I never heard this
recording when it was new and have somehow managed to miss it
until now. What I do recall is the drubbing that it came in
for, with Sutherland’s suitability for Verdi being questioned.
With the elapse of time we can, perhaps take a more balance
view. Though I should first quote from the Gramophone review;
in 1987 their reviewer said “Sutherland’s arrival raises
doubts for even by this date her tone had loosened so that the
firmness of one note did not guarantee the next. Each E flat
in “Tacea la notte” needs a twist of the screwdriver to tighten
it up and, though the trills and scales in “Di tale amor” are
beyond reproach, the tone quality itself lacks sparkle”. Well
that is one point of view.
For a slightly different
take on the matter, we should consider the background of three
of the main singers, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and
Marilyn Horne. Though all three of them had quite a wide repertoire,
their speciality tended towards early 19th century
Italian opera. In fact, in many ways Sutherland, Pavarotti and
Horne were amongst the shock troops of the Rossini/Bellini/Donizetti
revival, not exactly the singers you might expect for such a
dark Verdi opera.
A recent article
in Opera magazine discussed Verdi’s Il Trovatore in terms
of bel canto technique. In other words seeing Verdi’s opera
in the context of the prevailing performance styles of the day
rather than considering it in terms of the way it prefigures
later operas. We tend to look at works from our own standpoint,
seeing the music through the work’s later history and influence.
But of course, it is perfectly valid to try and consider a piece
of music on its own terms only. After all the first Leonora,
Rosina Penco, was a lyric coloratura who specialised in the
music of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti and was renowned for
So, when you listen
to Sutherland singing in the opening scene of part 4 do you
hear a soprano who lacks firmness, as compared to say Rosalind
Plowright or Leontyne Price? Or, like me, do you hear a soprano
who sings with remarkable flexibility and shapeliness. Sutherland’s
concern is less with the firm line than with the shaping of
the notes and their relationship to each other. A key to this
is her attitude to the ornamentation, which is far less than
incidental in contrast to some of the more dramatic sopranos
who have sung the role. For better or worse, Sutherland shapes
and caresses the vocal line as if it were Bellini or Donizetti.
That said, this
is not the Sutherland of 10 or 15 years previously, but her
performance is still stupendous, if you can accept the parameters
within which she operates.
About Marilyn Horne
there are far fewer concerns about the quality of her vocal
production. She combines admirable firmness with flexibility
and shape. Hers must be one of the most beautifully sung Azucenas
on disc. After all, Horne sang few of the Verdi dramatic mezzo
roles and this shows in her vocal flexibility. She is dramatically
vivid but seems never quite to find the darkness in the role
that other singers have.
seems to be the weakest of the three. Though having all the
notes, in spades, he seems to be content to coast along singing
everything rather too loud. In the first part we get none of
the poetry which is supposed to have entranced Leonora. “Di
quella pira” has, of course, the requisite top Cs but they are
held on to and strung out in a manner which can only be described
Ingvar Wixell makes
a notable villain, firm of voice and dramatic of utterance,
and Nicolai Ghiaurov makes a wonderfully promising start to
So does it all work?
Well, up to a point. But for me the set has one main weakness,
the conducting of Richard Bonynge. He never does anything strictly
wrong, but seems rather too content to let things jog along,
happily using rubato to allow us to admire incidental felicities.
But he never quite imbues the opera with dramatic impetus, nor
does he particularly illuminate Verdi’s score. The dark places
are not very dark and the tender places are just not very tender,
Bonynge seems to have been content to allow singers and instrumentalists
Of course, this
might be me hoisting myself with my own petard and viewing Bonynge’s
conducting through the refracting glass of later centuries.
But as a dramatic entity, this performance just does not quite
work for me despite many beauties.
As a bonus, the
set now includes Bonynge’s recording of the ballet music Verdi
wrote for the Paris performances of the opera. This must have
significantly affected the dramatic structure of the piece.
As recorded here, Il Trovatore takes 138 minute and the
ballet music takes some 25 minutes, which would be a significant
proportion of the total running time. As a curiosity this is
a fine performance, but ballet music was not Verdi’s strong
point and this is not one of his strongest ballets.
There are many incidental
beauties in this performance, but your attitude to the set will
vary depending on how much you like Sutherland’s distinctive technique
and Bonynge’s rather limp conducting.