Donizetti L'Elisir d'amore
This is something very special; indeed, a delight from start to finish making one fall in love again with this delightful comedy of pastoral life. If you can, take tracks 7 and 8 on the first CD and listen to how Alagna gently caresses the phrase ''O di fame o d'amor,, per me e tutto uno'' and Devia's gentle reply ''Odimi. Tu sei buono, modesto sei...'' and you'll hear the heart of Nemorino and Adina––and
For those who have yet to hear of him let me explain that Roberto Alagna is a French tenor of Sicilian parents who won the 1988 Pavarotti Prize and bids fair to succeed the big man if he is given space to develop in his own time. At the moment his singing reminds one inevitably of the younger Pavarotti on the 1971 Bonynge/Decca set, except that Alagna sounds even younger, even more vulnerable, certainly more so than Pavarotti's elder self (Levine/DG). He brought wonder to these well-tried ears when he sang Rodolfo at Covent Garden last year and here proves that that was no fluke. Occasionally the microphone seems to catch some hardness in his voice that was definitely not there in the live performance, but by and large it is a youthful, ardent reading sung in authentically Italianate tones, the words forward, on the tone, culminating in a nicely poised and shaded ''Una furtiva lagrima'', sung inwardly, not at an audience.
Devia, unaccountably neglected by the record companies, is even better. She sings all her rivals off the stage, securer than Ricciarelli (Scimone/Philips), more fleet than Cotrubas (Pritchard/Sony Classical, 3/90––nla), warmer than Battle (Levine), less mannered than Sutherland (Bonynge). If you don't believe me, listen to her in either ''Una tenera occhiatina'' (second CD, track 10) or in ''Prendi, per me sei libero'' (track 13) and compare her with any or all of the above, and I'm certain you'll agree with my verdict. The line is consistently steady, the tone full, the fioriture clean, the characterization alert because it comes from a full understanding of what she sings.
Italian speakers also fill the other roles, to their advantage. Pratico is a Dulcamara in the Bruscantini mould; a shade short in voice but lively with the text, quite avoiding the buffo tricks of Sir Geraint Evans (Sony), although not as rich or as lovable as Panerai (on the deleted Ferro/DG version, 1/88) or Taddei on an old and admirable Serafin/Columbia set (10/59) that ought to be reissued, where Panerai is an ideal Belcore; here Spagnoli is 'correct', as the Italians say, no more. But both singers are well into the lively ensemble, led with limpidity and sparkle by Viotti who––like Scimone on the Philips set––allows them room to manoeuvre while keeping his rhythms effervescent. No band plays quite so lightly and elegantly as the ECO, certainly not the Metropolitan orchestra on the overblown and unauthentic DG set. The ECO benefits from Erato's well aired but never reverberant recording. The Tallis Choir may betray one or two signs of unidiomatic accent, but are firmer in tone than most Italian choruses.
A note by the ever-industrious Alberto Zedda speaks of authenticated discoveries about the score and its editions––but then a note, somewhat ambivalently, suggests that traditional practice had been married with new research. In the event I don't think listeners will notice much difference, at least from the Scimone account, until almost the end when Adina is allotted a second more ornate verse to her quasi-cabaletta. A fortepiano accompanies the recitatives.
I shall not immediately scrap all my old versions––I wouldn't be without Carreras's peculiarly plaintive Nemorino on the Scimone version (though he vocalizes with more effort than Alagna), or Pavarotti's endearing portrait on Decca or, again, Panerai's rude Dulcamara––but as a whole, for performance and recording first choice must now be the new Erato, a little ahead of the Scimone on account of a superior Adina and the generally youthful, artless fervour all round.'