OP3354. OTELLO (Act I, Complete), Live Performance, 15 Aug. 1939, Castello Sforzecso, Milano, w. Arturo Lucan Cond. La Scala Ensemble; Francesco Merli, Claudia Muzio, Enrico de Franceschi, etc.; Francesco Merli, Claudia Muzio, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Bianca Scacciati, Tancredi Pasero, Carlo Galeffi & Gino Vanelli: Duets & Trio from I Lombardi, Aida, Forza, Cavalleria, Manon Lescaut & La Gioconda - recorded 1927-31; Claudia Muzio: La Separazione (Rossini) - recorded 16 Nov., 1923, Edison; Claudia Muzio: La Traviata - Teneste la promessa . . . Addio del passato - recorded 1935. (Canada) 2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1132, w.Elaborate 46pp Booklet. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Notes by Bill Russell & Richard Caniell. [For anyone who hasn't yet heard Muzio's justifiably famous reading of Germont's letter - 'Teneste la promessa' it is here better transferred than anywhere else. It should be mandatory listening!] – 787790470205
“This marvelous set is built mainly around the Italian dramatic tenor Francesco Merli (1887–1976), with a secondary focus on the great soprano Claudia Muzio (1889–1936). Merli was a true dramatic tenor; he possessed an ability to produce an even legato as well as great power. He was particularly known for his Otello and Calaf, the latter being represented on the first complete recording of TURANDOT with Gina Cigna and Magda Olivero.
On this set we get as much of his Otello as exists, beginning with a complete Act I, taken mainly from a live La Scala performance in 1939. Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, has wisely chosen to replace the concluding Love Duet with a commercial recording made for Columbia where we hear Muzio as Desdemona instead of Delia Sanzio at La Scala (the Columbia conductor is unidentified). The substitution is justified by the significant improvement in sound quality as well as by giving us Muzio. The La Scala sound quality is much inferior to what the Metropolitan Opera was producing in the same period, marred by compression and the use of a single microphone, with the singers moving into and out of its range as needs be. The Columbia recording (which also included the third-act duet heard here) was made in 1935, and the sound has much more presence.
Listeners will need a tolerance for limited historic broadcast sound for the remainder of the first act, but they will be rewarded by a thrilling account of Otello’s music by Merli. We get no feeling that he is straining to exhibit the power the role requires. Hearing him proclaim ‘Abasso le spade’ just prior to the Love Duet is genuinely spine-tingling. Neither Enrico de Franceschi’s Iago nor Arturo Lucan’s conducting is particularly thrilling, but both are idiomatic and more than acceptable. The remainder of the OTELLO excerpts, also from Columbia 78s made in 1935, demonstrate that Giovanni Martinelli was not the only great Otello of that era. Merli’s voice has an attractive, warm timbre and his diction is notably crisp. To hear him and Muzio in the confrontation duet in the third act is exhilarating; the two singers interact with vivid realism. I have encountered this excerpt before, but never in a transfer with such clarity and vocal presence. In the monologue that follows Merli sings with extraordinary sensitivity and dynamic shading.
Much of the rest of this two-disc set honors Merli with some of his finest commercial recordings. He was admired enough to be recorded in four complete operas, IL TROVATORE, MANON LESCAUT, and PAGLIACCI as well as the TURANDOT mentioned above. The Trovatore excerpts here do not come from the complete set, however, but from scenes he recorded in 1927 and 1928 with Giannina Arangi-Lombardi. The one thing that Merli may have lacked is a true individuality of timbre, the immediately identifiable sound marks the greatest singers. He is not a singer whom you will identify after hearing just one phrase, as you probably do with Caruso, Gigli, Vickers, and Pavarotti, for example. But the virtues that Merli possessed have always been rare and are even rarer today, which makes them treasurable. There is a vibrancy to his tone, a ring to the high notes, and an even richness of sound throughout his whole range, that are qualities of only the very best singers.
The generosity of material on these two well-filled CDs provides us a fine picture of Merli’s talents. The wide range of excerpts shows Merli’s ability to spin a lyrical line (the Tomb Scene from Aida) and to explode with passion (the Santuzza-Turridu duet from Cavalleria Rusticana, the trio that ends the first act of Il Trovatore). These numbers also feature the lovely spinto soprano of Arangi-Lombardi, which adds even more to the value of this set. As John Steane says about her in THE GRAND TRADITION, ‘her legato is sound, her tone incisive, her high notes exciting, her triplets, trills and passage work well-schooled’. Her recording of Leonora’s last act aria from Il Trovatore is a very beautiful one, with some exquisitely floated pianissimi. Merli and she sing the ‘Miserere’ warmly and sensitively.
Yet another highlight is the trio from I Lombardi. This 1932 recording has received scant attention over the years because of two famous recordings (by Enrico Caruso, Frances Alda, and Marcel Journet and by Beniamino Gigli, Elisabeth Rethberg, and Ezio Pinza). Here Merli is joined by Bianca Scacciati and Tancredo Pasero; it may not quite be on the level of the other two, but it comes darned close and is certainly worthy of attention. There is a unique urgency to this version. The contrast between the incisively dramatic singing of Scacciati and the gentle lyricism of Merli at the outset is very effective.
I have not covered each track of Merli’s fine singing here, but you get the point. Everything is worth hearing, and more than once. I want to add a sentence or two about the Muzio tracks. Until now I had not heard her recording of the dramatic scene ‘La separazione’ by Rossini, and I kept returning to it because her singing was so beautiful and moving. The big third-act scene from La Traviata is among her most famous recordings, but I have never encountered it reproduced with the presence and richness of vocal color managed by Caniell.
As usual, the booklet accompanying the discs is remarkable. Bill Russell’s superb essay on Merli and all the recordings transferred here is a model of the kind of notes that historical reissues should provide, but rarely do. Caniell adds his own valuable notes as well, and the booklet provides wonderful historic photos and artist bios.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March / April, 2020
“Francesco Merli was a thoughtful and probing singer and actor. He phrased with great beauty and dramatic meaning, always using the text as a springboard for the music. And he was a singer capable both of overwhelming power, and affecting tenderness. All who love great singing owe it to themselves to become familiar with Francesco Merli’s legacy. Immortal Performances offers an imaginative combination of live and studio recordings to recreate great performances and artistic partnerships that eluded documentation in complete recorded versions. In the case of the release under review, the impetus is 1935 staging of Verdi’s OTELLO at the Rome Teatro Reale, starring Francesco Merli and soprano Claudia Muzio. The performance itself was not recorded (Italian Columbia did make studio recordings of the artists’ Act I and III duets). There is, however, a transcription of the first Act of an August 15, 1939 OTELLO, performed by the forces of the Teatro alla Scala, with Merli in the title role. The Desdemona for that performance was Delia Sanzio. As Desdemona does not appear and sing in Act I until its conclusion, Richard Caniell and IP substitute the 1935 Merli-Muzio ‘Gia nella notte densa’ duet to bring the music to a close. Studio recordings of excerpts from OTELLO with Merli and Muzio follow, concluding with Otello’s death scene. The live portion of the OTELLO Act I is a fascinating document, albeit a sonically flawed one. Richard Caniell did his considerable best with the defective source material, but the result is still inferior to commercial recordings of the period, and even some broadcasts of the time. Nevertheless, we are able to hear a performance, starring many of the finest singers of the era, that crackles with energy and momentum. Merli is intense and vocally fearless in his brief but extraordinarily demanding entrance, ‘Esultate!’ and Otello’s return following the Cassio-Montano brawl (‘Abbasso le spade!’). On these occasions, however, Merli here is not the especially observant either of note values or pitch (like many singers with prominent vibratos, Merli could be prone to sharping). Those problems disappear in the studio recording of the love duet, in which Merli’s sensitive, ardent, and beautiful singing pair ideally with the Muzio’s radiant Desdemona. Enrico de Francheschi is a rich-voiced, subtle, and scheming Iago, and the remainder of the cast is quite good. Arturo Lucan leads with a sure hand, leading the forces of the company that performed this opera’s 1887 world premiere. The remaining OTELLO studio excerpts, from the 1920s, and 30s, find Merli and Muzio in wonderful form, singing with absolute technical assurance, and intensity of expression. To repeat myself, it’s wonderful to hear these singers relish the text, both for its dramatic meaning, and as the foundation for the musical line. As postscript to the OTELLO selections, IP offers some solo recordings by Muzio, including her iconic June 6, 1935 recording of Violetta’s final act scene from LA TRAVIATA, ‘Teneste la promessa . . . Addio del passato’. I’m not sure a singer has ever so successfully transcended the contrivances of opera to create a portrait of a three-dimensional person, here in the throes of the utmost desperation. Muzio’s reading of Germont’s letter and her rendition of the ensuing aria make it clear that Violetta realizes her death is imminent. At the time of this recording, Muzio was suffering from the heart disease that would claim her in less than a year, at the age of 47.
The remainder of the two-disc set comprises excerpts from various operas, recorded in the 1920s and 30s, pairing Merli with singers he performed with often in the opera house, but not on complete commercial sets (as Richard Caniell points out, recording companies often paired a star of the time with lesser artists, as a cost-saving measure). All of the featured collaborators are among the finest of the era. They possessed vibrant, secure voices, were masters of the grand Italian tradition, and relished the opportunity to throw themselves into the music and the role. This entire set is an irreplaceable souvenir of an age in which the most demanding Italian repertoire was sung by artists who had the vocal and theatrical goods to do it justice. It’s an era that, for many reasons, will probably never be replicated, and we are in debt to concerns like Immortal Performances for making it accessible to us. Richard Caniell’s restorations of the various excerpts are superb, among the best I have heard for this material. The voices emerge with remarkable presence, definition, and color. The accompanying booklet includes essays both by Bill Russell and Richard Caniell, the latter’s Recording Notes, a synopsis of Act I of OTELLO, and artist bios and photos. A feast of vocal riches, marvelously restored, and very highly recommended.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, March / April, 2020
“In Francesco Merli we have the near perfect tenore di forza: a large bright, intense, well-schooled, full and forward tonal emission….Merli’s voice contained a vibrato, which imparts an easy movement of tone….In assessing his recorded legacy, it is necessary to listen carefully to determine the reasons for some of the admiration and respect engendered in audiences….it is possible to hear how he places the tone and, in particular, how he deals with certain phrases that cause other tenors problems….With Pertile having been wooed away by Voce del Padrone, it seems obvious that the Columbia company considered Merli and Hipólito Lázaro…to be their star tenors representing the Italian repertoire….It would be fair to say that…Merli…displayed a solid technique combined with an honest and thrilling musical temperament that places him in the front rank of tenori di forza [in the 20th century].”
- Alan Bilgora, THE RECORD COLLECTOR, 1998