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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (Italian libretto by Bardare and Cammarano) (1853) [2.18.55]
Manrico - Franco Corelli (tenor)
Leonora - Mirella Parutto (soprano)
Il Conte di Luna - Ettore Bastianini (baritone)
Azucena - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo)
Ferrando - Agostino Ferrin (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera/de Fabritiis
rec. live, 1 October 1961, Theater des Westerns, Berlin
OPERA FANATIC OF5 [72.31 + 66.24]

 

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“Opera Fanatic” is the new label name for discs from the familiar Bel Canto Society, which specialises in issuing historical recordings and DVDs featuring such great tenors as Gigli, Del Monaco and, of course, Franco Corelli. Given that only minimal documentation is provided, I am pleased to see that the discs come in a slimline case rather than the clunky, shelf-filling box sets still favoured by too many record companies such as Gala.

Taped in Berlin in 1961 while the Rome Opera were on tour, the recording is sonically excellent, although there is more hiss than on the live Salzburg recording from the following year, the prompter is as omnipresent as Hamlet’s father’s ghost, and the thunderous applause is prolonged and intrusive – or enthusiastically atmospheric, depending on your attitude to live recording. The soprano’s top notes cause some flap and distortion but there’s not much coughing and we should not complain when a performance from almost fifty years ago has been preserved in such clear and immediate sound. I am sure, however, that Ward Marston or Mark Obert-Thorn could eliminate that hissing.

My comparisons with both live and studio recordings from around the same time reveal that although Barbieri is still a tower of strength, the voice is less flexible and more inclined to scoop than was the case in either the 1952 Cellini set or with Karajan and Callas in 1955. The years have taken some of the tautness out of the sound, the vibrato has loosened and the top is less easy. Indeed, she avoids altogether the B-flat in her Act II narrative "Condotta ell’era in ceppi" but does take the top B-flat right at the end of the opera. Similarly, Bastianini, although still in fine, saturnine voice, sounds a little hoarse and has less amplitude of breath than in either the live Karajan performance in Salzburg or the even better studio recording with Serafin and Bergonzi, both recorded in the same month in 1962, shortly before Bastianini’s throat cancer began to render his voice unpredictable. Agostino Ferrin pins back our ears appropriately at the beginning and delivers a fine, focused Ferrando. Corelli is … well, Corelli. In all three of the recordings I compared. I’m not sure that there is much in his performance to distinguish one from another; he was a very consistent and self-critical artist and could, as voice teacher Douglas Stanley used to say of Melchior, always be relied upon to make the same mistakes twice. Having said that, most of us are happier with Corelli’s faults than most other tenors’ virtues and Corelli gives his all here in Berlin. He sets out his stall early on by absurdly prolonging his first top B-flat when Manrico declares his love and from then on loses no opportunity to grandstand. It’s a thrilling ride even if we are not always exactly aboard Verdi’s wagon, and there are moments of great tenderness in Corelli’s characterisation of Manrico, especially in his exchanges with Azucena – all the more remarkable for the fact that he and Barbieri were not on speaking terms since an incident in February 1960 in Naples, when Corelli ran up to a box to take a swing at a one-man claque, allegedly paid by Barbieri to demand that she take an unaccompanied bow after her second act duet with Corelli. However he felt about her off-stage, “Coscia d’Oro” (or “Golden Thighs”, as Barbieri memorably nicknamed him) did not let that show in his relationship with his onstage mother. It is slightly disappointing that Corelli invariably chose to transpose “Di Quella Pira” down a semi-tone in live performances, especially as he nails it in the studio recording and always took the D-flat with the soprano at the end of Act 1. He goes over the top in Act IV when he supposes that Leonora has sold herself to di Luna and he takes the usual liberties with note values - but these are mere details set against the poetry and fire of his performance as a whole. His “Ah! Sì, ben mio” is especially impressive: huge-breathed, with beautifully controlled diminuendi, ample of tone, and full of desperate sentiment.

The biggest drawback to this recording is the somewhat laboured performance of Mirella Parutto as Leonora. She has a big – very big – ungainly spinto soprano which tends to flatness at the top - but she almost covers Corelli with her D-flat at the end of Act 1. She struggles with the coloratura required in the cavatina of “Tacea la notte” and in “D’amor sull’ali rosee”. At times she manages a sincerity of utterance, even if it is in a kind of all-purpose mode, and does some truly lovely things, such as the controlled crescendo on “Primo che d’altri vivere” just before her death, but she is clearly battling with this demanding role, and cannot compare with the sopranos in the recordings I mention above. She is perhaps typical of a kind of second-rank soprano in more plentiful supply at that time for which we would be more grateful today. Apparently she changed tessitura to mezzo-soprano in 1965 and had a reasonably successful career.

This is a good chance to hear that rare thing: an authentic performance of the ultimate Italian opera, sung by all-Italian cast wholly immersed in Verdian tradition, under an able and unobtrusive conductor who understands the idiom and never lets the tension flag. There is the occasional disjuncture between singers and pit that you might expect in a live performance, but nothing serious. This is unlikely to be your only “Trovatore”; on balance, if you want Corelli the 1965 Schippers studio recording is the best bet and I still think that the live Salzburg performance is, overall, superior to this one, especially with regard to the soprano – but it makes a wonderful supplement, and a souvenir of Corelli at his energised best.

Ralph Moore






 


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