Reviews for IPCD 1020-3
Ettore Panizza, cond; Gina Cigna (Aida); Giovanni Martinelli (Radamès); Bruna Castagna (Amneris); Carlo Morelli (Amonasro); Ezio Pinza (Ramfis)
Live: Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra 6 February 1937
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1020-3, (3 CDs: 195:58)
Bonus: Martinelli speaks about Verdi; excerpts featuring Martinelli from Aida, Faust, and Otello
September/ October 2012
This is a release of extraordinary importance to opera lovers with an interest in the history of opera singing in the 20th century. For many years this performance has had iconic status among collectors of historic vocal material. It has been issued on many labels in the LP and CD format. But Richard Caniell and his Immortal Performances label have improved significantly on all prior versions, and probably given us the performance in the best sonic environment we are likely to get. This will still not be comfortable for listeners who only want modern stereo or digital sound, or who consider 1950s monaural studio recordings to be at the bottom of their range of tolerance. However, if you can comfortably listen to historic material you will find this more than acceptable. As the performance goes on, you more and more forget the 1937 broadcast sound and become involved in an absolutely thrilling Aida. All pitch problems have been corrected, a good deal of distortion has been cleaned up, and at least some of the dynamic compression has been counteracted. This must have been painstaking, tedious work, and opera lovers should be very grateful to Caniell and his colleagues for doing it.
The performance was the Met debut of Gina Cigna. Cigna was a very important dramatic soprano in the 1930s and ’40s (she was born in 1900, and died in 2001!) who made the first complete recordings of Norma and Turandot for Cetra, both of which are considered classics. Her career ended prematurely in 1948 when she was in an accident (a bus turned over) which resulted in some broken ribs. She was on her way to perform Tosca, and she insisted on finishing the journey and singing it, but in the final act she suffered a mild heart attack, and decided then and there to retire. But for almost two decades she was a mainstay of the dramatic soprano repertoire at La Scala and at the Met, where she inherited Ponselle’s roles. This Aida shows us just why, and shows us what a genuine Italian dramatic soprano is (she was actually born in France, of a French mother and Italian father, but her training and style are utterly Italian).
She is a tempestuous Aida; sometimes the voice turns squally under the pressure of a dramatic moment. She cannot duplicate the hushed beauty that Tebaldi, Price, Milanov, and Caballé could find in some of the more poetic and gentle passages. But she soars over the ensembles when she needs to, finds real beauty and poignancy in “O patria mia” and “Ritorna vincitor,” with a wonderfully placed high C in the third-act aria. She has a very rich middle voice, and one that is seamlessly bound to the upper and lower registers. And she finds meaning in the text, in the drama, that eludes most of her rivals. This is a total characterization, and one of the major operatic portrayals I know of. I resist ranking artists as if they were sports teams, with a won-lost record. I do not say, nor believe, that Cigna is “better” than the sopranos mentioned above, or Callas. But she is worthy of being mentioned in that company, and what she brings to the role is different from any of them. That this is a Met debut makes it all the more astonishing.
Martinelli was 52 by the time of this performance, and had been a leading Met tenor in its Italian wing for 24 years. By this time, the voice had lost some of its luster and taken on the hardness that many associate with him. But, and it is a big but, to listen to him is to take a master class in how to sing Verdi. The phrasing, the innate understanding of the ebb and flow of the music, is without parallel. And, in fact, there is still a good deal of beauty in the sound. He is generally faithful to Verdi’s dynamics, except at the end of “Celeste Aida”—and frankly, with the trumpet-like ring of that note, I have no complaint. In addition he is particularly precise with Verdi’s rhythms. He seems completely inspired by the occasion, and his work in scenes with other singers, and his dramatic inflections, are all examples of masterly singing. If you want a definition of ringing high notes, just hear the end of the third act.
Listeners familiar with Met broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s will know what a treasure that company had in Bruna Castagna. She is one of history’s most seriously underrated mezzos, largely because she retired abruptly in 1945 at the peak of her powers (and the age of 40). I have heard reports that she had some kind of breakdown, but can find no confirmation of that (she died in 1983). Castagna was a sensational singer. Early in her career, Toscanini used her in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Alger at La Scala with great success, but after American successes in Chicago and San Francisco in 1934, she was engaged at the Met starting in 1936 as Amneris. Until her retirement she was the house mezzo in the 19th-century Italian repertoire, particularly Verdi (Il trovatore and Un ballo in maschera in particular), but also in the Requiem , and in Ponchelli’s La Gioconda . She is also the Adalgisa on Cigna’s Norma recording. During this period, Stignani ruled in Italy, Castagna at the Met. She had it all—scrupulous musicianship, a rich, dark, intensely focused sound, gloriously open on top and contralto-like at the bottom, and a passionate involvement in the drama. Hers is an Amneris for the ages, and opera lovers unfamiliar with her work would find the investment in this set worthwhile for her performance alone.
Carlo Morelli may not be of quite the stature of the other three principals, but he is not just an adequate Amonasro. Morelli sang for five years at the Met (where no one was going to replace Tibbett), from 1935 to 1940. Morelli doesn’t quite have the vocal presence, the vocal face, of a truly great singer (the other three really do), but his is a beautifully sung and convincingly acted performance that we would kill to encounter in the opera house today.
As if that weren’t enough, we get the almost unbelievable Ramfis of Pinza—a portrayal that truly qualifies as historic. The rest of the cast is excellent. Panizza was a major post-Toscanini figure on the Met’s podium in the Italian wing. He offered propulsion, intimate knowledge of the idiom, and an ability to give his singers freedom while never losing control. This is major Verdi conducting.
The production values for Immortal Performances are many levels higher than most of the labels that specialize in historic live performances. The notes by Caniell are thoughtful, insightful, and provocative. He is disarmingly honest. He actually likes Cigna’s performance a bit less than I do, but the shortcomings he points out do exist, it is just a matter of how one weighs them against her assets. Caniell has kept some of Milton Cross’s announcing, to maintain the flavor of an actual Met broadcast from that era—but it is separately tracked and avoidable. Thankfully, he has excised the outrageous intrusions of Marcia Davenport that have plagued some other issues of this performance (she interjects herself into the applause after “O patria mia”). He includes one extensive essay about the performance itself, and a second about the process of producing this particular recording. And, as noted at the beginning, the sound quality is significantly superior to what we have had available before. The filler on the third disc is a wonderful bonus: Martinelli speaks about Verdi (in English), scenes from Aida and Faust recorded in 1926 by Vitaphone as soundtracks for silent films, and a chunk of the second act of Verdi’s Otello from Covent Garden with Beecham conducting in 1937. The Faust scene demonstrates forcefully that Martinelli’s sympathies did not really lie with French opera.
In rereading what I have written, I see that by focusing on each singer I have perhaps undervalued the performance as a whole. While I believe that everything I have said is true, what I haven’t conveyed is the overall thrust and grandeur of the whole, which really is greater than the sum of its parts. The sweep, the thrust, the open-throated glory of this Aida is not matched in any other recording. Yes, there are attributes and specific strengths of other honorable recordings, whether RCA’s with Milanov, Bjoerling, and Perlea; EMI’s Callas/Tucker/Serafin; EMI’s later Caballé/Domingo/Muti; or the Price/Vickers/Solti effort originally on RCA and later on Decca. The early Mexico City Callas/Del Monaco has this same grandeur about it but not only is the sound (as so far issued) poorer, but the prompter is so loud as to become an additional character. All of those are worth knowing. But a collector who lacks this version lacks something unique, something that really calls forth the essence of grand opera in a way not found elsewhere.