Karajan’s Second Studio Carmen

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I saw Baltsa and Carreras in Carmen at Covent Garden shortly before this set was issued, and it remains one of the most thrilling performances (of anything) I’ve ever seen. Consequently I was very excited when this set was issued and snapped it up immediately.

Unfortunately, it proved something of a disappointment, the fault for which must lie squarely on Karajan’s shoulders. By this time measured tempi were becoming the norm for him, and it is evident how much he loves this score, but he rather loves it to death. For all the beautiful playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, it lacks completely the wit and elegance of Beecham, or the swift visceral excitement of Prêtre.

Having taken the decision to record the version with spoken dialogue, it seems totally perverse to then use actors to speak it. They sound nothing like their singing counterparts and are recorded in a totally different acoustic, which makes it hard to become involved when the differences are so profound. It’s like listening to two different productions at the same time, and does the most harm to Baltsa and Carreras, who were so involving and communicative live at Covent Garden. Indeed neither of them really settles down to a real performance until the final duet, which is thrillingly powerful, as it should be.

What on earth prompted Karajan to think that Ricciarelli, a singer I often admire could be perfect as both Micaëla and Turandot, which she also recorded with him? She is suited to neither, whereas Barbara Hendricks, who had a particular affinity for French music, and who sings a wonderful Liu on that Turandot he recorded the previous year would have been perfect.

Van Dam is a fine Escamillo, as he was for Solti and there are some good performances among the supporting roles, but it just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole.

I keep the recording for the contributions of Baltsa and Carreras, and often listen to the final duet, but listening to the whole recording is a curiously frustrating experience, and I mostly longed to be back chez Callas, Gedda and Prêtre, which remains my favourite recording of the opera, for all that it uses the now discredited Guiraud recitatives.

Gobbi as Simon Boccanegra

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Abbado’s superb La Scala recording of Verdi’s great masterpiece pretty much sweeps aside all others, but this one, despite less than brilliant mono sound with an orchestra and chorus dimly recorded, despite Santini’s ploddingly prosaic conducting, demands to be heard, due to three distinguished, transforming performances.

Gobbi was in prime vocal form when the set was recorded, and though he does not quite have the vocal reserves of Cappuccilli, he creates the most rounded, most movingly tortured Doge you are ever likely to hear. Christoff, too, could hardly be bettered, brilliantly charting the change from implacable revenge to conciliation in the final scene with Gobbi’s Doge. To make our cup runneth over, we have De Los Angeles in one of her rare excursions into Verdi, singing with total communication, commitment and of course beauty of tone, particularly in the middle register, where most of the role lies. The downward runs in the final ensemble are absolutely exquisite. Campora may not be quite on their level (and Carreras on Abbado’s set is almost ideal) but he isn’t bad at all.

All three principals, I’d take (just) over their DG counterparts, but that recording benefits from Abbado’s superb pacing of the score, the wonderful playing of the La Scala orchestra, and warm, beautifully balanced stereo sound. So, for the opera itself, I’d take Abbado, one of the classic opera recordings, but for three superbly characterful performances, I choose Santini.

Domingo’s first recording of Otello

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Quite aside from the recent sexual misconduct revelations, Domingo seems to come in for a lot of flak these days, but it is salutary to remember that this, his first recording of a role he became particularly associated with, was made over forty years ago. Towards the end of his career he turned to baritone roles (with qualified success, admittedly), but, by any standards, the man has had a long and illustrious career.

He made two further studio recordings of the role (one of them used for the soundtrack to the Zeffirelli film), and their are at least three official videos of him performing the role on stage, and a number of unofficial live accounts. This recording finds him early in his conquest of this signature role, but it is already well sung in. Records cannot of course capture his superb acting and powerful stage presence, but his Otello is still, even at this early stage of his career, a great performance. Some, and I am probably one of them, would prefer a voice with a bit more squillo on top. My favourite Otello remains Vickers, who has musicality, dramatic intensity and squillo, but I prefer Domingo to Del Monaco, whose singing can indeed be thrilling, but who tends to let volume compensate for a lack of real dramatic awareness.

There are other reasons to enjoy this recording. Levine’s conductiing, which derives from long stage acquaintance with the opera, is definitely one of his best Verdi recordings (though the recording itself is a tad congested in the climaxes) and Milnes is also caught at something close to his best, a suave, guileful and conniving Iago. Scotto, though she may not have Tebaldi’s beauty of tone, is a much more communicative and moving Desdemona, and this is one of her most succesful performances on disc. The voice occasionally spreads on top when under pressure, but her pianissimo singing is exquisite and her phrasing wonderfully musical.

Despite reservations about Rysanek’s Desdemona, the Serafin set with Vickers and Gobbi remains my favourite studio recording. That said, I would always want one of Domingo’s studio recordings as well. Though Domingo himself may be even more moving in his later two recordings and many, I know, would go for his last recording under Chung, with Studer and Leiferkus, I still prefer this early one. I’ve never been a big fan of Studer and Leiferkus sounds unidiomatic to me, for all his intelligence and dramatic acumen. The Maazel is let down by some weird recording balances and Diaz’s well sung but anonymous Iago, though Ricciarelli is also an affectingly touching Desdemona. So the Levine emerges as the winner for me.

Giulini’s Studio Don Carlos

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Don Carlos has always been one of my favourite Verdi operas. It’s a flawed masterpiece no doubt, but the characters are so beautifully drawn and the music displays Verdi at his most humane.

This Giulini recording can now be considered a classic, and remains, on balance, the best recording available. Not that it’s that simple of course, for Don Carlos exists (and has been recorded) in a bewildering varierty of different editions. The Giulini represents Verdi’s final revision, in Italian, of the five act version. I have three different recordings of the opera, all of different versions. In addition to this one, I have Karajan’s four act Italian version and Abbado’s five act French version, with appendices of music either cut or added for different performances.

Giulini’s conducting is by turns magisterial and warmly sympathetic to his singers, though occasionally perhaps a tad too spacious. I’d have preferred a more propulsive tempo for Eboli’s O don fatale, for instance, but all in all his is one of the best conducted sets you wil hear. The sound is excellent analogue stereo too.

His cast is excellent, Domingo at his golden toned best is more involved, less generic than was often the case in the many recordings he made in the 1970s, though he is even more inside the role by the time he recorded it in French with Abbado. I also slightly prefer Carreras on the Karajan in one of his very best recordings. Carlo is one of Verdi’s most complex tenor roles, a weak young man with a distant father, forever in the shadow of his friend Posa and Carreras is better at expressing the slightly unhinged character of the man. Caballé is in gloriously rich voice for Elisabetta and is also caught at her career best. There is no better Elisabetta on any of the studio recordings. Verrett is thrillingly vibrant as Eboli, that smoky lower register of hers used to great effect. Milnes is also at his best as the inherently noble Posa, but Raimondi is a little light of voice for the King, a role which really requires a darker, deeper bass sound. Still he contrasts nicely with the black-voiced Inquiistor of Giovanni Foiani. Simon Estes makes a strong impression as the Monk.

What a great opera this is, and how lucky we are to have this wonderful performance on disc.

The Schwarzkopf/Karajan Rosenkavalier

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This recent re-mastering of Karajan’s famous 1956 recording of Der Rosenkavaier, overseen by the producer of the original stereo version, Christopher Parker, really is the best you are ever likely to hear. Parker has slightly adjusted the balance in the big trio and it really makes a big difference, Stich-Randall now not so shrill and blending better with Schwarzkopf and Ludwig.

What a performance it is, with a cast that could hardly be bettered anywhere, Schwarzkopf’s warmly feminine, noble Marschallin dominating the opera, as she should. Her singing is wonderfully detailed, Hofmannsthal’s text superbly brought to life, and at this point it is good to remember the excellence of the libretto, which could almost stand as a straight play. Though the opera is filled with gorgeously soaring melodides, it is also quite wordy in places and it is important that the text is understood. Schwarzkopf is everything a Marschallin should be, tenderly playful with Octavian in the opening scene and philosophically reflective at the end of the act. In the last act, she is respectfully authoratative with the Police Commisioner, imperiously commanding in her dealings with Ochs, all tender solicitude with Sophie and magnanimously forgiving with Octacvian. Even just listening to her you can see every fleeting facial expression, and I smply cannot understand those who bandy about the usual criticisms of over-artfulness and mannerism, especially when the lyrical moments are also filled with such gloriously refulgent tone. This might just be Schwarzkopf’s greatest achievement on disc and is one of the greatest operatic characterisations ever committed to disc.

Ludwig’s ardently impetuous Octavian is the perfect foil for this Marschallin, and if she doesn’t have quite the same matchless control over her resources as Schwarzkopf, the extroverted outpouring of tone suits the character of Octavian to a nicety. Stich-Randall is a  slightly white-voiced Sophie, suitably innocent and naïve, sailing up to those stratospheric notes with a silvery purity second to none, and Edelmann remembers that Ochs may be a boor, but that he is also a nobleman and he too is excellent at putting across the text.

Wonderful support from the likes of Gedda as the Italian tenor, Wächter, a wonderfully fussy Faninal and Welitsch as the Duenna, with a plethora of well known names amongst the supporting cast.

Karajan’s direction is just right in every phrase, beautifully managing the dance elements of the score, whilst giving the many lyrical moments their due. He always knows just how to build to the climaxes and his sense of the structure of the opera is spot on, his pacing both quicksilver and expansive. Just to make our cup runneth over we have the Philharmonia on top form.

The recording may have been made in 1956, but sounds absolutely splendid in this latest remastering. My top recommendation for the opera, as it was for Richard Osborne on a fairly recent BBC Building a Library episode, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Janet Baker as Monteverdi’s Poppea

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One wouldn’t do Monteverdi like this now of course, but one has to remember that it was Raymond Leppard’s realisations of these pieces that largely put Monteverdi, and other operas of the period on the map. Leppard also changed the pitch of some of the roles, so we get a tenor Nero, a baritone Ottone, a female alto Arnalta and a tenor Page to Ottavia (the excellent John Brecknock, whose diction is so perfect you can hear every single word).

Remembering all that, this is an excellent performance and well worth investigating if you can get past the use of a modern orchestra and Leppard’s romanticised orchestrations. The opera is sung in (very clear) English. Would that more of today’s singers could sing with such natural, unforced diction. One hardly needs to follow along with the libretto, which is provided (yet another rarity these days).

It might come as a surprise to find the great Dame Janet Baker as Poppea rather than Ottavia, but she is wonderfully scheming, kittenish and manipulative, the voice character she creates a million miles away from the suffering Ottavia she sings in recorded extracts.

Unsurprisingly none of the other singers is quite on her level of inspiration, but all are expressive and more than adequate. Would that the ENO could provide such a cast nowadays.

My favourite recording of the opera is the quite recent la Venexiana recording of the Naples version under Claudio Cavina, but this Live ENO performances is worth listening to, both as a reminiscence of a bygone age and for the inestimable singing of Dame Janet Baker.

Böhm’s classic Così fan tutte

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Così fan tutte is a difficult opera for me these days. The music is sublime, but I find it hard to take the evident misogyny. Consequently I find the best way to listen to it is to ignore as much as possible the plot and listen instead to the emotions the plot provokes, and this is where Mozart’s genius lifts the opera above his subject matter, especially in a great performance such as this one.

Schwarzkopf and Ludwig are a wonderfully contrasted pair of sisters, the latter capturing Dorabella’s more flighty, open hearted nature to perfection. Schwarzkopf is superb as her more haughty, serious sister, imperious in Come scoglio, truly troubled and emotionally shattered in Per pieta, a performance both beautiful and heart-breaking.  Between them, she and Alfredo Kraus make their duet Fra gli’amplessi into a thing of quivering sighs and eroticism. In no other version does that moment of capitulation make quite the effect it does here. Hanny Steffek is just right as Depina, not too sparkily soubrettish, and enjoys herself enormously with Walter Berry’s genially scheming Don Alfonso.

The male lovers are also wonderfully cast, Kraus ardent and poised as the more romantic Ferrando and Taddei a mercurial and vibrant Guglielmo.

Böhm’s experience shines through in every bar and the Philharmonia play sublimely.

I’ve had this recording (originally on LP) in my collection now for almost 50 years now and, though I’ve acquired and heard others since, as a total performance, this one remains my first choice.

Il Trittico with Gobbi and De Los Angeles

This isn’t a complete recording of Il Trittico. Admittedly all the operas use Rome forces, but each opera is led by a different conductor, and they were all originally issued at different times. The first two, released respectively in 1956 and 1958 are mono, but Gianni Schicchi, released in 1959 is stereo. The only unifying element is that De Los Angeles and Gobbi both appear in two out of the three operas. Still, it was useful and inevitable that the individual releases would eventually be grouped together and, as far as I’m aware, they have not been available singly since.

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Bellezza’s conducting is efficient rather than inspired and the recording is a bit muddy, but this recording of Puccini’s terse piece of grand guignolIl Tabarro, has at its heart one towering performance in the Michele of Tito Gobbi, a characterisation fit to set next to his Scarpia and Rigoletto. Not only is the role powerfully sung, but we see deep into the man’s tortured soul, the violence bubbling beneath. In no other studio performance of the opera do we feel Michele’s pain with quite such terrifying immediacy.

None of the other singers is on his level, but they are apt enough for their roles. Margaret Mas, a singer who appears to have done nothing else on record, sounds a bit mature, but that suits the role of Giorgetta well enough, as does the slightly raw tone of Giacinto Prandelli’s Luigi. The smaller roles are all well characterised, but it is Gobbi who puts the seal on this recording.

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This has always been my least favourite of the triptych, as I find its over-sentimentalised quasi religiosity a bit too much for my taste. However it is difficult not to resist such generous hearted sincerity as we get here from the adorable Victoria De Los Angeles, superbly supported by the veteran Tullio Serafin, who doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Fedora Barbieri presents a truly magisterial and implacable Zia Principessa, aristocratic, cold and dispassionate in her treatment of Angelica.

However even in a performance as committed as this, the ending stretches my suspension of disbelief just a bit too far and ultimately I prefer the sense of repressed passion and sexuality implied in the Scotto/Maazel version, which plays out almost like a scene from Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. In their hands, Angelica’s final vision comes across more as a drug-fueled hallucination, which helps to ameliorate my problems with the piece.

On the other hand I wouldn’t want to be without De Los Angeles’ beautifully sung and characterised Angelica. She is a little stretched by the highest reaches of the role, but in general the voice sounds absolutely lovely and her singing is as musical as ever.

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Verdi had his Falstaff and Puccini had his Gianni Schicchi, though Puccini’s comedy is a lot blacker and more cruel than Verdi’s.

Gobbi was brilliant in both comic roles of course, but he presents two very different characters. His Falstaff was all genial bluster, a lovable rogue, where his Schicchi is a clever schemer, with more than a touch of the venal tempered by a genuine love and affection for his daughter.

This is probably one of the best things Santini did for the gramophone, and the performance is superbly paced, with wonderfully pointed characterisations from the supporting cast, the libretto so crisply delivered that you can all but taste the words. I find myself chuckling out loud quite a few times. Carlo Del Monte might seem a bit light of voice, but for once Rinuccio sounds like the young man he is supposed to be, and Victoria De Los Angeles is simply adorable as Lauretta – none better on disc.

Gobbi recorded the role again towards the end of his career (under Maazel, with Domingo as Rinuccio and Cotrubas as Lauretta), but this one, the only one of the operas in this set to be recorded in stereo, remains my first choice.

Callas’s 1953 Tosca Revisited

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I first reviewed this set when it was reissued by Warner back in 2014 and posted it in my blog shortly after starting it on this platform. You can read that review here and add this review as a sort of codicil.

Though now considered one of the greatest opera recordings ever made, this justly famous recording of Tosca was not universally acclaimed when it was first issued, Alec Robertson comparing Callas’s assumption of the title role unfavourably to Tebaldi’s more dramatic performance. He died in 1982. I wonder if he ever ate his words. Dyneley Hussey made the strange observation that much of Callas’s singing was unrhythmical, which, given Callas’s legendary musical exactitude, now seems entirely incredible.

In all respects (conducting and singing) this Tosca is a more musical performance than the Tebaldi/Erede with which it was being compared, where dramatic effect is applied rather than arising from the music itself.

Despite the excellence of the three principals, the star of the recording for me is Victor De Sabata, who doesn’t so much conduct as mould the score, and consequently the real winner is Puccini, as it should be. Apparently Karajan had John Culshaw play sections of the De Sabata recording to him during sessions for his own equally famous recording of the opera with Leontyne Price. According to Culshaw, “One exceptionally tricky passage for the conductor is the entry of Tosca in act 3, where Puccini’s tempo directions can best be described as elastic. Karajan listened to de Sabata several times over during that passage and then said, ‘No, he’s right but I can’t do that. That’s his secret.'”

Of course De Sabata is immeasurably helped by his cast, who in turn are inspired to give of their best. How Alec Robertson could have thought Campora characterised Cavaradossi better than Di Stefano, who sings not only with his customary face but also with a degree of musical accuracy he didn’t always achieve, is beyond me. Gobbi was, is, and no doubt will always be a touchstone for the role of Scarpia,  a gentleman thug, smoothly reptilian and much more interesting than the conventional villain he is often portrayed. As for Callas, the objections meted out at the time not only seem churlish, but far off the mark. Infinitely feminine and vulnerable, her Tosca is a long way from the cane-touting, flamboyantly capricious character she was usually portrayed in those days, and maybe that was why AR found her less dramatic. She is in her best voice, with scalpel-like attack on the high notes, the voice wonderfully responsive and she brings a welcome bel canto approach to this verismo role.

66 years after it was recorded, it remains the best of all recorded Toscas, a fact brought home to me recently when I compared five of the recordings at present available on Decca. These were Te Kanawa/Solti, Nilsson/Maazel, Freni/Rescigno, Tebaldi/Molinari-Pradelli and Price/Karajan. You can see my conclusions here.

Wunderlich/Böhm Zauberflöte

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No doubt these days some might find Böhm’s approach somewhat too portentous, and there is no denying his seriousness from the first few bars of the overture, but I like it, whilst admitting that it’s not always how I would like to hear the opera.

His cast is stronger on the male side than the female, lead by Wunderlich’s peerless Tamino, a treasurable example of him in a complete opera. Not always as stylish as Simoneau, he brings an approproately heroic dimension to the character, with the added advantage of the sheer beauty of that voice. There really is none better on disc. Franz Crass’s sonorous Sarastro is another asset, as are the Armed Men of James King and Marti Talvela. Hotter is an authoratative Speaker, but his voice is beginning to show signs of age. Fischer-Dieskau may not be a natural for Papageno, and I think I’m right in saying it wasn’t one of his stage roles. Admittedly he misses some of the wide-eyed charm of the best interpreters of the role, but his singing qua singing gives a lot of pleasure and in Bei Männern he gives Evelyn Lear a lesson in pure legato singing.

Which brings me to the women. Lear can be shrill on high, and hardly ever phrases with distinction, her legato leaving something to be desired. No patch, certainly, on the likes of Janowitz, Popp, Margaret Price, Lemnitz, Te Kanawa or even Rosa Mannion, who sings the role on William Christie’s highly recommendable HIP version. Roberta Peters, on the other hand, is a lot better than I remembered, and she does at least sound dangerous, her coloratura glitteringly precise. Lisa Otto is a pert Papagena.

So, still a worthy Die Zauberflöte, and one I woud not want to be without, for Wunderlich’s Tamino at least.