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Luciano Pavarotti - The EMI Recordings
EMI CLASSICS 5 13937 2

[7 CDs: 62:32 + 30:28 + 64:32 + 35:32 + 76:46 + 48:36 + 39:13]
Experience Classicsonline



CD 1-2 [62:32 + 30:28]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863–1945)

L’amico Fritz (1891)
Mirella Freni (soprano) – Suzel; Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) – Fritz Kobus; Laura Didier Gambardella (mezzo) – Beppe; Vicente Sardinero (baritone) – David; Benito di Bella (baritone) – Hanezò; Luigi Pontiggia (tenor) – Federico; Malvina Major (soprano) – Caterina;
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Giannandrea Gavazzeni
rec. 29-31 August, 1-4, 7, 11, 13 September 1968, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
CD 3-5 [64:32 + 35:32 + 76:46]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)

Don Carlo (1867)
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) – Don Carlo; Daniela Dessi (soprano) – Elisabetta di Valois; Luciana d’Intino (mezzo) – La Principessa d’Eboli; Paolo Coni (baritone) – Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa; Samuel Ramey (bass) – Filippo II; Alexander Anisimov (bass) – Il Grande Inquisitore; Andrea Silvestrelli (bass) – Un frate; Marilena Laurenza (mezzo) – Tebaldo; Orfeo Zanetti (tenor) – Il Conte di Lerma; Mario Bolognesi (tenor) – Un araldo reale; Nuccia Focile (soprano) – Una voce dal cielo
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, December 1992, La Scala, Milan
CD 6-7 [48:36 + 39:13]
Giuseppe VERDI

Messa da Requiem (1874)
Cheryl Studer (soprano), Dolora Zajick (mezzo), Luciano Pavarotti (tenor), Samuel Ramey (bass);
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, June 1987
Bonus (2 DVD):
Giuseppe VERDI

Don Carlo (1867)
See above for recording and cast details.
Stage production and video director: Franco Zeffirelli

This box contains early and fairly late Pavarotti. The intervening years are covered – mostly – by a flood of recordings made under his exclusive contract with Decca. L’amico Fritz, which was written the year after Cavalleria rusticana, was Pavarotti’s first complete opera recording. This rarely performed work finds not only him but the other main soloists as well in radiant youthful form. With Gavazzeni enticing the Covent Garden forces to draw all the romantic sweetness from this agreeable score this is indeed a performance to savour. The opera in itself is utterly charming and attractive. There hasn’t been another recording – to my knowledge – during the last forty years and even though there had been one it would hardly have challenged this recording.

The plot:

Fritz Kobus is a rich landowner who has vowed never to marry. His friend, Rabbi David, has a wager with him that he will and when Suzel, his bailiff’s daughter, whom he is fond of, gives him flowers on his birthday, David says that he should marry her. Fritz pledges his orchard that he won’t. In the second act David begins to feel sure that Suzel is in love with Fritz and to his horror Fritz begins to feel that he is in love with her. In the third act a wedding is being prepared in the village, Beppe tells Fritz about his unrequited love to Suzel and Fritz becomes furious when David tells him that he has arranged for Suzel’s marriage with a boy from the village. Eventually Fritz and Suzel are united, David wins the wager and gives the orchard to Suzel as a wedding gift.

There are some numbers in the opera that can occasionally be heard in recital, both live and on record: Suzel’s two arias are among the gems; Maria Chiara recorded them in the late 1970s; Beniamino Gigli recorded O amore, o bella luce in 1948 and the Cherry Duet – with Nerina Baldisseri – in 1919, a duet that Schipa and Mafalda Favero also recorded. Pavarotti is impassioned without overdoing it, the voice is free and ample and this is probably the closest he came to the ideal Björling sound. There is no squeezing of notes - that device crept into his singing some years later. And his old childhood friend from Modena, Mirella Freni, is nothing less than superb; so lovely, so pure and with such unforced brilliance. Start listening to their Cherry Duet (CD1 tr. 13) and I bet you will be hooked. And if you are still not bowled over, go to act 3 and play CD2 tr. 5 – Fritz’s aria O amore, o bella luce del core – where Pavarotti’s soft opening is magical and the whole aria glows with passion. Still not convinced? Then try Suzel’s Non mi resta che il pianto ed il dolore (CD2 tr. 8) and you must surrender. Add to this that Vicente Sardinero sings David’s part with unerring musicality and beautifully ringing tone and happiness is total. It might be argued that Laura Didier Gambardella’s powerful singing is too mature, too matronly for the gypsy boy Beppe, who should ideally be sung by a leaner voice, but she is impressive in her own grand way. The minor roles are well taken and the recording wears its years lightly.

Almost 25 years later Pavarotti had grown considerably in size, both vocally and physically. His singing could sometimes be rather coarse and to call his acting rudimentary is an understatement. The latter is important since in this box we get the live Don Carlo as a straight CD release as well as a DVD. Zeffirelli’s lavish production in period costumes is dark-tinted and the combination of sets, costumes and lighting produce stage pictures that look very much like Rembrandt paintings. The director manages to reduce the impact of Pavarotti’s girth and obvious awkwardness on stage by frequently partly hiding him in the shadows. A couple of stock gestures is what he can accomplish but his facial expressions – as seen in close-up – are deeply engaged. As regards his singing there was a lot of publicity around the premiere, where he missed a high note, was booed and had to apologize in public. This is an attitude from the audience that I can’t understand. When a singer has, say, ten thousand notes to sing and misses one, that is hardly a sign of bad singing, it’s only human. Never mind, during the performances that were recorded everything was in order and his committed singing is actually one of the best reasons for hearing – or seeing – this production. He is in excellent vocal shape and produces some beautiful pianissimo singing.

Paolo Coni is a sturdy Posa and his timbre is sometimes reminiscent of Renato Bruson’s but little else. He has no real feeling for Verdian line. Verdian line is on the other hand what Samuel Ramey has in abundance and he sings beautifully with feeling - but not much variation in tone colour. Visually his Filippo II emerges as a majestic and cruel monarch and he has great authority. Alexander Anisimov’s Grande Inquisitore is initially compliant rather than dominant but the scene with the two rulers is still one of the high-spots of the performance. Andrea Silvestrelli is on the other hand a magnificent Monk.

Luciana d’Intino, more contralto than mezzo, is an impressive but somewhat unwieldy Eboli, singing a more than decent O don fatale, while Daniela Dessi as Elisabetta is rather uneven. She too has a grand voice that expands well at climaxes and her aria and the final duet with Don Carlo go quite well.

I have still to hear a dull opera recording with Muti. He paces the music excellently and is far superior to the lethargic Karajan, who recorded the work for the same company a decade earlier. Both conductors opted for the four act version, which is a pity. An even better sung recording of this version is Santini’s 1950s set with Gobbi and Christoff. This is also an EMI original, today available on both Naxos and Regis. Of the five act version the first choice is no doubt Giulini’s recording from 1970, and for those who want it in the original French, Pappano’s live recording from Chatelet in Paris is a prime recommendation, both on CD and DVD. All of these are also EMI recordings.

Verdi’s Requiem was both Muti’s and Pavarotti’s second recordings. Pavarotti’s first was with Solti in the early 1970s. Muti did it in the late 1970s with London forces and an impressive quartet of soloists: Renata Scotto, Agnes Baltsa, Veriano Luchetti and Evgeny Nesterenko. This was my favourite recording during the LP era and I still find it vital and thrilling, though it is far from conventional. Muti’s tempi seem to be extreme in one direction or other – very slow or very fast. So it is in this remake too but at the same time I get a feeling that it is a more reverential reading. There is a lot of very hushed singing and playing but it may have something to do with the recording. It is kind of distanced. Still there is power and force in Dies irae and the fast Sanctus is punchy. The La Scala forces are excellent, the choral singing assured and warm but it is a large body and on the earlier recording the smaller English choir is sometimes more incisive. By and large the new version is however on a par with the earlier and the general concept, as I have already said, quite similar.

And when it comes to the four solo singers the present version actually takes the cake. As a quartet they are far more homogenous than their illustrious predecessors, where Renata Scotto, for all her involvement and musicality, tends to stick out through her vibrato and individually the later quartet are quite superb. Both ladies take some time to warm up but after that they deliver sensitive singing of the highest order. Cheryl Studer, in what I believe was her debut recording, sings with such beauty of tone and, in Libera me, such ethereal inwardness that possibly only Elisabeth Schwarzkopf could challenge her and Dolora Zajick (earlier her name was spelt without the ‘k’) is vibrant but warm and expressive throughout.

Even better are the men. Rarely has Pavarotti sung so sensitively and with so many nuances. The inward Ingemisco is marvellously phrased and the opening of Hostias is superbly vocalized in mezza voce. Samuel Ramey is frankly the best singer of the bass part since Ezio Pinza: steady, beautiful, noble and subtle, crowning his achievement with a Confutatis of one’s dreams.

I have many favourite recordings of the Requiem and I still regard Robert Shaw’s Telarc recording as the best conducted – in the Toscaninian mould – and with the best choral singing. He has four excellent soloists too, though less starry than Muti’s, but for sensitivity and individuality of utterance Muti’s quartet is now my favourite team.

Pavarotti’s many admirers will need no encouragement from me to invest in this box, but considering what it contains – a superb L’amico Fritz, a Don Carlo on both CD and DVD with several merits and a Verdi Requiem that is far from orthodox and with the best solo quartet in the town – it should also be of interest to a larger public.

The discs come in separate cardboard envelopes and the enclosed booklet has synopses for the two operas but no texts.

Göran Forsling

And a further view from Simon Thompson

The recent death of Luciano Pavarotti, much lamented in circles that go far beyond the opera house, is sure to bring a spate of re-releases to commemorate his remarkable contribution to music in the last fifty years. This box from EMI sets a good standard against which the others can be compared. This "complete" survey is so slim because Pavarotti was a Decca man throughout his life, and only made recordings with other companies when given special dispensation from them. Such recordings were nearly always linked to live performances, and that’s true of the two Verdi works here - conducted by Muti who was an EMI artist. L’Amico Fritz, on the other hand, was made towards the very start of Pavarotti’s recording career (1968) before he had signed an exclusive contract with Decca. EMI must still be kicking themselves today that they let such a prize get away!

Both dramatically and musically, L’Amico Fritz is the least satisfying work in this set, and yet it probably shows Pavarotti’s art in its greatest light. The voice is in startlingly fresh form here, and it makes it easy to see just why this young tenor caused such as stir when he made his debut in the early 1960s. Pavarotti’s greatest assets were always his virile tone and flawless sense of vocal line. While the tone may have darkened and deteriorated in later years, here we find it at its most compelling and fresh. He enervates the role of Fritz: the arias are compelling, and he blends perfectly with his friend - and fellow Modena native - Mirella Freni in the duets. She sounds just as youthful and she plays the young innocent convincingly. The opera itself may not have a great deal to recommend it: the famous Cherry Duet in Act 2 whets the appetite for more, but none of the other numbers, however charming, are sufficiently developed and not nearly as dramatically rich as those in Cavalleria Rusticana. Still, the performances show it in its best possible light, and it’s easy to see why Decca snapped Pavarotti up so quickly after this set was made.

The two Verdi numbers come from much later in Pavarotti’s career. The Verdi Requiem (1987) brings both benefits and gains. It is a definite improvement on Muti’s earlier recording of the Requiem (1978) for EMI with the Philharmonia. He moulds the score so as to bring out the religious fervour of the work and this is effective in its way: the very opening is hushed, almost fearful, while the Agnus Dei brings a subtle suggestion of hope and redemption. The bigger moments aren’t as successful, however, and this isn’t helped by the fact that the recording is so recessed. The chorus seem to be singing in the next room and the big climaxes like the Dies Irae can sound like a bit of a yell: the tenors and basses are noticeably too keen to get going at the start of the Rex Tremendae! Furthermore the acoustic is rather dry and the brass in particular tend to bray in a harsh, intrusive manner. The solo singing is a different matter, however, as each member of the quartet "acts" their role wonderfully. Pavarotti himself provides a more mature reading than he did for Solti in Vienna, and his voice feels very well suited to this repertoire. When required to he lets rip with the full flow of emotion - the first breath of the Kyrie, for example - and the Ingemisco is a real highlight. However he also blends with the others beautifully, heard in the Offertorio and Lux Aeterna. Dolora Zajick’s refulgent mezzo fits Muti’s vision of the piece well and, while Cheryl Studer is in danger of sliding between her notes, her Libera Me is anguished, imploring and desperate in turn: the reprise of the Requiem aeternam theme is really moving. The most successful soloist, however, is Samuel Ramey whose bass rings with authority: his Mors stupebit depicts a desolate world laid waste and he manages the contrast in the dynamics of his voice to give an exciting yet tender Confutatis. So while the choral contributions may well mean that this isn’t anyone’s first choice for the Requiem, the solo singing is well worth hearing.

And so to the biggest work in this set: Don Carlo, and it’s the Four-Act Italian version. This production achieved notoriety at its premiere (December 1992) and made front pages around the world for all the wrong reasons. At the height of his international fame Pavarotti took on the title role, whose dramatic demands lie well outside his normal bel canto territory: however he cracked some exposed high notes on the first night and was booed by the La Scala loggianisti. (The loggianisti are the die-hard opera lovers who sit in the cheapest seats in the house, attend as many performances as they can and demand very high standards from their performers: it was in response to their boos that Roberto Alagna walked off stage during the second performance of Aida in December 2006.) Rodney Milnes, the critic for Opera Magazine who was present at that first night, suggested that it had little to do with his singing and much more to do with the fact that Pavarotti had dared to spurn La Scala earlier in his career and had recently cancelled a run of L’Elisir d’Amore with very little notice: he needed to be taught a lesson and the cracked notes gave them a chance. Neither cracked notes nor boos can be heard on this recording, though, and in spite of the bad publicity it’s an exciting and surprising performance, not least because of Pavarotti himself. For so late in his career (57) his assumption of the young prince is quite thrilling. Throughout his career he had remarkable breath control and a really exhilarating tone, and these both serve him well for this arduous role. He is at his best in the "big" moments, such as the Auto-da-Fé scene and the duets with Posa in Act 1. However he can still manage genuine pianissimos in his two duets with Elizabeth. The voice betrays very few signs of age (save at the very end) and he provides the excitement that the role needs. He is well supported in the Posa of Paolo Coni whose beautiful voice rises superbly to the challenge of the death scene, and Luciana d’Intino’s Eboli brings a really rich, fruity tone to this key role. Her Veil Song is well controlled, she plays the spurned lover with venom in the Act 2 Scene 1, and she sings a genuinely thrilling O Don Fatale, with ringing top notes to end probably the greatest scene in Verdi. Again, however, the Philip II of Samuel Ramey is probably the strongest link: throughout he sings with unimpeachable authority and real beauty, giving a complete, rounded portrait of the tormented monarch. This helps to make Act 3 Scene 1 the real highlight of the set as he spars with the thunderous Grand Inquisitor of Alexander Anisimov before responding to the damaged dignity of his wife. The Elizabeth of Daniela Dessì is perfectly adequate but not much more: she tires by the time she gets to Tu che la vanita but all the notes are there. Muti conducts energetically and the orchestra are as good as you would expect at La Scala. The live recording doesn’t help the chorus, though, who sometimes sound too distant.

One of the great selling points of this set is that it provides both the CDs and DVDs of the stage production. One is the soundtrack of the other so there is no difference in terms of performance: the DVD has marginally better sound and it comes with a surround option, though that doesn’t make an enormous difference. The production, by Franco Zeffirelli, is predictably large in scale. The sets are all monumental affairs, and several flights of stairs run through each scene creating, for example, a shrine to Charles V during the monastery scenes or a raised platform for the religious leaders during the Auto-da-Fé scene. That scene in particular is bursting with extras and, limited to the size of a TV screen, it looks rather too crowded. In fact I found the whole production rather lacking in the insights that Zeffirelli normally brings to his operatic work. He creates vast backdrops that can be oppressively dark (the monastery and prison scenes) or bright and gaudy (Act 1, Scene 2), but he does very little to elicit insights into the emotional lives of the characters who sometimes seem like statues void of real feeling. It is telling that the most effective scene is the most intimate: the scene in Philip’s study. Here Zeffirelli’s use of lush fabrics and period furniture evokes the luxury and desolation at the centre of the King’s world, a contradiction which that scene so marvellously explores. When the curtain goes up Philip is seen lost in thought, eyes closed, head in hands, a pose he hold for the first five minutes of the scene. This is also the scene where Zeffirelli comes closes to revealing the emotional web that binds the royal household together, in particular during the great quartet when Elizabeth kneels imploringly before the King, but is still spurned as he sweeps out. Rodney Milnes described the production as "dead from the neck up" and the acting is fairly non-existent, though the trio in Act 2 Scene 1 does show vivid interaction. Be warned, though: the picture quality is pretty poor throughout. RAI’s production is consistently poorly focused and blurred, and this can be a genuine strain on the eyes if you watch it for too long, particularly when characters are spot-lit against a dark background.

So how does this set serve as a testament to Pavarotti’s career? In a sense it give us examples from the two extremes: a light role from the start of his career and a dramatic role from the end. With only three (unusual, for him) roles it simply doesn’t work as a full survey, but it is to EMI’s credit that they have not tried to make it such: instead they present the set simply as a sample of Pavarotti’s work, and the examples of his artistry that they were lucky enough to bring to us. It remains a fascinating and always entertaining document, especially for the two operas, and any lover of his remarkable voice should have it. What’s more the price is very attractive and it’s bound to be available for a limited time only, so snap it up while you can. Other labels, take note when you’re preparing your tributes!

Simon Thompson

 

 


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