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A selective survey of Verdi’s Il trovatore
By Ralph Moore

The existence of around 200 recordings of Il trovatore suggests that it should be possible to find at least one or two which fulfil Caruso’s celebrated criterion that the only thing required for its success is “the four greatest singers in the world” but the ideal recording has proved elusive. There have been more than twenty studio recordings, most of which I review below, but I have excluded a few for reasons of manifest inadequacy (Bocelli as Manrico? Please…) or simply for not featuring the major voices required. The first two worthy of note were made, amazingly, over ninety years ago and the last in 2000 – but that is hors concours, being a rarity, the 1857 French version.

I nominated the 1969 Mehta recording in my “Untouchable” and ”Most Recommendable” Opera Recordings survey but that was a very personal choice and I concede that it is not perfect; there are quite a few others to rival it.

I become impatient with reviewers who lament “a lack of refinement and subtlety” in performers such as Corelli and Del Monaco in this opera. It is the loudest, trashiest, most absurd and thrilling of Grand Operas, hence its enduring popularity, and what it doesn’t need is understatement. I want singers whose voices can fill an opera house, riding over the orchestra, and few such have emerged this century.

Many of the reviews below have been adapted from those previously posted mostly on Amazon and a couple here already available here on MusicWeb; I consider twenty-seven recordings in total. Only a handful are live performances, included for reasons of special interest even if they cannot be prime recommendations.

The Recordings

Lorenzo Molajoli – 1930 (studio; mono) Naxos
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Manrico - Francesco Merli
Azucena - Giuseppina Zinetti
Leonora - Bianca Scacciati
Conte di Luna - Enrico Molinari
Ferrando - Corrado Zambelli
Ines - Ida Mannarini
Ruiz - Emilio Venturini
Un vecchio zingaro - Enzo Arnaldi

This very early complete, electrical studio recording, was originally issued in 1930 on 28 shellac sides but is now readily and cheaply available on various labels. It is conducted in a swift, taut no-nonsense manner by the mysterious Lorenzo Molajoli, seemingly unconcerned with nuances or subtleties and more intent upon delivering the score as efficiently as possible without sounding peremptory - and indeed, the conductor allows his singers plenty of breathing space in their arias.

Voices are well forward and the orchestra recessed but audible. The cast, with the exception of Merli, is not perhaps drawn from the finest singers available in that era, possibly reflecting the still relatively lowly status of recording as a performance medium, but all are singers we would love to hear today, Virtually unknown or forgotten artists like Enrico Molinari and Corrado Zambelli prove themselves to be more than adequate to their roles; indeed, despite a certain lack of trenchancy in the lower reaches of his bass, Zambelli is arresting as Ferrando and Molinari a model of elegance. Scacciati's rather matronly tone is decidedly "old-fashioned" and she sometimes squawks, but she has a large, rich soprano with a lovely dark timbre. Giuseppina Zinetti is a more than competent Azucena with the requisite heft down below. Merli reinforces his claim to be the best of those tenors of that era who is still routinely and inexplicably overlooked in surveys; he has stamina, legato and beauty of tone and is able to rise to take a C sharp with Scacciati at the end of the trio concluding Act 1.

Carlo Sabajno – 1930 (studio; mono) Quadromania; Arkadia; Aura
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Manrico - Aureliano Pertile
Azucena - Irene Minghini-Cattaneo
Leonora - Maria Carena
Conte di Luna - Apollo Granforte
Ferrando - Bruno Carmassi
Ines - Olga de Franco
Ruiz - Giordano Callegari
Un vecchio zingaro - Antonio Gelli
Un messo - Giordano Callegari

This recording is not for audiophiles, but that does not mean that you have to put up with distant squawking overlaying someone having an almighty fry-up. No; these are very listenable discs as long as you do not demand modern, stereo sound. In any case, the level of performance silences all criticism: here are some of the finest voices from the 30's, conveying the drama and immediacy of a live performance without the attendant disadvantages of live recording.

This sound is particularly striking for its age -and you can hear a quartet of unparalleled splendour. I had never heard of Maria Carena, but she is a proper singer of the old school, who occasionally reminds me of Muzio without quite the beauty of tone of that greatest of sopranos. Both vocal registers are fully developed and she knows exactly what she is doing; her technique is excellent. The other singers are better known: Pertile (a Toscanini favourite) occasionally allows his vibrato to get away from him and produce the effect of singing sharp, and Granforte makes wonderfully impressive sounds without much subtlety, but they are nonetheless mighty impressive. Minghini Catteo is a paragon among Azucenas; as good as any I have ever heard. There are numerous cuts, of course, and Pertile transposes "Di quella pira" down a whole tone, which is a bit naughty and robs it of some excitement - but that is hardly unprecedented. Sabajno's conducting fairly rattles along but that's what this warhorse needs - and he is by no means insensitive.

(This is paired with the excellent 1950 Cellini Rigoletto on the Quadromania issue.)

Guido Picco – 1950 (live; mono) Opera d’Oro; Melodram; Arkadia;
Orchestra & Chorus - Palacio de las Bellas Artes
Manrico - Kurt Baum
Azucena - Giulietta Simionato
Leonora - Maria Callas
Conte di Luna - Leonard Warren
Ferrando - Nicola Moscona
Ines - Ana María Feuss
Ruiz - Carlos Sagarminaga

First off, let’s be clear: the sound here is simply execrable, so this is only for hardened buffs who can listen through the veil of years to a distorted, crumbly mono recording made on wobbly tape. At some times it is more papery and distant than at others, but even if everything else is dim, at least the voices emerge reasonably clearly - and those voices are stellar, although it is clear that the element of competition causes all of them to over-reach and hang on to notes which are too loud, too long and too high - if that is possible in this ultimate blockbuster. The much abused and derided Kurt Baum was by all accounts a pain in the butt but he had one heck of an instrument, even if he is constantly in overdrive. This is true of every singer here but makes for a thrilling, if occasionally tiring and not especially musical, audio experience. Simionato - the odd flat note withstanding - is in tremendous form and Warren completes an extraordinary quartet of star singers, even if his throaty timbre is not to all tastes. His top notes are especially impressive - but he has to keep up with the others, obviously. Baum's stentorian delivery sounds like a combination of Richard Tucker and Flaviano Labò and we do not hear his like today. Stalwart bass and Toscanini favourite Nicola Moscona makes a good, surprisingly demonstrative Ferrando, despite his vibrato being a bit broad. The audience’s response to the set piece arias is ecstatic and prolonged. The chorus is ragged and largely more enthusiastic than refined.

Of course, even amongst such a bunch of limelight-hoggers Callas is still the star and confident enough in her instrument to take top extended Cs and even the top D option, just to try to keep Baum down - who was naturally furious.

This is for people who already know the opera, are Callas fans and real voice-mavens; I couldn't recommend it as an introduction but it belongs in your collection if you meet those criteria.

Renato Cellini - 1951-52 (studio; mono) RCA; Regis; Naxos
RCA Victor Orchestra; Robert Shaw Chorale
Manrico - Jussi Björling
Azucena - Fedora Barbieri
Leonora - Zinka Milanov
Conte di Luna - Leonard Warren
Ferrando - Nicola Moscona
Ines - Margaret Roggero
Ruiz - Paul Franke
Un vecchio zingaro - George Cehanovsky
Un messo - Nathaniel Sprinzena

Mark Obert-Thorn has done what he can for the Naxos issue, which is still a bit dim and hissy, with some pre-echo, over-resonance and distortion, so this remains in the historical category but still very listenable. Cellini’s direction is idiomatic, detailed and convincing, especially considering that he is an Italian in New York tasked with amalgamating as nationally diverse a cast of singers as can be imagined into one coherent production. Things begin well with Moscona’s Ferrando; he dramatises his narration vividly and negotiates the ornamentation with agility. Enter Zinka Milanov. I have never understood why she was so highly regarded as few of her recordings convert me, so my approach to them invariably involves an element of trepidation. I cannot, for example, hear much to admire in her studio recording of Aida with Björling; indeed, I ungallantly refer to her sounding “wobbly, screechy and elderly” but this Il trovatore was made four years earlier so I hoped that her vocal flaws would be less apparent. They are; she is in better voice here but still sounds…mature and is given to sliding – which is different from “old-fashioned portamento”, I submit. Nothing much about her voice is sensuous and top notes are screechy but just occasionally she “floats a note” in the way which made her reputation. Enter Warren and, as ever, his basic tonal production first sounds rather throaty, but then the ear adjusts and responds to his vibrancy. Just as he sings Germont’s “Di Provenza” so winningly, Warren has a knack for tapping into the tenderness and pathos of “Il balen” like almost no other baritone. Enter Björling, and so virile and youthful is he that it sounds as if Manrico is dropping in on his mum only to discover her canoodling with his uncle.

Barbieri is in good voice as Azucena, sounding suitably trenchant and demented and she still has the flexibility to cope with the turns and high notes in the role as well as belt out the declamatory passages in appropriately stentorian fashion. The Robert Shaw Chorale is excellent.

For all its virtues, - especially Björling’s unique Manrico - I cannot endorse an Il trovatore with such a matronly Leonora, which is why, I suspect, Naxos bill Björling’s name first and put his photo on the cover. However, I know others feel differently, so sample Milanov before you buy.

Herbert von Karajan – 1956 (studio; mono) EMI
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Manrico - Giuseppe di Stefano
Azucena - Fedora Barbieri
Leonora - Maria Callas
Conte di Luna - Rolando Panerai
Ferrando - Nicola Zaccaria
Ines - Luisa Villa
Ruiz - Renato Ercolani
Un vecchio zingaro - Giulio Mauri
Un messo - Renato Ercolani

Neither in terms of singing, sound nor edition could his recording could ever be called flawless: Di Stefano is over-parted, it is mono, owing to Walter Legge's pig-headed resistance to new-fangled stereo, and subject to some cuts, but owing to its combination of energy, elegance and sheer glamour, it is still worthy of the highest recommendation.

The pairing of Callas still in best voice and Karajan in an opera in which he always excelled, directing an orchestra entirely immersed in the Verdian performance tradition, will itself be enough to guarantee its place amongst the top versions. Despite his ego, Karajan was always very considerate to his singers and mindful of the subtleties beneath the ostensible crudities of Verdi's most blatant tub-thumper of an opera and Callas provides a riveting portrayal of the desperate Leonora, employing her heart-stopping portamenti, luxuriant lower register and special gift for word-painting to ensure that hers is one of the most penetrating depictions of a heroine who is given some of the most meltingly lovely cantilena passages in all of Verdi's output. The voice is almost wholly under control and any harshness or beat in its upper reaches is passing.

However, this recording possesses many other virtues, including the contribution of the ever-elegant Panerai. He is almost too elegant and beautiful in fact for the brutish di Luna. Other baritones are more imposing but none makes so much of colouring and shading his voice and he makes a virtue of his neater, smaller sound. The rich bass Zaccaria deals masterfully with Ferrando's frequent gruppetti and Barbieri is a thrilling, hysterical, big-voiced Azucena.

The singer who comes nearest to letting the side down is Di Stefano. He is sometimes rhythmically uncertain and the role is manifestly a size too big for him; at times, he certainly resorts to shouting, such as at the close of "Di quella pira". Yet he is impassioned and typically whole-hearted; this was a singer who didn't know how to sing on the interest of his voice and he is lavish in his squandering of its capital.

There are other equally satisfying vintage studio accounts from the 50's, not least those featuring Björling conducted by Cellini and the recordings by Erede (from the same year as this for EMI by Karajan) and Basile, but they too have their casting drawbacks and certainly none is better conducted and played, so in the end you must go with your own taste; personally, I want to own and play them all. The mono sound is barely an issue and sixty-five years on this recording sounds increasingly like a hieratic communication from a vanished age.

Alberto Erede – 1956 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra - Grand Théâtre de Genève; Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Manrico - Mario Del Monaco
Azucena - Giulietta Simionato
Leonora - Renata Tebaldi
Conte di Luna - Ugo Savarese
Ferrando - Giorgio Tozzi
Ines - Luisa Maragliano
Ruiz - Athos Cesarini
Un vecchio zingaro - Antonio Balbi
Un messo - Athos Cesarini

I returned to this recording after an interval of many years – I think the last time I played it was when I was living in New York in the mid 80’s – and found it to be infinitely superior to my recollection of it. It is one of a whole batch made by Decca in the mid-50’s, usually centring upon their “house tenor” and rising superstar Mario Del Monaco. They were in good stereo and often impressively cast but increasingly overlooked as EMI and RCA got going with their own rival issues and it has become customary to consign the conductor Erede to the category of “reliable but uninspired journeyman” – the Italian equivalent of the German “Kapellmeister”. It is true that the impact of Giorgio Tozzi’s beautiful, baleful bass is somewhat lessened by Erede’s careful tempo for his narrative but that gives him time to colour his words and negotiate the turns in the music more effectively – then Erede doubles the pace for the coda with the alarm bells and Tozzi keeps up with him, despite the difficulty of the triplets, so overall it works well. We then hear Tebaldi in prime vocal condition, with only a little of the harshness on top notes which later crept in – and also paying close attention to the nuances of text. This was a role which suited her patrician tone and manner and she sounds every inch the aristocrat. She, too, is given plenty of space by the conductor and were it not for the sheer beauty of her soprano, proceedings could turn listless, but instead the listener can luxuriate in the glorious outpouring of sound.

I wasn’t very complimentary about Ugo Savarese’s Germont in my recent survey of La Traviata; his tone is a bit nasal and constricted, but even if he didn’t have a major voice, he was a competent artist – just not very interesting – and he is the relative weakness here, especially when his entrance is swiftly followed by that of our Manrico, positively sweating testosterone. I don’t care what anyone says about Del Monaco’s “crudity”, this is a voice to drink in, especially given the nature of the role in question. As usual, the blanket accusation of “unremitting loudness” is belied by moments when he reins in and sings softly, such as in “Non ferir”, but his top Cs are fearsome, too. The great Simionato is equally in her element as Azucena, predictably sonorous and hair-rising, with a firmness of tonal emission and nary a hint of wobble which must be the envy of any aspiring Verdian mezzo-soprano. So even if we have to settle for a quartet rather than a quintet of stellar singers, we are still doing pretty well. Savarese is by no means an embarrassment in such company, but a merely adequate di Luna makes a hole in this recording which is so amply filled by singers such as Warren, Bastianini, Merrill, Milnes and Zancanaro.

Fernando Previtali – 1957 (live radio broadcast; mono) Myto; Arkadia
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Manrico - Mario Del Monaco
Azucena - Fedora Barbieri
Leonora - Leyla Gencer
Conte di Luna - Ettore Bastianini
Ferrando - Plinio Clabassi
Ines - Laura Londi
Ruiz - Athos Cesarini
Un vecchio zingaro - Sergio Liliani
Un messo - Walter Artioli

I came to this live performance on Myto having just reviewed the live, 1962 Il trovatore from La Scala with Corelli, Stella, Cossotto and Bastianini, and was surprised to find it every bit as good - in some respects, in fact, even better. The sound here isn't quite as pleasing, being a bit crumblier and with more flutter and distortion at climaxes but it's still perfectly satisfactory for what I presume by the absence of audience noise and applause to be a radio broadcast from RAI in Milan in 1957.

It really is a matter of taste whether you prefer Del Monaco or Corelli as Manrico; suffice it to say that both so far exceed what we could hope to hear today - you just sit back and marvel. Similarly, a choice between perhaps the greatest post-war exponent of Azucena, Fedora Barbieri in her prime and the up-and-coming but already stellar-voiced Fiorenza Cossotto in 1962 is virtually otiose; both are riveting, even if Barbieri is less agile. Bastianini is commanding as di Luna in both; perhaps a tad more unbuttoned in the later performance. Despite more restraint here, his top notes are still thrilling. There are certainly a few more instances of wandering from pitch by the principals in the earlier recording and Previtali is inclined to give his singers more space with the result that although Gavazzeni generates more visceral excitement, Previtali allows more detail to emerge and permits his singers - especially Gencer - more latitude to inject nuance in this old barn-stormer of a score. Both basses, Clabassi and Vinco - the former sounding much better than he did as the King in the RCA studio Aida of two years earlier - are excellent as Ferrando.

Despite the pre-eminence of all those singers in the RAI broadcast, the main attraction must be the chance to hear the Leonora of Leyla Gencer. She vies with the equally revered and equally woefully under-recorded Magda Olivero for the title "Queen of Pirates" so any performance in half-way decent sound must be welcome - and she does not disappoint. Despite a little cloudiness in the middle of the voice and taking a while to warm up, she gives a masterclass in both vocalisation and characterisation: she is tender, vulnerable, desperate and determined, secure from her huge top C sharps (in one of which at the end of the Act 1 duet she is joined by Del Monaco in a fashion that must have made Corelli quake with fearful envy – yet he transposes “Di quella pira” down a semitone) down to a trenchant lower register. Her coloratura is sometimes a little sketchy and under-defined but so much of what she does is memorable – especially her floating pianissimi - that criticism is silenced.

How lucky the Milanesi were in the 50's to be able to hear Il trovatore sung on a regular basis by a roster of singers whose names are now legendary: Callas, Gencer, Stella, Simionato, Barbieri, Del Monaco, Di Stefano, Corelli, Bastianini, Panerai, Gobbi, Warren - unbelievable. This enshrines one of those typical yet still astonishing performances.

(There is also a dim, lip-synched film version with the same cast, recorded a little earlier.)

Arturo Basile – 1959 (studio; stereo) RCA; Urania
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Manrico - Richard Tucker
Azucena - Rosalind Elias
Leonora - Leontyne Price
Conte di Luna - Leonard Warren
Ferrando - Giorgio Tozzi
Ines - Laura Londi
Ruiz - Mario Carlin
Un vecchio zingaro - Leonardo Monreale
Un messo - Tommaso Frascati

This, the first of Leontyne Price’s studio recordings of Il trovatore, has a fine cast and is in good, if slightly crumbly stereo, but has been somewhat overlooked in the past in favour of the later two – and I think there are good reasons for that. Obviously, Price’s voice is at its freshest, especially in comparison with her last recording eighteen years later; the trade-off for the youthful voice is slightly blander characterisation, so I can understand why some prefer her subsequent assumptions. Price could be a stately, uninvolved singer and certainly deepened her portrayal over the years, but the voice grew cloudier.

Tucker hardly sounds youthful; indeed, there are times when he sounds positively middle-aged and older than his mother. On the other hand, he has power and vibrancy a-plenty and his top notes are secure. “Ah! sì ben mio”” is sung with great feeling and passion but his little glottal gulps are irksome. “Di quella pira” is despatched efficiently, if not with the elan of Del Monaco and Corelli. Rosalind Elias sings a clean, powerful Azucena but without perhaps, the slancio and constant suggestion of derangement the character demands. Her fast vibrato and neat divisions are just a little too tidy. Warren doesn’t by any means sound to be in the best voice I have heard him on disc; his timbre has a more bottled quality than usual and he seems to struggle with some of the faster-moving passages, such as in the Act 1 trio following “Infida!” but he is still a strong presence and enacts di Luna’s anger and frustration convincingly, then sings “Il balen” tenderly as he did for Cellini. Tozzi reprises the strong Ferrando he gave Erede but I would say he was in considerably firmer, blacker voice three years earlier; here, he sounds a mite superannuated and breathless, and given to barking – which I have not heard him do elsewhere.

Basile’s conducting is, like his heroine, a tad sedate; the gypsy scenes and the confrontations between characters could do with more fire and quite often I find myself wishing he would inject more pace, propulsion and momentum into his direction.

All in all, despite the splendour of Price’s Leonora, the accumulation of minor flaws and irritations in the vocalisation and performance here inclines me to relegate it to the second rank: good but not the best.

Oliviero De Fabritiis – 1961 (live; mono) Bel Canto; Premiere Opera
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Manrico - Franco Corelli
Azucena - Fedora Barbieri
Leonora - Mirella Parutto (-Boyer)
Conte di Luna - Ettore Bastianini
Ferrando - Agostino Ferrin
Ines - Anna (Maria) Marcangeli
Ruiz - Vittorio Pandano
Un vecchio zingaro - Carlo Platania
Un messo - Mino Russo

I reviewed this on MusicWeb over a decade ago:

"Opera Fanatic" is the new label name for discs from the familiar Bel Canto Society, which specialises in issuing historical recordings and DVD's featuring such great tenors as Gigli, Del Monaco and, of course, Franco Corelli. Given that only minimal documentation is provided, I am pleased to see that the discs come in a slimline case rather than the clunky, shelf-filling box sets still favoured by too many record companies such as Gala.

Taped in Berlin in 1961 while the Rome Opera were on tour, the recording is sonically excellent, although there is more hiss than on the live Salzburg recording from the following year, the prompter is as omnipresent as Hamlet's father's ghost, and the thunderous applause is prolonged and intrusive - or enthusiastically atmospheric, depending on your attitude to live recording. The soprano's top notes cause some flap and distortion but there's not much coughing and we should not complain when a performance from almost fifty years ago has been preserved in such clear and immediate sound. I am sure, however, that Ward Marston or Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos or Pristine could eliminate that hissing.

My comparisons with both live and studio recordings from around the same time reveal that although Barbieri is still a tower of strength, the voice is less flexible and more inclined to scoop than was the case in either the 1952 Cellini set or with Karajan and Callas in 1955; the years have taken some of the tautness out of the sound, the vibrato has loosened and the top is less easy - indeed, she avoids altogether the B flat in her Act II narrative "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" but does take the top B flat right at the end of the opera. Similarly, Bastianini, although still in fine, saturnine voice, sounds a little hoarse and has less amplitude of breath than in either the live Karajan performance in Salzburg or the even better studio recording with Serafin and Bergonzi, both recorded in the same month in 1962, shortly before Bastianini's throat cancer began to render his voice unpredictable. Agostino Ferrin pins back our ears appropriately at the beginning and delivers a fine, focused Ferrando. Corelli is...well, Corelli. In all three of the recordings I compared. I'm not sure that there is much in his performance to distinguish one from another; he was a very consistent and self-critical artist and could, as voice teacher Douglas Stanley used to say of Melchior, always be relied upon to make the same mistakes twice. Having said that, most of us are happier with Corelli's faults than most other tenors' virtues and Corelli gives his all here in Berlin. He sets out his stall early on by absurdly prolonging his first top B flat when Manrico declares his love and from then on loses no opportunity to grandstand. It's a thrilling ride even if we are not always exactly aboard Verdi's wagon, and there are moments of great tenderness in Corelli's characterisation of Manrico, especially in his exchanges with Azucena - all the more remarkable for the fact that he and Barbieri were not on speaking terms since an incident in February 1960 in Naples, when Corelli ran up to a box to take a swing at a one-man claque, allegedly paid by Barbieri to demand that she take an unaccompanied bow after her second act duet with Corelli. However he felt about her off-stage, "Coscia d'Oro" (or "Golden Thighs", as Barbieri memorably nicknamed him) did not let that show in his relationship with his onstage mother. It is slightly disappointing that Corelli invariably chose to transpose "Di quella pira" down a semitone in live performances, especially as he nails it in the studio recording and always took the D flat with the soprano at the end of Act 1. He goes over the top in Act IV when he supposes that Leonora has sold herself to di Luna and he takes the usual liberties with note values - but these are mere details set against the poetry and fire of his performance as a whole. His "Ah! sì, ben mio" is especially impressive: huge-breathed, with beautifully controlled diminuendi, ample of tone, and full of desperate sentiment.

The biggest drawback to this recording is the somewhat laboured performance of Mirella Parutto as Leonora. She has a big - very big - ungainly spinto soprano which tends to flatness at the top - but she almost covers Corelli with her D flat at the end of Act 1. She struggles with the coloratura required in the cavatina of "Tacea la notte" and in "D'amor sull'ali rosee". At times she manages a sincerity of utterance, even if it is in a kind of all-purpose mode, and does some truly lovely things, such as the controlled crescendo on "Primo che d'altri vivere" just before her death, but she is clearly battling with this demanding role, and cannot compare with the sopranos in the recordings I mention above. She is perhaps typical of a kind of second-rank soprano in more plentiful supply at that time for which we would be more grateful today. Apparently she changed tessitura to mezzo-soprano in 1965 and had a reasonably successful career thereafter.

This is a good chance to hear that rare thing: an authentic performance of the ultimate Italian opera, sung by all-Italian cast wholly immersed in Verdian tradition, under an able and unobtrusive conductor who understands the idiom and never lets the tension flag. There is the occasional disjuncture between singers and pit that you might expect in a live performance, but nothing serious. This is unlikely to be your only Il trovatore; on balance, if you want Corelli the 1965 Schippers studio recording is the best bet and I still think that the live Salzburg performance is, overall, superior to this one, especially with regard to the soprano - but it makes a wonderful supplement, and a souvenir of Corelli at his energised best.

Fausto Cleva – 1961 (live; mono) Myto; Sony
Orchestra & Chorus - Metropolitan Opera
Manrico - Franco Corelli
Azucena - Irene Dalis
Leonora - Leontyne Price
Conte di Luna - Mario Sereni
Ferrando - William Wilderman
Ines - Teresa Stratas
Ruiz - Charles Anthony
Un vecchio zingaro - Carlo Tomanelli
Un messo - Robert Nagy

I actually found it very easy to sort out in my mind what I thought about this recording; the advantages and disadvantages present themselves clearly to any listener who has some knowledge of the discography and adheres to Caruso's old dictum in order to succeed.

The immediate competition, working on the assumption that the pairing of Price and Corelli is the main attraction here, is the live Salzburg performance from the following year. If you want either of those artists but not necessarily together, either of the studio recordings by Price with Domingo and Bonisolli respectively will be attractive, although time had taken some toll on the voice by the time the latter was made. For Corelli, the studio recording under Schippers is a favourite but he is here at his animalistic best stimulated by the nervous excitement of a live performance. The sound of this Met performance is markedly clearer, cleaner and fuller than in Salzburg - just about as good live, vintage mono gets - but Karajan's conducting is superior to Cleva's slightly rushed, tauter direction and both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chor der Wiener Staatsoper make the Met forces sound like amateurs; the Met chorus bawls enthusiastically and pitches approximately while the orchestra cannot hope to rival the sheen and depth of sound of the VPO. When it comes to the other main roles, Sereni's competent and slightly cloudy baritone, despite the intensity of his acting, cannot compete with the great bronze baritone of Bastianini and Irene Dalis, for all that she uses her attractive voice intelligently to maximise the impact of her characterisation, is essentially a second-rank contralto when compared with the voices of the great Italian dames like Simionato, Barbieri and Cossotto, who have so much more resonance and heft in their lower registers. One surprising advantage to the Met version, however, is the clean incisiveness of house bass William Wilderman, of whom I had not previously heard and who somewhat eclipses the better known but slightly woolly Zaccaria in Salzburg.

But - and this is a big "but" - you will never hear anywhere else singing of the majesty and power displayed here by Price and Corelli, who surpass even their stellar performances in Salzburg. Corelli grandstands shamelessly but irresistibly, and although he sings "Di quella pira" down a semitone to end on top B rather than C, he throws in a huge top C sharp at the end of Act 1 and some stunning extended B's and B flats elsewhere. Price, too, is simply divine: thrilling, poised and deeply moving, managing C sharps, trills and extraordinarily agile coloratura to ornament the great line of the Verdian spinto soprano.

There are flaws in the performance as a whole, but as a souvenir of two of the greatest singers in their best roles, this performance cannot be given too emphatic an endorsement.

Tullio Serafin – 1962 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Manrico - Carlo Bergonzi
Azucena - Fiorenza Cossotto
Leonora - Antonietta Stella
Conte di Luna - Ettore Bastianini
Ferrando - Ivo Vinco
Ines - Armanda Bonato
Ruiz - Franco Ricciardi
Un vecchio zingaro - Giuseppe Morresi
Un messo - Angelo Mercuriali

While it is by no means perfect, this set has a lot going for it: an all-Italian cast; a superlative di Luna, Azucena and Ferrando in Bastianini, Cossotto and Vinco respectively; probably the greatest Italian conductor of his generation, and a chance for Bergonzi fans to hear him tackle a role at the limit of his capability.

It is true that Serafin is sometimes a little too relaxed; his "Squilli, echeggi la tromba" at the start of Part III is simply too slow and lacking in martial bravura but elsewhere he displays his mastery of the score and is always considerate of his singers. There is a problem with Stella's Leonora; it is most noticeable in her placid, careful opening aria, "Tacea la notte". She is "correct" in everything she does but hardly ever makes your pulse rush (as she can and does in her 1964 recording of Andrea Chenier with Corelli, for example). However, if you do not lose patience with her, she warms up considerably and by Part IV uses a combination of her gutsy lower register and floating top notes to make an excellent job of the "D'amor sull'ali rose" and the "Miserere".

While I do not think that Bergonzi sounds as if he is stretched beyond his limits in the "Di quella pira", he probably is stretched to his limits. He manages plenty of squillo in his sound and of course phrases wonderfully. Corelli he ain't - but his is a successful way of doing Manrico, I think.

Bastianini is wonderful, even if he could occasionally temper that big brazen sound and show a little more tenderness in phrases such as "O Leonora" in the "In braccio al mio rival". His "Il balen" is truly beautiful; not a hint of the hoarseness which presaged the throat cancer which ended his career a mere three years later and his life two years after that at 44. His breath control and top G are astounding; the latter attacked cleanly and held effortlessly. Cossotto is in slightly fresher voice as Azucena than in the later celebrated Mehta recording; powerful and affecting; a wholly successful assumption of that demanding role from an artist at the top of her form. Finally, Vinco gives us the most vividly characterised and beautifully vocalised Ferrando on record.

So to call this a "near miss" is too unkind a verdict; Stella is by no means a disaster and there is much pleasure still to be had from listening to this set.

Herbert von Karajan – 1962 (live; mono) DG; Gala; Frequenz
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker; Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Manrico - Franco Corelli
Azucena - Giulietta Simionato
Leonora - Leontyne Price
Conte di Luna - Ettore Bastianini
Ferrando - Nicola Zaccaria
Ines - Laurence Dutoit
Ruiz - Siegfried Rudolf Frese
Un vecchio zingaro - Rudolf Zimmer
Un messo - Kurt Equiluz

The dim and distant mono sound here is never going to be a treat, no matter who remasters it, but distortion is minimal and it will do; the elemental thrills of the singing are compensation enough.

Zaccaria immediately pins back our ears with his highly characterful, immediately recognisable, slightly grainy, bass and when Price enters as Leonora the stage is flooded with precisely the kind of star-quality which Milanov, for example, in the Cellini recording above, signally fails to provide – the listener’s soul is flooded with the amplitude of her voice and the surging sensuousness of the music. I don’t think she has sung anything better than her “D’amor sull’ali rosee”. You also here how Karajan, in contrast to Cellini’s mere competence, nurtures and enhances the impact of his singers’ vocalism by virtue of his infinitely flexible phrasing – the man knew how to support a great voice even if occasionally he pushed some too far. Furthermore, the audience knows it and responds accordingly, with thunderous applause. I simply cannot imagine the privilege of sitting in an opera house listening to the entries of voice after voice of this quality: Zaccaria, Price, Bastianini, Corelli, Simionato – quite extraordinary. You realise that Corelli is feeling on form when he cracks out a high D to accompany Price at the close of Act 1 and goes on to sustain his high Cs in “Di quella pira”; he is in stupendous voice throughout. Simionato is a baleful, terrifying Azucena, who would be utterly dominant, vocally speaking were she not in such exalted company. Bastianini is hardly the last word in refinement and is occasionally unsteady, but delivers a sterling performance. It is just a pity that this was not captured in the studio or in fuller sound.

Gianandrea Gavazzeni – 1962 (live; mono) Myto; Melodram, Priory
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Manrico - Franco Corelli
Azucena - Fiorenza Cossotto
Leonora - Antonietta Stella
Conte di Luna - Ettore Bastianini
Ferrando - Ivo Vinco
Ines - Mirella Fiorentini
Ruiz - Piero De Palma
Un vecchio zingaro - Virgilio Carbonari
Un messo - Franco Ricciardi

The prime attraction here must be the Manrico of Franco Corelli but there are several other options if he is your main object, not least the famous 1963 Salzburg recording under Karajan, the 1964 studio recording under Schippers and the newly released live broadcast from the Met in 1961. All display his manifold virtues, but he is perhaps at his subtlest - in so far has he did subtlety - here in 1962 at La Scala under the utterly reliable, unerringly paced baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni. When performing live, Corelli's nerves couldn't take the risk of "Di quella pira" in the original key so only in the studio recording is does he hit top C's and here it is transposed down a semitone but I cannot say I much mind. Only Del Monaco could match him for visceral thrills and sheer macho heft, yet both could encompass the pathos of "Ah! sì, ben mio".

The attractions of this live recording continue with excellent, clear mono sound without distortion and the contributions of Corelli's co-stars. Bastianini is in clarion voice, only very occasionally a little rough and unsteady but mostly gloriously assured, Ivo Vinco is similarly rich-voiced as Ferrando and Cossotto takes her place alongside Simionato and Barbieri as one of the most compelling interpreters of Azucena; indeed, I think she is my favourite of the three by virtue of the penetrating, flame-like intensity and towering authority of her performance.

About Stella, it is possible to have reservations: the voice is somewhat cloudy and loses beauty of tone in the middle, but her top is secure and she sings here with somewhat more assurance and dramatic inflection that in the slightly tentative studio recording made under Serafin in the same year. She might not be Leontyne Price in her prime in the Met broadcast or at Salzburg but she is a match for Tucci in the Schippers studio recording and is certainly superior to any Leonora we have today. She executes a whopping top C in an exciting duet with Bastianini's baleful di Luna in Act IV and the discriminating La Scala audience is audibly appreciative of her art.

For some reason, absurdly expensive used copies under various labels are available on Marketplace but hunt about a bit and you will find it reasonably priced. The Melodram issue include a bonus of arias by Stella from La forza del destino and Ernani.

Thomas Schippers – 1964 (studio; stereo) EMI; Urania
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Manrico - Franco Corelli
Azucena - Giulietta Simionato
Leonora - Gabriella Tucci
Conte di Luna - Robert Merrill
Ferrando - Ferruccio Mazzoli
Ines - Luciana Moneta
Ruiz - Angelo Mercuriali

This 1965 recording is zestfully conducted by the energetic Schippers, who was cut down by lung cancer at only 47.

Conducting apart, the most common flaw in any recording of Il trovatore is in the role of Leonora - certainly that is where I have reservations in the Serafin, Cellini and later Karajan sets - and this one is no different. Tucci is perhaps no-one's ideal Leonora, but I find myself re-assessing her standing in the light of her magnificent Desdemona in the live del Monaco/Gobbi Tokyo recording of Otello and she is much more than competent here. Hers is not the most sumptuous sound and there is sometimes some shrillness up top, but she negotiates the coloratura very effectively and breathes life into the character. She certainly isn't over-shadowed by her co-singers - and what a company they are. Simionato was slightly past her best - this was her last commercial recording and there is some bleakness and "drop-out" around middle E, F, and G but the ringing top notes and booming lower register are very effective and she brings all her vast stage experience to embodying this tormented character. A little wear and stress are not inappropriate to a woman who has been tormented by guilt and rage for twenty years; there is no more believable Azucena on record, Cossotto and Barbieri notwithstanding. Corelli is a phenomenon; his very first notes bring a thrill of recognition and his Troubador ends that opening offstage aria with a ringing B flat. His fans will need no more urging; this is vintage Corelli. Mazzoli is a lighter voiced Ferrando than usual but very expressive and attentive to words - still, he's no match for Vinco or Moscona. Merrill is his usual smooth, robust, expressive self, effortlessly deploying one of the most beautiful baritone voices ever, even if he is less sensitive and nuanced than Warren – who apart from Zancanaro, is the only di Luna I know who actually sings "Il balen" throughout like the love-song it is rather than a good baritone bawl. Schippers is at times hard-driven but also relaxes when his singers need time to make their points - and, unlike Serafin, he gets the tempo right for the martial opening of Act 3.

So, this set finds an honourable place on my shelves alongside the other fine recordings mentioned above. Perhaps from a perspective of nearly sixty years later we are beginning to realise how lucky we are to have good quality recordings of artists with the kind of Verdi voice which seems to have all but disappeared.

Egizio Massini – 1965 (studio; stereo) Carlton Classics (IMP); Cantus Classics; Vox; World of the Opera (sic)
Orchestra & Chorus - National Opera of Bucharest
Manrico - Cornel Stavru
Azucena - Zenaida Pally
Leonora - Elena Dima-Toroiman
Conte di Luna - Octav Enigarescu
Ferrando - Constantin Dimitrescu
Ines - Victoria Draganescu
Ruiz - Constantin Ilescu
Un vecchio zingaro - Nicolae Vladuta
Un messo - Valentin Vitcovski

This recording was an unexpected surprise. In a sense, all the voices here are of a type and era, and none the worse for that. They sing as if they mean it and want to give impression that their voices would reach the back row of the gods, even if this is a studio recording.

It must be said that prima inter pares is Elena Dima-Toroiman, who has “a proper Verdi voice”: rich, ample, ductile and sensuous; what a pity, then, that she didn’t have a trill to ornament her big aria, which would otherwise be close to perfection. Her portamenti are a dream.

Constantin Dimitrescu has a big, fruity bass of no particular refinement but he makes a nice noise.
Zenaida Pally rolls her r’s ferociously and wields her, large matronly voice to suitably baleful effect; she has proper lower register and the range, too, so her top notes ring out, though at times she is unsteady. Cornel Stavru has a robust, incisive tenor which often sounds uncannily like Richard Tucker and he never knowingly undersings. Sometimes he makes Del Monaco sound shy. Baritone Octav Enigarescu sounds East European rather than Italian (please don’t ask me why; I’m not sure myself…); he’s a bit thick-voiced and throaty and he does brutal better than lyrical, but di Luna is hardly a nice fellow, in any case.

Italian diction throughout is excellent, the singers all being native speakers of cognate Romanian. Massini conducts in a good old-fashioned, gung-ho manner; indeed, contemporary accounts of his conducting describe “his warm gestures and physical energy” which certainly come through here.

The stereo acoustic of this recording is intermittently over-reverberant and bass-heavy; for instance, something happens suddenly to distance the soprano’s voice in the closing bars of “D’amor sull’ali rosee” and at times the focus swings, too, so the chorus – which sounds huge probably as a result of the engineering – sometimes shifts around in the aural picture. Individual instruments are brought forward, too. It’s not too distracting but odd.

There’s nothing much subtle about this recording but subtlety is not the prime ingredient of this opera and I find it most enjoyable for its devil-may-care attack and lack of pretention.

Zubin Mehta – 1969 (studio; stereo) RCA; Lyrita, Brilliant
New Philharmonia Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Manrico - Plácido Domingo
Azucena - Fiorenza Cossotto
Leonora - Leontyne Price
Conte di Luna - Sherrill Milnes
Ferrando - Bonaldo Giaiotti
Ines - Elizabeth Bainbridge
Ruiz - Ryland Davies
Un vecchio zingaro - Stanley Riley
Un messo - Neilson Taylor

This was the recording whereby as an eighteen-year-old I was introduced to this opera so I am imprinted with it, but trying to assess it objectively, I still think it has a youthful zest and energy which make it special. There has, however, over the years, been a fair amount of hoo-hah concerning two aspects of this recording which fail to satisfy: one is the element of distortion inherent in the master tapes as a result of miking too close by the original recording engineer and the other is that Mehta drives the music too hard. Otherwise, there can be little doubt that we are hearing some of the best singing of its era which harkens back to a previous Golden Age in its scope and amplitude; there is no way any contemporary opera house could field voices like these in a modern production.

It helps that we have a very fine orchestra, the regular go-to chorus of the day in the Ambrosian singers and Mehta in his youthful Wunderkind stage; he was at the helm for several recordings dating from the 70's which have stood the test of time, especially his Turandot, La fanciulla del West and this one. The peaking problem notwithstanding, the venue of the Walthamstow Town Hall contributes to a big, warm, spacious ambiance which suggests the theatre. I also find that the remastering, without being able to eliminate entirely the crackle on the loudest, highest notes, in combination with listening on headphones, have resulted in a much less troubling listening experience.

As for Mehta's conducting, it seems to me that he allows his artists ample time in the more lyrical passages but simply goes for broke just as this opera demands in the most dramatic scenes. Price has all the time in the world to float her long, arcing phrases in her opening aria and "D'amor sull'ali"; the results are ravishing. As for the odd suggestion that she is past her peak in 1969, the proponents of such an outlandish proposal need new ears; the voice is supreme: velvety, ample, warm and vibrant, filling Verdi's music with passion and pathos. Indeed, all the voices are here are in stellar form. Giaiotti opens the opera with what remains the best Ferrando on record; he is sonorous, saturnine and biting of tone, enunciating the text beautifully and providing exactly the start we need if this opera is grab us by the scruff of the neck and never let go until its absurdly melodramatic climax. Milnes is as good as you will ever hear him; if you don't like him here you don't like his voice in any case. I remember on first hearing his "Il balen" trying to emulate his gorgeous tone and broad, long-breathed phrasing. He simultaneously sounds both brutal and lovestruck in a role that fits him like a glove. Cossotto is the power-house I recall her as live in the theatre; she is simply a force of nature, mad as a box of frogs and riveting in her obsession. OK; the young Domingo lacks the last ounce of glamour at the top of his voice, straining a little with his top C but he is otherwise every inch the hero, combining emotional pathos with vocal allure.

While I am attached to other recordings, none other offers quite the glamour of this vocal quartet or the same propulsive élan – indeed, Giulini and even Karajan can seem relatively sedate alongside Mehta's urgency.

Bruno Bartoletti – 1975 (studio; stereo) Acanta; Arts Music
Orchestra - Berliner Staatskapelle; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin
Manrico - Franco Bonisolli
Azucena - Viorica Cortez
Leonora - Raina Kabaivanska
Conte di Luna - Giorgio Zancanaro
Ferrando - Giancarlo Luccardi
Ines - Gisela Pohl
Ruiz - Johannes Bier

Excellent analogue sound, a highly experienced conductor and a roster of famous cast-names, make this somewhat overlooked recording sufficient to make the operaphile’s mouth water. Expectations are immediately confirmed by the resonance and beauty of Giancarlo Luccardi’s bass. In truth he sounds rather refined and even aristocratic but what lovely singing – as well as enlivening the text, he encompasses the “little notes”, staccato runs and dynamic gradations often ignored by basses who sing the narrative straight through. I wonder why he wasn’t more celebrated; it’s a voice to drink in.

Bulgarian Raina Kabaivanska was always a distinguished singer but somewhat overshadowed by more charismatic contemporaries. She displays an ample, slightly smoky spinto of no special beauty of tone which turns a bit “white” in alt, but it is generally even throughout its range and capable of soft, delicate phrasing which very occasionally turns a tad unsteady; otherwise, she clearly has a rock-solid technique and the sustained pianissimo A flat concluding “D’amor sull’ali rosee” is sublime.

We then hear a singer who rarely disappoints and whose recordings I have sedulously sought out: that most elegant, refined and discreetly passionate of Italianate baritones, Giorgio Zancanaro. The contrast between his patrician demeanour and the hot-blooded Manrico of Franco Bonisolli is dramatically most apt. Profligate with released top notes, Bonisolli is the very incarnation of the romantic lover, in the Corelli mode, all bare, hairy chest and bravado as per his photo, while Zancanaro is all sneering disdain. His “Il balen” is a Verdi-lover’s dream: perfect line and legato, virile top notes and suffused with seething desire. I could listen to him all day. Tenor and soprano cap Act 1 by jointly singing a whopping top D and Bonisolli hangs on for ever to a top D flat at the end of “Di quella pira” – great stuff. To complete a deeply satisfying line-up with nary a weak link, we hear another under-valued singer, the great Romanian mezzo-soprano Viorica Cortez, ringing of voice with a properly trenchant lower register and plenty of temperament.

The chorus is a little too polite as the gypsy band but their singing as such is splendid. Just occasionally I feel that Bartoletti, too, is a little too restrained and could let rip more or create more momentum, as in the passage beginning di Luna’s “No, no, non può, nemmen un Dio” and “D’amor sull’ali rosee” is too slow, thereby weakening the drama, but those are fleeting objections. The recording acoustic is quite broad and spacious but the balance between voices and orchestra is good – somewhat suggestive of the theatre.

Every survey I have done has thrown up a surprise or two – this is another, to join the Bucharest recording above and becomes a top recommendation.

Richard Bonynge – 1975 (live; stereo) Bella Voce
Orchestra & Chorus - San Francisco Opera
Manrico - Luciano Pavarotti
Azucena - Elena Obraztsova
Leonora - Joan Sutherland
Conte di Luna - Ingvar Wixell
Ferrando - Clifford Grant
Ines - Linda Roark(-Strummer)
Ruiz - Gary Burgess
Un vecchio zingaro - John Davies
Un messo - John Duykers

Retrospection gives us greater appreciation of this live recording in San Francisco. In absolute, historical terms it is perhaps true that none of the five principals here possesses the ideal Verdian sound but in the context of what we may hear on stage today, they are superlative. Il trovatore is and should be a pretty much "full on" listening experience and Bonynge gives his singers free rein, employing plenty of rubato and virtual suspension of the beat for the money notes but that does occasionally also involve some let up in the tension and it’s not as though everyone goes hell-for-leather the entire time. Essentially, this is Il trovatore given the bel canto treatment, which is – well – different…

Pavarotti is not pushing himself beyond the natural brightness and reverberation of his essentially lyric tenor here but his exuberance seems to encourage Sutherland to drop any attachment to a Lucia di Lammermoor bel canto style of singing, and even if her lower register is lacking, she embellishes she her arias with some thrilling and apt coloratura decoration and crowns them with top D flats, some of which ornamentation was derived by Bonynge from the French version of the opera (see the last review below). At first there is something of a beat in her tone but the sheer size of the voice is always impressive and of course in this regard she matches Obraztsova, whose huge, animal sound is all-enveloping. What point is there is there in subtlety in a role such as this? It was parts such as Azucena which allowed Verdi to exploit the depth, brilliance and richness of the mezzo-soprano voice category and exploit it as no composer had done before. As such, Obraztsova is better suited to it than Marilyn Horne in the subsequent studio recording, where Pavarotti, Sutherland and Wixell are more restrained and thus less successful. Pavarotti's abandon results in a fleeting crack at the end of the final top C in his "Di quella pira" but that matters little. I love Clifford Grant's black, incisive bass and wish that Ozzie equivalent of Gwynne Howell had recorded more. Ingvar Wixell is similarly biting and animated, singing with great vibrancy but sustaining a truly classical legato in his one "gentle" aria "Il balen", where he exhibits a tenorial lightness and flexibility. As always, he is a compelling vocal actor. Only the chorus sounds a bit thin but that's hardly important in an opera expressly written for grand-standing soloists. The final scene is electric.

The audience clearly loves what it is hearing and responds accordingly. There is a little thumping, stage noise and coughing but it's negligible. While this not might be the authentic Verdi of one's dreams it is clearly great singing and does honour to Verdi's bombastic, no-holds-barred score. Just don’t expect the usual no-hold-barred attack…

Richard Bonynge – 1976 (studio; stereo) Decca
National Philharmonic Orchestra; London Opera Chorus
Manrico - Luciano Pavarotti
Azucena - Marilyn Horne
Leonora - Joan Sutherland
Conte di Luna - Ingvar Wixell
Ferrando - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Ines - Norma Burrowes
Ruiz - Graham Clark
Un vecchio zingaro - Peter Knapp
Un messo - Wynford Evans

The curiously slow and hesitant introduction immediately alerts the listener that Bonynge’s will be a different approach, making it sound more like a Bellini or Donizetti opera. Then Ghiaurov starts to sing Fernando’s narrative, and it is equally apparent that the slow tempo is designed to allow him to display his fine legato and burnished tone, without the least regard for dramatic impact. His audience would certainly have dropped off after a couple of minutes in, so inert and soporific is his manner.

OK; we get it: this is a bel canto Il trovatore but in my experience that is not an excuse for the denuding the singing of dramatic tension. Sutherland’s mooning manner and a beat which is more apparent here in this studio recording than it is in the live San Francisco performance from the previous year are troublesome and her ornamentation is at best incongruous and at worst weird and disturbing. The contrast with the purity and clarity of the immediately recognisable Norma Burrowes as her handmaid is striking. It is by no means bad singing, it is just…wrong.

Wixell gives us a warm, grainy di Luna which also sounds just as misplaced – he simply isn’t an Italianate baritone, nicely though he sings. Pavarotti’s first offstage contribution returns us to the right sound-world but it soon emerges that even he is oddly cast, as there is little of the baritonal heft we associate with the heroic Manrico; his gentle, plangent, liquid timbre and frequent mezza voce singing incorporating far more falsetto bias than is habitual for this role is disconcerting. Finally, in Marilyn Horne as Azucena we have another idiosyncratic piece of casting rather similar to Giulini’s gamble in having Brigitte Fassbaender sing that role. I think it more or less comes off; it is interesting to hear the trills so precisely executed in “Stride la vampa” and Horne has the lower register heft but her vibrato loosens alarmingly on loud, high notes and somehow another bel canto specialist does not fill the requirement for a voice able to suggest the wild, animal passion of the half-crazed gypsy.

Of course, with such a cast there cannot fail to be moments of delight here but overall it is a misconceived enterprise.

Herbert von Karajan – 1977 (studio; stereo) EMI
Orchestra - Berliner Philharmoniker; Chorus - Deutsche Oper (Berlin)
Manrico - Franco Bonisolli
Azucena - Elena Obraztsova
Leonora - Leontyne Price
Conte di Luna - Piero Cappuccilli
Ferrando - Ruggero Raimondi
Ines - Maria Venuti
Ruiz - Horst Nitsche
Un messo - Horst Nitsche

Interestingly, in November 2005 BBC CD Review pundit Hilary Finch tacitly revoked her earlier pronouncements in Gramophone and chose this as her favourite version. I bought and I enjoyed it as a result, while still acknowledging that there is some audible evidence of the ravages time had wrought on Price's voice; it is a little husky but there is still a majestic and stately grandeur in her smoky tone. I have read elsewhere absurd accusations that the cast here is not up to international standard and that Karajan is "glib", but I do accept that the 1970 Mehta account is superior to this and that Karajan's conducting is more visceral in the 50's version - but I like to hear an interpretation which provides a subtler alternative to the usual "gung-ho" approach. It's such a pleasure to hear an orchestra caress this music instead of banging the hell out of it and there is a depth and richness in the strings so often missing in more provincial bands - and let's face it, most orchestras can sound provincial next to the Berlin Philharmonic. Bonisolli's baritonal heft is very welcome, as is his willingness to sing tenderly. There is a temptation to characterise him as a grand-standing clown on account of his ability and willingness to prolong barn-storming top C's but he's much more than that. Obraztsova's vast, even crude, voice with its booming lower register and secure top notes provides real thrills in a role to which she is perfectly suited and in which she rivals Cossotto for sheer visceral attack. Both Raimondi and Cappuccilli are a little too soft-grained but again, it's a change to hear these roles so carefully sung, with attention to the subtlety of dynamics and phrasing which Karajan's more relaxed tempi evidently encourage. Yet there's no lack of brio in the opening to Act 3; Karajan brings much more energy to the score than the aging Serafin in his estimable set with Bergonzi and Stella. In short, I really like this later version by Karajan even if I would not part with his famous 1962 live Salzburg set, his studio version with Callas or the earlier Mehta recording.

Colin Davis – 1980 (studio; digital) Philips
Orchestra & Chorus - Covent Garden
Manrico - José Carreras
Azucena - Stefania Toczyska
Leonora - Katia Ricciarelli
Conte di Luna - Yuri Mazurok
Ferrando - Robert Lloyd
Ines - Phyllis Cannan
Ruiz - Robin Leggate
Un vecchio zingaro - Roderick Earle
Un messo - John Treleaven

I reviewed this relatively recently on MusicWeb:

I note that whatever reason, this recording seems never to have been reviewed here on this site, so almost forty years on, perhaps it’s time it was.

I have fond memories of attending, around the same time as this recording was made, a performance at Covent Garden with the identical cast, seeing and hearing them from box seats, which added considerably to the impact of the occasion. It was one of the best and most complete operatic occasions of my life, so perhaps I may be excused for my nostalgic attachment to this recording. Nonetheless, it is objectively very fine, presenting every artist at his or her best, for better or worse, depending on whether you think their vocal layout is suited to this, one of the ultimate Big Sing opportunities in Grand Opera.

Every voice here is decidedly beautiful, if not necessarily either typical of, or ideal for, the demands of the score. The emphasis is predominantly upon lyricism but that does not mean that there is any strain or lack of power in the delivery. Davis’ conducting is essentially non-interventionist even if occasionally I find him a tad rushed as, for example, at the start of Part 2, in the Gypsies’ Chorus. He eschews bombast without sacrificing drive and energy, directing a swift, propulsive account.

The first voice we hear is that of resident Covent Garden bass for many years, Robert Lloyd. His tone is almost too grand and noble for Ferrando but he provides a fresh, alert reading of the role and deals very well with the tricky gruppetti. Ricciarelli is in best voice, delicate poised and plangent – she makes a languid but vulnerable and touching Leonora, a few ungainly top notes, with too much beat, notwithstanding. Carreras, too, is at his very considerable best, even if he is already pushing a bit and reluctant to sing anything quietly. He does not sound over-parted in “Di quella pira” even if he is no Corelli. Mazurok’s splendid baritone is lean, incisive and steady, just as I remember it in the theatre; I have read complaints regarding his Italian but he sounds idiomatic enough to me. He has a kind of Gobbi-like bite to his delivery. The under-rated Toczyska is also lighter and leaner than most of the beefy mezzo-sopranos who undertake this role, but still highly dramatic, with both vocal registers very well integrated and developed. Her final scene with Carreras’ vibrant Manrico is both beautifully vocalised and moving, with both artists scrupulously musical but intensely passionate. The chorus is really first rate, too; this is a recording with no weaknesses.

The recorded sound is fine, employing some atmospheric balancing and distancing effects and generally belying its age.

Yes, I also want to be able to hear more typical Big Bow-Wow performances of this most venerable of warhorses with more overtly dramatic voices like Leontyne Price, Bonisolli or Corelli or Fiorenza Cossotto, but I find this recording very satisfying. As I never tire of observing, we’d be more than grateful to hear a cast of this calibre in the opera house today.

Carlo Maria Giulini – 1983 (studio; digital) DG
Orchestra & Chorus - Santa Cecilia
Manrico - Plácido Domingo
Azucena - Brigitte Fassbaender
Leonora - Rosalind Plowright
Conte di Luna - Giorgio Zancanaro
Ferrando - Evgeny Nesterenko
Ines - Anna Di Stasio
Ruiz - Walter Gullino
Un vecchio zingaro - Alfredo Giacomotti
Un messo - Aldo Verrecchia

Once upon a time, recording companies used to gather great singers, conductors and orchestras into a studio to produce near definitive recordings of major operas - and this DG production is typical. We have one of the world's two or three most famous tenors at his peak, a great Russian bass and one of the best and most overlooked Italian baritones in the business gathered together to do their stuff.

These companies were even prepared to take artistic risks such as gambling on a relatively new soprano, Rosalind Plowright and casting the distinguished German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender slightly outside her usual Fach as Azucena - and to my ears, both gambles pay off. Plowright has a big, handsome voice and feels Leonora's pain; she fills Verdi's long phrases amply, helped by Giulini's tender phrasing and temperate speeds. I don't really hear the flaws some refer to or understand how she is so lacking; she is a little careful but does almost everything really well; her set piece arias are touching and her top notes hit home. Fassbaender is all temperament, throwing herself into her role very convincingly and pushing her trenchant lower register to its limits, even if we must accept that her assumption of the role is the product of the recording studio, as she did not sing it live, on stage.

Nesterenko is monumental as Ferrando, his cavernous voice really making the listener sit up and Zancanaro's vibrant baritone is a joy; he caresses his music with superb evenness and a sustained, beautiful legato - a meltingly lovely voice. Domingo is still sappy and more attentive to his words than he was for Mehta, if slightly less youthful of tone; the high C is just about there but everything else is splendid, even if he cannot stir the blood like Corelli or Bonisolli.

Nearly forty years on, this looks more and more like a quality cast we would love to hear today and it is also a reminder of how Giulini eschewed vulgar thrills in favour of a more subtle, detailed exposition of the score. For once, the trills are in place and not everything is blood 'n guts. His orchestra and chorus are first rate and this takes its place in the shortlist of desirable recordings of a favourite opera – but does not, perhaps, take the palm.

Zubin Mehta – 1990 (studio; digital) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Manrico - Luciano Pavarotti
Azucena - Shirley Verrett
Leonora - Antonella Banaudi
Conte di Luna - Leo Nucci
Ferrando - Francesco Ellero d'Artegna
Ines - Barbara Frittoli
Ruiz - Piero De Palma
Un vecchio zingaro - Roberto Scaltriti
Un messo - Enrico Facini

Pavarotti was in his mid-fifties when he recorded this and still in fine voice; he has plenty of spring and heft, making his big moments really exciting and his top C thrills. Shirley Verrett was nearly sixty but similarly well-preserved in terms of power, top notes and the firmness of her lower-register; she is riveting and the occasional infirmity passes as part of her characterisation of that demented individual. She even daringly takes a high C sharp at the end of the first scene of Act 3 and doesn’t make a bad job of it. Mehta had long known how to make this opera fly (see his 1969 recording above). The sound is Decca’s best with voices well forward but the orchestra still audible and the supporting cast is strong. So far so good – indeed excellent. Then we encounter some flies thrashing about in the ointment. The exotically named Francesco Ellero d'Artegna does not have a bass of any special distinction and delivers a rather bovine opening narrative. Antonella Banaudi enjoyed a fleeting prominence, singing the role of Leonora live in Verona with Pavarotti but did not endure as a star. The warning signs are there: a vibrato which often slips into tremolo and windy emission (I am talking exclusively vocally, you understand...). She lacks heft at times and her voice has little “star quality” – whatever that is; perhaps it is simply too small. The real blot on the performance is Leo Nucci who, after a very brief period of vocal competence, soon evinced a whole range of really egregious faults, including sliding up a fifth to top notes, percussive delivery and a wobble of unacceptable amplitude.

You can hear Pavarotti as Manrico in the Bonynge recording from fifteen years earlier, more youthful and considerably better partnered and while Verrett’s Azucena is a thing of note, not much else here will be missed if you take another option.

James Levine – 1991 (studio; digital) Sony
Orchestra & Chorus - Metropolitan Opera
Manrico - Plácido Domingo
Azucena - Dolora Zajick
Leonora - Aprile Millo
Conte di Luna - Vladimir Chernov
Ferrando - James Morris
Ines - Sondra Kelly
Ruiz - Anthony Laciura
Un vecchio zingaro - Glenn Bater
Un messo - Tim Willson

Levine’s talents suited this opera and I have no complaints about his typically energised direction, the enthusiastic chorus, fine orchestra and excellent Sony sound. My reservations concern the soloists, several of whom cannot match those from the best recordings: Domingo is not as free and sappy as his younger self for Mehta and even Giulini, just managing two thin top Cs evidently assisted by some discreet but discernible engineering enhancement; Millo is more than adequate but not the most agile, sweet-toned of Leonoras and her top C is unlovely and ill-advised; James Morris is a nasal Ferrando – Glenn Bater’s brief intervention as the old gypsy displays a more imposing of voice.

I know that many opera-fanciers admire Dolora Zajick but compared with singers such as Barbieri, Simionato and Cossotto, I find her monochrome of delivery and warbly of tone, without much “presence” or threat. The best singing here by far is from the Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov, whose beautiful, firm voice sounds remarkably familiar to another unjustly neglected baritone, Giorgio Zancanaro.

This is a case of the old truism about the best being the enemy of the good

Will Humburg – 1994 (studio; digital) Naxos
Orchestra - Hungarian State Opera; Budapest Festival Chorus
Manrico - Maurizio Frusoni
Azucena - Irina Tschistiakova
Leonora - Daniela Longhi
Conte di Luna - Roberto Servile
Ferrando - Franco De Grandis
Ines - Zsuzsa Csonka
Ruiz - Jozsef Mukk
Un vecchio zingaro - Sándor Pásztor
Un messo - János Tandari

I didn’t have great hope or expectations for this recording, and cannot say I was mistaken. It is a small-scale production with voices to match. I was familiar with Roberto Servile in less heroic repertoire but here he sounds too polite, without true Italianate bite. The less said about the bleating Manrico the better and every singer here sounds over-parted: Daniela Longhi is competent but her lower register is sketchy and she wobbles under pressure; there is little point in vaunting her Leonora above truly great exponents of the role. Irina Tschistiakova has the strangest tremolo-vibrato and poor Italian diction, but her lower register kicks in nicely and she has top notes, making for a patchy, frustrating portrayal of Azucena. Franco De Grandis is a cumbersome Ferrando- crude, blustery and unsteady – he is almost voiceless and his crooning and groaning are really amateur-sounding.

Humburg’s direction is…oh, who cares? You can do very much better. Avoid like the plague.

Marco Guidarini – 1998 (live composite; digital) Dynamic NB: the 1857 version in French
Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia; Bratislava Chamber Chorus
Manrique - Warren Mok
Azucena - Sylvie Brunet
Léonore - Iano Tamar
Le Compte de Luna - Nikola Mijailovic
Fernand - Jae-Jun Lee
Inès - Angela Masi
Ruiz - Philippe Casado
Un bohémien - Jean Paul Cinelli
Un messager - Emil Alekperov

While I like both the idea of this, being the only recording of the 1857 version of this opera that Verdi prepared to a French libretto by Emilien Pacini, and the performance per se as a sturdy and commendable account with decent singers, I'm afraid the usual caveat applies to a cast with only one native French speaker in it: the French, our one born francophone apart, is between fair and poor - and that includes the Slovak chorus. The difference between Sylvie Brunet's diction and that of her cast-mates is sometimes almost comical.

This is a barrier common to several performances in French emanating from the Festival Martina Franca, which has a reputation for putting on rare and neglected works, many of which have appeared on the Dynamic label - my favourites being the French version of Salome and an exciting Die aegyptische Helena. If you can get over that language obstacle and are intrigued by hearing a version over which Verdi expended considerable and serious effort, including writing new some music, revising orchestration to suit discerning Parisian taste and providing a new ending, then you cannot do better than to sample this - especially as you have in any case no other option.

Previous Amazon.com reviewer P Blystone has helpfully adumbrated those changes and additions so I reproduce that summary here with thanks and acknowledgements:

“The end of Leonora's Act I cabaletta "Di tale amor" ("L'amour ardent") is entirely different, as are parts of the Azucena-Manrico duet in Act II (Azucena's cadenzas and "Un momento puo involarmi"/ "Cet instant pour moi suprême"). The Act III soldiers' chorus "Squilli, echeggi la tromba guerriera" ("Que la trompette aux accents belliqueux") is a little shorter than the version we all know, and leads into a lengthy round of ballet, during which a troupe of gypsies entertain the soldiers (a sort of 15th-century USO!). We can recognize in it some familiar tunes from the Anvil Chorus, and no doubt the soldiers (and the Paris audience) enjoyed it! Later in the scene, after Azucena finishes singing "Giorni poveri vivea" ("Je vivais pauvre et sans peine"), she also gets to sing the plaintive tune that we normally hear only as an orchestral backdrop to the confrontation going on between her and the Count. In Act IV, there's no "Tu vedrai che amore in terra" -- but that's usually cut anyway! And the opera ends entirely differently. After Leonora's death, as Manrico goes to his execution, we hear a short reprise of the "Miserere" ensemble, with Azucena taking Leonora's part.”

I find those differences them intriguing and entertaining and I especially liked the beefed-up instrumentation which accompanies the trio concluding Act II, adding what is almost like an extra layer or voice to the drama. The big controversy centres on the effectiveness of that slightly extended finale which throws the spotlight momentarily back on Azucena's grimly ironic revenge at de Luna's expense.

The sound is a bit rounded and tubby, but the reverberance suggests the opera house and there is reasonable balance between the orchestra and voices. The orchestral playing is spirited if hardly refined - but that hardly matters in this opera above all and the conducting matches it. There is a fair amount of stage thumping - especially, obviously, during the new ballet music - but I don't find it too distracting and it adds ambiance - after all, this is a live event. The audience is generally quiet enough. There is the occasional oddity in the translation of the notes and the text - Ines's "Achevez!" does not mean "Enough" but "Go on!" (as in "Finish") - but who's complaining when you actually get a full French libretto and an English translation?

However, in the end this opera is all about four – actually, five - big voices. None here lets the side down: all are established artists with important careers even if they are not global stars. In order of appearance, bass Jae-Jun Lee has a decent, solid sound and commands attention. Georgian Iano Tamar has a big, plush, fruity Verdian soprano and her attendant is a better mezzo than is sometimes the case in prestige recordings. Sturdy Serbian baritone Nikola Mijalovic is a crowd-pleaser although the top of his voice isn't very attractive, retaining power and steadiness but losing quality and resonance. Hong Kong tenor Warren Mok is a very competent singer - in fact everyone here is certainly on top of the demands of their roles even if they aren't the best you've ever heard in them. He is occasionally a little ingolato but has all the notes and enough temperament; you don't worry when he opens his mouth that he's going to struggle. The Azucena has a somewhat fluttery vibrato, some intonation issues and fudges a couple of top notes, but she is intense and able to ride the orchestra, even though the voice is lighter than the usual stentorian Italian mezzo.

The French text sits surprisingly well with the music though if you know this opera well you inevitably find yourself singing along in the original.

Antonio Pappano – 2001 (studio; digital) EMI
London Symphony Orchestra; Chorus - London Voices
Manrico - Roberto Alagna
Azucena - Larissa Diadkova
Leonora - Angela Gheorghiu
Conte di Luna - Thomas Hampson
Ferrando - Ildebrando d' Arcangelo
Ines - Federica Proietti
Ruiz - Enrico Facini
Un vecchio zingaro - Riccardo Simonetti
Un messo - Andrew Busher

The choir, orchestra, conducting and sound are all splendid here and two of the soloists are impressive: as Azucena, Larissa Diadkova has an impressively even, powerful voice with plenty of lower register resonance and a ringing top, while the young bass Ildebrando d' Arcangelo brings dark, gleaming tone and vivid, pellucid diction to his opening narrative. Pappano is strong on characterisation; he isn’t just trotting the old war-horse round the paddock but finding a real narrative thread and creating atmosphere in his direction.

The problems come with the other three lead voices, who cannot fill the boots of roles which demand clarion, Verdi voices with true squillo and spinto penetration – least of all Thomas Hampson who as di Luna sounds grey, under-powered and elderly; at times, he is embarrassingly over-parted and uses the old Fischer-Dieskau trick of over-weighting every syllable of the text to compensate for a lack of voice. Alagna sounds hollow in the middle of his voice and resorts to sounding alternately lachrymose then nasal and shouty to try to compensate for the lack of true pharyngeal heft. He positively squawks his way through “Di quella pira” and sounds hysterical, an impression crowned by a painfully prolonged top C. Admirable as Gheorghiu is in the more delicate music, she lacks the dark, velvety sound of a true Verdi spinto for the big, sweeping stretches of Leonora’s music, her coloratura is sketchy and her voice, too, turns husky in the middle-lying passages. She has such a lovely voice and assumes such a dignified manner that at times the listener is still swept away by her singing but she’s not right for the role.

While finding many elements to admire here, I cannot recommend a recording in which the Manrico pains my ears and the Di Luna sounds so feeble.

Recommendations:
 
I conform to what is by now my well-established profile as a curmudgeonly operatic dinosaur by recommending no studio recording later than 1975, simply because the quality of voices required is not there. The last really impressive recording was Giulini’s from 1983 and even that is bettered by earlier recordings which provide the visceral thrill essential to any performance of the opera and is slightly lacking in Giulini’s typically patrician realisation. Having covered only one live stereo recording – Bonynge 1975 in San Francisco – I am in no position to make a recommendation for that category.
 
Studio mono: Herbert von Karajan – 1956
Live mono: Herbert von Karajan – 1962; Fernando Previtali – 1957
Studio stereo: Zubin Mehta – 1969*; Bruno Bartoletti – 1975
(French version: Marco Guidarini – 1998)
* First choice

Ralph Moore




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