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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Verdi Favorites
Aida: Gloria all’Egitto, Celeste Aida, Numi Pietà, Ma tu Re (1871)
Nicola Martinucci (Tenor), Radames
Maria Chiara (Soprano), Aida
Fiorenza Cossotto (Mezzo-Soprano), Amneris
Giuseppe Scandola (Baritone), Amonasro
Giancarlo Sbragia, Director
Anton Guadagno, Conductor
Recorded at the Arena di Verona, July 1981
Ernani: Ernani involami (1844)
Mirella Freni (Soprano), Elvira
Luca Ronconi, Director
Riccardo Muti, Conductor
Recorded at La Scala, Milan, December 1982
Nabucco: Prode guerrier!, Va pensiero (1842)
Ghena Dimitrova (Soprano), Abigaille
Ottavio Garaventa (Tenor), Ismaele
Bruna Baglioni (Mezzo-Soprano), Fenena
Renzo Giacchieri, Director
Maurizio Arena, Conductor
Recorded at the Arena di Verona, August 1981
I Lombardi: La mia letizia infondere, Risorgimento (1843)
Jose Carreras (Tenor), Oronte
Gabriele Lavia, Director
Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Conductor
Recorded at La Scala, Milan, April 1984
Otello: Credo in un Dio crudel, Si pel ciel, Ave Maria (1887)
Piero Cappuccilli (Baritone), Iago
Vladimir Atlantov (Tenor), Otello
Kiri te Kanawa (Soprano), Desdemona
Gianfranco de Bosio, Director
Zoltan Pesko, Conductor
Recorded at Arena di Verona, July 1982
Falstaff: Udrai quanta egli sfoggia, Tutto nel mondo (1893)
John Dobson (Tenor), Dr. Caius
William Wildermann (Tenor), Pistol
Francis Egerton (Bass), Bardolph
Dalmacio Gonzales (Tenor), Fenton
Brenda Boozer (Mezzo-Soprano), Meg Page
Barbara Hendricks (Soprano), Nannetta
Lucia Valentini-Terrani (Mezzo-Soprano), Mistress Quickly
Leo Nucci (Baritone), Ford
Renato Bruson (Baritone), Falstaff
Ronald Eyre, Director
Carlo Maria Giulini, Conductor
Recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, July 1982

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It is usually the case with compilation discs that a production company has gathered performances from its archives that share a common theme or common appeal and put them together as a new release. “Verdi Favorites” from NVC Arts is an unusually successful example of this type. Including performances by Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Renato Bruson, Maria Chiara, Piero Cappuccilli and Ghena Dimitrova, the collection certainly boasts an impressive roster of well-known Verdi singers. The performances on this DVD range from pretty good to quite good which is a pleasant surprise since compilation discs of this kind are often frustratingly uneven in quality. “Verdi Favorites” is a fine purchase for someone who may enjoy Verdi’s operas but doesn’t want to commit the funds to buy all of them individually. Although these “favorites” are not going to be at the top of everyone’s list (I’m making a general assumption here that Ernani and I Lombardi are not more popular than Rigoletto or La Traviata) the excerpts chosen for this DVD are musically interesting and by and large well sung.

The staging of the four excerpts from Aida is very well done. This and the final scene from Falstaff are perhaps the only excerpts on the DVD that actually warrant the inclusion of the stage director’s name on the menu listing. All of the singers seem comfortable and the stage spectacle of Gloria all’Egitto, which is oddly truncated, is quite impressive. Maria Chiara is a dramatically compelling Aida with a voice that has both the delicate high notes and the strong chest voice that are essential for tackling this notoriously difficult role. Her popular 1986 recording of the role for Decca with Luciano Pavarotti as Radames (Decca 417439) is an essential purchase. Her Radames for this performance was Nicola Martinucci, a tenor who tends more toward the sound of Franco Corelli than Luciano Pavarotti. Martinucci’s voice has a real spinto quality with ringing high notes which may well have been heard by passers-by at least five miles in any direction on the night of this performance. While Martinucci’s high notes (or “money notes” as they are often called in the opera world) are thoroughly impressive, there is a raspy quality in his lower and middle voice that is somewhat disconcerting. The reason for mentioning his problem with the middle voice is the fact that much of his middle voice singing is out of tune as a result, making the famous arpeggio at the beginning of the aria “Ce-le-ste A-i-da” less than enjoyable right around “-le-ste A-”.

The excerpt from Ernani is much less complicated. It includes a single aria, Ernani involami, in an absolutely gorgeous performance by Mirella Freni. She stands, she sings, it’s great. However, the next excerpt from Nabucco is a bit more problematic. First, the costumes in this production are a bit strange particularly the hat worn by Abigaille, which is just distracting. With excellent performances by both principals and chorus, the voice of Ghena Dimitrova is clearly the major attraction in this opera. The role of Abigaille has always posed a bit of a quandary for me. It was written for Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi’s second wife, who was famous for singing roles like the heroine in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. In addition, the role was considered a poor fit for Stepponi’s voice by many critics of the time. So, the quandary is this: who should sing Abigaille? Is it the lyric coloratura who would also sing La Sonnambula or the dramatic/spinto voice that would be more comfortable in La Forza del Destino or Aida? Ghena Dimitrova seems to be the latter and for the most part handles the role very well. Although there is one descending coloratura passage, close to the beginning of Prode guerrier, which begs for a lighter voice to maneuver it correctly.

Jose Carreras sings Oronte’s aria from I Lombardi in typical Carreras fashion. It is an extremely musical performance, but the loud parts sound as if they are just a little louder than they ought to be in his voice. Carreras also has the somewhat tiresome habit of holding his hands in front of him and moving them up and down symmetrically in a manner that seems to have little to do with the dramatic action of the scene. I say “habit” because it also figures prominently in many of his performances as a part of the famous “three tenors” concerts. This is a very good rendition of the aria, but it is better heard than seen.

The three excerpts from Otello are all very good. Piero Cappuccilli, perhaps the greatest Verdi baritone of his time, gives a thrilling performance of Iago’s Credo and holds his own quite well against tenor powerhouse Vladimir Atlantov in the famous duet Si, pel ciel which climaxes on a simultaneous high A from both tenor and baritone. Vladimir Atlantov appears only in this duet which is unfortunate since he is, unbeknownst to most, a truly magnificent Otello. I had the good fortune to hear Atlantov in the mid-90s when he sang a concert performance of Otello with the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart, with Carol Vaness as Desdemona and Timothy Noble (one of the United States’ most underrated baritones) as Iago. In that concert, Atlantov gave a performance that could stand toe-to-toe against the Otello of James McCracken, Jon Vickers or Placido Domingo any day of the week. Dame Kiri te Kanawa’s Ave Maria is not particularly exciting or thought-provoking, but it is beautifully sung. Dame Kiri’s ability to effortlessly float up to high notes is a wonder to behold and the pianissimo high A-flat at the end of the Ave Maria is a perfect showcase for that talent.

The final opera on the “Verdi Favorites” program is Falstaff, Verdi’s final masterpiece. The excerpts chosen are two of the most difficult ensemble pieces from that opera. Each of these rather short excerpts are performed very well, and in contrast with majority of the excerpts on this DVD feature the talents of the conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, more so than the principle singers. This is essentially the same cast as Giulini’s recording of the complete opera (DG 410503) which is a worthwhile addition to any opera lover’s library, if only for Leo Nucci’s magnificent portrayal of Master Ford. The inclusion of these ensembles makes me think that perhaps a DVD of “Favorite Verdi Ensembles” would be a worthwhile addition to the current catalog of opera releases. It could include these ensembles from Falstaff as well as the quartet from Rigoletto, the final trio from Ernani, the Act I trio from Il Trovatore, and countless other possibilities. That is just a suggestion, but perhaps the good people at NVC Arts will take heed of it. After all, with such an obvious wealth of material to choose from there is no reason why quality releases like this one should not continue.

James Emerson Wintle


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