Pappano’s Aida

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Recorded Sala Santa Cecilia Auditorium, Rome February 2015

Producer: Stephen Johns, Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen

This recording of Aida was issued five years ago now in a blaze of publicity, so how does it measure up now the dust has settled?

Presentation of this studio recording (a rarity in itself these days) harks back to the old days. A nice hard back book, acts I and II given a CD each, with the last two acts on the final CD. Full text, translations and notes in three languages are included, with copious photos of the sessions, and all at a very reasonable price. Warner have put a lot of faith in the enterprise, and I hope it succeeded, though it doesn’t seem to have precipitated any more studio recordings of opera.

So what of the performance? Well, to my mind, the two stars are Kaufmann and Pappano. Kaufmann fulfils all the requirements for strong heroic tone and lyrical poetry. The ending of Celeste Aida is one of the best I’ve heard, hitting the top Bb mezzoforte, then making a diminuendo to a truly ppp morendo close. He is every inch the noble warrior, the tender lover, and the tormented man torn between the two. Admittedly his tone isn’t what you’d call Italianate, and it doesn’t have that squillo up top that you hear in such tenors as Corelli or Del Monaco, but his musical manners are infinitely better. It is a considerable achievement and one of the best Radames we have had on disc.

Pappano’s shaping of the score is excellent and in the best Italian tradition, less self conscious than Karajan I, less apt to push the orchestra into the foreground than Karajan II and far preferable to the bombastic Solti. His balancing of the score’s public and private elements is just about perfect, and his Santa Cecilia orchestra play brilliantly for him. The sound too is very good, achieving an excellent balance between orchestra and singers, who are never drowned out as they are in Karajan II.

The rest have all I think been bettered elsewhere. Best of them is Ludovic Tézier’s Amonasro, a baritone with a good solid centre to his tone, and an almost Gobbi-like grasp of the role’s dramatic demands. I have heard much firmer basses in the roles of Ramfis and the King than Erwin Schrott and Marco Spotti and neither of them makes much of an impression.

Of the two women, Ekaterina Semenchuk has all the notes and power for Amneris, just missing out on a really individual response to the words. I’m afraid I found her performance all a bit generalised and she doesn’t eclipse memories of Simionato, Baltsa or Barbieri. As for Harteros, I have equivocal feelings. There are times when the role taxes her to the limit, and the ascent to top C in O patria mia is hard won, the final note thin, acrid and not quite in tune. She is easily outclassed by Caballé here. However she does use the words  well, and is thoroughly inside the role. My problem is that, though more responsive to the text than, say, Price or Tebadi, I find the voice itself somewhat anonymous. In some ways she reminds me of Freni, also a singer on the light side, and who also sings well off the words, but Freni makes the pleasanter, more individual sound and her singing is a good deal more secure.

So a worthy addition to the Aida discography, if not the last word in Aida recordings. I won’t be throwing away Muti, Karajan II and certainly not Callas under Serafin (also now on Warner). I also enjoy the thrilling live 1951 Mexico performance with Callas, Dominguez, Del Monaco and Taddei, though the incalcitrant sound makes listening rather a trial, and I note that, since I bought this Pappano set in 2015, it tends to be the last one I think of pulling down from the shelves, when I want to listen to the opera.

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.

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.

Wunderlich in La Traviata

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This recording was taped at a performance in Munich in March 1965. It was a new production by August Everding, and, judging by the audience reaction, it was a tremendous success.

Teresa Stratas’s shattering Violetta  is of course well known from the Zeffirelli film, brilliantly acted, if vocally stressed. Here she is  just a few months short of her twenty-seventh birthday and making her debut in the role, and, if the photos in the booklet are anything to go by, she looked absolutely stunning. Vocally though, and divorced from her powerful stage presence, she has her problems, especially in the first act. She has to transpose down Sempre libera and, even then, it taxes her to the limit. There are other places too where her voice doesn’t quite do what she wants it to, though, in intention at least, it has the seeds of a great performance. For instance the moments leading up to Violetta’s outpouring of love at Amami, Alfredo are urgently and sincerely felt, though she can’t quite swell the tone at Amami, Alfredo itself. In the last act she delivers a telling letter reading and a moving Addio del passato, but the performance doesn’t yet add up to a complete whole.

No challenge then for Callas, whose Violetta is hors councours, and whose 1958 Covent Garden performance remains my all time favourite. In Zeffirelli’s film, though vocally not much more comfortable, Stratas surpasses what she does here, where we are also able to see her touchingly vulnerable acting.

Hermann Prey, 36 at the time and only a year older than Wunderlich, sounds too young and tends to oversing, possibly in an attempt to sound more Italianate. Though there is pleasure to be derived from the voice itself, I don’t get any sense of a real character.

No, the chief reason for hearing this set is the chance to hear Wunderlich sing a complete role in Italian. The language suits him well and he is an ardently lyrical Alfredo, singing with honeyed tone, but with plenty of heft in the outburst at Flora’s party. Very very occasionally he overplays his hand (mostly in recitative) but there is much that is treasurable; Dei miei bollenti spiriti has a lovely lilt and he and Stratas make a wonderfully touching moment out of their brief moment of happiness in the last act,  Parigi, o cara. Later perhaps he would have played down slightly the histrionics in his contribution to Gran Dio, morir si giovane, but it is already a treasurable performance and reason enough to hear this live recording.

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.

Ricciarelli in Luisa Miller

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The front runners for this opera are probably Maag with Caballé and Pavarotti and Cleva with Moffo and Bergonzi, but this one has its attractions too, not least the affecting Luisa of Katia Ricciarelli. Vocally she is a little more fallible than either Caballé or Moffo, but she is very much inside the character and makes a vulneraby moving Luisa, no doubt helped by the fact that this recording was made during a highly successful run of performances at Covent Garden (actually a revival of a production that had been new the previous year). Much as I admire the two aforementioned ladies, I think ultimately I’d prefer Ricciarelli.

For the rest, honours are about even. Of the conductors, Maag is often revelatory and Cleva, whilst less imaginative, in the best Italian lyric tradition, but Maazel can be somehwat brash and vulgar. All three tenors are excellent and in their best form, as are the three baritones, Milnes, MacNeil and Bruson, so choice will depend on personal preference.

Federica was sung by Elizabeth Connell in the Covent Garden performances, but for some reason it was deemed necessary to bring in Obraztsova for the recording, who oversings and overpowers the role. The best Federica is Verrett on the Cleva; Reynolds on the Maag is completelyel anonymous. Richard Van Allan was Wurm in the stage performances but he is replaced by Ganzarolli, presumably because he had already recorded the role for Maag.

Still, for the three principals, this is a recommendable version of the opera and I’d be hard pressed to make a choice between it, Maag and Cleva.

De Los Angeles in La Traviata

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Victoria De Los Angeles has long been a favourite singer of mine and her Violetta satisfies on so many levels. She is a little strained by the tessitura of the first act, but the voice is generally clear and beautiful, her singing always musical and deeply felt. As in everything she did, the sensitivity and sincerity of the performance are most affecting and she is without doubt one of the best Violettas on disc. What I miss is that sense of desperation and impulsiveness inherent in the character. Her Violetta is touching, but not overwhelmingly tragic as it is with Callas, who does tend to spoil me for all comers.

She has a good supporting cast with Carlo Del Monte a manly and forthright Alfredo and Sereni a sympathetic Germont, as he is in Callas’s Lisbon performance.

I sometimes feel Serafin’s virtues are rather underestimated. He paces the score brilliantly, particularly good in the choruses, which can sometimes outstay their welcome. If I’m honest, I rather prefer his approach to the more interventionist Kleiber. The cuts traditional at the time are observed, so no cabalettas to Alfredo’s and Germont’s arias.

If Callas, particularly in London, remains my yardstick for this opera, this is nevertheless one of my favourite studio sets and I might even place it just above Cotrubas/Kleiber.