Revisiting a Revived Classic Recording of Puccini's 'Cloak'

Nov 13, 2017

 

 Monteverdi, Brahms and Palestrina are all wonderful. If I hear their music after I die, I'll know I made it to heaven ... big "if."

But sometimes, you have to get down and dirty.  

Sony Classical has purchased the old RCA Red Seal catalog of recordings made in the 1960s and '70s, and many of these are being brought back after many years.

Those of us of a certain age bought these performances on LP with lawn-mowing money from the Coop in Harvard Square, or from Howard Hart (thriving today) at Discount Records. Tower Records and HMV hadn't hit the market yet, and Barnes & Noble was waking from its long nap of selling nothing but grimy, used textbooks.

Everyone had a turntable. We used to call them record players. You would have to get up and plug it in or, God forbid, change sides.

RCA's recordings were of Rubinstein, Heifetz, the Boston Symphony ("the aristocrat of orchestras") and Leontyne Price. The cost was $4.20 per record, complete with superb liner notes.

Multiple LP set operas would set you back more: Tosca ($8.40), Aida ($12.60), Lohengrin or Die Walkure (five LPs! $21). You had to mow a lot of lawns if you wanted these records in 1970, especially if you loved Richard Wagner. (I didn't, yet.)

Sometimes you could get a complete opera on one LP. Such was the case with Giacomo Puccini's one-act Il Tabarro, "The Cloak". RCA's recording from summer 1971 in London stars the two crown princes of 1970s opera, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, and undisputed diva regnant, Leontyne Price. It was four bucks for those three great voices, a fine orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (who was hardly cutting edge, but he got the job done) and a cast of fine supporting artists.

Il Tabarro wasn't heard or recorded much in the 1970s. Puccini composed this as the first of three one-act operas to be performed on the same evening as Il Trittico, "The Triptych". Written for the Metropolitan Opera in 1918, Tabarro, at least, failed to impress.

"Neither in this opera nor the other two which follows was there more than an occasional vestige of the sustained melody which, like a heady, even if light, wine characters 'Butterfly' and 'Boheme.'  " — W.J. Henderson's review of Il trittico in the Evening Sun

Here's the story: "Paris, around 1910 on a barge on river Seine. Michele, the captain of the barge, intercepts his young worker Luigi on the way to a rendezvous with Giorgetta, Michele's wife. In a fit of jealousy Michele strangles Luigi, then wraps the body in his cloak. When Giorgetta comes from the cabin, Michele lifts the cloak and throws her down upon Luigi's body." Curtain.

There's no loveliness in Il Tabarro. The duets between Giorgetta and Luigi are about postponed desire bursting forth:

The most memorable lines are single words. "Come difficile essere felice," laments Giorgetta, whose baby has died and who is now the neglected wife of a much older man. How difficult it is to be happy.

To this sordid story, Puccini brings a compact score filled with local color: automobile horns, boat whistles, young lovers, lusty stevedores and even a song vendor. 

Il Tabarro had been recorded several times prior to 1971. The same $4 could buy you a ticket to a performance featuring Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco. Their duets could burn the place down. (You'd get the sense one could eat the other for breakfast without breaking a sweat).

Baritone Robert Merrill is a heartbreaking Michele. Going further back, there were performances in print from the Italian radio, and a menacing Michele sung by Italian baritone Tito Gobbi.  

Price, Milnes and Domingo were the voices of my youth. I learned Il Tabarro from them. Now — 46 years after I bought this performance on LP for $4 — it is back in print in digital sound. The cost is higher, but this searing performance and the memories it evokes make it worthwhile.