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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore - opera in four acts (1853)
Manrico - Giuseppe Di Stefano (ten); Leonora - Maria Callas (sop); Di Luna - Rolando Panerai (bar); Azucena - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Ferrando - Nicola Zaccaria (bass); Ines - Luisa Villa (sop); Ruiz - Renato Ercolani (ten)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Herbert von Karajan
rec. August 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan. ADD

As the fifty-year expiry of copyright in the UK and Europe moves towards confirmation, so EMI seeks to eke a little more money out of the Callas recordings of the 1950s by bringing the prices down to more realistic levels. Whilst some of the diva’s recordings have appeared on the EMI mid-price ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series much earlier than this issue, others have not. Now EMI goes the whole hog with both this mid price GROC, which is complete with the usual full libretto and translations into English, French and German, and also a basic bargain-priced version with track-related synopsis and no libretto. Both include a 2004 introductory essay by Richard Osborne, Karajan’s biographer.
Many commentators have questioned the company’s policy of keeping 1950s mono recordings of the diva at full price for so long. I suggest that the answer lies in the critical reviews that the original issues produced. Many contemporary critics had seen the diva in the theatre. As one of the greatest singing actresses of the century, her histrionic performances were veritable tours de force, which could not fail to impress all who saw them. This carried over into reviews of recordings by the diva. This was not the case with her 1955 performances of Lucia di Lamermoor in Berlin with Karajan conducting that was never recorded, even unofficially. No recording but a mutual meeting of artistic minds and the performances are written into the all-time greats of opera. But there is a great difference in Callas singing florid and lyric coloratura roles from the bel canto and the Verdi spinto roles that she recorded for Columbia, now EMI.

Recorded in 1956, Il Trovatore was the fourth of five Verdi roles she recorded in the studio for the Columbia label. In my view her Leonora here, like her Aida, her Forza del Destino Leonora and her Ballo in Maschera Amelia to follow, shows her voice to be a size too small and vocally inconsistent in the spinto aspects. That she could and did inflect insights into the facets and dilemmas of the characters she was portraying is indisputable and selection of virtues over drawbacks must be personal. Perhaps the best illustration of the strengths and drawbacks can be heard in Callas’s singing of the two main soprano arias, Tacea la notte in placida (CD 1 tr.6) and D’amor sull’ali rosee (CD 2 tr.10). It can also be heard in the more dramatic outbursts when pressure is put on the voice above the stave and unsteadiness ensues. It must be said however, that there is none of the vocal ugliness that marred so many of her later recordings. What is lacking despite trills, decorations and good diction is the sheer beauty of tone, vocal heft and evenness of vocal emission that we came to appreciate when Leontyne Price recorded her interpretation in 1969 (RCA 74321 39504-2).
The matter of size of voice is also an issue in respect of Di Stefano’s Manrico. Producer Walter Legge had wanted Richard Tucker for the role. Tucker had missed out when RCA recorded Il Trovatore in 1952, the role of Manrico being handed to Jussi Björling. Tucker, a devout Jew, preferred not to be associated with Karajan whose connections with the Nazi regime in World War II were, to say the least, questionable and the part went to Di Stefano. In the lyrical passages he sings and phrases well, but lacks the vocal heft that the role really requires. Inevitably this is evident in Manrico’s big scena in act 3, Ah si, ben mio (CD 2 tr.6) and Di quella pira (CD2 tr.8) when the voice takes on a bleating character rather than a full-toned attack. Rolando Panerai’s De Luna is rather monochrome and his Tace la notte….Il Trovador! Lo tremo (CD1 trs.9-10) and Il balen (CD 1 tr.24) are much better heard in other performances, not least in the rival budget-priced Naxos issue of the RCA 1952 where Leonard Warren sings the role. That recording, recently re-mastered, by Mark Obert-Thorn, features a fine quartet of singers including Jussi Björling and Zinka Milanov. The latter portrays a fiercely dramatic Leonora with the size of voice, if not always the control, to do the role full justice (see review). What the RCA recording shares with this EMI issue is the fine interpretation of Azucena by Fedora Barbieri whose Stride la vampa (CD 1tr.15) and Ai nostri monte (CD 2 tr.19) are achieved with seemingly effortless sonority and expressive characterisation. Nicola Zaccaria gives a good rendering of Ferrando’s music (CD 1 trs.1-50 and (CD 2 trs.1-4).
Where this recording scores over the 1952 RCA issue is in Karajan’s conducting and his opening of cuts that were omitted on the earlier set. The timing gives the clue if not the detail. There is more than 129 minutes of the opera here compared with only 116 on the RCA. But it is not merely a question of the extra music but how the conductor brings the drama so vividly to life. His pacing and support for his singers is first rate and with good transfers allowing a wide undistorted dynamic, not always a strength on some GROCs, Karajan’s contribution makes full use of Verdi’s inspiration.
Robert J Farr


EMI Great Recordings Of The Century page


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