Despite its blanched, grainy look and old-fashioned staging (no director is credited, but the stars step outside their roles to bow to extended applause), this is a document of three major interpreters of the leading roles, supported, in the opera's dozen character parts, by half a dozen of Italy's excellent stable of comprimarios, doubling up to save air fares. (I especially enjoyed Anna di Stasio's lushly sung, almond-eyed Bersi.)
Mario Del Monaco is a bit dry in the first and fourth acts — "Fui soldato" in Act III is his finest moment here — but those who never saw him will get some notion of the lip-curled authority of his singing. Aldo Protti, who lasted long enough to make an impressive belated Met debut as Rigoletto in 1985, is thoroughly in charge of both the flowing line and the self-doubt that make Gerard one of opera's most intriguing heavies. Vocally, however, the night belongs to Renata Tebaldi in the full honeyed glow of her sumptuous sound in mid career. Maddalena was one of her favorite roles; she sang it for over twenty years till the top notes became insecure. Here, in 1961, the voice was even and easy throughout the part, and if she seems, close up, a bit zaftig for the mischievous child of Act I, she matures into a deeply affecting woman for her confrontation with Gerard. Franco Capuana milks every one of Giordano's shrewdly calculated climaxes, and the audience eats it up.
NHK employed members of no less than three Tokyo choruses, who race about wielding mattocks and lorgnettes, and Carmagnole till they drop. Imagine a dozen dainty Madame Defarges howling – chirping? – for Chenier's blood. They may not seem Italian – or French for that matter – and are too loudly prompted, but it's clearly not just a walk-through at the opera to them: they're having the time of their lives and their enthusiasm is infectious.