Best Wishes From Luciano Pavarotti - 80th Birthday Edition
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
La Bohème - opera in four acts (1896)
The 'Aida File'
Picture format: 4:3
Sound Format: PCM Stereo.
Picture Format: 4:3. Resolution: 1080i High Definition (Upscale).
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 101791 [3 discs: 153.25 + 116:00 + 76.21]

This box of three Blu-ray discs comes with "Best Wishes" from tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) as its title. As he has been dead since September 2007 this is some kind of crude marketing that extends to the lack of any supporting documentation whatsoever in the contents. Its rather of the "stack it high and sell it cheap" variety, there being no leaflet with a track-list let alone a booklet about the contents. The discs are in cardboard sleeves with basic cast details, even the names of the Directors of the two operas are not given let alone a track list. Okay, so the price is bargain-ish and you get what you pay for. This includes a short advertising clip, in 16:9 aspect, of another opera as an introductory precursor to the three items. In the case of the two operas, Aida and La Boheme, you get traditional productions in period costumes. Be thankful that 'Regietheater' and concept are absent whilst costume and staging, particularly in Aida, are quite magnificent.

1. Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871) [153:25]
Il Re, King of Egypt – Paata Burchuladze (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Ghena Dimitrova (mezzo); Radamès, captain of the guards - Luciano Pavarotti (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Juan Pons (baritone); Aida, his daughter - Maria Chiara (soprano); Ramfis, High priest - Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Priestess - Francesca Garbi
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Alla Scala/ Lorin Maazel
Stage Director: Luca Ronconi
rec. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1986
Subtitle languages : Italian (original language), German, French, English, Spanish

As I note in the introductory paragraph both these productions are traditional. I add that both productions are of an opulence and relevance that we rarely see today and are wholly appropriate to the stories told. In respect of the set of Aida, I have previously given background as to the origin of the story and the staging requirements stipulated for the premiere. However, I am not an Egyptologist and therefore cannot verify if the costumes and set in this production would be wholly as the Khedive and his expert Mariette would have wished.

Dating from 1985 this Aida is the earlier of the two opera performances. Overall the cast is good, indeed outstanding on the male side, and not that much less in respect of the two principal female singers. Pavarotti sings out in his opening aria Celeste Aida (CH.3) completely ignoring what Verdi wrote whilst going for the tenor virility symbol ending. This is belted out fortissimo rather than as a soft diminuendo. Well he is not alone in that. More disconcerting is the forward sound of the recorded voice in that aria compared with what had gone before and which followed. This is also apparent in other places with other soloists when singing arias and where a different more forward sound is evident rather than the more recessed sound of ensembles. This may be electronic doctoring or simply a consequence of microphone placing and the singers moving downstage when singing an aria. That Pavarotti can sing softly is evident elsewhere, particularly in act four when Radamès and Aida are entombed (CH.34). What he cannot do is act the role and likewise he is not alone among tenors, and other voices, seen and heard on the operatic stage. The listener has to be thankful for his renowned vocal skills and natural Italianate open-toned vocal Italianate squilla.

In the eponymous role Maria Chiara acts with conviction and with her warm soprano voice creates a believable prisoner and infatuated lover. Her voice thins a little at the climax of O patria mia in act three (CH.25), but otherwise she is a fully involved participant a virtue not shared throughout by Ghena Dimitrova as Amneris who does, however, excel in the vehemence and involvement of her singing in the trial scene (CHs.30-33). In act three Juan Pons creates a believable Amonasro singing with smooth legato and good baritone expression (CHs.26-29). The two basses, Nicolai Ghiaurov as the High priest Ramfis and Paata Burchuladze as the King could hardly be bettered.

Mediocre dancing at both Amneris’ levee and the triumphal Scene are below par. The moving of the large scenic structures to represent the arrival of Radamès and his victorious army mutes the impact of the triumphal scene (CHs. 16-23). Otherwise Ronconi’s direction and his set designer make this production worth seeing aided by expressive, well paced and idiomatic conducting from Lorin Maazel. A pity that a little more effort had not gone in to the transfer to Blu-ray format. To get rid of the black bands, inevitable with 4:3 format, simply widening ones TV screen aspect is not on with Pavarotti’s already somewhat large width and the voluminous costume he wears.

2. Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème - opera in four acts (1896) [116:00]
Mimi - Mirella Freni (soprano); Rodolfo - Luciano Pavarotti (tenor); Marcello - Gino Quilico (baritone); Schaunard - Stephen Dickson (baritone); Coline - Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Musetta - Sandra Pacetti (soprano); Benoit/Alcindoro - Italo Tajo (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera/Tiziano Severini
Stage Director: Francesca Zambello
rec. San Francisco Opera, 1988
Set Design: David Mitchell
Costume Design: Jeanne Button and Peter J. Hall
TV Director: Brian Large
Picture format: 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Menu languages: D, F, GB, SP, IT, S
Subtitle languages: Italian (original language), German, French, English, Spanish

The film of La Boheme features Pavarotti singing Puccini’s young lover Rodolfo alongside Mirella Freni as his beloved Mimi. Born a few months apart in the same Italian town of Modena, even sharing nutrition from the same wet nurse, albeit not contemporaneously, it is a strange coincidence of opera that Pavarotti and Freni made such an impact on the operatic stage for nearly three decades in the second half of the twentieth century. Although they feature together on several sound recordings their presence together caught in filmed performances is far fewer than might have been expected especially considering the overlap of their sung repertoire and particularly in their native country. The large opera house in San Francisco was not found wanting in that respect and we are fortunate that, albeit late in their careers, the two, were caught on the film presented in this collection.

Whilst neither as atmospheric nor as detailed as Covent Garden’s renowned 1964 production by John Copley, only retired in 2015, there is sufficient convincing atmosphere and detail to satisfy most including me. Yes, Freni does not look like an innocent young girl in close-ups, but she makes up for it in the characterful and lyric quality of her singing and also in her acting. Pavarotti tends to use too much voice, particularly in the sublime interactions with Mimi in act one where his Che gelida manina lacks any intimacy of phrase, a fact perhaps excused by needing to project his voice into the large spaces of the house. He is better in act four as Mimi dies and where the handkerchiefs are needed in that ever so poignant scene that even betters Violetta’s death scene in La Traviata; was that the only time Puccini equalled his predecessor? I believe both singers were reprising roles that they had sung together in the same theatre twenty-one years before.

Both baritones, Gino Quilico as Marcello and Stephen Dickson as Schaunard, sing and act convincingly, the former giving a vocal performance to match the two principals. The same can be said of Nicolai Ghiaurov’s Colline. Although waning in his vocal strength to when I saw him as Boris, nearly a decade before this recording, he still manages to make the farewell to his overcoat a major contribution to act four. The veteran Italo Tajo, aged seventy four at the time, doubles as Benoit and Alcindoro in an echo of the past for a great artist as singer and actor.

As director, Francesca Zambello allows all the participants to reveal their strengths with conductor Tiziano Severini doing justice to Puccini’s masterful score. A delight to listen to and watch.

3. The 'Aida File' [76.21]
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
Original Language: English and Italian
Subtitles: German, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish

Arthaus Musik describes this as a bonus to the two opera performances. Like the other items, it opens with an advertising clip of music from another opera, in this case the last act of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The contents themselves are built around a Southern TV Broadcast of a documentary programme about Verdi and Aida narrated by Melvyn Bragg. Whilst recounting the story of Verdi’s life and the composition of Aida there are extracts from the San Francisco performance with spoken interjections from Pavarotti in a suit and in good English. I assume the still pictures of famous singers in the roles of Aida, Radamès and Amneris were taken from the programme. The clip, in black and white of Martinelli singing Radamès is intriguing as is Eva Turner talking about her 1928 performances of Aida and the vocal demands of the role including the high C at the conclusion of the Nile scene aria In patria mia. This conversation is illustrated by a recording of her singing it and a clip of Maria Chiara from the filmed performance. There are other interviews and relevant clips, such as Bergonzi teaching, Renata Tebaldi, producer Luca Ronconi as well as Chair of the Verdi Foundation, among others. These look interesting, but we are not offered the benefit of subtitle translation — doing it on the cheap again, bonus or not. The interviews with Grace Bumbry, Lorin Maazel and others in English give worthwhile insights by people who know and have sung roles in or conducted the opera. The conversation with Ronconi might also explain why he chose to ignore Verdi’s wishes for a two-tier tomb for act four, choosing instead to use the whole width of the stage. This leaves Amneris’ final words to come from unrelated space somewhere on high with her merely lit. Only Italian speakers can ascertain his reasons if the issue is in fact raised in the conversation, the rest of us non-Italian speakers can only wonder.

From the original programme the disc starts with views of Verdi’s home area, the small shop where he was born and the towns of Busseto and Parma. These revere his name and draw many tourists whom they are happy to entertain with everything from choirs to solo trumpet to brass band, as long as it is playing popular bits of Verdi’s music. You see a little of his home and estate. The disc shows Verdi’s cortège passing through the crowded streets of Milan with the people lining the streets and singing Va pensiero from Nabucco. It ends with the Casa Reposo, the rest home for aged musicians that Verdi built, endowed and where his tomb is to be found alongside that of his wife Giuseppina.

Robert J Farr

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