L’elisir d’amore (1954)

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Valletti, Noni, Capecchi, Taddei; Rossi; Brissoni, dir. Chorus & Orchestra of RAI, Milan. In Italian, no subtitles. (October 23, 1954), 112m. B&W (transferred from a kinescope). Detailed synopsis included.

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See a video clip below.

A Schipa pupil, Valletti comes into his own here, stepping out of Schipa’s shadow, maybe because Schipa didn’t record the role complete, so he couldn’t imitate him so readily. In Pasquale (Video and DVD #686) Valletti’s timbre strongly resembles Schipa’s throughout.

Like Schipa, Valletti is a typical tenore di grazia–no squillo but the tone is sweet. Valletti’s timbre is Schipa-like in “Chiedi al rio” and, like Schipa, he in general does sound wistful and melancholic. Like Schipa, he understates–but not to the point of bad taste. His crescendos are small in scale, and he makes few emphatic accentuations.

Evidently he favored bright vowels above the staff. Notice that he sings the high A in the cadenza to “Quanto è bella” on the Italian vowel “e,” on the word “lieve,” instead of on “ah,” as is traditional. His descending scale on the first “la perfida” is wonderfully accurate.

Nemorino consists of an extensive range of moods, and Valletti’s portrayal is as detailed as Gobbi’s Tonio (see the two Gobbi Pagliaccis, Videos #669 and #657, the latter in DVD). Valletti imbues words with meaning. He “says” recitative, singing it on pitch yet giving it a spoken quality. He says “Oh, Adina” with touching affection. On the phrase “non si stanchi per or” he actually sounds sleepy. He’s agile on his feet and dances about. A cultivated man, Valletti manages to play a bumpkin very successfully. He makes a great drunk. He excels at the role’s sung laughter and provocative, desperate tra-la-las. His “Una furtiva lagrima” is sadder than others, which makes Nemorino more sympathetic. Valletti is endearing. He pleads beautifully. He captures the plaintive aspect of the role better than anyone since. His voice carried very well at the Met; still, his nuances benefit from video.

Why was Taddei, a baritone, cast as Dulcamara? Perhaps because he’s good at it, expansive, extroverted. Dulcamara’s tessitura, like that of most buffo caricato parts, is too high for most basses, as high as that of baritone roles. (Baritone roles sometimes go higher; more important are differences in timbre and inflection. At the time Elisir was composed, “baritone” had not emerged as a separate voice type.) Taddei has a smile in his sound–which is different from having one on one’s face while singing.

Noni is well schooled and is representative of the highly polished sopranos who abounded then.

Rossi achieves a balance of contrasting tempos and emphasizes the important chord changes so that the music doesn’t sound too consonant. The score benefits from the opening of traditional cuts and is heard virtually complete. I felt happy watching this Elisir and had a smile on my face the whole time. —Stefan Zucker

Alan Blyth, reviewing in Gramophone

“The advantage of an all-Italian cast is self-evident. And what a splendid cast it is, each member adept and experienced in her or his role. Valletti makes an ideal Nemorino as actor and singer. His refined voice and technique, his pointed diction are seconded by his portrait of the awkward, infatuated village lad. Noni looks a shade mature for Adina, but sings with idiomatic tone and offers well-routined acting. Incidentally the pair here repeat a partnership heard on a roughly contemporaneous audio-only version

“Taddei, who took the part on an EMI set under Serafin a couple of years later, is a vivid Dulcamara, acting amusingly with body and voice but never overdoing the buffo elements of the role. His is a rounded portrayal, alone worth the price of the video. Capecchi, yet another experienced performer, gives a properly preening, fatuous cut to Sergeant Belcore. Rossi conducts with spirit. The staging looks dated, but seldom gets in the way of the lively, idiomatic singing.”

Tully Potter, reviewing in International Opera Collector

“From the latest tranche of Bel Canto Society historic videos to come my way, I find myself irresistibly attracted once again to a Donizetti comic opera, this time L’elisir d’amore, a 1954 Italian TV film in black and white.

“The cast is drawn from a sort of unofficial Donizetti/Rossini repertory company that flourished in the 1950s and contributed much to Glyndebourne as well as films and records. Alda Noni is a characterful Adina, Cesare Valletti a virtually ideal Nemorino, Renato Capecchi an odiously conceited Belcore and Giuseppe Taddei one of the great Dulcamaras. All four recorded their roles for various record labels but only Noni and Valletti did so together, so this cast is unique. The visual direction by Alessandro Brissoni is splendid and the musical side is in the safe hands of Mario Rossi. I could imagine an equally good performance but not a better one.”

David McKee, reviewing in THE OPERA QUARTERLY

“A 1954 RAI telecast of Elisir is first-cabin all the way, with Alda Noni, Cesare Valletti, Renato Cappecchi, and Giuseppe Taddei, brought across the finish line by conductor Mario Rossi in 112 minutes. For those leery of ‘historical’ picture and sound quality, rest assured that (presuming good-quality source material) BCS transfers generally hew to a high level of visual and aural presence. [McKee goes on to review an Elisir with Alaimo and two with Pavarotti.]

“However, I’m going to roll the dice and recommend that you seek out the BCS version [with Valletti]. Its Dulcamara and Belcore have two of the meatier voices lavished on these roles in modern times, and the romantic leads are in congenial vocal territory. It certainly promises more in terms of stylistic homogeneity than recent versions have delivered. Unlike Dr. Dulcamara’s customers, you probably won’t go away feeling swindled.”

Secco Recitives: Differing Approaches

Recitatives are of two varieties: “secco” and “accompanied.” Secco recitatives do have an accompaniment consisting of a keyboard instrument with or without a cello or double bass. Accompanied recitatives include a string section.

Singers’ coaches differ in their treatment of secco recitatives, some emphasizing words, others music. Italians of Valletti’s period favored words. They also exhorted singers to perform secco recitatives at lightning speed. The tradeoff typically was that the recitatives sounded musically vacuous: they lacked appoggiaturas as much as a desert lacks rain.

Many today add appoggiaturas out of deference to early 19th-century performance practice. More important is that appoggiaturas provide dissonance. For the dissonance to have effect, one needs to linger on the appoggiatura if only a little, which slows down recitatives. (When appoggiaturas are added to secco recitatives, the effect is a little like that of accompanied recitatives.)

I feel the need for the dissonance of appoggiaturas, which in any case are justified historically. But Valletti’s masterful pacing makes a good case for the no-appoggiatura approach.–SZ

Click for a short article about the basso buffo

For a review of this title by the Wall Street Journal click here.