MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana / Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Santuzza); Jussi Björling, tenor (Turiddu); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Alfio); Lucia Dani, mezzo-soprano (Lola); Rina Corsi, mezzo-soprano (Mamma Lucia); Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Chorus & Orchestra; Alberto Erede, conductor / Decca 28945822426
Decca has now reissued its 1998 reissue of the early-1980s reissue of this 1957 recording of Cavalleria Rusticana. (Do you have the chronology right?) Oddly enough, despite its being the best-selling stereo Cavalleria of its time, it somehow slipped through the cracks and disappeared within five years, not to resurface until the 1970s, and by then it was marginalized and written off as not well sung or exciting enough.
Part of this had to do with the original sound. Recorded in an extraordinarily dry acoustic, as was an “operatic recital” by Björling that filled out Side 4 of the two-LP release, it made the voices, and particularly the tenor’s sound not only dry but a bit abrasive. Indeed, the sound was so problematic that even John Steane, in his 1970 book The Grand Tradition, panned the recording as showing (in his words) “surface wear” on Björling’s voice at the time. But Steane, a very knowledgeable man, should have compared this recording to the live 1959 Met performance of the same opera, where Björling’s voice showed no surface wear whatsoever.
But to get to the actual performance and what it contains, this is a moderately exciting Cavalleria taken at a slower tempo than I normally like. True, as one reviewer has stated, Erede and the orchestra has this music “in their blood,” and that helps a lot, but there are moments—particularly in the Santuzza-Turiddu duet—where you wish for a bit more propulsion.
The real frisson in this performance comes from Björling, who is much more dramatic here than he was in his 1953 mono recording with Zinka Milanov, and baritone Ettore Bastianini, surely the greatest Italian baritone of his time, as Alfio. This is the only recording that Björling and Bastianini ever made together as well as the first of only two Tebaldi-Björling collaborations on records (the other was the famous 1959 RCA Turandot). Tebaldi is moderately dramatic, but not as good as Milanov was in 1953, and she doesn’t hold a candle to the two greatest Santuzzas on record, Lina Bruna-Rasa (with Gigli and Mascagni) and Renata Scotto, who basically copied Bruna-Rasa (with Domingo and James Levine).
But why was this recording so quickly forgotten? In large part, it was due to the strange arrangement that produced it in the first place. It was the first of a series of “swaps” between American RCA and British Decca involving Tebaldi and Björling, and part of the arrangement was that although the recordings were made in Europe under Decca’s auspices, they would have a limited shelf life on the RCA Victor label. Thus this recording was initially issued on RCA Victor with a shocking pink cover (see right), but it was pulled from the shelves by the time Björling died in 1960. A similar fate met the 1960 Leontyne Price-Björling-Fritz Reiner recording of the Verdi Requiem. It was issued in the U.S. on the RCA Victor “Soria Series,” yet was pulled from circulation by abount 1962 because by then the reciprocal agreement between RCA and Decca had expired. Yet, for some strange reason, the 1959 Turandot remained steadfastly on RCA Victor, despite the fact that they used not one but two of Decca’s hottest properties, Tebaldi and Birgit Nilsson. In the end, Decca definitely got the short end of the stick because the only recording Björling lived to complete (if you could call it “complete”) was a single operetta aria, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” as an insert on the Herbert von Karajan “gala edition” of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Björling was scheduled to record Un Ballo in Maschera at the Sofiensaal in Vienna with Tebaldi, Bastianini and Georg Solti, but except for a few incomplete run-throughs of snippets from the opera nothing exists on tape of him singing that opera. Björling died suddenly of a heart attack in September 1960 and was replaced in the recording by Carlo Bergonzi.
Somehow or other, Decca managed to extract a release from RCA to reissue the recording on its full-priced London label in the 1970s…possibly because Decca let RCA keep that Turandot on Victor. But the Verdi Requiem—which, incidentally, met with poor reviews because of Reiner’s strange, slow tempos—sunk under the waves for decades, and so may truly be said to be the forgotten Björling recording.
If the reader feels I have spent way too much time going over the copyright squabbles of this recording and not enough on the artistic merit, I apologize, but to a certain extent it was the disappearance of this recording for more than a decade that led to its being forgotten by many opera lovers. In its wake, Decca-London issued another Cav with Mario del Monaco as Turiddu, and the critics just went ape over it. So too did they go ape over the Angel-EMI Cav with Franco Corelli. To a certain extent, Jussi Björling suffered a long-term lapse in public appreciation in the decade following his death.
The bottom line is that this isn’t a bad recording of Cav, and if the Levine performance did not exist I would have no hesitation in recommending this as the best stereo recording of the opera available. But you still may want it for one simple reason, and that is that the reissue has managed to clean up the sound. Neither Tebaldi nor Björling now sound dry of throat as they sing, but ring out their voices brilliantly. So if you like these singers, by all means, go for it!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley