Donizetti: Anna Bolena

Leyla Gencer, Giulietta Simionato, RAI Milano/Gavazzeni (Andromeda)

9 January 2009 4 stars

Anna Bolena

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, which enjoyed a successful premiere in 1830, appears to have vanished into obscurity some time during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was performed at the Gran Teatre Del Liceu in December 1947 to celebrate the centennial of the theatre, which had opened in 1847 with the same opera. However, it appears there were little or no further performances until 1956, when it was given in Bergamo. Maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni was at the Bergamo performance, clearly saw the work’s merits not only in and of itself, but also as a vehicle for the talents of Maria Callas, and a production by the great Luchino Visconti was duly opened with Callas in the title role and Gavazzeni conducting at La Scala, Milan, in 1957.

Gavazzeni continued to champion the piece after this famous production and the present recording was made live the following year using the Milan RAI forces with Giulietta Simionato as Giovanna, as she had been in Barcelona in 1947 and at La Scala in the Visconti production, but with Leyla Gencer in the title role. Gencer is affectionately known as the ‘Queen of the Pirates’ because she made almost no commercial recordings, and yet countless live performances were captured and have been preserved on disc for her vast legion of admirers. It is difficult to say why Gencer was largely ignored by recording companies during her career, although the fact that she was something of an idiosyncratic interpreter, coupled with the fact that her repertoire overlapped with artists who were more of a safe commercial bet, such as Callas and Caballé and, to a lesser extent, Tebaldi and Sutherland, may have something to do with it. At her best, Gencer was incisive and compelling, in an utterly unique way. Her death in May 2008 has renewed interest in her recorded legacy, and may have prompted this release.

Welcome though further Gencer releases always are, this one presents less cause for excitement than is often the case. Given that the performance at La Scala from 14 April 1957 is widely available on EMI, and that it has Gavazzeni and Simionato in common with the RAI performance, as well as the bass Plino Clabassi albeit in a different role, comparisons are inevitable, and one may as well wade right in with the two Annas. Callas had one of the single greatest triumphs of her whole career at the premiere of the Visconti Anna Bolena, and it is this performance which EMI has issued. There is an often repeated story about Callas using a situation in the opera to win over the famously merciless La Scala loggionisti with great success, and what comes over on the recording is absolutely white heat. It represents Callas at her very finest from all points of view – pure singing, musicianship, interpretation and dramatic engagement.

Gencer has proven herself to be capable of equally gripping operatic art, for instance in her 1965 La Scala Norma which is so arresting that I am never able to listen to just excerpts from it – one’s attention is seized from the outset and retained for the considerable length of the piece. But this Anna was not one of those occasions for her. The fact that she was in a radio studio and may not have had an audience probably partly explains it, stage animal that she was, as may the fact that she was relatively near the beginning of her career and was still some years off her prime. Gencer gives a well sung, idiomatic account of Donizetti’s heroine and proves herself the match for all of its vocal challenges, but it never quite catches fire. The famous Gencer glottal is not in evidence, and although some may consider it an undesirable mannerism, it always seemed to feature in her singing when she was so involved and she had so much to express that she was almost seeking to get beyond the boundaries of her own voice. There is no such feeling here and the whole lacks excitement as a result.

The effect of Callas on both Gavazzeni and Simionato, or perhaps the effect of the general atmosphere on all three of them, is palpable in the La Scala recording. Everybody appears to rise to the occasion and give about as inspired a performance as it was possible to give. So whilst Gavazzeni and Simionato with Gencer are high quality, displaying intimate knowledge of the style and rock solid commitment, with Callas they raise their games and the result is electrifying, with the audience unable to resist breaking out into tumultuous applause before the music has ended in each act.

There is very little to choose between the orchestral playing and chorus when comparing La Scala in 1957 to RAI in 1958. Similarly, given that Gavazzeni is at the helm on both occasions, the cuts are, if not identical, virtually so. The remaining cast is broadly superior at La Scala. Clabassi was entrusted the small role of Lord Rochefort in the opera house, but was promoted to Enrico VIII in the radio studio. He suffers from comparisons with Nicola Rossi Lemeni who sang Enrico opposite Callas.

All of which leaves the question of sound. The radio performance is, unsurprisingly, superior, but not to a degree that should make a significant difference. I would venture that those who think the live EMI set has intolerable sound would not be satisfied with the RAI set either. It surprises me that the radio recording is as boxed in and opaque as it is, but for those of us who got over the typical sound quality on many of these 1950s releases long ago, it isn’t in the least problematic.

Any Gencer aficionado will not want to be without this recording. And of course, there are many opera lovers who cannot get along with Callas, but who may still wish to own an account of the great Simionato in one of her finest roles, for whom this release will be ideal. But this is not representative of Gencer at her most inspired, and those in the market for a live Anna Bolena who are neutral or positive about Callas would do far better to get the 1957 EMI set.

By John Woods