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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore - opera in four acts (1853)
Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano after Antonio Garcia Gutierrez
Maria Callas (soprano) - Leonora; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) - Manrico; Rolando Panerai (baritone) - Il conte di Luna; Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) - Azucena; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) - Ferrando; Luisa Villa (soprano) - Ines.
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 3-9 July 1956, La Scala, Milan
Digitally re-mastered 2004 by EMI Music, Italy
EMI CLASSICS 3 77365 2 [67.45 + 61.33]

I can just imagine the patrons at Rome's Teatro Apollo scratching their heads after Verdi's Il Trovatore premiered on the night of 19 January 1853. "Bella musica" they would have muttered amongst themselves "but - and here I'm showing my ignorance of conversational Italian - the plot she is incomprehensibile!"

Things haven't changed much in 153 years! I recently saw an Opera Australia production of the same opera in which the sets were a simple black backdrop and a vinyl black floor that reflected every thermal from the hot stage-lights. And yet the set-design made more sense than the libretto. No wonder Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan had such great success lampooning it in 'The Gondoliers'.

The saving grace is Verdi's music. But even here, after listening to this 2 CD set, I am not convinced that this EMI digital resurrection does great service to Verdi's genius. True, it has Callas in her prime singing Leonora but somehow it felt as if the great diva was having an off day. The vocal tone and the perfect trills are there and she was still young enough not to have incurred the disturbing vibrato that marked her later years. But this role was not for her - well, not for the first two acts anyway. Lacking is the fire and the passion. There is poetry a-plenty but who wants poetry when Callas is around? She redeems herself when the spark that characterises her volcanic temperament is back in Tu vedrai che amore in terra (CD2 track 12) and the duet with di Luna soon afterwards.

Rolando Panerai as di Luna is in good voice, if occasionally too loud. Somehow he and Fedora Barbieri as Azucena were the rocks and stabilising influences that should have ensured the success of this 1956 recording. Some of the tempi Karajan uses are slow - di Luna's aria Il balen del suo sorriso (CD1 track 24) is a case in point - but generally his conducting supported the singer's phrasing admirably. Certainly his rambunctious moments are aptly invigorating.

The weak link is Di Stefano. I have written before about Di Stefano's taking on roles that were not suited to his voice. This is one of them. His lower and middle notes are quite beautiful but once he hits the higher register the voice tightens and in some cases (finale of CD1 track 29) becomes noticeably strident. The two successive high Cs in Di quella pira (CD2 track 8) are notable for their brevity and the fact that the notes are suitably covered by the dynamics of the chorus.

On the whole, I was disappointed with the standard of the transfers to digital. That could have been the fault of the original but then why choose them in the first place if they are not suitable. Take the chorus for example. It started off well but then there was considerable distortion in their ff when the orchestra joined the climax in Act I, scene one Sull'orlo del tetti (CD1 track 5). Chorus numbers generally sound mushy when transferred to modern recording techniques - but distorted as well? And then there is something drastically wrong with their pitch when, with hushed tones, they reprise the Anvil Chorus (CD1 track 16). The orchestra too has that old-used-by quality in most of its playing. It is noticeable in CD1 although CD2 doesn't appear to be affected. Either that or I'd got used to the sound by then. Throughout it all Fedora Barbieri is a shining beacon.

Having said all that, if you are a rabid Callas fan do you really care?

Randolph Magri-Overend

This recording is also available in the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series: Review by Robert Farr


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