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A historical performance from La Scala remastered for a ‘luxury’ CD release

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La Scala Memories is a label of recordings made of live performances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, captured for their historical significance. The CDs for each release are packaged as inserts for a “souvenir” book for the performance being recorded. The book reproduces the program that was distributed at the original performance, along with introductory material, a summary of all La Scala productions of the opera, a libretto, track listings, and a generous collection of images from the Photographic Archive of La Scala Theatre. The text is in both Italian and English.

According to the series Web site, nine opera productions have been released since the series was launched in 2010. I decided that I would sample the results with a recording of a Gala Evening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot that took place on December 7, 1964. According to the historical record included in the book, this was the last production in which tenor Franco Corelli would sing the role of Calaf at La Scala. He sang with Birgit Nilsson in the role of Turandot. For many that pairing on the La Scala stage would be reason enough to listen to the recording, regardless of how much (or how little) they knew about conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni.

For my part, however, I was drawn to the recording because the role of Liù was sung by Galina Vishnevskaya in what was her debut at La Scala. This deserves a bit of context. Vishnevskaya had made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 in the title role in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. She had been chosen as the soprano for Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem;” but the Soviet government prevented her performing at the premiere at Coventry Cathedral. Thus, the world did not get to listen to her until the first recording was released.

Since I was not following the Met during the Sixties, my “first contact” with Vishnevskaya was through that “War Requiem” recording. To say that she had an imposing voice in her delivery of the Latin Mass text would be the height of understatement, and it is not hard to imagine her as an equally imposing and regal (albeit displaced) Aida. The role of Liù, on the other hand, is “something completely different.” I had a lot of trouble imagining Vishnevskaya being faithfully servile.

I am therefore delighted to report that her account of Liù on this La Scala recording is thoroughly stunning and must have made for a triumphant debut. From the photo archive captions I learned that an impressively opulent costume had been designed for her. Since she understood the nature of the role, she rejected it, insisting on something far more humble. Photographs of the two costumes appear on facing pages (the opulent one being worn by Mirella Freni). Vishnevskaya definitely made the right choice; and her low-key approach to singing the role perfectly matched the modesty of her appearance.

While there is no questioning the historical value of this package, it would be wrong to overlook the downside. La Scala has long been notorious for having audiences that may best be described as “enthusiastically opinionated;” and it is not hard to imagine the enthusiasm being escalated for a gala occasion. It is clear from the first notes coming out of his mouth that Corelli had a lot of fans in this particular audience. One might say that their only reason for being in the hall was to demonstrate their support for him as loudly as possible. In other words this is more a “document of Italian opera culture” than a concert recording. As a result, anyone considering listening to this recording should be warned that (s)he will hear absolutely nothing that Ping (Renato Capecchi), Pang (Franco Ricciardi), and Pong (Piero de Palma) are singing after Corelli finishes “Nessun dorma!” (On the other hand those three singers do much to humanize their characters, dismissed as commedia dell’arte clowns in the material in the accompanying book.)

Those who have an enthusiastic opera-lover on the Christmas list would do well to consider this as an out-of-the-ordinary gift.

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