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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1853)
Giorgio Zancanaro (Conte di Luna, baritone), Rosalind Plowright (Leonora, soprano), Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena, mezzo-soprano), Franco Bonisolli (Manrico, tenor), Paolo Washington (Ferrando, bass), Giuliana Matteini (Inez, soprano), Giampaolo Corradi (Ruiz, tenor), Bruno Grella (Old Gypsy, bass), Bruno Balbo (Messenger, tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Arena di Verona/Reynald Giovaninetti
Producer: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Scenery: Mario Ceroli, Costumes: Gabriella Pescucci, directed for video by Brian Large, produced for video by Robin Scott.
Recorded at the Arena di Verona on a date not given, © 1985
WARNER MUSIC DIVISION DVD 4509-99215-2 [approx. 144:00]

There are two ways you can film/televise an opera. There is the creative method, where you use all the possibilities of the medium to create something radically different from what you would see in the opera house but with a dramatic validity of its own. Attempts at this have been variably successful. Or there is the documentary method where you train your cameras on a performance which happens to be taking place anyway. It is unlikely that the home listener will be caught up in the drama of a performance where the sets and movements look artificial in a way they may not have done from a seat among the public and which is interrupted at every possible moment, according to the best Italian traditions, by lengthy applause. Furthermore, while Fiorenza Cossotto has the stage-sense to remain "frozen" in a far from comfortable position during her applause, Franco Bonisolli struts around after "Di quella pira", lapping up the waves of adoration until he gets to sing it again as a "bis". But on the other hand, how often, during the many "historical" opera issues that come our way these days, do we wish we could see what it looked like, and in this case we can.

Under Brian Large’s experienced direction, the cameras train into sets by Mario Ceroli which, in the modern manner, seem to have been stuck together from bits and pieces from somebody’s junk-room to make a sort of medieval scaffolding. But the Arena di Verona is a vast place and the public was never meant to see the sets this close; since Ceroli is a sculptor of some importance the effect may have been much more impressive further back. The costumes are traditional and unobjectionable.

The performance contains a number of well-remembered stars of the time – the nearest we get to a date for the performance is ©1985; a dictionary entry for Bonisolli confirms that he sang Manrico at the Arena di Verona in that year. Two years earlier Plowright and Zancanaro had been chosen by Giulini for his recording of this opera and in 1985 Plowright was awarded the Fanny Heldy Association prize for her assumption of the role of Leonora there.

The star who comes closest to giving a whopping histrionic performance in the old style is Cossotto, with her wild, rolling-eyed gypsy. In 1985 she was fifty and had nearly thirty years’ career behind her. She pitches into "Stride la vampa" with fierce aplomb – not a trill in sight and Verdi’s pianissimo substituted with a fortissimo. Truth to tell it always is done this way and it is not even very effective to begin pianissimo. The whole of her Act Two scene is steely-voiced ham and spine-tingling in its way. Later in the opera she essays a few moments of piano, revealing that, after years of heavy use, her voice can no longer spin a pure line as of old.

Zancanaro is unreservedly fine, full of voice, round of tone and musical in his phrasing. Whether there is quite the frisson of great theatre I am not so sure – something Cossotto does provide, if a bit crudelybut he is always a welcome presence. Plowright sings very nicely when the music demands no more, but there is no escaping that her pleasant little voice hardly has the heft for a big Verdi role and she’d have done better stick to Mozart. Maybe Giulini provided a refined context where her presence made sense, but this is blood-and-thunder Verdi in the traditional Italian way.

The unanimous rudeness with which Italian critics treated Plowright (I am speaking in general, I have seen no reviews of this performance in particular) had a degree of national prejudice behind it, the implication being that she was a size too small for the roles she was doing because an English singer naturally would be so, and such a singer could only have a career in England where they don’t understand opera anyway… Alas for national pride, the same criticisms have to be levelled at Bonisolli. His is actually a very good "baritonal" tenor voice as long as nothing heroic is asked of it. "Ah si, ben mio" is beautifully shaped and shaded. But then comes "Di quella pira"... There are two things you can do if your voice is too small for what you are singing. You can leave it small and hope it will do (the Plowright way), or you can shout and bark (the Bonisolli way). It is a pretty ugly display and the audience rise to him as a man. Evidently there is something deep in the Italian psyche which responds to this sort of thing, rather as Spaniards respond to bull-fighting, and which will always remain inexplicable to the bemused outsider.

The only other part of any size, Ferrando, is well taken by Paolo Washington who gets the opera off to a good start. The conductor’s interpretation is thoroughly traditional with plenty of vitality and rather less discipline; occasional glimpses of his beat, nervous and wiry in fast music, perhaps explain both characteristics.

Despite criticisms, this recording will provide future generations with a memento of a typical mid-nineties production with some singers who were noted for these roles at the time, so it has documentary value at least. And it should provide opera lovers with a fair amount of pleasure a fair amount of the time.

Christopher Howell



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