The major source of recordings of Italian opera during the first full decade of the LP, the 1950s, was Cetra, a label whose releases were jointly produced with Radio Italiana (RAI). These were, in fact, live broadcast performances emanating from RAI studios in Turin, Milan and Rome--each of which had their own orchestras--of a broad repertory that included important operas by Bellini, Verdi and Donizetti never previously recorded.
Many budding operaphiles in Europe and America cut their teeth on these productions and through them encountered the likes of Callas, Tebaldi and Corelli. But those superstars-in-the-making would soon be lured away with exclusive contracts from the major labels. Some of the singers that remained, however, were every bit the equal of those stellar personalities, though they didn't, for one reason or another (in several cases, the simple fact that their careers were in their final stages) achieve the acclaim their talents merited.
Many of the Cetra recordings of the '50s and '60s still await transfer to CD, and those that have been issued have suffered from spotty distribution. There's hope for easier access now that Cetra is being distributed here by Oregon-based Allegro, our most reliable source of European imports over the last decade.
One of the major voices of the years immediately following World War II was that of Lina Pagliughi, who was born in 1907 in New York and trained chiefly in Italy, where she made her career. Pagliughi's entire legacy is on Cetra, and among the first of the newly available reissues is one in which she portrays the sleepwalking heroine of Bellini's "La Sonnambula" (CDO 16), a role to which her silvery, agile, astonishingly pure coloratura is ideally suited.
Pagliughi's co-star in this 1952 performance is tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini, whose instrument--at its most sweetly refulgent here-- defines the meaning of bel canto. Tagliavini's strutting-peacock, self-absorbed stage presence may have made him a conductor's and director's nightmare, but that heavenly voice was irresistible.
This "Sonnambula," in which Franco Capuana lovingly guides the orchestra and chorus of RAI-Turin, is further blessed by the presence of a very young Cesare Siepi, soon to become a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera, his creamy basso cantante rolling gorgeously around Bellini's suave phrases.
The tricky title role of Boito's "Mefistofele" (CDO 19) also finds awesome voice, if hardly the last word in subtlety and wit, in the gigantic and surprisingly maneuverable black bass of Giulio Neri, who died at age 48, shortly after his international career had begun to take off. His foil here is Tagliavini singing Faust, a part that should require more vocal metal and regard for textual values than the vain tenor can offer. But to hear him spinning out "Dai campi, dai prati" with such exquisite legato and plangent tone is to be converted on the spot.
Alas, the women are not on a comparable level. Marcella Pobbe's Margherita is a cipher, while Disma Di Cecco is, well, dismal, as Helen of Troy. The chorus of the Teatro Regio and the RAI-Turin Orchestra are ready but decidedly rough under Angelo Questa's baton. Still, Neri and Tagliavini are so imposing in this 1954 production that one shouldn't pass it by.
There are good things about the 1952 RAI-Rome broadcast of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" (CDO 14), above all the richly comic Dulcamara of Sesto Bruscantini. But his co-principals, Alda Noni and Cesare Valletti, were not caught in best voice, nor is there much life in Gianandrea Gavazzeni's conducting. The same trio of principals can be heard at their individual and ensemble best, however, in the same composer's "Don Pasquale" (CDO 19), a Turin taping from the same year, vivaciously conducted by Mario Rossi. The recording is not among the first batch of Cetra-Allegro releases but should be available within the next few months. Put its acquisition on your list.
Avoid, however, the one Cetra release of recent vintage offered for review: the first complete recording in the original French (rather than the usual Italian translation that any book on the subject will tell you misrepresents the composer's delicate balance of word and tone) of Donizetti's "La Favorite" (RFCD 2015).
It hardly counts that this is a Critical Edition, issued under the imprimatur of the legendary Italian music publisher Ricordi. What does matter is that it is wretchedly sung--we'll skip the names--and amateurishly played by the RAI-Milan Orchestra under Donato Renzetti's limp baton. The performance was taped during the 1991 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo. The composer's hometown, and his memory, deserve better.