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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1853) - opera in four acts.
Plus bonus tracks of Zinka Milanov singing six traditional Yugoslav songs (recorded 1944)
Manrico, Jussi Björling (ten). Leonora, Zinka Milanov (sop). Di Luna, Leonard Warren (bar). Azucena, Fedora Barbieri (mezzo). Ferrando, Nicola Moscana (bass). Ines, Margaret Roggero (sop). Ruiz, Paul Franke (ten)
RCA Victor Orchestra. Robert Shaw Chorale/Renato Cellini
Il Trovatore, recorded in Manhattan Center, New York 21st February to 16th March 1952
Bargain Price
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110240-41. [2 CDs: 62.07+72.34]


In my review, elsewhere on this site, of the latest studio recording of this opera (EMI and featuring Alagna, Gheorghiu etc.) I took mild issue with Caruso’s claim that all that was needed for this opera was ‘the four greatest singers in the world’. My point being as to the number, as I believe that the part of Ferrando, sung here by the Greek-born Nicola Moscana, is as important as the other four principals, a point also made by Tully Potter in his sleeve note. Given the vocal demands on the soloists it is no great surprise that in only one post-Second World War recording of the work, that under Serafin on DG, are all from one country, in that case Italy. In the EMI recording there is a Franco-Italian tenor, a Romanian soprano, an American baritone, a Russian mezzo and an Italian bass. This cast is equally polyglot but there is the subtle difference, all were used to singing their role on stage, under the same conductor as here, at the New York ‘Met’ during this period and were fully immersed in their parts.

In this very strong cast I must start by focusing on the male and female leads. The Manrico of the Swede Jussi Björling is sung with elegant and beautiful lyric tenor tone, and characteristic taste in phrasing, whilst having plenty of heft for the dramatic outbursts. His only rival on disc in the totality of these vocal virtues is Carlo Bergonzi on the DG issue. Björling is by turn ardent in his song to Leonora (CD 1 tr. 8), loving and concerned towards the gypsy he believes to be his mother (CD 1 trs. 14-16) and suitably heroic in ‘Ah, si ben mio’ and ‘Di quella pira’ (CD 2 trs 6-7). As his lover, Leonora, the Croatian Zinka Milanov gives as near an ideal interpretation, a slight sketchiness in coloratura apart, as one could wish for. Its strengths lie in the manner of the approach to notes, the support of the voice in legato (CD 1 tr 5), with long arching phrases and subtle vibrato all aiding creation of the character, by vocal means alone. In this latter respect she is matched by the Italian Fedora Barbieri as Azucena. One of a line of great Italian mezzos, no longer extant, who had this music in their blood, her ‘stride la vampa’, with unforced resonant chest notes (CD 1 tr. 11), moves easily and swiftly (tr. 12) to a more lyric, but still dramatic tone, expressing the gypsy’s changing mood in a most impressive way. This is also true of her performance in the last scene (CD 2 trs. 14-17), including a formidably impressive ‘Ai nostri monti’ and later in the concluding declamatory passage as she tells the Count that he has just killed his own brother. If the two lower male singers are not quite of the standard of the other principals, it is merely that the great is the ultimate enemy of the good, or, as here, very good. As the Count, the American baritone Leonard Warren is lyrical in timbre, but there are times when he is a little strained by the tessitura and when I wished he would field more weight and colour to his tone, as in ‘Il balen’ (CD 1 tr. 18). I would have appreciated more sap in Moscana’s steady and expressive voice as Ferrando. Neither singer is a weak link in the recording nor is the under-rated conductor, Renato Cellini, who gives a well paced and phrased performance. Inevitably, given the date of the recording and before completeness became ‘de rigueur’, there are ‘theatre cuts’ as was the practice at the ‘Met’ in that period. There are no second verses or cabalettas and at a total timing for the opera of around 116 minutes, it is 10 minutes less than the ‘cut’ Serafin (DG), whilst the Domingo and Leontyne Price, under Mehta, the best ‘complete’ recording (RCA), runs to 136 minutes.

There is a bonus filler of 18 minutes of Milanov singing six Yugoslav songs; her first recordings, made in 1944. These are of no compositional distinction but do allow us to hear the great soprano in another oeuvre. However, compared to the Trovatore the recordings are lacking in depth and presence. Mark Obert- Thorn’s remastering of the Trovatore is excellent with clarity, warmth and presence being the relevant adjectives; the voices are forward and the orchestra well balanced in an open airy acoustic. The results are excellent even in mono.

This outstanding recording, superbly restored, represents the regular fare on offer at the ‘Met’ in the early post Second World War period. Verdi singing of this calibre is no longer to be heard anywhere in the world and the performance deserves to be in the collection of any Verdi enthusiast or lover of great singing. Its modest price is an added bonus for both the affluent and the impecunious.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Tony Haywood


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