Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1853)
Leonora – Maria Callas
The Count of Luna – Rolando Panerai
Azucena – Fedora Barbieri
Manrico – Giuseppe Di Stefano
Ferrando – Nicola Zaccaria
Ines – Luisa Villa
Ruiz and Messenger – Renato Ercolani
A gypsy – Giulio Mauri
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Herbert von Karajan
rec. August 1956, La Scala, Milan. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 6407732 [67:45 + 61:33 + CD-ROM]

The problem with the plot of Il Trovatore is not that it is implausible or risible, though it is certainly one of those, and arguably both, but that it turns on an event that has already taken place when the curtain rises. Those not in the know can’t understand what all the fuss is about thereafter. Even allowing for this the stage action can be confusing. There is a case of mistaken identity in Act 1, for example, and if you don’t catch on you’re at even more of a loss than you thought you were. Leonora loves Manrico, the troubadour, but in order to save his life she pledges herself to his villainous rival in love, the Count of Luna. The joy she feels when she learns that she has succeeded is expressed in music that trips along merrily as if, well, as if she were a schoolgirl and the boy she had her eye on had just asked her out. Manrico’s reaction to the news that she has sacrificed herself for him is strange, too. Imprisoned and awaiting almost certain execution, you’d hardly think it was the moment for jealousy and anger.

None of this really matters, though, in the long run, as in this, of all operas, the audience doesn’t need to worry about realism. Is there a more tuneful work in the repertoire? At every turn, when a short recitative comes to its cadence point, we know that some gloriously involving melody is going to follow. The plot seems incidental, as does any notion of detailed characterisation.

Il Trovatore is a box-office hit, but I haven’t seen it in the theatre for many years and would only really make the effort now on one important condition, a stellar quartet of principal singers. And if it were the cast assembled on this recording? Oh yes, they’d probably get me out of the house, and if 48 year-old Herbert von Karajan were to come along too that would almost certainly clinch it! If Fedora Barbieri’s Azucena seems marginally less vivid than the others, it is a personal reaction, and probably linked to the fact that I find Azucena the most difficult character in the opera to bring to life. Barbieri is very affecting, though, in the passage in Act 2 where she recounts the terrible deed that will eventually lead them all to their doom. The other three principals are all marvellous. Panerai is suitably virile and menacing, and he does his best with what is a very limited character indeed. Di Stefano is equally successful as a troubadour as he is as a lover or as a condemned man. Callas was in fine voice in August 1956, and she and Karajan strike sparks off each other. Her intonation is spot-on, and she acts well with her voice, to the point that we feel sympathy for her plight. Her high notes are thrillingly done.

The smaller parts are well taken and the chorus is fine. The orchestra has little to do except accompany the singers, but the music needs a strong hand to master the propulsive rhythms so characteristic of the work. Karajan is marvellous here, and to my ears, finer than in his later EMI reading with Leontyne Price.

There are a few cuts, including the second stanzas of two of Callas’s arias, one in Act 1 and the other in Act 4. Both of these cuts are a pity, as she sings them wonderfully well and any argument that cutting helps make the drama more convincing is laughably false. A few liberties are taken with the score, too, top Cs added and so on, but no more than in any performance of the period. The booklet contains a cast list, track list, an informative and recent note by Mike Ashman, but, as is the case with these EMI opera reissues, no libretto. For that – in four languages – you will have to slot the third CD into the computer, an awkward solution and only slightly better than nothing for many collectors.

The recording is very much of its period, with little reverberation and no real feeling of the theatre. A bit of background hiss and other noises might bother some collectors, but they shouldn’t. All the same most will want a more recent performance as a main library choice. There are plenty of them, and almost every reading has its admirers. I find Antonio Pappano marvellous, on EMI, and so is Angela Georghiu as Leonora, but I confess to being rarely impressed by Roberto Alagna’s singing, and his Manrico here does little for me. I much prefer Andrea Bocelli on Decca, and even more so, Domingo for Giulini on DG. And there you have the Leonora of Rosalind Plowright, her first major recorded role, and marvellously successful. That is my preferred version, but this EMI Karajan/Callas is a real classic of the gramophone, deservedly so, and should find a place in every decent opera collection.

William Hedley

A classic of the gramophone: Callas, Karajan et. al. at their finest.