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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Il trovatore (1853)
Ettore Bastianini (baritone) – Il Conte di Luna; Antonietta Stella (soprano) – Leonora; Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo-soprano) – Azucena; Carlo Bergonzi (tenor) – Manrico; Ivo Vinco (bass) – Ferrando; Armanda Bonato (mezzo-soprano) – Inez; Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – Ruiz; Giuseppe Morresi (bass) – An old gypsy; Angelo Mercuriali (tenor) – A messenger
Chorus and Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Tullio Serafin
rec. Teatro alla Scala, February 1962
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5662 [66:05 + 59:55]


Of the five Verdi operas that Deutsche Grammophon recorded during the early 1960 under their new contract with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, this Trovatore has claims to be the generally best of them, together with Rigoletto. The latter opera has divided opinions however, mainly due to one’s reaction to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s highly individual reading of the title role. I have held that recording in high esteem ever since I bought it when it was new, while my colleague Robert Farr can’t quite fathom F-D’s detailed, Lieder-like and un-Italian approach to the jester. The Trovatore is a different affair. Here we have the possibly greatest Italian opera conductor and a home-bred cast making this one of the most idiomatically played and sung versions of this oft-recorded opera. There may be more viscerally thrilling versions but there is no lack of drama here, even though Serafin, in what I believe was his last opera set, can feel a little laidback. As always with this conductor he lets the music speak and keeps it in tight reins without drawing attention to this detail or that – in his hands the music unfolds naturally.

We hear this at the outset where the three timpani rolls and the following fanfare set the mood through perfect dynamic gradation; we notice it again with the chorus dialoguing with Ferrando, who are no boorish fellows but noblemen and consequently well-articulated and still powerful. Even the famous Anvil Chorus in act 2 is balanced and springy – no orgy in hammering the anvil to pieces; instead he places the two anvils to the extreme left and right and thus offers a nice stereophonic dialogue. He also makes the soldiers’ chorus, opening act 3, joyous and exuberant but the second part of it, S´quilli, echeggi la tromba guerriera, lacks some of the warlike splendour. But this is one of the few instances that feel undernourished. Throughout the performance Serafin manages to make this often ridiculed opera sound much less crude and rum-ti-tum than is the general view of it.

He also coaxes his singers to, wherever it is possible, exhibit the lyrical qualities of the score and this is made clear from the beginning by Ivo Vinco’s Ferrando. He has both authority and dramatic insight when he relates his horrible tale about the witch, but he also lightens his voice and he negotiates some grace-notes with almost nonchalant ease. This is certainly one of his best recorded performances. Ettore Bastianini as Count Luna hasn’t quite this ability to lighten his voice. Together with Robert Merrill he was the finest baritone of the period – vocally speaking. As an actor with the voice he was more ordinary and by 1962 some strain had crept into his voice. It was still a splendid instrument and apart from some aspirates that disrupt the musical line his set piece, Il balen, is impressively sung and the cabaletta is glorious. However Bastianini, as so many others, forgets that the aria is an intimate love song, not a proclamation of war, and when sung off the text it can be something quite special, which has been shown by Fischer-Dieskau on his Verdi recital for EMI back in 1962 and also by Jorma Hynninen on a mixed recital on Ondine, made in the early 1990s. I advise interested readers to search out these readings.

Carlo Bergonzi, on the other hand, who never was a bawler, understands this to perfection and sings his lovesong¸ Ah! si, ben mio, with hushed intensity but also with real Italian glow. This man was a phenomenon. His voice wasn’t particularly large and, apart from his very earliest recordings for Cetra, he didn’t produce those penetrating brilliant top notes. On the other hand his way of colouring the voice, his handling of nuances, willingness to sing pianissimo and that fabulous breath control that allowed him to sing the long unbroken phrases that Verdi often prescribes, set him in a class of his own. Indeed it is remarkable, and a bit ironic, that the two best Manricos on disc are Björling and Bergonzi, the two most stylish tenors of the whole post-war era. Others may have projected Di quella pira with more force and steel but he has a compelling rhythmic spring and his high C is brilliant. He is excellent elsewhere too, most of all in the long second act scene with Azucena (CD1 tr. 11 – 14). The young Fiorenza Cossotto is magnificent all through the opera, having both the dark fateful low register and the gleaming top. It is easy to understand that she for some years embarked upon soprano repertoire. She recorded Azucena again for RCA some years later with Domingo in his first opera recording – another recommended version even though I slightly prefer the leaner Cossotto on DG.

Antonietta Stella never quite fulfilled the expectations of her early years, being over-shadowed by Callas and Tebaldi, but this Trovatore is possibly her best recording. Her first aria, Tacea la notte, pales a bit when compared to Callas or Leontyne Price, but the finale of act 2 finds her in superb shape and her D’amor sull’ali rosee and the following cabaletta also show her at her best.

The minor parts are well taken by stalwarts of La Scala and the vintage DG sound is excellent. There is no libretto, just an acceptably detailed synopsis in three languages. I happened to have the original booklet from the LP issue which also offers larger print than most CD booklets.

Recommendations? The present one, as I have already made clear; Cellini’s 1952 recording, now on Naxos, with Björling, Milanov, Barbieri and Warren; Zubin Mehta on RCA with the young Domingo, Price, Cossotto and Milnes. Thomas Schippers on EMI, recorded almost simultaneously with Serafin’s, is a knock-out performance with Corelli and Merrill singing each other hollow and for a noble but slightly bloodless version Giulini on DG with Plowright, an idiosyncratic Brigitte Fassbaender, a middle aged Domingo and a stylish Zancanaro as Luna. Depending on mood all of these have lots to offer but my personal favourite is Serafin, offering better sound than the Cellini.

Göran Forsling 


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