Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sun, 29 Jan 2006

Pergolesi, La Serva Padrona

Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
La Serva Padrona 
Angelica Tuccari - soprano
Sesto Bruscantini - Baritone
Orchestra Lirica di Milano della RAI conducted by Alfredo Simonetto
rec 1950 and 1951, Milan and Turin - Mono Recordings
Warner Fonit 5050467-6755-2-0 [67.46]

One must admit that one is not really a fan of old recordings re-mastered and released on modern CD and first saw this version of Pergolesi's seminal intermezzo 'La Serva Padrona' with a certain sinking feeling. The norm with such discs is a combination of turgid tempi, bad intonation and singing that sounds like Wagner pudding with too many eggs in it. One of the features of such recordings is definitely present here, which is to say the bad intonation of the strings of the Milan radio orchestra of the early 1950s. The classic scratchy string sound, a combination of too many instruments per part for baroque music and the recording technology of the time, which never allowed much in the way of depth of sound is to blame.

However, there are actually a surprising number of enjoyable features in this disc. Obviously a ghastly orange-and-blue cover design is not one of them and would normally put this writer off buying the disc even before discovering that the recording is well over half a century old. But apart from this, the actual performance is surprisingly good. Italians doing their early opera in the 1950s have no good reputation and it is normally assumed that such works were "rediscovered" by the Englishmen such as Thurston Dart and Leyton Ring, but apparently in Milan they had a more-or-less continuous tradition of the performance of such works. The first thing that strikes one is the sprightly tempo of the opening aria. There are too many strings, of course, but they do play with verve and the singing of Sesto Bruscantini (one of the notable Italian Bass-baritones of the era) has a clarity and dexterity, combined with lovely richness of timbre that has been hard to hear again until the age of Bryn Terfel. Here, Bruscantini is excellently partnered by the soprano Angelica Tuccari - maybe a rather harsh voice, but full of the virtues of comic timing and wit that make Opera Buffa so much more fun than the serious versions of the genre. While one certainly misses the presence of proper continuo in the arias and duets a number such as Lo concoso, a quela occhietti, the duet at the end of the first 'act', relies so much on the comic interplay of voices that it seems not to actually matter too much.

In the recitatives there is the rather odd sound of piano continuo to accompany the singers, but even this is not as offensive as it could easily be because the piano is played fairly discretely and the recording quality almost gives it the timbre of an early fortepiano. Altogether, this is a recording that is much more fun than one would have thought likely.

The coupling is five arias from later operas, again sung by Sesto Bruscantini. These include the famous catalogue aria Madamina, il catalogo e questo from Mozart's Don Giovanni and further single movements from Bellini - La Sonnambula; Rossini - Il Turco in Italia; Berlioz - Damnation of Faust and Donitzetti - L'Elisir d'amore, the last and the Rossini being in duets with the soprano Alda Noni. The performances are variable, the Mozart being very good, the Berlioz rather lacklustre, but Sesto Bruscantini is excellent throughout and the disc therefore makes some impact by bringing this wonderful voice back to prominence. Whether the punter in the street, looking for a nice bit of baroque opera, is likely to go for this recording of La Serva Padrona is debateable, but Sesto Bruscantini aficionados, both of them, will probably want to hurry down to the CD shop.

(c) 2006 Peter Wells

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