Perfection in the arts comes in many shapes and sizes. Nobody could mistake the grand, humanitarian strokes in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” for the glistening, small-scale artifice of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”; each are perfect comic operas in the elegance of their design, and in the way each work accomplishes what it set out to do, so masterfully, with such originality. “Don Pasquale” is a perfect small comedy, and the classic 1933 recording, newly issued on the MM (Music Memoria) label, brings it perfectly to life. The plot couldn’t be simpler: the old operatic warhorse, many times ridden, about the foolish old man, his infatuation with a young girl, and his comeuppance engineered by the girl and her allies. The wonder of Donizetti’s small comic masterpiece lies in its swift and unflagging pace. He doesn’t waste a note. The opera runs considerably under two hours, and its pace is breathtaking — literally so at times, since it is, among other things, a singer’s paradise. The solo pieces, especially the arias for the not-all-that-bright hero Ernesto, are ravishing, but the ensemble writing is even more brilliant. There is a comic duet for the foolish old Pasquale and his sidekick, Dr. Malatesta (= “Headache”) that is just about as funny as anything in opera, but it is also a marvel of musical construction: first one singer in a tongue-twisting rapid patter, then the other, then both together, with the orchestra all the while carrying on in high hilarity with a tune of its own. When you come to this point on the recording (side 2 band 5) you will surely want to repeat it, and repeat it again; the nice thing about compact-disk technology is the way you can do this simply by pushing the right button. The Ernesto in this ancient, but thoroughly clear, recording is the great Italian lyric tenor Tito Schipa; this was the only complete operatic recording he made during his long and memorable career. Ernesto Badini is the Pasquale; the Malatesta is Afro Poli: two first-class burlesque comedians whose marvelous sense of timing, of give-and-take, is an art virtually vanished from operatic stages today. Norina, the heroine, is Adelaide Saraceni, a little shrill at times, less good only when measured against the high quality of the rest of the cast. Carlo Sabajno conducts, a solid, workhorse conductor much used in the early days of operatic recording. It is of course Schipa, above all, who will sell this remarkable recording, that wonderfully suave, beautifully modulated singer who had the intelligence throughout his long career to recognize what he could do the best and, more important, to shun what he could not do. Against the supertenor heroes of his time, from Enrico Caruso through to Beniamino Gigli and Giovanni Martinelli, Schipa was a lightweight: a Mozart singer, a perfect exponent of the bel-canto repertory, a superfine Alfredo in “La Traviata.” Generations later, Luciano Pavarotti could have become the Schipa of our day, had he not been lured into the more strenuous repertory that dulled that marvelous bloom his voice once had. But this reissue of “Don Pasquale” isn’t meant to deplore what might have been, but to celebrate what was. Among the many welcome reissues of valuable performances from the first years of complete-opera recordings (including a wealth of Gigli material now reissued on Angel-EMI) this two-disk set looms large. There’s enough room on the second disk to include a ravishing selection of Schipa singles, some of them duets with Amelita Galli-Curci and — although uncredited on the labeling — Toti dal Monte. The record comes without libretto and with only the most meagre plot summary, but the music — and the way it is sung — tells its own story. LINE SPACE The fear, at the dawn of the digital era, that the new technology would relegate the great repertory of the past to the back shelves of collectors’ shops, has proven groundless. CD reissues like the “Don Pasquale,” along with disk after disk of solo records by the greatest of the bygone artists, have become profitable on the major labels and the smaller ones as well. Sure, there is gold in the Pavarotti market, but who could have predicted the hot competition now going on in the Caruso department? Hot on the heels of its Toscanini reissues, RCA has announced a Caruso promotion, with the legendary tenor’s entire repertory on that label (his major outlet during the two-dozen years of his recording career) to be reissued in a CD set this fall. Another label, Germany’s Bayer (unrelated to the aspirin people) also has a “complete” Caruso set on the way, and meanwhile there have been Caruso singles on other labels, including Pearl, Club 99, Pair and Nimbus. The overlap in actual repertory has, of course, been widespread. Has it been worth the effort? Of course it has; you need only a few notes from any vintage Caruso performance to fill in with actual sound all the raving accounts about the beauty of his voice, the versatility of his repertory, the radiant splendor of his phrasing. Sure, there are extravagances here that are somewhat out of step with today’s passion for historically accurate performance practices. It’s a safe bet, however, that if a tenor showed up today sounding like Caruso he, too, would be allowed the liberties that Caruso assumed as his nature-endowed right. Still dubious? Start with the “O paradiso” from Meyerbeer’s “L’Africana” (currently on RCA’s “Enrico Caruso, 21 Favorite Arias” and on the Nimbus disk simply labeled “Caruso”). Sure the aria is sung in Italian instead of the proper French; sure Caruso milks the pianissimos and overshades the climaxes of many phrases. But sure, too, is the stature of this record as a study in suave, seductive singing of a quality that has vanished from this world. The Caruso reissues have been created along two divergent philosophies. The RCA series employs the digital re-engineering techniques developed by Thomas Stockham and known as the Stockham/Soundsteam Computer Process which, without getting into abstruse technology, digitally reconstitutes everything that was on the original disks, and then does away with such unwanted elements as surface scratch and the occasional blasting from notes that strained the resources of the acoustic-horn recording studio. Most other releases, including Nimbus Records’ fancily-named “Prima Voce Natural Ambisonic Transfer Technology” sticks more closely to the original product, scratch and all, assuming that the consumer can twiddle his own knobs to improve the sound. There are solid arguments for and against both systems. The RCA system, as heard on Caruso disks already issued, creates a creamy-sounding product, with scratch remarkably suppressed. But there is no escaping the fact that the sound is an electronic product; something of the impact of that charismatic singer in an ancient Victor Talking Machine Corporation studio, letting fly at a primitive acoustic-horn recorder with the blaze of his incomparable artistry, seems unnecessarily tamed by all this new technology. With all the surface noise and other defects of their time, the undoctored Caruso, as on the recent Nimbus reissues, retains its dazzle. The art of recording great music, after all, started from scratch. Perhaps it should stay that way.

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