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Highlights from La Scala
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ernani. Opera in four acts (1843)
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani.
First performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 9 March 1843
Ernani, the bandit, Placido Domingo (ten); Don Carlo, King of Spain, Renato Bruson (bar); Don Ruy de Silva, a Spanish grandee, Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Elvira, Mirella Freni (sop)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti 
Directed by Luca Ronconi.
rec. live, December 1982
Nabucco. Opera in four parts (1842)
Originally known as Nabucadonosor after the play from which Temistocle Solera derived the libretto
First performed at La Scala, Milan, 9 March 1842
Nabucco, King of Babylon, Renato Bruson (bar); Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews, Paata Burchuladze (bass); Abigaille, slave, believed to be the eldest daughter of Nabucco, Ghena Dimitrova (sop); Fenena, daughter of Nabucco, Raquel Pierotti (sop); Ismaele, Hebrew in love with Fenena, Bruno Beccaria (ten);
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti 
Directed by Roberto de Simone.
rec. live December 1986
I Lombardi. Opera in four acts (1843)
Libretto by Temistocle Solera derived from Tomasso Grossi’s epic poem I Lombardi alla prima crociata
First performed at La Scala, Milan, 1 February 1843
Griselda, Ghena Dimitrova (sop); Oronte, son of the tyrant of Antioch, José Carrerras (ten); Pagano, Silvano Carroli (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Gianandrea Gavazenni
Directed by Gabriele Lavia.
rec. live April 1984
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier - Historical dramatic opera in four acts (1896)
Libretto by Luigi Illica
First performed La Scala, Milan, 28 March 1896
Andrea Chenier, poet, José Carreras (ten); Carlo Gérard, former servant in the Coigny household and also in love with Maddalena, Piero CappuccIlli (bar); Maddalena, in love with Chenier, Eva Marton (sop)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Riccardo Chailly 
Directed by Lamberto Puggelli.
rec. live, July 1985
Picture format: NTSC 4:3.Colour. Linear – PCM stereo.
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Japanese
WARNER MUSIC VISION DVD VIDEO 50-51011-2323-2-9 [59:00]

The 1980s was a decade when television broadcasts of opera performances from the great opera houses of the world really took off. Although in reality one of the big four with London’s Covent Garden, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera, the La Scala name has always carried something extra in many people’s minds. Maybe this is because of the association of Italy with the great operas, many of which were premiered at La Scala. Certainly in the last half of the twentieth century its reputation has been of the highest. The 1950s, the decade of Callas and Tebaldi working with producers such as Visconti and conductors like De Sabata and Giulini was a golden period. This was later matched during Abbado’s period in charge and reinforced when Riccardo Muti succeeded him as Musical Director. Both the latter were lovers of Verdi’s works and brought them to the forefront of the Scala repertoire in spectacular and musically apposite productions.

This is a straight DVD reissue of a videocassette sampler issued around 1990 which represents the repertoire and staging of productions at La Scala during the preceding decade. For a singer, the name of La Scala on a CV was and is a door-opener to any opera theatre in the world, although in reality the reverse is more often the case. La Scala casts from the very best singers around as is obvious from the four works featured here.

Ernani, was Verdi’s fifth opera and the first not to be premiered at La Scala. However, when it was presented there later in the year after its premiere Verdi revised it and expanded the role of de Silva. It is in this version that the opera is now heard. In the three scenes here Ghiaurov is perhaps not in his very best voice, but his portrayal of the implacable De Silva is apt (Chs. 2 and 4). In the act 2 duet Tu perfida when Elvira pleads with Ernani that she only agreed to the marriage because she thought him dead, Freni and Domingo bring real depth and emotion to Verdi’s melodies (Ch 3). But when it comes to really great singing and acting it is the King, portrayed by Renato Bruson who really takes the Verdian biscuit in the act 3 quartet Qual rumore (Ch. 4). The strength of his outstanding portrayal really needs the full performance, which is what samplers are about I suppose (Warner 4509-99213-2). The predominant close-up shots only give brief looks at La Scala’s resplendent sets for the production whilst Muti’s feel for a Verdian pulse is evident throughout.

The second opera featured is Andrea Chenier with Carreras’s voice not quite big enough in Passo al giurati! (Ch. 5). The sets as seen do not match those at Vienna (see review) which features a strongly-voiced Domingo in a favourite role and where the Maddalena of the lovely Gabriela Benacková does not oversize him as Eva Marton does Carreras here (Ch. 6). The downside of that performance is the excessive behaviour of the audience. 

The Nabucco sets and costumes, apart from that for Fenena,  are very ornate as befits the plot of Verdi’s third opera and first great success. The strength of this performance is the singing and acting of Renato Bruson in the name part. His acting and expressive singing of Ah prigioniero io sono as Nabucco pleads with the God of Israel to forgive him is a histrionic tour de force and well worth the cost of this sampler (Ch. 9). Ghena Dimitrova as Abigaille is a match for the excellent Maria Guleghina on the 2001 recording from the Met (see review).

The final offering features Ghena Dimitrova again, and also Carreras, in the early Verdi rarity I Lombardi. This was the composer’s fourth opera and like Nabucco was premiered at La Scala. The vocal demands on Carreras’s lyric tenor are more appropriate here than as Chenier.  Vocally Dimitrova is over-strong and expressive in her singing as Giselda (Ch. 10). The sets are relatively simple with the Eastern setting evoked with drapes and lighting. My colleague Robert McKechnie has reviewed the complete recording (see review). Like me he finds Gavazenni’s conducting rather staid. He is not in the same league as Muti or Riccardo Chailly.

The other common factor of this issue and which I have not touched on is the singing of the chorus, so important in early Verdi. I personally find an Italian chorus singing this music particularly viscerally exciting. This sequence of examples from La Scala performances reinforces that view. It also enables potential purchasers to get a feel for works generally outside the normal repertoire and at a modest price. On that basis I can recommend it.

Robert J Farr






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