Ponchielli: La Gioconda
Mary Curtis-Verna, soprano (La Gioconda), Mignon Dunn, mezzo-soprano (Laura), Gladys Kriese, mezzo-soprano (La Cieca), Franco Corelli, tenor (Enzo Grimaldo), Cesare Bardelli, baritone (Barnaba), Bonaldo Giaiotti, bass (Alvise Badoero). Chorus and Orchestra of the Philadelphia Lyric Opera, Anton Guadagno, Conductor. Plus, highlights from La Gioconda, with Renata Tebaldi (La Gioconda), Mignon Dunn (Laura), Lili Chookasian (La Cieca), Franco Corelli (Enzo), Anselmo Colzani (Barnaba), Joshua Hecht (Alvise). Chorus and Orchestra of the Philadelphia Lyric Opera, Guadagno, cond.
Bel Canto Society BCS-5015. (3 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 3:41:43 Available from Bel Canto Society, Inc. (www.belcantosociety.org)

Franco Corelli in Philadelphia: Highlights from Verdi's La forza del destino and Don Carlo
Franco Corelli, tenor (Don Alvaro and Don Carlo), Eileen Farrell, soprano (Donna Leonora), Anselmo Colzani, baritone (Don Carlo di Vargas), Ezio Flagello, bass (Padre Guardiano), Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Filippo II), Louis Quilico, baritone (Rodrigo), Nicola Ghiuselev, bass (Il Grande Inquisitore), Raina Kabaivanska, soprano (Elisabetta), Oralia Dominguez, mezzo-soprano (La Principessa Eboli). Chorus and Orchestra of the Philadelphia Lyric Opera, Anton Guadagno, cond.
MYTO, 2MCD 024.269. (2CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 2:15:49

These releases document several Philadelphia appearances by Franco Corelli. It was a city the Italian tenor returned to with frequency and great success. In many ways Philadelphia offered Franco Corelli an ideal venue. Its close location to New York allowed the Italian tenor to coordinate appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and the Academy of Music. And a bit of separation from the pressures of New York and the Met seemed to put Corelli in a more relaxed frame of mind. As a result many of the Philadelphia performances capture Franco Corelli in a freewheeling mood and sterling voice.
That is certainly the case with the two Gioconda performances included on this Bel Canto Society release. The first two discs encompass the complete performance from 28 February 1964 (Corelli’s biography, published by Baskerville, lists the date as February 18). The third disc features extended highlights, starting with Act II, from a staging on 18 October 1966.

In both cases Corelli is in glorious form. The upper register has amazing security and power. In fact he interpolates some unwritten high notes, including blazing Cs in the Act I “Enzo Grimaldo” duet and the final-act trio. Corelli’s trademark mastery of the long line and dynamic shading is very much in evidence, perhaps most notably in the stunning “Cielo e mar!” from the 1966 performance. Throughout, Corelli is entirely convincing as the passionate, heroic Enzo. It’s a shame that Corelli never recorded Enzo commercially. Fortunately, we have this Bel Canto Society release, plus a 1962 Met broadcast, to show how impressive Corelli was in a role tailor-made for his unique gifts. In both performances Corelli is joined by worthy partners. American soprano Mary Curtis-Verna is a fine Gioconda, floating a lovely B-flat in Act I, and lavishing ample voice and temperament throughout. The lack of a strikingly beautiful or individual timbre consigned Mary Curtis-Verna to a ranking below such stars as Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, and Leontyne Price. But she was a most valuable singer, and would certainly be an important presence on the current opera scene.

And speaking of Renata Tebaldi, the 1966 Gioconda finds her in representative form for this stage of her career. The middle of the voice is absolutely glorious, the upper register less so, both in terms of tonal quality and pitch. Tebaldi, whose acting skills were often given short shrift, throws herself completely into the role, and to great effect. Overall, she gives a riveting performance, and her Gioconda is a welcome addition to this set. Mignon Dunn is a fresh-voiced and passionate Laura in both the 1964 and 1966 performances. Gladys Kriese contributes a heartfelt “Voce di donna” in the 1964 Gioconda. Cesare Bardelli (1964) and Anselmo Colzani (1966) exude the kind of masculine, vibrant Italian vocalism that was so plentiful among Italian baritones of their generation. Bonaldo Giaiotti, always a reliable singer, is a fine Alvise.

The 1964 Gioconda is marred by a frequent lack of coordination between the orchestra pit and stage. This is particularly noticeable in the Act I duet for Barnaba and Enzo, Barnaba’s entrance in Act II (an example of the proverbial train wreck), and “Cielo e mar!” Anton Guadagno, the conductor on both occasions, achieves a much more disciplined performance a few years later.

The 1964 performance, recorded for potential broadcast, is in clear sound, with a realistic balance between singers and orchestra. There is occasional overloading in louder passages. The 1966 performance seems to have been taped from a prime location in the audience. Again, the sound is quite fine, and there is less distortion than in the 1964 recording. The booklet includes track listings, a plot synopsis, and essays on the leading singers, and some photos. There are no texts and translations. While I would not recommend this release as a first choice for a recording of La Gioconda, the documentation of Corelli’s thrilling Enzo makes it of considerable value.

The MYTO release devotes a disc each to highlights from two Philadelphia performances—La forza del destino (14 April 1965) and Don Carlo (25 October 1966). In both cases, the entirety of Franco Corelli’s music is included. And in both cases, Corelli is in spectacular voice. Alvaro was one of Corelli’s greatest roles, and in this performance, he lavishes all of his gifts on Verdi’s challenging music. “O tu che in seno” receives a golden-age performance, as does the “Solenne in quest’ora” duet, with extended diminuendi that are breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. Much the same may be said for Corelli’s Don Carlo, and here, we are treated to some more interpolated high Cs. And while I have focused on the glory of Corelli’s vocalism, I should mention that he does an admirable job of conveying the desperate plights of both characters. As in the case of the Giocondas, Corelli is joined by superb colleagues (Philadelphia rarely stinted on the leading roles), who deliver admirable performances. What a pleasure it is to hear Nicolai Ghiaurov in his prime! But clearly, the focus of this issue is on Corelli.

Both the Forza and Don Carlo seem to have been recorded from somewhere in the audience. The sound of the Forza is the better of the two, offering more presence and less distortion. It also appears that a few different sources were used for latter recording (this is most noticeable in the Act II Garden Scene). I believe that the complete Philadelphia Forza is currently available from Premiere Opera, Ltd. (www.premiereopera.com), and is certainly worth owning in its entirety, as is the 1958 Naples performance with Corelli, Tebaldi, Ettore Bastianini, and Boris Christoff (issued on DVD by Hardy Classics). Corelli may also be heard as Don Carlo in a 1970 performance from Vienna, available on several labels, including the budget Opera D’Oro. But in truth, Corelli is in finer voice in the Philadelphia Don Carlo, making this MYTO a worthwhile investment for admirers of this unique singer.

K.M. (Dec. 2002)