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.

The Callas Karajan Il Trovatore

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Recorded 3-4, 6-9 August 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Though Callas, even in her early days, often courted controversy, there was very little disagreement about her Leonora, which seems to have been universally acclaimed from day one. Schwarzkopf called it “a miracle”, Bjoerling “perfection” and Lauri- Volpi “glorious”. Il Trovatore was of course a staple of the repertoire, but years of lazy singing by less technically accomplished sopranos had removed much of Leonora’s filigree. When Callas sang the role, critics said it was as if an old master had lovingly been restored to its original glory. Writing of her performance of the role in London in 1953, Cecil Smith in Opera wrote,

For once we heard the trills fully executed the scales and arpeggios tonally full-bodied but rhythmically bouncing and alert, the portamentos and long-breathed phrases fully supported and exquisitely inflected.

Used to enlisting Serafin’s support with a new role, she had had to prepare it alone for her first Leonoras in Mexico,  as she would be singing it under a different conductor (Guido Picco). A recording of that performance in 1950 shows that most of Callas’s ideas on the role were her own, and her singing is wonderfully accomplished, though she would eschew some of the interpolated high notes in later performances of the opera. She subsequently sang the role in Naples (under Serafin), at La Scala, in London, in Verona, in Rome and in Chicago (with Bjoerling), and finally for this recording in 1956.

By 1956 Callas’s voice is not what it was even in 1953, when she sang the role at La Scala, and high notes can be strident, but her voice in the middle and lower registers still has a dark beauty absolutely apt for the role. Her breath control is prodigious, her legato superb and throughout she phrases like a violinist rather than a vocalist.  Not only are the trills, scales and arpeggios fully executed, as Cecil Smith points out, but they are bound into the vocal line, becoming expression marks rather than just trills or scales. Even with a great singer, like Ponselle, the cadenza at the end of D’amor sul’ali rosee can seem as if it is just tacked on. With Callas, it becomes the natural conclusion of the aria, a musical expression of Leonora’s voice flying out to Manrico. In this recording we are also vouchsafed the cabaletta after the Miserere, (Tu vedrai) which was usually cut before then, presumably because most lyric-dramatic sopranos would find it beyond their capabilities. Callas is magnificent. Musically, I have no doubt that Leonora was one of her greatest achievements.

The rest of the cast are probably as good as could be assembled at the time. Di Stefano almost convinces his voice is right for the role, though, truth to tell, it’s a notch too small. He doesn’t really have the heroics for Di quella pira, but he is always alive to the drama, always sings off the words. Barbieri is a terrific Azucena, Panerai an intensely obsessive Di Luna, and Zaccaria a sonorous Ferrando.

But if Callas is the star vocalist, then Karajan is the second star of the recording. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of his very best opera recordings. His conducting is thrilling and one is constantly amazed at the many felicities he brings out in the orchestral colour, like the sighing two note violin phrases in Condotta ell’era in ceppi, or the beautifully elegant string tune that underscores Ferrando’s questioning of Azucena in Act III, cleverly noting its kinship with Condotta ell’era in ceppi. His pacing is brilliant, rhythms always alert and beautifully sprung, but suitably spacious and long-breathed in Leonora’s glorious arias. Nor does he shy away from the score’s occasional rude vigour. It is a considerable achievement.

My LP pressing was in the fake stereo re-issue, and I had the 1997 Callas Edition on CD. This Warner re-mastering sounds a good deal better than both, with plenty of space round the voices and plenty of detail coming through from the orchestra.

A classic Il Trovatore then, which has stood the test of time, and has held its place amongst the best. In all but recorded sound, I would prefer it to both the Mehta with Leontyne Price and Domingo and the Giulini with Plowright and Domingo again, though Giulini does have possibly the most interesting Azucena of them all in Brigitte Fassbaender. Callas and Karajan, on those rare occasions they worked together, are a hard act to follow.

Callas sings Verdi Arias III

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There never actually was a Verdi Arias Vol III, though one had been planned. Warner here use the cover of an album issued in 1972, of material which had been sitting around in the vaults, and which Callas eventually agreed to have issued. The original album coupled  the Act I Scena from Il Pirata (now on Rarities) with Amelia’s Act Il Scena from Un Ballo in Maschera, O madre dal cielo from I Lombardi, Arrigo, ah parli a un core from I Vespri Siciliani, Liberamente or piangi from Attila and Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. The Il Corsaro arias, Amelia’s Morro, ma prima in grazia and Leonora’s Tacea la notte placida appeared on a later album called The Legend, coupled to some unissued 1955 arias from La Sonnambula, none of which were cleared for release by Callas.

That 1972 album was actually one of the first Callas LPs I owned. It seems unbelievable now, but in the early 1970s, most of Callas’s back catalogue had been deleted by EMI, who presumably thought that the advent of stereo rendered it obsolete. At that time I had only heard a few of her recordings and I remember sampling a couple of arias from this disc in Windows, the local classical music store in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Initially alienated by the harsh sounds I heard coming from the listening booth, I left the shop without buying the disc. However somehow those tones carried on resonating in my mind’s ear, and eventually I went back and bought the LP. It was a decision I never regretted, as I learned to listen not just to the voice itself, but what she was doing with it. It also introduced me to some Verdi I’d never heard before, namely the arias from I Lombardi, Attila and I Vespri Siciliani. I knew absolutely then that Verdi was to become one of my favourite composers.

Taking first the arias not on that original LP, we find the arias from Il Corasaro recorded in 1969, really remarkably good. Her legato line is better than both Caballe and Norman on the Philips studio recording of the opera, and she unerringly captures the mood of each aria. The Trovatore has some magical moments, but at no place challenges her superb recording with Karajan. Amelia’s Morro, ma prima in grazia is very good indeed, with a superb, firm top B leading into a perfectly shaped final cadenza.

Swings and roundabouts on the rest. The tone at the beginning of the I Lombardi aria (the first track I listened to in the record shop) is indeed somewhat uningratiating, but once past the opening statement, she is in securer form, and moulds the line beautifully. Both the Attila and I Vespri Siciilani arias go well, the legato line beautifully held, and with Rescigno conjuring up some gorgeous sounds from the orchestra for the Sospendi o rive section of the Attila aria. I’d certainly sooner hear this version than Deutekom’s pallidly voiced one on the Philips complete recording. Amelia’s grand Act II Scena is full of passion, drama and fantasy. Though the ascent to top C is hard won, she grandly phrases on and through the note, so that it does not become the focal point of the aria. Still this does not challenge her performance on the complete set of 1956, nor the superb live performance from 1957.

The one incontrovertibly great performance on the disc is Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. This was not originally planned, but sessions had been getting a bit tense and Callas and the orchestra took a break. During the break Michel Glotz, the recording producer played a performance of Crespin singing the aria, which had been recorded the previous day. Callas was incensed, finding the performance completely antithetical to her sensibilities, lugubrious and slow. “I could hardly get the words out, when I did this with Maestro Serafin.” On learning that the parts were still there, she said, “Come on, Nicola, let’s do it!” and this is what they did – in one take! As always Callas loved a challenge, and this was as if someone had laid down the gauntlet. Somehow she recovers much of her old security, and the aria is brim full of drama and passion. Just listen to the anguish she pours out in Ah! non fu in terra mai da più crudeli angosce un core affranto, the desperation of Ah, sventurata che dissi?, with the final plea to the Gods heart wrenchingly poignant. This is Callas at her best.