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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1852) [127:37]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Leonora
Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor) – Manrico
Rolando Panerai (baritone) – Conte di Luna
Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) – Azucena
Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Ferrando
Luisa Villa (soprano) – Ines
Renato Ercolani (tenor) – Ruiz
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Herbert von Karajan
rec. La Scala, 1956, mono. ADD
ALTO ALC2004 [66:44 + 60:53]
Experience Classicsonline

For the performances of the principals and the conductor this recording has become justly famous. It captures the legendary - and all too rare - pairing of Callas and Karajan and, while it has its flaws, it is just as compelling to hear now as it must have been in 1956. The performance itself has been frequently commented on, and there are at least three reviews of it - in varying forms - on this site alone so I don’t intend to comment on the performances. The most interesting thing about this release must be the quality of the transfers and the reissue on the Alto label. I’m sorry to report that it is a big disappointment.
I haven’t come across Alto before, though from their packaging it looks as though they have something in common with the Regis group. They have joined the large – too large? - group of labels who have made it their business to reissue recordings whose 50-year copyright has now expired in the UK and Europe. Naxos has been the most successful of these, and EMI have also got in on the game by reissuing their own recordings under the EMI Historical label. To be quite frank I’m not sure why Alto bothered. This performance has already been reissued as an EMI Great Recording of the Century (mid-price), on EMI Historical and on Naxos (both budget price) so it’s not as if they’re getting in on a gap in the market.
The transfer is notably unsuccessful. The hiss is apparent from the very outset, an unforgivable flaw considering that EMI have completely eliminated it from their issue of this set. That puts all of the voices at an additional distance and at times relegates the orchestra almost to the next room! Furthermore it increases the mild distortion that had already been present in this set, but which EMI and Naxos had done so much to reduce. The (unwritten) top notes at the end of Act I are unbearable and at big choral climaxes - notably the Anvil Chorus of Act II - the clang is intrusive rather than atmospheric.
Alto have done nothing to illuminate this classic set and have in fact clouded it in sound even less appealing than it already had. Even the packaging is unappealing: the front cover looks like a very unattractive example of CGI-gone-wrong, with di Stefano’s head unconvincingly superimposed on the body of a much younger and more athletic sword-wielding troubadour. No: avoid this issue. If you want this fantastic performance at budget price then pick it up on EMI Historical and be thankful that the copyright is only 50 years!
Simon Thompson


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