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.