During the period 1927-1932, both Italian HMV (La Voce di Padrone) and Italian Columbia were extremely active in recording complete operas, mostly Italian, for their respective labels. HMV/VDP used their contracted “house” conductor, Carlo Sabajno, who had been an employee of the Gramophone Company since 1904, while Columbia contracted a virtually unknown but obviously distinguished maestro with the odd name of “Cav. Lorenzo Molajoli.” Record buyers knew who Sabajno was, of course, even though he had next to no hands-on opera conducting experience in theaters, but Molajoli was a complete enigma. Yet, in retrospect, it was the unknown conductor who produced, by far, the more distinguished and, to my mind, overall the more impressive series of recordings.
The great irony of this ongoing series is that both companies used the orchestra and chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, which of course was Arturo Toscanini’s domain from 1919 to 1929, when he moved out of Mussolini’s Italy to devote himself full-time to the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and occasional opera performances and orchestral concerts at Bayreuth, Salzburg, Vienna and, in two memorable concerts, Jerusalem. This meant that both the chorus and orchestra exhibited the outstanding, high-level training that Toscanini imposed on them, so of course what they produced on the records reflected that aspect of his music-making.
But insofar as the casting of both companies went, they used some singers who were Toscanini regulars and a great many who weren’t. In the case of the former, you had tenors Alessandro Granda, Enzo de Muro Lomanto and Aureliano Pertile, sopranos Rosetta Pampanini, Inez Alfani Tellini and Mercedes Capsir, and the versatile basso Salvatore Baccaloni, one of Toscanini’s real protégés. Yet the recordings were also loaded with a great number of singers who simply had good reputations in Italy at the time, whether or not they sang at La Scala, such as Dusolina Giannini, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Margaret Sheridan, Gabriela Besanzoni, Lina Pagliughi, Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, Aurora Buades, Dino Borgioli, Lionello Cecil, Francesco Merli, Riccardo Stracciari, Gino Vanelli, Luigi Piazza, etc. etc. etc. Conspicuous by her absence is star soubrette Toti dal Monte, Toscanini’s favorite Gilda, Lucia and Rosina of the 1920s, even though her husband, de Muro Lomanto, recorded for Columbia. Eventually dal Monte made only one complete opera recording, in the surprising role of Madama Butterfly with tenor Beniamino Gigli, in 1939. Perhaps it was for this reason that the “Maestro” himself refused to participate in either project, although it may simply have been that HMV/VDP simply couldn’t afford his fee to make a complete opera recording, whereas Sabajno worked much more cheaply.
There are several interesting things about these two series of recordings. First is that, despite the fact that neither conductor spent time at La Scala, both picked up stylistic traits reminiscent of either Toscanini or his trusted assistant conductor at the time, Ettore Panizza, in that they often conducted in a tight, linear style, generally playing close attention to the note values and the score instructions for tempo. Sabajno was actually better at this than his counterpart on Columbia, who sometimes introduced some strange moments of rallentando and rubato in phrases that didn’t call for them while still conducting other sections of the operas at a white heat. Another odd thing is that Sabajno had absolutely no feeling for comic operas, which is obvious in his 1932 recording of Don Pasquale with the star tenor Tito Schipa. The performance has some energy, to be sure, but this was one performance in which Sabajno introduced too many slow tempi and there is little sparkle in the recording. On the other hand, Molajoli was a master of comic opera, as is clearly shown in his still-classic accounts of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Verdi’s Falstaff.
Another oddity is that HMV/VDP, which had more resources (and more money) than their rival, made far fewer complete recordings: only 12 complete operas plus the Verdi Requiem under Sabajno’s baton, whereas Columbia issued 22 complete operas conducted by Molajoli plus an album of highlights from L’Elisir d’Amore, plus a 1929 recording of a complete zarzuela, Emilio Arrieta y Corena’s Marina featuring Capsir, the fabulous Spanish tenor Hipolito Lazaro, legendary bass José Mardones and the excellent baritone Marcos Redondo, conducted by Daniel Montorio. Of the 13 Sabajno complete recordings, only two are, in my estimation, consistently brilliant from start to finish, the 1928 Aida with Giannini, Minghini-Cattaneo, Pertile and baritone Giovanni Inghilleri and the 1931-32 Otello with the vastly underrated Nicola Fusati in the title role (the great voice teacher and music critic Hermann Klein, who had heard Francesco Tamagno sing this role in his prime, stated that Fusati’s voice came much closer to that of Tamagno in his good days than Tamagno himself on his 1905 recordings) and the first-rate singing of Maria Carbone as Desdemona and Apollo Granforte as Iago. Honorable mention goes to the 1927 Rigoletto simply because then-20-year-old Lina Pagliughi actually sounds like a 15-year-old girl, as she is supposed to, and because tenor Tino Folgar, barely known internationally at the time but sometimes referred to as the Spanish Tito Schipa, sings the Duke of Mantua exactly as written including no high B at the end of “La donna è mobile,” and the 1928 La Bohème because of the excellent singing of soprano Rosina Torri as Mimi and the veteran baritone Ernesto Badini as Marcello (Badini also provides the only really good performance, besides Schipa’s, in Sabajno’s Don Pasquale.) Molajoli even made a recording, which I’ve never heard, of Adriano Lualdi’s 1930 operatic sensation, Le Furie di Arlecchino which except for one excerpt issued on a Symposium CD has sunk without a trace. But hey, at least he was open to recording what was then a contemporary opera.
Yet if you take the time to listen to the bulk of Molajoli’s recordings, you’ll discover that no less than six of the completes are masterful performances that still stand the test of time, plus his one album of highlights from L’Elisir, in addition to two other recordings getting honorable mention, his Rigoletto because of the fascinating performance by baritone Riccardo Stracciari in the title role and his Bohème due to the presence of Pampanini, Toscanini’s preferred Mimi (and Butterfly) of the 1920s. These seven first-rate recordings are a legacy matched by no other Italian conductor of my acquaintance on record, not even by Tullio Serafin whose conducting style slowed down considerably after 1953, or by such notables as Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti (although, between studio recordings and live performances, Muti wins out by one) or Riccardo Chailly, excellent though they are. And it is these seven performances I will discuss in this retrospective.
But first, Molajoli’s background. All that has been found out about him over the many decades since his death are that he was born in 1868 (but no one knows exactly when), which made him a year younger than Toscanini, and studied at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. He began his career, according to Wikipedia, in 1891, spending most of his years prior to World War I conducting in North and South America, South Africa, and various provincial Italian theaters. How and why he was given the title of Cavalier, which is what the “Cav.” before his name on his records stands for, is not known. Nor is it clear how this next-to-nobody came to the attention of Italian Columbia’s management, but so he did and the association proved fortuitous for both. Incidentally, after the merger of HMV and Columbia in the fall of 1932 to form EMI, Sabajno, like Piero Coppola and Albert Coates, were summarily dropped from the label’s roster. None of them save Coppola, who somehow sneaked back in during the late 1930s for one session, recorded major works for EMI again, whereas Molajoli continued to conduct on solo aria recordings, most notably the famous series by soprano Claudia Muzio in 1934-35. And by that time, Italian HMV had begun a second series of complete opera recordings, only this time centered around one tenor, Beniamino Gigli, rather than one conductor.
1929: Madama Butterfly (Puccini) – Rosetta Pampanini, Alessandro Granda, Gino Vanelli.
This, the first complete electrical Butterfly, is still considered a classic, mostly for the fascinating, multi-hued interpretation of the title role by Pampanini. She was, in some ways, a typical Italian lyric soprano of the era, with a very bright voice and a fast, prominent vibrato, but she was one of those rare sopranos (for that time) who displayed a complete involvement with the character she was portraying. Although tenor Alessandro Granda (1898-1962) was not even as good as Francesco Merli, let alone de Muro Lomanto (who would have been perfect for Pinkerton), he was not a bad tenor at all. Like Luigi Alva after him, he was an Italian born in Lima, Peru (what were the Granda and Alva families doing in Peru to begin with??), and like Giacinto Prandelli after World War II, Toscanini took a liking to him and molded him into a very fine artist. (In later years, he was one of the backup singers for Peruvian vocal sensation Yma Sumac.) Baritone Gino Vanelli would have been a star in any other era, but unfortunately in 1929 they still had Titta Ruffo, Giuseppe de Luca, Stracciari, Granforte, Benvenuto Franci, Carlo Galeffi and other big names singing, so he couldn’t break through to stardom (he was clearly a more interesting baritone than Luigi Piazza).
This recording is typical of Molajoli’s somewhat schizophrenic conducting style. In Butterfly’s entrance music, he is as taut and exciting as Toscanini—you’d almost swear it was Toscanini conducting—but in other places he relaxes the tempo a bit much. And both Sabajno and Molajoli let the La Scala string section indulge in portamento effects, which were taboo with Toscanini. Still, this recording, like most of those Molajoli made, has the feel of a live performance, which is something he never lost. There’s also the bonus of hearing Baccaloni as the Bonze, which he sings superbly.
1929: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) – Riccardo Stracciari, Mercedes Capsir, Dino Borgioli, Salvatore Baccaloni
This was Molajoli’s first comic opera recording, and it has remained a perennial classic to this day despite the boxy sound, a few cuts in the score, and the substitution of two non-Rossini arias—Dr. Bartolo’s “Manca un foglio” and Rosina’s lesson scene—for those that the composer actually wrote. The reason is that everyone involved sounds as if they’re having a ball and the infection is contagious. A particularly interesting feature of this recording is the way the soloists rattle off the secco recitatives at 90 miles an hour…something that clearly could not be done in a stage performance, where the audience wouldn’t catch half of the words, but could be done in the recording studio (probably to save some disc time). Mercedes Capsir was a Spanish coloratura soprano who had a small repertoire of eleven roles roles (one of them being Rosalina in Giordano’s Il Re, one of the operas she sang under Toscanini), but Rosina, Gilda, Violetta, Lucia and the title role in Marina were five of them, so by golly she recorded them all for Columbia. Unfortunately, she also had a voice like a steam kettle at full blast, so be warned, the voice can grate on your ears.
1930: Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) – Francesco Merli, Rosetta Pampanini, Carlo Galeffi
If this recording was in decent high-fidelity sound instead of cramped, dry 1930 sonics, it would probably be everyone’s preferred version of this opera. A superb cast with everyone is at their best, and Molajoli conducts it, yes, like Toscanini might have. Sorry for the pithy review, but it’s hard to improve on perfection.
1930-31: L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) – Highlights w/Inez Alfani Tellini, Cristy Solari, Lorenzo Conati, Eduardo Faticanti
Sometime in the crossover period between 1930 and 1931, Molajoli recorded an album of highlights from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and this album of a greatly abridged L’Elisir d’Amore. Ironically, the greatest virtue of the L’Elisir was also the biggest downfall of the Pasquale, and that was Cristy Solari. A Greek tenor born in Smyrna but, like Armenian tenor Armand Tokatyan, trained in Italy, he apparently had a surprisingly long career singing standard bel canto tenor roles such as Arturo in I Puritani and Edgardo in Lucia. I say “surprising” because, once you hear him, you’ll be scratching your head wondering how anyone could take him seriously in these operas. His voice was very well trained—he could sing coloratura runs and execute perfect diminuendos and crescendos with ease—but the voice sounded high and fluty, like a chipmunk’s. It almost sounded as if the record was playing at too fast a speed. Yet what worked as an impediment in his serious roles (including Ernesto in Don Pasquale, who after all is supposed to be an attractive young lover and not a farcical caricature) worked perfectly in his favor in L’Elisir. Here, at last, is a Nemorino who sounds like the town boob he is. The voice itself is funny, and because of this it’s easy to understand how Sgt. Belcore could con him into joining the army for 20 crowns or how he was too stupid to realize that Dr. Dulcamara’s elixir made him drunk. It also doesn’t hurt that Molajoli recruited two wonderful, experienced comic baritones in the Ernesto Badini tradition, Lorenzo Conati as Belcore and Eduardo Faticanti as Dulcamara. Add Molajoli’s sparkling, witty conducting, and you have a classic. I don’t know how long it may stay up, but for the time being you can access the recording for free by clicking HERE.
1931: Manon Lescaut (Puccini) – Maria Zamboni, Francesco Merli, Lorenzo Conati, Enrico Molinari
Columbia missed out on what could have been a truly stupendous recording of this opera by not hiring Aureliano Pertile, who Puccini himself said was the greatest Des Grieux he had ever heard in this work, but Francesco Merli, who a friend of mine refers to as “the captain of the B team” among the great Italian tenors of his time, does a very credible job here and Molajoli’s conducting in this work is indeed surprisingly Toscanini-like, though not quite as good in Act III as Toscanini’s own 1946 performance given at the reopening of La Scala. Maria Zamboni, though a bit fruity of vibrato, absolutely nails the character of the flighty Manon and Conati is an excellent Lescaut. This was another instant classic when it was first released, and has remained so (at least for diehard collectors) every since.
1932: Carmen (Bizet) – Aurora Buades, Aureliano Pertile, Ines Alfani Tellini, Benvenuto Franci
Latter-day critics rave about Pertile’s Aida and Trovatore recordings under Sabajno but for some reason dismiss this Carmen, probably because it’s sung in Italian rather than French and uses the Giraud sung recitatives instead of the spoken ones. This is a grave mistake. As I mentioned earlier, the Pertile Trovatore is pretty much a mess between his opening scene and his last one, but here he creates a believable character who already sounds a bit impatient and restless in his early scene with Micaëla, fanatical and fixated in his scene in the mountains with Carmen, and a cracked sociopath in the final scene. In addition, we get here the Carmen of Spanish contralto Aurora Buades, who sounds the most like a gypsy singer than any other performer of this role I’ve ever heard. Add Tellini’s gorgeously-sung Micaëla, Franci’s blustery Escamillo and Molajoli’s surprisingly good conducting (only a few odd slow-downs in the first scene of the opera), and you have another classic. You simply can’t afford to miss this one.
1932: Falstaff (Verdi) – Giacomo Rimini, Pia Tassinari, Ines Alfani Tellini, Aurora Buades, Roberto d’Alessio, Salvatore Baccaloni
We end with yet another classic comic opera recording by Molajoli. In this case, happily, posterity seems to agree with me, because aside from Toscanini’s 1937 live performance and the 1980 one conducted by Herbert von Karajan, you won’t find a better Falstaff anywhere. I stayed away from this one for a long time because I never much liked Giacomo Rimini’s voice on other records, but he’s a surprisingly excellent Falstaff. Tellini returns in one of her signature roles, Nannetta, the young Pia Tassinari (1932 was the year of her La Scala debut) sings Alice Ford, the redoubtable Buades returns as Mrs. Quickly, her husband Roberto d’Alessio is an ardent-sounding Fenton, veteran character tenor Giuseppe Nessi sings Bardolph and Salvatore Baccaloni sings Pistol in this vivacious performance. What’s not to like, other than the restricted sound?
Thus the enigmatic, semi-invisible (there are only two photos of him in existence) Lorenzo Molajoli had an impact on the operatic history of his time beyond his wildest dreams.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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