Verismo preludes Onyx4242

Verismo – Preludi e Intermezzi
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Domingo Hindoyan
rec. 2022/23, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
Reviewed as download from press preview
Onyx 4242 [68]

Collections with opera overtures are not unusual, but there are other orchestral pieces hidden in many operas, and here Domingo Hindoyan – or whoever put this programme together- has made an inventory of the supply in the Italian repertoire and come up with an interesting and varied mix of well-known old friends and relative rarities. As far as I know, it has been a long time since something similar was issued. A Naxos disc, recorded in 1989, in the infancy of the company, covers large portions of the contents of the present issue, as well as some material not included here. As can be seen in the contents list, we are mainly in the verismo repertoire, although Hindoyan bends the borderline a bit by opening with the well-known Dance of the Hours ballet by Ponchielli, who was a generation older than the others; its cheerful, light-hearted music stands out from the rest of the programme. It opens discreetly, almost like chamber music, with delicately scored harp and woodwind, before the main theme appears. In the early 1960s, Allan Sherman pinched the melody and used it for his parodic song Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh about life in a summer camp, a world hit which won a Grammy Award in 1964 for best comedy performance. Of course, Disney, too, had used it comically in Fantasia, but the original is far from comedic, just elegantly beautiful, until it changes into a darker, more dramatic mood, but still romantically surging – then soon all gloominess is swept away by the whirlwind finale. It is a pulse-raising opening played with precision and real gusto. In spite of the joyous ballet music, the opera is a tragedy, as are most of the other operas represented here. 

In Puccini’s Manon Lescaut the heroine succumbs in an American desert, and the beautiful Intermezzo, played before the last act, anticipates this. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana is a realistic drama about jealousy in which the male hero – or maybe anti-hero – is killed in a duel. As a resting-point between the hot-blooded quarrels and the tragic finale, the Intermezzo is played while all the townspeople are in church, which is why we hear the Philharmonic Hall organ behind the strings. This is without doubt the best-known music in this programme; Mascagni hoped that a similar intermezzo would be a selling-point also in his next opera, L’amico Fritz, which is a peaceful opera with a happy end and has never found the popularity of its predecessor, even though there is a lot of fine music in it. The Intermezzo is somewhat like that in Cavalleria and develops into a sweet melody with harp accompaniment. Its tune is not as memorable as in Cavalleria, but still attractive. The two Mascagni pieces are played in reverse order, which means that the serene Cavalleria melody is followed by the dark Witches’ Dance from Puccini’s early opera Le Villi – an abrupt contrast. The opera is rarely seen and heard but the dance is well worth an airing now and then. On the Naxos disc, mentioned above, the short prelude from the opera is also included. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is much more often performed and recorded with Cavalleria. Its Intermezzo is played immediately after Canio’s famous and deeply intense aria Vesti la giubba and quotes phrases from the aria, but it also goes even further back into the first act, quoting the prologue and Tonio’s beautiful Un nido di memorie. 

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is the least known of the composers; he was also a generation younger, belonging almost entirely to the 20th century, but is basically a late Romantic and his music is accessible even to listeners who fight shy of “modern” music. Most of his operas are comedies, and Il segreto di Susanna, his most played work, is a charming one-acter. The heroine’s secret is that she has started smoking, but her husband suspects she has a lover. When he suddenly comes home she quickly hides the cigarette in her hand. The husband takes her hand and is burned, the secret is revealed and from then on they always smoke together. For a non-smoker like myself, the moral is a bit murky, but the opera is entertaining with several fine arias, a lovely little Intermezzo (not played here) and a chatty overture that promises a conversation piece. Readers unfamiliar with Wolf-Ferrari should give Il segreto di Susanna a try. There is a fairly recent Naxos recording (review), and an even more recent from Liverpool (Avie AV2193), which I haven’t heard. Further back in time, there is a classic 1954 recording on Cetra with Elena Rizzieri and Giuseppe Valdengo conducted by Angelo Questa (review), then Decca recorded it under Gardelli with Maria Chiara and Bernd Weikl, but the Sony recording with Renata Scotto and Renato Bruson seems to be currently unavailable. 

Back to Puccini, we find the lovely but sad Intermezzo from Suor Angelica – a piece seldom heard in isolation – and the Prelude to Act III of Edgar, another early opera seldom played, finely wrought and melodically attractive. 

Mascagni’s homage to Rossini, Le maschere from 1901 was one of his failures and has been seen only sporadically following its premiere. The nervously talkative Sinfonia, however, is not without merit, and it is good to have it recorded. 

I gioielli della Madonna from 1911 has claims to be Wolf-Ferrari’s best opera. As opposed to most of his other works, it is a serious and contemporary work, its libretto based on real events. It is composed on a grand scale – and that is the hang-up for staging it. There are more than forty characters in the cast list, many of them for comprimarios and can thus be sung by members of the chorus, but it is still ungainly. I reviewed the seemingly only existing recording* some years ago (review) and liked it a lot, but the first Intermezzo and – even more – the Serenata can be enjoyed on their own. There are a couple of other instrumental pieces of high quality, and perhaps they could find a place on a possible volume two. Otherwise, they are available on the Naxos disc. 

The concluding two items are – like most of this music – terribly sad. Both heroines die: Adriana Lecouvreur receives a bouquet of poisoned violets and Madama Butterfly commits suicide. The Prelude to the last scene is, however, retrospective and quotes the love duet from the first act and other expressions of happiness, so it contrasts drastically with what is to follow. 

The Onyx production team have caught the Liverpool Phil in all their glory and the playing is, as expected, first class. The programme is also a happy mix of good old friends and interesting new acquaintances. This is a disc for all lovers of melodious music with substance. 

Göran Forsling

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* Editor’s note: there is also an excellent recording of a broadcast concert performance on 1 November 1976 from the BBC’s London Studio of I gioielli della Madonna on the Bella Arte label, starring the ever-under-rated Pauline Tinsley, first-rate tenor André Turp and celebrated baritone Peter Glossop, conducted by Alberto Erede. Peculiarities include the fact that elsewhere on the web it is described as being from 1967 and throughout the booklet and on the two CDs the title is misspelt as “I Gioiella”. The sound, singing and playing are uniformly good. Used copies are available on Amazon and eBay. [RMo]

Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–1886)
1 La Gioconda Act III: Danza delle ore (‘Dance of the Hours’) 8.56
 Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
2 Manon Lescaut Act III: Intermezzo 5.45
 Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945)
3 L’amico Fritz Act III: Intermezzo 4.49
4 Cavalleria rusticana Intermezzo 4.03
 Giacomo Puccini
5 Le Villi Act II: Intermezzo ‘La Tregenda’ (Witches’ Dance) 3.34
 Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919)
6 Pagliacci Intermezzo 3.37
 Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948)
7 Il segreto di Susanna Overture 2.56
 Giacomo Puccini
8 Suor Angelica Intermezzo 5.00
9 Edgar Prelude to Act III 4.22
 Pietro Mascagni
10 Le maschere Sinfonia 6.32
 Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
 I gioielli della Madonna
11 Intermezzo No 1 5.32
12 Serenata 3.31
 Francesco Cilea (1866–1950)
13 Adriana Lecouvreur Act II: Intermezzo 2.29
 Giacomo Puccini
14 Madama Butterfly Prelude to Act II, Part 2 7.54