While baritone Tito Gobbi is primarily known for nineteenth century Italian repertoire, his professional breakthrough came when he sang the Italian premiere of Wozzeck in Rome in 1942 in Italian. This CD preserves a performance of the opera from 1954, made with the RAI Orchestra and Chorus, Rome. Conductor Nino Sanzogno obviously "gets" the opera -- his pacing and shadings make that clear -- and he draws searingly dramatic performances from the singers and the orchestra. The orchestra starts off shakily (the winds miss the first few notes of the opera), but once it gets on its feet, the playing is passionate and Italianate. What makes this performance stand out from many newer, more sophisticated and polished efforts is the bel canto approach of the singers, who don't treat this as "modern" music but sing with the vocal style they would bring to verismo repertoire. (The plot certainly fits into the verismo tradition, and in this Italian language version, it's easy to hear Wozzeck as a late verismo opera, but with far stronger music than that of the Italian operas from that period.) The fact that the language here is Italian makes the bel canto approach feel entirely appropriate. While honoring Berg's indications for Sprechstimme, Gobbi sings with the kind of fervor he would bring to Rigoletto. Likewise, Dorothy Dow, who also sang in the Italian premiere, makes us believe that this is what Floria Tosca would have sounded like had she been born into Marie's poverty. The supporting cast is almost entirely strong, particularly Hugues Cuénod as the Captain, Italo Tajo as the Doctor, and Mirto Picchi as the Drum Major. Petre Munteanu as Andres is the only weak link. The scene leading up to Marie's murder is one of the most menacing on disc. Overall, this is a riveting performance of the opera, one that offers genuinely fresh insights into the score. There's some low-level tape hiss that's most noticeable in the quieter passages.
The set is filled in with "bonus tracks" -- extended excerpts from other historic performances. The recording of Act II from the 1934 English premiere, led by Sir Adrian Boult, is marred by terrible sound quality, and the performances, except for Parry Jones' campily over-the-top portrayal of the Captain, are not memorable. A performance of most of Act I with Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the 1971 Salzburg Festival features Geraint Evans as a somewhat stolid Wozzeck, with stellar performances from Helmut Melchert as the Captain, Hans Kraemmer as the Doctor, and incisive playing by the orchestra. The Italian Wozzeck's strong and unusually lyric performance would make this set attractive to fans of the opera and might even win over some skeptics who have been put off by more hard-edged performances.