A world premiere
Guerra e pace
Composer: Sergei Prokovjef
Released in Italy only
Teatro Comunale di Firenze
In spite of some major flaws this Guerra e Pace release, by fledging Italian operatic CD company Fimvelstar, is an important one. First of all it features the earliest extant example of the voice of Franco Corelli, merely two years after his stage debut. In addition to that this is also the most important performance in which he had participated up to that date, as it concerned the 'unofficial' worldpremiere of Prokovjef's chef d'oeuvre. Moreover, Corelli is flanked by an illustrious all star cast featuring Rosanna Carteri, Ettore Bastianini, Italo Tajo, Mirto Picchi, Fedora Barbieri, Renato Capecchi, Fernando Corena and Anselmo Colzani – even a very young Piero de Palma made it to the scene! The circumstances surrounding the premiere were enough to raise the audience and press to fever pitch, as the Bolsjewists had forbidden Prokovjef's opera to be performed in the USSR. The composer had managed to get the score smuggled out of Russia, where it landed in the able hands of Artur Rodzinski, who prepared it for the Florence premiere that has been captured on this recording. It was originally published on LP by Cetra (Cetra DOC 77 | 3lp), and their recording was accompanied by an attractive booklet with large photo's of the premiere and extensive notes (although, unfortunately, without a libretto). As it was never reissued in the CD era, it's fortunate that this rare document is now finally available on regular CDs, taking it out of the sole province of some ruthless pirates who squeezed fans like citrus fruits over copies on auction sites.
Rodzinski had a lucky hand in picking this worldpremiere cast of what were then mostly young talents. Their rise to fame may actually have been enhanced by this performance, as Guerra e pace turned out to be Prokofjev's finest score. Though there are no Puccini-like arias to be found in it, there is plenty of melodious music that reminds one easily of the parlando idiom that Cilea employs in Adriana Lecouvreur, or Giordano in Fedora. And Natascia's solo 'Mio Dio ho potuto' in scene IV is close to the kind of dramatic parlando style that was all the rage in the late works of verismo composers from Mascagni and Giordano up to Zandonai and Malipiero. Naturally, this almost italianate quality is stressed by the Italian translation and the very Italianate excecution of the all star Italian cast. To the fan of italianità this recording might therefore be the best introduction to Prokovjef as such, and it must be acknowledged that the Italian translation fits Prokovjef's notes like a glove. Yet, those who are familiar with the official Russian version will miss lots of music: Rodzinski cut II, IX and X in their entirety, and he shortened dialogues and cut choruses throughout. In total a full 55 minutes are missing, though Corelli's part of Pierre Besukov is hardly affected by this. Better yet, he actually sings more music than in the official version, where his short but vocally striking dream about killing Napoleon is absent (XI).
The young Rosanna Carteri is a fine Natascia, whose voice contrasts to great effect with that of Fedora Barbieri's Akrosimova in XI. There will be few parlando duets with this much dramatic impact! And where Carteri sometimes has difficulty identifying with the alien music, Barbieri simply treats it as the next Italian operascore by Verdi or so and throws her voice into the depths of Akrosimova to stunning effect. Her solo 'Molto ben ma bravo' is matched only by the fire and flame approach of Corelli's in the first lines of Pierre Besukov in the same scene. The tenor sings as if dancing barefoot on burning ground. His voice is vibrant, and incidentally showing the sometimes uncontrolled vibrato that would lead Mario Del Monaco to nickname him peccorelli – the goat. Nevertheless it is exactly this vibrato that is responsible for the dramatic ring of the voice and his ardent style suits Prokovjef's music rather well. In comparison, Mirto Picchi, not the least of tenors, can barely hold his own in VII, when he meets Besukov in a moral debate. What perhaps surprises most is Corelli's ability to deliver a solid stylistic portrayal of Besukov's restless character. And, as the music has none of the high notes that still give him trouble in other early performances, some of his most notable qualities are present and stand out here: his inborn legato is as much apparent as the typical nervous drive that characterizes every single one of his performances until 1958. Surprizingly enough, he also sings in a more disciplinedfashion here than in the Carmen performances from later in 1953.
In contrast to Besukov's dramatic lines the music for King Andrea, sung by Ettore Bastianini, is less impressive. Andrea's lines are musically tailored to the spoken word, with very few dramatic or lyric outbursts. In his great scene and encounter with Natascia (XII), Bastianini moreover has the bad luck that Prokovjef is clearly inhibited by the shadow of Mussorgsky, whose mad scenes for Boris Godunov have set an example that is hard to avoid, that is, if the impact has to be the same. Prokovjef tries to sail around Mussorgsky's example, but fails to find an equally fitting new route. At the end of the mad scene he even comes close to evoking some reflective moments in Godunov's music. Unfortunately Andrea's subsequent death in the arms of Natascia is equally lacking in substance.
Prokovjef has his revenge in the prelude to the final scene XIII, where he creates a gorgeous instrumental pandemonium that illustrates the madness of the legendary Napoleonic Russian war of 1812 to striking effect. The scene and the opera culminate into the final chorus that celebrates the tragic victory of the Russians over Napoleon's army at Borodino. This scene XIII has at the same time the most modern music in the score and the strongest link to the Russian operatic past, which puts the work on a par with Puccini's Turandot. That opera also points far beyond its place in time, while still being firmly embedded in the past.
ON THE PRODUCTION LEVEL
Perhaps, as argued above, Rodzinski's cast, his approach and the Italian translation all serve to enhance the traditional aspects of Prokovjef's work. Whether this is the case or not, it remains a fact that this version is not all that difficult to digest for those who want to see the end of opera in 1924. As such, it could have been a true eye opener if a critical CD edition had been published, including an Italian/ English libretto (even an Italian libretto would have helped). Naturally, the ideal Opera Rara approach is not always possible, but the shabby insert provided by Fimvelstar is an at best rather mediocre. There are numerous misprints and the summary stops following the scenes after scene XIII in the Italian text, while the English one is simply reduced to a seemingly arbitrary three act version. Apparently Fimvelstar wasn't all too aware of who was singing what either, so they restricted themselves to mentioning the opening lines of the tracks, without mentioning who sang them. Moreover, the booklet appears to be handfolded, handclamped (my copy actually features a whole of a misclamp that was later removed from it!) and on the verge of deriving from a homeprinter. This lures the production into the lowest professional category. Another hurdle is the rather dull mono recording, which diminishes especially the effect of the splendid choir of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Rodzinski's conducting also suffers from the thin sound, but those who favor foremost the individual singers are fortunate: their voices have apparently been at the center of this recording.
In spite of the mentioned shortcomings on the production level, this issue is still highly recommended, although Golden Melodram has recently issued the same performance on their label, which presumable has the aded attracktion of the correct libretto. A comparison between both editions willsoon be added to this review – RS.