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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Luisa Miller (1849)
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) – Rodolfo; Gilda Cruz Romo (soprano) – Luisa; Raffaele Arié (bass) – Il Conte di Walter; Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass) – Wurm; Matteo Manuguerra (baritone) – Miller; Cristina Angelakova (mezzo) – Federica; Anna Di Stasio (mezzo) – Laura; Walter Artioli (tenor) – Un Contadino;
Coro RAI di Torino, Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Torino/Peter Maag
rec. live, Auditorium RAI, Torino, Italy, 6 December 1974
libretto in Italian included
ARTS ARCHIVES 43088-2 [57:07 + 79:40]

Luisa Miller nominally belongs to Verdi’s first period – his galley years, as he used to call that era. Even so there is quite a lot that makes the work stand high among the rest of his youthful efforts. While in the rest of his early production, often composed in haste due to tight deadlines, he is indebted to his predecessors Bellini and Donizetti, he finds a voice all his own in Macbeth and Luisa Miller.
Based on Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, the libretto was heavily reconstructed by Cammarano. The similarities between the two are rather fleeting, but it is a good text, much better suited to musical setting than Schiller’s more sprawling drama. After a row of operas with aristocratic settings Luisa Miller deals more with ‘common people’. In that respect it points forward to La traviata. Musically he also wanders new paths. There are echoes of Bellini: the overture has a pastoral quality and the opening scene – in a way harking back to La sonnambula – is decidedly Bellinian. The same goes for the most famous aria, the tenor’s Quando le sere placido at the end of act 2. But the duet for two basses earlier in that act is a premonition of Don Carlo - the scene with Philip and the Inquisitor. The quartet that follows, though far from being as taut and memorable as the corresponding quartet in Rigoletto, is still interesting, not least because it is partly sung a cappella. And the last act has something of the mature operas, where the last pages of the drama unfold logically and inevitably with no longueurs. Charles Osborne memorably writes in his The Complete Operas of Verdi that Luisa Miller is ‘an important transitional work, marking both the end of Verdi’s first period and the beginning of his second. The change can almost be said to occur between Acts II and III …”
The opera is a good one, both musically and dramatically, but it took a long time before it was established on the international stage. It can hardly be regarded as a true standard work even today. Complete recordings have been sparse and apart from the Cetra set from 1951 with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo, we had to wait until the late 1960s for a starry cast RCA set conducted by Fausto Cleva and with Anna Moffo, Shirley Verrett, Carlo Bergonzi, Cornell MacNeil, Ezio Flagello and Giorgio Tozzi. This has been my sole recording, even though I have heard parts of some later efforts as well. Decca recorded it in the mid-1970s – the year after the present live recording – with Peter Maag and Luciano Pavarotti, as here, and with Montserrat Caballé, Sherrill Milnes and Bonaldo Giaiotti. A few years later DG also added it to their catalogue with Maazel, Ricciarelli, Domingo, Bruson and Gwynne Howell. In the early 1990s Sony set it down with Levine conducting and Aprile Millo and Placido Domingo among the soloists.
The recording under consideration emanates from a broadcast from the Italian Radio (RAI). It was recorded in RAI’s Auditorium, that is under studio conditions, but with an audience present. Reactions from this audience are only heard at the end of acts through rather distant applause. In many ways this method is to get the best of two worlds: the quality of the sound in a venue where the technicians know exactly how to achieve optimal results, no stage noises but that extra inspiration brought about by performing before an audience.
The stereo sound is excellent with depth and impressive dynamics. The orchestra, presumably positioned on the stage behind the soloists, has tremendous power and was obviously in splendid shape, and so was the chorus. After some twiddling with the knobs I found a volume setting that allowed me to hear the singers well but then I was close to being deafened by the orchestral fortissimos. I suppose that this is less of a problem in a larger listening venue.
Peter Maag regularly conducted the RAI Orchestra in Torino. From the outset of this performance it is his firm hand that rules the proceedings. In fact this recording is nothing less than an unqualified triumph for Maag. He keeps brisk but over-brisk tempos but first and foremost he has a keen ear for the dramatic situation, underlines important phrases in the score and knows exactly when to hold back and when to push forward. It’s no wonder that Decca chose him for their studio recording the next year. The RCA recording has a lot to offer too and Fausto Cleva was an experienced conductor but his reading is more run-of-the-mill where Maag is always flexible and alert. For the conducting alone this is a set well worth buying.
But there are lots of other merits as well. Luciano Pavarotti had sung his first Rodolfo just a month earlier in San Francisco and one can hear that his approach is still fresh. In 1974 he was still a mainly lyrical singer, which suits this role with its Bellinian echo. He is extraordinarily sensitive to nuance and also deeply involved and acts more readily with the voice than in almost any other recorded role I can recall. He is also ardent in the typical Pavarotti manner and whether one likes this or not is a matter of personal taste. I prefer Bergonzi’s more consummate style but I have to repeat that I was deeply impressed by Pavarotti.
If Pavarotti is a well-known quantity the Mexican soprano Gilda Cruz Romo is probably unknown to a majority of readers. I can’t recall seeing her name in connection with any commercial recordings. On this evidence her neglect seems a mystery but obviously she wasn’t very successful after this first appearance in Italy. Here though she steps forward as the answer to an operatic world searching for a worthy successor of Tebaldi in the lirico spinto stakes. Not only does she have brilliance and power when needed but she is also technically accomplished and negotiates the runs and embellishments of the part effortlessly. Even more important, she has the ability to lighten the voice and since large parts of the role are lyrical this is an essential quality. This is sensitive singing of the highest order. Certainly one of the greatest finds for a long time. A pity that she couldn’t fulfil the promises.
Among Verdian baritones of the period Cappuccilli, Milnes, Bruson and Zancanaro – not to forget Wixell – will be long remembered. The question is if any of them was as brilliant as Matteo Manuguerra. His high, bright and incisive voice seems tailor-made for roles like Rigoletto, Count Luna, Posa and a number of others. Born in 1924 he didn’t start taking singing lessons until he was 35 and he had a career primarily in France for some years. Not until 1971 was he really recognized internationally after his debut at the Met and when the present recording was made he was already 50. It is hard to believe, considering his youthful timbre and his vivid delivery. His only problem in this role is that he sounds so young - Miller is supposed to be an old man. In that respect Cornell MacNeil on my RCA set is more in tune with the role. But Manuguerra’s reading is otherwise superb and the act 3 duet with Luisa Andrem, raminghi e poveri includes some of the best baritone-soprano singing to be heard.
Another veteran, Raffaele Arié, who took part in a number of complete recordings in the 1950s – Lucia di Lammermoor with Callas to mention one – sounds warmer and more lyrical more than twenty years later. He brings fine nuances in Walter’s aria Il mio sangue – a true basso cantante though slightly strained at the top. Ferruccio Mazzoli’s evil Wurm also shows some strain but he is expressive. Cristina Angelakova in the small but important role as Federica is vibrant and sensitive but slightly elderly sounding. Anna Di Stasio, well-known comprimario singer on loads of complete sets, is a good Laura and might have been preferable as Federica.
I would be unwilling to part with my 40-year-old RCA set, with Anna Moffo in one of her best recordings. Best remember though that her voice wasn’t large enough to allow her to sing the role in the theatre. The RCA also has the unsurpassable Bergonzi as Rodolfo and a good supporting cast. Having listened to a couple of excerpts from Maag’s ‘official’ Decca recording I feel that this is possibly the studio set to have. That said, but no one with a genuine interest in good Verdi singing – and conducting! – should miss this excellent live set. It’s in superlative stereo sound. There is even a libretto in the booklet but unfortunately no translations.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Robert J Farr
(October 2007 Recording of the Month) 


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