Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
The Verdi Collection: Ernani ; Luisa Miller ; La forza del destino
see review for performance details
DYNAMIC CDS681 [7CDs: 77.23 + 43.22 + 77.41 + 74.37 + 69.45 + 40.15 + 66.37]
This collection of three live performances of Verdi operas has a feature that may not have been intended. They represent distinct periods in the great Italian composer’s oeuvre. Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera, is very much in the style that has come to be known as Early Verdi where the music has thrust and vitality without necessarily conveying the emotions of the words. These works often have a patriotic basis. Luisa Miller verges on the composer’s great Middle Period noted for the great trio of operas Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, all staged between 1851 and 1853. In itself, Luisa Miller can be considered transitional between the two periods mentioned. Notably, the work’s subject matter concerns personal relationships and particularly that between father and daughter. The final act is also more musically sophisticated than the other two that are more in the composer’s earlier style complete with stirring choruses and aria and duets with cabalettas. The third work, La forza del destino, is very much of Verdi’s compositional maturity with characters closely delineated in the music and with a dramatic tautness that belies the complex, even rambling, story.
Ernani - Lyric dramain four parts (1844)
Ernani, the bandit - Marco Berti (tenor); Don Carlo, King of Spain - Carlo Guelfi (baritone); Don Ruy de Silva, a Spanish grandee - Giacomo Prestia (bass); Elvira, Silva’s niece and loved by Ernani - Susan Neves (soprano); Don Riccardo, the King’s equerry - Samuele Simoncini (tenor); Jago, equerry to Silva - Alessandro Svab (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Reggio, Parma, Italy/Antonello Allemandi
Performed in the Critical Edition by Claudio Gallico
rec. live, Teatro Reggio, May 2005, annual Verdi Festival
Notes and Synopsis in English, German, French, Spanish
Libretto in Italian and English
Previously released as CDS496/1-2
Based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani Verdi’s opera Ernani was first performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice, on 9 March 1844. In the Verdi oeuvre it follows directly after Nabucco and I Lombardi premiered at La Scala in March 1842 and February 1843 respectively. These works had been resounding successes and placed the thirty-year-old Verdi alongside his older compatriot, Donizetti, at the forefront of Italian opera composers.
The prospect of a success in Venice was an attraction for Verdi and the composer, aware of his increasing value, drove a hard bargain by which La Fenice would stage I Lombardi as well as presenting the new opera to a libretto of Verdi’s own choice. To write the verses he chose Piave, a native of Venice, and who was to become his collaborator in many subsequent works. Written in the traditional form of arias, cabalettas and group scenes, together with virile choral contributions, the elements combine to make the work attractive for audiences. I have never had a bad night at the theatre with this opera. Nonetheless, Ernani was not a resounding success at the premiere, probably due to the limitations of some soloists. However, for later performances at La Scala Verdi wrote additional music for the role of Silva, to accommodate the distinguished bass of the time, along with an added cabaletta in act one. These additions and a stronger cast brought the success the composer hoped for.
In my earlier review of this performance, and the associated DVD (see review) I found Marco Berti to have a somewhat tight tone and none too steady either. However, he does improve and his efforts at more graceful phrasing are noted. Overall I continue to be disappointed with Carlo Guelfi as Don Carlo, King of Spain, and rival suitor for Elvira’s hand. He has a strong tone but often sounds strained and unfocused in a role that requires legato and strong middle-voiced enunciation. On DVD his strong tone and acting enables dramatic situations to come over better as when Carlo first threatens dire consequences for the plotters and more so after his elevation to the crown of Charlemagne.
As Don Ruy de Silva, Giacomo Prestia has a rather gruff tone with a tight focus and a small tonal palette of colour. He expresses his words and tries to create a character within these limitations.
The best singing comes from Susan Neves’ Elvira, the woman pursued by all three male protagonists. Her vocalism is the most committed among the soloists with good variety of tonal colour and characterisation. Her introductory Sorte la notte (CD 1 Tr. 5) to her Ernani involami and Tutto sprezzo (CD 1 trs. 6-7) is a little tentative, but once into her stride her full voice, with a good range of tonal colour and variety of modulation, is a great strength. Her poor acting is not a distraction on the CD whilst in both versions she also copes much better than her colleagues with the conducting of Antonello Allemandi who, in his eagerness to support his singers by allowing time for them to phrase, often puts them under pressure in holding the vocal line. In the trios of act one he ups the pace and the Verdian thrill factor kicks in. He is similarly vibrant in his conducting of the choral contributions portraying Ernani’s bandits. These passages are viscerally thrilling as early Verdi scenes of this nature should be, particularly with this idiomatic Italian chorus in full and virile voice.
Luisa Miller - Tragic melodrama in three acts (1849)
Count Walter, local landowner - Alexander Vonogradov (bass); Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son - Giuseppe Sabbatini (tenor); Frederica, Duchess of Ostheim and Walter’s niece - Ursula Ferri (mezzo); Wurm, Walter’s steward - Arutjun Kotchinian (bass); Miller, a retired soldier - Damiano Salerno (baritone); Luisa, Miller’s daughter - Darina Takova (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy/Maurizo Benini
Notes and Synopsis in English, German, French, Spanish
Libretto in Italian and English
rec. live, May 2006
Previously released as CDS523/1-2
Luisa Miller came at the end of what Verdi referred to as his anni de galera or years in the galleys. It was a period when he was always racing against time. Whilst composing one opera, he was planning the subjects of others and supervising, often in minute detail, the writing of the librettos of another one or two. Added to those pressures were negotiations with impresarios and publishers for operas to follow. In Part 2 of my Verdi conspectus I detail the background, and various recorded performances, of the ten operas that he composed in the hectic five years between I due Foscari (1844) and Luisa Miller (1849).
In 1847 Verdi signed a contract to compose an opera for Naples. He then spent the next two years trying, on one pretext or another, to withdraw from it. Verdi stipulated that the new work should be a brief drama of interest, action and above all feeling. Cammarano, his chosen librettist, suggested Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). Given the nature of the Naples censors Cammarano, a native of the city, took care to eliminate the political and social overtones of Schiller’s play with its story of innocence destroyed by corruption and the machinations of those in power. Schiller’s play became Luisa Miller, Verdi’s 15th opera. Whilst Verdi might originally have wanted something spectacular for the San Carlo, what he and Cammarano actually hatched was an intense personal drama and with the lyrical elements achieved by the avoidance of excessive use of brass and timpani.
In parts of La battaglia di Legnano,Verdi’s previous opera, the composer had learned how to express intimate emotions. In Luisa Miller he takes this skill a quantum leap forward. The plaintive woodwind tones give character to the more intimate pastoral nature of the early scenes in particular. The individual characters are filled out musically and encompass the varying emotions they have to convey and which differ significantly in the three acts. It is in the music of the last act, and particularly the duets between father and daughter, where scholars and musicologists suggest that Verdi really breaks new ground and shows himself compositionally ready for the subjects of the great operas that were shortly to flow from his pen.
The best news about this performance comes with conductor Maurizio Benini’s handling of the score. His dynamics in the opening overture sets a storm of the passions to follow. The worst news is the Miller of Damiano Salerno who starts off with a distinct wobble and whilst this steadies his rather dry monochromic tone fails to improve. It militates against Verdi’s writing that has so much paternal concern and passion. As his son, Giuseppe Sabbatini is often vocally strained beyond his dramatic compass, having to thicken his tone and which becomes somewhat throaty and nasal. We are used to hearing him in lighter roles and he fails to make the step up to the lover Rodolfo with his Quando le sere in Placido. It’s lacking in much vocal grace (CD 2 Tr.7). The dark-toned Wurm of Arutjun Kotchinian is nicely contrasted with the fellow bass Alexander Vonogradov as Count Walter, making their narrative duet (CD 2 Trs 1-2) of more interest than usual. Despite the virtues of the two basses, it is the women who really shine. In the tragic eponymous role, Darina Takova sings with good expression and characterisation, her vocal virtues encompassing the many emotions called for with pleasing tone and range of expression. The voice that really breathes quality is that of Ursula Ferri as the Duchess of Ostheim, Walter’s niece and Rodolfo’s intended. I was sorry that the role was not more extensive as her warm contraltoish mezzo is a delight.
Despite my criticisms of some of the singing I enjoyed listening to this live performance even if it does not match that on the Arts label (see review) with its star tenor soloist, also well conducted.
La forza del destino - Melodramma in four acts. Revised 1869 version.
Marquis of Calatrava - Giuseppe Nicodemo (bass); Donna Leonora, his daughter - Susanna Branchini (soprano); Curra, her chambermaid - Silvia Balistreri (soprano); Don Alvaro, lover of Leonora and of Royal Inca Indian descent - Renzo Zulian (tenor); Don Carlo of Vargas, Leonora’s brother - Marco Di Felice (baritone); Preziosilla, Tiziana Carraro (mezzo); Fra Melitone, Paolo Rumetz (bass-baritone); Padre Guardiano - Paolo Battaglia (bass); Mastro Trabuco, muleteer - Antonio Feltracco (tenor); Alcade, Luca Dall’Amico (tenor); Spanish military surgeon - Romano Franci (tenor)
Orchestra Filarmonica Veneta/Lukas Karytinos
rec. live, Teatro Communale di Modena, Italy, January 2006
Notes in Italian (original language), English, German, French
Libretto in Italian and English
Previously released as CDS512/1-3
After all the trouble with the censor in Naples during 1858 - where Un Ballo in Maschera should have been staged before being premiered in Rome in February 1859 - Verdi announced to a small circle of friends that he had given up composing and intended to return to his farm and enjoy the fruits of his labours in a more relaxed manner. However, Cavour, the father of the fight for the unification of Italy, persuaded Verdi to stand for Italy’s first National Parliament. He did so and was elected and attended assiduously until Cavour’s premature and untimely death when his interest declined. December 1860, whilst Verdi was away in Turin on parliamentary business, Giuseppina received a letter from a friend in Russia. Also enclosed was an invitation from the great Italian dramatic tenor Enrico Tamberlick, who Verdi knew and admired. Acting on behalf of the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg the letter invited Verdi to write an opera for the following season. Despite the likelihood of temperatures of 22 degrees below zero, the prospect of a visit to Imperial Russia appealed to Giuseppina and she promised to use all endeavours to try and persuade Verdi to accept. Whether it was her skills of persuasion, the fact that he was missing the theatre, or the conditions of the contract, and the large fee that would help fund the major alterations at his estate at Sant’Agata, Verdi agreed.
Verdi settled on the Spanish romantic drama Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino by Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas as a suitable subject for the new opera and asked Piave to provide the libretto. It is sometimes said that the story is too rambling and full of improbabilities. That may be so, but it certainly inspired Verdi to compose some of his most wonderful melodies and fully characterise the roles in his music. He lightened the dark plot with its multiple deaths somewhat further than the play using a scene from Schiller’s Wallenstein Lager involving a panorama of life in a military encampment including soldiers, vivandieres, gypsies and a monk who preaches in the funniest and most delightful manner in the world. The monk would become Melitone in the opera and is often seen as a precursor to the comic role in his great final opera, Falstaff.
La forza del destino demands full-toned Verdi voices. It is not a work suitable for light lyric voices. This is best illustrated by the fact that when Verdi and his wife made the long journey to St. Petersburg for the premiere in December 1861, and found the soprano contracted for the role of Leonora to be ill, it was not possible to find a substitute singer from the company roster. The whole production was postponed for one year. When the opera was eventually premiered on 10 November 1862 it was a success with the Tsar attending, inviting the Verdis to his box, and later investing him with the highest state honours.
Not wholly happy about the ending of the opera with its depressing multiple deaths in the final scene Verdi withheld the score from theatres that he considered incapable of doing it justice. After some minor tinkering he eventually got round to a revision when Ricordi proposed performances at La Scala. It is in this revised form, premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869, that the work is heard today and in this performance.
In my earlier review I was perhaps unduly harsh on Susanna Branchini, suggesting she barely had the vocal heft for Mimi let alone the spinto demands of Leonora. Even in the small-sized Teatro Communale di Modena where this performance was recorded she struggles to ride over the orchestra and convey the agonies of the role. As her brother, the baritone Marco Di Felice, and lover, the tenor Renzo Zulian, have some of the most dramatic duets that Verdi ever wrote. Whilst the staging on the DVD helps cover their vocal limitations their deficiencies are more evident in sound alone. Neither is a singer of the top class, both being strained at the top of the voice, but they manage to invest the music with some frisson. Elsewhere the young bass Paolo Battaglia as Padre Guardiano has moments when I think his voice has promise with sap and bass resonance; at others his tone is dry. Overall he is unable to find the required vocal gravitas. As Fra Melitone, Paolo Rumetz portrays the part of the irascible brother quite well albeit with some unsteadiness at the top. Tiziana Carraro’s Preziosilla has no such trouble and sings with vibrancy and character.
Robert J Farr
This bargain-priced collection is a good starter for someone new to Verdi or for those enthusiasts who prefer live performances to studio recordings.