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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1853) [138:14]
Ballet Music from Le Trouvère (1857) [25:57]
Leonora – Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Manrico – Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Azucena – Marilyn Horne (mezzo)
Il Conte di Luna – Ingvar Wixell (baritone)
Ferrando – Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
Ruiz – Graham Clark (tenor)
Ines – Norma Burrowes (soprano)
An old gipsy – Peter Knapp (baritone)
A messenger – Wynford Evans (tenor)
London Opera Chorus
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec: Kingsway Hall, London, 1976: ADD
DECCA 475 8281 [3 CDs: 73:03 + 65:11 + 25:57]


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 her trill.

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.

Surprisingly, Pavarotti 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 as ham.

Ingvar Wixell makes a notable villain, firm of voice and dramatic of utterance, and Nicolai Ghiaurov makes a wonderfully promising start to the opera.

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 to coast.

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.

Robert Hugill




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