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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Il Trovatore (1853)
Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Manrico; Maria Callas (soprano) – Leonora; Rolando Panerai (baritone) – Count di Luna; Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) – Azucena; Nicola Zacciria (bass) – Ferrando, Luisa Villa (mezzo) – Inez; Renato Ercolani (tenor) – Ruiz; Giulio Mauri (bass) – An Old Gypsy; Renato Ercolani (tenor) – A Messenger;
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala Milano/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 3, 4, 6 – 9 August 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
NAXOS 8.111280-81 [68:02 + 61:59]
Experience Classicsonline


The acoustics of the Teatro alla Scala are not exactly flattering to the orchestra and chorus. They are dry and lack atmosphere and Il Trovatore of all operas needs a sense of outdoor sensation to make its mark. It says a great deal about Karajan’s incisive conducting that all the raw elemental force of this opera is conveyed so convincingly. Bright and direct it is but never crude, thanks to a certain aristocratic nobility also inherent in his reading. All through the performance there is a spring in the step that is sorely missing in most of Karajan’s remakes of this and several other operas. As an operatic conductor he was at his most convincing during the late 1950s with a string of pearls of great recordings: Cosi fan tutte, Madama Butterfly, Rosenkavalier, Falstaff, Tosca, Aida and Otello. They are all unsurpassable classics and the remakes were all more or less idiosyncratic. To be blunt: they put Karajan in the forefront instead of the opera in question. Somebody – was it Caruso? – said that a satisfying performance of Il Trovatore needed just one thing: the five best singers in the world. Karajan as well as the aristocratic Serafin and Giulini (both on DG) clearly demonstrate that there is something beyond the blatant rum-ti-dum jauntiness one associates with this score. If there is a hero in this recording it is the conductor, who secures high-octane playing and singing from La Scala. One need only refer to the tremendous ‘go’ in the springy and vital opening of the third act. Interestingly the soldiers’ chorus, which follows, is more sedate than one would expect, but there is no lack of power. Most of all though, Karajan sees to it that the soloists get their due without vulgarizing or sentimentalizing the music.
 
For the conducting alone this is one of the most vitalizing readings of Il Trovatore ever recorded but any performance or recording of this maltreated masterpiece falls flat without singing of the highest order and by and large that is what it gets here. Nicola Zaccaria opens the proceedings with his expressive reading of Ferrandos’s great narrative that provides the background to this cruel tale, and the four main soloists more than live up to expectations. Fedora Barbieri was, in good company with Giulietta Simionato, the Italian mezzo-soprano of this period, in the wake between Ebe Stignani and Fiorenza Cossotto, and she is a superb Azucena, crude as well as emotional. She sang the role also on Cellini’s recording on RCA Victor a few years earlier, possibly the strongest contender among mono recordings. Rolando Panerai is an uncommonly lyrical Count di Luna, which makes him a believable suitor of Leonora but a less than formidable rival to Manrico. His sonorous nut-brown is anyway a pleasure to hear. Giuseppe Di Stefano as Manrico is a more dubious asset but truth to tell he is surprisingly successful in a role that ideally needs a much more heavyweight singer. Di Stefano is, however, an ardent lover and his Ah! si ben mio is superb: lyrical and inward, pouring out beautiful, golden tone without forcing. Di quella pira is sung without too much strain but the high C is only nudged at. Elsewhere he sometimes resorts to that pinched tone that was so typical for him in dramatic situations. His act 4 scene with Azucena is invariably warm and caring.
 
But it is Maria Callas who is the cover girl and she is in uncommonly good shape. Having listened extensively to her recorded output I have been able to detect certain break-points, when the voice markedly deteriorated. The most obvious one was somewhere between September 1953 and March 1954, but here in August 1956 she was certainly at the heights of her powers. Rarely has Tacea la notte been sung with such concentrated tone and such superbly-shaped long Verdian phrases. The cabaletta Di tale amor is light and springy, as though a soubrette had suddenly popped into the studio.
 
She is just as great in the fourth act where D’amor sull’ali rosee has rarely been sung with such hushed intensity, exemplary phrasing and that peculiar beauty of tone; the latter possibly an acquired taste. Even those who are more or less allergic to the Callas sound have to admit that she for once manages almost all the high notes without the tone spreading unduly. In the last act she is also regal at Tu vedrai che amore in terra and the dialogue with Luna that leads up to Mira, d’acerbe lagrime has tremendous drive. The duet is gloriously sung on both hands. It is so good to have the baritone part sung without disfiguring histrionics.
 
We are today spoilt for choice – at least if we are satisfied with recordings approaching and exceeding half a century. Cellini (RCA, now Naxos, 1952), the present one and Serafin (DG, 1962) have no weak points but a lot that is superb. It is interesting that all three have Manrico sung by primarily lyrical tenors – Björling, Di Stefano and Bergonzi – who show that a slimmer voice and musical phrasing pays dividends also in this can belto role. Of these three versions Serafin is the only one in stereo and generally the most sophisticated sound, while Karajan’s is the most positive conducting. From more recent times I would suggest Mehta (RCA, 1969) and Giulini (DG, 1982) – both with Domingo as Manrico – as the most worthwhile. Someone who loves this opera – which musically as well as dramatically is better than its reputation – won’t be satisfied with just one version anyway. A newcomer would probably make a good start with Serafin and then progress backwards to Karajan and Cellini. There is also the recently restored live performance from the Met in 1947 with Björling and Warren, which is the best ‘new’ recording to have appeared for many years.
 
There is no libretto enclosed but we get a track-related synopsis that is fully acceptable.
 
Göran Forsling

see also review by Ewan McCormick
 


 


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