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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

A conspectus of his life and a review of the audio and video recordings of his works.

[See also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

Verdi’s great final operas from La Forza del Destino (1862) to Falstaff (1893).

Including the revisions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra and The Requiem.

Plus appendices of collections of arias, overtures and choruses.

For ease of navigation this extensive part is split into the following:-

Section 1. La Forza del Destino. 1862 original and 1869 versions; the 1865 revision of Macbeth.

Section 2. Don Carlos and Don Carlo. The original French version of 1867 to the Modena version of 1886 in Italian.

Section 3. Aida and The Requiem.

Section 4. The revised Simon Boccanegra if 1881, Otello and Falstaff.

Appendix. Collections of overtures, choruses and arias.

Section 1. La Forza del Destino, its 1862 and 1869 versions and the 1865 revision of Macbeth.

The new decade of the 1860s opened with Verdi, aged 46, more involved in politics than composition. After Un ballo in Maschera had received its much-delayed premiere on 17 February 1859 in Rome, he and Giuseppina did not, unusually, return to Busseto straightaway. At a social evening with friends, including the Rome impresario Jacovacci, Verdi had intimated that he had given up composing and was intent on enjoying the fruits of his labours in a more relaxed manner, particularly in spending time on country pursuits at his farm estate, Sant’Agata, at Busseto.

Back at Busseto life was anything but normal and peaceful. On 29 April 1859, goaded by Cavour, Austria invaded Piedmont. With military help from France, to whom Cavour had cleverly allied Piedmont, a peace treaty was signed. But the political pot of the call for the union of Italy had been stirred and there was much support among neighbouring states for Vittorio Emmanuele, King of Piedmont, as a focus for future Italian unity. Verdi was elected to represent Busseto in an Assembly at Parma that voted for combining with neighbouring Modena and annexing to Piedmont. Verdi went to Turin in September 1859 as part of a delegation to present the petition for annexation to the King. Whilst in Turin he met Cavour. Piedmont, with tacit approval of France, England and other European states merged north and central Italy into one state. Garibaldi started fighting in Sicily before rapidly moving north to take Naples, proclaiming he would go on to Rome. In the cause of unity Garibaldi ceded his conquests without reaching Papal Rome. This might have brought repercussions and the destruction of the progress made thus far. Despite the fact that Venice was still occupied by the Austrians, and Rome under Papal Rule, Cavour called for elections to a National Parliament. At Cavour’s personal insistence that his presence, as a pre-eminent Italian, would add lustre to the Parliament, Verdi stood and was duly elected on 3 February 1861 as one of the 450 deputies.

Initially Verdi attended parliamentary sessions in Turin regularly. He spoke in favour of financial support from the state for the theatres of Rome, Naples and Milan so as to enable them to have a permanent ensemble including orchestra and chorus. He always voted the same way as Cavour, but worn out by his efforts, the great statesman and father of Italy died on 6 June 1861. Thereafter Verdi became less assiduous in his attendance and wanted to resign. The time was never deemed right and he served until the elections of 1865 when he refused to stand again.

Meanwhile in December 1860, whilst Verdi was away in Turin, Giuseppina received a letter from a friend in Russia. Also enclosed was an invitation from the great Italian dramatic tenor Enrico Tamberlick, who Verdi knew and admired. Acting on behalf of the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg the letter invited Verdi to write an opera for the following season. Despite the likelihood of temperatures of minus 22 degrees below zero, the prospect appealed to Giuseppina and she promised to use all endeavours to try and persuade Verdi to accept. Whether it was her skills of persuasion, the fact that he was missing the theatre, or the conditions of the contract, and particularly the fee, that appealed, Verdi agreed.

Despite having been promised carte blanche as to the choice of subject, the Russians at first demurred at an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, a play about a common valet who becomes the lover of an Empress and later Prime Minister of his country. As time dragged on without Verdi signing a contract, Tamberlick sent his son - some say younger brother - to see the composer with the message that the Russians would accept anything he demanded, even Ruy Blas, as long as he would compose for them. With the continued encouragement of Giuseppina and the prospect of a large fee, which would help fund the major alterations at Sant’Agata, Verdi searched sedulously for a suitable plot. He eventually settled on the subject of the Spanish romantic drama ‘Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino’ by Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. This was deemed suitable in Russia and Verdi asked his long-time collaborator Piave to provide the libretto. As usual the composer drew up the synopsis for Piave to versify. The dark core of Rivas’s drama involves scenes set among the common people including a gypsy fortune-teller. Verdi lightens the dark plot with its multiple deaths somewhat further than the play. To do so he uses a scene from Schiller’s Wallenstein Lager involving a panorama of life in a military encampment including soldiers, vivandieres, gypsies and a monk who preaches in the funniest and most delightful manner in the world. The monk would become Melitone in the opera. Elsewhere there is the necessary conflation of the two sons of Leonora’s father and the student Pereda from the play into the dramatic baritone role of Don Carlo who pursues both lovers for all three to die in the closing scene of the original version.

The contract Verdi signed with the Imperial Theatre of St Petersburg allowed him ownership and rights in all parts of the world outside Russia. To the detailed generous conditions Verdi, in his own hand, added the caveat that should he fail to fulfil his obligations (other than by reasons of illness or force majeure) he will pay an indemnity of sixty thousand francs to the Management of the Imperial Theatre. Verdi worked with Piave throughout the summer of 1861 as Giuseppina made the domestic arrangements for the shipment of Bordeaux wine, Champagne, rice, macaroni cheese and salami for themselves and two servants. The composition, except for scoring, was finished in early November. The Verdis travelled to St. Petersburg via Paris and Berlin, presumably to avoid Austria, arriving on 6 December. Temperatures of twenty degrees below outside, and only fourteen above inside, met them. They were also met with the illness of the leading soprano scheduled to sing Leonora. With no possible alternative singer available it became obvious that a postponement to the following season was the only solution and Giuseppina and Verdi returned to Paris after a brief visit to Moscow.

In Paris Verdi found that he had to travel to London to provide, as Italy’s representative, a composition for the International Exhibition scheduled in that city. He commissioned a young poet named Boito, who twenty years later was to greatly influence him and Italian opera, to write the words for a cantata that became the Inno del nazioni (Hymn of the Nations). Verdi conducted several performances of the work in London to some acclaim. Back at Busseto the composer spent much of August 1862 orchestrating La Forza del Destino his 24th opera, before returning to St. Petersburg, arriving on 24 September. All the cast were fit and present and the rehearsals went well. Having written the music with particular singers in mind, it was performed in what he described as extremely lavish sets and costumes for which 200,000 francs had been set aside with the Tsar also making available the chorus of his Royal Regiments. The opera was a great success at its premiere at the Imperial Italian Theatre, St. Petersburg, on 10 November 1862. Prevented by illness from attending the premiere the Tsar came to the fourth performance when, greatly impressed, he asked Verdi to his box where the composer was showered with compliments by the Tsarina. Shortly before the first night the Tsar awarded the composer with the Cross of the Royal and Imperial Order of St Stanislaus.

The lavish nature of the original mise-en-scène can be appreciated in our day because the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg performed La Forza del destino in 1998 in reconstructions of the 1862 sets. With costume design by Peter J Hall, directed by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Valery Gergiev, a performance is available on DVD (Arthaus Music 100 078). The sets are quite magnificent and atmospheric. They are also, for the most part, matched by the solo singers and, above all, by the conductor and orchestra. For his tenor friend Tamberlick Verdi wrote the most demanding music in respect of both length and demand of vocal weight. In this 1862 version, the role of Alvaro is certainly not for a lyric tenor with aspirations. Although not the most romantic in appearance Gegam Grigorian as Alvaro on the DVD sings with wide dynamic, full ringing tone and no little vocal grace. Although his fated lover, Leonora, gets quite a long rest after her big sing in acts one and two it is a role that requires a full spinto voice with a wide range of expression and colour. In this performance Galina Gorchakova fulfils all expectations and copes admirably. Verdi had written the role of Melitone with the baritone de Bassini, who had created Seid (Il Corsaro), the Doge (I Due Foscari) and Miller (Luisa Miller), in mind. He was not a buffa and Verdi wrote to him to assure him that he did not see the singer or the role in that context. What Verdi wanted, and got from de Bassini, was a full-toned and tuned bass-baritone with capacity for an acted and vocal turn of humour. This is what Georgy Zastavny conveys in this performance in a role that is often seen as a precursor to the composer’s conception of Falstaff. The Carlo of Nikolai Putilin is strong if a little dry and monochromic as is the Padre Giardano of Sergei Alexashkin. Preziosilla the gypsy is full-toned but lacks in vibrancy. This original 1862 St Petersburg version has considerable differences from the later revision dealt with below. Although two audio versions exist, this DVD should have pride of place over either in a Verdi collection. It is far easier to comprehend the differences in the sequencing of the unfolding drama in the original version of this complex and episodic opera, compared with the more commonly performed revision, when seen rather than merely read about.

A year prior to the performance caught on DVD, Gergiev and ‘his’ company recorded an audio-only version of the St Petersburg edition for Philips (446 951-2) with largely the same cast except for two important differences. The first was the substitution of Olga Borodina as Preziosilla, a significant if minor improvement. However, that improvement is not a compensation for the woolly toned and glottal enunciation of Mikhail Kit as the Father Guardian. Since the availability of the BBC series of Verdi original versions from Opera Rara there is now meaningful competition on CD. Recorded in London in August 1981 the Opera Rara account features Martina Arroyo and Kenneth Collins as the lovers, Peter Glossop as Carlo, Janet Coster a vibrant Preziosilla and Don Garrard a solid Father Guardian, all idiomatically conducted by John Matheson. Recorded without audience it has many virtues and is an ideal complement to the St Petersburg DVD. Review.

With the glory of St Petersburg in his ears, not to mention its honours and generous fees in his bank, Verdi returned to Paris. He did not attend the Italian premiere of the opera in Rome under the title of Don Alvaro. The Papal Censor was still interfering and Verdi was also disappointed by the casting by the impresario Jacovacci, particularly of the role of Melitone. Instead, he and Giuseppina travelled to Madrid where he conducted the Spanish premiere on 13 January. It was well received by the public. The press however, considered that it desecrated the Duke of Rivas’s play. The elderly author, present in the audience on the first night, shared that view. Contrary to some statements, Verdi did not withdraw the St Petersburg score from further performances in Italy after the premiere in Rome. The version was seen in several Italian cities in 1863 as well as in Madrid again in 1864 and in Vienna in 1865. It was reprised in St Petersburg, with largely the same cast, in the two seasons following its premiere. Verdi did, however, withhold the score from theatres that he considered incapable of doing it justice. It is evident that he recognised the need for alterations early on when he transposed the tenor aria in act 3 downward on the basis that only Tamberlick was capable of meeting its demands. He instructed his publisher, Ricordi, to include the alteration in the scores he hired out. Verdi was unhappy with other aspects of the score as it stood, particularly the three violent deaths in the final scene. When in Paris negotiating for Don Carlos, Perrin, the director of the Opéra raised the question of a French version, with the addition of a ballet. After some consideration Verdi declined the opportunity, as he considered that additions would make the work too long. Already the performing practice in Italy included excision of the quarrel duet. Not until after the revision of Macbeth and the composition of Don Carlos did Verdi find a way forward when Tito Ricordi proposed a revival for the 1869 La Scala carnival season. By then Piave, the original librettist, had suffered a stroke that paralysed him for the last eight years of his life during which Verdi provided much financial help to his family. The task of versifying the revisions fell to Antonio Ghislanzoni who the composer had met at the time of the writing of Attila and with whom he developed a cordial relationship.

The revised La Forza del Destino was premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869. The presentation marked a rapprochement between Verdi and the theatre and the revision and performances are considered here out of calendar order. The alterations of the score from the original version are significant rather than major. They involved the substitution of the prelude by a full overture, which nowadays is often played as a concert piece. A major revision of the end of act three includes the removal of the demanding tenor double aria whilst the whole final scene is amended avoiding the triple deaths. It is replaced by the Father Guardian’s benediction as Leonora dies and Alvaro is left alive. Made in 1954, La Forza del Destino was Callas’s first Verdi opera recording under her contract for EMI (556323). It has remained at full price ever since, despite the poor recording and inadequate colleagues. Needless to say Callas brings many insights to Leonora’s plight but I find these no compensation in a role that needs a bigger voice and purer tone. Decca came into the field with a stereo version featuring Tebaldi in glorious voice with the other roles all well taken. This performance is worth hearing for her assumption of Leonora and that of Bastianini as Carlo (421 592-2). Strangely Decca competed against themselves by issuing RCA’s recording with Milanov, somewhat past her best as Leonora; Richard Tucker, Callas’s Alvaro, repeats his rather inelegant assumption. This version has not to my knowledge made it onto CD. RCA went back into the studios in 1964 with Leontyne Price in pristine voice as a superb Leonora in an all-American cast conducted by Thomas Schippers. This recording is also distinguished by the young Shirley Verrett as Preziosilla and the strong singing of Robert Merrill as Carlo. Tucker, again, as Alvaro is better than on his other two studio recordings (GD 87971). In 1969, with a carefully considered international cast, EMI at last ventured their first stereo version. With Carlo Bergonzi replacing the scheduled contracted company artist, his is the most elegantly sung and phrased as well as tonally beautiful recorded Alvaro of any on record. Cappuccilli is a strong Italianate Carlo whilst his compatriot Raimondi is sometimes a little vocally ponderous as he seeks tonal sonority. Whilst Martina Arroyo does not match the glorious tone of Price on her first recording, hers is a Leonora with the capacity to soar over the orchestra and characterise well. With that ever-idiomatic Verdian Lamberto Gardelli on the rostrum, and although not perfect in all its casting, it remains my personal favouriteaudio recording (567124-2 not reviewed). RCA recorded Leontyne Price as Leonora again in 1976 alongside the young Domingo with James Levine on the rostrum. Levine’s interpretation is more dramatic than Gardelli’s but not over-driven in the manner of his earliest Verdi recordings. Price’s Leonora has many virtues but does not match her earlier recorded assumption. Domingo is a vocally strong and young-sounding Alvaro and with Sherrill Milnes as Carlo and Fiorenza Cossotto adding quality interpretations this a very competitive set (74321 39502-2).

The digital age brought two final recordings of note of La Forza del Destino and also frustration to the prospective purchaser. The frustration came in the form of nearly simultaneously recorded and issued performances and the split of an ideal cast. EMI set up recording sessions in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra. These were to be conducted by Muti who had earlier made several admired Verdi recordings for the company with that orchestra. But Muti decamped for La Scala to succeed Abbado, Sinopoli took over the orchestra and DG took over the recording with him on the rostrum. EMI then set up live sessions at La Scala under Muti featuring Domingo and Freni as the lovers and the vocally graceful Zancanaro as Carlo. Domingo, with many Otellos under his belt, sings strongly but Freni just hasn’t got the heft and sounds seriously strained. Muti’s hectic speeds, the dry La Scala acoustic, add the inadequacies of a woolly-toned and wobbly Father Guardian and a weak Melitone and this set is best avoided (747485-2). The Sinopoli recording fares significantly better in respect of soloists with Rosalind Plowright singing powerfully as Leonora, Agnes Baltsa’s tangy mezzo ideal for the gypsy and Bruson and Burchuladze, despite the latter’s glottal delivery, far superior to their EMI rivals. The whole is recorded in a warm acoustic with Sinopoli showing more feel for Verdian line than on his recorded Nabucco. Regrettably the good news stops there. Carreras as Alvaro is seriously over-parted. His singing is far too often strained and unsteady to the extent that I personally cannot listen to him in this role (DG 419 203-2).

At the time of writing two DVD issues of the revised version of La Forza del Destino are readily available. Both exemplify something of performance practice in respect of either sequencing or cuts. The Met recording of 1984, in sets dating back to 1952, features Leontyne Price, perhaps the greatest Verdi soprano of her generation. She had dominated performances of the role at the Met since she first sang it there in the 1967-68 season with Corelli as Alvaro. She had to overcome racial prejudice to become one of the most loved singers in the company’s roster and the performance recorded is from her last assumption of the role. She is not in the vocal condition of her 1976 audio recording let alone her pristine condition of 1964. Nonetheless, hers is an assumption worth having. Levine conducts. (Review). The performance is given in three acts with a reordering of the original act three which finishes with the recognition and duel duet between Alvaro and Carlo rather than Preziosilla’s Rataplan. An earlier DVD in black and white dating from 1958 has Renata Tebaldi alongside Franco Corelli as the lovers with Bastianini as Carlo and Christoff as Padre Giardano. This cast of great singers makes it a classic for collectors.

Rather late in the day and when the composition of the original version of La Forza del Destino was well under way, Verdi received a suggestion from his well-read friend Andrea Maffei alerting him to an unfinished play by Schiller that might be of interest to the Russians. The play was The False Demetrius, which deals with Boris Godunov and the struggle over imperial succession. Verdi later commented on it favourably. Had Verdi chosen it the course of Russian opera might have been very different. Whilst recognising the Russian influence on La Forza del Destino, particularly in Verdi’s choral writing, it is equally important to recognise the episodic nature of the work as an influence on Mussorgsky’s composition of the Boris story and also that of other Russian composers. As it was, their emergence saw the gradual decline in Italian opera in St Petersburg, accelerated by the emergence of the Mariinsky, although Verdi’s operas continued to be performed in that theatre alongside those of the Russian school.

After the performances of La Forza del Destino in Madrid in February 1863, Verdi and Giuseppina toured Spain before returning to Paris where Verdi was to rehearse Les Vêpres Siciliennes for performances at The Opéra and for which he had composed a new romance. The conductor and orchestra refused to rehearse to Verdi’s satisfaction. The composer had been rehearsing at the piano with the singers for over three months and he walked out. The same conductor, who had been responsible for a disastrous Tannhäuser two years earlier, was dismissed. Verdi and his wife returned to Italy with the composer swearing never to deal with the Paris Opéra again. After Parliamentary business in Turin Verdi resumed his preferred life as a country gentleman farmer at Sant’Agata.

The Verdis went, as usual, to Genoa for the winter of 1863-64 with trips to the Turin Parliament when his attendance was required. Whilst in Genoa Verdi was visited by his Paris representative Léon Escudier who informed him that Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique had enquired if the composer would write ballet music for insertion into Macbeth, his 10th opera of 1847, (see PART 2) for performance at the theatre. Later, when a formal approach was made, Verdi’s response was more than Escudier could have hoped for, indicating that the composer wished to undertake a radical revision, in French, of the opera he had written eighteen years before. Verdi’s proposals for the revised Macbeth included new arias for Lady Macbeth and her husband and a new last act finale deleting Macbeth’s death scene. There were other detailed revisions as well. The composer did not attend the premiere on 21 April 1865 but it met with mixed success as it did in Italian translation elsewhere. Audiences had become used to the sonorities of Un Ballo in Maschera and La Traviata and the unrevised parts of the work do stand out in their relative musical immaturity, harking back to the Risorgimento operas. However, it is in this revised form that the opera is performed, in Italian, in the present day, often with the re-insertion of at least Macbeth’s death scene. This is also the situation in respect of audio and video recordings.

The neglect of Macbeth, Verdi’s first Shakespearean opera, continued until the Verdi revival in Germany in the 1920s. Its premiere in England was not until 1938 at Glyndebourne under Fritz Busch. La Scala mounted it in 1952 for Callas whilst the first performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera did not take place until 1959. This New York performance was the basis for the recording issued the following year by RCA with Leinsdorf conducting Leonie Rysanek’s lyrical Lady and Leonard Warren’s dark brooding Macbeth. (GD 84516). Decca followed in 1964 with Giuseppe Taddei, one of the best Macbeth’s on record, and Birgit Nilsson’s gleaming tones cutting through the textures as a rather wilful queen. Regrettably Decca allowed the conductor, Thomas Schippers, to make brutal cuts. The company tried again five years later whilst attempting to repeat the success of their Nabucco by featuring Elena Souliotis alongside Tito Gobbi under Gardelli’s baton. The best-laid plans went awry when Gobbi called off ill and Fischer-Dieskau was substituted. Souliotis’s singing is wayward and Fischer-Dieskau’s affected. Gardelli is superb and Pavarotti and Ghiaurov lend good support to an enterprise that failed despite the best efforts (440 048-2).

With the revised Macbeth firmly established in opera house repertoires other recordings were bound to follow. La Scala staged the work in 1975 under Abbado in a widely acclaimed production by Giorgio Strehler. With Abbado a contracted artist, DG rushed to record the work in January 1976. With the La Scala theatre not available during the season they used the part-completed Centro Telicinematografico Culturale in Milan to produce a warm yet detailed acoustic. Abbado’s conducting is idiomatic and vibrant and set a theatrical benchmark for his soloists. As the Queen, Shirley Verrett is smoky-toned and musically correct, perhaps lacking a little of the vocal wildness that Verdi had in mind and specified for the role. Cappuccilli as Macbeth is characterful and expressive, just the odd moment of dry tone intruding, but without Leonard Warren’s vocal power. Ghiaurov’s bass is a rock-solid tower of strength whilst Domingo as Macduff sings an eloquent lament for his lost family in a vocally commanding performance (DG Originals 449 732-2). A disappointment for me in this performance is the relative vocal passivity of the La Scala chorus, a matter brought into stark relief in the recording that followed within a few months from EMI. Conducted by Riccardo Muti and made in London in July 1976, it features a vibrant and involved Ambrosian Opera Chorus with Fiorenza Cossotto a very Italianate Queen of idiomatic inflection and power. Sherrill Milnes’s Macbeth is well characterised with many felicitous vocal details. Cossotto’s assumption is perhaps more like what Verdi envisaged for a role in which he was specific is eschewing tonal beauty alone. Milnes’s juicy voice is well suited to the role of Macbeth and only lacks a little Italianata. Ruggero Raimondi and José Carreras sing the other principal roles of Banquo and Macduff, the former having to reach for his lower notes and the latter a little stretched at times (5 567128 2). Unlike Abbado who includes Macbeth’s death aria, Muti sticks strictly to the revised 1865 version. On a personal level I own both Abbado’s and Muti’s mid-price issues and my affections swing between the two recordings. Sinopoli’s digitally recorded version for Philips has never appealed to me as a rival to the DG or EMI issues despite my fondness for Bruson’s Macbeth. Sinopoli’s exaggerated tempi and Neil Schicoff’s penny plain Macduff are not to my liking. I also find Mara Zampieri’s tone too hooty. It is a pity that a contretemps between conductor and scheduled soprano deprives us of Ghena Dimitrova’s queen (Review).

On DVD one of the most enjoyable performances of Macbeth is one of the oldest, that from Glyndebourne in 1972 and directed by Michael Hadjimischev. The sets are evocative and the passing of the Kings eerily effective. It features the fine Greek baritone Kostas Paskalis as Macbeth and Josephine Barstow as a superbly acted queen with John Pritchard pacing the drama well. Apart from the 4:3 format and dated colours, a major drawback is the performance cuts. At 125 minutes too much good music, mainly of the witches, is left behind (Arthaus 101095). From the same stable is the DVD cousin of Philips’ audio recording. Conducted by Sinopoli from performances at Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1987 and directed Luca Ranconi it has Bruson and Zampieri as the plotters with James Morris as Banquo and Dennis O’Neill as Macduff. At 150 minutes playing time it is comparable to the audio recordings referred to (Arthaus 100140). Later recordings include a 2002 performance from Zurich conducted Franz Welser-Möst in a production by David Pountney whose version at the English National Opera caused furore with its green blood dripping from the dagger. He cannot escape gimmicks here either with the witches having outlandish hairdos and spectacles and seeming to live in a suburban world that does not lie easily with Verdi’s music. The production focuses on the erotic relationship between Macbeth and his spouse. In that role Paoletta Marrocu gives a particularly convincing performance vocally and histrionically. The singing of Thomas Hampson as Macbeth is impressive with Roberto Scandiuzzi and Luis Lima giving support. The quoted time of 185 minutes includes 45 minutes of interviews from singers and production team convincing each other of the virtues of the staging (TDK DV-OPMAC). The most recent recorded performance is that of Phyllida Lloyds production at Barcelona in 2005 with Carlos Alvarez firm of voice as Macbeth and Maria Guleghina a powerful Queen (Opus Arte OA 0922D). Bruno Campanella on the rostrum does not always keep the orchestra on its toes and the chorus singing could be much better.

Section 2. Don Carlos and Don Carlo. The original French version of 1867 to the Modena version of 1886 in Italian.

Back in Busseto after the premiere of the revised Macbeth, Verdi found himself in dispute with his town. They had, over the previous six years, constructed a municipal theatre, and assumed that the composer would allow it to be named after him. For his part, although originally supportive, he had thought construction should have been put off and the funds used to support the earlier war against the Austrians. Feeling coerced he at first refused before relenting and in August donating a sizeable cheque. Although a box was put at his disposal he never entered the theatre. That same month, having vowed never to have anything to do with the Paris Opéra again, Verdi was persuaded to relent and signed a contract to give a revised La Forza del destino and also compose a new opera for that theatre. After resigning from the National Assembly in September and spending time in Genoa he and his wife arrived in Paris on 1 December 1865. After considering several subjects, including, yet again King Lear, Verdi settled on Schiller’s Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien of 1787. Verdi stayed in Paris until March 1866 working with the librettists Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle, the former dying a few months later. When Verdi returned to Busseto the libretto was virtually complete and during the spring and summer he worked at the music, his concentration being disturbed by the onset of the Third War of Independence between Italy and Austria that started on 19 June 1865. After Italy’s defeats it needed the Prussians to rescue the situation with Austria making peace and ceding Veneto first to France, and after a plebiscite, to Italy. Verdi was greatly upset by the manner of the acquisition but Rome, as capital of Italy, remained a dream.

In Paris, Perrin the administrator of the Opéra was manoeuvring his roster of singers so as to make the best available for Verdi’s new work, Don Carlos, his 25th opera. There was trouble with the bass assigned for the Grand Inquisitor whilst Verdi also wanted changes in the last act and to improve cohesion and spectacle elsewhere. The casting of the role of Eboli also proved problematic. Verdi made transpositions to accommodate the singer allocated although the wide tessitura remains, and as a consequence continues to be a challenge for casting directors to this day. At the rehearsal of the whole opera in February 1867 it became obvious that Don Carlos, was, at three hours forty-seven minutes, too long to allow time for suburban Parisians to get their last trains home. Verdi reluctantly excised over twenty minutes of music. All this music was thought lost until at the Verdi Congress in Parma in 1969 David Rosen, an American scholar, produced a previously unknown section of the Philip-Posa duet that had been folded down in the conducting score prior to the premiere. The English musicologist Andrew Porter, acting on a hunch, visited the Paris Opéra library and asked to see the score. He was amazed to discover that the pages of the music that Verdi omitted from the premiere, and subsequently thought to be lost, were simply stitched together. These excisions give greater cohesion and explanation of the details of the complex story as the work unfolds. With permission Porter copied out the missing parts. Back in London, Julian Budden, the renowned Verdi scholar, then Head of BBC Classical Music, planned a recording for broadcast purposes and including the newly discovered parts. It was the first public performance ever of the opera as Verdi originally intended. It took place before a small invited audience on 22 April 1972. For this unique premiere Budden assembled a cast of mainly French-speaking singers supported by stalwart British principals from the London’s Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells companies. The seminal broadcast by the BBC took place on 10 June 1973 after which the performance disappeared from the public domain until its re-emergence on CD by Opera Rara made it properly and readily commercially available (Review). The music had previously appeared as an appendix to Abbado’s recording of the original French version. With somewhat non-idiomatic French from a mainly Italian cast, and recorded in an over-resonant acoustic, this performance has serious limitations (DG 415 316-2). A more recent CD recording from the Vienna State Opera on 18 October 2004, conducted by Bertrand de Billy claimed world premiere status as the first staged performance of what Verdi had originally intended. The production by Peter Konwitschny was not received well and there is much audience noise. The singing is adequate, no more (Review). Performances of what was seen in Paris at the premiere, with the addition of some excised music, were recorded in Paris in 1996 in a production shared with other theatres including Covent Garden. Conducted with vigour by Antonio Pappano it is also available on DVD (Review) and CD (EMI 556152 2). Karita Mattila sings wonderfully as Elisabetta and is well supported by Roberto Alagna as Carlos. On CD one is spared Rodrigue’s stupid hairstyle and can appreciate his well-sung portrayal. Elsewhere, particularly in respect of José van Dam’s vocally lightweight Philip and Waltraud Meier’s Germanic portrayal of Eboli, the performance is flawed. On DVD the weakness of the portrayal of the auto-da-fé is a disappointment. Verdi wanted spectacle in that scene and this production by Luc Bondy fails badly in that respect as well as being perversely idiosyncratic elsewhere.

The premiere of Don Carlos on 11 March 1867 was only modestly received by the public and only played for three performances more than the contracted forty, after which it was not seen at the Opéra until the revival conducted by Pappano in 1996. Meanwhile an Italian version as Don Carlo, by Achille de Lauzières, had been prepared the previous autumn. In offering the rights to Tito Ricordi, Verdi again sought to insist that it only be made available with safeguards. These included that it be performed in its entirety although he was prepared for another ballet to be substituted for his music as long as it was played as an add-on at the end. The first performance in Italian was not given in Italy but at Covent Garden on 4 June 1867. Despite Verdi’s wishes that carried no weight in London, it was given with the first act and ballet removed completely along with various other excisions. Such practices were standard at Covent Garden as at most other European houses. The Italian premiere of Don Carlo at Bologna in September 1867 was given in full, whilst in Rome, still under Papal control, the censor changed the Inquisitor into a Gran Cancelliere. Despite being seen all over the peninsula the Italians were slow to take Don Carlo to their hearts and it was not long before first the ballet and then the Fontainebleau act were dropped. The arrival in Italy of the shorter and grander Aida added to the difficulty of the opera’s length and after a failure in Naples in 1871 Verdi made his first revisions for a revival under his own supervision. These changes involved the dramatic Philip-Posa duet in act 2 and it is the only part of any version of the opera that was not composed to a French text. Still the fortunes of the opera disappointed the composer and as early as 1875 he began seriously to consider shortening the work himself. He asked Nuitter, archivist at the Opera and translator into French of the revised Macbeth and La forza del Destino, to derive a new scenario for versifying by du Locle, his original librettist. With other demands, not least the commission and writing of Aida, Verdi did not begin serious work on this until 1882, concluding his revision into a four act version the following March with the premiere at La Scala having to wait until 1884. Except for the example quoted of the Philip-Posa duet, for all the revisions of Don Carlos Verdi worked from a French libretto, as he considered the opera to be conditioned by the prosody of the language and traditional French metres. Angelo Zanardini, who also revised Lauzières’ original, put the new lines into Italian and it has become known as the 1884 version after it received its premiere at La Scala in January of that year. This four-act revision of Don Carlo, Verdi’s own, involved much rewording to explain the sequence of events and maintain narrative coherence that is otherwise seriously affected by the removal of the original first act. Verdi moved the act one tenor aria from the original to the new act one. He also removed the act three ballet, the Inquisitor’s chorus in act five as well as making many other detailed changes elsewhere. The premiere of the new four act Don Carlo was a great success and featured the tenor Tamagno who three years later was to create Otello.

When Don Carlo became more popular in the 1930s it was in the form of the four act 1884 version in Italian, many conductors and managements seeing virtue in its shorter length and tauter drama. The first studio recording, by HMV in 1954 in mono, is of this four-act version and features the formidable duo of Boris Christoff as Philip and Tito Gobbi as Posa, pre-eminent in their roles. Their duet is one of the high points of recorded opera and where the frisson of their performance overcomes the somewhat flaccid conducting of Santini (EMI Références 5677479-2). In 2007 this recording was issued in bargain-priced re-masterings from both Naxos and Regis, the former bringing out the sound to a remarkable degree. Karajan favoured this four-act version and recorded it in a red-blooded performance after staging it at Salzburg. Mirella Freni as Elisabetta and Carreras as Carlos are stretched to their limits whilst Cappuccilli’s Rodrigo in a long-breathed death scene is formidable, an applicable adjective also for Baltsa and Ghiaurov as Eboli and Philip. Karajan does allow his orchestra to overwhelm his singers from time to time (EMI 769304 2). A live recording from Vienna has its virtues. It features Franco Corelli’s vocally strong, even excessive, Carlos milking every high note and Gundula Janowitz as Elisabeth. This recording also has Shirley Verrett as Eboli and Marti Talvela as the Inquisitor and who take the real vocal laurels (Orfeo C 649 053). A live performance under Muti at La Scala in 1992 has Pavarotti as Carlo, Luciana D’Intino as Eboli and Sam Ramey as Philip in a rather uneven cast. The tenor notoriously cracked on the opening night in what was his debut in the role and was booed. Fortunately for recorded posterity of his assumption he did better in subsequent performances, a conflation of which is available on CD at bargain price (EMI 3 58631-2) and also DVD which enables appreciation of Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish and evocative production (EMI 99442 9). Rolando Villazon, one of the latest and most exciting of tenors to emerge on the international stage sings the eponymous role on a DVD recording of Willy Deckers’ production in Wolfgang Gussman’s imposing unit set for Netherlands Opera in 2004. The tenor and the conducting of Ricardo Chailly are the main virtues of this performance.

After the 1884 performances of the four act Don Carlo a friend asked Verdi if he did not regret the loss of so much music from the original score. He had already told his friend that the new version had more concision, more muscle and added that those who complained about the loss of so much beautiful music from the first act quite possibly did not notice its existence before. But others were less sure and performances were given in Modena in 1886, claimed to be with Verdi’s permission, which reintroduced the original act one to the 1884 revision. It was in this five-act form, albeit with minor cuts, that Don Carlo was launched to the post-Second World War operatic public in a production by Visconti and conducted by Giulini at London’s Covent Garden on 12 May 1958. With a first rate cast including Christoff as the King, Gobbi as Posa and the young Jon Vickers as an ardent Don Carlo it made a big impact in operatic circles and has influenced recording and theatre practice ever since. The official release in 2006 of a recording in the Royal Opera House Heritage Series of the second of these seminal performances is particularly welcome and is in good sound (Review). Giulini draws from Christoff one of the most telling performances the singer made of the role of Philip on disc and betters that on the first stereo recording made when DG added the La Scala imprimatur to their credits (NLA). Regrettably, DG did not surround Christoff with colleagues and a conductor of the quality heard at Covent Garden although Cossotto’s Eboli is first class. With Georg Solti in charge at Covent Garden, and using the house orchestra and chorus, Decca recorded a five-act version in London in the summer of 1965 with John Culshaw as producer. In Carlo Bergonzi it features the best-sung Carlo on record and with Ghiaurov as Philip and Martti Talvela as the Inquisitor the act four confrontation is hair-raising. As Elisabeth, Renata Tebaldi is past her very best but does not let the side down and whilst the casting of Fischer-Dieskau as Rodrigo is flawed he too does not spoil an enjoyable performance (Decca 421 114-2). Whatever its virtues Solti’s recording was seen to be eclipsed when Giulini recorded the extended five act Modena version in 1971. With the young Domingo as an ardent Carlos, Caballé only failing with a tentative act five Tu che le vanita and with Milnes as Posa and Verrett as Eboli it has many strengths (Review). A 1992 studio recording based on New York Met performances conducted by Levine with Aprille Millo a fine queen and Chernov an excellent Rodrigo is marred by inadequate singing elsewhere, particularly from the basses (Sony S3K 52500). Haitink, who had conducted the Covent Garden performances of the French version recorded by Pappano in Paris, got his chance in 1996 in what is likely to be the last studio recording of the opera. With the Canadian Richard Margison a lyrical Carlo and Russians as Elisabeth, Eboli and Posa it has not lasted the pace at full price and is now available at bargain level (Philips 475 252-2). Haitink is lyrical and affectionate in his conducting yet lacking some of the drive of Solti. I heard the London Promenade live performance that followed the recording with Sylvie Valayre as a more impressive queen than Gorchakova on the CD issue, the whole having significantly more frisson than the studio version. Perhaps it will become available one day. Haitink paces Don Carlo well on a DVD of the Covent Garden Visconti production. Made in 1985 and whilst not of the quality that Giulini conducted in the production’s first outing in 1958, the cast includes a distinguished Rodrigo from Giorgio Zancanaro alongside Louis Lima as Carlos and Ileana Cotrubas as the queen, both a little stretched (Warner 510110242-2). The other major DVD recording of the five-act version is that from the Met in the mid-1980s with Levine conducting a fine cast of Domingo, Milnes, Grace Bumbry as Eboli and the husband and wife team of Ghiaurov as Philip and Freni as Elisabeth. As with Karajan, Freni is musical but at her vocal limits, the part being a size to large for her. The production is wholly appropriate and makes ideal home viewing (DG 00440073 4083).

Section 3. Aida and The Requiem.

Over the nineteen years that elapsed whilst Verdi made his revisions of Don Carlos much happened to him and to Italy. On 14 January 1867 whilst Verdi was in Paris preparing the premiere of the opera his father died. Back at Busseto after the March premiere he worked on his farm, which he wanted to be a model for the district. He was not in a happy frame of mind, dissatisfied with the reception of Don Carlos and a host of niggles elsewhere. In May Giuseppina went to Milan to buy furniture for their new apartment in Genoa and unknown to Verdi called on his long-time friend the Countess Maffei. Verdi and she had corresponded regularly but had not met for over twenty years; the two ladies had never met. They got on famously and together went to see Alessandro Manzoni who Verdi revered and described, alongside Rossini, as one of the two greatest living Italians. Verdi had read Manzoni’s novel ‘I Promessi Sposi’ when aged sixteen and in his fifty-third year he wrote to a friend, according to me, (he) has written not only the greatest book of our time but one of the greatest books that ever came out of the human brain. The novel has been described as representing for Italians all of Scott, Dickens and Thackeray rolled into one and infused with the spirit of Tolstoy. It was not merely the nature of Manzoni’s partly historical story that gave the work this ethos, but the language. With it Manzoni made vital steps towards a national Italian language to replace the proliferation of dialects and foreign administrative languages extant in the peninsula. Giuseppina returned from Milan with a signed photograph from Manzoni and an invitation to Verdi to visit him.

In July 1867 Verdi’s niggles of mind over Don Carlos and difficulties with the Town Council of Busseto were put in perspective when Barezzi died aged 79. He was not only the father of Verdi’s first wife Margherita, but also the benefactor without whose financial support Verdi would never have attained the heights he did. The composer and Giuseppina were at his bedside where Verdi played Va pensiero on the piano at the dying man’s last wish. After Barezzi’s death Verdi asked a friend to search in Milan for the graves of Margherita and his young son Icilio. The report came back that these had long ago been opened and the remains interred in a common grave. In Busseto the grave of his daughter Victoria had also been lost, perhaps in the same way. All Verdi had of the past were the marriage rings he and Margherita had exchanged, together with two pieces of her jewellery. Verdi kept these mementos in a little copper box. To these poignant artefacts he added a lock of Barezzi’s hair. On the box he wrote mementos of my poor family.

After Barezzi’s funeral, Verdi and Giuseppina went to Paris to see the Great Exposition and also the latest sites in the rebuilding and reordering under Haussemann. As well as the usual tourist itinerary, which included the city’s new modern sewer system, the Verdis also visited the magnificent building for the Opéra. Designed by Garnier at Napoleon III’s behest it did not, as a consequence of war and political changes, open until 1875. Recently refurbished it is a highlight of any trip to Paris in the present day. For the rest of 1867 and the early part of the following year Verdi’s life followed uneventfully in the usual domestic cycle. In the spring of 1868 he and Giuseppina went to Milan. It was Verdi’s first visit since the cinque giornate of 1848. Verdi at last realised a dream and went to meet the ageing Manzoni. How the two great Italians greeted and spent their time together is not recorded. On their return to Busseto, Du Locle, one of the librettists of Don Carlos, and with whom a warm friendship had developed, visited the Verdis. In the years that followed du Locle, who never despaired of tempting Verdi into another collaboration, kept sending him ideas as to possible projects one of which was to come to magnificent fruition.

During 1868 Verdi was not compositionally idle. As I have indicated above, he had long wanted to revise La Forza del Destino and when Tito Ricordi proposed a revival for the 1869 La Scala carnival season he accepted. The revised opera was premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869 and marked a rapprochement between Verdi and the theatre after a hiatus of twenty-five years. But for Verdi 1868 did not go out without a sting in its tail when, on 13 November, Rossini died aged 76. The two, whilst not close, were friends. Rossini had once written in a letter to Verdi, Rossini, ex-composer and pianist of the fourth class, to the illustrious composer Verdi, pianist of the fifth class. Verdi wrote to the Countess Maffei Rossini’s reputation was the most widespread and popular of our time; it was one of the glories of Italy. When the other like it (Manzoni’s) no longer exists, what will remain of us. Even before the Memorial Service had been held in Paris, Verdi wrote to Milan’s Gazzetta Musicale suggesting that the musicians of Italy should unite to honour their great compatriot by combining to write a Requiem for performance on the anniversary of his death. No one would receive payment for his contribution with volunteers to each write one section of the Mass being drawn by lot. After the performance, which Verdi recognised would lack artistic unity, the score was to be sealed up in the Bologna Liceo Musico, Rossini’s home town. The idea was enthusiastically received and a committee set up to oversee the project. To Verdi, pre-eminent among the names, fell the closing section, the Libera Me. He had his composition ready in good time despite revising La Forza del Destino along the way. Problems arose in respect of the chorus and orchestra, for which Verdi, somewhat unfairly, blamed his friend the conductor Mariani and the project floundered. Verdi met the costs incurred. A Warner Vision issue (50-51011 7396-2-0) of a performance of this original Rossini Requiem is reviewed by a colleague Full Review.

Whilst Verdi resisted du Locle’s overtures to compose for the Paris Opéra he did consider doing so for the Opéra Comique. But then in late 1869 du Locle brought along a more interesting proposal. He told Verdi that the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt wanted the composer to write an opera on an Egyptian theme for performance at the new opera house in Cairo constructed to celebrate the construction of the Suez Canal. The theatre had opened in November 1869 [a copy of La Scala Milan itburnt down in 1971] with a performance of Rigoletto conducted by Verdi’s former pupil Emanuele Muzio. The Suez Canal was officially opened on the 17th of the same month. Verdi at first turned down the request repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. But Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a synopsis by Mariette, a French national and renowned Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, by the fact that Du Locle had been authorised to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting out his terms. These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto, and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. Mariette announced acceptance of these terms to Du Locle on 10 June. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever. Du Locle met Verdi at Sant’Agata soon after and thrashed out an outline of the opera in prose based on Mariette’s earlier synopsis. Verdi asked his publisher, Ricordi, to approach Ghislanzoni to put it into Italian verse. Throughout the process the composer was keen to achieve the greatest historical accuracy. For example he asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. Verdi was intent on a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for the Paris Opéra.

Aida, Verdi’s 26th opera was ready for premiere in Egypt in January 1871, but a war distant from Egypt, intervened. Bismarck had engineered a Franco-Prussian confrontation in Autumn 1870. The French army was defeated at the Battle of Sedan and the Emperor Napoleon III captured. With Paris under siege the scenery constructed there could not be got out and shipped to Cairo. Although Verdi’s composition was completed Aida was not premiered until Christmas Eve 1871. This delay also caused the postponement of the Italian premiere at La Scala as the contract stipulated that the first performances of the opera would be given in the Cairo Opera House.

Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular of operas with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression. It is a work of pageant with its Grand March (Gloria all’Egitto) and ballet interludes. The music is melodic and evocative from the outset. The story is taut in its drama with no superfluity of verbiage. Above all it is a work involving various personal relationships. That between the Ethiopian Princess Aida, acting incognito as a slave to Amneris the daughter of the Egyptian King, and who both love the soldier Radames is the core of the opera. But Verdi always loved the complexities and possibilities of the father-daughter relationship and examples occur throughout his operas; nowhere more starkly than in Aida.

The luxuriant music and pageant of Aida have drawn recordings from the days of 78s with a rapid expansion following the advent of the LP. Likewise there are several worthy DVDs to choose from. On 78s the performance involving the Radames of Gigli alongside Maria Caniglia as Aida, Ebe Stignani as Amneris and recorded in Rome in 1946 under Serafin stands out although the recording favours the singers. Ward Marston’s remastering for Naxos cannot disguise original faults but it is worth hearing (Review). The first twenty-five or so years of the LP era saw the record companies compete with themselves, with repeat recordings, as well as with their rivals. The first LP recordings were inevitably in mono with each company fielding their contracted diva in the title role. Decca were early into the field with their FFSS superior sound derived from having signed some of the best electronic whiz kids from world war two. Their diva was Renata Tebaldi who Toscanini had invited to sing at the reopening of La Scala in 1947. She is in fresher voice than in the 1959 stereo remake under Karajan. As Radames, Mario del Monaco is his usual stentorian self. Mark Obert-Thorn’s remastering makes what he can of Santa Cecilia’s rather confined acoustic (Review). America’s RCA featured the Yugoslav dramatic soprano Zinka Milanov as Aida alongside the tasteful Jussi Björling as Radames and the redoubtable Leonard Warren and Fedora Barbieri as Amonasro and Amneris. This recording has also had the benefit of Mark Obert-Thorn’s remastering art and is particularly vibrant (Review). Although Milanov lacks Callas’s capacity for characterisation her steadiness and dramatic singing are preferable to her rival’s rather underpowered and manufactured approach again remastered for Naxos by Mark Obert-Thorn (Review). Both the Milanov and the Callas performances were recorded in 1955. By that time Callas no longer sang the role on stage. One of her last stage performances of the role of Aida was at Covent Garden in 1953 under Barbirolli. Some critics prefer Callas’s portrayal in this performance to her studio recording (Testament SBT2 1355).

Decca with their excellent engineers were quick off the mark with stereo recordings. With Karajan as conductor they reprised Tebaldi’s Aida in 1959 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera Chorus in what was to become one of their favourite recording venues, Vienna’s Sofiensaal. With production by John Culshaw and using a six channel mixing desk, with facility to expand to eighteen, this recording was for some time a benchmark for Aida recordings. Karajan luxuriates in Verdi’s music in the triumphal scene. The young Carlo Bergonzi is the epitome of vocal grace as Radames and Giulietta Simionato a fine Amneris. (Decca 460 978-2 reissued 4758240). John Culshaw must have been mightily impressed by the young black American Leontyne Price, then making waves in Europe, to build a recording round her in association with RCA a mere three years later. Made in Rome her portrayal of Aida on this recording, where she is accompanied by the rather over-virile singing of Jon Vickers as Radames, is one of the finest portrayals of the role on record. Solti is not the ideal Verdian but with his dramatic drive allied to sound stunning for its time it wears well (Decca 460 765-2). RCA tried a reprise of Price’s Aida ten years later for issue to celebrate the first performance in Cairo. Made in London in July 1970 with a mouth-watering cast including Grace Bumbry as Amneris and the young Placido Domingo as a more tastefully heroic Radames than Vickers, it should have been a competitor to Karajan’s first recording. Regrettably, by the late 1960s RCA no longer had the benefit of Decca’s engineers and the recording was poor with obvious drop-outs among its failures when issued on LP. The CD issue has smoothed out some deficiencies but its sonic limitations still represent a glorious opportunity lost (GD 74321 39498-2)

After an ill-fated attempt with Corelli and Nilsson (358 654 at bargain price) EMI had more success with Karajan’s second recording made in conjunction with performances at the Salzburg Festival .The conductor’s tempi are idiosyncratically slow in parts and his more lyrical view is matched by the casting of the lightish voices of Mirella Freni and José Carreras in the lead roles (0777 769300 2). EMI returned to the competitive fray ten years later with Riccardo Muti’s ‘all star’ first opera recording for the company. The sound on the original LPs was compromised by efforts at ambisonics but the CD has greater clarity in its GROC reissue. With Montserrat Caballé as Aida, Domingo as Radames and Fiorenza Cossotto, Pierro Cappuccilli and Nicolai Ghiaurov also present it is one of the better sung recordings (Review). Domingo features on Abbado’s 1982 La Scala recording, but with Ricciarelli stretched as Aida and Elena Obraztsova seriously miscast as Amneris, all in a woolly acoustic. This is best avoided (DG 410 092-2). Domingo appears yet again for Sony alongside Aprile Millo as Aida under Levine. The recorded sound does no favours nor does the wooden Amonasro of James Morris. Pavarotti fans are best served by one of his performances caught on DVD rather than on the CD of his 1985 La Scala rendition under Lorin Maazel’s unidiomatic baton. Maria Chiara sings an appealing Aida although a little past her best in a role she sang regularly at Verona (Decca 417 439-2).

The pageantry of Aida makes it a dream for any opera stage with the necessary financial resources and there are many versions on DVD. The pageantry makes a big impact at the Verona Arena although the more intimate scenes are less well served. Catching the dynamism of the orchestra and chorus is also problematic. A 1982 performance has Nicola Martinucci an upright Radames and Maria Chiara an appealing Aida under Anton Guadagno. A 1992 performance with sets reconstructed from Mariette’s designs for the arena has Maria Chiara well past her best. Kristan Jöhannasson as Radames lacks any Italianata and the sound is unduly harsh (Review). Pavarotti fans are well served by three DVD recordings of a role he did not sing that often on stage. The1985 La Scala performance under Maazel is the same as the CD (Review). In my view he is better caught alongside the lyric and silver-voiced Aida of Margaret Price in Sam Wanamaker’s production recorded at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco in 1981 with Garcia Navarro on the rostrum (Review). Alongside that Pavarotti performance a personal favourite is the 1989 recording from the Met conducted by James Levine. Backed by a generous endowment to supplement the house budget the staging is opulent. Add the casting of Domingo, Aprile Millo as Aida and Dolora Zajick as Amneris sparking off each other and Sherrill Milnes as Amonasro, this is as good a theatre production as one is likely to get. The Met audience are rather too enthusiastic at times and the curtain calls are repetitive (DG 073 001-9 GH). For those allergic to such shows of opulence and pageantry the antithesis is found in Robert Wilson’s minimalist staging. Intimate scenes involve the singers not making eye contact as they circle each other with hand movements representing their emotions, or that is what I think is being represented. The set for the Nile Scene is visually effective whilst that for the Tomb Scene has resemblances of realism to go alongside the Wilson’s minimalism (Review).

Outside the narrow confines of the world of opera, 1870 and 1871 were momentous years in Europe and had a direct impact on the staging of Aida as I have shown. As Verdi worked on the libretto of Aida, Pio Nono, the longest ever serving Pope, proclaimed the dogma of Papal Infallibility at the 20th Vatican Council on 18 July 1870. The next day France, protector of Papal Rome, egged on by Bismarck, declared war on Prussia over the possibility of a German prince acceding to the Spanish throne. In the first week of August German soldiers crossed into France and Napoleon III withdrew the French army from Rome to help defend the homeland. To protect what was left of the independent Papal States Pio Nono had only his own thirteen thousand men. On 2 September the French army was humiliated at Sedan and with Napoleon himself captured the Second Empire fell and the Third Republic was proclaimed. The first siege of Paris by the Prussians began on 19 September. On the same day Italy’s Victor Emmanuelle seized his chance and despatched troops to occupy Rome, the oldest sovereignty in Europe, in the name of the Italian State. The Pope retired to the Vatican’s restricted confines with much prayer and ceremony. The ceremony included ascending the Santa Scala on his knees whilst blessing his troops; it was the last act of a Pope in Papal Rome. The resultant Concordat gave the Vatican, the Patrimony of St. Peter, the independent diplomatic status that it enjoys in the present day.

As I have noted Verdi’s composition of Aida was complete and the score ready for delivery in November 1870, for its scheduled premiere in Cairo in January 1871 and performances at La Scala later the same month. With the Cairo sets held in Paris by the siege Verdi agreed to postpone both productions. The Republican government in France moved out of Paris to Versailles as the Parisians choked on Bismarck’s demand that his troops parade down the Champs-Elysées. The Paris commune resisted its new Government with rioting and burning including the Tuileries. The city was put under another siege, this time by thirteen thousand French troops who re-took it with much loss of life among the Communards. At last the Aida scenery could proceed to Cairo and the production could also go ahead at La Scala. With Italy unified, except for Trieste and its region, and with Rome as is capital and France in disarray, Europe and its personnel were changing faster than ever before.

In the year of Rossini’s death in 1868, aided by arrangements connived at by his wife and long-time friend Clarina Maffei, Verdi had visited his idol, Alessandro Manzoni. When Manzoni died in May 1873, after a fall, Verdi was devastated to the extent he could not go to the funeral for which the shops of Milan were closed, and the streets lined with thousands. The King sent two Princes of the Royal Blood to carry the flanking cords and they were aided by the Presidents of the Senate and Chamber as well as the Ministers of Education and Foreign Affairs. A week after the funeral Verdi went to Milan and visited the grave alone. Then, through his publisher, Ricordi, he proposed to the Mayor of Milan that he should write a Requiem Mass to honour Manzoni to be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of the writer’s death. Unlike his proposal for a Requiem to honour Rossini in 1868, there would be no committee this time. Verdi proposed that he himself would compose the entire Mass, pay the expenses of preparing and printing the music, specify the church for the first performance, choose the singers and the Requiem would belong to Verdi. The city of Milan accepted with alacrity.

Verdi began work on his Requiem in Paris in the summer of 1873. It was his first visit to the city since the days of the Commune and the ruins of the Tuileries and other burnt-out buildings saddened him. With artistic unity guaranteed by the single composer model, Verdi intended his Requiem to have a regular place in the repertoire just like his operas and other works. Although he had already composed a Libera Me for the aborted Rossini Requiem, Verdi largely re-wrote it, thus ensuring greater compositional coherence than might otherwise have been the case. He selected the Church of San Marco for the premiere, considering it to have the best proportions and acoustics. On 22 May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, with an orchestra of one hundred and a chorus of one hundred and twenty it was given to acclaim. Three days later Verdi conducted another performance at La Scala. This was followed by two more conducted by Faccio. Argument raged that Verdi, although using the ecclesiastical text, had not written music of that oeuvre. The work is certainly not in the tradition of ecclesiastical works set to counterpoint and fugues, a fact that at least some purists considered did not detract the listener from the religious message. Despite criticisms of this nature the Requiem travelled to Paris where Verdi was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. After Paris, London and Vienna followed with the work acclaimed in each.

Some cynics have referred to the Manzoni Requiem, as the work is sometimes called, as being Verdi’s best opera! After the reverential and ecclesiastical style of the opening Requiem and Kyrie the music varies between the beautifully lyric and the heavily dramatic as in the Dies irae and Tuba mirum. At least stereo is a minimum requirement for listening to this work and I pass over some worthy mono recordings. At its premiere the soloists were renowned opera singers and ever since it is conductors and singers with that background who bring out its strengths, both spiritual and vocal. There is no shortage of both CD and DVD recordings of the work. On CD, EMI’s 1959 recording by the veteran Tulio Serafin featuring the Lebanese soprano Shakeh Vartenissian, a young Fiorenza Cossotto singing vibrantly alongside the tenor Eugene Fernandi and Boris Christoff, who sings a redoubtable Mors stupebit, has long been a favourite of mine (Testament SBT 2140). Others favour the 1963 recording conducted by Giulini over that of his elder compatriot, but with an English chorus not matching its Italian counterparts and the lack of Italianata in Schwarzkopf’s and Gedda’s interpretations it is not a view I share (EMI GROC). Solti’s very operatic interpretation of 1967 for Decca with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne alongside the Finnish bass Martti Talvela and the young Pavarotti has its fans. Recorded in the Sofiensaal Vienna it has more than a touch of dramatic Wagner about it. If not exactly Italianate it is sonically exciting (Decca 311 944-2). In the following three decades pretty well every conductor of note joined in with his chosen, or company-contracted, soloists. The 1987 Telarc recording with relatively less well-known soloists is admired for its recording quality and choral singing (Telarc CD 80152). Riccardo Muti’s recording of the same year, his second, features an all-star American trio of Cheryl Studer, Dolora Zajick, and Samuel Ramey alongside the Italian Pavarotti and the chorus and orchestra of La Scala, Milan. It has all the frisson of a live performance with Pavarotti’s singing of the Ingemisco a highlight, but the acoustic of the La Scala theatre is a problem for me (EMI CDS 7 49390-2). More recently Gergiev’s account with Kirov forces features the superb female duo of Renée Fleming and Olga Borodina set alongside the unacceptable tenor singing of Andrea Boccelli (Philips 468 079-2). Both Karajan with two versions and Abbado, a natural Verdian, have recordings on CD from DG. Abbado’s fully digital version features Cheryl Studer, Mariana Lipovsek, José Carreras and Ruggero Raimondi backed by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic (435 884-2). Despite its sonic virtues it does not replace earlier versions among my favourites. A bargain-priced Decca Originals double CD, has the young Leontyne Price and Jussi Björling in The Requiem, conducted by Fritz Reiner alongside Verdi’s later Four Sacred Pieces conducted by Mehta (467 119-2).

There is no shortage of DVD rivals in this music with Abbado’s name as conductor featuring regularly. His most recent recording, from the Berlin centenary anniversary of Verdi’s death, features the Berlin Philharmonic, the Swedish Radio Choir and Chamber Choir. With the Rossini mezzo Daniela Barcellona and the conductor the only Italians around it lacks any natural feel and the solo singing of Alagna is a particular trial (EMI 9269- 9 and also on CD 557168-2)). I suspect Abbado’s earlier recordings including that from the Edinburgh Festival featuring Margaret Price, Jessye Norman, Jose Carreras and Ruggero Raimondi (Arthaus 100 146) and another with Montserrat Caballé and Lucia Valentini-Terrani are far better sung although I have only seen the latter advertised on the web as Region 1. Whilst I was impressed by near-veteran Zubin Mehta’s 2005 live recording from the Santa Cecilia, Rome (Review), my personal favourite remains Karajan’s La Scala performance of January 1967 with an unsurpassed quartet of Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti and Nicolai Ghiaurov (DG 00440 073 4055 GH).



Section 4. The revised Simon Boccanegra of 1881, Otello and Falstaff.

The years after the composition of the Requiem were the most arid of Verdi’s compositional life. He was not idle. He travelled widely conducting it and other of his works and received many honours whilst always complaining about the musical standards in Italy. As the 1870s drew to a close he had not composed an opera since Aida at the end of 1870. As he approached his seventies he was in good health, but with his librettists Piave and Solera dead, and Du Locle weary of trying, nobody was stimulating him with ideas. His publisher, Ricordi tried nudging him towards a revision of Simon Boccanegra for which Verdi maintained a fondness despite its chequered career, believing its plot and music deserved a better fate than neglect. Ricordi went to the extent of sending Verdi a full score of the original but the parcel remained unopened.

In early 1879, for his own amusement, Verdi returned to composition with a Pater Noster for unaccompanied five part chorus, and an Ave Maria for solo soprano and string orchestra. His long-time friend, Countess Maffei, based in Milan, chided him about another opera to which he responded that the account is settled. In her salon the literati of the city including Ricordi, the conductor Faccio and Boito, composer, writer and librettist, met regularly. Somewhere among this group a plot seems to have been hatched to get Verdi to write another opera based on a Shakespeare play. In the summer of 1879 the composer and his wife went to Milan for him to conduct a benefit concert of his Requiem at La Scala on behalf of flood victims in the Po valley. The soprano Teresa Stoltz and mezzo Maria Waldmann came out of retirement to sing. The concert was a huge success artistically and financially. A few days later the Verdis invited Ricordi and Faccio to dinner. The visitors turned the conversation to an opera by Verdi, on a Shakespearian theme with a libretto by Boito. Verdi agreed to meet Boito the next day and three days later received a scenario from him of an opera based on Otello. This was pretty quick work and points to some earlier preparation. Verdi liked Boito’s scenario and encouraged him to put it into verse with the comment it will always be good for you, for me, or for someone else. Ricordi encouraged Boito to do so and it was, for some time, called the chocolate scheme with Verdi insisting on the utmost secrecy lest he felt pressured in any way. Because of these fears he deterred Ricordi from bringing Boito on his visit to Sant’ Agata fearing it would promote rumours of another opera. He had, however, encouraged Ricordi to send him Boito’s versified version to read at his leisure. Most importantly Verdi’s mind was on opera and composition in a manner it had not been for several years. Ricordi’s visit had followed that of the Director of the Paris Opéra to whom Verdi promised a revised Aida, in French and with ballet, for the following year. After Ricordi left, somewhat disappointed, Giuseppina wrote to him, behind her husband’s back, advising him to be patient and that they would be in Milan later when a visit by Boito would hardly be noticed. Although pathologically fearing the secret would leak, and while not committing himself, Verdi secretly began looking at costumes and pictures, trying to visualise the characters and setting in his own mind whilst in public he seemed occupied with other matters.

The other matters on Verdi’s mind included the French version of Aida and he went to Paris to supervise rehearsals. The French Aida was premiered at the Opéra on 22 March 1880 to great acclaim, stirring up jealousies in some native composers. Back in Milan in April the composer heard his Ave Maria and Pater Noster conducted by Franco Faccio at La Scala where a statue of him was unveiled in the foyer where it remains to this day. Afterwards he returned to Sant’ Agata without any further commitment to the chocolate scheme although he had asked Boito for some revisions of the verses for act 3. Ricordi could see no sign of work being done and again suggested a visit accompanied by Boito. Giuseppina warned him away with the words Verdi has not yet, despite the very good verses, got his ideas clear, and without clear ideas he will decide now, or at any rate later, never to compose… it is better to leave things, at least for the moment, just as they are, wrapping the Moor in as great a silence as possible. Ricordi wisely followed her advice and dropped talking to the composer about Otello and switched back to the idea of a revision of Simon Boccanegra. Verdi’s regard for this work, and he was his own sternest critic, meant that although it had fallen into neglect, the possibility of revision and revival was never far from his mind and he responded that he was prepared to begin work at once if a suitable librettist could be found. Ricordi persuaded Boito, who was not initially enthusiastic, to take on Piave’s rambling plot and verses. Working alongside Verdi, Boito soon warmed to his task, pressing the composer to set an entire new act in the church of San Siro. Verdi did not want to compose an entire new act and the two settled on an earlier idea of a new scene set in the Council Chamber. Stimulated by his librettist’s grasp of the local colour of Genoa, where the Verdi’s lived each winter, the composer undertook more revisions of the original score than he had at first intended. He worked on the score throughout January 1881 in Genoa, leaving on 24 February for Milan to supervise rehearsals. The baritone Victor Maurel, who had been the Amonasro in the Paris Aida, took the title role with Francesco Tamagno singing Gabriele Adorno. The first night at La Scala on 21 March 1881 was a triumph, with ten performances being given in the season. Boito, however, told Ricordi that he attributed no artistic or literary merit to the revisions of poor Piave’s verses and insisted that neither his name nor his anagram should appear on the programme!

The Council Chamber scene of the revised Simon Boccanegra is one of the mature Verdi’s most dramatic musical creations. With its seamless unfolding of the drama its music is clearly a very a near relative of that in Otello. Its drama contrasts sharply with the first scene with its quiet E major chords that are so evocative of the sea and flowing tides and that which precedes Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna. They reflect Verdi’s intimate knowledge of a town where he and his wife spent most winters and owned an apartment. As well as the addition of the Council Chamber scene there are many other differences between the 1880 revision and the 1857 original that make comparisons fascinating for Verdi enthusiasts. The Opera Rara recording of the original 1857 version allows for such captivating comparisons (Review). It is dealt with in its compositional sequence as Verdi’s 21st opera . What is manifestly true is that the twenty-four years between the original Boccanegra and the revision show less of the stylistic discontinuity found in the two versions of Macbeth divided by a mere eighteen years. This reflects Verdi’s compositional maturity at the time of the original which followed the great middle period trio of Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata.

In the present-time stage performances of Simon Boccanegra are not frequent nor are recordings. With very few exceptions both are of the1881-revised version under consideration here. In 1954 HMV had broken new ground with its Rome recording of Don Carlo with Gobbi and Christoff under Santini, the house musical director. The company returned in 1958 with the same duo as Boccanegra and Fiesco respectively to record the revised version of Simon Boccanegra. With Victoria de los Angeles an appealing Amelia and Giuseppe Campora not over-parted as Gabriele Adorno it set a standard that took some years to equal. Tito Gobbi’s Boccanegra stands alongside his Rigoletto and Iago as one of the definitive recorded Verdi interpretations of all time and is matched by Christoff’s implacable Fiesco. Unaccountably it was not recorded in stereo, which the company had used for Karajan’s Falstaff in June 1956! (Review Falstaff ). This HMV recording tended to overshadow the Cetra issue derived from Radio Italiana broadcast from Rome with Paolo Silveri in the title role, Antoinetta Stella as Amelia and the young Bergonzi as Adorno (Warner Fonit 8573 82648-2) A first stereo recording came from RCA in 1974 with Pierro Cappuccilli in the title role, Katia Ricciarelli as Amelia and Ruggero Raimondi. Placido Domingo’s virile Adorno and its stereo recording are the main virtues. But then, as with Macbeth a year earlier, DG was on the spot in Milan to record another Verdi opera following another of Giorgio Strehler’s outstanding and acclaimed productions at La Scala under Abbado. As with the earlier Macbeth the theatre was again unavailable for recording during the performing season, so in January 1977 DG again used the Centro Telicinematografica Culturale with its warm but sympathetic acoustic for its recording of Simon Boccanegra. Whilst not one of nature’s outstanding vocal characterisers, but with the proximity of the theatre production and Abbado’s direction, Pierro Cappuccilli gives an altogether more involved and better characterised performance than he had for RCA three years earlier. Whilst not erasing memories of Tito Gobbi’s dramatic singing in the earlier EMI recording of the Council Chamber scene, Cappuccilli’s rendition in this scene is noteworthy. Ghiaurov is rock solid and vocally expressive as Fiesco, Mirella Freni well cast as Amelia and the young Carreras vibrant as Adorno. This recording, now on two mid-price CDs has deservedly dominated the market in this opera (DG Originals 449 752-2). Decca recorded the work in the Sala Abanella, Milan in December 1988 under Solti. Except for Kiri Te Kanawa’s Amelia it is undistinguished (Review). After the Decca recording, audio versions seemed to dry up until a live performance from the New Zealand Festival in 2000 appeared. With the added frisson of a live occasion allied to a strong portrayal of the title role and well-recorded sound this latest recording has much to commend it (Review).

As far as DVD is concerned if a recording exists of the Strehler La Scala production it would be welcomed with open arms. The production was widely toured including to London when every Italian in the UK and Europe outside Milan seemed the only people to be able to get a ticket, the performances living up to its reputation! Abbado’s more recent conducting of Simon Boccanegra is available on a performance featuring Karita Mattila, Carlo Guelfi as the Doge and Julian Konstantinov as Fiesco (TDK OP SIBO). Mark Elder conducts Peter Hall’s 1998 Glyndebourne production with Elena Prokina a lovely Amelia in a good all-round cast. Whilst the orchestral playing is outstanding and the singing is good, the production lacks some visual and dramatic clarity (Review). Visual clarity, with traditional stage pictures, is the standard of Gian Carlo del Monaco’s 1995 Met production. Vladimir Chernov is a tonally and histrionically strong Boccanegra and Te Kanawa an involved Amelia with Robert Lloyd as Fiesco and Domingo as Adorno in good vocal form. James Levine conducts with taut involvement (Review). Peter Stein’s production, first seen in Vienna in 2002, was recorded in Florence in 2005. It features the American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role. He gives one of his best Verdi interpretations to date (Review). If the other soloists do not quite manage to match his virtues neither do they let the side down. The generally sparse sets contrast with that for the Council Chamber scene.

After the great success of the revised Simon Boccanegra at La Scala, Ricordi and Boito hoped that Verdi would give a firm commitment to the ‘chocolate scheme’, the composition of Otello. Strepponi had earlier warned Ricordi against putting pressure on the composer whilst encouraging him by saying that Verdi liked Boito’s verses. Boito never discussed the matter in public but the newspapers increasingly talked about Boito’s Iago. Even Verdi himself let comments slip as when he commented to Victor Maurel on his singing of Boccanegra with something like if God gives me good health, I’ll write Iago for you. But time passed and Verdi seemed little inclined to make the words binding. In 1883 he was seventy and composition was still alive and kicking in his psyche and he embarked on the major revision of Don Carlo, reducing it as earlier noted to four acts. This version was premiered at La Scala in January 1884. In reality Verdi was encouraging Boito to make changes in the libretto even though he was reluctant to make a definite commitment. He was knocked sideways by the death of Wagner in 1883 at his same age and then by the partner, husband in all but name in a country with no divorce, of his long time friend Countess Maffei. As the great writer Victor Hugo passed away in the same year Verdi must have thought of his own Ernani and Rigoletto based on the great man’s work as well as his own mortality. Garibaldi, crippled by arthritis and seen by many as the father of Italy, also passed on in that year. Verdi, instead of elation at his own national status and recognition was depressed, even finding his fame a burden. But after attending some of the rehearsals at La Scala of the revised four act Don Carlo, with its new music in act 3 and other revisions, he returned to Otello with more determination although not with consistent application as he and his wife travelled widely to Expositions and for performances of his works. Even the death of Countess Maffei herself in July 1886 did not shake his determination. As he hurried to her bedside he perhaps remembered her earlier chiding him about his not having written a new opera for some years.

Verdi finished the composition of Otello, his 27th opera, in November 1886 and personally attended some rehearsals, encouraging dramatic commitment and conviction from the singers. Although there are indications in the revised Simon Boccanegra of an evolving, more seamless, compositional style from Verdi, with a definite move away from the more static style of aria, duet and chorus, Otello marks a major change. As Budden (Verdi. Master Musicians Series. Dent 1985) puts it; the composer conceived it from the start in terms of whole acts that proceed from start to finish without interruption. The drama moves by smooth transition from one event to the next. In his conception Verdi was greatly aided by Boito’s taut libretto that reduced Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ by six-sevenths but without losing its essence of the destruction of the erstwhile hero by the genie of jealousy aided by the evil machinations of Iago. Boito dispensed with Shakespeare’s Venice act and focused the whole of the action in Cyprus. Iago’s Credo in act two is Boito’s invention.

The more seamless compositional style of Verdi’s Otello has always appealed to musicians whilst the public has been more equivocal. This may well be due to lack of familiarity consequent on the scarcity of performances as much as formal arias. This scarcity of performances is often due to Verdi’s vocal demands on the tenor singing the title role. To quote Budden again, the title role in Otello lies well beyond the scope of the average operatic tenor. In reality the role is beyond some of the greatest of tenors. Bergonzi had no difficulty with either Radames in Aida or Manrico in Il Trovatore, but he only tried Otello once, in a concert performance after his retirement from the stage and his voice cracked in the great act I outburst. Whilst Manrico in Il Trovatore and Radames in Aida can be sung by a strong-voiced and full-toned lyric tenor with vocal heft, the role of Otello calls for a voice of more dramatic and heroic quality not far short of that of a Wagnerian Heldentenor. Awareness of this vocal demand explains why Pavarotti as well as Bergonzi never sang the role on stage. Often tenors singing the role will have a distinctly baritonal hue to the voice. This is true on the recording conducted by Toscanini who played in the string section at the premiere, and which dominated the first few years of the LP era. Ramon Vinay was Toscanini’s choice and there are times when he is not tonally too far differentiated from the baritone Iago. The recording of the 1947 live broadcast emerged on LP from RCA in 1953 and dominated the catalogue for the remainder of the decade. The sound on the recording has always been problematic and more recently Richard Caniel, doyen of re-mastering live Met broadcasts has produced a recording, including Toscanini’s rehearsals, from an alternative source, claiming superior results (Review). Vinay’s widely appreciated interpretation of Otello also features on a live 1955 recording from London’s Covent Garden. Rafael Kubelik’s conducting is not as frenetic as Toscanini’s whilst Gré Brouwenstijn’s Desdemona is superior to her RCA counterpart (ROHS 001).

Towards the end of the 1950s, John Culshaw at Decca, and progenitor of the ‘First Recorded Ring Cycle’ planned an aural Otello spectacular. Built around Decca’s contracted artists, the big-voiced tenor Mario Del Monaco in the title, and the spinto soprano Renata Tebaldi as Desdemona and with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. It was recorded in the company’s favourite Vienna venue. The recording includes sound effects and the full ballet that Verdi composed for the Paris premiere in 1895 (Decca 440 245-2). What Culshaw hadn’t bargained for was that a year before his recording was issued in Autumn 1961, RCA would beat his male cast hands down with the young Canadian Jon Vickers as Otello and Tito Gobbi as Iago giving one of his greatest recorded Verdi assumptions. Serafin is truer to Verdi than Karajan, whilst Tebaldi is more vocally appealing than RCA’s Leonie Rysanek (09026 63180-2).

EMI stood off the recording pace until rediscovering Barbirolli’s operatic credentials with Madama Butterfly recorded in Rome when they assembled a cast for a London recording in 1968. James McCracken in the name part is adequate whilst Gwyneth Jones is an unsteady Desdemona. More disastrously is the casting of Fischer-Dieskau as Iago. I well remember Barbirolli at, a launch party, supported by his producer Kinloch Anderson trying to justify this casting. Following some mealy mouthed contemporaneous support from critics I was left with a played once set of LPs! (EMI 565296). EMI were more successful with Karajan’s second recording based on his early 1970s production at Salzburg with Vickers as Otello, Freni an appealing Desdemona and Yorkshire-born Peter Glossop an appropriately bluff Iago on one of his too rare recorded assumptions (769398 2).

Even as Solti recorded his studio Otello in 1977 featuring Carlo Cossotto as a histrionically convincing, but sometimes vocally uneven Moor, alongside a radiant Margaret Price as a lyrical Desdemona (Decca 460 756-2), the young Placido Domingo was making waves as Otello. It is a role that the singer came to dominate in the theatre and in audio and visual recordings for the next 25 years. His first recorded assumption was made in London’s Walthamstow Town Hall in the summer of 1978 under James Levine. Levine shows a real feel for Verdi’s drama without any of the metronomic brashness of his Giovanni D’Arco for EMI a few years earlier. Although some of the American contingent in the lesser parts has weaknesses, the Ambrosian Operas Chorus and the National Philharmonic give excellent support. Sherrill Milnes is a smooth-voiced Iago and Renata Scotto the odd sour note apart, a characterful Desdemona. Domingo’s second version was made in association with a film version directed by Franco Zeffirelli and with Maazel a not particularly sympathetic conductor. Domingo’s singing is darker hued than on his RCA assumption. With Justino Diaz a rather penny plain Iago and Katia Ricciarelli heavy-toned as Desdemona this performance has little appeal for me (EMI 747450 8).

Still searching for a modern and definitive recording of Otello, Decca turned to their contracted artists, podium supremo Georg Solti and tenor Pavarotti, who had never sang Otello on stage. The company arranged to record concert performances in Chicago and New York in April 1991 also featuring Kiri Te Kanawa and Leo Nucci and backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Pavarotti’s singing in the lyric passages is enjoyable but his overall assumption is shallow with the tenor being unduly careful in the big declamatory outbursts. Leo Nucci’s wiry Iago is undistinguished whilst Te Kanawa’s rendering of the long last act scene including the Desdemona’s Ave Maria and Willow Song is one of the best on record. (Decca 433 669-2). Solti and the Chicago forces are also excellent as is the recording despite the different venues. DG might have tried to tempt Carlos Kleiber to set down his interpretation in the mid-1980s as he conducted widely admired performances at Covent Garden and La Scala, but the maestro was ever allergic to the studio. In the end it was not difficult for DG to ace their Decca rivals with Domingo’s last studio recording idiomatically conducted by Myung-Whun Chung and backed by the forces of the Bastille Opera, Paris, of which he was, for all too brief a time, Musical Director. Domingo’s interpretation and vocal characterisation of the role in this 1993 performance is consummate with his tone distinctly darker hued than on his first recording for RCA. Cheryl Studer is a firm toned and effective Desdemona whilst the Russian Sergei Leiferkus comes over as the epitome of evil as Iago, albeit with caveats regarding his rather glottal vocal production and use of parlando (DG 439 805-2).

In my view, in none of Placido Domingo’s currently available commercial audio or video recordings of the role of Otello do his fellow artists wholly match him. However, many of his stage and concert performances were often the subject of audio broadcast and these presumably exist on tape. I have one such of a thrilling concert performance conducted by Solti with Domingo alongside Te Kanawa as Desdemona. Arts Music has issued a recording of Kleiber conducting the season’s opening production at La Scala in December 1976 with Domingo alongside Cappuccilli and Mirella Freni but at that stage the tenor was very early in his command of all the nuances of the role.

Placido Domingo’s portrayal of Verdi’s Moor dominates the DVD market. But his is not the only interpretation of note. Jon Vickers’ is a considerable one and is caught on the 1973 film based on the Salzburg production, supervised and conducted by Karajan, when the singer was in his late forties. The sound was recorded the previous December by the Berlin Philharmonic and chorus of the Deutsche Oper and dubbed on with the lip-sync not always perfect, particularly in some close-ups. Freni is an affecting Desdemona and Peter Glossop a convincing Iago. The film allows for some spectacular effects not possible in the theatre (Review). A 1982 performance recorded at Verona and admired by a colleague (Review) has Vladimir Atlantov as a strong-voiced but hardly sensitive Otello alongside Te Kanawa and Cappuccilli under Zoltan Pesko. I discount the DVD of the Zeffirelli film. This has Domingo alongside a lovely looking but vocally out of form Ricciarelli and a dull Iago; Maazel conducts with more drama than nuance. Domingo’s 1992 performance from Covent Garden alongside Te Kanawa and Leiferkus conducted by Solti with Brian Large in charge of the video is much more balanced and dramatic. It is justifiably well thought off (BBC/Pioneer 425736). In his 1995 performances in Elijah Moshinsky’s production at the Met in traditional lavish sets by Michael Yeargan, Domingo is, as on his first audio recording, working with James Levine. The tenor is in imperious voice as is Renée Fleming particularly in act 4 where she acts well. Levine is more variable and James Morris’s Iago is less than wholly convincing as a villain (DG 073 092-9GH). One of Domingo’s best performances comes from the December 2001 La Scala run of Graham Vick’s production conducted by Muti. Here he is alongside the well thought out Desdemona of Barbara Frittoli, with whom he sang at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1996. She hasn’t the refulgent tone of Te Kanawa and Nucci’s Iago has little virtue. (Review). During his domination of the role on stage Domingo came to be able to represent the many facets of Otello’s character. With his retirement from the role many have taken the view that José Cura was the most likely among the contemporary tenors, to be his successor. However, his 2006 performances at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, in Willy Decker's quirky production with sets by John Macfarlane, indicates that he has a lot to learn. Particularly he would seem to be in need of a more orthodox staging and the benefit of firm direction if he is to follow in Domingo’s distinguished footsteps (Review).

During the final period of Otellos composition, Verdi made meticulous plans for its premiere. This included visiting Paris in March 1886 to check on the vocal state of Victor Maurel about whom he had heard conflicting reports. He was reassured and happy that the baritone would be his Iago. He completed the orchestration of Otello during October and the following month personally undertook the coaching of Tomagno in the title role with full rehearsals starting in Milan in January; all very demanding and tiring for a man in his 74th year. Whatever failings there were on that first night on 5 February 1887 the reception was rapturous. Verdi took over twenty curtain calls after which a cheering crowd, who then serenaded him for several hours, drew his carriage back to his hotel. Three days later Verdi was made an honorary citizen of Milan.

The day after the premiere of Otello Verdi excused himself, for reason of tiredness, from a reception given by Ricordi for celebrities, journalists and critics. Verdi was not only tired but also sad. In July his friend of over forty years, Clara Maffei, died in Milan. Verdi had interrupted his holiday at Montecantini and rushed to her bedside. It was she had cajoled him to write more opera during the fallow post-Aida years and it was in her salon that Ricordi and Boito plotted to tempt Verdi to compose more opera. But Verdi was also sad that he now lacked a goal. Before he left Milan the directors of La Scala approached him about the possibility of a comic opera. He replied don’t you know how old I am and professed his desire to return to his country life at Sant’ Agata where Boito visited him in November with a French translation of Otello. Verdi also concerned himself with the hospital at Villanova he had built for his locality. Despite having watched its construction with care, and in typical fashion, he refused to have his name inscribed over the door. Meanwhile he kept his compositional hand in with Laudi alla Vergine, which was followed by Ave Maria scala enigmata, his fourth setting of an Ave Maria. Later, together with the Te Deum and Stabat Mater, each for chorus and orchestra, these became constituents of what came to be called The Four Sacred Pieces (Quattro Pezzi Sacri).

The proposal for a comic opera for La Scala niggled at Verdi, but he worried about his age and the possibility of starting another opera and not finishing it. Boito was aware of his feelings and also with his love of Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’. Whilst Verdi worried about Boito completing his own opera Nerone, the poet choosing his time well, sent a synopsis to Verdi on his annual holiday at Montecantini in July 1889. Verdi responded enthusiastically only to express doubts the following day, worrying that another operatic composition might over-stretch his strength. But those doubts were not reflected in his invitation to Boito: Come and see us. Boito assured Verdi that writing a comic opera would be less fatiguing than a tragedy concluding: There is only one way to end your career more splendidly than with ‘Otello’, and that is to end it with ‘Falstaff’. After returning to Sant’ Agata later that July, Verdi began to make sketches even before receiving any verses from Boito.

In between the quick start and Boito bringing the completed acts 1 and 2 in November, Verdi digressed to purchase a plot of land in Milan to build a rest home for elderly and indigent musicians and endow it with an annual income. He later appointed Boito’s brother as architect.

The completion of Falstaff his 28th and final opera, proceeded more steadily than that of Otello, but with Verdi doing no more than two hours work a day on it. For at least a year composer and librettist kept the composition under wraps with not even Ricordi in on the secret. A couple of years after the premiere of Otello Verdi wrote to a friend What can I tell you? I’ve wanted to write a comic opera for forty years, and I’ve known ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for fifty… however, the usual buts and I don’t know if I will ever finish it…I am enjoying myself. There were hiccups along the way but the composition was finished by November 1892 with Falstaff being premiered at La Scala on 9 February 1893. Verdi was in his 80th year. He supervised rehearsals and attended the first three nights as was usual, taking many curtain calls. It was rumoured that the government intended to give him the title of Marquis of Busseto. In abject horror Verdi wrote to the Minister of Education who replied that the rumour was groundless.

Whilst Boito had reduced Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ by six-sevenths, for Falstaff he reduced the 23 characters in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ to just ten in the opera. The vocal score does not designate primo or secondo for these characters, but it is clear that six carry the burden of the singing and the plot. The others require vocal competence in the idiom if the reality of the comedy of ‘Falstaff’ is to be fully realised, none more so than in recordings. In Falstaff with the wit being in the words, Verdi caries the seamless musical style of Otello even further. There are almost no formal arias and no recitative, the melodic phrases being insistent to give an almost continuous melodic line; tunes come and go in the flash of a few bars, broken only for ensembles. In a letter to her sister Strepponi described it as a new combination of poetry and music.

Verdi composed the role of Falstaff with Victor Maurel in mind. However, the casting for any performance whilst being paramount might more accurately be considered merely primus inter pares. On record the early LP era was, as with Otello, dominated by a mono live performance conducted by Toscanini, then 84, with Giuseppe Valdengo in the title role (RCA 74321). Depending on your enthusiasm for the maestro it is hard driven or full of sparkle. What it certainly did was overshadow the Cetra recording under Rossi made in 1949 and with an all-Italian cast. Taddei as Falstaff has the ideal fruity tone for the role with the interplay of the others in their native language a thing to marvel at (Warner Fonit 8573 82710-2). Then along came EMI with one of, if not the, earliest, stereo recordings of opera. Featuring Tito Gobbi in the title role and Rolando Panerai as Ford it has been a dominant presence in the catalogue to the present day through many price bands. Currently it is available in the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series or at budget price without libretto (Review). Although Gobbi lacks the perfect Falstaff voice he is abundantly aware of every nuance and gives an outstanding interpretation. Apart from Schwarzkopf, who lacks some Italianata, the ladies articulate their laughter superbly with Barbieri’s low-toned reverenzas being rarely bettered. The young Anna Moffo and Luigi Alva are a fine pair of lovers. Next up were RCA in 1963. Conducted by Solti, with engineers on loan from Decca, and Welshman Geraint Evans in the title role matching Gobbi for nuance but with more colour to his tone, it was an immediate rival to Karajan. Robert Merrill is a strong voiced and characterful Ford and with Alfredo Krauss as a lyric and elegant Fenton, the male side could hardly be bettered. If the women do not quite match the men it is by a narrow margin with Freni as Nannetta, Ligabue a fine Alice and Simionato a fruity Quickly. Solti does not over-drive the orchestra in the Toscanini manner. This recording now available on Decca’s Classic Opera series with libretto, is an excellent audio choice (475 6677). Three years after Solti, Bernstein recorded a version based on performances in Vienna. As far as I am concerned, the casting of Fischer-Dieskau as the ultimate non-Italianate Falstaff puts this performance’s many virtues out of court. Nor do I find much virtue in Gabriel Bacquier’s Falstaff on Solti’s second recording of 1979 (Decca, nla) nor Karajan’s with an ageing Taddei recorded the following year (DG 447 686-2). Hardly had DG issued Karajan 2 when they recorded Giulini in a live performance from Los Angeles with Renato Bruson a vocally burnished and characterful Falstaff. This production was recorded for video at London’s Covent Garden and is better enjoyed in that format (see below). Colin Davis recorded his first version in 1992 for BMG. A colleague finds more virtues in the conducting and singing than I do (Review). Davis’s repeat on the LSO Live bargain label has only the virtue of price. Abbado and John Eliot Gardiner conduct the most recent recordings. Both lack Italianata, particularly important with the women and their fleeting chatter and laughter to Verdi’s rapidly moving melodic lines. Abbado with Bryn Terfel as the knight has the most to commend it. I think Terfel will bring more to the role of Falstaff with continuing stage experience (Review). Admirers of the period instrument approach may find enjoyment in John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with Jean Philippe Lafont as Falstaff and Hillevi Martinpelto as Alice. In Paris’s Chatelet theatre I found him unsteady and her unwieldy; they are a little better on record. I was lucky though that the Fenton was Jean Diego Florez far surpassing his counterpart on the recording. My personal audio shelves still favour Karajan with Gobbi and Solti with Evans.

On DVD for Falstaff there is good choice of production styles and recording dates. The earliest from 1956 is a black and white mono recording by Italian television. With Serafin on the rostrum and a wonderful Italian core cast of Taddei as Falstaff, Rosanna Carteri as Alice and Barbieri as Quickly, complemented by Luigi Alva and Anna Moffo as Fenton and Nannetta, it is a collector’s dream (Video Arts International VAIDVD4333). A 1976 performance from Glyndebourne is given in tasteful house style with Donald Gramm and Ben Luxon as Falstaff and Ford. The cast, Nucci Condo’s Quickly excepted, lack a degree of Italianata. There are some performance cuts (Arthaus 101 083). Italianata is also a quality lacking in the 1987 performance from Brussels under Cambreling in Luis Pasqual’s production. But it does not stop José van Dam portraying a warm-hearted aristocratic knight (Warner 5050467 4469-2-2). These productions do contrast sharply with Graham Vick’s over-coloured and overactive Covent Garden 1999 production with Bryn Terfel, conducted by Haitink (BBC Pioneer 1025). This somewhat wacky approach is increasingly typical of the modern producer. Luca Ronconi’s 2006 staging from Florence, conducted by Mehta, has it in a somewhat different way (Review). Perhaps the most traditional staging is that by Ronald Eyre prepared specifically for Giulini’s return to the opera pit in 1982 and performed in Los Angeles, London and Florence. Renato Bruson’s avuncular Falstaff has a twinkle in his eye to match his burnished tone in a very good all-round cast (Review). A more modern recording of a traditional production is that conducted by Muti from the tiny Teatro Verdi in Busseto. It was given in 2001 to mark the centenary of Verdi’s death in a replica of staging of that performed in the same theatre in 1913 conducted by Toscanini. The performance has the benefit of 16:9 format as well as Muti’s strict reading. The vocal size of Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff matches his physical dimensions, not that the later inhibits his acting or movements whilst the former is used to inform his verbal nuance and the variety of colour of his singing. The wives are well matched and Roberto Frontali is a strong Ford whilst Inva Mula and Juan Diego Florez are vocally mellifluent lovers. The impact of the production can only be faulted by the restricted stage size of the small Busseto theatre (TDK DV-OPFAL).

Verdi’s Falstaff, his final opera, ‘my little enjoyment’ as he called it, was all he could have hoped for and was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer ever was 80 years of age. It was a magnificent culmination to a great career. After the La Scala production of Falstaff Verdi went to Rome to supervise a staging there for which he made definitive alterations. In Rome he was made an Honorary Citizen after which the octogenarian composer returned home to rest. Everyone hoped that he and Boito might collaborate on another Shakespearean opera, and Boito actually suggested ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, which he had recently translated. Giuseppina warned Boito that Verdi was now too old and tired. He did compose ballet music for the Paris production of Otello and travelled to the city for the premiere in October 1894 after which he received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. After the festivities in Paris Verdi and his wife went to Genoa for the winter. His mind was now focused on the construction of The Casa di Riposo, the rest home for musicians, in Milan to which he appoi nted Boito’s elder brother the architect. The realisation of this project was to occupy him in his last years.

In the November 1897 Giuseppina contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 82. Verdi was desolated. A prima donna at the time of his first opera, she had first been his adviser as to fees, then in turn mistress, wife and companion. She not only loved Verdi but revered him too. But her understanding of him as an artist stands out as truly extraordinary. She never tried to influence the direction of his composition, tolerated her exclusion from his life during the creative process, his elation immediately after a premiere and the depression that followed. Giuseppina discounted the theatre rumours that surrounded Verdi’s relationship with Teresa Stoltz for a period, remaining a firm friend of the redoubtable soprano who sang Aida in the first Italian production and the soprano role in the premiere of the Requiem which she toured the work with the composer. She never doubted that his composing was the point on which all their life should focus, and for this the operatic world should be ever grateful. Her will concluded with the words Now, addio, mio Verdi. As we were united in life, may God rejoin our spirits in heaven. She was buried in Milan after which Verdi returned alone to Sant’ Agata.

Verdi was physically shaken by Strepponi’s death and complained that his hand trembled and his legs would not support him. He wrote to a friend I am not sick, but I am too old. Younger friends such as Boito, Stoltz and Ricordi visited him but all the friends of his generation who had lived the years of the Risorgimento and unification were dead. He was lonely and spent more time in Milan where he physically watched over the construction of the Casa di Riposio, knowing every detail even the costs of materials; through his constant attendance it became known locally as Casa Verdi. He also had to estimate the cost of endowing the foundation and how to endow it. After establishing it as a charitable foundation he bequeathed the building itself, Treasury Bonds, two hundred thousand lire and the Italian and foreign royalties from his operatic compositions. It exists to this day.

Verdi’s final compositions were the Te Deum and Stabat Mater referred to earlier. These, together with the Laudi alla Vergine Maria were premiered in Paris after Boito made the necessary arrangements. The Quattro pezzi sacri can be found as a single CD with Arleen Augér, backed by Swedish choral forces conducted by Muti (EMI 0777 747066 2). It also commonly appears as a double with the Requiem where two recordings stand out. John Eliot Gardiner’s uses a period instrument band (Philips 442 142-2), whilst the second, conducted by Mehta in 1970, is alongside a performance of the Requiem featuring Leontyne Price and Jussi Björling and conducted by Fritz Reiner in a Decca Legends double CD (467 111-2). A more recent DG recording has the Quattro pezzi sacri and other sacred works that Verdi composed conducted by Myung-Whun Chung with Carmela Remigio and the forces of Santa Cecilia, Rome (469 075-2).

On 21 January 1901 as he was dressing in his suite in the Grand Hotel in Milan Verdi suffered a stroke. He survived, unconscious until the early morning of 27 January when he died. In that period the hotel was draped in black and straw laid down in the streets to deaden the noise of traffic. As he stipulated he was laid to rest alongside his wife in the Milan municipal cemetery without music or singing. A month later both coffins were removed to the now completed Casa di Riposo on a specially built carriage and where they now lie. Two hundred thousand people lined the streets, wreaths arrived from all over the world and Royalty and members of the Italian Parliament followed the procession. Arturo Toscanini conducted a choir of eight hundred in a rendition of Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate from his Nabucco. So passed the greatest of all Italian composers whose works, together with those of Mozart, form the backbone of the repertoire of every opera house in the world. At least his genius and greatness were recognised in his lifetime. Viva Verdi!

Appendix. Collections of overtures, choruses and arias. Acknowledgements.

Probably the best place to start is with collections of overtures and preludes from various operas.

A two-disc collection with Karajan conducting the Berlin Phil has nineteen at mid-price (453 058-2). On the same label and with the same orchestra is a single disc collection from Abbado featuring those overtures that appear regularly in orchestral concert programmes, such as Nabucco, Forza and I Vespri Siciliani, as well as six others (457 627-2). Both recordings are commendable. The most complete collection, and one of the most recommendable ones, is that recorded by Chandos and conducted by Sir Edward Downes, one of the most reliable of all Verdi conductors. The four-disc collection was issued at mid-price in 2001 for the anniversary of Verdi’s death. It also includes the ballet music composed for various operas for performance in Paris at The Opéra (Review). The discs are available separately. Also worthy of consideration at mid-price is a collection of overtures and ballet music conducted by Riccardo Chailly with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a superb session band, recorded in top rank Decca Digital sound (Decca 448 238-2). There are excellent collections of popular choruses from Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony and Chorus (Decca 430 226-2). But, if you, like me believe the sound of an Italian chorus has that particular squilla, then the La Scala forces appear under Muti on EMI’s Red Line label is a strong favourite (7243 569846-20).

The record companies have recognised the popularity of Verdi with collections of arias by individual singers as well as general compilations. Sometimes these have been purpose-made whilst other collections are taken from singer’s recordings of complete operas. In respect of sopranos, and although I have not harked back to historical issues in this conspectus, one of the greatest was Rosa Ponselle. Naxos have her singing Verdi in a Ward Marston re-mastering from a variety of 78rpm sources (Review). Zinka Milanov, a widely recognised Verdi interpreter succeeded Ponselle as reigning diva at the met in the 1940s and 50s. A Nimbus collection shows off her skills albeit she is caught a little past her prime (Review). Milanov was in turn succeeded at the Met by Leontyne Price one of the greatest of Verdi spinto sopranos of the latter half of the 20th century. She recorded mainly for RCA who issued a compilation disc of Verdi arias ( RD 87016) and a collection of Verdi and Puccini duets with Placido Domingo, both from her complete recordings (09026 61634 2). An earlier CD from LPs made early in her career is shared between Verdi and Puccini but is rather short measure (Review) In my review of a collection of Verdi arias by the Latvian dramatic soprano Inessa Galante I suggested she was a worthy successor to Milanov. Her singing and characterisation is of a high quality (Review). Angela Gheorghiu is a more lyrical voiced soprano. Her recording of arias from nine Verdi operas, including extended extracts from Don Carlo and Otello under Chailly’s baton, is another firm recommendation (Review). Gheorghiu shares a duet disc entitled Verdi per due with her husband Roberto Alagna conducted by Abbado. The conductor persuades the tenor into some more shapely singing of the composer’s works than is often the case with him (EMI 7243 5 56656 2). As far as I am aware neither Renata Tebaldi nor Montserrat Caballé have discs devoted solely to Verdi although both were distinguished interpreters of his music. A two disc Decca issue entitled La Tebaldi has eight Verdi items among its twenty four (430 481-2) whilst Caballé’s admired Verdi Rarities LP collection of eight of the composer’s lesser known operas is now included in a double CD from RCA (GD 60941). An EMI collection taken from operas Caballé recorded for that company shares her Verdi with Bellini (7243 574558 2). Somewhat less distinguished, but worthwhile is a Sony CD in their Essential Classics Series that features two very different divas, the dramatic Renato Scotto and light coloratura of Ileana Cotrubas, singing arias from nine Verdi operas (SBK 67 180).

Verdi wrote equally well for tenors as for sopranos, a fact recognised by the singers themselves as well as by the various record companies. Philips issued a box set of Carlo Bergonzi, that prince of Verdi tenors, singing thirty-one arias. Some were taken from complete sets and illustrate his evenly produced tone, near faultless phrasing and sense of Verdian style. Others were recorded later, specifically to complete the collection, and find the tenor a little past his considerable best. (Philips 432 486-2). Deutsche Grammophon did a similar thing with Placido Domingo with a trawl of the tenor arias from all twenty-eight of the composer’s operas. Spread over four CDs and with 303 minutes of music it is the most comprehensive collection of the composer’s writing for the tenor voice (471 335-2). A colleague reviews a single CD selection of fourteen items from this collection. An RCA collection titled Domingo Verdi Heroes has seventeen extracts from recordings made early in his career for RCA including from his first recorded Otello (09026 68446 2). Bergonzi can be heard at his best in a double CD issue from Decca titled Carlo Bergonzi. The sublime voice. No fewer than twenty-three of the forty items are from Verdi opera recordings set down when the tenor was in prime voice (467 023-2). Decca also issued a collection by Pavarotti from recordings made in his prime in the late 1960s and 1970s when his well-supported open-toned voice was at its best (417 750-2). A most interesting recording has Pavarotti away from his contracted company in disc titled Pavarotti Premieres. The eight tracks claim first recordings of six alternative arias Verdi composed for specific singers in performances of Ernani, Attila, I Due Foscari and I Vespri Siciliani plus the rarely heard Aida overture and Simon Boccanegra prelude. Claudio Abbado is the tasteful conductor (CBS MK 37228). Of more recent tenors to aspire to the crown of the three already mentioned, Ramon Vargas (RCA 74321 79603-2) has a better sense of Verdian style than Roberto Alagna (Review). However, neither singer is in the same league as his illustrious predecessors.

Scarcity of dedicated Verdi collections from the lower register voices reflects the market. One recent dedicated Verdi CD, specifically recorded as distinct from being derived from complete recordings, features the American baritone Thomas Hampson. Not the first name you might think of in Verdi, but his fine legato and well-covered tone contributes to a worthwhile collection of eleven tracks with only two from the best known of Verdi operas, the remaining ones being from the composer’s lesser-known early works (EMI CDC5 57113-2). No more natural Verdian baritone than Tito Gobbi graced the stage from the 1940s into the early 1970s. A two-disc set entitled The Very Best of Tito Gobbi has the whole of the second disc devoted to the great baritone singing arias from ten Verdi operas (7243 5 85096 2). During a similar period as Gobbi the smoother-toned American Robert Merrill, who contributed to many RCA and Decca recordings was also active on stage, mainly at The Met, and in recordings. There was constant debate among opera cognoscenti as to their relative merits. A CD in Decca’s Classic Recitals series, derived from an LP album of 1963, has him singing six arias from five Verdi operas in a rather sparsely timed CD (475 396-2). Another famous American Verdi interpreter in the theatre and on record was Sherrill Milnes. In the 1970s he recorded Verdi operas for several record companies. A collection in Decca’s Grandi Voci series includes eight tracks of Verdi among the fifteen on the disc (443 929-2).

Verdi’s writing for the basso cantante voice as priest, king or implacable foe is among his finest creations. The Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff was unparalleled in his portrayal of Philip in Don Carlo. He recorded the soliloquy Ella giammai mamo in 1949 for issue on 78rpm shellac as well as recording the role complete alongside Gobbi five years later. Christoff’s recordings of seven of Verdi’s great arias for the bass voice are available on EMI Références series titled Italian Opera Arias devoted to the great bass (CDM 7 69549 2). His compatriot, Nicolai Ghiaurov, mainly recorded for Decca but his Verdi seems to be spread over several compilations. By comparison EMI did issue a disc titled Airs d’opéras Italiens featuring Ruggero Raimondi with all but one of the eight tracks devoted to Verdi (CDM 7 69549 2). The American Sam Ramey, a bass favoured by various recording companies, has five of Verdi’s bass arias included in his EMI Airs d’Opéras CD (CDC 7 49582 2). Once thought of as the successor to Christoff and Ghiaurov, the Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze made an impressive CD in London in 1984 that features four Verdi arias among its eight tracks. His dark voice is steady and sonorous if a little glottal in production. Regrettably the singer failed to fulfil the potential this disc foretold which does not detract from its virtues. Edward Downes is the idiomatic conductor (Decca 414 335-2).

I am not aware of any discs devoted to mezzos singing the various arias Verdi wrote for that register in Ballo in Maschera, Forza del Destino, Don Carlo and Aida. Some are to be heard in two excellent double CD compilations prepared for the Verdi anniversary in 2001. The first from DG, titled The Force of Destiny has 42 tracks taken from their extensive catalogue of recorded opera. It has a well-balanced programme of arias and choruses. Its only fault is that the items have neither chronological nor thematic cohesion; enjoyable nonetheless. Decca’s offering entitled Viva Verdi A 100th Anniversary Celebration came complete with biographical detail of the great composer and a synopsis of each of his operas to go alongside at least one item from each. The selections are drawn from the Decca, Philips and DG catalogue and are excellent in quality of recording and performance. The double disc selection concludes with the Requiem aeternam, Kyrie with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti and Martti Talvela conducted by Solti. A very fitting finish to a well-titled and presented celebration of Verdi’s anniversary. A DVD of a concert conducted by Abbado in the Berlin Philharmonie on 31 December 2000, the eve of the Verdi anniversary, has scenes and arias from five operas and is a very fitting finale to this survey (Review).


In preparing this conspectus I have been indebted to the following sources:-

  1. The Operas of Verdi. Julian Budden. Three Volumes. Cassell 1973, 1978 and 1981
  2. Verdi. The Master Musicians Series. Julian Budden. Dent 1985
  3. Verdi. His Music, Life and Times. George Martin. Macmillan 1965
  4. The Complete Operas of Verdi. Charles Osborne. Pan 1969
  5. Verdi, A life in the Theatre. Charles Osborne. Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1987
  6. Verdi and His Operas. New Grove Composers Series. Roger Parker edited Stanley Sadie. Macmillan Reference 2000
  7. Divas and Scholars. Performing Italian Opera. Philip Gossett. University of Chicago 2006.
  8. Innumerable CD booklet and sleeve-notes

Robert J Farr (July 2007)


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