Ponchielli: La Gioconda
Elena Souliotis, soprano (La Gioconda), Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano (Laura), Oralia Dominguez, mezzo-soprano (La Cieca), Richard Tucker, tenor (Enzo Grimaldo), Cornell MacNeil, baritone (Barnaba), Paolo Washington, bass (Alvise Badoero). Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Bruno Bartoletti, Conductor. Available from Premiere Opera, Ltd.  (www.premiereopera.com) (2 Discs) (B) (AAD) TT: 2:31:53

Cornell MacNeil Sings Verdi
Selections from La forza del destino, Rigoletto, Ernani, Luisa Miller, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore, Don Carlo, La traviata, Nabucco, and Otello. Cornell MacNeil, baritone. Various orchestras and conductors. Available from Premiere Opera, Ltd. (B) (AAD) TT: 77:29

Those of you familiar with this web site will immediately notice a departure from our standard review format. Typically a picture of the front of the CD box serves as a link to the review.  Here there is no picture, nor are there pictures on covers of the CDs under review. Premiere Opera, Ltd., a concern specializing in live opera performances, has instituted what it calls its "Nude Opera" series. No, Premiere Opera is not offering photos of your favorite singers in their birthday suits. "Nude Opera" is Premiere Opera's no-frills approach to packaging, with CDs stored in plain jewel cases, accompanied only by a computer printout of the cast and track listings. This bare-bones approach allows Premiere Opera to offer its CDs at bargain price—$10.00 per disc, plus shipping and handling (Premiere Opera's complete catalogue and ordering information may be found at its web site: www.premiereopera.com.

I was delighted to see that Premiere Opera has reissued a June 1966 Teatro Colon performance of La Gioconda, featuring a cast of major artists. I had previously read about this performance, but never actually heard it. On the whole, my high expectations were fulfilled.  The Gioconda in this Buenos Aires performance is Elena Suliotis, the fiery Greek soprano who caused a considerable stir in the mid to late '60s when she burst on the scene performing the most challenging dramatic soprano repertoire. Souliotis's no-holds-barred approach and rather unfinished technique led to an early vocal demise. Still, there is no question that the performances from her very brief prime made for compelling listening.

Souliotis did not possess all of the attributes necessary for the ideal Gioconda. Her attempt at the famous soft high B-flat in the opera's first act, for example, is rather scary. The register breaks are quite pronounced. Still, at this stage of her career, Souliotis possessed temperament, vocal power, and high notes to spare. She throws herself unsparingly into the role of Gioconda, a woman who is, after all, in the most desperate of predicaments. Souliotis's interpretation rises to considerable heights in a blazing account of the final act "Suicidio!" and the last confrontation with Barnaba. I would certainly count the Buenos Aires Gioconda among the more successful outings for this flawed, but quite fascinating singer.

The remainder of the female side of the cast is quite strong. Rosalind Elias sings beautifully and brings considerable dramatic fire to the role of Laura. Oralia Dominguez is a rich-voiced La Cieca. But for me the real glory of this performance rests with the tenor and baritone leads. Enzo was the role in which Richard Tucker made his Metropolitan Opera debut on January 25, 1945, and it served the tenor well throughout his long and distinguished career. Unfortunately, it was also one of many "signature" roles that Tucker never recorded commercially (for that matter, neither Souliotis nor MacNeil recorded Gioconda).

Fortunately, Tucker's Enzo is documented in a few in-performance recordings. The Metropolitan Opera has made available (as a contribution premium) a 1946 broadcast featuring Tucker, Zinka Milanov, Risë Stevens, and Leonard Warren. Tucker is quite fine in this broadcast, but the voice, at this early stage in his career, is on the decidedly lyrical side.

As time progressed, Tucker's voice became more dramatic, as did his interpretation of Enzo. For those reasons, I prefer the 1966 Buenos Aires performance. Here Tucker—approaching his 53rd birthday—is in gloriously free and powerful voice. The climaxes ring out with thrilling intensity —the conclusion of the duet with Barnaba and "Cielo e mar!" bring down the house. But Tucker also demonstrates a gorgeous, flowing legato, as well as the ability to scale his voice back for the more intimate moments. The Act II duet with Laura is particularly impressive in this regard. There is, to be sure, the occasional Tucker sob and overemphasis. But never, to my mind, do those "mannerisms" detract from a great performance by a great artist.

Likewise, baritone Cornell MacNeil is superb as the evil Barnaba. In his prime MacNeil possessed one of the most powerful and beautiful of baritone voices. This 1966 Gioconda captures him near the peak of his career. There is little that is subtle in MacNeil's performance but the baritone always convincingly portrays the character's malevolent nature. And MacNeil's constant flood of glorious tone and volcanic high notes offer more than sufficient thrills. Bass Paolo Washington is quite fine as Alvise. Conductor Bruno Bartoletti leads a performance that generates plenty of momentum, while also allowing the singers to linger over telling moments.

The recorded sound, presumably from an FM broadcast, is reasonably good. In the earlier part of the broadcast there is some distortion in louder passages, but this problem lessens as the performance continues. Throughout, the dynamic range is somewhat limited, although the voices are always reproduced quite clearly. In short, while the sound does not approach commercial recordings of the period, it is more than sufficient to allow this powerhouse Gioconda to make its mark.

More full-throttle pleasures from Cornell MacNeil may be enjoyed in a recital CD entitled "Cornell MacNeil Sings Verdi." This disc affords the listener the opportunity to hear MacNeil in live performances of roles he recorded commercially (Renato, Miller, Rigoletto, and the elder Germont). But of even greater value are several excerpts from operas that MacNeil performed but never recorded (Don Carlo in La forza del destino and Ernani, Macbeth, the Count di Luna, Posa, Nabucco, and Iago).

The performances, spanning the years 1958 to 1979, capture MacNeil for the most part in his prime. Again the attributes notable in the Buenos Aires Gioconda are very much in evidence. The voice has incredible beauty and richness throughout all of the registers. In fact, I cannot think of another post-war baritone capable of sustaining, from top to bottom, a timbre that is so consistently rich, powerful, and easily produced. That, to my mind, was Cornell MacNeil's unique greatness. And it was this singular greatness that made him vocally ideal for the magnificent baritone roles of Giuseppe Verdi. Time and again while listening to this disc I was in awe of MacNeil's unending flood of glorious sound. And while there is little in the way of subtlety or individual characterization, MacNeil remains an involved and committed artist.

As in the Gioconda recording, there are occasional moments of distortion, particularly in higher and louder passages. But MacNeil's voice is almost always reproduced with fine definition and clarity. Given the CD's budget price and its documentation of many roles not recorded commercially by this gifted baritone, "Cornell MacNeil Sings Verdi" is definitely worth investigating.

K.M. (Aug. 2001)