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Plácido Domingo - Live
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen (1875)
Elena Obraztsova (mezzo) – Carmen; Plácido Domingo (tenor) – Don José; Yuri Mazurok (baritone) – Escamillo; Isobel Buchanan (soprano) – Micaëla; Cheryl Kanfoush (soprano) – Frasquita; Axelle Gall (mezzo) – Mercédčs; Kurt Rydl (bass) – Zuniga; Hans Helm (baritone) – Moralčs; Heinz Zednik (tenor) – Remendado; Paul Wolfrum (baritone) – Dancaďre; Chor der Wiener Staatsoper; Die Wiener Sängerknaben; Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper; Bühnenorchester & Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Carlos Kleiber
Directed for Stage and TV by Franco Zeffirelli; Sets by Franco Zeffirelli; Costumes: Leo Bei; Choreography: Rafael de Cordova
rec. live at the Wiener Staatsoper, 9 December 1978
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo; Picture Format: 4:3 PAL
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Fedora (1898)
Mirella Freni (soprano) – Princess Fedora Romanov; Adelina Scarabelli (soprano) – Countess Olga Sukarev; Plácido Domingo (tenor) – Count Loris Ipanov; Alessandro Corbelli (baritone) – De Siriex, diplomat; Silvia Mazzoni (contralto) – Dimitri; Ernesto Gavazzi (tenor) – Desiré; Aldo Bottoni (tenor) – Baron  Rouvel; Luigi Rono (baritone) – Cirillo, coachman; Alfredo Giacomotti (bass) – Gretch, police officer and others; Coro & Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
Directed for Stage and TV by Lamberto Puggelli; Set & Costume Design: Luida Spinatelli
rec. live at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, May 1993
Sound Format: DD 5.1; DTS 5.1; LPCM STEREO; Picture Format: 4:3 NTCS
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il trovatore (1853)
Piero Cappuccilli (baritone) – Il Conte di Luna; Raina Kabaivanska (soprano) – Leonora; Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo) – Azucena; Plácido Domingo (tenor) – Manrico; José van Dam (bass) – Ferrando; Maria Venuti (soprano) – Ines; Heinz Zednik (tenor) – Ruiz; Karl Caslavsky (bass) – An old gypsy; Ewald Aichberger (tenor) – A messenger; Chor & Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Herbert von Karajan
Directed for Stage by Herbert von Karajan; Adapted for TV by Günther Schneider-Siemssen; Sets: Teo Otto; Costumes: Georges Wakhevitch; Lighting: Robert Stangl
rec. live at the Wiener Staatsoper, 1 May 1978
Sound Format: DD 5.1; DTS 5.1; LPCM STEREO; Picture Format: 4:3 / PAL
TDK DV-CLOPIT (2 DVD) [151:00]


Experience Classicsonline

Two standard operas and a comparative rarity rub shoulders in this attractively priced box. At it costs around Ł54 while Carmen alone is priced around Ł40. The box focuses on Plácido Domingo but he is far from the only reason for acquiring the box. All three operas are starrily cast and are conducted by superstar maestros. What is also evident is the consistency in Domingo’s singing. Carmen and Il trovatore were both recorded in 1978, when he was not yet forty and at his freshest; Fedora, filmed in 1993 when he was past fifty and consequently at an age where tenors tend to be on the downhill, shows no discernible deterioration of the vocal resources. The first two of the operas are also deeply satisfying as total experiences, whereas Il trovatore is rather dull when it comes to direction and sets.

The supreme reading in all respects is the legendary Vienna State Opera production of Carmen from 9 December 1978 – the premiere performance of this meticulously prepared production. Here all the ingredients fit perfectly together as a jigsaw puzzle. The opening of the electrifying prelude was momentarily a bit disappointing due to the rather boxy sound but this was soon forgotten. Carlos Kleiber’s taut reading and the superb playing of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra had me sitting spellbound and never for a second did the thrill slacken. Everything is controlled to perfection – but not the kind of perfection that can become mechanical. Here everything is full of vibrating life.

Franco Zeffirelli’s sets, realistic and atmospheric, are ideally suited to Kleiber’s conducting: the same precision, a myriad interesting details and a constant ebb and flow of movement, pulsating with life. Contrary to many productions, where the people on stage seem to move about  just because somebody has told them to move about, there is a purpose behind the movement – and this is so throughout the performance. Morales and his soldiers are clearly curious about Micaëla when she appears and tangibly disappointed when she leaves, turning down their invitation to visit their barracks. The street-urchins – the Wiener Sängerknaben who have abandoned their sailor suits – are visibly enjoying their drill and all the gentlemen, who have flocked outside the cigarette factory to catch a glimpse of Carmen, are doing their best to attract her attention. Carmen herself, superbly personified by Elena Obraztsova, is more a smiling charmer than a seducer. The chaotic scene after the fight in the factory is exciting in its organized turmoil with the young Kurt Rydl a powerful and virile Zuniga.

The first act is wholly engrossing, and the second act is in no way inferior. After a gossamer like interlude we are exposed to Lillas Pastia’s tavern, softly lit in reddish light, like a painting by Brueghel. Obraztsova’s singing of the gypsy song is thrilling and she uses her chest register to imposing effect. It all ends in a dance orgy with whirling figures all over the stage. Likewise spectacular is the entrance of Escamillo and then, when the guests have left, the smugglers’ quintet is lustily executed at rollicking tempo. This number marks the transition from the public sphere to the personal: the long scene between Carmen and Don José which, through the appearance of Zuniga and his duel with Don José, forever changes the lives of both Carmen and José. When we reach the third act, after the beautiful flute solo in the interlude, Zeffirelli paints a chilly and darkly sombre rocky landscape with a full moon looming above the mountain ridge. The warmth and joy is gone and Frasquita’s and Mercedes’s attempt to enliven the atmosphere in the card scene falls flat when Carmen turns her cards and finds nothing but death.

The short final act is sun-drenched as it should and here the crowd is even denser than before and when the matador and his assistants arrive on horseback there is feast! But this is of course only the cheerful backdrop to the inevitable tragic end to the short but intense affair between Carmen and Don José. It is a heart-rending sight to observe Escamillo, who seconds before has won triumphs on the arena, coming out to find his beloved Carmen dead, slaughtered in the same way Escamillo slaughtered the bull.

Zeffirelli’s staging of this drama is a masterpiece from beginning to end and since he also directed the video production he could convey to the home viewers exactly the intentions behind the stage version. The opera is presented in the original opera-comique version with spoken dialogue, which adds extra insight in the proceedings compared to the Guiraud version with recitatives. One oddity is that the interlude before the last act is inserted in the act, after the opening choral scene, and performed as a ballet, which seems an excellent idea.

The singing is, fortunately, on the same high artistic level as the production at large. I have already mentioned Elena Obraztsova and she is superb from beginning to end. In fact this must be the best thing she ever did. She is also an excellent actor. Domingo in one of his greatest roles – he recorded it twice commercially, for Solti (Decca) and Abbado (DG) as well as taking part in Francesco Rosi’s 1984 film, conducted by Maazel – and though his consistency is miraculous I feel that this production surpasses the other three – if only with a hair’s breadth. Yuri Mazurok is a great Escamillo and Isobel Buchanan is possibly the loveliest Micaëla anywhere. The rest of the cast is also excellent. No one should miss the opportunity to see and hear this stupendous production.

Umberto Giordano is no doubt best known for Andrea Chenier, premiered in 1896, the same year as Puccini’s La bohčme. Fedora came two years later and the leading tenor role was sung at the premiere by the then practically unknown Enrico Caruso. It is also primarily through the tenor aria Amor ti vieta that the opera is remembered. Of his other operas Siberia and Madame Sans-Géne were fairly successful but are forgotten today. His Marcella from 1907 has been revived to celebrate its centenary. A recording of that occasion was released last year and reviewed by both my colleague Robert Hugill and myself and a DVD of the same production is due for review before long. Giordano’s inspiration flowed less constantly than Puccini’s, his melodic invention wasn’t as striking and there are not infrequent distances of transportation, even in Andrea Chenier, which admittedly contains several inspired arias for tenor, a good soprano aria and Gerard’s famous Nemico della patria.

Interestingly I found Fedora more to my liking musically, even though it took quite some time to rev up. But once the temperature in the relation between Princess Fedora and Count Loris started rising, so did the musical and dramatic temperature. It wasn’t until after Amor ti vieta, powerfully sung by Domingo, that Loris’s character started to emerge and after having initially found him more or less a stuffed shirt he became a true human being. As in the other two of Giordano’s operas that I have heard there is a long list of comprimario roles but even though they are essential for the story it is only, besides Fedora and Loris, Olga and De Siriex that really matter.

The sets are atmospheric and especially the wintery last act is beautifulVeteran conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, 84 at the time of recording, may not have been a high-voltage maestro in the Carlos Kleiber mould, but with his great experience – he had been conducting at La Scala since 1948 – he never let things down. He is shown en face in the pit on several occasions during the performance, slightly tired it seems but with a watchful eyes on his musicians.

But this opera stands and falls with the quality of the singing and acting from the main characters. Adelina Scarabelli is a mercurial Olga and sings her aria about the Parisian man with obvious relish. Alessandro Corbelli is an expressive De Siriex and sings La donna Russa with the right swagger. In some of the lesser roles Luigi Rono has a fine solo in the interrogation scene and Alfredo Giacomotti is a good police officer.

Mirella Freni was approaching sixty at the time and there is a widening of vibrato compared to what she sounded like in the 60s and 70s and 80s, but not disturbingly so and she is superb in the ‘letter scene’, which is accompanied by a highly evocative orchestra with reminiscences from Loris’s Amor ti vieta. Her final monologue, just before she dies, is enormously touching. In duet she and Domingo match each other to perfection, having appeared together so many times. There is by the way an interesting scene between the two while in the background a pianist is entertaining the other guests and his playing becomes the sole accompaniment to their singing.

The Karajan-conducted and directed Il trovatore from Vienna offers excellent singing from all the principals and, the opera being one of the maestro’s favourites, it is also musically and dramatically coherent – as much as the quirky libretto allows. Visually it is however a disappointment. The Zeffirelli-Kleiber Carmen oozes life; this Trovatore is very much the opposite: static, dull scenery, little interaction or action between the characters. One gets the feeling that the soloists were left to themselves to decide what to do and how to do it. Raina Kabaivanska, one of the most expressive of singers in her generation, sings her Tacea la notte practically immovably, only making an occasional gesture – mostly stretched out arms in a very old-fashioned manner. Interestingly, against all the rules, she runs in on-stage again after the cabaletta to acknowledge the applause! The trio that rounds off act I is one of the most heated moments in this opera but visually it is cool and distanced: Manrico, Luna and Leonora look like participants in a garden party, embedded in greenery. No, visually this is not much better than a concert performance.

There are other scenes that are better. The gypsy camp, opening with the famous anvil chorus, has life and movement, the sky is darkly foreboding and windswept and the blacksmiths are really forging with sparks flying from the anvil. The scene with Manrico and Azucena is also a highlight, visually as well as musically with both Domingo and Cossotto on top form. There are ups and downs in the direction in the remaining two acts as well and eventually it emerges as a decent but far from exhilarating production.

Vocally it is a different matter. Caruso once said all Il trovatore needed to succeed was the four greatest voices in the world. Here we have five of the greatest singers from the 1970s, all of them in good shape. The fifth singer is the first to be heard: José van Dam as Ferrando. Besides his long narrative in the first scene he has little else to sing but he makes his mark to great effect with dark steady tone, expressivity and dramatic conviction. Piero Cappuccilli was at the time the leading Verdi baritone, challenged possibly only by Sherrill Milnes. He may not have had such a fine instrument as Robert Merrill or Ettore Bastianini from the generation before but his superb breath control, allowing him to sing the long unbroken phrases Verdi prescribes, and the steady tone makes him a very fine Count Luna. As for Domingo he was never quite the ‘King of High C’ that Decca labelled his colleague Luciano Pavarotti, but his other credentials made him an ideal Manrico – and his final C in Di quella pira is decent enough. Fiorenza Cossotto was the natural heir to Giulietta Simionato as the leading Italian mezzo-soprano and Azucena was one of her signature roles. She recorded it twice commercially, in the early 1960s under Tullio Serafin (DG) with a superb cast including Antonietta Stella, Carlo Bergonzi, Ettore Bastianini and her real life husband Ivo Vinco as Ferrando, and a handful of years later under Zubin Mehta (RCA) with Leontyne Price, Domingo (his first complete recording), Sherrill Milnes and Bonaldo Giaiotto. Both recordings comply with Caruso’s criteria and so does this DVD, which would have been even more recommendable had the production as a whole been more stimulating.

Bearing my reservations in mind no opera lover is likely to be seriously disappointed with this box and the phenomenal Carmen should be in every opera collection.

Göran Forsling


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