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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il trovatore
Jussi Björling (tenor) – Manrico; Norina Greco (soprano) – Leonora; Bruna Castagna (mezzo) – Azucena; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Ferrando; Francesco Valentino (baritone) – Count di Luna; Maxine Stellman (soprano) – Ines; Lodovico Oliviero (tenor) – Ruiz; Arthur Kent (bass) – A Gypsy
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Ferruccio Calusio
rec. live, 11 January 1941
Bonus: Firestone Hour
Jussi Björling (tenor)
Firestone Chorus and Orchestra/Howard Barlow
rec. NBC studio, Rockefeller Center, New York, 10 March 1952
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD1052-2 [71:02 + 79:45]

This live Trovatore has been issued several times before, both on LP and CD, but here, in much improved sound, it is presented for the first time in what could almost be mistaken for a studio recording of the same vintage. The opening bass drum and timpani rolls are highly realistic with great presence and the full orchestra, though still with limited frequency range, is no worse than most studio recordings. There are some noticeable pops and clicks in the sinister opening of the last act but they are isolated exceptions. Even better is the reproduction of the voices. The imposing Nicola Moscona as Ferrando leaps out of the loudspeakers with stunning clarity and resonance. Balance is not always satisfactory. Björling suffers in particular. His off-stage Deserto sulla terra in the first act is very distant and even more so in the Miserere in the last act.

The little known Argentine conductor Ferruccio Calusio is a pleasant surprise and leads a performance of great character, dramatically taut and still lenient towards the singers. He conducted only eight performances at the Met during a three-month period: four Trovatore and four of the double bill Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci but he was much in demand in Italy and had been Toscanini’s assistant at La Scala when they prepared Trovatore in 1925. The choral contributions are also worthy of the performance at large and the sound is homogenous in a way not always met in Met broadcasts of this period. The Anvil chorus in act II has punch though the anvils could have been mightier – here they sound like toy instruments.

Most readers are, I presume, primarily interested in the singing and they will be lavishly rewarded, though not in every respect. Greek-born Nicola Moscona, as mentioned above, is superb, even more so than on the RCA recording from 1952, which was the first complete Trovatore on LPs of importance. It remained the benchmark for many years. It is still one of the top contenders as long as one can accept a mono signal and far from hi-fi sound in other respects. The leading quartet of singers, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, Jussi Björling and Leonard Warren together with Moscona’s Ferrando, can still challenge any later line-up when it comes to vocal beauty and stylish Verdian singing. Francesco Valentino, the Conte di Luna on the present recording, was a mainstay at the Met for 21 seasons following his debut in December 1940. He was a reliable singer rather than an exceptional one. He is dramatically powerful and in Il balen he shows a fine sense for nuance but lacks the fullness of tone one expects from a true Verdian baritone. Warren, who was one of his keenest rivals – he made his Met debut a couple of years before Valentino – is superior in that respect. Leonora is sung by Norina Greco, who had a short career at the Met: three performances of Trovatore, four as Nedda in Pagliacci opposite Martinelli and two Aïdas. Besides this there were seven gala programmes and that was it. Maybe she was too young (only 26 at her debut) and inexperienced as an actor. Vocally she was well equipped, judging from this performance which, together with a Pagliacci three weeks later, seems to be her only recording. She sports a true spinto soprano and soars beautifully in Tacea la note with steady tone and ringing top notes. Hers is a thrilling Di tale amor – more thrilling in fact than Milanov´s on the RCA set.

The leading lady in this cast is however Bruna Castagna, one of the truly great Italian mezzo-sopranos – but sadly under-recorded. Her near-contemporary Ebe Stignani, who never sang at the Metropolitan, is better known thanks to some important aria discs and complete studio recordings, but Castagna can hold her own even in this company and this Azucena is formidable: every scene in which she appears is a highlight. The most remarkable is possibly the opening of act II where her rapport with Jussi Björling is stunning.

Björling is in glorious voice and has probably never been so inspired dramatically. There is such conviction, such involvement and such glow. These are truly well-balanced readings and he never sacrifices tonal beauty for dramatic intensity. His studio recording from 1952 has always been regarded as the definitive Manrico impersonation, but here he is more engaging and has that extra youthfulness that makes him stand out. I say this even in comparison with Carlo Bergonzi who is the only other serious contender in this role. I know, Placido Domingo in his 1969 debut recording of Il trovatore is superb but he is more baritonal in timbre. The two set-pieces for the tenor, the lovingly inflected Ah, si, ben mio and the flaming Di quella pira, are highlights but even more memorable is the scene with Azucena in the last act.

Milton Cross’s commentaries are as usual valuable and entertaining. Stephen Hastings’ insightful liner-notes elevate this issue further. Björling’s many admirers will need no pushing from me – this is a natural acquisition, also for those who already have the recording in one of the sonically inferior issues. Into the bargain you get Jussi in splendid shape on Firestone Hour on 10 March 1952, including a glorious Nessun dorma. Incidentally that visit to NBC’s studio in Rockefeller Center took place in between sessions for the RCA recording of Il trovatore.

Richard Caniell has once again restored a murky broadcast to much more than decent sound, making it possible for new generations of opera lovers to experience a 70+-year-old recording of one of the truly great singers of the previous century. He deserves a large bunch of roses.

Göran Forsling

Firestone Hour details
Commentary by Hugh James. Firestone: If I Could Tell You [0:53]
Commentary [0:24]
Speaks: Sylvia [2:34]
Commentary [0:08]
Puccini: Nessun dorma from Turandot [3:26]
Commentary [0:08]
Tosti: L’Alba separa [2:18]
Commentary [0:20]
Herbert: Neapolitan Love Song from The Princess Pat [2:56]
Commentary and concluding song Firestone: Within my heart [1:11]



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