FORGOTTEN ARTISTS An occasional series by Christopher Howell 21. LUIGI TOFFOLO (1909-2004)
When I came to Italy in 1975, “music” basically meant “Italian opera” plus the odd Italian baroque concerto. Up to a point it still does, but things have broadened quite a bit. Of course, there were those who had long been fighting nobly for a more balanced repertoire. Even so, imagine my surprise when Italian Radio came up with the Act Three Prelude and a substantial vocal excerpt, sung in Italian by Franco Tagliavini, from DvořŠk’s “The Devil and Kate”. Or maybe I should say, “Il Diavolo e Caterina”. I already knew this opera from the classic Supraphon set under Chalabala, though I had never quite got to love it the way I loved “Rusalka”, in part because the actual sound on those LPs was horribly strident. This excerpt, at least, came across very attractively in the Italian performance.
More than a decade passed before I had the chance to hear the entire performance broadcast. I was not disappointed. Without making exaggerated claims, it was performed with love and vitality, conducted with a sure hand. Anyone who conducts a DvořŠk opera with evident affection is automatically a friend of mine, so what about the conductor, Luigi Toffolo?
You won’t get more than his outside dates from Wikipedia at present, but thanks to a few helpful comments on various internet discussion sites, I have been able to piece together the essentials of his career, and to hear a little more of his work. Let’s be clear from the outset. Of the Italian conductors included so far in this series of “Forgotten Artists”, I found Ferruccio Scaglia a major figure and Pietro Argento a considerable one. Luigi Toffolo is what I would call a good local man, one who kept music alive for many years in his native Trieste. A country needs people like that, as well as its national figures and international musical ambassadors. Reason enough to write about him.
Luigi Toffolo – accent on the first syllable, by the way – was born in Trieste on 4 June 1909 and died there on 6 May 2004. The son of a music teacher, he studied piano with Gastone Zuccoli – two of whose compositions I discuss below – and had some lessons in composition from Antonio Smareglia. I have already written about Smareglia and his opera “Nozze istriane” in my article on Pietro Argento. In those days, there were two Conservatoires in Trieste, the “Verdi” and the “Tartini”. In 1932 they were combined. Also in 1932, the Chamber Orchestra of Trieste was formed, with Toffolo as its conductor. The Philharmonic Society of Trieste, created in 1901, had been losing ground and the new Chamber Orchestra was effectively the only permanent orchestra in Trieste for a good many years. With this small band, Toffolo explored as much of the larger symphonic repertoire as was practicable, as well as finding ample space for composers from Trieste.
In 1937, he was also appointed conductor of the Capella Civica (Municipal Chapel). One singer who got her first chance to sing solo there, in 1939, was Fedora Barbieri, who still remembered the experience with gratitude many years later (1).
During the war years, Trieste came under German occupation. In 1944 the Trieste Chamber orchestra was consolidated as the Orchestra of the Teatro Verdi and a new orchestra was formed for Radio Trieste. After the war, in 1946, the Verdi and the Radio Orchestras were combined. Toffolo was appointed conductor, remaining until 1956. From 1958 he was also active at the Conservatoire. He resigned from the Municipal Chapel in 1968 and was appointed Artistic Director of the Teatro Verdi in that same year. He found himself unsuited to the administrative side, however, and resigned in 1972.
Toffolo was now 63, so I suppose it is not surprising to find that he thereafter faded from view. He continued to teach privately and in 2000 he left his library to the “Carlo Schmidl” Theatre Museum, with the express aim of keeping it intact, and available for consultation and study. It is described as “an imposing collection of volumes, scores, sheet music, discs and recordings on various supports”. His last years were apparently spent in “complete solitude” (2).
Toffolo’s work with his own Trieste forces is documented officially, so far as I can discover, by just three LP recordings.
On Vox PL 10 10070, the third of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras appeared alongside Albeniz’s Spanish Rhapsody and Saint-SaŽns’s Wedding-Cake Caprice, played by pianist Felicja Blumental. These recordings are now available from Brana, which specializes in Blumental reissues, and which gives the orchestra as the Filarmonica Triestina in all three pieces. The original Vox issue, however, while attributing the conducting of all three to Toffolo, names the Trieste orchestra for the Villa-Lobos and the Albeniz, and I Musici Virtuosi di Milano for the Saint-SaŽns. Carelessness on the part of Brana, or have they seen evidence that the Vox sleeve and label were wrong? For what it’s worth, the acoustic in the Saint-SaŽns seems more amenable and the string intonation rather more secure. This latter point is not conclusive, however, given the unchallenging nature of the strings-only accompaniment.
Theoretically, the Villa-Lobos is of considerable historical interest. It was as a result of hearing Blumental play this work that Villa-Lobos wrote his Fifth Piano Concerto for her. Unfortunately, the recording makes Blumental sound as if she is playing a honky-tonk upright and does nothing to flatter the orchestral timbre. Under the circumstances, one can only say that Blumental is spirited and efficient, the orchestra spirited and ramshackle. For all Toffolo’s dedication to music in Trieste, he does not appear, on this showing, to have been the sort of orchestral trainer who could transform a provincial band into something more. The string intonation in the upper reaches is frankly embarrassing, and there is some crude braying from the brass.
In truth, I’ve never quite understood the Blumental mystique – maybe I’ll investigate further one day. In the Albeniz she is again proficient, but literal, prosaic and lacking in dash. Indeed, the orchestra, for all its crudities, sometimes shows more spirit. In the final “Estudiantina” section, for example, they set up a merry swing which is lost when Blumental continues on her own.
In the Saint-SaŽns, Blumental is deft but po-faced. There is a curiosity here – the entire first part, up to the double bar on p.13 of the full score, is played twice. There is no repeat marked in the score available from IMSLP. The first version that came to hand, by Gwyneth Prior and the LPO under Boult, plays no repeat and manages a bit more verve – though I wouldn’t have minded more still. All the timings I can find for various recordings suggest that no repeat is made. So is the repeat an editing mistake, or did Blumental discover that Saint-SaŽns marked a repeat in the manuscript that was not carried over into the printed edition? Quite honestly, the pretty but flimsy music hardly justifies our hearing it twice through.
This record was mentioned, rather dismissively, in Billboard of 2 March 1957: “If ever Villa-Lobos wrote a piece of strident, endless and unappealing music, this is it, altho admittedly, the musicians make it sound thinner than it has to be. They also emasculate the Albeniz … this one could be skipped”.
Fortunately, Toffolo’s other official Trieste recording plays to his strengths rather than his limitations. Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor, set down by the Coro del Teatro Verdi di Trieste and the Orchestra Filarmonica Triestina, was issued in France on Philips Trťsors Classiques 641.114 LXL. In some other countries the number seems to have been Philips A 00428 L – references to this recording are precious few. I haven’t found a date, but since it is in good mono sound I presume it belongs to the latter 1950s.
The orchestra are not exactly stretched in this piece. They play well, with suitably grave timbres and a good blend with the choir. It must be said at once that this performance exemplifies a type of choral singing which has never been sympathetic to British ears. Nowadays, Cherubini’s late classical style tends to be the preserve of HIP performers who shun all vibrato. More traditionally, it might have been sung by a large amateur chorus or by an all-male body such as the King’s College Choir. The Trieste group clearly derive from the theatre and the sopranos, in particular, sing with very considerable vibrato. They also essay a type of vocal production in which consonants are taken gently – some will say mumbled – in order to avoid the sort of explosive effects preferred by more recent chorus masters. The words are not clear, especially in the many piano passages, and my impression is that this is not bad training, but good training from its own particular point of view. The result is that the longer lines of the music waft around the fairly resonant acoustic in a way that can be extremely evocative once you’ve got on its wavelength.
For, having said all that, the suspicion arises that Toffolo, whatever his merits as an orchestral trainer, was a very fine, even great, choral conductor. The first sign of this comes with the absolute precision with which the sibilants are placed – always a difficulty if the conductor is not a first-class “choral man”. And then, though the vibrato is heavy, intonation is exact, blend is excellent and the choir is always responsive to the conductor’s quite detailed demands for nuance.
I am aware that Cherubini’s Requiem has garnered high opinions from a number of distinguished musicians. It has always seemed to me a rather dry thing, but in this performance it has got me at last. The absence of solo voices, which previously seemed to me to make for monotony, here gives the impression of a communal act, prayerful and fervent by turns. I found it very moving.
Toffolo’s other “official” recording is about as unexpected as can be imagined. For Hungaraton, he set down a suite from Ferencz Szabo’s “Ludas Matyi” with the Hungarian State Orchestra. I have no date for this, but the music itself was written in 1960.
Ferencz Szabo (1902-1969), a pupil of Kodaly and Weiner, was a lifelong Communist. Already in the 1920s he was conducting workers’ choirs and the like. Hungary in the 1930s was no place for a man with his beliefs and in 1932 he was compelled to move to Moscow. There he developed a line in simple, folk-based compositions suitably attuned to Soviet realism. Hungary, of course, went communist after the Second World War and Szabo returned home. He took up various administrative posts, becoming director of the Budapest Academy in 1958. He retired in 1967, but accounts vary over what actually happened. According to the English and French Wikipedia entry, it emerged that he had provided Stalin’s secret police with information on his colleagues during the 1930s, leading to the deaths of several of them in the subsequent purges. When this became known, 30 years later, he was stripped of all official appointments and died in isolation. The Hungarian and Czech Wikipedia entries, insofar as I can understand them through an internet translation, know nothing of all this. Their story is that Szabo, a die-hard Stalinist to the end, gave preference to ideological programmes as opposed to artistic ones, bringing the Academy into disrepute. He was therefore eased out.
It must be said that, human nature being what it is, it is not unlikely that Szabo ingratiated himself to the Soviet authorities by doing the dirty on his ex-comrades back in Hungary. On the other hand, the proof of this can only be in the archives of Stalin’s secret police, and the only body that could have released such information in the 1960s was Brezhnev’s secret police. Moreover, the only body that could have made such information public in Hungary in the 1960s was Kadar’s communist party apparatus. The “evidence”, therefore, filtered through a supply chain of three institutions that should be distrusted on principle. Assuming that the English and French Wikipedia writers are correct in stating that such accusations were made, the more likely explanation is that the presence in a top academic post of a diehard Stalinist in a communist empire that revolved around Brezhnev was an embarrassment. In the best traditions of the totalitarian state, therefore, any old lie – or “post-truth” as they say today –would do to get rid of him.
Szabo’s public disgrace does not seem to have done his reputation any lasting harm in his homeland. Several of his works are currently available from Hungaraton, including a more recent version of the “Ludas Matyi” suite. “Mattie the Goose-Boy” is a traditional Hungarian folk-tale with a vaguely anti-authority message. No doubt it made a nice ballet, and I think the music is best enjoyed when you’ve got something else to look at while you’re listening. An unkind judgement, maybe, and I respect a composer who writes in the idiom he feels, however unfashionable. All the same, it is difficult to find this Kodaly-and-water more than mildly appealing. The performance is not the ultimate in sizzling virtuosity, but it’s lively and committed.
At least two of Toffolo’s opera performances from Trieste have been issued on CD. In a 1954 performance of Massenet’s “ThaÔs”, in Italian, the cast was Fiorella Carmen Forti (ThaÔs), Ettore Bastianini (AthanaŽl), Glauco Scarlini (Nicias), Antonio Massaria (Palťmon), Alma Pezzi (Crobyle), Aurora Cattelani (Myrtale) and Liliana Hussu (Albine). The draw was obviously Bastianini, and I had better admit that I have heard only 30-or-so minutes of excerpts by courtesy of a Bastianini-minded YouTube channel. There is no gainsaying his vocal magnificence and general air of authority. As ever, there is the doubt that another singer, Taddei for instance, might have been more expressive. But why complain in the face of such splendour? The only reason for which I might seek out the complete performance would be to hear the remaining parts of Bastianini’s role, though in truth, I have not heard enough of the smaller parts to pass judgment on them.
I have, on the other hand, heard quite enough of Fiorella Carmen Forti’s ThaÔs. Forti (b.1925) took part in three films as a singer-actress in the late 1940s. She subsequently retired from singing, having married a Greek shipping magnate – something of a habit among sopranos, evidently. Much later, in 1977, Charles Long (3) found himself singing alongside her in an Italian revival of Menotti’s “Maria Golovin” at Spoleto. Rumour had it that her husband had sponsored the production to launch her comeback. If so, the attempt failed. Harsh criticism caused her to withdraw before the last performance. In 1954, she was wielding an “old-style” voice. There was little vibrato – so far so good. But her intonation is not always secure and her phrasing is rudimentary. Some of her individual notes are attractive, if not particularly expressive, so maybe some less strenuous roles showed her to better advantage.
The orchestral playing is of good provincial level and Toffolo conducts with a sure hand. The famous “Meditation” as such was not among the extracts I heard, but the theme comes up several times nonetheless. Toffolo caresses it without going over the top.
The other offering is a 1969 Trieste performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. It is presumably issued for the benefit of Catarina Ligendza fans – she established a certain niche in the role of Isolde in the 1970s and this is her earliest preserved performance. I haven’t heard this and I am prepared to believe Jonathan Brown’s judgment of it as “a good provincial performance – it is little more”. Composers of Trieste
Rather more interesting, since they bring us music we would otherwise be unlikely to hear, are some off-air recordings works by Trieste composers. The source seems to be Radio Trieste and they date from around 1969, so maybe better tapes exist somewhere. Meanwhile, we can be thankful for the YouTuber who has posted them.
Antonio Illersberg (1882-1953) was born in Trieste, then under Austrian rule. At an early age he became an orphan and was taken into an Institute for the Poor run by the Church. His musical talents were noticed by the Mayor of the city and he was enabled to study under Martucci in Bologna. A fellow student there was Respighi. From 1904 to 1907 he was conscripted into the Austrian Navy, stationed at Pola (now Pula and part of Croatia). During this period, in 1905, he completed this First Symphony in B flat. Two others followed. Compilers of quiz questions and Trivial Pursuit claims might note that this, in the wake of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, is the “other” First Symphony” written by a serving naval officer.
Back on dry land, in 1907 Illersberg became Professor of Composition at Trieste Conservatoire. As a teacher, he was wide open to the latest trends, introducing his pupils, one of whom was Luigi Dallapiccola, to the delights of dodecaphony and serialism. Indeed, this latter fact is the one thing for which he is generally remembered among Italian musicians. He was also a noted choral conductor.
We need not be surprised if the naval officer of 1905 adopted a typically post-romantic style for his Symphony no.1 in B flat. In reality, it seems that he kept the dodecaphony for his teaching while sticking strictly to the tonal straight and narrow in his compositions, even late ones such as the opera Trittico, completed in 1949 to a libretto in Triestino dialect. He was a copious editor of Italian 17th and 18th century music and even wrote several spoof-baroque pieces himself under the pseudonym of “Montilario”, a rough translation into Italian of his surname.
In my studies of Pietro Argento and Ferruccio Scaglia I have touched upon the “Trieste problem” in relation to Antonio Smareglia and Giulio Viozzi – the tendency to write music that got cold-shouldered by both Italians and Austrians as being too Austrian for the former and too Italian for the latter. Certainly, this First Symphony sounds no more Italian than its composer’s surname does. Yet there is more to it than just a skilled and enthusiastic essay in the manner of Richard Strauss and Reger. There’s a middle-European sound to it that might lead the innocent ear to place it among Balkan, or even Baltic, nationalists.
I’d better say at this point that the recording as heard on YouTube sounds as if it dates nearer 1929 than 1969, being shrill and congested, with occasional pitch wavers. It’s difficult to tell if the lengthy first movement is as unremittingly full-blooded as it seems here, or whether the strongly committed performance could have found more light and shade along the way – the answer to these doubts might be that, respectively, it isn’t and it did. It’s certainly a passionate youthful outpouring. A gentler lyrical gift emerges in the second movement while the third movement, supposedly a minuet, seems more a cheeky cod-Bruckner scherzo. The trio makes engaging play between major and minor. As the finale began with a fugue I thought “oh, dear”, but it’s fugal writing of the Bartered Bride type and soon things are rollicking along in the jolliest manner. The second subject, on the trumpet – played with military vibrato here – is theoretically vulgar but actually great fun. Given the shortcomings of the recording, I’m not sure if I’ll come back to it, but I’d readily hear a decently recorded modern version, or a better transfer of this if one exists somewhere, for Toffolo seems the right man for the job. If I were a conductor and a Triestino, I think I’d make a point of playing it rather often.
Gastone De Zuccoli (1887-1958) was born in Trieste and, after a period of study in Parma, taught piano and organ at the Conservatoire there for most of his life. One of his piano students was Luigi Toffolo. Though it was nice of Toffolo to remember his teacher by conducting a couple of his symphonic poems, no great substance emerges. Autunno is a nicely wrought scherzo, completed in 1911. De Zuccoli certainly knew how to write for the orchestra and how to put a piece together. The songful central section should be heart-warming. The trouble for me was that I knew the melody very well, though I am still racking my brain to think what it is. This is unfair on poor De Zuccoli, since it may actually be a composition he couldn’t have known.
La Notte di Getsemane (1914) is claimed as De Zuccoli’s masterpiece, but I can’t really hear it that way. The outer sections depend heavily on Cťsar Franck for their manner and method, with louring brass chords and some typical syncopations. The central section suggests Mascagni. If you can put all this on one side, it may grow on you as a fine work. I couldn’t help thinking, as each new idea came up, now which part of the Franck Symphony does that come from? Toffolo sounds as if he believes in both pieces, though he does not obtain great precision in the scherzo passages of Autunno, or perfect brass intonation in Getsemane. Still, the response is wholehearted, and the recording is sufficiently better than that of the Illersberg Symphony to show that Toffolo could obtain proper dynamic shading from his orchestra.
Victor De Sabata (1892-1967) is one musician from Trieste who achieved fully international fame – but, you will immediately say, as a conductor, not as a composer. It was not ever thus. In 1921, in an article on “Some Italian Composers of Today” (5), Guido M. Gatti wrote that “Victor de Sabata cannot complain of the way Fortune has treated him: she smiled on his first steps, she was ever at his side throughout his vigorous youth, and fame was his when, at eighteen, his Suite triumphed in all parts of the world. The composition which was fresh and vigorous then is not less so to-day, when de Sabata has published other works and the public has come to recognize in him one of the most gifted of contemporary Italian composers. Since 1913 the Triestine composer … has written other works, some of which doubtless show a greater artistic maturity; but for many, perhaps for all, he remains the composer of the symphonic Suite with which he gained his laurels ten years ago”.
The Suite was completed in 1909 and originally presented as De Sabata’s “graduation exercise” for his diploma. It certainly demonstrated a formidable orchestral technique for an eighteen-year-old – all the colours of the impressionist orchestra were readily at his command. In one respect at least, the child was already father of the man. One of De Sabata’s greatest gifts as a conductor was his ability to inspire euphoric waves of sound from the orchestra, making him one of the most inspired interpreters of the late romantic, impressionist and early modern repertoire. Even if the Suite did not maintain a place in the concert hall, the listener can still be carried away by its lush washes of sound, fairly if not completely compensating for the fact that the themes themselves are not especially memorable. Nevertheless, it would have made fine Stokowski fodder if De Sabata didn’t feel like propagating it himself – the only De Sabata work we have from his own baton is Juventus. Toffolo is pretty good at raising the euphoria. Unfortunately, the recording is only a little better than that of the Illersberg Symphony – not really good enough for all the orchestral strands we should be hearing. A rather better, if still archival, recording of just the second movement – a scherzo entitled Tra fronda e fronda (Among leafy boughs) – can also be found on YouTube, conducted by Fulvio Vernizzi. He adopts a more relaxed approach, taking about three-quarters of a minute longer. The melodies come over more clearly – this may just be the better recording – and he finds a lot of refined impressionist colouring in the central section where Toffolo is more overtly passionate. This, I think, is not just a matter of the recording.
One thing can be said. Even at the age of eighteen, De Sabata had nothing to do with the “Trieste problem”. This is international impressionism with an Italian accent. It doesn’t quite sound like Respighi but is along similar lines.
The Radio Trieste recordings also include, following De Zuccoli’s Getsemane, two non-local items. After De Zuccoli’s Franckian outpourings, Carl Nielsen’s By the Bier Side of a Young Artist shows only too cruelly how a composer can be his own man without being revolutionary. Rather more surprisingly, if you weren’t in the know, Turin composer Leone Sinigaglia’s Andante Tragico op.21 shows the same thing. It’s a haunting 7-minute work for strings in a Mahlerian vein and I had to encore it immediately. It’s the finest thing by Sinigaglia I’ve yet heard and should be taken up by string orchestras everywhere. Toffolo does it beautifully and the recording is reasonable. I’ve previously reviewed a book (in Italian) about Sinigaglia (1868-1944), and have discussed recordings of his Violin Concerto in my article on Ferruccio Scaglia.
Sinigaglia was a pupil of DvořŠk, so this brings us neatly to Toffolo’s forays into Czech repertoire for the RAI.
Czech opera DvořŠk’s The Devil and Kate was performed in 1964 or 1966 – there seems to be some confusion about this – by Franco Tagliavini (Jirka the Shepherd), Maia Sunara (Kate), Gianna Borrelli (Kate’s Mother, the Princess’s Chambermaid), Italo Tajo (Marbuele), Salvatore Catania (Lucifer), Paolo Mazzotta (a Devil), Umberto Frisaldi (the Gatekeeper, the Marshall), Renata Mattioli (the Princess), Antonio Pietrini (a Musician) and the Rome RAI Chorus and Symphony Orchestra).
“Rusalka”, DvořŠk’s best-known opera insofar as any of them are, has come in from the cold at least to some extent during the last few decades. It is still not such a universal feature of international operatic life as to have inspired a large-scale reassessment of the others. All power, then, to those in the 1960s who organized an Italian translation and got together a typical RAI cast with at least two internationally known names, for this broadcast performance.
Commentators on the “The Devil and Kate”, which immediately preceded “Rusalka”, have always allowed that DvořŠk’s melodic gift and orchestral imagination are at full stretch here. Some have suggested that, entertaining as it is, you can’t really identify with any of the characters.
Yes and no, I think. The title is actually a red herring. Bitchy, money-minded Kate and the hopelessly inconclusive Devil Marbuel are gradually overtaken in interest by the Princess, who is induced to repent of her dictatorial ways and free the people from serfdom, and Jirka, the shepherd who is fired in the opening scene by the Princess’s bullying steward but ends up as her Prime Minister, a man of the people who promises he will always remain one of the people. Since the Princess and Jirka are soprano and tenor, while Kate and Marbuel are mezzo-soprano and baritone, it looks as if DvořŠk always intended the preponderance of interest to lie there.
There’s more of an agenda to this than meets the eye. Serfdom was finally abolished in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which DvořŠk’s Bohemia was a part, in 1848. DvořŠk himself was born in 1841, so serfdom was still a living memory for him, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself had still not gone away. Things were better for DvořŠk’s people in 1899, when he wrote “The Devil and Kate”, but maybe not so much so that it was advisable to call the opera “The Princess and the Shepherd”. DvořŠk knew his people would get the message. Indeed, there have been many other moments during the subsequent history of Czechoslovakia when it was doubtless better to let the title and the jolly goings-on in DvořŠk’s pantomime hell deflect official eyes from the real content. Things were doubtless that way in 1955, when Chalabala’s made his classic mono set in the Supraphon studios. Nor were they much better in 1979, when Supraphon set down a new stereo recording under Pinkas. In its gentle way, therefore, and for all that it lacks the pretensions of Smetana’s “Dalibor”, this is DvořŠk’s “freedom opera”.
Turning now to this performance, I daresay the overture got the least rehearsal. On a few of the quicksilver tempo changes, the orchestra is slow on the uptake, though they soon fall in line. Once the action has started, it sounds as if everyone is just loving it. I can’t fault Toffolo’s pacing anywhere. All the dances go with the right spirit and there’s plenty of piquant colouring in the gentler moments.
All the same … anything Toffolo can do, Chalabala can do better. We know very little of Chalabala’s work – scarcely more than we do of Toffolo’s really – but persistent reports say he was a great conductor and he shows a total command over every small detail, an ability to whip the orchestra into a frenzy of vitality one moment while drawing out exquisite poetry the next. He is often – but not always – faster than Toffolo. In the case of the Act 3 Prelude, I have to say I do prefer Toffolo’s adorably romantic treatment and there are a few other places where I appreciated his tendency to expand lyrically. So, while I cannot deny that Chalabala is better, Toffolo’s has a lot going for him. Other things being equal, the cast would be the deciding factor.
Other things are not equal, clearly, when the cast is singing the wrong language. Presumably even the Italians themselves, today, would expect to hear the opera sung in Czech. Aside from this, are there any vintage performances worth hearing?
Well yes, I think there are. Not, perhaps, the Kate. Maia (Maya and Maja are also found) Sunara crops up a bit on RAI recordings of this time. She also takes one or two comprimario parts in some Caballť recital discs. So maybe she was Spanish – I can find no further information. She has a light soprano voice – though this is theoretically a mezzo part – and can be said to make a fair stab at it. Chalabala’s Ludmila Komancova is much more vivid and secure. I must say, though, that the voices of Kate and the Princess are well differentiated on the RAI recording. On the Supraphon, you can hardly tell them apart.
You might, however, find that Franco Tagliavini, as Jirka, has a much more alluring timbre than Lubomir HavlŠk. Franco Tagliavini (1934-2010) rather laboured under the disadvantage that he was Tagliavini but wasn’t Ferruccio Tagliavini – to whom he was unrelated. He nevertheless achieved a degree of international success and here conveys a fresh, ringing voice and a winning personality. It’s a nice role to remember him by.
There is no shortage of roles with which to remember Italo Tajo (1915-1993), although you have to seek many of them in live recordings – he made relatively few visits to the studio. He was in the great line of Italian comic basses. By 1965 – to take the average date of those suggested for “The Devil and Kate” – his career had lasted thirty years. In 1966 he transferred to the USA and concentrated on teaching and singing small roles. His voice shows some signs of wear, but his vivid characterization more than compensates. This is a pantomime devil with the grease-paint fresh on him – if you can’t see the rolling eyeballs you know they’re there. A classic in its way. Přemysl Koči, for Chalabala, is more quietly dangerous. This surely has its own validity. If I find him less communicative than Tajo, I say this with much hesitation, since Tajo is singing in a language I know and Koči is not – maybe a Czech would find it the other way round.
Tajo’s is a known excellence. A minor revelation of this performance was Renata Mattioli’s Princess. I have already encountered Mattioli in this series, as Matilde in Mascagni’s “Silvano” and as Marussa in Smareglia’s “Nozze Istriane”, both conducted by Pietro Argento. She was a frequent presence in RAI productions from 1958 through to at least 1973 – her Liý in a filmed “Turandot” with Franco Corelli has been admired. She was adjudicating competitions till at least 2008. In the two operas I heard, I admired her timbre, while feeling that the verismo writing sometimes pushed her to her limits. Her first scene in “The Devil and Kate” – the Princess sings only in the third act – plays to all her strengths. She reveals a gloriously rich, mezzo-like tone, bringing the character to life in a way that the very acceptable Marie Steinerova, for Chalabala, does not. Later in the act, when DvořŠk’s own writing becomes more strenuous, there are a few iffy moments, but on the whole, this was a performance that had me wanting to hear more of her.
There are good Lucifers on both recordings, and some ups and downs in the smaller parts on both of them too. In short, this couldn’t be an alternative to the Chalabala, nor presumably to any of the more recent recordings in the right language, which I haven’t heard. It has a lot to offer for those interested in Italian singers of the 1950 and 1960s who were little documented on official records and I must say, whatever the language issues, I’m very fond of it.
Almost a decade after “The Devil and Kate”, Toffolo conducted another Czech opera for the RAI – Smetana’s Dalibor. This was set down on 18 January 1973 with Nikola Mitić (Vladislav), Ludovic Spiess (Dalibor), Guido Mazzini (Budivoj), Giannicola Pigliucci (Beneš), Piero De Palma (Vitťk), Radmila Bakočević (Milada), Dora Carral (JŪtka), Alfredo Colella and Guerrando Rigiri (the Judges) and the Milan RAI Chorus and Symphony Orchestra.
As far as Toffolo is concerned, the news is good. Though the orchestra is not always immaculate, he obtains from it the right colour and the right combination of patriotic fervour, urgency, springy rhythms and expressive warmth. His pacing is always convincing.
I have not made comparisons with the classic Supraphon sets under Krombholc, or the slightly more recent one under Kosler, because I do not feel that there are sufficient reasons here, cast-wise, to attract opera buffs to a performance sung in Italian. By the 1970s, the typical RAI formula of casting, even in rare works, a couple of internationally-known Italian singers, a couple of RAI stalwarts and a young hopeful or two, was beginning to crumble. The one Italian veteran here is Piero De Palma, with an unexpected but efficient addition to his long list of comprimario roles.
It is in the smaller roles, in fact, that the greatest vocal distinction is to be found. Guido Mazzini (1921-1996) was by then a veteran, with film appearances in “L’Elisir d’Amore” (1947) and “La Somnambula” (1956) behind him. He is resonantly effective as Budivoj. I can find no dates for Giannicola Pigliucci, but he appeared in a small role in a film of “Otello” in 1986. He has a smaller voice alongside Mazzini but sings well.
This was a time when RAI was increasingly bringing in singers from abroad, particularly the Balkan states. No quarrel with this as long as they sang well, but the practice sat unhappily with their continuing policy of presenting operas such as “Dalibor” in Italian translation. Not all the Italian heard here is awfully good or awfully clear, thereby negating the one justification for using the vernacular. This reservation does not apply to Nikola Mitić, whose singing of Vladislav’s scene at the beginning of Act II is one of the highlights of the performance.
Dora Carral was a Cuban singer. Though not ideally steady, she offers an attractive, expressive Jitka, and is moving in her lament after the deaths of Milada and Dalibor. Her voice proves rather small alongside De Palma’s in their duet together.
Radmila Bakočević had a considerable international career. Two years previously she had sung in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” under Pietro Argento. I admired her there, with a few reservations. The reservations have to be much greater here. She can offer some fine tone, rich and gleaming, but she can also be squally. Above all, she goes through patches of doubtful intonation. In her Act II duet with Dalibor, she is sometimes as much as a semitone sharp. This presents Spiess with the unenviable decision whether to sing in tune with her or with the orchestra. He chooses the latter, which I suppose is preferable, but it’s a no-win situation for Smetana either way.
The Romanian tenor Ludovic Spiess (1938-2006) sang Dalibor in German at the Vienna State Opera in 1969. This performance, conducted by Josef Krips and with the Rysanek sisters as Milada and Jitka, has been reissued several times. One can only praise Spiess’s willingness to learn the opera in not one wrong language but two. I have not heard the Vienna performance, but nothing in his Italian assumption contradicts reports that he brings a winning heroic ring to the role, without offering any especial distinction in phrasing or colouring.
The Krips performance is famously truncated. Toffolo gives the first act complete and makes only a niggling snip from the second. Hopes that Spiess might at least be heard in the complete role here are dashed when a substantial section is hacked from Act III. I wondered if Spiess declined to learn music he had not learnt for Vienna. This may have been a factor, but at the end, after Jitka’s lament, Toffolo cuts several pages and crashes straight into the final chords, and that can’t have been for Spiess’s benefit. “The Devil and Kate”, therefore, remains the most attractive testimonial to Toffolo’s understanding of the Czech idiom.
Toffolo, I stated at the beginning, was a good “local” man. There are two types of local men. There are those who raise local standards to such an extent as to bring their local forces, and themselves, to national and even international prominence. And there are those who keep the torch burning at home. Toffolo belonged to this second type. His Trieste orchestra never achieved top quality, though there are signs that his abilities as a choral trainer were higher. But he brought a lively hand and good, straightforward interpretations to whatever he did. When he had a middling-decent orchestra at his disposal, such as the RAI ones or the Hungarian one, he got a good response from them. He was a reliable guide to Trieste-born composers. All this, and his propagation of Czech opera in Italy, seems ample justification for remembering him in this series.
Christopher Howell 2017
(1) Remembered in a press release by the Municipality of Trieste (4 June 2014), announcing the naming of a public garden after Barbieri.
(2) “Il Piccolo di Trieste”, 31 May 20014
(3) Charles Long: “Adventures in the Scream trade”, D Street Books 2012
(4) Jonathan Brown: Tristan und Isolde on Record, Greenwood Press, 2000
(5) Musical Times, 1 April 1921
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