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A Survey of Recordings of Verdi's Early and Less Well-known Operas
by Ralph Moore

I have previously posted fairly extensive surveys of twelve of Verdi’s major operas and his Requiem but none of the sixteen works prior to Rigoletto apart from Luisa Miller and Macbeth – and the latter was, in any case, revised in 1864, seventeen years after its premiere and may thus be counted, in part at least, as a mature work.

That leaves the considerable number of fourteen operas unconsidered. They might be lesser works but they contain many beauties. For the most part, the series of early Verdi studio recordings Lamberto Gardelli made for Philips in the 1970’s leads the field, because he had exceptionally strong casts featuring singers such as the young José Carreras, Katia Ricciarelli, Montserrat Caballé, Carlo Bergonzi, Jessye Norman et al, but also because they are sometimes still the only studio recordings made to date. Gardelli also filled in some of the gaps in that series by recording several more early Verdi operas for Hungaroton and Orfeo in the 80’s, so as a conductor specialising in operas from that period of Verdi’s career, his name is the one which most frequently crops up – although Levine and Muti were also champions of early Verdi, and so feature in a number of my recommendations.

As usual in my surveys, I give priority to studio recordings as offering the best listening experience, especially as, unlike with Verdi’s later masterpieces, it is unlikely that punters will want more than one version of each opera, but the paucity of studio recordings of the earlier operas means that a full survey of every one of them is not warranted; I have instead decided to combine the recommendations into this one conspectus.

As with all great artists whose output is considerable, the quality of Verdi’s earlier operas did not necessarily improve in a linear fashion according to chronology; for example, I think that there is little doubt that Nabucco, composed in 1841, is superior to, say, La battaglia di Legnano, written eight years later. Certain of the operas written in what Verdi called his “anni di galera” (galley years) have retained their foothold in the repertoire, others have fallen into desuetude. Apart from Macbeth, probably the most subtle and accomplished of the pre-Rigoletto operas is Luisa Miller, although I also have an affection and admiration for Ernani and Stiffelio. Others, such as the aforementioned La battaglia di Legnano or Alzira are probably more justly neglected, yet even they contain arias and passages of great beauty and dramatic impact.

Some of the reviews below have been previously posted online and are adapted here for this survey. As usual, most of the recordings reviewed are those which I consider to be of the greatest quality but I have included a few as caveats to the unwary buyer, as superficially they might look attractive but are disappointing.

The Recordings:
 
Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio
 
Produced first in Milan after a fairly long gestation, this opera set Verdi upon his brilliant career, but in later years the composer consistently downplayed its significance, as he preferred to promulgate the idea that Nabucco was his first real success, following the catastrophe of his second opera, Un giorno di regno.

His reluctance to acknowledge this early child is understandable; it is not very interesting musically and it is no coincidence that the finest thing on these discs stems from the additional music Verdi wrote for its revival at La Scala a year after its premiere in 1839. Personal grief and loss, rather than depressing his creativity, caused him to plumb new emotional depths, and henceforth the additional music is much more recognisably the Verdi of the long cantilena line and melodic invention we know and love. Thus, the new duet for soprano and tenor included as the last item in the appendices on disc 2 of the Marriner set below pleases more than anything else that precedes it, but there is still considerable pleasure to be derived from the music here, albeit conventional, and the propulsive, dramatic conclusion to Act I is recognisably already the Verdi who knows how to build tension. Similarly, from Scene 4 of Act II onwards, we hear that peculiarly Verdian gift of generating cumulative pressure by sustaining both lyrical melody and rhythmic pulse.
 
Lamberto Gardelli – 1983 (studio; digital) Orfeo
Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Cuniza - Ruza Baldani
Riccardo - Carlo Bergonzi
Oberto - Rolando Panerai
Leonora - Ghena Dimitrova
Imelda - Alison Browner

Both Bergonzi and Panerai are approaching 60 here and Bergonzi at first sounds rather thin and strained, audibly taxed by his opening aria and cavatina. Panerai has evidently fared better – indeed, he prolonged his career considerably beyond Bergonzi’s – even if his voice, too, shows a few signs of having dried out. Nonetheless both he and Bergonzi are still obviously stylish Verdi singers of great quality. Dimitrova is thrilling, and even if her timbre is rather Slavic, the power of her voice is always impressive and I enjoy her plunges into her lower register; she is, nonetheless, also capable of tender, piano singing. She makes the most of her final big scene: a long cantilena passage followed by a more agitated section, in which she sounds like a “proper Verdi singer”. I was not familiar with Croatian mezzo Ruza Baldani but I like her warm tone, flickering vibrato and easy agility; she makes a good foil to Dimitrova and her extended duet with Bergonzi in the sixth scene of Act I is most enjoyable, as is her aria “Infelice!” opening the second Act. Smooth Irish mezzo Alison Browner’s Imelda is a bonus. Bergonzi picks up as the opera unfolds and the best singing is in the best music: the aforementioned climactic ensemble ending Act 1 where all participants seem galvanised by Gardelli’s energy. His direction is every bit as lively as you would expect from a Verdi specialist and he has a fine orchestra and chorus at his disposal.

Neville Marriner – 1996 (studio; digital) Philips
Orchestra - Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields; Chorus - London Voices
Cuniza - Violeta Urmana
Riccardo - Stuart Neill
Oberto - Samuel Ramey
Leonora - Maria Guleghina
Imelda - Imelda Fulgoni

This recording filled a gap left by Gardelli in his early Verdi series for Philips and features top class singers - especially Stuart Neill as the (ultimately penitent) seducer Riccardo, displaying a fine line, purity of tone and a ringing top D. I am surprised that he has not had a more notable career as singers of his accomplishment are rare. Guleghina is vibrant and committed, also interpolating top Ds in a role which was written for a singer with more of a mezzo range and therefore not required by the score to go above top A. Her vibrato is occasionally intrusive and her lower register weak, but she acquits herself creditably. In a role originally written for a relatively unaccomplished and untried British contralto, Mary Shaw, mezzo Violeta Urmana doesn't have as much to do but shines more in the new duet with the tenor and an alternative cavatina which Verdi later wrote for a more gifted singer, both of which are included as appendices. Ramey is his usual firm, expressive self and it is a luxury to have Sara Fulgoni in the comprimario role of Cuniza's confidant Imelda. Marriner's conducting is a bit foursquare - but loosens up noticeably in the appendices, so perhaps that is the fault of the music.

I cannot imagine anyone playing this that often and in fact I am more inclined to replay those appendices than the main body of the opera, but it has its interest and is marginally superior to the alternative studio recording which, oddly, given that he was otherwise busy doing all the early Verdi operas for Philips, Gardelli made for the Orfeo label. That is a fine set but this Philips recording is the first choice if you are a Verdi completist or a fan of Stuart Neill, whose singing tops that of the aging Bergonzi.

Un giorno di regno [Il finto Stanislao]

This, Verdi's second opera, was his only comic work until he returned triumphantly to that genre fifty-three years later in Falstaff, his final work and I was long persuaded by the received wisdom that it was an irremediable failure and thus avoided it. Certainly Verdi regarded it with contempt and it since has mostly been consigned to oblivion apart from a few stuttering revivals.

There are glimpses of the Verdi to come, such as his exploitation of the expressive and versatile possibilities of 3/4 time signatures, but although Verdi shows himself a master of the idiom, he writes somewhat dutifully and formulaically. This is not his true Fach and the subject matter is clearly not congenial to him.; the result is a derivative and retrospective opera with little of the originality which marks out those operas of the early 1840's written once he had begun to find his true voice. No wonder Nabucco subsequently made such an impact. Understandably, Romani's workmanlike, if flawed, libretto did not ignite the composer's fantasy the way Boito was able to do with Falstaff. Nonetheless, this sole extant studio recording from Gardelli does not deserve neglect; it is clearly heavily indebted to Donizetti and, especially in the finales, Rossini, but it remains a very well-crafted and entertaining work, sparkling and engaging, if not exactly funny. It is worth repeated hearings for the quality of the singing alone and deserves its sobriquet as the one of the best scores Donizetti never wrote.
 
Lamberto Gardelli – 1973 (studio; stereo) Philips
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Marquise del Poggio - Fiorenza Cossotto
Giulietta - Jessye Norman
Edoardo de Sanval - José Carreras
Chevalier Belfiore - Ingvar Wixell
Gasparo Antonio della Rocca - Vincenzo Sardinero
Baron de Kelbar - Wladimiro Ganzarolli
Delmonte - William Elvin
Comte Ivrea - Ricardo Cassinelli

This recording benefited from a stellar the cast: a roll-call of great singers of the early 70's, headed by Carreras, who is in finest youthful voice and sings his arias with a winning combination of elegance and passion. I often think that his contribution to this series represents Carreras' most valuable, enduring and admirable work, and he is surrounded by singers of equal quality. What a pleasure to hear Wixell’s grainy, characterful baritone; his Italian, both sung and spoken is exemplary and he relishes his role as a royal impersonator. Cossotto, a few intrusive aspirates in her runs apart, sings magnificently, while Jessye Norman, mushy Italian notwithstanding, treats us to her lovely legato and breadth of phrasing. Supporting roles are cast from strength, not least Vincenzo Sardinero's handsome baritone and Ganzarolli's ripe bass as the Barone di Kelbar - a cousin to Don Magnifico in La cenerentola and every other grasping, social-climber of a father in opera buffa who wants to marry off his daughters profitably.

Nabucco

"Con quest'opera si puň dire veramente che ebbe principio la mia carriera artistica." ("It can truly be said that my artistic career began with this opera"). Verdi may perhaps be forgiven for taking artistic licence with this observation to Ricordi, his publisher; his previous works were the patchy and immature Oberto and the comic flop Un giorno do regno. Nabucco marks a huge advance over these two works; Verdi here begins to find his true voice, mining the rich seam of cantilena melody which characterises his best early work and adding to it both psychological profundity and economy of expression.

Verdi was as incapable as Shakespeare of creating cardboard characters and it is remarkable how both the villains of the piece, Abigaille and Nabucco himself, emerge as complex, tormented souls, far more absorbing than the supposed heroes. They are the forerunners of that long line of father-daughter pairs; Solera's libretto stimulated Verdi's imagination and his emotions at a time when he was trying to emerge from two years of grief and suffering, marked by personal loss and (comparative) artistic failure.

Of course, the popularity of "Va, pensiero", the emphasis upon spectacle, the four marches, unison choruses and brassy scoring all combine to support the reputation of Nabucco as the chauvinistic rallying-call of popular legend. However, in the admixture of private passion and political chicanery, certain situations and even specific musical ideas are clearly proleptic of later, greater works such as Simon Boccanegra, although the masterpiece it most resembles in mood, atmosphere and in its melding of extremes is perhaps Aida. Certainly his contemporaries thought well enough of it to choose its music to accompany Verdi's funeral cortčge.
 
Fernando Previtali – 1951 (live radio broadcast; mono) Fonit Cetra
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Roma
Nabucco - Paolo Silveri
Ismaele - Mario Binci
Zaccaria - Antonio Cassinelli
Abigaille - Caterina Mancini
Fenena - Gabriella Gatti
Gran Sacerdote - Albino Gaggi
Abdallo - Licinio Francardi
Anna - Beatrice Preziosa
 
The 1950's was an extraordinarily active period of radio broadcasts of live Verdi opera by RAI, first from Rome then latterly from Turin. Virtually all of those performances are of a high standard, utilising the best Italian singers of the day such as Carlo Bergonzi (who had just switched from baritone to tenor), Taddei, Pagliughi, Tagliavini, Stella, Neri, Paolo Silveri, and Caterina Mancini. The latter two are the lead singers in this Nabucco, and are all but forgotten today. The tenor here, Mario Binci, has joined the likes of Amedeo Berdini and Gini Penno, who are today virtually unknown except to cognoscenti but are revealed on these Cetra recordings as major artists. The boxy mono sound has not helped to ensure their survival; the Warner-Fonit remasterings improved matters and are superior to the many other issues on various labels, but these sets are now discontinued and unlikely to reappear, so you'll need to keep looking on Amazon Marketplace and websites elsewhere for copies available at a reasonable price.

1951 was particularly busy at RAI, beginning in January with this broadcast; there followed La battaglia di Legnano in March, Simon Bocccanegra in November, and I due Foscari in December - and also an undistinguished Don Carlo, so not everything was equally desirable. However, some recordings, such as the 1954 Rigoletto with Taddei, have become classics, and virtually all of them have something to offer if you can tolerate that constricted sound.

Paolo Silveri is far more expressive here than I had expected; he is not as incisive and characterful as Gobbi but to my ears he is more beautiful of voice than Cappuccilli and by no means dramatically inert. Caterina Mancini delivers her habitual commitment, nailing high notes and wonderfully capturing the vicious, febrile hysteria which characterises Abigaille. Binci is slightly hard-voiced - this was late in his career - but no cipher and still in command of his technique. Antonio Cassinelli as the priest, Zeccaria, has a fine, clean bass of the old school but struggles with his low notes. Conductor Previtali keeps everything trundling along vigorously in this melodious, exuberant and percussive score, but knows when to let up for the few more lyrical moments.

For me, these recordings make a valuable and valued supplement to modern stereo recordings, preserving as they do a mini-Golden Age of post war Verdi singing in Italy.
 
Lamberto Gardelli – 1965 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Nabucco - Tito Gobbi
Ismaele - Bruno Prevedi
Zaccaria - Carlo Cava
Abigaille - Elena Souliotis
Fenena - Dora Carral
Gran Sacerdote - Giovanni Foiani
Abdallo - Walter Kräutler
Anna - Anna D' Auria

Riccardo Muti - 1977-78 (studio; stereo) EMI
Philharmonia Orchestra; Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Nabucco - Matteo Manuguerra
Ismaele - Veriano Luchetti
Zaccaria - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Abigaille - Renata Scotto
Fenena - Elena Obraztsova
Gran Sacerdote - Robert Lloyd
Abdallo - Kenneth Collins
Anna - Anne Edwards

Giuseppe Sinopoli – 1982 (studio; digital) DG
Orchestra - Deutsche Oper Berlin; Chorus - Deutsche Oper Berlin
Nabucco - Piero Cappuccilli
Ismaele - Plácido Domingo
Zaccaria - Evgeny Nesterenko
Abigaille - Ghena Dimitrova
Fenena - Lucia Valentini-Terrani
Gran Sacerdote - Kurt Rydl
Abdallo - Volker Horn
Anna - Lucia Popp

The following review was written primarily about the Muti recording but in the process compares all three above:

Re-visiting this recording and comparing it with those by Sinopoli and Gardelli, I was struck by the tautness and impact of the libretto and plot. All three recordings have their flaws but all three are to a large degree successful and I found that I had been wrong to relegate this one to third place.

Muti's conducting of this 1977 recording has been condemned as crude and aggressive. He is hectic at times, to be sure, but that is hardly out of keeping with the swift pace of events and he still gives his singers space in the more contemplative passages. By comparison, the more experienced Gardelli lets the action unfold in more relaxed style and has a more persuasive overview of the score. Sinopoli is simply erratic, with too much of a stop-go approach, dissecting every bar and letting tensions droop before trying to whip up passion out of nowhere. Nonetheless, I prefer Sinopoli's brisker, shapelier account of "Va, pensiero" to Muti's uncharacteristically lugubrious version; Gardelli's approach lies somewhere in between, as you might expect.

The eponymous starring role is in all three cases taken by a first-class baritone. Manuguerra has the smoothest, most sheerly beautiful voice, with more sap in its upper reaches than the aging Gobbi and more bite than Cappuccilli's woolly tone, but all three bring admirable virtues to the part: Gobbi is of course the most moving and characterful, Cappuccilli displays his celebrated long-breathed line in "Deh, perdona", while the underrated Manuguerra combines some of the best features of both the others in a detailed, compellingly vocalised account.

As Abigaille, all three spinto sopranos - as Scotto had become by this stage of her career - provide the listener with thrills and vocal virtuosity. Dimitrova has a rather thin, wiry tone and the steam-whistle top notes, so typical of a certain type of Slavic soprano, tend to flutter, but she has the range and measure of this fiendish part and I sometimes think it’s worth owning Sinopoli's recording just to hear her wonderful pianissimo top C alone. She has no especial psychological insights and her registers are disconnected, but it's still a worthy assumption. Suliotis excels in a role tailor-made for a fearless, uninhibited twenty-two-year-old of formidable gifts and talent. She, too, suffers from poor integration of the two registers but capitalises on the contrast between her floated top and trenchant low notes. She is, of course, the artist who most recalls the formidable performance of Callas in her 1958 recital conducted by Rescigno. Scotto, too, shares features of Callas' delivery, including a biting delivery of text and the less recommendable lapses into flapping top notes when pressed at forte. When not pressing too hard, Scotto can still float the top and her Abigaille is a formidable firebrand - she is the best actress of all. Given the intensity and conviction of Scotto's performance, I find that I am now much more forgiving of those squally high notes and inclined to prefer her to Dimitrova, who is technically superior but more generic in characterisation.

All three basses are fine artists: Nesterenko for Sinopoli has a mighty voice but lacks the warmth and authority of Ghiaurov - who is rusty and occasionally bleak of tone at this stage of his career but still impressive - or Carlo Cava, who has less voice than either but has thought more deeply about the inflection of words and nuances of character. All three make a beautiful job of their aria "Tu sul labbro", with its beguiling six-part cello accompaniment. Robert Lloyd is a notable High Priest for Muti; I wonder if I am the first to notice that he must have been absent for whatever reason (not worth paying him to sing so little?) during the second, 1978, recording session and thus we hear the unmistakable voice of Ghiaurov, deputising for Lloyd in the High Priest's one line in the finale.

In sheer vocal terms, Muti scores over Gardelli with Elena Obraztsova's Fenena. Decca made the mistake of simply under-casting Fenena with the inadequate Dora Carral, but the problem with Obraztsova is that she has far too much voice for so passive and delicate a character; her stentorian tones are not a good fit, although she vocalises better than either Carral or the late Valentini-Terrani, making a particularly fine job of her prayer in the last act.

One of the great pleasures of the Muti set is to hear Veriano Luchetti in the brief and rather ungrateful role of Ismaele. His smooth, ringing, Italianate tenor is far preferable to the clumsy Prevedi for Gardelli and superior even to Domingo, slumming it in a bit part for Sinopoli. Luchetti is particularly admirable in the lovely trio "Io t'amava".

The Ambrosian Chorus sounds a little lean in comparison with the Vienna State Opera Chorus or the Berliners but as ever they sing with verve and precision. The Philharmonia respond with alacrity to Muti's taut direction and the sound is excellent.

I remain irritated by EMI's penny-pinching and inconvenient policy of putting the libretto on a third CD-ROM; I do not want to go to the trouble or expense of printing off my own and thus simply take a libretto from another set on my shelves - but not everyone has multiple editions of the less popular Verdi operas. One minor point: in this re-packaging (not a re-mastering, I think; this dates from 1986 but remains satisfactory), in the cast list EMI have managed to transpose the surnames of that estimable tenor Keith Collins and soprano Anne Edwards.

I Lombardi alla prima crocciata
 
A little over a year separates this, Verdi's fourth opera, I Lombardi (1843) from Ernani, his fifth (1844). Both have always been successful but to me there seems to me to have been more development in Verdi's style and skill than so short an interval between them would normally permit. There is an assurance and unity about Ernani that eludes him in I Lombardi which, for all its brilliance and energy, remains a patchy work. It is, of course, one of the series of patriotic operas penned by Solera and the Italian public gratefully seized upon it. It contains some great arias and the customary stirring trio at the end of Act 3, but its more than usually absurd plot and restless jumping from one short scene to another create a fractured impression. Solera, as ever, was more concerned to devise situations generating dramatic confrontation and impact than to achieve subtlety or verisimilitude and concocted an uneasy blend of chauvinism and piety – thus, when Verdi came to rework the opera for Paris in 1847 as Jérusalem, he wisely took the opportunity to drop the slightly embarrassing scene of Giselda's miraculous supernatural vision at the beginning of Act 4. Otherwise, he revels in the sequence of opportunities thereby afforded; while some of the music really is of the worst homespun and even crude variety, there are also lovely numbers, such as Oronte's famous "La mia letizia infondere".

Jérusalem is a superior creation in terms of both score and dramaturgy, yet audiences have proved loyal to this, the original, Italian version, its absurdities and inconsistencies of plot notwithstanding.
 
Manno Wolf-Ferrari – 1951 (live radio broadcast; mono) Fonit Cetra
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Giselda - Maria Vitale
Oronte - Gustavo Gallo
Pagano - Mario Petri
Arvino - Aldo Bertocci
Viclinda - Miriam Pirazzini
Pirro - Mario Frosini
Acciano - Renato Pasquali
Sofia - Renata Broilo
Priore della cittŕ di Milano - Bruno Franchi
 
I love these old Cetra radio broadcast recordings, now well-remastered by Warner and attractively presented as double CDs with the original lurid and hideous artwork - in this case bilious green and beige with primitive, quasi-abstract images.

This one was made in front of a generally quiet studio audience as part of the celebrations commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi's death. The mono sound is clean and clear and apart from some radio interference in tracks nine and ten, really very satisfactory. The cast are all worthies of the era whose names are barely remembered today, yet they were very substantial singers - especially the great Mario Petri who did not record much but whose sonorous, expressive bass ranks with the best; voice-fanciers might like to take a punt on him just to hear him rolling out those big, dignified Verdi tunes. However, there are other singers here who deserve to be heard and remembered, including Maria Vitale, Miriam Pirazzini and tenor Gustavo Gallo. The latter is probably now the most obscure and in truth he has a rather hard, harsh, throaty tenor but it's powerful and tireless and he knows what to do with early Verdi.

The music has its share of banal passages but there are also some lovely cantilena melodies and one or two arias still feature in concert programmes, especially the tenor's "La mia letizia infondere" - such a lovely tune. Vitale was sometimes a little shrill but she had legato and a fine sense of phrasing. The orchestra and chorus are from Milan RAI and presumably number personnel moonlighting from La Scala; in any case, they sound great.

This is the kind of local ensemble which was standard sixty years ago in Italy and which we'd love to hear today; any one of the leads here would today top the bill of any international opera house.
 
Lamberto Gardelli – 1971 (studio; stereo) Philips
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Giselda - Cristina Deutekom
Oronte - Plácido Domingo
Pagano - Ruggero Raimondi
Arvino - Jerome Lo Monaco
Viclinda - Desdemona Malvisi
Pirro - Stafford Dean
Acciano - Clifford Grant
Sofia - Montserrat Aparici
Priore della cittŕ di Milano - Keith Erwen

There is some lovely singing here, such as in the account of "La mia letizia infondere" by a young, sappy, limber Domingo (in his puppy-fat stage according to the photos!), but he does not erase memories of Carreras' account of that aria in his first recital record in 1977 conducted by Roberto Benzi or of Pavarotti in his prime; both achieve more passion and plangency of tone. Nor are Domingo's co-stars to everyone's taste: Deutekom's thin tone and rapid vibrato can give her voice a somewhat gargling effect but she floats some lovely pianissimi and is certainly more vibrant and involved than Domingo, whose characterisation is a little all-purpose-melancholy generic, despite its sheer beauty as singing per se. Raimondi is at his best here, his sonorous, rather lugubrious sound not inappropriate to the dour, sombre Pagano. It is an oddity that there is no true baritone or mezzo role in this opera - though there are three basses (even if Pagano is more of a bass-baritone, I suppose), three tenors and three sopranos.

This was the first recording in the series of eight operas which eventually constituted the (unfinished) Gardelli’s Early Verdi project for Philips. It is now fifty years old, but has not so far been bettered and is now unlikely to be so.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1976 (live; stereo) Standing Room Only
Orchestra & Chorus - Covent Garden
Giselda - Sylvia Sass
Oronte - José Carreras
Pagano - Nicola Ghiuselev
Arvino - Ezio Di Cesare
Viclinda - Elizabeth Connell
Pirro - Michael Langdon
Acciano - Robert Lloyd
Sofia - Heather Begg
Priore della cittŕ di Milano - John Dobson

Although Gardelli recorded this opera as part of the Early Verdi series, Domingo and Deutekom were less satisfactory principals than the perfect partnership here of Carreras and Sass in their prime. Sass recorded it again with Gardelli for Hungaroton and that is very recommendable, but no tenor approaches the young Carreras for the beauty and passion of his performance here. This 1976 live recording from Covent Garden is a bit muddy and suffers intermittently from the usual inconsiderate coughers but is otherwise in very listenable sound for a live performance of 45 years ago. Sass was one of the most compelling, dramatic and exciting singers in Verdi despite the occasional clumsiness and Carreras brings a special plangency to his Oronte. He sings a wonderfully pliant and fresh "La mia letizia infondere". The supporting cast is fine and Gardelli is obviously the master of the situation, securing alert and flexible playing from the ROH orchestra.

This can be hard to source but second-hand copies of this set become available if you keep looking for them; I wouldn't pay too much given the moderately indifferent sound quality but I am glad to have it as I have a special attachment to both the main singers here and to this old tub-thumper of an opera.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1983 (studio; stereo) Hungaroton
Orchestra - Hungarian State Opera; Hungarian Radio & TV Chorus
Giselda - Sylvia Sass
Oronte - Giorgio Lamberti
Pagano - Kolos Kováts
Arvino - Ezio Di Cesare
Viclinda - Zsuzsa Misura
Pirro - Peter Janosi
Acciano - József Gregor
Sofia - Klári Jász
Priore della cittŕ di Milano - Ferenc Gerdesits

Anyone looking for a recording of I Lombardi will probably first find themselves directed towards either the earlier studio recording conducted by Gardelli, but not everybody enjoys Cristina Deutekom's shrill, idiosyncratic vocal production, so this far less well-known, second studio recording by Gardelli with Hungarian forces presents an attractive alternative - and I think there can be little argument that the Giselda of Sylvia Sass is by far the most impressive of the three sopranos considered here. She is in full control of a sometimes previously wayward voice and delivers a wonderful performance; this is a real spinto Verdi soprano, ample and soaring. The tenor is the Hungaroton stalwart Giorgio Lamberti in very capable voice, ringing but also hard-toned and somewhat unvarying in colour and expression. He is, however, more involved than Domingo and obviously younger than Pavarotti, even if no-one is better suited to the role of Oronte than the young Carreras - but to hear him sing this music you must catch him in a live recording of 1976 in Covent Garden (see above). Bass-baritone Kováts struggles a bit with his Italian but has a big, handsome voice with more bite than Raimondi and greater smoothness than the ageing Ramey. Best of all is the Hungarian Radio and Television Chorus, whose energy and attack are markedly superior to any of the competition - and the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra are superb, too; Gardelli again shows that he knows just how to pace this patchy early work and makes the best possible case for those swinging waltz-time ensembles and rumbustious marches.

While I still enjoy the earlier Philips set, I put this Hungaroton recording out in a front by a nose; it's an absorbing, large-scale interpretation in excellent digital sound.

James Levine – 1996 (studio digital) Decca
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Giselda - June Anderson
Oronte - Luciano Pavarotti
Pagano - Samuel Ramey
Arvino - Richard Leech
Viclinda - Patricia Racette
Pirro - Ildebrando d' Arcangelo
Acciano - Yanni Yannissis
Sofia - Jane Shaulis

I am wary of the batch of recordings Pavarotti made with Decca in the late 80’s and the 90’s, not because of any wear in his voice but more because they almost invariably feature some second and even third-rate singers such as Leo Nucci. There is no opportunity here for him to blight the enterprise as there is no role for a baritone but I am afraid there are other problems. Even though he still sounds pretty good, Pavarotti is aged 61 here, so is getting on a bit and this was his last operatic recording, so his voice has lost some of its sappiness. Nonetheless, he still sings engagingly and top notes still ring out, including a secure top C in “Come poteva un angelo”. Similarly, although he is still imposing of voice, Ramey’s bass shows signs of wear and his vibrato has loosened, even though he is only in his mid-fifties. Nor am I the greatest fan of June Anderson, whose tone I find harsh and windy - she has always sounded to my ears very like an aged Joan Sutherland and is too often stretched. She scoops, cannot avoid a beat on loud, high notes and attempts very little in the way of variety in phrasing and dynamics; I find her “Ave Maria” quite painful. Richard Leech sings neatly if rather wanly. You will spot the names of a couple of rising stars in the roles of Pirro and Viclinda respectively but some of the supporting cast are less impressive – the singer who takes the role of Oronte’s mama is dire.

Not everyone appreciates James Levine's choppy conducting, which alternately drags then drives too hard, as was sometimes his wont. There is really no reason to opt for this recording, given the alternatives unless you are a Pavarotti fan-completist and want to catch him still singing very well in the twilight of his career.

Ernani

Ernani has been lucky both in its performance history and on record; it was a great success from its first airing and its popularity has waned only in the last fifty or so years. It was Verdi's fifth opera, first performed in 1844 and his first real success since Nabucco. It is not a subtle work; Victor Hugo condemned the adaptation of his play Hernani as a "travesty" and the melodramatic plot, with its hero’s insistence upon honour over common sense or true morality, is rebarbative to modern sensibilities. Audiences understandably find the idea of Ernani stabbing himself on his wedding day as a matter of honour in obligation to a vow both risible and deeply unsatisfying, but the action is no sillier than Il trovatore, and the strong characterisation, whereby a persona is closely linked to its voice type, makes it more credible dramatically. Despite coming so early in Verdi's output, musically Ernani seems to come from a more mature stage of his career; there are lots of ž time passages but it is by no means all "oompah-pah" and “rum-ti-tum”, in fact, there is little of the routine or mundane about the music and a stream of memorable melodies and rollicking tunes pours forth. Apart from the famous arias there is a lovely orchestral introduction to Elvira's first appearance on stage which is reminiscent of the one used Bellini used to introduce Adalgisa in Norma and the set pieces, such as the aforementioned ensemble and the celebrated trio which concludes the work - a companion piece to similar great trios found in I Lombardi, Il trovatore and later in La forza del destino - are both stirring and sophisticated.

Fernando Previtali – 1950 (live radio broadcast; mono) Warner Fonit
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Roma
Ernani - Gino Penno
Elvira - Caterina Mancini
Carlo - Giuseppe Taddei
Silva - Giacomo Vaghi
Riccardo - Vittorio Pandano
Iago - Ezio Achilli
Giovanna - Licia Rossini

Here is another of the radio broadcast recordings produced by Cetra in the 1950s. They were for long rather despised or overlooked; "Gramophone" reviewer Philip Hope-Wallace began the fashion of belittling them with patronising condescension in his reviews through the 1950s and 1960s, though to be fair, he could not have foreseen the dearth of singing talent which now teaches us to appreciate them better and many are now held in high esteem by people who really know their opera. Their chief value now, apart from their intrinsic artistic excellence, is that they re-connect us with a vanished tradition.

That partially answers the question of why a sixty-five-year-old mono recording remains; there are voices here to pin back the ears of the most jaded opera-buff and yet none except Giuseppe Taddei is really well-known. Gino Penno had a scant ten years at the top in the 1950s as a successful international Heldentenor and Callas’ partner in several Verdi operas, then dropped out of sight - but what a voice he had. Not exactly beautiful - in fact it's rather plaintive and penetrating of tone - but it is absolutely huge, smooth and even with a ringing top, superb legato and ample breath which allows him to ride orchestral climaxes.

Just as impressive is the much-underrated Caterina Mancini. She, too, has fearless attack, enormous volume, and a gutsy lower register. Top notes can be a little acidic and her coloratura can be laboured but we have had no one of her amplitude of voice since her contemporary Tebaldi - whom she somewhat resembles, vocally. Despite the size of their voices, both artists can sing quietly and their intonation and musicality are unimpeachable.

As if that were not sufficient to gladden the heart, we also hear the great baritone Giuseppe Taddei and bass Giacomo Vaghi, a singer once spoken of in the same breath as Pinza and Pasero, but whose star seems to have fallen. He has a smooth, black tone and great authority - a treacly treat of a voice.

The studio recording is in clean, clear, undistorted mono and Previtali conducts with wise and generous forbearance towards his singers, letting the melodies breathe and bloom, not rushing but not allowing any slackness to creep in, either. I have a great attachment to another contemporary classic live performance of that era with Del Monaco, Cerquetti, Bastianini and Christoff (see next), but this one is barely inferior. Each delivers a full-blooded performance of Verdi at full throttle, the like of which it is impossible to hear today.

The original garish 1951 cover artwork is reproduced and there is no libretto.

I recommend this heartily to anyone who loves early Verdi and wants to hear how he was sung in what was still clearly a Golden Age of performing tradition.

Dimitri Mitropoulos – 1957 (live; mono) Bel Canto; Myto; Opera d’Oro
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Ernani - Mario Del Monaco
Elvira - Anita Cerquetti
Carlo - Ettore Bastianini
Silva - Boris Christoff
Riccardo - Athos Cesarini
Iago - Aurelian Neagu
Giovanna - Luciana Boni

I was astonished to find, amid the wholly justifiable rave reviews for this celebrated live recording, one or two luke-warm assessments from reviewers complaining about the muddy sound and, even more inexplicably, assertions that this performance fails to gel as a dramatic experience. I suggest that their criteria for judging live mono recordings from 1957 are unreasonably demanding, as I find myself utterly oblivious to any supposed lack of clarity, so compelling is the involvement and commitment of the artists here. One voice after another thrills, beginning with Del Monaco in a part which, after Otello, he was born to sing, then we hear the massively and thrillingly voiced Cerquetti in one of her all-to-few roles, a complete success as Elvira, followed by Bastianini's bronze-toned Don Carlo pinning back our ears, and finally Christoff in full baleful mode impressing mightily as Silva. Furthermore, Mitropoulos’ conducting is brilliant and mercurial; he fulfils the demands of this most melodramatic of scores by permitting extremes of tempi from almost ponderous to breakneck but it all works. He is exceptionally considerate of his singers and gives them their head when they require it without letting proceedings grind to a halt; in this regard, he reminds me of a young James Levine. The vociferous audience knows it's present at a special performance and some of its members are given to unfortunate bouts of premature appreciation only to be indignantly shushed by others.

All of this is available at a bargain price from good old Opera d'Oro at a fraction of the cost of other issues - without a libretto, it is true, but with another admirably concise introductory note and plot summary from Bill Parker. I wonder why the 1969 recording with Caballé was chosen over this one for their deluxe "Grand Tier" series with librettos, the later live recording being good but not seminal as this one is, and also heavily cut. There are indeed other recommendable versions but this one is pre-eminent among live recordings.

Thomas Schippers – 1962 (live; mono) Sony
Orchestra - Metropolitan Opera
Chorus - Metropolitan Opera
Ernani - Carlo Bergonzi
Elvira - Leontyne Price
Carlo - Cornell MacNeil
Silva - Giorgio Tozzi
Riccardo - Robert Nagy
Iago - Roald Reitan
Giovanna - Carlotta Ordassy

The more of these live broadcasts released from the Met archives we hear, the more we become aware of a standard of cast and performance that might then have been taken for granted but which seems impossibly exalted today. The only pity is that they were not recorded in stereo; as it is, we must be content with clean, slightly boxy mono sound occasionally punctuated with some wow and fade such as we hear at the end of the great ensemble "Oh sommo Carlo" which concludes Act III. Supposedly re-mastered for this first Met-authorised release, the sound is apparently little different from or better than previous unauthorised releases but no-one will complain at the price. We are not exactly short of good recordings of Ernani but there are many good reasons for choosing this set, not least the opportunity to hear Leontyne Price in such youthful, vibrant voice that she sounds positively reckless in her attack on her music; she is as thrilling as Mancini and Cerquetti but with even more beauty of tone. True, one or two top notes squawk a little, but by and large this is the most vital and uninhibited singing you will ever hear from her. Bergonzi, too, while he will never have the heft and squillo of Del Monaco, is as elegant as ever, immensely touching in his lament "Solingo, errante e misero", but also extraordinarily released, capping the cavatina to his opening aria with a prolonged B-flat that raises the roof. To complete a trio of superb singers, Cornell MacNeill is in massively authoritative voice, firm and expressive if occasionally slightly vibrato-heavy; he twice caps his big moments with ringing A-flats. The singers' grandstanding results in spontaneous audience applause over the music but that just adds to the drama of what was clearly a great occasion. The supporting cast, led by a black-voiced Giorgio Tozzi as the implacable Silva, is very good, especially Robert Nagy in the small tenor role of Riccardo.

Schippers conducts a brisk, urgent, flexible performance which has a small cut in the chorus for the "Festa di Ballo" opening Act IV but is otherwise complete and this Met Saturday afternoon radio broadcast is self-recommending as long as you are tolerant of mono sound.

Thomas Schippers – 1967 (studio; stereo) RCA
Orchestra & Chorus - RCA Italiana
Ernani - Carlo Bergonzi
Elvira - Leontyne Price
Carlo - Mario Sereni
Silva - Ezio Flagello
Riccardo - Fernando Iacopucci
Iago - Hartje Mueller
Giovanna - Júlia Hamari

This has for years understandably been the standard recommendation for a first-choice set. It has beautiful analogue, stereo sound and a starry cast under the direction of a young, energised conductor. It helps that this unashamedly martial, extravert opera has an Italian orchestra and chorus, too. The two principal singers were experienced in their roles having already sung them for quite a few years – as witnessed by the live recording made five years previously – but having remained in youthful, sappy voice. Bergonzi does not have Del Monaco’s heft but his tenor still has plenty of squillo and “ping” and he is more stylish. He makes a lovely job of his great concluding lament aria “Solingo, errante, misero” preceding the famous trio. Leontyne Price’s smoky, soaring spinto soprano is a joy; she has a working trill and I note that she employs more lower register than was sometimes the case. Mario Sereni’s grainy baritone is slightly under-powered but elegant and expressive, with fine legato and Ezio Flagello was one of a host of inky-voiced Italian basses active at the time.

Were it not for the seductive allure of the live Mitropoulos recording, this would be my first choice, but for those wanting better sound, this merits serious consideration.

Lamberto Gardelli - 1981(studio; digital) Hungaroton
Orchestra - Hungarian State Opera; Hungarian State Opera Chorus - Male Chorus of the Hungarian People's Army
Ernani - Giorgio Lamberti
Elvira - Sylvia Sass
Carlo - Lajos Miller
Silva - Kolos Kováts
Riccardo - András Molnár
Iago - Pál Kovács
Giovanna - Mária Takács

It would seem reasonable to expect this recording to be as successful and Gardelli’s I Lombardi made only three years later with three of the same principal singers and it begins with a number of advantages: rich digital sound clarity and depth, the most experienced of conductors, an excellent orchestra and chorus and some starry names in the cast.

It must be said, however, that after Del Monaco’s trumpeting tenor and the elegant tones of Bergonzi, Giorgio Lamberti, although strong-voiced and capable, sounds rather nasal and plaintive and Lajos Miller, while smooth-voiced, lacks the bite, snarl and resonance of a true Italianate baritone; indeed, his voice has a light, tenorial quality which would suit bel canto roles but seems pale here, carrying little threat. Much the same is true of Kolos Kováts’ Silva; he, too, sings smoothly but his bass is cloudy and lacking in resonance and menace.

Sylvia Sass, however, is another matter. As ever, she can at times be wild and shrill but she constantly colours her voice, plunging recklessly into its lower regions then soaring aloft. She has always hated the comparisons with Callas but they were clearly meant as a compliment – even if it extends to including the recognition that, like Callas, her top notes could flap.

In the end, apart from Sass, there is little about this recording to challenge the others considered here; it is something of a disappointment

Richard Bonynge – 1987 (studio; digital) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Welsh National Opera
Ernani - Luciano Pavarotti
Elvira - Joan Sutherland
Carlo - Leo Nucci
Silva - Paata Burchuladze
Riccardo - Richard Morton
Iago - Alastair Miles
Giovanna - Linda McLeod

Alarm bells went off the first time I saw this recording, as I feared that Sutherland would be caught too late in her career, Nucci would as usual scoop and bleat and Burchuladze, despite possessing a mightily impressive bass, would murder the Italian language.

And guess what? It turned out that I was right on all three counts. Sutherland has turned sixty and her voice has deteriorated: the beat is quite pronounced, vowels are occluded, her lower register cloudy and her tone is scratchy in alt; not much here to enjoy. Nucci is already habitually approaching the first note of every phrase and every top note from a fifth below and exhibiting the pulse and lack of body in his tonal emission which makes listening to him a trial; his duets with Sutherland are a bit of a horror show. Burchuladze’s first words make my hear sink: “Che maw-ee vegg’io” – everything is swallowed and drawled.

On the plus side, Bonynge conducts both sensitively and spiritedly, his chorus and orchestra are terrific and Pavarotti is in exceptionally good voice, rivalling Bergonzi for expressivity and control, and if he does not perhaps match the visceral power Del Monaco brings to the role, he is still capable of thrilling. He sings in the final trio with heart-breaking intensity and Burchuladze’s baleful interjections, swallowed Italian and all, are as chilling as his Commendatore but Dame Joan’s wobble and matronly timbre are still a problem. This is the equivalent of his Decca recording of I Lombardi (see above), where Pavarotti is let down by his co-singers – except that he sings even better here. Again, unless you are a Pavarotti completist, avoid.

I due Foscari

With Nabucco, I Lombardi and Ernani already under his belt, Verdi could hardly be said to be a novice composer when he wrote I due Foscari for Rome in 1844, and yet somehow this opera seems to have been relegated to the "interesting but justly neglected" category, as if it were an immature and unrewarding work. It is, in fact, a subtle and intimate opera, full of mellow, touching duets and relying more upon plangent melody and perceptive musical characterisation rather than dramatic events - of which there are, admittedly, precious few.

Carlo Maria Giulini – 1951 (live radio broadcast; mono) Warner Fonit Cetra
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Francesco Foscari, Doge di Venezia - Giangiacomo Guelfi
Jacopo Foscari - Carlo Bergonzi
Lucrezia Contarini - Maria Vitale
Jacopo Loredano - Pasquale Lombardo
Barbarigo - Mario Bersieri
Pisana - Liliana Pellegrino
Fante del Consiglio de' Dieci - Aldo Bertocci
Servo de Doge - Gianni Barbieri

While first choice for this neglected early Verdi work remains with the Philips recording conducted by Gardelli with the youthful and very fine team of Carreras, Ricciarelli, Cappuccilli and Ramey, many might like this live (before an audience), mono, studio recording as a supplement, not least because it features Bergonzi in 1951 in only his second recording as a tenor and Guelfi as a sensitive and touching Doge before waning vocal powers tempted him into compensating by grandstanding and bellowing. The soprano, Maria Vitale, is a fine, spirited artist but a little shrill and over-parted in Verdi; RAI house soprano Caterina Mancini would have done this better, as she does in various contemporary Cetra recordings.

This is the least percussive of Verdi's early works and suits Bergonzi's still slightly tremulous tenor; he soon settled down in his new tessitura but is here already singing with delicacy and refinement in a part which requires the tenor to be uniformly afflicted and melancholy; Bergonzi's voice has the right plangency with useful reserves of focused power. Everybody - singers, chorus, orchestra and conductor - is in sympathy with the performing tradition and knows how Verdi should go.

The Warner Fonit remastering is preferable to many other issues on labels which have clearly just have transferred straight from clean LP's and retained some swish and crackle. The sound is still rather distant, crumbly and cavernous but perfectly listenable with a will.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1977 (studio; stereo) Philips
ORF-Symphonie-Orchester (Wien); Chor des Österreichischen Rundfunks
Francesco Foscari, Doge di Venezia - Piero Cappuccilli
Jacopo Foscari - José Carreras
Lucrezia Contarini - Katia Ricciarelli
Jacopo Loredano - Samuel Ramey
Barbarigo - Vincenzo Bello
Pisana - Elizabeth Connell
Fante del Consiglio de' Dieci - Mieczlaw Antoniak
Servo de Doge - Franz Handlos

The cast and recording quality here are of the highest order - typical of the whole Philips/Gardelli early Verdi project - and while Ricciarelli and Cappuccilli are not flawless - their vocal production is at time a little breathy and deliberate - they are both very fine and Carreras is undoubtedly in his youthful, peak form, as is the young Ramey. Hearing this set might prompt you to sample the other recordings featuring Carreras in that excellent series: Un giorno di regno (1973); Il Corsaro (1975); La battaglia di Legnano (1977) and Stiffelio (1979), coupling Carreras with a succession of wonderful leading ladies: Ricciarelli, Caballé, Norman and Sass. These sets form the best of Carreras' recorded legacy and with the demise of studio recordings of opera, we can perhaps now feel even more appreciative of a series which certainly does not sound its age.

The opera itself is short at an hour and three-quarters and leaves you wanting more. There is mercifully little of the tub-thumping stuff typical of second-rate, early Verdi; rather there is much gentle, delicate scoring that makes extensive use of melodic themes. This is an interesting and unusual addition to anyone's Verdi collection.

Alzira

This surely remains the most obscure and least performed of Verdi’s operas – and not without reason; even Homer nods. The music is decidedly less inspired than Giovanna d’Arco, the opera which followed it and while its immediate predecessor, I due Foscari, is not among Verdi’s most enduring works, Ernani, before that, certainly offers more to titillate the ear than Alzira. Despite the weak libretto and silly plot which asks you to accept the feat of a triple escape by Zamoro and Gusman's last-minute conversion from being Mr Vile for the entire opera to Mr Holy in the last five minutes, there is some stirring stuff here without it being top-drawer Verdi. Verdi himself was guilty of a rare error of judgement in asserting that the opera would endure and it's not too hard to see now why it has languished.

It is also often the case with early Verdi that just as we very rarely get the chance to see the operas performed, there are usually only a few recordings of them to choose from. Almost invariably, one of those will be from the Early Verdi series made by Lamberto Gardelli for Philips or, as in this case, another conducted by him from his continuation of the series with the Orfeo label.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1983 (studio; digital) Orfeo
Orchestra - Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Alzira - Ileana Cotrubas
Zamoro - Francisco Araiza
Gusmano - Renato Bruson
Zuma - Sofia Lis
Ovando - Donald George
Ataliba - Daniel Bonilla
Otumbo - Alexandru Ionita
Alvaro - Jan-Hendrik Rootering

The sound of this recording is very acceptable and I note that it has attracted some quite approving critical comments. The music is decidedly less inspired but Gardelli’s conducting is as spirited and energised as you would expect from him and he has a first-rate orchestra and chorus under his command. As I don't much care for either Araiza or Bruson, for me, the main attraction in the cast here is Cotrubas, who was always an affecting artist.

Araiza’s nasal timbre and tendency to apply glottal flicks to emphasised notes irk me but he sings well enough, I suppose, within the limitations of what I invariably hear as his squeezed and constricted tenor, even if he cannot find enough heft of voice to rise to the drama of his “carnefice” rant. Bruson might not be my cup of tea, either, but at least I find his bleating vibrato and weak, throaty low notes less irritating than Gavanelli’s full-on caprino tremolo (see immediately below) and his legato is admirable. Nonetheless, it is a mystery to me that both baritones had quite prominent careers. Cotrubas apart, the best singing comes from the sturdy, if uninspired, Jan-Hendrik Rootering.

In an opera lasting 90 minutes, it is strange that the heroine’s entrance is delayed by almost half an hour. Cotrubas’ limpid soprano lifts the atmosphere, even if she, too, has something of a prominent pulse in her tonal emission. Furthermore, she has the more interesting music and sings it passionately. I find her to be the focal point and by far the best reason to listen to this recording.

Fabio Luisi – 1999 (studio; stereo) Philips
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Chorus - Grand Théâtre de Genčve
Alzira - Marina Mescheriakova
Zamoro - Ramón Vargas
Gusmano - Paolo Gavanelli
Zuma - Iana Iliev
Ovando - Jovo Reljin
Ataliba - Wolfgang Barta
Otumbo - Torsten Kerl
Alvaro - Slobodan Stankovic

In general, the more modern recordings of Verdi’s operas are less starry and successful than those from the 70's, especially when it comes to the quality of the singing. It does not augur well when the first solo voice you hear is the wobbly, nasal, Slavic bass who sings the saintly old Alvaro - atrociously. Scarcely any better is the baritone who attempts Alzira's father, Ataliba. Things pick up with the neat, lean tenor of Ramon Vargas, whose voice is a size too small for the part, but he is very musical. Any deficiency of volume is compensated for by the vast, unwieldy, microphone-shattering soprano of Marina Mescheriakova, who in their duet tends to cast Vargas in the subordinate, male spider role. Still, it's a pleasure to hear a Verdi soprano who really sings out and she makes the most of little in her role as the eponymous heroine. Despite the size of her voice when she sings out, she is equally capable of singing softly, with well-controlled, floating pianissimi. I wish her vibrato were less intrusive; Vargas seems to be the only singer who has real control over that fundamental vocal feature, hence we take a step backwards with Paolo Gavanelli's odd baritone: at full stretch he has good, evenly pulsing top notes and a strong sense of drama, but frequently lapses into crooning, when a really distracting tremolo obtrudes and makes him sound very unsteady and bleaty. Baritones like Panerai, Tibbett and Gobbi managed a fast vibrato without sounding like billy-goats, methinks.

Luisi conducts his good orchestra con gusto and with a strong sense of pace and shape; musical ideas flow thick and fast, and in this almost too compact, even frantic, opera lasting only an hour and a half, there is little time for swooning over the finer emotions and very few still points apart from the odious, two-dimensional Gusman's slavering over Alzira "Eterna la memoria" and the reminiscences narrated by Alzira herself on her first appearance.

The Geneva chorus are really excellent and sound as if they are enjoying themselves singing all that old commentary tosh which is so often their lot. The other recording above, conducted by Gardelli, also has its flaws but on balance I imagine that either set will satisfy the Verdi completist - which the prospective purchaser is likely to be. In truth, neither of these recordings is anywhere close to ideal but on balance, I personally marginally prefer Gardelli.

Giovanna d’Arco

This, Verdi's seventh opera, is one of the most successful and homogeneous of his early works.
It was produced in 1845, right in the middle of Verdi's "anni di galera", and contains a few routine passages but also some absolutely prime opportunities for vocalists of distinction to enrapture the listener with the elegance of their bel canto technique. The plot is coherent but of course an historical abomination; best to forget all about facts and enjoy the music, which is in no way inferior to many a more celebrated work from Verdi's early period.

Alfredo Simonetto – 1951 (live radio broadcast; mono) Melodram; Opera d’Oro; IDIS
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Giovanna - Renata Tebaldi
Carlo VII - Carlo Bergonzi
Giacono - Rolando Panerai
Delil - Giulio Scarinci
Talbot - Antonio Massaria

Let me be crystal clear: anyone in his right mind wanting to hear this opera will first opt for the excellent Levine studio recording with Caballé, Domingo and Milnes, which is very well sung and conducted and in first-rate studio sound. Second choice will be the 1972 Franci recording see below for both)

However, for operaphile nutters, although this radio broadcast from 1951 is in atrocious sound, it also offers singing in a different, stratospheric league - so much so that, as first the proud possessor of the Melodram issue - which might as well have been recorded acoustically on 78's in 1913 it is so poor - I then ordered the remastered IDIS version to see if it was any more sonically palatable, so much do I love the unbridled passion of the singing here – and it is indeed marginally better. It is of course not really a studio recording, as the IDIS cover disingenuously claims, but a recording of a radio broadcast without an audience. I have no idea why the sound is so dire when other mono recordings from that era are often more than acceptable. It is execrable - crackly and distorted - but somehow through it you can hear three of the most phenomenal Italian voices of the era in an unaccountably neglected opera brimful of wonderful cantilena tunes.

The three principals are very young indeed: all under thirty; Tebaldi in particular is extraordinary – there is no trace of the harshness in the upper reaches which set in during the later stages of her career, and her commitment is so winning. Both Panerai and Bergonzi - only a few months after his conversion from baritone to tenor - are only 26. They sing with vim, vigour, and complete abandon, - yet are utterly secure. The excellent comprimario bass is credited as Vittorio Susa (who would then have been 26) by Melodram and as Antonio Massaria by IDIS and other sources; whoever it is, he is in juiciest voice. Singing like this makes me wonder why this opera is so rarely performed; it is every bit as attractive as, say, its predecessors I Lombardi and Ernani or the subsequent I masnadieri which are all more often seen on stage.

Don't say I haven't warned you about the sound - but the singing, the singing...

Bruno Bartoletti – 1972 (live; stereo)
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Giovanna - Katia Ricciarelli
Carlo VII - Flaviano Labň
Giacono - Mario Sereni
Delil - Italo D' Amico
Talbot - Rosario Amore

The first thing to establish here is that the three principal singers here are absolutely superb. The recorded sound here places them occasionally in a rather distant and recessed acoustic which nonetheless quite accurately conveys the more resonant atmosphere of the live performance in La Fenice rather than the hothouse intimacy of some studio recordings, and you may hear from the audience reaction just how great an impact must have made in the theatre. Neither the tenor nor the baritone is as well-known as their counterparts in the Levine studio recording on EMI, which must remain first library choice, but they are first class artists with whom aficionados will be familiar. Pint-sized heroic tenor Flaviano Labň was forty-five and still in his considerable prime here and displays his imposing and voluminous voice to thrilling effect, including a big top C. The under-rated and under-recorded Mario Zanasi was good enough to be Callas' Germont in the live Covent Garden La traviata which remains my favourite of her extant recordings of Violetta; his smooth baritone intermittently reminds me of both Taddei and Matteo Manuguerra - high praise.

But of course, the main attraction here is the chance to hear the young Katia Ricciarelli - only 26 years old - in finest voice before the lamentable, precipitate and premature decline of her lovely instrument through singing parts too heavy for it - for which some, perhaps rightly, blame Karajan. I would point out that other singers, such as Mirella Freni and Gundula Janowitz, were also persuaded by him to undertake heavier roles but preserved their vocal estate throughout long careers through clever management of their vocal resources and better deployment of their vocal technique, but regardless of that debate, Ricciarelli is heard here at her very best, in big, confident voice, floating notes above the stave in a manner to rival Caballé and despatching fioriture with aplomb. Hers is a very feminine, plangent sound, although she can also at times sound like Tebaldi in the middle of her voice.

Highlights for me, apart from the set-piece arias, are the beautiful a cappella trio at the end of the Prologue and the duet for Giovanna and her father in the opening of Act 3, but the whole 100 minutes is enjoyable. Franci's conducting is whole-hearted, old-school Verdian in style and none the worse for it.

No libretto is provided but there are good notes and a plot synopsis.

James Levine – 1972 (studio; stereo) EMI
London Symphony Orchestra; Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Giovanna - Montserrat Caballé
Carlo VII - Plácido Domingo
Giacono - Sherrill Milnes
Delil - Keith Erwen
Talbot - Robert Lloyd

This is the sole studio recording available.

It's 1972, you want to record a Verdi opera with three principals - who you gonna call? There's only one answer: the resident operatic trio and colossi of their day, Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes - because you know they'll deliver. The existence of this splendid recording might also explain why Philips never included Giovanna d'Arco in their Early Verdi series; it had already been done as well as it possibly could, so Carreras was not called upon.

If you forget the inconvenient facts of history, Solera's libretto is no more ridiculous than many another, and the themes themselves are by no means absurd: patriotism, conflict between love and duty and Verdi's favourite - a tormented father-daughter relationship. Solera achieves a miracle of concision by condensing Schiller's historical fantasy of 22 characters into only five - one of whom is sung by Robert Lloyd in his sonorous, youthful prime, so that makes four great singers. Only in opera could you have a successful admixture of two Spaniards pretending to be French and singing of their love in Italian to the lilting strains of a Viennese waltz. The Italians of the day loved it because the idea of liberty resonated with their own position under the Austrians but it is nowadays a rarity. It could easily appeal today, I think: one rumbustious tune succeeds another and all we need are the finest singers...er, yes; there's the rub...

Anyway, the cast, the LSO and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus are clearly having the time of their lives and I put this down to the ebullience and enthusiasm of the conductor, James Levine; no need for restraint in such open-hearted music, although at times it is decidedly rushed. In fact, Domingo, too, gets so carried away that he even sings a rare and ringing C sharp as a culmination to his long opening scene. Caballé's trademark vocal virtues are all in evidence, including those lovely floated top Cs; Milnes does a sterling job as a stern, slightly demented father and it all goes swimmingly right from the overture which happily combines martial themes with pastoral idyll to suggest the two halves of Joan's psychological make-up.

Attila

Attila, Verdi’s ninth opera, is a product typical of his "galley years", when as a young man he threw himself into producing a series of crowd-pleasing blockbusters while gradually introducing musical innovations which permitted greater psychological insight and profundity than mere "oompah" rhythms allowed.

The work became inextricably linked with the Risorgimento movement towards reunification and independence; its mood must be one of rousing patriotism. Italian nationalists of the time seized upon Ezio’s words to Attila as having great contemporary relevance: “Avrai tu l’universo; resti l’Italia a me” (You may have the universe; leave Italy to me). It is rarely performed, although it strikes me as almost as melodic, dramatic and entertaining as its close cousins Ernani and Nabucco, especially when done well by four first-class soloists able to roll out Verdi’s grand melodies with fervour, starting with a great basso cantante but also a really good opera chorus.

Carlo Maria Giulini – 1951 (live radio broadcast; mono) GOP
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Attila - Italo Tajo
Ezio - Giangiacomo Guelfi
Odabella - Caterina Mancini
Foresto - Gino Penno
Uldino - Aldo Bertocci
Leone - Dario Caselli

Let me say right away that while it is good enough to hear the quality of this performance, the wiry mono sound here disqualifies this recording from being a prime recommendation. Italo Tajo was mainly known for buffo roles but he led the way for basses such as Boris Christoff to perform the eponymous leading role and the young Giulini was busy conducting all round Europe and impressing everyone with his drive and musicality. His orchestra and chorus are certainly game, responding enthusiastically to his energised direction. Tajo had a tight, dark sound with a fast vibrato and Caterina Mancini displays the power, brilliance and accuracy of her soprano, anchored by a trenchant lower register. Large-voiced baritone Giangiacomo Guelfi makes a good foil to Tajo’s Attila, their timbres being very different and distinguishable in their exchanges; he bawls a bit but makes a formidable Roman and manages his big aria “Dagl’immortali vertici” well, maintaining a nice line and injecting considerable emotion into it. The line-up of major voices continues with tenor Gino Penno, another voluminously voiced singer with a hard, trumpeting tone; his career was brief but he was both a Wagnerian Heldentenor and a frequent partner of Maria Callas in the Verdian repertoire. His voice is impressive rather than beguiling, as sometimes the effect can be wearing, but he, too, makes much of his main aria, lamenting the supposed betrayal of Odabella. (He and Mancini performed Ernani in the year previous to this; see above.)

I warmly recommend this to historical sound buffs and canary fanciers but the general listener will want one of the studio recordings below.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1972 (studio; stereo) Philips
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Attila - Ruggero Raimondi
Ezio - Sherrill Milnes
Odabella - Cristina Deutekom
Foresto - Carlo Bergonzi
Uldino - Ricardo Cassinelli
Leone - Jules Bastin

Lamberto Gardelli – 1986 (studio; digital) Hungaroton
Hungarian State Orchestra; Hungarian Radio-Television Chorus
Attila - Evgeny Nesterenko
Ezio - Lajos Miller
Odabella - Sylvia Sass
Foresto - János B Nagy
Uldino - Gábor Kállay
Leone - Kolos Kováts

Riccardo Muti – 1989 (studio; digital) EMI
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Attila - Samuel Ramey
Ezio - Giorgio Zancanaro
Odabella - Cheryl Studer
Foresto - Neil Shicoff
Uldino - Ernesto Gavazzi
Leone - Giorgio Surjan

Giulini’s 1951 performances of Attila were ground-breaking but the live recording is in poor sound and I know of only three studio recordings: Gardelli twice, first for Philips then for Hungaroton, then Muti for EMI in 1989. Both are Verdi specialists and masters of Verdian style; both know how to drive the action forward while still giving their singers space to make their points. I mention Gardelli’s second recording rather disparagingly in my review below of the BR Klassik release and reacquaintance with it for the purposes of this survey has not made me revise my opinion upward. Nesterenko is large-voiced but bland and clumsy, once again Lajos Miller, as in Gardelli’s Ernani, is too light and lacking in tonal allure compared with Milnes and Zancanaro, Sylvia Sass sounds out of sorts, with shrill, flapping top notes - I think after a relatively short but brilliant period of fame her voice had begun to deteriorate. I do not much care for Nagy’s tight tenor and some of the supporting cast are really weak – the Uldino, for example, is awful. In short, that recording is a disappointment and as a result, I discount it and return to Gardelli’s first recording and Muti.

Choosing between those two recordings depends very much upon personal taste in voices and a weighing up of the many advantages, and the few disadvantages, of the sets available. Two of the sopranos, Cristina Deutekom and the Cheryl Studer, in fact sound very similar, with fast vibratos, a slight tendency to tremulousness and a really edgy, nervy dramatic flair which successfully captures the volatile and rather unpleasant Odabella. Both cope very well with the sweep and range of the part, so not much between them. Similarly, both Sherrill Milnes and Giorgio Zancanaro are thrilling, truly Italianate baritones with the heft, range, ping, legato and upper extension to encompass the demands of the role of Ezio. Both choruses and orchestras are exemplary; nothing between them, either.

However, there is more to think about when considering the singers who take the eponymous bass role and the comparatively small (as in Nabucco and Macbeth) tenor parts. As is so often the case, Ruggero Raimondi has a beautiful line and inflects the text intelligently, but compared with Samuel Ramey, lacks the weight and gravity of voice which the latter artist brings to Attila. As for Shicoff and Bergonzi, the younger artist turns in one of his more impressive performances, but the unadorned line of his singing and rather unremitting nasal tone compare unfavourably with Bergonzi's elegance and individuality. Having said that, signs of deterioration in Bergonzi's basic vocal quality are already creeping in, in the early 70's, and he manages less sheer gusto than Shicoff.

In the end you must go with your own preference, but none of the three sets disappoints. They all rise to the big numbers and the ensembles are especially rousing. As chances to hear this opera live are relatively few, any Verdian should own at least one recording.

Ivan Repušić - 2020 (live concert; digital) BR Klassik
Munchner Rundfunkorchester; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Attila: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Odabella: Liudmyla Monastyrska
Foresto: Stefano La Colla
Uldino: Stefan Sbonnik
Ezio: George Petean
Leone: Gabriel Rollinson

This is a new, live recording of a concert performance of Attila from Munich last October. It immediately comes into competition with two venerable but fine studio recordings from Gardelli and Muti, starring Raimondi and Ramey respectively. (Gardelli also recorded it for Hungaroton, but that is not in the same class.) The other two present formidable casts and in addition there are some very fine live recordings from the likes of Boris Christoff, Jerome Hines and Nicolai Ghiaurov but of course none of those enjoys digital sound of the quality we have here.

I have no complaints about the Bavarian Radio Chorus here but there is no doubt that Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s bass has roughened in tone and loosened in vibrations since I last heard him; compared with Ramey’s rich, steady, resonant bass he sounds considerably less imposing. Raimondi, too, is smoother, if a tad lugubrious. D’Arcangelo still makes quite a big, dark sound but it has distinctly deteriorated from its pristine splendour. He is at his best in his big aria “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima” but even there, he has moments of unsteadiness and doesn’t command the music like Ghiaurov or Christoff.

The same is very much true of Liudmyla Monastyrska. I heard her live some nine years ago in Macbeth and enjoyed her performance but since then her vibrato has spread alarmingly and has taken over the centre of her voice to become obtrusive. It is still evidently a large instrument but much of the time sounds more like uncontrolled noise than a stream of directed tone – and Odabella has a lot of stratospheric coloratura, so I gain little pleasure from Monastyrska’s clumsy attempt to negotiate it. George Petean is a decent baritone but has a touch too much constriction in his vocal production and is nowhere near as open, exciting and distinctive as predecessors Sherrill Milnes and Giorgio Zancanaro. Tenor Stefano La Colla as Foresto is an unlovely bleater with a tremolo who sings through his nose and slides up to thin top notes; he is enough to send me back to Shicoff and, especially, Bergonzi.

Conductor Ivan Repušić does a good job and provides the drive and enthusiasm this patriotic tub-thumping requires; there is also some lovely scene-painting from the orchestra at the end of the Prologue, depicting the hermits’ huts on stilts in the Adriatic lagoons – but this is opera and we need voices.

This comes in a slimline double CD case with one of those superfluous cardboard covers that you can put straight in the recycling. The booklet is in English and German and supplies a brief plot synopsis but no libretto.

The blurb gushes that in this “recording of the concert performance from the Prinzregententheater, outstanding performers provide authentic fluidity and vocal splendour” and that it was a “highlight of Munich musical life from the end of last year” which “received an enthusiastic reception from the critics”. If that is so, we are in trouble. I can think of absolutely no reason to recommend this over either of the two commercial studio recordings cited above.

Jérusalem/Gerusalemme
 
Jérusalem was a grand opera made for Paris in 1847, and a kind of back-formation adapted and transformed from the 1843 I Lombardi and sung in French. It is artistically superior to I Lombardi, being more logical and integrated as a work, although it has never gained the same popularity. It was re-translated back into Italian for La Scala in 1850 as Gerusalemme; it is consequently a bit weird hearing the famous tenor aria "La mia letizia infondere" with the wrong words, especially as the Italian doesn't fit all that well.

The Verdi aficionado will want recordings of all three of these linked but discrete operas and I have therefore recommended versions of I Lombardi, Jérusalem and Gerusalemme.

Gianandrea Gavazzeni – 1963 (live; mono) Melodram; Phoenix Classics; Verona; Mondo Musica
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Gastone, Viconte di Bearn - Giacomo Aragall
Il Conte di Tolosa - Emilio Salvoldi
Ruggero – Gian Giacomo Guelfi
Ademaro de Montheil - Antonio Zerbini
Raimondo - Franco Ghitti
Elena - Leyla Gencer
Isaura - Mirella Fiorentini
Un Soldato - Alessandro Maddalena
Un Araldo - Virgilio Carbonari
L'Emiro di Ramla - Alessandro Maddalena
Un Ufficiale dell'Emiro - Ottorino Begali

This fine live performance of Gerusalemme from Venice has appeared on various labels but can be hard to obtain affordably. All the same, I urge you to try to find it, especially if you are a fan of Leyla Gencer and/or early Verdi performed in authentic Italian style.

The cast here is formidable, above all, Gencer at her very finest. Although she is often spoken of in the same breath as Callas you can hear in this performance that the great artist she most resembles is Monserrat Caballé. dramatically compelling and vocally splendid with thrilling top notes up to C-sharp and wonderful B and B-flat pianissimi. Giacomo Aragall here makes his major role début, sounding a little light, youthful and under-powered but already attractive of tone and also essaying a C sharp. Baritone Gian Giacomo Guelfi is impressively powerful but goes in for too much grand-standing; nonetheless, he is an imposing presence. Finally, we get to hear the excellent bass Antonio Zerbini, albeit in a minor part.

Gavazzeni is his usual wholly reliable, responsive self, quite at home in early-to-middle period Verdi and conducting with verve and passion. The orchestra is fine apart from a flat trumpet at the end of Act 3 (CD 2, band 5) and the chorus has a few rocky moments but hey, this is live opera in 1960's Italy. The sound is remarkably good: clean, clear, undistorted mono apart from some inevitable hiss. Given that there is no commercial, studio recording of Gerusalemme and only three live recordings from the early 60’s all with Gencer and Aragall, any serious Verdi fan will want this.

Gianandrea Gavazzeni – 1975 (live radio broadcast; stereo)
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Gaston, Vicomte de Béarn - José Carreras
Le comte de Toulouse - Alessandro Cassis
Roger - Siegmund Nimsgern
Ademar de Monteil - Leonardo Monreale
Raymond - Giampaolo Corradi
Hélčne - Katia Ricciarelli
Isaure - Licia Falcone
Un soldat - Franco Calabrese
Un Héraut - Vinicio Cocchieri
L'Émir de Ramla - Eftimios Michalopoulos
Un officier de l'Émir - Fernandino Jacopucci

This live recording is certainly a cheap, viable alternative to Luisi’s studio account and many will be drawn by the prospect of hearing Ricciarelli and Carreras in freshest, most youthful voice early in their careers before both fell victim to over-singing in parts too heavy for their essentially lyrical instruments.

However, there are a few caveats: first, the Turin performance is live - perfectly listenable stereo, a bit blaring and congested in parts and obviously not as clean and spacious as the later digital studio recording. Secondly, it is slightly cut, to-wit: the Knights' and Ladies' chorus just after the lovely passage early in Act 1 depicting the sun rising that Verdi composed for this Paris re-write of I Lombardi in 1847 and proleptic of a similar but greater depiction of a misty dawn over the Venetian lagoon in Simon Boccanegra; the Harem chorus and subsequent ballet music opening Act 3; finally, and most grievously, Hélčne's cabaletta "Quelle ivresse", an outburst of joy when she discovers that Gaston is still alive, rescued from the rather mawkish celestial vision scene in Act 2 of I Lombardi which was dropped by Verdi for Jérusalem ; I have no idea why Gavazzeni and Ricciarelli did not include it and it is present in the Luisi recording. One additional little oddity: the men's chorus of Crusaders at the beginning of Act 4 sing a passage beginning "C'est lŕ qu'apparut" which is meant to be sung by Roger the hermit; again, I have no idea why it was reassigned. The cabaletta apart, none of this matters; the ballet music was a house obligation imposed upon Verdi as a non-negotiable condition of his opera being mounted in "La Grande Boutique" and he did his duty understandably without much inspiration - the ballet music of Aida is much more integral, apt and entertaining.

If you are hoping here for a more impressive supporting cast and better French than in the Philips set, you will be disappointed: the mostly Italian RAI cast all sing such heavily accented French such that it sounds positively Provençal, thus "vin" is "veng" "mon coeur" is "monn care" and in truth Carreras hardly sets a good example with his similarly Iberian twang, nor does Nimsgern, although better, avoid Teutonic inflections. Ironically, one of the worst offenders linguistically speaking, is also one of the best voices among the comprimario singers: Giampaolo Corradi as Raymond has a powerful, stentorian tenor and a vile French accent. Ricciarelli is better than them all - and the voice is so lovely that we must forgive Italianate presumption in daring to tackle an opera in French - notoriously difficult for non-native speakers.

I do not care for Siegmund Nimsgern's nasal, bleaty baritone but he was always most apt portraying villains (as with his Klingsor for Karajan) and is a match for Luisi's Scandiuzzi, who is far more sedate and lugubrious, if more congenial vocally. Gavazzeni's direction is as you would expect: wise, seasoned and flexible. He takes the famous trio at the end of Act 3 very slowly and it comes off as intense rather than stirring.

In the end, you choose the recording which suits your taste; they have similar strengths and weaknesses and while the more modern singers do not quite have the special magic of the 70's pairing, the score is complete and the sound superior. I cheat by owning both - and the Turin set is here available at bargain price, in any case.

Fabio Luisi – 1998 (studio; digital) Philips
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Chorus - Grand Théâtre de Genčve
Gaston, Vicomte de Béarn - Marcello Giordani
Le comte de Toulouse - Philippe Rouillon
Roger - Roberto Scandiuzzi
Ademar de Monteil - Daniel Borowski
Raymond - Simon Edwards
Hélčne - Marina Mescheriakova
Isaure - Hélčne Le Corre
Un soldat - Wolfgang Barta
Un Héraut - Slobodan Stankovic
L'Émir de Ramla - Slobodan Stankovic
Un officier de l'Émir - Jovo Reljin

While the Italians cling to the cruder, more rumbustious earlier version of this opera, I Lombardi, presumably mainly because its patriotic theme is explicit, I am with Verdi scholar Julian Budden in preferring this re-write for Paris in 1847; it is a more coherent, homogeneous work despite the persistent incongruities and inconsistencies of the plot. It maintains a more compact and comprehensible narrative line, the number of scenes being reduced from eleven to seven, and retains most of the best music from I Lombardi. Verdi wisely jettisoned the naiveties such as the heavenly vision scene and wrote some new, refined and beautiful music such as the delicate passage depicting the sunrise in the first scene and also a completely new finale to Act 3. There are still some rather jolly throwbacks: the soldiers' chorus "Fier soldat" sounds heavily indebted to Mercadante in his more bombastic mode, but by and large this is a more mature Verdi - as you would expect, four years on and writing for the discriminating and rather rigid Parisians. The obligatory ballet is charming, inoffensive music - and of course a bit of a bore for the listener without the benefit of the accompanying visual stimulus of dance; just skip it if you want, but at least we have the complete score here.

I also think this is the best of Luisi's three early Verdi operas, recorded to fill the gaps left by Gardelli. He is both more energised and subtle here than in Alzira and Aroldo and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande are again very fine: sharp and responsive.

Revisiting this recording, I in fact found it to be much better than I had remembered from a first listening several years back. I have read some very indignant objections to the French accents of the principal singers and it is true that the two French singers inevitably remind us of what sung French should sound like; Philippe Rouillon as the Conte de Toulouse has a particularly lovely bass and enunciates his mother tongue beautifully. Mescheriakova has a real Verdi spinto soprano, powerful and penetrating, but in addition to too wide a vibrato her pronunciation of French is almost wholly occluded by an absence of consonants. Conversely, Marcello Giordano, who also has a proper Verdi tenor with a ringing top C if a rather grainy tone, has typically Italian problems with his French vowels. Mushy consonants didn't stop Joan Sutherland having a glittering career and many an Italian singer has enjoyed success happily mangling the French language; when the French themselves start once more to produce more singers capable of doing justice to their lovely language in opera they will have more right to complain, but meanwhile...

Scandiuzzi as the repentant hermit is caught before the time when his vibrato started to loosen prematurely and degenerate into a full-blown wobble; he sings gravely and expressively in a manner not unlike Ruggero Raimondi. He in fact of the three non-French principals sings the best French, even if it remains a bit "international".

I am not quite resigned to hearing favourite arias such as "La mia letizia infondere" rendered in French, which does not really sit well with the music but this recording makes an excellent case for a neglected opera. There is a bargain live recording (on Opera d'Oro and Bella Voce; see above) from Turin in 1975 with Ricciarelli and Carreras, who are superb, but it is cut and there is a less than distinguished supporting cast; I have never had much time for Siegmund Nimsgern's bleaty baritone and some of the other singers are poor. Mind you, I could wish that Luisi had recruited two comprimario basses other than the same two dreadful singers who also disfigure Alzira - but bass Daniel Borowski as the Papal Legate provides some compensation.

So this is the one to get unless you especially want the young Ricciarelli and Carreras - and I admit that his voice in its youthful prime is the one I would most want to hear in the roles of Gaston and Oronte - but this set is a fine achievement, despite the niggles.

I masnadieri

I am always intrigued by the way some of Verdi's earlier operas have remained comparatively neglected both on stage and in the recording studio, although a little close listening and thought will sometimes provide an - if not the - answer.

I masnadieri - Verdi's eleventh, "London" opera - has a lot going for it. Both the two studio recordings so far made are top quality and the opera has many armchair adherents, but the culminating absurdity of our hero stabbing his beloved to spare her the agony of losing him to the bandits (to whom he has sworn eternal fealty) is just too much to swallow. The soprano has much beautiful music written expressly for the vocal talents of Jenny Lind; consequently, there is a lot of delicate coloratura and scope for the top end of the voice, but none of those gutsy plunges into the lower register that stiffen the sinews and give a little starch to a rather pale and passive heroine.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1975 (studio; stereo) Philips
New Philharmonia Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Massimiliano - Ruggero Raimondi
Carlo - Carlo Bergonzi
Francesco - Piero Cappuccilli
Amalia - Montserrat Caballé
Armino - John Sandor
Moser - Maurizio Mazzieri
Rolla - William Elvin

Richard Bonynge – 1982 (studio; digital) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Welsh National Opera
Massimiliano - Samuel Ramey
Carlo - Franco Bonisolli
Francesco - Matteo Manuguerra
Amalia - Joan Sutherland
Armino - Arthur Davies
Moser - Simone Alaimo
Rolla - John Harris

Both of these recordings are wonderful, if different. One might expect to hear frailties in both Sutherland's and Bergonzi's singing, she being in her mid-fifties and he in his early fifties at the times of recording (1982 and 1975 respectively), but both are superb; in fact, she is more animated and has a better trill than Caballé and he is more stylish and nuanced than the stentorian Bonisolli. Both sound great, even if he is occasionally a little dry and a hint of a beat obtrudes in Sutherland's top - but these recordings represent the best of their late work. Bonisolli is certainly more exciting than Bergonzi, too; a curiosity is that he and Sutherland are allowed by Bonynge to take ringing top C's (and even a C sharp, in his case) whereas Gardelli has his singers take the rather tame, lower, written options all the time. Both baritones are top class, although I prefer Manuguerra's more biting tone to Cappuccilli's woollier production; both basses are splendid: Raimondi sounds much more the starved, weakened old man but Ramey's voice is intrinsically more rotund. (Apparently credibility was strained in the first London performance, as the part of Massimiliano was taken by the celebrated and notoriously rotund bass Lablache.) Both choruses and orchestra are unimpeachable - although in the overture the Welsh National Opera's concertante cellist plays more affectingly and with more tender phrasing than his New Philharmonia counterpart. Conversely, Caballé and Bergonzi make a more moving job of their lovely duet "Ma un'iri di pace".

As a result, I cannot ultimately separate these two recordings: the Decca is more exciting, the Philips more beautiful in its restraint. I am glad to own both but edge towards the greater elan of the Decca account.

Il corsaro
 
Il corsaro is something of a Cinderella opera in the Verdi canon for several reasons: Verdi wrote it under contractual obligation, never revising it or even attending its premiere and you can tell that despite the opera having some marvellous moments, his heart was not consistently in its composition. Furthermore, it has an odd line-up of two sopranos, no leading mezzo, alto or bass and an excess of rum-ti-tum, despite being his thirteenth opera and thus hardly a product of the "galley years" but just before his golden middle period and subsequent to several more sophisticated and mature works. Nonetheless, it is full of rousing tunes and ensembles and at least four arias of top quality, the aforementioned tenor one, another for the baritone and one for each of the sopranos.
 
Marcus Dods – 1971 (live concert performance; stereo) Mitridate Ponto
BBC Concert Orchestra & BBC Chorus
Corrado - Keith Erwen
Giovanni - Roger Heath
Medora - Patrick McCarthy
Gulnara - Pauline Tinsley
Seid - Terence Sharpe
Selimo - Emlyn Jones
Eunuco - Leslie Fry
Schiavo - Emlyn Jones

There is much to enjoy in this home-grown rarity but I must signal one big caveat regarding the sound: although it is otherwise in full, bright, slightly raw stereo, there is a persistent, indeed consistent, technical fault in the master tape, which is that the right channel frequently fades altogether and there is wow and flutter from start to finish, often accompanied by a low rumble. These sonic flaws, more noticeable on headphones, are such a pity, as this live recording captures an unaccountably neglected artist whom I truly believe to be one of the great spinto sopranos of the era: Pauline Tinsley. This recording allows us to hear what an incredibly vibrant, dramatic and technically complete artist she was. She has more than a little of Callas' gifts, in that she has the range, with a thrilling top and a biting lower register, the coloratura facility, the volume and the temperament of a great singer-actress. Again, like Callas, the voice was not conventionally beautiful but immensely striking. She recorded very little - only two studio recordings: one is Elektra in which she sang a minor role and the other is her Elettra in Colin Davis' Idomeneo, otherwise we have only a handful of live recordings such as this one. This criminal neglect makes anything featuring her doubly valuable and there is precious little else.

Her presence alone would justify the purchase of this set, dodgy sound and all, but there are other attractions, not the least the presence of another neglected singer, the Irish lyric soprano Patricia ("Paddy") McCarry, whose vibrant, limpid sound lent itself ideally to her most celebrated role, Gilda in Rigoletto. She makes a very appealing, feminine Medora and I love her "old-fashioned" fast vibrato. She left only a small recorded legacy but this does her justice. English (in both sense of the word) tenor Keith Erwin also recorded very little; he is sweet, strong and slightly constricted of tone, rising admirably to the heroic "stand and sing" passages for the Corsair and singing with great plangency in the most famous aria "Eccomi prigioniero". To complete this showcase of excellent British voices, we hear Terence Sharpe, yet another unaccountably overlooked singer with many of the qualities we associate with the best Italian baritones of the previous era: a neat, firm, powerful, very focused vocal production with plenty of steel in the sound, superb legato and a ringing top.

The conducting, chorus and orchestral playing are all first rate, too; Marcus Dods has a complete grasp of the requisite Verdian style.

None of the four principals singing here is still with us; Tinsley died only this year just short of her 93rd birthday, McCarry died in 2012, Sharpe in 2004 and Erwin very prematurely, as long ago as 1984, aged only 42. This recording, for all its sound issues, makes a fitting memorial to a team of fine British artists.

[The bonus tracks on this 2 CD set are the three arias from a 1969 concert in Paris and the three big arias from Macbeth, one from each of the three acts, taken from a complete performance in Holland in 1976.]

There is of course a "safer" and wholly recommendable studio recording by Gardelli but it is rather staid compared with this livelier stage performance.
 
Lamberto Gardelli – 1975 (studio; stereo) Philips
New Philharmonia Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Singers
Corrado - José Carreras
Giovanni - Clifford Grant
Medora - Jessye Norman
Gulnara - Montserrat Caballé
Seid - Gian-Piero Mastromei
Selimo - John Noble
Eunuco - Alexander Oliver

This the sole studio recording available.

Time and again, people under-rate José Carreras in comparison with "the other two" because they have either forgotten or are unaware of his prowess in his glory years of the 70's, when no other tenor could rival his ability to evoke heroism, passion, desperation and suffering - all the big emotions. Of course, his voice was always just on the edge of forcing and ultimately he paid the price, but here in 1975 he is undoubtedly the star of the show for all the pre-eminence of his two co-stars, Jessye Norman and Montserrat Caballé. Try tracks 5-7 of CD 2 to hear him at his plangent best, first in a solo lament, which is ushered in by throbbing violas and cellos in a style proleptic of the best Verdi, then moving into a scorching duet with Caballé.

The opera starts as it means to go on, the overture opening with crashes fit to alert the most inattentive or somnolent member of the audience that this is going to be a noisy and bumpy ride. This is the original "stand and sing" opera which aims to take the listener by storm and leave no prisoners (of you excuse my sequence of clichés). Like Il trovatore, it simply requires four great singers. OK; the serviceable but gritty Gian-Piero Mastromei isn't quite that, but he does not let the side down and bellows along con gusto. It's not exactly subtle, but it's all great fun, stupid plot and all. The sheer amplitude of Norman's velvety soprano in a role probably a size too small to do her justice, is always impressive, and she sings with admirable restraint, recognising that she is essentially miscast. Caballé plays the diva and screeches a bit, but she keeps up with Carreras. The sound is very good for a forty-six-year-old recording and of course Gardelli has the measure of the score, occasionally pretending that there are more things which require finessing than is really the case and managing to temper the relentless melodrama. We could not cast this opera as well today and it is in any case almost never performed.

La battaglia di Legnano

This opera is rarely performed; Italians tend to regard it a rather passé "pičce d'occasion" and the rather clumsy attempt by Cammarano to meld a personal tragedy with another patriotic rallying-call, in combination with his penchant for dramatic confrontation regardless of psychological verisimilitude, can leave the audience less than involved. In addition, the hero acts like a total oaf: his vicious condemnation of the hapless Lida for marrying his best friend when she believed he had been killed in battle is unattractive and incomprehensible. Musically, there doesn't seem to be quite the spark and invention here which make the neglect of other operas of that era such as Stiffelio so puzzling; nonetheless, even second-rank Verdi always affords many pleasures and there is still some lovely music here. Try, for example, the duet at the beginning of Act 3 between husband and wife or Lida's scena and cavatina in Act 1.

Fernando Previtali – 1951 (live radio broadcast; mono) Warner Fonit (Cetra)
Orchestra & Chorus RAI Roma
Lida - Caterina Mancini
Arrigo - Amedeo Berdini
Rolando - Rolando Panerai
Federico Barbarossa - Albino Gaggi
Primo Console - Albino Gaggi
Marcovaldo - Albino Gaggi
Il Podesta di Como - Albino Gaggi
Imelda - Edmea Limberti
Un Araldo - Manfredi Ponz De Leon

Lamberto Gardelli – 1977 (studio; stereo) Philips
ORF-Symphonie-Orchester & Chor (Wien)
Lida - Katia Ricciarelli
Arrigo - José Carreras
Rolando - Matteo Manuguerra
Federico Barbarossa - Nicola Ghiuselev
Primo Console - Hannes Lichtenberger
Secondo Console - Dimitri Kavrakos
Marcovaldo - Jonathan Summers
Il Podesta di Como - Franz Handlos
Imelda - Ann Murray
Un Araldo - Mieczlaw Antoniak

This is the sole studio recording of this opera; I compare it here with the excellent mono recording of the RAI broadcast in 1951, which features the usual sturdy cast of that era. Baritone Rolando Panerai will be familiar to many; his distinctive, flexible, flickering voice featured in so many recording over forty years, but some might also be surprised by the quality of the relatively unknown tenor Amedeo (sometimes "Amadeo") Bertini and soprano Caterina Mancini: big-voiced, stalwarts who would be much more celebrated were they singing today. The sound is clear, undistorted mono and Previtali knows what to do with the music. However, I would suggest that the enthusiast acquire that as a supplement to this Philips recording, which is superior by dint of flawless stereo sound and its provision of the finest thing Katia Ricciarelli ever did on disc, in her Lida. Listening to her here, it's possible to understand what all the fuss was about, even if she did fade rather early: pure tone, steady top notes, secure coloratura, ravishing pianissimi, every note invested with such pathos and tenderness; this is great singing. In Carreras, she is partnered by a singer also in his absolute, youthful prime - but you could stick a pin in any of those early Verdi operas he recorded and hit tenor singing of the highest calibre - his voice being peculiarly plangent and moving in the 70's, with just enough tension in the throat to sound engaged but not effortful or strained. In addition, that under-rated singer Matteo Manuguerra turns in another beautifully vocalised performance: his smooth, slightly nasal sound always falls gratefully on the ear and he makes the most of one of the less demanding Verdi baritone roles. By their side, the cast of the earlier Previtali recording sound generalised - but still exciting.

Buy the Previtali if you are a bit of a historical-voice-curiosity buff but for the best advocacy of one of Verdi's slight miss-hits, go for the Philips. The Gencer recording (reviewed below) is marvellous but can only be a supplement.

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli – 1963 (live; mono) Gala
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro Verdi di Trieste
Lida - Leyla Gencer
Arrigo - Joăo Gibin
Rolando - Ugo Savarese
Federico Barbarossa - Marco Stefanoni
Primo Console - Silvio Maionica
Secondo Console - Alessandro Maddalena
Marcovaldo - Enzo Viaro
Imelda - Bruna Ronchini
Un Araldo - Vito Susca

Although two studio recordings of this opera are already available this live performance from 1963 is surprisingly competitive because it is in far better mono sound than is often the case on the Gala label - a bit of hiss but little distortion and good clarity, with voices on microphone most of the time. The presence of Turkish diva Leyla Gencer will be sufficient to persuade her fans to part with very little money, given that she was so little recorded. Her passion, intensity and extraordinary range come through loud and clear and she is partnered by decent, stentorian tenor Joăo Gibin and serviceable baritone Ugo Savarese. Molinari-Pradelli's conducting is as idiomatic and assured as you would expect from this experienced conductor who was ubiquitous in the 60's and 70's, in demand by opera houses and recording companies alike.

This is second-rank Verdi but full of rollicking good tunes and a Big Sing for the performers. The prompter is intermittently audible but not too intrusive and the orchestra perfectly adequate. As is Gala's custom, there is a substantial bonus in the form of extended excerpts - over fifty minutes - from a 1964 Rome performance of I vespri siciliani conducted by Gavazzeni. Unfortunately, the singers are less starry and the sound inferior apart from Gencer - but the music is a cut above La battaglia, so there are compensations.

This is one Gala issue that doesn't have to come with a warning. Gencer deploys her trademark glottal emphases, thrilling coloratura agility and huge, secure range as Elena and the selections concentrate on her big arias and the ensembles to which she contributes, so the quality of her co-singers is largely irrelevant - it's her show.
 
Stiffelio

Stiffelio was written in Verdi's most fertile period as a composer between 1849 and 1853 and is certainly no less tuneful and dramatic than the other works from that period. While the plot is mildly threadbare, its themes are exceptionally adult and moving: adultery, temptation, revenge, honour, fidelity, forgiveness are all treated in a deeply sympathetic and psychologically penetrating fashion. It contains many hints of greater things to come in its characterisation of an honourable but volatile man prone to violent outbursts prompted by feelings of jealously and emotional inadequacy - yes; Othello - and the culmination of the opera can be piercingly moving when Stiffelio puts aside thoughts of revenge to offer his wife forgiveness. Lina herself, is an oddly weak, vacillating woman as written in the libretto, but Verdi's music gives her a quiet, pitiable desperation which hints at the alienation resulting from her husband's neglect of her while pursuing his vocation.

Orchestrally, too, so much of Stiffelio is proleptic of greater things to come but still lovely in itself. The opening to Act 2 is a case in point: a stirring, arresting orchestral introduction followed by a superb, lilting string accompaniment in parts to Lina's wonderful aria "Ah, dagli scanni eterei"; a scene which is the forebear to Amelia's "Ecco l'orrido campo" from "Un ballo in maschera".

Unfortunately, Stiffelio has undergone all kinds of indignities including neglect, adulteration (sic), and even a total rewriting as Aroldo in order to make it acceptable to narrow-minded critics, censors and the public itself. It must have been a bitter pill to Verdi to see so beautiful a work thwarted and spurned. Having seen a successful production at the Royal Opera with José Cura and Sondra Radvanovsky, I can nonetheless testify as to its effectiveness as entertainment.

Oliviero De Fabritiis – 1972 (live; stereo) Opera d’Oro; GOP; Legato
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli
Stiffelio - Mario Del Monaco
Lina - Ángeles Gulin
Stankar - Giulio Fioravanti
Jorg - Joshua Hecht
Raffaele - Angelo Marchiandi
Dorotea - Eva Ruta
Federico - Luigi Paolini

I recall reading a criticism of Del Monaco that he was a tenor who was "exciting in the wrong sort of way". As far as I am concerned, exciting is exciting - and Del Monaco is just that. Indeed, in these days of dearth I weary of people criticising him when we have no-one to approach him today - and there is still often a great deal of exaggeration concerning his supposed "insensitivity". He had a huge voice which was, by all accounts, thrilling in the theatre but could take unkindly to recording. He tried to fine it down to accommodate the complaints of his critics but it was what it was - a phenomenon. He was nearing the end of a brilliant career when this performance was taped – he retired three years later – and his voice had supposedly been in decline following a very serious car crash in 1963 which hospitalised him for a year and left him with only one kidney; he died of nephritis in 1982. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that vocally he remained in good shape for a decade and more following the accident and that in fact having to be more careful made him more inclined to observe subtleties and nuances in scores.

He is certainly in unexpectedly fine voice here and accompanied by an excellent cast, especially the soprano Ángeles Gulin, who also possessed a major voice. The stereo sound is really very satisfactory for a live recording forty years old and there is a good case for preferring this to the splendid Philips studio recording, featuring Carreras in his absolute prime. I enjoy both, and value my bargain Opera d'Oro set partly out of sentimental attachment to a great tenor in one of his last great roles but also because it has the sense of a real occasion.

(It is currently quite hard to find copies of this, however; they occasionally pop up on eBay and Marketplace.)

Lamberto Gardelli – 1979 (studio; stereo) Philips
ORF-Symphonie-Orchester (Wien); Chor des Österreichischen Rundfunks
Stiffelio - José Carreras
Lina - Sylvia Sass
Stankar - Matteo Manuguerra
Jorg - Wladimiro Ganzarolli
Raffaele - Ezio Di Cesare
Dorotea - Maria Venuti
Federico - Thomas Moser

Stiffelio is given the best possible advocacy here with a cast headed by José Carreras singing at his absolute peak and partnered by two wonderful artists in Sylvia Sass and Matteo Manuguerra. Sass is deeply affecting and vocally commanding, a lovely match to Carreras's on-the-edge instability; Manuguerra gives his usual smooth-voiced, but dramatically pointed, performance. Ganzarolli is typically adept in portraying black-voiced villainy. These four singers make up the kind of cast we began to take for granted in the series of early Verdi operas so ably and idiomatically conducted by Lamberto Gardelli, but only the perspective of time allows us now to see what a blessing that enterprise was.

This is the sole studio recording but it is so good I cannot regret the absence of any alternative; however, fans of Del Monaco might like his live Naples recording as a supplement – if they can find a copy.

Les vępres siciliennes/I vespri siciliani
 
The opera was composed to a French libretto as a Grand Opera for Paris complete with the compulsory ballet. It was premiered in 1855, but soon slipped from view. It was gradually revived from the mid 20C onwards and has since been more frequently heard in both the French original and the adaptation into Italian made in 1861, but there is only one studio recording on RCA and a handful of live recordings in French which are not widely available; fortunately, the 1969 radio broadcast recording of the French version conducted by Rossi (see below) is in good mono sound and although copies are now rare and expensive, it may be heard on YouTube.

The opera itself is grand, grandiose – and essentially too long. Musically, it is just a little patchy and occasionally generic in quality compared with Verdi's greatest operas but it contains some beautiful set pieces and big crowd numbers; the Act IV quartet in particular is absolutely glorious. The most famous arias are Elena’s “Mercé, dilette amiche” and Procida’s “O tu, Palermo”.

Erich Kleiber – 1951 (live; mono) Testament
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Guido di Montforte - Enzo Mascherini
Il Sire di Bethume - Bruno Carmassi
Il Conte Vaudemont - Mario Frosini
Arrigo - Giorgio Kokolios Bardi
Giovanni da Procida - Boris Christoff
La Duchessa Elena - Maria Callas
Ninetta - Mafalda Masini
Danieli - Gino Sarri
Tebaldo - Aldo De Paolo
Roberto - Lido Pettini
Manfredo - Breno Ristori

This is indubitably an improvement on previous issues as it is from a different source and of course Callas - and indeed her co-singers - are great, but I confess that, having read previous reviews, I was expecting better sound than Testament provide. It is still pretty dim, grim and distant; quite often the singers are a long way off mike and it is still very "boxy". I am used to old, live recordings - I have plenty of them, including some of the less-than-ideal Opera d'Oro sets - and I appreciate that this is now seventy years old - but I am still a little disappointed, especially as this edition is not cheap.

Enough moaning - but I want those who are not die-hard opera aficionados to be aware of the potential for some let-down. Otherwise, this is Callas in her youthful prime; those inimitable inflections are already apparent and the top notes are still very much in place. Her supporting cast is fine; Christoff is his usual imposing self - never exactly Italianate, as his tone is too obviously Slavic entirely to convince, but it's a beautiful sound. Mascherini is the real thing: a flexible, vibrant Italian baritone and Kokolios-Bardi is more than adequate - unsurprising as Callas especially requested him for this performance, having sung often with him in her Athens days. Kleiber is wholly in control and in the right, swash-buckling idiom for this large-scale opera with its big, choral set-pieces, ensembles and grand gestures.

I should mention that the overture is not included here. This issue was made from a private tape-recording made for Walter Legge, which passed into the collection of Lord Harewood. Legge was primarily interested in the singers, hence the overture was not recorded.

It's good to have this souvenir of Callas in one of her earlier famous roles and I shall listen to it often - but caveat emptor with regard to the sound quality. (Incidentally, the cover features poor Maria in a costume that makes her look like some Great White Rabbit who has escaped from Alice in Wonderland...)

Mario Rossi – 1955 (live radio broadcast; mono) Walhall
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Guido di Montforte - Carlo Tagliabue
Il Sire di Bethume - Mario Zorgniotti
Il Conte Vaudemont - Giuliano Ferrein
Arrigo - Mario Ortica
Giovanni da Procida - Boris Christoff
La Duchessa Elena - Anita Cerquetti
Ninetta - Miti Truccato Pace
Danieli - Tommaso Soley
Tebaldo - Walter Artioli
Roberto - Christiano Dalamangas
Manfredo - Sante Andreoli
Ninetta - Pamela Bowden

Recordings of the great Anita Cerquetti are too rare to pass up; happily, this 1955 Turin radio broadcast is good clean mono and superior to the 1951 Callas recording which was issued on the Testament label with some fanfare following the release on supposedly better tapes but which in fact turned out to be something of a disappointment (see above). Callas and Christoff are the best things in that set but we have Christoff here, too, and although Callas is unrivalled in a role from which she recorded arias all her career despite having early given up singing it on stage, the only other spinto soprano who could have given Callas a run for her money was Cerquetti - and she is superb here. She has complete control over her huge voice, flinging out top C’s and handling the coloratura phrases with aplomb. She acts with great passion and sounds utterly unafraid to throw out her voice with abandon; she is frequently thrilling.

Conductor Rossi is no Erich Kleiber but he was a more than competent trooper and directs con gusto if hardly with much delicacy. I had never heard of Mario Ortica but he was presumably one of the legion supposedly second-rate tenors who abounded in 50's Italy and who would be a star today. Despite a slight bleat in the tone, he negotiates the very difficult and demanding part of Arrigo very satisfyingly and securely; modern producers would kill to get their hands on such a Verdi singer. Carlo Tagliabue's star seems to have fallen since his heyday and it seems few remember him today, yet he was a prominent and celebrated Verdi baritone with a big, burly voice and a slightly too pronounced vibrato. Christoff contributes a grand and dignified Procida no different from his assumption of the role four years earlier.

As an ensemble, this recording is frankly preferable to the Callas version. Unfortunately, it contains quite a few cuts: all the third act ballet music goes, as do cabalettas and cadenzas for Elena and Procida and repeats in arias for Arrigo and Monforte. Listening again, I cannot help feeling that the last Act is always something of an anti-climax musically, which might have contributed to the opera's comparative unpopularity - but the plot and libretto are both rather good. Otherwise, this is a stirring and involving performance of a neglected Verdi opera sung to a standard unthinkable today.
 
Mario Rossi – 1969 (live radio broadcast; stereo) Arkadia; Opera Rara
Orchestra & Chorus - BBC Concert Orchestra
Guy de Monfort - Neilson Taylor
Le sire de Béthune - Stafford Dean
Le comte de Vaudemont - Neil Howlett
Henri - Jean Bonhomme
Jean Procida - Ayhan Baran
La duchesse Hélčne - Jacqueline Brumaire
Ninetta - Pamela Bowden
Danieli - Bernard Dickerson
Thibault - Gerald English
Robert - Michael Rippon
Mainfroid - Nigel Rogers

This radio broadcast of a concert performance enjoys decent, very slightly fuzzy and hissy sound. I think it is flat, narrow stereo but it is hard to tell; everything is clear and well-balanced but a bit distant. Audience applause is included but it’s not intrusive.

The cast features an array of sturdy, mostly British, voices with two francophone singers in lead roles and the French accents of the non-native singers are generally fine. Jean Brumaire has a relatively light soprano compared with Arroyo and Studer but that is perhaps more suitable for this French version and she in any case has sufficient power and agility to encompass the demands of her music. Of special interest is (Jeff) Neilson Taylor, who first had a career as a professional football (U.S. soccer) player – centre-forward for Huddersfield Town and Fulham - before becoming an opera singer and voice teacher. He has a pleasant, dark, burnished tone but as he demonstrates in his aria which opens Act III, he is also capable of singing pianissimo and falsetto with great tenderness. His voice contrasts strongly with the hard timbre of Canadian tenor Jean Bonhomme, secretly Montfort’s son. Bonhomme is the tenor equivalent of Brumaire - also light of voice, flexible and penetrating up to a high D - so they make a well-matched pair of lovers. She sings her Act V showpiece aria “Merci, jeunes amis” neatly and sweetly. I also very much enjoy Turkish bass Ayhan Baran’s deep, resonant voice with its fast vibrato and smooth legato; he sings his famous opening aria “Et toi, Palerme” absolutely beautifully, for which he earns undeservedly desultory applause.

There are some rough orchestral patches, especially from the brass but by and large this is well played and sung. The Four Seasons ballet music, conducted by Ashley Lawrence, is included as a bonus but you can skip that if you want, given that this opera is already over-long. This is very Gallic in flavour and not as red-bloodedly dramatic as the Italian version as we hear it under Levine and Muti but that is the point: this is very identifiably French in manner. It is just as well that this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance and is available online as well as on now hard-to-find CD sets, as this is the only option for anyone wanting to hear the original French version apart from a few live recordings from House of Opera, Premiere Opera and similar sources.

(Robert Farr reviewed this approvingly back in 2005.)

James Levine – 1973 (studio; stereo) RCA
New Philharmonia Orchestra; John Alldis Choir
Guido di Montforte - Sherrill Milnes
Il Sire di Bethume - Terence Sharpe
Il Conte Vaudemont - Richard Van Allan
Arrigo - Plácido Domingo
Giovanni da Procida - Ruggero Raimondi
La Duchessa Elena - Martina Arroyo
Ninetta - Maria Ewing
Danieli - Leo Goeke
Tebaldo - Kenneth Collins
Roberto - James Morris
Manfredo - Alan Byers

Riccardo Muti - 1989-1990 (live composite; digital) EMI
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Guido di Montforte - Giorgio Zancanaro
Il Sire di Bethume - Enzo Capuano
Il Conte Vaudemont - Francesco Musinu
Arrigo - Chris Merritt
Giovanni da Procida - Ferruccio Furlanetto
La Duchessa Elena - Cheryl Studer
Ninetta - Gloria Banditelli
Danieli - Ernesto Gavazzi
Tebaldo - Paolo Barbacini
Roberto - Marco Chingari
Manfredo - Ferrero Poggi

There isn't a lot of choice for collectors of the Italian version of this opera (still less for the French version). Momentarily discounting the 1951 live recording with Callas (shorn of the overture and in poor sound - see my review above) which, despite the distinguished cast, is otherwise hard-going and essential only to Callas fans, we come down to a mono radio broadcast, and in modern sound, one studio and one live La Scala recording. In terms of both sound and cast - with a couple of debatable issues - the old RCA version wins hands down. James Levine's first opera recording, it bears all the hallmarks of both the conductor and the era: a big, brash, exciting version in brilliant analogue sound with the standard gang of singers who recorded for RCA Victor then and for the likes of whom today we can only sigh.

Much has been made - unfairly, I think - of the substitution of Martina Arroyo for a pregnant Montserrat Caballé, as if she were wholly inadequate and second-rate, which is manifestly untrue. Careful comparison amongst the three divas reveals that while neither Studer nor Arroyo has Callas' ability to enliven text - who does? - apart from some slight clumsiness in coloratura Arroyo is in magnificent voice and it is perhaps more the fault of the way the character of Elena is written than any failing on her part. Both she and Studer make the most of a rather pale role and deliver their set arias and duets with the tenor in ear-ravishing accomplishment. Studer was so versatile in her heyday and injects real Italianate fervour into her characterisation even if she doesn't have quite the warmth, amplitude and sweep of Arroyo.

However, at the heart of the opera lies that classic Verdian theme of parent-child severance. Both Muti and Levine are blessed in having baritones of superlative quality in the still underrated Zancanaro and Sherrill Milnes; both make much of that superb aria "In braccio alle dovizie" and both are moving in their duet with their estranged sons. The difference is that Levine has a young Domingo in his element, whereas Muti has an adequate but stretched and thin-toned Chris Merritt who is ultimately not really a Verdi tenor.

Another disadvantage for Muti is the strangely distant, muddy sound the EMI engineers provide; you have to turn the volume right up and there isn't much detail or immediacy, whereas the analogue sound from RCA is strikingly clear.

Both recordings have excellent basses but for me Raimondi has more weight and gravitas as Procida, making more than Furlanetto of the cantilena in his celebrated aria "O tu, Palermo" and RCA has the stronger supporting cast, full of singers who will be major names in their own right.

It is clear to me that despite my admiration for Studer and, especially, Zancanaro, the overall excellence of the RCA set regarding both performance and sound make it the clear preference.

Aroldo

There are many fine things in this opera - how could it be otherwise when the Verdi of 1857 was adapting a work originally staged in 1850 as Stiffelio? - but those fine things are mostly preserved in the original, and the reworking represents a very uneasy and patchy compromise of the kind that the principled but pragmatic Verdi occasionally felt obliged to engineer. Nor does it help that the recasting of the original plot to make it take place Norman England of 1200 - a haven safe from the censors' prudery - makes an absurdity of Aroldo's character and motivation; you can read more of this in Julian Budden's excellent introduction in the booklet of the Luisi recording. I can live with all this for the sake of the music but it makes sympathy, empathy and credibility an issue. There is, however, enough new music - additional arias and the substitution of an entire last scene - to make Aroldo virtually a different entity from Stiffelio, at least from the completist's point of view.

The new last scene is particularly interesting. As Budden points out, it clearly marks a departure from the rest of the score, belonging to Verdi's late-middle-period oeuvre; the sound world is much more that of La forza del destino and employs Romantic scenery of the "sublime" nature in the moonlit valley of Loch Lomond and the standard operatic cast of shepherds, hunters, harvesters and hermits, all with voices uplifted in a fervent prayer which is immediately succeeded by a storm proleptic of the opening of Otello. All of this creates a sense of time and space as specific human events are played out against the backdrop of universal archetypes. This last scene could constitute justification alone for buying the set, although the dénouement is inevitably less moving than the "coup de théâtre" which conclude Stiffelio.

Maurizio Rinaldi – 1975 (live radio broadcast; stereo) Opera d’Oro
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Aroldo - Gianfranco Cecchele
Briano - Alfredo Zanazzo
Mina - Ángeles Gulin
Egberto - Licinio Montefusco
Godvino - Carlo Millauro
Enrico - Marcello Munzi
Elena - Maria Minetto

The stereo sound here is very acceptable for a live performance nearly fifty years old but there is some faint but audible print-through from the original tape. Rinaldi is a fine, if sometimes rather cautious, conductor and the orchestra and chorus are first-class.

The cast is not in the superstar bracket but Ángeles Gulin was an exceptionally good spinto soprano, as we may hear from the live recording of Stiffelio above with Mario Del Monaco. She has a big, warm sound and plenty of temperament; she plunges readily into her lower register and is unafraid to launch herself into the soaring phrases, taking risks which usually come off, even though top notes can flap.

Tenore robusto Gianfranco Cecchele had a long and important career singing with Callas, Tebaldi, Gobbi et al. He may also be heard with Caballé in the recording reviewed next below. His big, steady, baritonal sound is far preferable to Shicoff’s nasal timbre. He would be the world’s leading Verdi tenor today, no doubt.

I was not familiar with the other singers here but like Zanazzo’s rich bass and Licinio Montefusco has a grand, grainy, slightly burring baritone with a proper Verdi sound so he is able to keep up with his large-voiced co-singers. He sings his big aria "Mina, pensai che un angelo" movingly. The supporting cast is fine.

I really enjoy this neglected opera for the same reason that I love the equally ignored Stiffelio – obviously, given that the two operas have so much music in common. There are some wonderful numbers here, not least Mina’s "Ah, dagli scanni eterei" with its baleful cello lower-string introduction to the recitative "Oh cielo! Dove son io?". It is given the Verdi master-class treatment by Gulin (apart from a forgivable, squeezed D-flat) in an account to match that of Sylvia Sass in the Philips recording of Stiffelio.

This was the inevitable surprise of this survey and becomes my recommended version. It is available in Opera d’Oro’s standard, bargain, “no frills” issue or in the ‘Grand Tier’ series with a libretto.

Eve Queler – 1979 (live; stereo) Sony
Opera Orchestra of New York; Chorus - Oratorio Society of New York and Westchester Choral Society
Aroldo - Gianfranco Cecchele
Briano - Louis Lebherz
Mina - Montserrat Caballé
Egberto - Juan Pons
Godvino - Vincenzo Manno
Enrico - Paul Rogers
Elena - Mariana Busching

The presence of Caballé and Cecchele, the same tenor who makes such a powerful contribution to the live Carnegie Hall performance above from four years previously, make this an attractive prospect. Caballé certainly delivers, singing out with abandon and displaying all the finest traits of her voice: sustained pianissimi, long-breathed lines, affecting portamenti and powerful top notes – but she also uses much more lower register than is usually the case, lending weight and plangency to her characterisation. There are moments of shrillness when she is singing in alt but they are fleeting. She is perhaps rather too mature and refined compared with Ángeles Gulin’s earthier incarnation of the guilt-tormented Mina but her vocalisation as singing per se is magical.

Cecchele is a little more effortful here than in his performance in Milan and sometimes his pitch sags marginally as he tires, perhaps because he tends to sing all-out most of the time, but he is still a virile, powerful presence with ringing top notes and he portrays Aroldo’s rage and desperation very convincingly.

Juan Pons sings neatly and attractively with clean tone, but passionately, too; however, he sounds too young to be Mina’s father, lacking gravitas.

The playing of the Opera Orchestra of New York, singing of the combined choirs and Queler’s direction of them is exemplary apart from her reluctance to join Caballé in throwing off restraint at climactic points.

The supporting roles are not as well sung as in Milan – the Briano is woolly - but that’s not a vital factor. The recording acoustic is a bit boomy and distant but the stereo sound is perfectly acceptable. On balance, I marginally prefer the live Milan performance and find Gulin’s Mina more sympathetic and credible, but the sound isn’t quite as good there and both recordings are rewarding.

(This recording may be heard free here.)

Fabio Luisi – 1997 (studio; digital) Philips
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Firenze
Aroldo - Neil Shicoff
Briano - Roberto Scandiuzzi
Mina - Carol Vaness
Egberto - Anthony Michaels-Moore
Godvino - Julian Gavin
Enrico - Sergio Spina
Elena - Marina Comparato

As a long-time Verdi lover, I cannot be quite as enthusiastic about this recording as some previous reviewers, especially when none of the singers here approaches the vocal beauty and emotional truth of the cast in the superb 1975 Philips recording of the parent opera, Stiffelio, more idiomatically and responsively conducted by Gardelli. I find Luisi rather dutiful and a bit slack at times when more tension is required and none of the principals in Aroldo can hold a candle to the team of Carreras, Sass and Manuguerra. Shicoff's tight, nasal, "voce ingolata" production and tendency to bleat is less than attractive, although he is suitably impassioned and committed. Vaness, too, is a fine vocal actress with a powerful spinto sound but the shrill, flapping top can grate. Michaels-Moore's cloudy, ill-centred baritone is not a Verdi voice, and as I discovered when I saw him perform Scarpia recently, he cannot really suggest malice or fervour with his gentle, grey, English tone and windy top notes. The bass Scandiuzzi is already sounding bluff and rocky; his career nose-dived shortly after this recording. So all in all, for me the singers leave something to be desired, as much as I admire their commitment and I prefer either of the two previous recordings under Rinaldi and Queler respectively.

The orchestra and chorus are first-rate; the digital sound superb.

Recommendations
Quite often, there is both a studio recording and a vintage or live recording which are equally recommendable, although usually the latter will be more of a supplement and I am working on the assumption that most collectors – unlike obsessives like me – will want only one. Just once, with the Ernani below, I have allowed a live, mono recording to trump a studio account, but otherwise I have played safe. As I say in my introduction, it is hardly surprising that Gardelli’s recordings dominate the list with Muti and Levine featuring in two choices each.
 
Oberto: Neville Marriner – 1996
Un giorno di regno: Lamberto Gardelli – 1973
Nabucco: Riccardo Muti - 1977-78
I Lombardi: Lamberto Gardelli – 1983
Ernani: Dimitri Mitropoulos – 1957
I due Foscari: Lamberto Gardelli – 1977
Alzira: Lamberto Gardelli – 1983
Giovanna d’Arco: James Levine – 1972
Attila: Riccardo Muti – 1989
Jérusalem: Fabio Luisi – 1998
Gerusalemme: Gianandrea Gavazzeni – 1963
I masnadieri: Richard Bonynge – 1982
Il corsaro: Lamberto Gardelli – 1975
La battaglia di Legnano: Lamberto Gardelli – 1977
Stiffelio: Lamberto Gardelli – 1979
Les vępres siciliennes: Mario Rossi – 1969
I vespri siciliani: James Levine – 1973
Aroldo: Maurizio Rinaldi – 1975

Ralph Moore
 



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