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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Gemma di Vergy (1834) [127:38]
Il Conte di Vergy: Louis Quilico (baritone); Gemma: Montserrat Caballé (soprano); Ida di Gréville: Natalya Chudy (soprano); Tamas: Luis Lima (tenor); Rolando: Mark Munkittrick (bass); Guido: Paul Plishka (bass)
Schola Cantorum
Opera Orchestra of New York/Eve Queler
rec. 14, 25 & 26 March 1975, Carnegie Hall New York City
No libretto; synopsis only. ADD
SONY 88985470342 [74:34 + 53:04]

Popular for several decades after its premiere in 1834, Gemma di Vergy then fell into desuetude until it was revived in 1975 in Naples specifically as a vehicle to accommodate the unique talents of Montserrat Caballé. This composite recording, derived from three separate performances, displays the reasons behind both its success and subsequent neglect, in that it offers a remarkably difficult and demanding eponymous role to a lyric coloratura soprano of distinction but also passages of music of stupefying banality, even by Donizetti’s lowest standards, whose humdrum nature is compounded by a plot of equally surpassing absurdity. Plonking melodies such as Tamas’ “Mi toglieste” (track 6, CD 1) abound and really are the kind of thing mocked by people who don’t like opera. This might have been the work which followed hard on the heels of L’elisir d’amore and Lucrezia Borgia and was succeeded the next year by Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria Stuarda but, sandwiched as it is between four masterpieces, it is by no means their musical equal and only fitfully displays Donizetti’s melodic and dramatic gifts.

Caballé’s co-singers, a potato-mouthed Rolando Luis apart, are an able band led by Louis Quilico as a solid Count, maintaining nice legato in his cantilena aria “Ecco il pegno”, which is one of those tunes typical of Donizetti that you somehow feel you have heard before. A sonorous Plishka sings his confidant and the competent, if slightly stretched, tenor Luis Lima, who will be best known to collectors as Sutherland’s partner in her recording of Le roi de Lahore, gamely sings an anti-hero with anger-management issues. I have never heard of Natalya Chudy but she is clearly a good, warm-toned soprano. In truth, for all her undoubted virtuosity I find Caballé to be often quite harsh and screamy of tone under pressure and at volume, but she is most impressive in the sixteen minute finale which is essentially an extended solo scena, giving her ample opportunity to deploy her range of bel canto techniques, including a resonant lower register as well the famous floated top notes in music which goes some way to redeeming the patchiness of what precedes it.

Queler conducts a blameless, somewhat routine performance. The live sound is very good, with the merest bit of distant, background coughing from time to time. The riotous applause and cheering which breaks into the final chord certainly attest to how moved and impressed the audience were by Caballé, but I cannot say that I understand the high reputation this live performance recording has garnered over the years, as I find the music mediocre and the singing, apart from her contribution, generally workaday.

Donizetti completists – good luck! - bel canto devotees and fans of Caballé will still find much to enjoy here.

Ralph Moore

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