Serafin’s Old “Mefistofele” Reissued

374. 1a e 4a di copertina.FH11

BOÏTO: Mefistofele / Renata Tebaldi, sop (Margherita); Cesare Siepi, bass (Mefistofele); Mario del Monaco, ten (Faust); Floriana Cavalli, sop (Helen of Troy); Piero di Palma, ten (Wagner/Nereo); Lucia Danieli, alto (Marta/Panthalis); Academy of St. Cecilia, Rome Chorus & Orchestra; Tullio Serafin, cond / Urania WS 121.374-2

Mefistofele, an opera Toscanini loved and performed but never recorded complete (there is a live recording of the Prologue and Act III from La Scala in 1948, and a live version of the Prologue with NBC in 1954), has generally not fared well on recordings. Most suffer from slow, drippy conducting while others have miscast singers in the various roles, thus this 1958 relic from the early years of Decca-London stereo is often cited as the best of a bad lot.

The pluses are Tullio Serafin’s wholly idiomatic conducting, the well-characterized Mefistofele of Cesare Siepi and the surprisingly good Margherita of Renata Tebaldi. The minuses are claustrophobic sound—apparently Decca’s opera guru, John Culshaw, only cared about good special balance when it came to Wagner’s operas—and the sometimes overly loud singing of Mario del Monaco as Faust. Probably because of my allergy to most of del Monaco’s studio recordings and also to Tebaldi’s penchant for going flat (both in live performance and the studio), I ignored this version over the years.  Thus it was my first chance to judge it.

I did, however, hear the album of excerpts that Serafin recorded the same year with the same cast except for the replacement of Giuseppe di Stefano for del Monaco. This was, to me, very disappointing, not so much for Tebaldi (who sang pretty well on it) as for Siepi, who was somewhat infirm of voice, and di Stefano, who was in absolutely horrible voice. He sounded strained and unsteady throughout. Thus I was quite unprepared for Siepi’s dark-toned and sneering entrance in “Ave, signor!”, nearly as dramatic as Feodor Chaliapin in his famous recording of this scene. And thank God, Urania has removed most of what all but ruined the Decca-London issues, their dreadful “tunnel sound,” comprised of echo on top of echo. (I did, however, have a problem with track 4 of the download, a 3:46 segment titled “T’e noto Faust,” which I had to replace with a download from YouTube with the added echo.)

Serafin was close to Toscanini in shaping and pacing of the score, although the “Ave, signor!” section is a bit slower and, of course, he could not equal his older colleague in the incredibly clear orchestral textures. He also increased the tempo during the big, long crescendo near the end of this scene, which for me somewhat spoiled the incredible intensity that Toscanini brought out by sticking to the written tempo.

And yes, del Monaco did indeed blast out his “Dai campi,” yet still managed to avoid the annoying elongated notes (tenuto, the Italians call it) that many singers of his era and earlier used. Yet the real surprise here, again and again, was Siepi. His gave us a real character, with nuance amidst the menace, very much unlike the snarly “belt-it-out” style used by Nicolai Ghiaurov and especially Samuel Ramey, fine as their voices were. Serafin doesn’t quite keep up the sort of menacing undercurrent one heard on the Riccardo Muti recording for RCA/Sony, but then again, Muti had Ramey whereas Siepi was much more characterful, and Serafin did hold the structure of the work together better than anyone other than Muti on a complete recording. It’s kind of “Toscanini lite,” but it works because Serafin was a good musician. (And I have a dirty little secret to confess: I can’t stomach Placido Domingo’s voice much of the time. To me, he always sounded strained and overparted, particularly when he tried to open up his fairly modest lyric tenor and sound “dramatic.” Moreover, he had the same fault as del Monaco in that he rarely even tried to sing sensitively, and his belting wasn’t as natural-sounding as del Monaco’s.)

But if you think Siepi was good—and he surely was—wait until you hear Tebaldi in Act III. She sings “L’altra note” better than I’ve heard anyone ever sing it, with tenderness, feeling, dead-on pitch (a rarity for her) and even a couple of trills. Her first recording, from an early-1950s recital, had an ear-ravishing voice but zero interpretation and no trill. She also sang the ensuing duet with del Monaco superbly as well. Methinks Maestro Serafin had a little one-on-one coaching session with her; nothing else could explain singing this fabulous and detailed out of Renata Tebaldi.

Unfortunately, for me, the long, boring epilogue with Helen of Troy trying to seduce Faust does nothing for me at all. In my view, the opera ends with the death of Marguerite. But if you enjoy the opera more than I do, by all means, this is the recording to get.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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