La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963

La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963La Fanciulla del West, DVD review Stella in 1963

Is there anyone who after watching this DVD will seriously pretend another Minnie has sung and acted this opera even half so well as Antonietta Stella did 46 years ago ? In those days the opera was still somewhat considered a rarity though there were already in existence commercial and live recordings which prove how badly good Puccini singing has deteriorated (Del Monaco-Steber in Firenze 53, Corelli-Gigliola-Gobbi in Milan 56 and the best official recording Tebaldi-Del Monaco on Decca). Still some live recordings could be tampered with and this is far more difficult to do with this live Tokyo performance where any dubious voice-over would immediately be noticed. Stella is simply marvellous: full of warmth, charm while at the same time assertively making Minnie into a woman who would kill for her lover. The voice is smooth and sure and the top is blazing forth at a volume that made everybody’s jaw drop  who heard her in the flesh. There is no soprano like her, nor has there one been, in the last thirty years. She feels fully at home in this killer role and though she lacks the ultimate beautiful timbre Tebaldi showed she has the advantage of her better top notes which don’t sound like a strong whistle in the Tebaldi recordings. Puccini is clearly Stella’s forte and there is nothing of the clumsiness and the somewhat wooden sound that marred some of her Verdi-recordings, witness the Trovatore she recorded one year earlier (Bergonzi, Bastianini). Indeed, she sounds far better in this November 1963 live recording than in the official Andrea Chénier (Corelli, Sereni) she recorded only some months earlier. People who heard her live always pretended the Stella voice was not exactly kissed by the (stereo) mike and this simple mono recording makes a worthy case for this statement. In short, this DVD is a must for the soprano alone.

Not that all her colleagues are slouches. Verismo was always the strong point of Anselmo Colzani, neglected by recording companies but getting at last his due thanks to some live recordings. His is the big biting and even bitter sound of a great Jack Rance and he too plays his role with utter conviction. Do I hear morons like Gerard Mortier say that opera performances were just concerts in costume before at last some geniuses arrived in theatre management and finally revealed what it is all about ? This DVD and a few pitifully other performances recorded during the New Golden Age of Singing prove the contrary. It says something too for the strength of casts in those days that great singers like Anna Di Stasio and Arturo La Porta could be cast as Sonora and Wowkle. And then there is the fly in the ointment. Gastone Limarilli was a lyric tenor with a cutting edge to the voice that enabled him to sing roles which were in reality too heavy for his instrument. He sings or sometimes shouts all the notes but time and again one longs for the phrasing of Corelli or Del Monaco in a role which proved that they commanded an impressive mezza voce if they really applied themselves to it. Moreover, they cut a romantic figure while Limarilli is the example of the rather fat Italian tenor. Oliviero De Fabritiis is the experienced conductor and he does a wonderful job as this was the first execution of the opera by a Japanese orchestra.

There is a frustrating bonus in an interview with Antonietta Stella, still looking radiant at 79. The interviewer belongs to the kind of man who likes to interrupt when not necessary and who can ask silly and unimportant questions. Originally the interview was recorded for the release of the 1967 Un Ballo with Bergonzi, recorded  in Tokyo and available on the DVD of that evening (an absolute must too). So VAI cuts a corner when adding the same interview to this Fanciulla though they very well know that people who buy the Ballo will also purchase the Fanciulla. But a new interview would have added a few dollars to the cost. A pity as Fanciulla played a major role in Stella’s career and I for one would have liked her comments. Barely a few weeks after this Tokyo performance she was engaged for a series of Fanciulla at La Scala with Franco Corelli. The tenor never turned up during rehearsals and was replaced by young Bruno Prevedi until Corelli deigned to appear at the dress rehearsal when he simply ordered his colleague out. Stella was so furious she too walked out and made a scandal of Corelli’s unprofessional behaviour in the Italian press. She was replaced by Gigliola Frazzoni and she was never engaged any more at La Scala as the top tenor was considered to be more important than the diva.

Jan Neckers