The famous Giulini Don Giovanni

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Like the Karajan Der Rosenkavalier, Warner’s luxury presentation of this latest re-mastering of the famed Giulini Don Giovanni just adds a little more lustre to one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

It seems incredible to think that Giulini was actually a last minute replacement for Otto Klemperer, who was originally scheduled to record the opera with this cast but fell ill just as sessions started. We can be thankful now that he was available, for I can’t imagine that Klemperer could have produced the kind of quicksilver, thrillingly exciting performance we get here. The Philharmonia Orchestra were at that time at the top of their game and the orchestral playing is beyond praise. One of the main attractions of the set is the execution of the recitatives, which are brim full of drama and character, no doubt a result  of Walter Legge’s excellent production, and the whole recording feels like a real performance, with the singers brilliantly interacting with each other.

The cast is, without exception, superb; Sutherland, in her first major recording, a beautiful and technically assured Anna; Schwarzkopf, who adopted, in her words, “a sharp, unfriendly tone” to offset Sutherland’s creaminess, a real firebrand of an Elvira; Sciutti a delectably seduceable Zerlina. The men are hardly less brilliant, with Wächter’s dangerously sexy Don almost the equivalent of a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbank Jnr character and Taddei’s manipulative Leporello nicely complementing him. Cappuccilli is a real bully of a Masetto and Frick a commanding and ultimately terrifying Commendatore. If Alva makes slightly less of an impression, that has more to do with the rather passive character of Ottavio than his singing of Ottavio’s lovely arias.

One of the all time classics, beautifully re-furbished in this new re-master.

Giulini’s Il Trovatore

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Giulini’s Il Trovatore makes for very enjoyable listening, even if, in the final analysis, it lacks the sheer excitement and thrill of the Callas/Karajan set. As always with Giulini, tempos tend to be measured, giving his singers plenty of room to breathe and expand, but I do miss Karajan’s superb rhythmic swagger and verve. It makes for a more reflective and thoughtful performance than usual, but I’m not sure that is what Il Trovatore needs.

That said there is some excellent singing from an unusual group of singers. Plowright has exactly the right tinta for Leonora, the tone darkly plangent, the coloratura well executed, but nowhere does she light up a phrase the way Callas does and Leonora remains a somewhat two-dimensional character. Domingo is actually better here than he was for Mehta, more inside the role and his voice more free on top, though the (unwritten) top Cs in Di quella pira still sound somewhat strained and I remember there was a bit of a hoo-hah about him omitting them when he sang the role at Covent Garden around the same time this recording was made. Zancanaro is a most musical Di Luna, and Nesterenko gets the opera off to a rousing start.

The most controversial piece of casting is no doubt that of Fassbaender as Azucena, and her intelligent portrayal is thoroughly thought through and beautifully sung, with a lieder singer’s attention to detail. It is a considerable achievement, but she does not erase memories of singers like Simionato and Barbieri in the role, both of whom are more naturally suited to the music.

In short, a musical and thoughtful traversal of the score, which just misses that last degree of passion and excitement. It certainly doesn’t oust the Callas/Karajan set from my affections, but compliments it very nicely.

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.

Janet Baker – Chausson, Berlioz and Schoenberg

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These are all live performances of material Baker recorded in the studio (twice in the case of Les Nuits d’Eté, so one might wonder if they are really essential listening.

Well, though Baker was a superb recording artist, who never really made a bad record, she was also a great communicator and collaborator and these performances, all with different conductors from the studio ones, bring with them the added frisson that comes with a live event, and the sound, though not as clear as in her studio performances, is more than acceptable.

It starts with a 1975 performance of Chausson’s almost Wagnerian Poème del’amour et de la mer, which she recorded two years later under André Previn. This one has, somehwat suprisingly you might think, Evgeni Svetlanov at the helm, who takes great care over dynamics and shapes the work beautifully. Baker’s range of expression, her concenration, her breath control and command of the long line are exemplary, filling its pages with rapt expression. A marvelous performance.

Baker’s recording of Les Nuits d’Eté with Barbirolli, recorded in 1967 is justly famous and has hardly been out of the catalogue. She recorded it again under Richard Hickox in 1990, but by this time her voice was beginning to show signs of wear (more noticeable in a recording than when I heard them perform the work together in concert at around the same time) and the second recording has never enjoyed the acclaim of the first. This performance under Giulini was taped at the Royal Festival Hall a month after the Chausson and it is good to hear how Baker’s interpretation changed depending on whom she was singing with. Giulini’s speeds are expansive (Le spectre de la rose at 8’29” must be one of the slowest on disc) and would tax most singers beyond their limits, but here they never flag and Baker luxuriates in the extra room she is given to make her interpretive points. As in the Chausson, her breath control is astonishing and the range of expression wide. My notes are peppered with words like searing, delicate, passionate abandon, yearning. Though it doesn’t entirely supplant the Barbirolli in my affections, it is nonetheless a performance I would never want to be without.

The earliest performance here is a 1963 recording of the Song of the Wood Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a work she recorded five years later under Janos Ferencsik. Baker was not yet 30 when she gave this performance and, superbly supported by Norman Del Mar, her singing is urgently free and impassioned, even better than that on the Ferencsik.

Essential listening then? Absolutely and unequivocally, yes.

Callas in Alceste – La Scala 1954

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First a word of warning about the sound on this recording. This has always been one of the worst Callas La Scala broadcasts, and Warner can’t do much about that. It overloads and distorts badly in orchestral tutti and in the choruses, though solo voices fare slightly better. I was hoping for a marked improvement, but I guess there is not a lot one can do with such severely compromised source material.

It is a great pity, as I feel sure that if this recording had enjoyed better sound, then Callas’s Alceste would be a lot better known. By April 1954 she had considerably slimmed down, but her voice is still firm and powerful.

As with Orphée et Eurydice, Gluck considerably revised Alceste for Paris in 1776, and it is this version, translated into Italian and in an edition by Giulini, that was performed at La Scala in 1954. It was, as were most of her appearances at La Scala, a new production, directed by Margherita Wallmann with designs by Piero Zuffi and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Surprisingly this was also La Scala’s first ever production of the opera.

It is a great shame Callas didn’t sing the role of Alceste again for she is, in Max Loppert’s words,

a Gluck soprano of the highest order…. (who) answers every demand the role has to make

She will return to Alceste’s great apostrophe to the Gods, Divinités du Styx, on her French recital of 1961, but, though infinitely subtle as a performance, it will lack the clarion security of her top Bs here. In a sense she sculpts the music, portamenti much more chastely applied than they are when she sings operas of the bel canto. Though neither she nor Giulini add appoggiaturas, her sense of the classic style is spot on.

Every musical phrase, word and gesture was developed with the logic indicated in Gluck’s score,

according to Giulini, who thought Callas a musical genius.

There are many extant photos from the production, and you can see that the new svelte figure has given Callas a new found confidence in movement. For those who think that her amazing weight loss resulted in the loss of her voice, Giulini had this to say,

She became another woman and a new world of expression opened to her. Potentials held in the shadows emerged. In every sense, she had been transformed.

Giulini is a major asset in the pit, and it is a great pity that the recording obscures so much of the orchestral detail.

None of the male singers is in Callas’s class, and, as a representation of the opera, one would really have to look elsewhere, probably to John Eliot Gardiner with Anne Sofie von Otter, who conducts a vital, dramatic version of the score, with von Otter a wonderfully committed and sensitive Alceste, but even she can’t quite match Callas’s range of colour and intensity. On the other hand, the present recording is essential in expanding our knowledge and appreciation of Callas’s art, and, if you can get past the vagaries of the actual sound, and the inadequacy of most of the other singers, patience will definitely be rewarded.

 

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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