Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté – a comparative review of ten recordings

Les Nuits d’Eté is one of my favuorite orchestral song cycles and, along with Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, must be one of the most recorded works for voice and orchestra. The songs were originally written to a piano accompaniment and we don’t know why Berlioz chose these six particular texts by his contemporary, Théophile Gautier. Though not really conceived as a cycle, they do make a satsifying programme with two lighter songs framing three deeply emotional outpourings. Berlioz orchestrated Absence in 1846 then orchestrated the remaining songs in 1853, suggesting a mezzo-soprano or tenor for Villanelle, contralto for Le spectre de la rose, baritone (or optionally mezzo or contralto) for Sur les lagunes, mezzo or tenor for Absence, tenor for Au cimetière and mezzo or tenor for L’île inconnue, though nowadays it is more regularly sung by one singer, usually a mezzo or a soprano. It has been recorded by tenors, baritones and bass-baritones and even countertenors.

They have been recorded umpteen times and Ralph Moore has done an exhaustive comparison of most of these recordings, which I recommend to anyone who loves the songs. You can view it at http://musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Aug/Berlioz_nuits_survey.pdf.

I have ten recordings in my collection and these are the ten I listened to over a period of two days. The songs respond to a variety of different approaches and I enjoyed my task immensely.

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Vctoria De Los Angeles recorded the cycle in 1955 with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when she was in superb voice. As always there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from her singing, her tone suitably plaintive in the middle songs and smilingly bright and playful in the outer songs, which, predictably, is where she is most successful. What I miss is a deeper vein of tragedy, something more grandiloquent in the middle songs, where what we need is a touch of Cassandre and Didon. De Los Angeles reminds me more of a Marguerite. She is in warm, velvety voice, and this is nonetheless one of the most satisfying accounts around. Sonically it can’t measure up to any of the later stereo recordings.

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Nor, unfortunately can the Steber version with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Columbia Symphomy Orchestra. The first impression when listening to this version is of the sheer security and perfect focus of Steber’s beautiful voice. The cycle doesn’t get off to a very impressive start, with Mitropoulos’s too deliberate tempo for Villanelle. It is actually close to the metronome mark of crotchet = 96, but it seems plodding and Mitropoulos fails to make the woodwind light enough. But Steber is gorgeous. She can expand the tone gloriously at a phrase like et parmi la fête étoilée in Le spectre de la rose and the quality remains wonderfully rich down below. Throughout Steber is keenly responisve to the poetry. Au cimetière, for instance, has a real sense of tragic foreboding. What a superb Cassandre she might have been. Definitely a prime contender. If only it had been in better sound.

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Now here is something rather different. The countertenor voice is not one you would expect to hear in this music, but David Daniels has always had a velvety, rich sound and his version comes as something of a pleasant surprise, though, more used to hearing him in the music of the Baroque, I did wonder if this version might be a product of the gramophone. He did however sing it in the concert hall and his is a voice I’ve never had trouble hearing in the hall or theatre, so maybe I’m wrong. Daniels has excellent French, a perfect legato and is ideally steady throughout, with a much greater range of tone colour than you would expect from a countertenor. As always, his phrasing is wonderfully musical and John Nelson provides excellent support with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Ultimately, for all his musicality and way of commuicating the text, I’m not sure the countertenor voice is what the songs require, but it is a very interesting experiment which Daniels almost pulls off.

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It was quite a shock to plunge from Daniels to the darkly pungent tones of Agnes Baltsa. Her French is often questionable and the voice and manner are arrestingly individual, with her varying her tone from song to song. I suppose you’d call her approach quite operatic. She adopts an almost coy sexuality for Villanelle, choosing a more Dalila-like sensuality for Le spectre de la rose, languidly eliding some of the phrases. Some might find her plunges into chest voice jarring, but I rather like it. The singing can be a bit rough round the edges but you could never call her dull. Ralph Moore suggests that she brings more than a touch of her Carmen to the songs, and I’d agree. It’s not how I’d always like to hear them, but it’s certainly a very individual and occasionally thrilling take on them. Jeffrey Tate and the London Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support.

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Régine Crespin is the only version included here by a French singer and it is really good to hear the language enunciated so clearly, especially after the idiosyncratic French of someone like Baltsa.

Now Crespin’s version is so famous that it has been a prime recommendation for the work ever since it was first issued in 1963 and dissenting opinions are likley to be viewed with incredulity, but, unlike its coupling of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, I’m not sure the Berlioz holds up that well. For a start, there is a deal of sloppy orchestral playing from L’Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande under Ernest Ansermet, and, for another, Crespin’s singing often tends to the lugubrious. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose, no sense of despair in Sur les lagunes, no plaintive yearning in Absence. The singing is altogether too civilised, and, however musical and tasteful her singing , however elegant her phrasing, Crespin remains aloof and uninvolved. She is at the oppoiste pole from Baltsa’s often wild and wayward version, but I miss Baltsa’s dramatic involvement, which I ultmately prefer. I see that I’m not alone in my opinion, which is supported by both Ralph Moore and David Cairns (in Song on Record, Volume II). A controversial opinion, no doubt, but I’m sticking to it. Crespin is most successful in the final song, which responds to her vocal equivalent of the ironically arched eyebrow. Another mark against her is that she unaccountably alters the order of the songs, placing Absence before Sur les lagunes, which destroys the balance of the cycle. Intonation is occasionally suspect too, especially in Au cometière.

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Colin Davis’s multi-singer version is something of an inconclusive experiment. However ineresting it is to hear the songs sung more or less by the voices Berlioz suggested, I think the cycle hangs together better when captured by a single voice. Nor do any of the singers challenge the best of other versions by single singers. Frank Patterson, who has a rather whiny, nasal timbre is granted two songs, Villanelle and Au cimetiére, neither of which he does justice to. Josephine Veasey, an appreciable Berlioz singer, sings a plausible Le spectre de la rose without really illuminating it, and John Shirley-Quirk tends to growl in the lower regions of Sur les lagunes. The most successful of the singers is soprano Sheila Armstrong, who sings in excellent French and turns in a nicely plaintive Absence as well as a charmingly flirtatious L’île inconnue. One would expect Sir Colin and the London Symphony Orchestra to give a brilliant version of the score, but the effect is somewhat somnolent and low key. Interesting but inconclusive.

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Next we come to the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded live at a concert in 1991 or 1995 (the booklet isn’t entirely clear on this point). It has to be said that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan are not quite up to the standard of the ensembles in some of these performances, but they nonetheless provide sensitive accompaniment to Hunt Lieberson’s superbly detailed and deeply heartfelt performances. Throughout she is totally inside the music, her response to the poetry seeming totally spontaneous and natural. Unerringly she captures the mood of each song, certain phrases remaining etched on the memory, for instance the blank, desparing tone at the end of Au cimetière, which, though  she switches to smilingly insouciant joy for L’île inconnue, creeps back into her tone for the closing measures when she reminds us that not all is happy au pays d’amour. The voice is surpassingly beautiful, the singing intensely concentrated and she communicates so much. What a great loss she was to the musical world.

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Finally, I come to three versions by the great Dame Janet Baker. The most recent ( recorded in 1990) and the one I will discuss first, was one of her last (maybe her last ever) recording. made shorly after she had retired from the concert platform. By this time her great artistry cannot quite hide the hint of strain in the upper reaches, the discoloration on certain vowels and the loosening of vibrations on sustained high notes. In no way is this competitive with her two other vesions (one live under Giulini and the famous studio one under Barbirolli), so I will only comment by saying I heard Baker and Hickox perform the cycle not long before this recording was made and, live and in the concert hall, it was still an amazing experience.

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The live Giulini account, taken from a concert at the Royal Festiva Hall in 1975, must be amongst the slowest on disc and it is remarkable that Baker can sustain these speeds; but sustain them she does, luxuriating in the added breadth that Giulini gives her, her breath control quite astonishing. The recorded sound is a trifle muddy and we hear the occasional coughs that go along with live music making, but the specificity of her response to the text is quite extraordinary and there is a concentrated intensity about this performance, which is no doubt enhanced by the presence of a live audience. If I continue to prefer the studio performance, that could be because it is the one by which I got to know the songs and it is no doubt imprinted on my brain. It also, of course enjoys better sound. Both interpretations are absolutely and unequivocally superb. Baker’s stage roles included both Cassandre and Didon and she brings something of the character of their music to these songs too.

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Baker enjoyed a very special relationship with Sir John Barbirolli and of course made a few important recordings with him before he died in 1970.  Apart from the above recording of Ravel and Berlioz they can be heard in famous recordings of Elgar’s Sea Pictures,  Mahler’s three orchestral song cycles and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, all very special and irreplaceable.

The New Philharmonia are in fine form and provide some of the best orchestral playing on any of these performances. Villanelle is perhaps a little too determinedly jolly, but after that the performance just gets better and better. Baker starts Le spectre de la rose almost confidingly, as if whispering into the ear of the sleeping girl, swelling into the glorious mini climax at Et parmi le fête étoilée, Tu me promenas tout le soir. Her tone turns both sensual and erotic when the rose arrives from paradise, and then she sings the phrase Mon destin fut digne d’envie in one glorious, long breath. This might just be the most wonderful performance of the song ever put down on record.

From there we are plunged into the blank, desparing tone of Ma belle amie est morte. If she were the Act IV Didon in the previous song here she is Cassandre, singing in stark absolutes. Having reached a desolate climax the song fades away in a whispered close of utter dejection. She yearns sweetly in Absence, the voice taking on a soprano-ish lightness in the upper register, but maintaining its tragic depth for the line Ah, grands désirs inappaisées. Au cimetière is mesmerisingly hypnotic, conjuring up ghostly visions of graveyards at night, until finally gloom is dispelled and a smile enters her voice for L’île inconnue, with a coquettish twinkle on Est-ce dans la Baltique?

After listening to ten different recordings in two days, I find I love the cycle more than ever and all these recordings have something to offer.  I actually enjoyed them all. However if I had to choose but one  on that proverbial desert island, then it would have to be Baker with Barbirolli, though I’d probably find a way to smuggle the Hunt Lieberson with me as well somehow.

Così fan tutte – ROH 27.01.1981

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I don’t know if I was actually at this performance, but I was definitely at one of the series this recording was taken from.

My memory hasn’t failed me and it really is as good as I remember.

Sir Colin Davis already had a famous studio recording to his credit and common to both are the saturnine Alfonso of Richard Van Allan. Other than that, his cast here is easily equal to that on the studio set, and, as far as the men are concerned, possibly surpasses it, with Stuart Burrows a more mellifluous, if les characterful, Ferrando than Gedda and Thomas Allen absolutely splendid as Guglielmo, indeed one of the best on record.

On the distaff side, I find it hard to choose between the two casts. Caballé was a glorious Fiordiligi in the studio, but Te Kanawa is hardly less so, and she is a much more volatile performer here than she often was, possibly spurred on by the vividly acted and sung Dorabella of Agnes Baltsa. Baker, in the studio set, is less histrionic, more gently lovable. I love both performances. Mazzucato is a sprightly Despina, delightfully knowing in her exchanges with Alfonso, but yields something in individuality to Cotrubas in the studio set.

This is 1981, and speeds are occasionally a little slower than we are used to these days, and one should note that, being live, there is a fair amount of stage noise, audience laughter and applause. Otherwise the sound is fine, if not as well balanced as a studio production.

I really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with this wonderful performance, and, though I won’t be throwing away my studio Davis or Böhm/EMI recordings, it sits quite happily on the shelf beside them.

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.

Karajan’s Second Studio Recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna  in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many who one might consider more vocally entitled. On the other hand, the personality is small and doesn’t stay in the memory the way that Price, Tebaldi, Caballé and Callas do. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get, if without the clarion heroics of a Corelli or a Del Monaco.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak at the time of this recording, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, his breath control as usual exemplary. Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King and the silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.

Karajan’s second recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many whom one might consider more vocally entitled. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, and Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King. The silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.

Karajan’s Studio Don Carlo

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This is an infuriating set. Infuriating because the performance is so good but let down by the ridiculously wide dynamic of the recording. The balances are all over the place too, with the brass thrust relentlessly into the foreground. One particularly bad example is at the beginning of the garden scene (Act II, scene i in this version). Carreras is placed so far away from the microphone at his entrance that you can hardly hear him. The natural reaction is to turn up the sound, only to be blasted out of your seat at the next orchestral tutti. With the sound at a reasonably comfortable volume for the rest of the scene the brass reiteration of the friendship theme at the end is absolutely deafening. It might be ok if you live in the middle of nowhere, but if, like me, you live in a small flat in the heart of London, it makes listening a very nerve-racking experience, as you have to be prepared to adjust the volume all the time. It’s no better with headphones either, as, with the sound turned up high enough for the quieter sections, you risk severe ear damage every time the full orchestra let fly.

Aside from the problems of the sound, though, the set has much to commend it. I regret the absence of the Fontainebleau act, as Karajan conducts here Verdi’s 1884 revision, which excised the first act and moved Carlo’s Io la vidi to the monastery scene, which now became Act I. This was the version usually adopted until Giulini included the Fontainebleau act in the famous Visconti/Covent Garden production of 1958. Since then the opera has been performed in a bewildering variety of different versions, but the four act version is rarely given these days, though, as far as I’m aware, Karajan always stuck to it.

Editions aside, this one has an excellent cast. Freni is captured at the beginning of her progress into more dramatic music. In 1977 she had been a superb Amelia in the Abbado/Strehler production of Simon Boccanegra, and the role of Elisabetta suits her very well. She doesn’t quite command the beauty of tone of Caballé on the Giulini recording and she occasionally sounds a little cautious, but she makes a most sympathetic heroine, and articulates the text beautifully. Carreras is caught at his absolute best. Some might feel that, as with Freni, a larger, more heroic voice is what is required, but I’m not sure I’d agree. Carlo is one of Verdi’s most complex tenor roles, a weak character stunted by his father’s indifference to him, constantly in the shadow of his noble friend, Posa and Carreras brilliantly captures both his instability and his desperation. He might just be my favourite Carlo on disc. Cappuccilli is not so interesting a Posa as Gobbi or Milnes, nor is he quite as impressive here as he was in the Abbado Simon Boccanegra, but it is still an excellent performance, his breath control and legato very impressive. Ghiaurov is now sounding a little grey of voice, but that is not inapt for Filippo, and he too presents a believably complex character. I prefer a blacker voice than Raimondi’s for the Inquisitor (like Foiani on the Giulini recording) and consequently the great scene between him and Filippo loses a little in tension.

Crowning the cast is Agnes Baltsa as Eboli in one of her best recorded roles. The voice is at its absolute peak, the lower voice rich and powerful, the top notes gleamingly firm. Her O don fatale is absolutely thrilling, as it was when I saw her in the role at Covent Garden, when she pretty much stopped the show. This luxury casting continues into the smaller roles with José Van Dam as the Monk, Edita Gruberova as Tebaldo and Barbara Hendricks as The Voice from Heaven.

Karajan’s tempi are sometimes a little too measured, but he has the virtue of never letting the tempo sag. If only the sound were more maneagable, I might listen to it more often. As it is, Giulini remains my yardstick for the opera.

Agnes Baltsa – Famous Opera Arias

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Good to be reminded of Baltsa’s pre-eminence as a lyric/dramatic mezzo at the beginning of the 1980s, when this recital was recorded.

The recital shows off to advantage her keen dramatic instinct, a tangily individual timbre, and a voice that was, at this time at least, absolutely seamless from top to bottom. Though she had already recorded Eboli and Amneris for Karajan, this recital concentrates for the most part on her work in the field of bel canto.

Baltsa was an exciting stage performer, as I can attest, having seen her live on many occasions and a great deal of that excitement comes through on disc, the climaxes of the arias from La Favorita and Il Giuamento being particularly thrilling. She has a strong vocal personality, which comes across stunningly on disc, and she realises the different demands of classical, Romantic and verismo music. If there is a limitation, it is that she rarely colours or weights the voice to suit the character she is playing, something more noticeable in a recital disc than it would be in a complete performance.

Stand out tracks for me were the aria from La Donna del Lago, where she gently caresses the opening cavatina, and the aforementioned arias from Il Giuramento and La Favorita. Indeed, on this showing it is a great pity that nobody thought to make a complete recording of the Donizetti opera with her, though preferably in the original French rather than Italian as it is here.

To sum up, this is a great memento of an important singer recorded when the voice was at its peak. I seem to remember that it was issued in the UK originally on EMI, but the recording was made by Orfeo, and it is that issue I have.

Verdi’s Don Carlos – a comparison of three different recordings

Don Carlo, or more properly Don Carlos, to use its French title, that great, sprawling, flawed masterpiece, is one of my favourite Verdi operas, maybe even my favourite. Admittedly it doesn’t have the coherence of Aida or Otello, or even Rigoletto, but enshrined in it is some of Verdi’s greatest music, and I believe that Act IV, Scene i is one of the greatest scenes in all Verdi. Starting with that mournful cello introduction to Philip’s despairing Elle ne m’aime pas, through the magnificent duet (more a duel )between the two bass voices of Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, on to the superb quartet for Philip, Rodrigue, Elisabeth and Eboli, to Eboli’s thrilling O don fatal, Verdi doesn’t put a foot wrong. As pure theatre and drama, it can hardly be bettered. It also enjoys some of the most complex characterisation in all Verdi. The tenor Carlos, is really an anti-hero, a rather pathetic character, desperate for the recognition of a cold, distant father, who wishes his son were more like his friend and confidant Rodrigue, the only really noble character in the opera. Philippe is also a weak character. He strives to be a strong leader, but mistakes intransigence for strength, and, ultimately, is putty in the hands of the church. He does not think for one moment about the effect of his decision to marry Elisabeth himself instead of Carlos, an act of pure selfishness. Elisabeth, disappointed in love, treated appallingly by Philippe, is both regal and compassionate, and Eboli is flighty, hot tempered, and ultimately remorseful.

Over the years I’ve seen the opera a few times and acquired three recordings, though what I actually have is recordings of three different operas. Giulini in 1971 goes for the five act version, in Italian translation, which restored the Fontainebleau Act, and puts Carlo’s Io la vidi back where it belongs in the Fontainebleau act; Karajan in 1979 chooses Verdi’s four Act version (also in Italian, in which Verdi deleted the whole of the first act, transferring Carlo’s Io la vidi to the Monastery Scene, which now becomes Act I, Scene i; Abbado in 1983 conducts the original five act version in French, and adds an appendix of music cut from the first performance, excised from the 1882-83 four act version, or recomposed in that revision. Yes, I know. Complicated, isn’t it?

Don Carlo(s) is a long opera, and I listened to my three recordings over a period of several days, starting with the Giulini, going on to Karajan and finishing with Abbado.

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The Giulini has acquired something of a classic status, and though probably not quite on the level as the same conductor’s Don Giovanni, it does a great deal to justify its high regard. First of all, Giulini has just about the best cast that could have been assembled at the time. That said, Domingo is not yet the artist he was to become. His singing is never less than musical, and he sings with commitment, but there is something slightly generalised about his performance, with nothing much to distinguish Carlo from any other Verdi tenor hero. Milnes sings a noble, forthright Rodrigo, my favourite of the three on these recordings. Raimondi is a little light voiced as Fillipo, a role that really cries out for the dark, buttery tones of a Pinza or a Christoff, but he is suitably tortured and his voice contrasts well with the black voiced Inquisitor of Giovanni Foiani.

Caballé’s voice was at its most beautiful at this time, and, though she too can be a little generalised, she is never less than involved and involving. Her soft singing, as you might expect, is exquisite.

Verrett is, quite simply, magnificent, and without doubt one of the best Ebolis on disc. Recorded before she started moving up to the soprano repertoire, her voice is in thrillingly exciting shape.

Giulini had of course conducted the opera a few years previously at Covent Garden, in a production by Visconti which went a long way to restoring the opera to its rightful place in the Verdi canon, It starred Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Gré Brouwenstijn and Fedora Barbieri, and it served Covent Garden very well over the years. I even saw Christoff myself in the opera in one of his last operatic appearances. Giulini’s credentials as a Verdian are never in doubt. His tempi can be on the spacious side, but he has a sure sense of the work’s structure. The 1971 analogue recording is wonderfully natural, the voices beautifully caught, and still sounds good on CD.

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The first thing that strikes me, and annoys me, about the Karajan recording is the sound. In an acoustic that is impossibly wide ranging, the voices, lighter and more lyrical than was often the case, are so far recessed that it is often difficult to hear them. One of the worst instances of this is the beginning of the scene in the Queen’s Garden at night. With the sound turned up to a comfortable level for Karajan’s beautiful evocation of a heady summer night, Carreras is all but inaudible at his first entry. I turn up the sound in order to hear him better, only to be blasted out of my seat at the next orchestral tutti. This is but one example, but it happens all the time, and is, in my opinion, a serious blot on what is actually a rather good performance.

Karajan, who also had a great deal of experience in this opera, is also spacious, but the performance still bristles with drama. I just wish he didn’t constantly push the orchestra forward at the expense of the singers, who are often submerged in the orchestral textures.

I liked Carreras’s Carlo very much. His legato isn’t as good as Domingo’s, but he is better at suggesting the character’s unhinged nature. Cappuccilli is good, without being distinctive. He has a good legato, and superb breath control, but he is a little anonymous, and this performance is not generally at the same high standard of his Boccanegra and Macbeth for Abbado. Ghiaurov is Filippo, but his voice was already showing signs of wear by this time, and I find him less interesting than Raimondi in the same role, who is now the Inquisitor, and a mite too light of voice for that role.

This was Freni’s first excursion into heavier repertoire, and she makes a very appealing Elisabeth. As always her singing is unfailingly musical, but lacks the grandeur Caballé brings to Tu che le vanita. Baltsa is just as exciting as Verrett, her voice, at this time in her career, seamless from top to bottom. I saw her in the role at Covent Garden a few years after this recording was made and she brought the house down, generating the kind of excitement that is all too rare in the opera house today. I really couldn’t choose between her and Verrett. Both are fantastic.

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And so on to Abbado, which I find operates on an altogether lower voltage.

Having taken the decision to perform the opera in French, it would seem somewhat perverse to use singers who have little or no (Domingo excepted) proficiency in the language, and it is Domingo who is the standout performance in this set. Paradoxically, ten years after making the Giulini recording, the top of his voice sounds much more free, and he is much more inside the character than he was  before, a highly strung and nervous portrayal.

Nucci is a four-square, dry old stick of a Rodrigue. Raimondi is back to playing Philippe, but his voice has lost some of its bloom, and Ghiaurov is sounding increasingly grey voiced as the Inquisitor.

Ricciarelli I have equivocal feelings about. She is the definitely the most affecting of the three Elisabeths, but also the most fallible vocally. However it’s a performance I’ve come to admire more over the years. Valentini-Terrani is much too light voiced for Eboli, and O don fatal taxes her to, and beyond, her limits. She is definitely no match for either Verrett or Baltsa.

Though it is the newest, and digitally recorded, the sound is unaccountably murky, nowhere near as clear, or as natural, as the Giulini, and Abbado’s conducting lacks energy and authority. He doesn’t have the same structural control he evinces in his recordings of both Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth.

My conclusion is, then, that Giulini retains its place at the top of the field, though I will on occasion want to listen to Karajan and Abbado, for some of the individually excellent performances.

As a codicil to this, I would mention that my introduction to the opera was Callas’s magnificent recording of Tu che le vanita, an aria she obviously had a great deal of affection for, as she regularly programmed it into her concert repertoire. Callas only sang the role of Elisabeth once, at La Scala in 1954, and unfortunately none of the performances were recorded, but she makes more of the scene than anyone. It is grandly voiced, her breath control prodigious, but she effectively binds together its disparate elements. It is, in Lord Harewood’s words, a performance of utmost delicacy and beauty and I would recommend it to anyone who loves this opera.

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Verdi’s Aida – a comparative review of 5 different recordings

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up with five different recordings of Verdi’s Aida. It’s not my favourite Verdi opera by a long chalk. Though it has magnificent music, the characters always seem more like human archetypes than flesh and blood people and I admire it rather than love it. Three of my recordings feature Callas, and, though I never think of Aida as a Callas role, she brings more meaning to it than most. Two of the Callas recordings (the ones that find her in the best voice) are live, but the sound on both is, at best tolerable, so the studio one is also a necessity, though the 1955 mono sound on that can’t hope to compare with the fabulous sound accorded the new Pappano set that was recorded in 2015.

Aida is of course the quintessential grand opera, famed throughout the world for extravagant stagings at the Arena di Verona, but actually, aside from the great Triumphal Scene, many of its scenes are played out in private, behind closed doors.

I started my journey with the famous live 1951 performance from Mexico, with Callas, Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.

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Well let’s get over the caveats. The sound is pretty atrocious; it crumbles and distorts and the balances are all over the place. The voices come through reasonably well, but you do have to listen through the sound, as it were. But what a performance! And a memento of what was undoubtedly a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Callas is in superb voice throughout, and makes more of the somewhat placid character of Aida than any other singer I have come across. The power she was able to summon at this point in her career has to be heard to be believed, a power that goes right up to that unwritten, but absolutely stunning top Eb in alt in the Triumphal Scene, a phenomenal sound, that excites the Mexicans so much you can almost hear them rip the seats apart. Ritorna vincitor is absolutely thrilling, the duet with Dominguez’s Amneris also superb, but, as always with Callas, it is the Nile Scene that provokes her most moving singing.

O patria mia is not her best moment. She seems momentarily preoccupied with the exposed top C at the end, a solid if not exactly dolce as marked note, but once past the aria, she is on more congenial ground, and, with Taddei a worthy partner, alternately stentorian, implacable, insinuating and relentless, runs the gamut of emotions in an exciting Nile Scene. In the ensuing duet with Radames, she finds a wealth of colour as she seduces and cajoles him.

Del Monaco, as usual, is not particularly subtle, but there is the clarion compensation of the voice itself, and, like all the Radames Callas sings with in the three recordings, makes a better hero than lover.

Dominguez is very impressive. This was her debut in the role, and occasionally she overplays her hand, but her singing is very exciting and the Mexicans give her a rousing reception.

De Fabritiis conducts a dramatic, but not particularly subtle, version of the score. Nowhere does he find the delicacy of Karajan or Pappano, or even Serafin, but subtlety is not really what this performance is about.

I next moved onto another live Callas performance; this one from Covent Garden in 1953, with Kurt Baum, Giulietta Simionato and Jess Walters, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

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Unfortunately Barbirolli turned out to be something of a disappointment. More subtle than De Fabritiis in Mexico admittedly, the performance lacks excitement and many of his tempi are unaccountably slow. Maybe his approach was more suited to the reserved Londoners than the excitable Mexicans, but the latter has a thrilling vitality completely missing in London.

There is no thrilling Eb in the Triumphal Scene, but Callas is still in superb voice. However Barbirolli’s slow tempi vitiate against some of her more dramatic moments. The I sacri numi section of Ritorna vincitor lacks the bite Callas usually brings to it, though she is able to spin out the final Numi pieta to even more heavenly lengths at Barbirolli’s slower tempo.

Baum is not quite as bad as his reputation, but he hardly ever phrases with distinction and he sobs and aspirates in what he evidently thought was the Italian manner. He also has a tendency to hold on to every top note as if his life depended on it, so that his duets, both with Callas and Simionato, become somewhat combative. That Callas manages to sing the final duet with the grace and delicacy she does is little short of miraculous, given Baum’s determination to bawl his way to his death.

Simionato, a more experienced Amneris than Dominguez, is magnificent and Barbirolli does finally wake up for her final scene, though you sense Simionato propelling the music forward and they almost become unstuck. Am I being picky, though, when I wonder if a little too much of Azucena creeps into Simionato’s interpretation? Amneris is after all a young princess, but more on that subject later.

Somewhat disappointed with Barbirolli, I moved on to the second Karajan recording, recorded in Vienna with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli.

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Karajan’s speeds in this, his second recording, of the opera are also spacious but much more vital. I’ve always found his first effort, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, a little too self-consciously beautiful. This one is far more alive to the drama. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly and the sound is excellent analogue stereo, though the voices are a little too recessed for my liking, and are often submerged by the orchestra. Given that Karajan uses lighter, more lyrical voices than we have become used to, this does seem a somewhat perverse decision.

If singers of  Radames tend to break down into the heroic and poetic, Carreras is more in the latter camp. His voice is doubtless a notch too small for the part, but it was still a beautiful instrument at that time, and his is the most attractive Celeste Aida we have heard so far, though he doesn’t manage the pianissimo top B at the end. He is at his best in the final duet, his piano singing a welcome relief from the overloud Del Monaco and Baum.

Freni is very attractive, if a little lacking in personality. Her voice might also be considered a little light for the role, but she never forces and sings within her means, phrasing sensitively and singing cleanly off the text. She does nothing wrong, but set next to Callas, she just isn’t that interesting.

The best of the soloists is, without doubt, Agnes Baltsa. Here at last we have a believably young, spoiled princess, a plausible rival for Aida. Seductively sexy and driven to distraction by jealousy, she is convincingly remorseful at the end of the opera, nor does she sound like an Azucena in disguise. She is superbly effective in her duets with Radames and Aida, and gorgeous in the first scene of Act II. She is my favourite of all the Amnerises.

Cappuccilli I find efficient rather than inspired. He doesn’t stamp his authority on the role of Amonasro the way Taddei and Gobbi do, though, as usual, his breath control is exemplary. In a star studded cast, both Ramfis and the King (Ruggero Raimondi and Jose Van Dam) are excellent and we even get the silken voiced Katia Ricciarelli in the role of the Priestess.

From Karajan I turned to the latest addition to the Aida discography. Recorded in the studio, a rarity for opera recordings these days, it is conducted by Antonio Pappano, and stars Anya Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ludovic Tezier with Orchestra and Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy.

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As one might expect, the sound in this new digital recording is superb, much more naturally balanced than the Karajan, with the voices coming through beautifully. Pappano exerts a superb grip on the opera, and his might just be the best conducted version of the lot, in the best lyric Italian tradition of conductors like Serafin, more of whom below.

Best of the soloists is definitely Jonas Kaufmann, who might just be the best Radames ever to be recorded. He has both the heroics and the poetry (a deliciously ppp close to Celeste Aida) and is vocally the equal of all that Verdi throws at him. Throughout he phrases with sensitivity and imagination, and achieves miracles of grace in the final duet, with some genuine dolce singing. This is a great performance.

Harteros is in the Freni mould, vocally not quite as secure, but a little more interesting. She goes for a dolce top C in O patria mia, but it is a little shaky. She does not erase memories of Caballe (on the Muti recording) in the same music, but hers is nevertheless an attractive performance.

Semenchuk I don’t like at all. She has a typically vibrant Eastern European voice, with a tendency to be squally. She reminded me most of Elena Obrasztsova and sounds a good deal older than she looks in the photographs accompanying the recording. All the other Amnerises under consideration bring something more specific to the role, where she is more generalised, and consequently the big Act IV scene lacks tension.

If not quite in the Gobbi or Taddei class, when it comes to verbal acuity, Ludovic Tezier is a fine Amonasro and together he and Harteros, with Pappano’s inestimable help, deliver a fine Nile Duet. The basses are not quite in the same class as those on Karajan and Serafin.

Which brings me to Serafin and Callas’s studio recording of the opera.

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By the time this recording was made in 1955, Callas had given up the role of Aida, singing her last performances in Verona just a few months after the 1953 Covent Garden performances under Barbirolli.

Callas’s voice has thinned out quite a bit, and she sings a much more refined performance of the role, perhaps more in line with conventional interpretations, except of course that Callas can never be conventional. When Tebaldi sings Numi pieta at the end of Ritorna vincitor, she sings a pure lyrical line and it’s very pretty, but Callas reminds us that she is asking the Gods to take pity on her suffering. Time and time again she will illuminate a phrase here, a word there. The duet with Amneris abounds with contrast as the two women play off against each other, but it is the duet with Amonasro in the Nile Scene that holds the heart of this performance, the scene where Aida must choose country before love. Gobbi is at his incisive best as Amonasro, and I doubt I will ever hear this duet done better. Note too how eloquently Serafin makes the strings weep when Aida finally gives in, first with the climbing phrase on the cellos and then in the way he accentuates those stabbing violin figures, when Callas sings O patria, patria quanto mi costi. This is the real stuff of drama.

Tucker isn’t in Callas and Gobbi’s class I’m afraid. He has the right sound for the role, virile and forthright, but for every phrase delivered with just the right degree of slancio, there is another ruined by his tendency to aspirate and sob.

Barbieri is very fine, in the Simionato mould, and, with Serafin letting go a veritable storm in the orchestra, produces a thrillingly dramatic Act IV scena.

Both basses (Giuseppe Modesti as Ramfis, and especially Nicola Zaccaria as the King) are splendid, and Serafin, as you might have gathered, conducts a wonderfully dramatic version of the score, in the best Italian tradition.

So conclusions then. No doubt there will be some wondering why I didn’t include Solti and Muti. Well, Solti I’ve never taken to. I just can’t stand his bombastic, un-Italianate, unlyrical conducting, good though his cast is (though I’ve never quite joined in the general enthusiasm for Gorr’s Amneris). I know the Muti but don’t own it. Until Pappano came along I usually used to recommend it as the safest bet, and Caballe gives one of her finest performances as Aida, and it is still, if memory serves me correctly, worth considering.

From the five under consideration then, I’d say De Fabritiis in Mexico is essential listening, if only as a memento of a historical occasion and a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. It could never be a library version though because of the intransigent sound. From the point of view of a library choice, then the new Pappano would probably be the safest bet, even though it has the weakest Amneris. Forced to choose but one recording, though, I’d go for Serafin, with a rather regretful glance over my shoulder towards Baltsa’s Amneris. The mono sound is sometimes a bit boxy and not a patch on either Karajan or Pappano, but its studio acoustic is a good deal better than either De Fabritiis or Barbirolli, who, in any case, surprisingly trails in last place in this survey, despite the presence of both Callas and Simionato.

Callas’s vocal splendour is best caught in Mexico in 1951, but, the sound is a problem, so it’s Serafin for me, if only for the Amonasro/Aida Nile duet, the most thrilling on all these sets.