Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Luisa Miller - opera in three acts (1849)
Anna Moffo (soprano) – Luisa; Carlo Bergonzi (tenor) – Rodolfo; Cornell MacNeil (baritone) – Miller; Giorgio Tozzi (bass) – Il Conte di Walter; Ezio Flagello (bass) – Wurm; Shirley Verrett (mezzo) – Federica; Gabriella Carturan (mezzo) – Laura; Piero de Palma (tenor) – A peasant
RCA Italiana Opera Chorus and Opera Orchestra/Fausto Cleva
rec. RCA Italiana Studios, Rome, 2–16 June 1964
Synopsis with translations enclosed but no libretto SONY CLASSICAL 88875 073462 [69:44 + 61:27]
This recording, original issued on RCA in September 1965, was the first stereo recording of Luisa Miller. Its only predecessor was a 1951 Cetra recording with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo. There have been some later recordings from major companies: Decca (1975) conducted by Peter Maag with Caballé, Pavarotti and Milnes; Deutsche Grammophon (1979) with Lorin Maazel and featuring Ricciarelli, Domingo and Bruson; Sony (1992) with James Levine at the helm and with Aprile Millo, Placido Domingo and Vladimir Chernov. Besides that several DVD versions have also been issued, the latest from 2012, set down in Malmö, Sweden (review). We shouldn’t forget the live radio recording with Peter Maag and Pavarotti captured not long before their studio recording. It was very positively received by myself and two of my colleagues (review).
The RCA recording under scrutiny was my first Luisa Miller and I have kept the set as a precious souvenir all those years. I’m especially grateful that I did, since I also had the libretto – in those days librettos were obligatory with almost all complete opera recordings – to refer to when I once again delved into this vintage set. The sonics are still more than acceptable, fifty years after the recording was made, and digitally re-mastered it sounds in fact a lot better than my rather worn LPs. I have long thought that the relative neglect of Luisa Miller, vis-ā-vis the masterworks that were to follow, is unfair, since there is so much in this work that connects it more closely to Rigoletto and, in particular, to La traviata, than to the opera of Verdi’s “galley years”. This became even more obvious when I returned to this recording after some time.
If there is a drawback with this set it is the rather matter-of-fact conducting by Fausto Cleva, Italian-born but emigrating to the US in 1920 at the age of 18. He had his career there, including more than 700 performances at the Met. “His work was marked by great attentiveness to his singers”, says Wikipedia, and that cannot be denied, but compared to Peter Maag’s dynamic and dramatically aware conducting on the live recording mentioned above, he is penny-plain. Yes, he is utterly attentive to the singers: he rarely drenches them and he gives them time to mould phrases memorably. This is something that Anna Moffo takes advantage of. This primarily lyric soprano with a lovely creamy voice had a relatively short career, due to unwise casting. Luisa is definitely not a role that normally was within her scope, not in the theatre, but here in a studio and with a docile conductor she is at her very best – possibly her best recording ever.
Carlo Bergonzi, elegant, ardent, nuanced, is as so often the ideal Verdi tenor and Quando le sere al placido is exquisite. Cornell MacNeil isn’t always very subtle but he has a great voice and belongs in the long line of American Verdi baritones: Tibbett, Warren, Merrill, Milnes. Maybe we could today add Thomas Hampson. In the last act MacNeil actually scales down and becomes noble and moving. Andrem, raminghi e poveri (CD 2 tr. 12) with Moffo is as fine as anything in Rigoletto or Traviata. Giorgio Tozzi’s warm Walter is another asset to this set and Ezio Flagello’s dark and menacing Wurm is evil personified. The long scene with Luisa at the beginning of act II is a thriller. The great Shirley Verrett has few opportunities to strut her stuff but the duet with Bergonzi in act I, Dall’aule raggianti, is a superb meeting of two great Verdians.
Returning to this recording was naturally a nostalgia trip but it also confirmed that this is a valid representation of a great opera that should be better known. Readers with an interest in this work and a love of some of the best Verdi singers from half a century ago can safely invest in this set.