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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
Great Operas: Ernani, I due Foscari , Rigoletto, Il trovatore & La Traviata
see end of review for contents
rec. 1973-91
DOCUMENTS 233617 [10 CDs: 615:26]

It is nice to see the three Verdi operas with Franco Bonisolli back in circulation again - and at such a give-away price! Originally these were soundtrack recordings to German TV-productions and released on LP by Acanta. They have also been available on CD, not long ago, on Arts. The quality of the recording is good with the voices more forward than ideal but not disturbingly so. With top-notch German orchestras - Staatskapelle Dresden and Staatskapelle Berlin - conducted by some of the foremost Italian opera conductors of the period and two of the most prestigious European opera choruses, the prerequisites for successful end-products are well cared for. So let’s see what swings and roundabouts there may be concerning execution.
Franco Bonisolli had a reputation for being the typical Italian tenor with voluminous long-held top notes, eccentric behaviour and temperamental tendencies - at least during the latter part of his career. I heard him several times in the late 1980s. In particular at the Arena di Verona he sometimes lived up to his nickname “Il Pazzo” (The Madman). He still had a marvellous voice, and in the 1970s, when these three operas were recorded he was at the height of his powers and actually very disciplined.
In Rigoletto he introduces himself as a virile Duke of Mantua in Questa o quella and when he meets Gilda in the second scene he sings E il sol dell’anima with warmth and sensitivity. The pianissimo end in unison is very well executed and he bids farewell with a thrilling Addio!
In the second act Ella mi fu rapita he tends to over-sing, but he is far from un-nuanced and his brilliant high notes are as thrilling as those of any other tenor. There is glow in Parmi veder but the cabaletta is rather heavy-handed. In the third act La donna e mobile lacks the elegance of Bergonzi and Kraus but it is gloriously sung in terms of sheer volume and brilliance. The quartet is excellent.
Rolando Panerai was one of the best Italian baritones during the second half of the 20th century, having made his debut in 1947 and having appeared as Germont in a French TV-production of La traviata in 2000 when he was 76. As recently as 2011 he sang Gianni Schicchi in Genova, aged 87. As Rigoletto he doesn’t seem quite as inside the character as his colleagues Gobbi and Taddei but is far more involved than the stentorian Bastianini. His Cortigiani is deeply felt and in the previous act he is sonorous and intense, both in Pari siamo and in the long duet with Gilda - intense but with a lack of nuance. Back to the second act - his Piangi in that duet with Gilda is more like a public proclamation than a private rage over the Duke. It’s gloriously sung but I miss some softer undertones. Si, vendetta is suitably furious. The caring father is more present at the beginning of the last act and the horror when he finds that it is Gilda and not the Duke that is in Sparafucile’s sack, is movingly depicted.
His daughter Gilda is competently sung by Margherita Rinaldi, who has solid technique but a not very pleasing tone. She is sensitive in her phrasing and negotiates the coloratura with aplomb in Caro nome. Most memorable is her Lassù in cielo in the final scene.
Bengt Rundgren is an imposingly malicious and ominous Sparafucile and Viorica Cortez is a classy Maddalena in the last act. This is in fact the best singing on this set and one wishes that the role had been much bigger.
In the minor roles Antonin Svorc’s Monterone is worth noting while some others are rather mediocre. Molinari-Pradelli’s conducting is highly professional - he recorded the opera a decade earlier for EMI with Cornell MacNeil and Nicolai Gedda - but not in the same league as Serafin, Solti and Giulini.
Il trovatore was one of Bonisolli’s signature roles and he recorded it twice, the second time for EMI under Karajan with Leontyne Price as Leonora. Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic are the Rolls Royce among orchestras but Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of der Staatsoper Unter den Linden, is at least in the Bentley class. Under the eminent Bartoletti, associated with Lyric Opera of Chicago for 51 years and for some periods artistic director of the Rome Opera and Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, they play with gusto but also refinement. Bartoletti, whose Manon Lescaut with Caballé and Domingo I praised recently, again shows good feeling for the ebb and flow of the music. This is no hard-driven run-through of a score that has its fair share of blatant rum-ti-tum - the galley years are not so far away after all. It is however a flexible reading, where he is lenient with the singers’ wish to expand a phrase here and press ahead there. Bartoletti was underrated, otherwise there would have been many more recordings with him.
The level of the singing is more constantly on a higher plane here than in Rigoletto. In fact there is not a weak link in the line-up. Giancarlo Luccardi is an expressive Ferrando when he relates the background to his fellow soldiers.
Raina Kabaivanska’s Leonora is superb. She never possessed the alternately creamy or smoky seductiveness of Leontyne Price, but she could make every word tell in a way that was second only to Maria Callas. Everybody who saw her filmed Tosca opposite Domingo will know what I mean. Tacea la notte is wonderfully phrased and the cabaletta is a tour de force.
Giorgio Zancanaro is a vital Luna, a role he later recorded also for Deutsche Grammophon under Giulini with Domingo, Plowright and Fassbaender. Il balen is manly and nuanced and his scene with Leonora in the last act (CD 8 tr. 5) finds both singers on top. This is Verdi singing at its best.
Viorica Cortez again shows what a tremendously magnificent and charismatic singer she was. Her Azucena ranks with the very best. Just listen to her Stride la vampa (CD 7 tr. 4) in act II and the rest of that scene and again in the long finale (CD 8 tr. 6).
In act II Bonisolli also shows what a great singer he was in his heyday. Mal reggendo has rarely been better executed and in act III, when his show-off moments come, he is not exactly well-behaved - Manrico is a soldier. That said, it is a deeply infatuated man who sings Ah, si ben mio with lyric inwardness to begin with and then with glowing expansion. Di quella pira is what one expects: a leather-lunged commander signalling an imminent attack and his magnificent voice is just as bloodcurdlingly heated as the flames rising at the horizon. The unauthentic high C cuts through the air like a welding flame. No subtleties here; just lots of emotion.
‘All you need for a successful Trovatore is the four greatest voices in the world’: a famous remark attributed to Caruso. What we have here may not be exactly that, but very close. To me this recording now joins the top five Trovatores.
With the same Berlin forces under the baton of one of the foremost Verdi conductors of the post-war years, Lamberto Gardelli, the prerequisites for an above average La traviata are also well furnished. This is the earliest recording of the three and Bonisolli, who started out singing roles like Nemorino and Alfredo, is here at his most lyrical and youthful. He has a lightness of approach that totally eluded a singer like Richard Tucker, who managed to bark through the role and crush the frail Anna Moffo on an RCA recording from around 1960. Bonisolli is flexible and human and it is only in parts of his act II aria that he attempts to put more weight on the music than necessary. On the other hand it is sheer gain to have spinto resources for the big outbreak in the Flora scene in the same act. The reunion with the dying Violetta in act III is also well handled. 
In this opera the tenor unavoidably plays a secondary role to Violetta, and Mirella Freni’s reading is second to none. On my shortlist I have Callas, de los Angeles, Scotto and Cotrubas as finalists, with the likes of Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Moffo and Scotto II eliminated in the semi-finals. Freni is a definite candidate for the shortlist. A marvellous Mimi in La bohème she is also ideal casting for the other consumptive heroine in the world of opera. She blends so well with Bonisolli in their duets. She manages the big act I aria with the changes of moods in exemplary fashion. The distraught Violetta in the Flora scene is greatly touching. In the last act, where she gradually leaves this world but has a last eruption of life and hope before she dies, had me struggling to stem the tears. The real greatness, however, lies in the long scene with Giorgio Germont in act II. This is one of the most psychologically credible scenes in all opera and she catches every facet. Moreover she is at her creamiest vocally speaking, which makes this a recording to return to over and over again - together with the other finalists.
The third main soloist is also an asset. Veteran Sesto Bruscantini, best known for his many buffo parts, was probably chosen for the film at least as much for his acting abilities as for his singing. His vocal acting is also considerable and though it can’t be denied that his many years in the limelight had begun to take its toll on his vocal cords, resulting in a slight unsteadiness, this is no serious drawback for the elderly gentleman that Giorgio Germont is. The Violetta-Germont confrontation in act II, referred to above, becomes uncommonly intense and charged with emotion in this reading.
The various secondary roles are ably taken by German singers and by the once famous Czech baritone Rudolf Jedlicka, who is an expressive Baron Douphol.
The remaining operas are live recordings of two relatively early works. Ernani, premiered in March 1844 was a great success and was Verdi’s most popular opera until nine years later when it was superseded by Il trovatore. It was also in 1904 the first opera to be recorded complete. I due Foscari was first seen in November 1844 and was also quite popular, though not in the Ernani class.
Live recording almost invariably means that there are intrusive noises, caused by stage activity, audience reactions and so on. Movements of the actors can also result in imbalance between stage and pit, when a singer gets too far from the microphone. In this Ernani these problems are almost negligible, the orchestra well recorded and the singers life-like. The opera as such is a bit uneven but there is quite a lot of top drawer early Verdi. In particular his orchestral writing is far more sophisticated than in the earlier works. The prelude to act III is so beautifully orchestrated (CD 2 tr. 6). Giuliano Carella chooses sensible tempos - nothing extreme. It seems that the work is in safe hands but not very adventurous - not necessarily a bad thing.
The solo singing is also attractive. Vincenzo la Scola is musical, intelligent and smooth-voiced but vocally a little weak. This is most noticeable in his opening aria Mercé, diletti amici ... Come rugiada al cespide (CD 1 tr. 3), where I have been used to larger voices like Bergonzi, Domingo and the stentorian but thrilling Mario Del Monaco. By their side he tends to pale, but in his own right he is still an asset and in the last act’s scene with Elvira, Cessaro i suoni (CD 2 tr. 14) both he and Daniela Dessì are at their lyrical best. Dessì has her great showpiece Surte è la notte ... Ernani involami also in the first act (CD 1 tr. 5-6). Technically she is excellent but there are signs of strain. Michele Pertusi as Silva is also rather lyrical and sings his showpiece Infelice (CD 1 tr. 11) very well, but his voice is more baritone than true bass - the lowest notes are sketchy. The best singing comes in the third act when Paolo Cono, (Don Carlo) has his great moments in Oh de’ verd’anni miei (CD 2 tr. 8). He sings like someone from the golden age with admirable legato and thrilling top.
For those seeking a library recording of Ernani this offering is not the answer, though it is well worth a listen. Thomas Schippers’ RCA recording from 1967 with Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Mario Sereni and Ezio Flagello is probably the best - at present not available separately as far as I have been able to find out; only included in a 30 CD Verdi box from Sony. A more modern alternative, which is available, is a La Scala recording under Riccardo Muti (EMI) with a dream cast of Mirella Freni, Placido Domingo, Renato Bruson and Nicolai Ghiaurov.
The recording of I due Foscari from Torino is also noisy but the sound in itself is clear and allows the listener to enjoy the many touches of mastery in the orchestral writing. Here, in the mid-1840s, Verdi was making advances for every new opera - unless he had too little time at his disposal and resorted to more routine writing.
Maurizio Arena, who fittingly enough has been a recurring conductor at the Arena di Verona, is a good advocate for this opera, which is a good deal better than its reputation. The singers are more variable. Lorenza Canepa, a soprano hitherto unknown to me, makes a shaky start, but later turns out to have a quite beautiful voice, albeit a shade uneven. Nicola Martinucci, one of those longstanding favourites at the Arena, is strong and confident. Never the subtlest of singers he still has a brilliant voice of the type that we seldom encounter today. Pertile, between the wars, and Del Monaco, Corelli and Bonisolli come to mind. Martinucci and his close contemporary Lamberti were also able to fill the enormous space of the Arena with golden tone. Just listen to Martinucci in Brezza del suol natio(CD 3 tr. 3) to get a hint of his greatness. Just as in Ernani it is the baritone who offers real greatness. Renato Bruson was, for sure, approaching his fifties when this recording was made, but his marvellous voice was still in wonderful shape. Eccomi solo alfine ... O vecchio cor, che batti (CD 3 tr. 6) with its evocative orchestral introduction, is Verdi at his early best, and the music here is unmistakably Verdian. The aria has probably never been so well sung, at least not in modern times. In the act I finale Bruson also inspires the otherwise variable Lorenza Canepa to surpass herself.
There are more good things to come in the other two acts. The deep strings of the opening introduction to act II are atmospheric and Jacopo’s aria that follows (CD 3 tr. 8) is another highlight in this overlooked opera. Martinucci sings it with heroic conviction. Canepa veers between squalliness and true spinto tones in the following scenes, but the tenor and baritone both offer Verdi singing of distinction. There is some quite good comprimario singing in the act II finale. In the third act Bruson seems a bit off form - his vibrato is markedly wider. I don’t know whether he tired or whether this act was recorded at another performance. The soprano is however just as shaky as before.
Martinucci and Bruson should definitely be heard but for a library version I would unhesitatingly advise readers to get the Gardelli recording from 1977 with Ricciarelli, Carreras, Cappuccilli and Ramey. This is also included in an even bigger Verdi box with 75 CDs but luckily also available separately, at some dealers anyway.
None of the recordings in this box are really top contenders, though Trovatore and Traviata should satisfy discriminating listeners. At the price - 10 CDs for little more than one full price CD, and I have found the box advertised on German sites for 10 Euros - impecunious readers can get five operas in decent sound and with several world class singers in top shape.
Göran Forsling

CDs 1-2 [73:42 + 65:49]
Vincenzo la Scola (tenor) - Ernani; Daniela Dessì (soprano) - Elvira; Paolo Coni (baritone) - Don Carlo; Michele Pertusi (bass) - Silva; Marina Giorgio (soprano) - Giovanna; Diego Cossu (tenor) - Don Riccardo; Riccardo Ristori (bass) - Jago; Coro da Camera di Bratislava, Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/Giuliano Carella
rec. Live, 28-30 July, 2-4 August 1991
CDs 3-4 [76:46 + 32:35]
I due Foscari
Renato Bruson (baritone) - Francesco Foscari; Nicola Martinucci (tenor) - Jacopo Foscari; Lorenza Canepa (soprano) - Lucrezia Contarini; Armando Caforio (bass) - Jacopo Loredano; Redente Comacchio (tenor) - Barbarigo; Maria Gabriella Onesti (mezzo) - Pisana; Aurelio Faedda (tenor) - A servant of the Council of Ten and of the Senate; Bruno Marangoni (bass) - A doge’s servant; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro regio di Torino/Maurizio Arena
rec. live, December 1984
CDs 5-6 [62:21 + 51:31]
Franco Bonisolli (tenor) - Duke of Mantua; Rolando Panerai (baritone) - Rigoletto; Margherita Rinalsi (soprano) - Gilda; Bengt Rundgren (bass) - Sparafucile; Viorica Cortez (mezzo) - Maddalena; Ilona Papenthin (mezzo) - Giovanna; Antonin Svorc (bass) - Count Monterone; Horts Lunow (baritone) - Marullo; Henno Garduhn (tenor) - Borsa; Peter Olesch (bass) - Count Ceprano; Maria Corelli (soprano) - Countess Ceprano; Silvia Pawlik (soprano) - a page; Chor der Staatsoper Dresden; Staatskapelle Dresden/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
rec. 1977
CDs 7-8 [68:50 + 63:05]
Il trovatore
Franco Bonisolli (tenor) - Manrico; Raina Kabaivanska (soprano) - Leonora; Giancarlo Luccardi (bass) - Ferrando; Viorica Cortez (mezzo) - Azucena; Gisela Pohl (soprano) - Ines; Giorgio Zancanaro (baritone) - Count di Luna; Johannes Bier (tenor) - Ruiz; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin; Staatskapelle Berlin/Bruno Bartoletti

rec. 1975
CDs 9-10 [57:08 + 63:39]
La traviata
Mirella Freni (soprano) - Violetta Valery; Hania Kovicz (mezzo) - Flora Bervoix; Gudrun Schäfer (soprano) - Annina; Franco Bonisolli (tenor) - Alfredo Germont; Sesto Bruscantini (baritone) - Giorgio Germont; Peter Bindszus (tenor) - Gastone; Rudolf Jedlicka (baritone) - Barone Douphol; Heinz Reeh (bass) - Marchese d’Obigny; Hans Joachim Lukat (bass) - Dottore Grenvil; Chor der Staatsoper Berlin; Staatskapelle Berlin/Lamberto Gardelli
rec. 1973