each year RCA cherry-picked the Met’s repertoire and recorded it for issue on the new LP format.

This is the fourth and last of the recordings conducted by Renato Cellini (1912-1967) during his period on the music staff of the Metropolitan Opera. Cellini’s health was not robust and he eventually left the demands of the Met to become Musical Director of the New Orleans Opera Association. The present performance was recorded in 1953 in Manhattan Center, New York. However, recording in America with its strict union rules as to the length of sessions was very expensive and it was not long before RCA decamped to Rome for their annual opera recordings. As the Rome Opera House orchestra and chorus were under contract elsewhere they worked for RCA under the title of the RCA Victor Orchestra. Over the next decade the best Met performances and casts were recorded in Rome under this arrangement. These are slowly being included in this bargain-priced series of Red Seal operatic reissues by Sony which now owns the RCA archive.

In a 2004 review of this performance on Naxos (review) I found much to praise in the performance as did a colleague (review). It also appeared at that time on Regis (review). So far as the Naxos issue was concerned we both agreed that the best singing was by Robert Merrill as Alfio. We also agreed that the Croat-born naturalised American Zinka Milanov (1906-1989) was not ideal as Santuzza preferring the mezzo Cossotto under Karajan (DG 457 764-2). We admired Jussi Björling as Turridu but this time around - and whilst I still think that Merrill’s assumption is by far the best of the bunch - I now find Björling somewhat thin and not caught well by the microphones. However, it is the dated quality of the recording that catches my ear most, distinctly more so than in the earlier Naxos issue. It may be that Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos worked his usual magic with the original LPs and that trounces the current work with the master tapes; I report what I hear. The minor parts are well taken and all the singers exhibit good diction to go with their exemplary phrasing. The chorus provide vibrant and idiomatic support in the Easter Hymn (tr.7). The usual theatre cuts of the period mean around eight minutes of the score are missing.

The recording was made a few weeks after the companion Pagliacci and at the same venue. Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration of both is outstanding. This issue is a memento of a period and generation of singers whose strengths can now be compared with many who followed. It also serves as a reminder of a conductor intent on interpreting the composer’s intentions rather than imposing his own view of the music on the listener. That said, its technical limitations are considerable and will limit its appeal to lovers of particular singers from a bygone age, or those wishing to make their own assessment rather than accepting secondhand opinions.

Robert J Farr


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