BOITO: Mefistofele
Malfada Favero, soprano (Margherita); Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, soprano (Elena); Antonio Melandri, tenor (Faust); Nazzareno de Angelis, bass (Mefistofele); Rita Monticone, contralto (Pantalis); Giuseppe Nessi, tenor (Wagner); Emilio Venturini, tenor (Nereo); Ida Mannarini, contralto (Marta); Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Lorenzo Malajoli, cond. Arias from The Barber of Seville, Mosè, Nabucco and Don Carlo sung by bass Nazzareno De Angelis.
NAXOS 8.110273-74 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 78:53 & 75:04

CHARPENTIER: Louise (abridged)
Ninon Vallin, soprano (Louise); Georges Thill, tenor (Julien); André Pernet, bass (La Père); Aimée Lecouvreur (La Mère); Chistiane Gaudel, soprano (Irma); Les Choeurs Raugel and Orchestra, Paris/Eugène Bigot, cond. CHARPENTIER: "La voix de la nuit" from Julien (Maurice Dutreix, tenor)
NAXOS 8.110225 (B) (ADD) TT: 74:38

Ward Marston has worked his magic on both of these important historic releases. Mefistofele was recorded on 34 78rpm sides by Italian Columbia Nov. 19-Dec.27, 1931 in Via San Antonio, a site described as a hall that had "proved far from satisfactory as it is too small, and the acoustics are bad." Marston wisely has added a touch of "artificial digital reverberation in order to give the voices a sense of space and to soften the effects of the often too close microphone placement." The result is highly satisfactory sonically. As one would expect from a recording made more than seven decades ago, there is limited dynamic range—but the sound is adequate to convey the superb performance. The opening "Prologue in Heaven" is the most powerful music in the opera (The Walpurgis Night scene in Act II is decidedly tame for its subject).In the magnificent Prologue the Devil defies the forces of good—a mystical chorus of angels and cherubim. This was a favorite of Arturo Toscanini who knew the composer well and conducted several performances of the opera at LaScala with Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. Toscanini's live 1954 Carnegie Hall broadcast (with Nicola Moscona, the NBC Symphony and the Robert Shaw Chorale) is the definitive performance, once issued on RCA in their Toscanini series (60276), unfortunately as of this date no longer in the catalog. This 1931 recording of course doesn't approach the grandeur of Toscanini, but it is effective in its own way. Nazzaeno de Angelis (1881-1962) was one of the best known Italian basses of his era, particularly for Mephistofele which he sang more than 500 times. He also was admired as Rossini's Mosè, a aria from which is included to fill out this twin-CD set, along with other arias by Rossini and Verdi. Soprano Mafalda Favero offers a typically Italianate impassioned reading of L'altra notte, and tenor Antonio Melandri (b. 1891) is a superb Faust. No libretto, but a track-by-track description of the plot. This same performance is also available in a transfer far removed from Ward Marston's work, on Eklipse which costs three times as much. There are a number of more modern recordings of Mefistophele of interest. From the mid-'80s there is a London/Decca recording with Nicolai Ghiaurov, and from 1995 a LaScala set with Riccardo Muti featuring Samuel Ramey (back in better days!).

Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956) began to compose Louise in 1887. The subject, the ill-fated love of the young seamstress Louise who lived with her parents in tenement Paris, and the young artist Julien, was close to Charpentier, as he had led quite a bohemian life himself. The opera came at the right time; the premiere took place at the Opera-Comique February 2, 1900 conducted by André Messager who, like Charpentier, was best known for one work, in his case the opera Véronique. Puccini's La Bohème, the most "bohemianesque" of all operas, had premiered to enormous success about five years earlier. It was felt Louise "expressed the spirit of the new century" with its story of working-class young love in the mysterious, seductive city of Paris. Early in the run of performances a young Scots soprano, Mary Garden, filled in for the lead and caused a sensation, which gave the soprano's career a jump-start. Louise was given in Berlin with Emmy Destinn, and Vienna with Gustav Mahler conducting. The Manhattan opera presented it in 1908 with Garden, and a famous LaScala production in 1923 was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

What is heard on this Naxos CD is a "potted" version trimmed down with approval of Charpentier as it was felt recording the entire score would not be commercially viable. The recording was made by French Columbia in Paris October/November 1935 on 16 78rpm sides.The cast is absolute perfection, with Ninon Vallin, Georges Thill and André Pernet in their prime. Appropriately, the recording immediately won the highly prized Grand Prix du disque.Ward Marston made this superb transfer and has added some subtle reverberation to alleviate the dry sound of the original recording.

A pleasant bonus on this CD is inclusion of an aria from Charpentier's sequel to Louise, Julien, which is now totally unknown. Only the title subject's aria was ever recorded and it can be heard here, an acoustic recording made in 1913 sung by tenor Maurice Detreix, a fitting conclusion to a fascinating CD. As usual with Naxos, there is no libretto but a track-by-track synopsis of the opera. Highly recommended! And thank you, Naxos, once again!

R.E.B. (August 2003)