This is a recording that I have admired immensely ever since
it was issued more than forty years ago. Strangely enough I have
never owned the records, due to the fact that it was available
at the local library and my financial situation wasn’t
exactly luminous. So for quite a number of years I borrowed the
set and played it at regular intervals. When the Muti set on
EMI was released a dozen years later, I decided to buy it but
even though there was a lot to admire I was rather disappointed
and played it only a couple of times. Some years ago I reviewed
a highlights disc from that set and my impression was confirmed.
Muti tries so hard to invest the work with as drama that the
effect becomes high-falutin. There is no lack of drama in Gardelli’s
reading and I have a feeling that he breathes the music more
the way Verdi intended. The playing of the Philharmonia for Muti
is superb and the Ambrosians thirty years ago were certainly
top of the trade but the Vienna State Opera Chorus with their
stage experience and with Gardelli’s safe hands at the
helm find an ebb and flow in the music that is even more convincing.
That most beloved opera chorus Va, pensiero
has been performed
and recorded innumerable times - I have at least two dozen versions
in my collection - but none has surpassed Gardelli’s. Throughout
the opera there is a natural flow in Gardelli’s reading
that still makes it irresistible.
Muti assembled a cast of highly experienced soloists and no one
can accuse Renata Scotto of ever being bland and unengaged. Hers
is a deeply penetrating reading of this devilishly testing role
and she sings with ferocious intensity. But even though by 1978
she had moved from the lyrical roles of her youth to the lirico-spinto
realm, Abigaille is a tough nut for even the best endowed sopranos.
Under pressure Scotto’s voice is often strained to the
limits and her vibrato comes close to a wobble. Elena Suliotis
was only twenty-two at the time of this recording and with hindsight
she should have been discouraged from such a voice-killer as
Abigaille. But when the records arrived she was The Sensation.
Fearless, whole-hearted, intense and with a voice that put practically
every other soprano at the time - bar Birgit Nilsson - into the
shade. She wasn’t the subtlest of singers but the world
hailed her as the natural heir to Maria Callas. She even surpassed
Callas in a couple of respects: steady tone and greater beauty.
Returning to her reading so many years later it is the same thrill
and the same astonishment that overcomes me. With all respect
for Scotto’s many positive qualities, in this case she
is only second best.
Decca’s other trump-card, Tito Gobbi, was less of a surprise.
We all had high expectations of his Babylonian King - and no
one is likely to have been disappointed. If Suliotis was under-aged
Gobbi could in all fairness have been regarded as over-aged.
His voice had shown strain for several years but during these
recording sessions he seemed rejuvenated - why not inspired by
his soprano partner. His timbre and ability to sing with face,
his histrionic skill - everything is in perfect order and of
the many unforgettable readings he committed to records this
is definitely one of the most remarkable. He is in extra fine
voice in the last act, where Dio di Giuda
shows him as
a true master-singer. In the previous act the long scene with
Abigaille is the vocal climax of the whole opera. When did we
hear so many sparks flying? This is one of the most electrifying
scenes ever recorded! Matteo Manuguerra for Muti was in several
respects the best reason for buying the EMI set but interpretatively
and at best he reaches to Gobbi at shoulder level.
The other roles are more or less secondary, but Zaccaria has
a lot to sing and his arias in this opera were the first in the
long row of solos for the deepest male voice in Verdi’s
oeuvre. Nicolai Ghiaurov sings the role for Muti and good though
he is he has lost a little of the ease and resonance that can
be heard on separate recordings of the same arias for Decca a
decade earlier. Carlo Cava may not have the international reputation
of Ghiaurov, but during the 1960s he was much in demand and took
part in several recordings, including two versions of Il barbiere
- Gui on EMI and Bartoletti on DG. With fine
rounded tone and excellent legato he contributes further to the
overall excellence of this set. Tu sul labbro
(CD 2 tr.
1) is an admirable calling-card. Bruno Prevedi sings Ismaele
with glorious tone; his counterpart for Muti, Veriano Luchetti,
is in the same class. Giovanni Foiani is a sonorous High Priest,
smoother than Robert Lloyd on the Muti set, and as Nabucco’s
daughter Fenena the rather unknown Dora Carral sings the beautiful
solo in the last act with feeling. Muti chose the dramatic Elena
Obraztsova for the role but there’s insuifficient contrast
with Abigaille and thus I prefer Carral.
Decca’s recordings in the 1960s were state-of-the-art and
this set, produced by Erik Smith and engineered by Gordon Parry
and James Brown, wears its years lightly, better in fact than
the much later Muti set.
Toye said that Nabucco
is the ‘most satisfactory
of all the early Verdi operas’. Not everyone will agree
has claims to be even better - but in so committed
and well sung a performance as Gardelli’s it stands out
as a great work. This recording should be in every Verdi-lover’s