A Great Recording of Boito’s “Nerone”

Nerone Bongiovanni 2

BOITO: Nerone / Bruno Prevedi, tenor (Nerone); Ilva Ligabue, soprano (Asteria); Ruza Baldani, mezzo-soprano (Rubria); Agostino Ferrin, bass (Simon Mago); Alessandro Cassis, bar (Fanuel/Dositeo); Antonio Zerbini, bass (Tigellino); Giampaolo Corradi, tenor (Gobrias); Anna Di Stasio, soprano (Perside); Corinna Vozza, contralto (Cerinto); Walter Brighi, tenor (Il tempiere/A Voice/1st Wayfarer); Renzo Gonzales, bass (Oracle/A Voice); Vinicio Cocchieri, bar (2nd Wayfarer/Slave); RAI Turin Orchestra & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / Bongiovanni GB 2388/89 (live: Turin, August 23, 1975, also available for free streaming on YouTube)

Poor Nerone! Arrigo Boito spent more than a half-century writing it, poured his whole mind and heart into it, and what does he get for his pains? No one likes it, it’s rarely performed and even more rarely recorded. And why? Because its musical aesthetic is more Wagnerian (particularly the aesthetic of Parsifal) than Verdian. Because the music is rich and complex and more continuous that most Italian operas. And, God, love us, because it doesn’t have tunes in it that people can hum on the way out of the theater. Donal Henahan, reviewing the live 1980 New York performance conducted by Eve Queler, called it a “legendary monster of an opera” and “Mussolini music” (say what?!?).

None of which are good reasons, of course. In today’s operatic world, when third-rate garbage like The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, The Tempest and L’Amour de Loin are hailed as masterpieces, Nerone stands out as a true musical and psychological masterpiece. Yes, it is largely Wagnerian in concept and harmony, but it still has occasional Italianate lines in it sung by the principals, and the plot is fascinating: the old battle between the sacred and the profane, brought to a whole new psychological level through the brilliance of Boito’s own libretto, one of the most literate and fascinating in the entire history of opera. And yet, as I say, it is rarely performed; in fact, the only instance I’ve ever run across of large chunks of both Mefistofele, Boito’s tuneful-Verdian opera of 1868, and Nerone being performed on the same night was Arturo Toscanini’s live staged performance of 1948.

Nerone MRF LP

Original LP cover

And, as I say, recordings are even scarcer. The only two I’ve ever seen besides this one are the live Naples performance of November 1957 with Mirto Picchi as Nerone, Mario Petri as Simon Mago, Anne McKnight (under her Italian pseudonym, Anna de Cavalieri) as Asteria, Adriana Lazzarini as Rubria and Giangiacomo Guelfi as Fanuel, conducted by Franco Capuana, and the even more famous 1982 studio recording on Hungaroton with János B. Nagy as Nerone, József Dene as Simon Mago, Ilona Tokody as Asteria, Klára Takacs

Nerone Living Stage

Living Stage CD cover

as Rubria and Lajos Miller as Fanuel, conducted by the redoubtable Eve Queler. Both are good performances, the Capuana being the more exciting but constricted by the boxy mono sound, the Queler beautifully detailed if lacking in an idiomatic Italian feel. But now there is this recording, which apparently has been around since it was first issued on LP in 1980 as MRF 161-S and also appeared on CDs as Living Stage LS34704. Happily, this Bongiovanni issue remains in the catalog, and it is clearly the best of the three complete issued versions.

In the same year that Boito conceived Nerone, he wrote the poem Dualismo, depicting man being torn between good and evil, half-angel and half-demon, frustrated by an unattainable ideal, poised eternally between a dream of sin and a dream of virtue, like a tightrope walker. The opening lines are:

I am light and shadow;
Angelic butterfly or repulsive worm,
I am a fallen cherub
Condemned to wander over the earth
Or a demon that rises
With laboring wings
Toward a distant heaven.

The dualism and conflict between good and evil was a continuing thread in Boito’s work, not only in his own Mefistofele but also in his libretti for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Verdi’s Otello. Nero was a natural choice for the subject of his masterpiece, exploring the emperor’s “good” creativity and “evil” destructiveness. In this opera Boito contrasted Nero the poet, musician, artist and creator of beauty with Nero the deranged monster who destroys everything in his path; he described him as a “grotesque combination of fascination and revulsion.” Asteria, who interrupts Nero burying his mother’s ashes, is both drawn to and repelled by him. Nero goes from guilty matricide to extrovert performer to simpering coward; he suspects that the Senate knows that saying he killed his mother for plotting against him is a lie. When Nero discovers Simon Mago trying to deceive him using Asteria to act as a goddess, he destroys the temple. Of course there is a lot more to the plot than this, but space constrains me from giving a full account.

Musically, Boito sweated over every page of the opera day and night, over and over again, trying to incorporate ancient musical modes into his score while retaining a modern feel (modern meaning Wagnerian) through Italian lyricism. In the opening of Act IV, he also included an offstage chariot race with correct chariot teams and calls. Boito did indeed achieve his goal, but for the most part, Nerone should ideally be seen as well as heard.

Here, of course, we have only the aural aspect of the opera, but seldom if ever has a cast and conductor pour so much into the work as this one. The Capuana version comes close, particularly in the singing of the four principals, but to hear the stunning orchestral effects that Boito wrote into this score—reworked by Toscanini and Vincenzo Tommasini for the performance version—in modern stereo is an awe-inspiring experience. Of the principals here, the only one I have any qualms about is mezzo Ruza Baldani as Rubria, and she only for the very prominent vibrato in her voice, almost, but not quite, as annoying as that of Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar, but Baldani has one attribute that Lorengar never had. She is a superb singing actress, and in this role that is of paramount importance.

Yet it is the taut and exciting conducting of Gavazzeni, who was himself a composer, that keeps this performance of Nerone moving forward at all times. He pulls back the musical elastic band to maximum tautness and only occasionally relaxes it to allow some space into the music. In his hands, then, Nerone emerges as a bit more Italianate than Teutonic (Toscanini’s performance of Act III and Act IV, Scene 2 retains the feel of Wagnerian seriousness about it.) To respond to Henahan’s accusation of “Mussolini music,” probably because the opera premiered in 1924 and was a great success, we can easily see the plot as a cautionary tale against Mussolini, who was himself a lover of the arts, as was his fellow-dictator Adolf Hitler, as well as a gifted violinist (bet you didn’t know that), yet who in the end left a path of waste and utter destruction behind him. This is surely the performance of Nerone against which all others should be judged.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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