This CD is, as the sub-title indicates, a compilation of famous operatic duets. One might have been forgiven for thinking that this was yet another collection of the supposedly best moments in opera. You know: the same old things - the ones usually present in almost every other CD of its type. I confess that these were my exact thoughts when I received it. These were strengthened when I read the main title “Pearl Fishers Duet”, arguably the most famous operatic duet. Undoubtedly this was the reason why it was chosen as the name for the compilation. However, I am pleased to confess that these initial unfavourable impressions proved completely wrong!
This anthology differs from the norm for two reasons. Firstly, it concentrates on duets between male characters sharing feelings of mutual friendship, loss, hatred or purpose. Secondly it brings us extracts of precious recording gems from the past. One has only to read the names of some of the singers featured, not to mention the orchestras and conductors, to realise that one might be in for a treat and this is mostly the case.
The pieces featured are generally very agreeable. This is definitely a commendable initiative, as it offers recordings that are true collectors’ items. There is a certain predominance of Verdi, which to my mind is good news but precious little bel canto from the first half of the 19th century. This is a bit of a let-down. There is only one piece by Bellini, another by Donizetti and none by Rossini, the latter an omission that annoyed me; even more so because there is an unpardonable error in the booklet index: The entries for Verdi’s operas Don Carlo and La forza del destino (tracks 8 and 9) are mistakenly attributed to Rossini! Fortunately, the CD back cover is correct. I would like to have seen more bel canto and less Puccini, however taste is subjective and potential buyers are welcome to disagree.
The disc begins with Bizet’s celebrated duet from Les pêcheurs de perles in a 1992 recording by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, led by Charles Dutoit and sung by Gregory Cross as Nadir and Gino Quilico as Zurga. It is a very clear, deeply felt and beautiful interpretation. That said, I still prefer the version by the great Alfredo Kraus and American baritone Barry McDaniel in a concert from 1970, of which one can enjoy some extracts on YouTube. Kraus’s unmistakably graceful, crystalline tone, contrasts beautifully with the colourful, rich sound of McDaniel, transforming the duet in a deeply moving piece.
The second and third tracks of the disc, see Puccini’s first entry with a duet from La Bohème in a recording from 1959 with Ettore Bastianini and Carlo Bergonzi. Puccini is not one of my favourite opera composers and perhaps for this reason, I did not enjoy this piece or his second entry, from Madama Butterfly, also conducted by Serafin and sung by Bergonzi in a 1958 recording. Bearing in mind the original dates of the recordings, the sound is of excellent quality.
Track four is Bellini’s only entry but to me the first truly great moment in the album, with the fabulous duet Il rivar salvar tu dêi ... Suoni la tromba from his masterpiece I puritani. The version presented here was recorded in 1973 with Ghiaurov and Cappuccilli. It is a fantastic duet as beautiful as it is difficult to sing, vibrant and energetic. This recording does it full justice. Besides Bellini’s duet, the other “tour de force” here comes from the first of two extracts from Verdi’s Don Carlo. The piece is Ascolta! le porte dell’asil s’apron già, the famous friendship duet between Don Carlo and Rodrigo. It is supremely sung by no less than the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Rodrigo and the illustrious Carlo Bergonzi as Don Carlo. It was part of a performance at the Royal Opera House with its orchestra and chorus led by the great Georg Solti, recorded in 1965. As with the Bellini piece, this is one to be enjoyed over and over again.
The only other bel canto entry is Donizetti’s duet Ecco il magico liquore from L’elisir d’amore. It features José Carreras, at the peak of his powers, as Nemorino, and the fantastic Leo Nucci as Belcore. It is possibly the most famous duet here, alongside the one from Les pêcheurs de perles, and it is beautifully sung. It is not the best interpretation of this particular piece; however it is still delightful, and Carreras brings a rare freshness and innocence to the character of Nemorino.
Duets from Verdi’s operas La forza del destino, Luisa Miller and Otello complete the collection. The recordings of these two latter operas are very good and enjoyable, though they stirred little excitement. The two entries from La forza del destino, recorded in 1955, deserve special mention: the first is the duet Invano Alvaro that most listeners will quickly recognise because its central melodic tune was memorably used by Claude Berri as the theme of his two-part film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette; the second is the poignant Solenne in quest’ora. Each features the incomparable Mario Del Monaco as Alvaro and the distinguished Ettore Bastianini as Carlo. The singing is superb, with the right level of dramatic expression and intense sentiment in what is a truly excellent performance.
The notes are accessible, easy reading yet informative but appear solely in English. Sadly, there are full listings of the pieces but no texts to accompany them, which to my mind often enhances the enjoyment of listening to opera.
I am not a great fan of compilations or anthologies and I tend to prefer the depth of the full work rather than highlights! After all, one doesn’t watch only the best scenes of a film or read only the most exciting chapters in a novel: The whole piece and its context are essential to understanding and full enjoyment. Having said all that, this particular compilation delighted me. It has some of the most beautiful operatic duets for male characters. Perhaps most importantly, it brings to one’s attention recordings of excellent quality, featuring some of the great names of the past. We tend to forget these names too easily nowadays in a society dominated by the celebrity media frenzy.
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I puritani (1834-35) - Il rivar salvar tu dei...Suoni la tromba [12.48]
Nicolai Ghiaurov (Giorgio); Piero Cappuccilli (Riccardo)
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Les Pecheurs de perles (1863) - C'est toi...Au fond du temple saint [7.29]
Gregory Cross (Nadir); Gino Quilico (Zurga)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/Charles Dutoit
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
L'Elisir d'amore (1832) - Ardir! Ha forse il cielo...Ecco il magico liquore...Va; mortale fortunate [7.51]
José Carreras (Nemorino); Leo Nucci (Belcore)
Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI di Torino/Claudio Scimone
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (1893) - In un coupe?...O Mim; tu piu non torni [7.00]
Ettore Bastianini (Marcello); Carlo Bergonzi (Rodolfo); Renato Cesari (Schaunard); Cesare Siepi (Colline)
Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecília; Roma/Tullio Serafin
Madama Butterfly (1901-03) - America for ever...Ier l'altro; il Consolato sen' venne a visitor [4.54]
Carlo Bergonzi (B.F. Pinkerton); Enzo Sordello (Sharpless)
Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecília; Roma/Tullio Serafin
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino (1861) - Invano Alvaro...Le minaccie; I fieri accenti; Solenne in quest'ora [8.26]
Mario Del Monaco (Alvaro); Ettore Bastianini (Carlo)
Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecília; Roma/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
Don Carlo (1866-67) - Ascolta! Le porte dell'asil s'apron già...Dio; che nell'alma infondere [5.33]
Carlo Bergonzi (Don Carlo); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Rodrigo); Tugomir Franc (Friar)
Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Sir Georg Solti
Il Grande Inquisitore!...Son io dinanzi al Re? [9.16]
Nicolai Ghiaurov (Fillippo); Martti Talvela (Il Grande Inquisitore); Kenneth MacDonald (Il Conte di Lerma)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Sir Georg Solti
Luisa Miller (1849) - Egli delira ... L'alto retaggio [7.29]
Bonaldo Giaiotti (Walter); Richard van Allan (Wurm)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Maag
Otello (1884-86) - Oh! Mostruosa colpa!...Si; pel ciel marmoreo giuro! [4.11]
Carlo Cossutta (Otello); Gabriel Bacquier (Iago)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti