Mancini, Simionato; Filippeschi, Panerai, Neri, Massaria; Orchestra and Chorus of RAI, Rome, Gui. No texts or translations. Cetra 2564 66143 (3)
When combing the shelves of Sam Goody (that LP mecca) during the early 1960s, one could come across complete opera recordings with casts that did not feature the usual suspects from the big labels but listed artists unknown to a Met standee — and in leading roles! Sometimes a familiar Italian name would pop up, but these were performances captured in early career, surrounded by intriguing Italian colleagues. The sets were usually on the Cetra label, and the name Caterina Mancini was a constant. Cetra's series of Verdi recordings in the early 1950s, made mostly from live RAI broadcasts, honored the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death in 1901; Cetra has now rereleased them to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth. Mancini is showcased on a number of them, including this 1951 Aida, in which she shares billing with several illustrious artists who joined the big international leagues.
The career of Mancini (1924–2011) was somewhat meteoric, along the lines of her gifted compatriot Anita Cerquetti; Mancini also shared with Cerquetti a sizeable voice, a traditionally Italianate sound and enough agility to manage the principal soprano roles in Nabucco, Ernani and I Lombardi, in which she made her debut in 1948. Health problems caused Mancini to withdraw from the stage, but by 1963 she was featured in a Dallas performance of Messiah, singing for the first time as a contralto!
What grabbed this young opera-lover in the 1960s — accustomed as I then was to international casting in the opera house and on recording — were the gutsy, vivid portrayals these Cetra artists delivered, as well as the spontaneity that informed these one-shot live broadcast performances. Perhaps best of all was the italianità — the Italian style that came so naturally to these singers. This is still the case, fifty years on. Some of the singing can be unpolished; technical flaws and limitations occasionally intrude. But the overall effect is one of a live performance of quality and commitment.
Mancini takes a while to get going, although "Ritorna vincitor" and the Act II duet with Amneris are well sung and movingly phrased. She comes into her own in the crucial Act III Nile scene. "O patria mia" is given just the right sense of loss, although Verdi's sfumato marking after the first lines of each strophe, as Aida's dreams of her homeland go up in smoke, could be observed more scrupulously; and no one could accuse the climactic high "C" of being dolce. In the duets with Amonasro and Radamès that follow, Mancini hits the mark, including some effective piano singing, which carries into the Act IV tomb scene. In general, the artist's somewhat mannered Italian diction and style — which hark back to the work of the magnificent Claudia Muzio, and which are also reminiscent of the distinguished star Maria Caniglia — seemed somewhat old-fashioned and calcified by the 1950s, but they are also qualities that are sorely missed nowadays.
Tenor Mario Filippeschi offers a good deal of his usual blunt vocalism as Radamès, but there are some welcome surprises in the form of occasional pianos, some gracefully turned phrases in the final duet and forte high notes that may be "gunned" but nevertheless ring out with the brilliant tone intended. Rolando Panerai is a baritone one thinks of in somewhat lighter assignments than Amonasro, but he pulls it out, and he must have been doing something right in 1951, as sixty-two years later, at the age of eighty-eight, he sang Germont opposite Mariella Devia's Violetta. Giulio Neri's black-voiced Ramfis combines implacable authority throughout with legato in the Act I, scene 2 consecration scene. (The unnamed High Priestess is quite good in her brief but effective solos there.) Antonio Massaria is a handsome-sounding King.
The biggest name featured on this set is Giulietta Simionato, an Amneris to be reckoned with. Compared with her reading of the role in two live Callas performances from the period, here the mezzo is more authoritative vocally and histrionically. She is in glorious form in the duet with Radamès, which takes her to blazing, secure high B-flats, and thrilling in a judgement scene of searing passion, idiomatic grasp and textual detail.
The recorded sound is clear and unenhanced by fake reverb, but the somewhat boxy acoustic is not always adequate to house the big orchestral and choral moments. There's no distortion, but an occasional lack of sonic spaciousness compromises some of the grander moments conductor Vittorio Gui endeavors to create. Gui's reading is splendid all the same, from an evocative and haunting prelude to final measures of great beauty, underlined by Simionato's (intentionally) hollow, drained chanting of "Pace, t'imploro." All in all, this is an Aida to add to a Verdi collection — if not a first choice, a treasurable memento of the days when one took an idiomatic performance for granted, and featuring almost nothing routine.
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