Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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New from Arthur Bloomfield’s Time Machine: Visiting the Oldtime Conductor Lorenzo Molajoli

August 17th, 2011

Perhaps you readers have heard the term “house conductor.” This translates as a musician who works or worked more or less exclusively in radio or recordings, and likely had administrative duties as well, such as the now-forgotten Piero Coppola who ran the artistic side of French HMV in the Thirties besides presiding over many recordings and good ones they were too: Debussy’s Iberia, Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony etc etc.

There’s a temptation to look down on “house” maestri as second-class musical citizens, generic hacks turning up too often on one’s turntable instead of BIGGER names, those habitues of the big marquees. But that sort of thinking is, generally, so much rubbish. Look at Frank Black, an estimable employee at Radio City in New York who was immortalized in a Broadway song as “Dr. Black of NBC.”

Yes, his nerdy spectacles made him look like an earnest professor but to hear him accompany Moriz Rosenthal (my cousin, incidentally) in the Chopin E minor piano concerto is to hear a master of musical serenity.

Enter here Cavaliere Lorenzo Molajoli (1868-1939) about whom almost nothing is known except that he showed up repeatedly in a Milan recording studio in the period 1928-32 and conducted a shelf-buckling batch of complete operas for Italian Columbia and its affiliates. These were hefty albums (sometimes two, actually) of ten to twenty 78’s. How my mother and I carried them home when I was a 12-year-old collector I simply can’t remember: you almost had to rent a truck.

[Below: Conductor Lorenzo Molajoli; resized image of a historical photograph.]

Suffice to say that Signor Molajoli was many opera lovers’ first conductor. Yes, RCA Victor/HMV had competing albums led by others, but I’d say that in today’s great age of re-mastering it’s the  now-on-cd’s Molajoli who’s coming up the artistic winner.

This man had style! He knew how to shoot to the essence of an opera in a few seconds – I’m thinking of the pathetique opening of his La Gioconda, the mocking descent of those plaintive horns early on in I Pagliacci, the poise and urgency with which he invites us into Boito’s Mefistofele. And my how he could keep a recording going as if it were a “live” performance, vaulting over those side breaks which occurred in the studio like the wrath of an angry god every four minutes.

One of my favorite Molajoli details occurs in Il Trovatore act 1, scene 2, it’s those innocent portato eighth note chords before Leonora’s Tacea la notte to which he gives a verve but a sense of futility as well. This dour underpinning to Leonora’s lovely melodizing is obviously the work of her duenna Inez who’s warning her: Forget that tenor, I don’t care how charming he is, he’s bad medicine.

[Below: Lorenzo Molajoli’s recording of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”; resized image of a historical item.]

Then there’s Molajoli’s amazing Tosca which I’ve just discovered. I love the almost drowsy intimacy of the opening scenes before the Real World intrudes too much: the Sacristan with his prayer, Cavaradossi with his easel, Tosca with her entrance. Molajoli seems to be communing with the opera, rather as if it were hiding behind a scrim.

But then the tension is ramped way up. Never have I heard a Tosca take so literally Puccini’s admonition – just before the Te Deum as she reels from the realization (false, it turns out) that Mario has deceived her – to weep bitterly. Bianca Scacciati absolutely wails with despair in one great cascading flutter after another, for ten or fifteen seconds, while the orchestra soars in one of its most affecting interludes, a lyrical ocean of pathos.

The juxtaposition here is not only striking, it’s downright disturbing, and guess what, that’s what Puccini wanted!

(A “footnote” here to say I’m appalled to report that in the Tosca recording headed by Maria Callas there is not one hint of weeping, not the most infinitesimal mini-gulp. I would have docked her pay!)

And in act 2 I don’t remember a Scarpia, knifed in the gut and with scant breath at his disposal, sound so utterly TERRIFIED as Enrico Molinari in this recording. Aiuto . . Soccorso .. Aiuto. Terrifying! This is what dying by surprise feels like. And in a Milan studio yet, not on an opera stage during the heat of a “live” performance.

(A second footnote to say that in the Callas recording Tito Gobbi the Scarpia sounds in his death throes as if he’s just acting. Quite good, yes, but he hasn’t been cut down to size like Molinari.)

Molajoli’s recording of Cavalleria Rusticana is no less vivid, aided apparently by a record producer keen on steamy realism rather than the pristine elegance of some of the well-gloved EMI issues of the Fifties and Sixties – speaking of which, I happened to be with the conductor Josef Krips when he received the playbacks of his Entfuehrung aus dem Serail and he was visibly rattled by the over-long pauses between numbers, especially since he was trying to conduct them from a chair in the hi-fi shop where we were gathered.

EMI’s tyrannical Walter Legge might have been rattled by Molajoli’s Cavalleria which opens with the sweetest legato of lovers’ fondling arms and ends with the blood-curdlingest chills devised by man, a vivider-than-usual execution of the corybantic scene wherein a high-pitched villager screeches from upstage, “Turiddu has been killed!,” the orchestra meanwhile on the verge of REELING, and Heavens, we run for cover. Me, I was weeping by the hi-fi.

Presiding over this pandemonium extraordinaire from a Milan podium? Well, we’ve finally found a picture of the biographically elusive Molajoli and you know what, in his starched wing collar and high-domed baldness he looks like an aquiline version of the stuffed-shirt father-of-the-bride in scores of Hollywood movies of the Thirties wherein nice young man of limited means, Cary Grant for instance, wishes to marry Park Avenue plutocrat’s daughter.

No, it’s not an artist Molajoli resembles, but a judge, or an attorney – could he be associated with the firm of Gui, Ghione and Molajoli down on Wall Street?

Now some of the female singers in the Molajoli stable have rather an old fashioned sound, flutey and perfumed by today’s standards, but I must say the exuberant head tone of Giannina Arangi-Lombardi in her high-lying scene with Alfio just before the Intermezzo is very fetching.

The Alfio is another discovery, a baritone with a beefy matinee-idol voice named Gino Lulli. Evidently he sang at La Scala as Jochanaan in Salome but toiled mostly in the Italian “provinces” and spent a year in the U.S. with Fortune Gallo’s touring San Carlo Opera, a shoestring operation from those pre-television, pre-internet days that had the services of such formidable talents as the tenors Dimitri Onofrei and Aroldo Lindi, the baritone Mostyn Thomas, the bass William Wilderman etc.etc.

Ah, Fortune Gallo. I had correspondence with him years ago when I was researching San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola who’d conducted for several San Carlo seasons around 1920. I can’t resist quoting some of Signor Gallo’s letter to me, complete with his delightfully creative use of the English language: this means typos which are not really typos!

On the subject of the soprano Haru Onuki: “She was a good looking girl well-builded, and a very fine Cio-Cio San [in Madama Butterfly]. I paid her a couple of hundred dollars a week to sing the role . . . She had some disappointment with the famous Ripley (“Believe It Or Not”) for he doubled cross her [sic] in a love romance.”

And now I realize that Lorenzo Molajoli must have been the first conductor in my life! When I was four years old and laid up with a boring affliction requiring the frequent visits of Dr. Ashley the ear-nose-and-throat man (his weapon was a long needle this pinstripe-suited executioner would plunge into my ear, Aiuto!), I’d repeatedly ask for the Triumphal march from Aida: we owned just that record – which got scratchier and scratchier – out of the seventeen or eighteen making up the complete Columbia set conducted, as I hadn’t noticed at that tender age, by Signor Molajoli.


This article is an enlarged version of the Molajoli chapter in Arthur’s new e-book, More Than The Notes, The Conducting of Toscanini, Furtwaengler, Stokowski and Friends, available online at morethanthenotes dot com.

Tags: Blazing Batons with Arthur Bloomfield