girl-penguinVerdi, Giuseppe

VERDI: Aïda / Dusolina Giannini, soprano (Aïda); Aureliano Pertile, tenor (Radames); Irene Minghini-Catteneo, mezzo-soprano (Amneris); Luigi Manfrini, bass (Ramfis); Guglielmo Masini, bass (King); Giovanni Inghilleri, baritone (Amonasro); Giuseppe Nessi, tenor (Messenger); Valentina Bartolomasi, soprano (Priestess); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Carlo Sabajno, conductor / Opera Magna OP2747

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This is the first complete recording of the opera, and still holds up as the most exciting and dynamic performance. Drawbacks: the dull, boxy 1928 sound and Sabajno’s use of more string portamento than we are used to nowadays. Strengths: a performance that almost sounds “live,” one of the most sympathetic and lovely Aidas (Giannini), a Radames who sings with nuance as well as power (Pertile), and the damn most exciting Amneris on the face of the earth (Minghini-Catteneo). This performance isn’t just dynamic, it practically drags you into the heart of the drama and keeps you there until the very end. I’ve yet to hear any other performance, as such, come close in terms of visceral yet musically exact singing…except that neither Pertile nor Giannini take their high notes softly as written.

VERDI: Aïda / Herva Nelli, soprano (Aïda); Richard Tucker, tenor (Radames); Eva Gustafson, mezzo-soprano (Amneris); Norman Scott, bass (Ramfis); Dennis Harbour, bass (King); Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone (Amonasro); Virgilio Assandri, tenor (Messenger); Teresa Stich-Randall, soprano (Priestess); Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Urania WS 121.183

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The Toscanini Aïda is looked down upon by opera buffs because they can’t stand soprano Herva Nelli, who had a beautiful voice and sang expressively…only because she wasn’t Zinka Milanov, who “owned” this role during her tenure at the Met. Tucker’s voice is caught better here than on most of his complete opera recordings and, although he misses the nuance of Pertile, he makes a commanding Radames. Eva Gustafson’s biggest drawback as a singer was her nasal tone, which takes some getting used to, but compared to most of what we get nowadays as Amneris she’s pretty good. Toscanini actually conducts with more rubato than Sabajno, particularly in the conclusion of the Judgment Scene where he slows down the tempo to emphasize the severity of Radames’ fate. A bonus is the outstanding singing of 19-year-old Teresa Stich-Randall as the Priestess. Urania has restored this recording to state-of-the-art sound.

VERDI: Aïda / Zinka Milanov, soprano (Aïda); Jussi Björling, tenor (Radames); Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano (Amneris); Boris Christoff, bass (Ramfis); Plinio Clabassi, bass (King); Leonard Warren, baritone (Amonasro); Mario Carlin, tenor (Messenger): Bruna Rizzoli, soprano (Priestess); Rome Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Jonel Perlea, conductor / Urania URN 22.274

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Well, here’s Zinka Milanov as Aïda, and for once she does not disappoint—at least, not vocally. Her creamy yet large soprano voice was under perfect control, and conductor Perlea keeps a tight leash on her, curbing her excesses in phrasing and hanging onto high notes longer than written. Perlea also coaxed a surprisingly expressive performance of Radames out of Jussi Björling, who had a spectacular voice but often sang as if he didn’t care much about the words or the character. Barbieri is the richest-voiced Amneris on records, and baritone Leonard Warren is, bar none, the finest Amonasro. Boris Christoff sings in his usual snarly manner, but snarly suits the uptight Ramfis pretty well. Perlea relaxes the tempo here and there for a more spacious reading than Sabajno or Toscanini, but he’s not nearly as off-the-mark as Georg Solti in his mostly overrated 1962 recording. Urania’s remastering is the best I’ve ever heard, bringing a welcome spaciousness to this otherwise dry-sounding recording. Indeed, the sound is so good that it almost (but not quite) sounds like early stereo, which being made in 1955, it should have been. If you own all three of these recordings, you won’t need any other of the Aïdas on record.

VERDI: Nabucco / Leo Nucci, baritone (Nabucco); Csilla Boross, soprano (Abigaille); Dmitry Beloselsky, bass (Zaccaria); Antonio Poli, tenor (Ismaele); Anna Malavasi, mezzo-soprano (Fenena); Goran Juric, bass (Gran Sacerdote); Erika Grimaldi, soprano (Anna); Saverio Fiore, tenor (Abdallo); Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Chorus & Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor / no commercial issue; see and hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzOKMYHBmL0 or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyEEB9jFwGE (live, May 12, 2011)

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Nabucco was not only Verdi’s first big hit, it was his most interesting and complex opera before Macbeth. Aside from the implied patriotism of the famous chorus “Va, pensiero,” the plot’s complex handling of such issues as a nation under siege, personal jealousies, lust for power and the betrayal of those closest to you as well as an entire nation makes this a truly fascinating opera. Moreover, Verdi poured some of his most intricate and inventive music of his early days into the score. Where else in his first five operas is there anything as subtly written and scored as the bass aria “Veni, o Levita” or the Abigaille-Ismaele-Fenena trio? The justly famous trio from I Lombardi is practically a mini-cantata, superbly conceived and scored, but it is a 12-minute isolated moment of brilliance in an opera that is otherwise disjointed and lacking focus. In Nabucco, both the libretto and the composer carefuly craft the up, downs, and betrayal of the title character by his adopted daughter, his sudden, surprising conversion to Judaism and his eventual emergence as a heroic figure. For this reason, the character of Nabucco is one of the most complex in the entire Verdi canon before the emergence of Simon Boccanegra.

Yet almost all of the attention of operagoers focus on Abigaille, the strong, willful daughter of slaves who destroys the evidence proving this, imprisons her feeble-minded adopted father, and rules Babylon with an iron fist. The reason for this is the recitative, aria and cabaletta that open the second part of the drama, one of the most fearsome vocal pieces ever written for soprano. Even the convoluted filigree of Mozart’s “Martern aller arten” cannot hold a patch on this set-piece, which has ruined more soprano voices (including that of Verdi’s second wife, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi) than even Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.

I will grant you that no one I’ve ever heard comes close to the recorded performance of 23-year-old Elena Suliotis in the 1967 Decca-London recording of the opera, but the overall performance is weak. I ascribe this to Tito Gobbi’s aging voice and resources in not giving a really commanding performance of the title role, the generally unsympathetic singing of Bruno Prevedi as Ismaele, and the cool, uninvolved conducting of Lamberto Gardelli. Bottom line, it just doesn’t click. But most other sopranos who sing (sang) Abigaille seem to want to make her another Lady Macbeth, which she really isn’t, with the result that the ugliest voices (Callas, Dimitrova) and most vicious vocal attacks (Scotto, Dimitrova) seem to rule the roost. I prefer an Abigaille who sounds strong, determined, even iron-fisted, but not mad or demonic. Remember, she wants Ismaele, who loves her younger sister Fenena, to love her instead, and in her trio with them the ugly and/or forced voice is not going to blend with them. For that reason, too, I didn’t like the 1977 live performance with Cristina Deutekom—one of the greatest lyric-dramatic sopranos who ever trod the stage—as Abigaille. She sang the aria splendidly, but didn’t really build a character, and her unusual, fly-away vibrato simply didn’t and couldn’t mix with anyone else in the cast.

Leo Nucci is not my favorite Italian baritone—far from it. Most of the time he sings with an incipient wobble and, worse yet, slides into his high notes, but for whatever reason he clicked into gear in this performance. More importantly, he interprets this complex role beautifully. Dmitry Beloselsky has a splendid bass voice (despite one slightly hoarse note in “Veni, o Levita”) and does well in a role that really doesn’t call for much more than a splendid bass voice. But the singers who really impressed me tremendously were tenor Antonio Poli as a young, passionate yet likeable Ismaele and the little-known Csilla Boross as a splendid Abigaille, one very much in the mold of Leonie Rysanek (or Deutekom but with a voice than blends better). Yet in the long run, the glue that holds this entire performance together is the conducting of Muti, who really does “own” this opera. Every moment is alive with feeling and meaning, and the whole holds together brilliantly. It is a tour-de-force performance.

So why isn’t it available on CD or DVD? Don’t ask me. Possibly because, aside from Nucci, none of these singers are big names and therefore can’t compete commercially with Muti’s earlier versions of Nabucco. Beloselsky is on only two recordings, one of Shostakovich’s 1933 cartoon music for Balda Sanderling on DG and the other Grigory Alfeyev’s St. Matthew Passion on Melodiya. Boross, Poli and Malavasi have made no commercial recordings. But I’m not interested in someone because of their pedigree. Matteo Managuerra, one of my all-time favorite baritones, is the Nabucco on Muti’s studio recording of the opera, but then we get stuck with Renata Scotto. Siegmund Nimsgern is the Nabucco of the 1977 telecast with Deutekom. Neither one of those early performances are, overall, as fine as this one. So I’m sticking with it. So there!

VERDI: Ernani / Badri Maisuradze, tenor (Ernani); Dimitra Theodosseiu, soprano (Donna Elvira); Carlos Álvarez, baritone (Don Carlos); Carlos Colombara, bass (Ruy Gómez da Silva); Soraya Chaves, soprano (Giovanna); Francisco Vas, tenor (Riccardo); José Manuel Diaz, bass (Jago); Orquestra and Coro Sinfónica de Madrid; Roberto Tolomelli, conductor / available for free online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hbrXzs_Iv8 (Madrid, 2000)

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VERDI: Ernani / Gino Penno, tenor (Ernani); Caterina Mancini, soprano (Donna Elvira); Giuseppe Taddei, baritone (Don Carlos); Giacomo Vaghi, bass (Ruy Gómez de Silva); Licia Rossini, soprano (Giovanna); Vittorio Pandano, tenor (Riccardo); Ezio Achilli, bass (Jago); RAI Roma Orchestra & Chorus; Fernando Previtali, conductor / Warner Fonit-Cetra 256466143-6

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Of Giuseppe Verdi’s first 17 operas, the only ones to hold the stage in anything like a consistent way are Nabucco (No. 3), Ernani (No. 5), Attila (No. 9), Macbeth (No. 10) and Luisa Miller (no. 15), and of these Ernani is much the problem child. Why? Partly because the lead tenor role is a killer and sounds bad when sung by almost any tenor whose name was not Giovanni Martinelli. It lies very high in tessitura, or average range, and in fact the tenor’s very first line—“Mercé, diletti amichi”—lies right around the natural “break” in the voice. As a warm-up piece, it’s horrible and nearly every tenor who sings the role live sounds horrible on that first line. In fact, I’ve yet to hear any tenor (except Martinelli, in a 1915 recording, or Carlo Bergonzi) sound comfortable singing that aria, and the whole role is a strain on the voice. Verdi eventually learned to write more gratefully for the tenor, but I don’t understand why he didn’t go back and rewrite Ernani’s part.

But that’s not all. The soprano role calls for a rare combination of tonal beauty, dramatic excitement and difficult coloratura technique, again in her opening aria (“Ernani, involami…Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani”), and again, most sopranos just don’t have it all. Leontyne Price could sing it neatly and correctly in the recording studio, but onstage she gave more passion than neatness and the technical passages suffered. But the trickiest role is that of Don Carlo. This calls for a baritone who can float phrases, sing elegantly, and yet still open up and give out dramatic passion. The legendary Mattia Battistini left us a superb series of Ernani recordings to show how it should be done, but of all the recordings I’ve heard only the little-known Paolo Coni sings it in a similar fashion, and this on a recording using a tiny orchestra, choris, and other solo voices that just don’t carry the drama properly.

Thus I keep coming back to the two recordings listed above. Neither is perfect but both are closer to the ideal than any other. As usual for the title role, both Gino Penno and Badri Maisuradze sound a bit strained vocally but both give clean, emotional performances. Caterina Mancini, a firebrand who had a good dozen years or so before her voice collapsed, is actually an excellent Elvira though her trill is just a flutter and she slows down passages in her big aria. On the other hand Dimitra Theodosseiu, although having a trill just a little bit better than Mancini’s flutter, has an absolutely outstanding Elvira voice: rich and full with an attractively dark sound yet enough metal to make her high notes ring, and superb subtlety of interpretation. In short, she is everything in the role that Mirella Freni was not. Carlos Álvarez, our Don Carlo, is more of a straightforward singer than I like in the role, but who besides Battistini and Coni isn’t? An oddity in this live performance: when he is right under the microphone his voice sounds steady as a rock, but as he strays away from it a flutter (not quite a wobble) shows up, so it’s obviously not his fault. Basso Carlos Colombara is steady as a rock, and interestingly he shies away from the typical nyah-hah-hah villainy that most other singers (such as Giacomo Vaghi on the Cetra set) give to the character, bringing a more subtle characterization into play.

The real drawback of the Cetra set is the sound. Recorded in the RAI Rome studios, there is a certain amount of “juice” around the voices but the orchestra sounds dull and drab, with almost airless sound. At times, the soft string playing doesn’t even sound like strings, it just sounds like some kind of covered blobby sound in the background. The 2000 Madrid performance, recorded in fairly good (if dry) digital sound, reveals every detail of the orchestration, choral writing and solo singing. You can even hear Silva’s lines in “O sommo Carlo,” a feat that not even Riccardo Muti achieved in his live performance. Granted, in the end I’m still not entirely happy with Maisuradze’s voice—it’s a shade too wiry in timbre for my taste—but as I say, he sings with both sensitivity and passion which puts him far above the super-bland Carlo Bergonzi on both of Leontyne Price’s recordings (live and studio). I guess they used Bergonzi because he was one of the very few tenors who, like Martinelli, didn’t sound strained in that music.

So that is why these recordings only got 4 ½ and 3 ½ fish respectively. On the other hand, no other Ernani performances or recordings satisfy me anywhere near as much as these two. Oh yes, Tolomelli’s conducting is spot on in terms of both tempi and emotional excitement.

VERDI: Messa da Requiem

Zinka Milanov, soprano; Kerstin Thorborg, mezzo-soprano; Helge Rosvaenge, tenor; Nicola Moscona, bass; BBC Choral Society; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / download for free at http://www.abbajustlikethat.comyr.com/1_18_Free-Great-Music.html or https://archive.org/details/VerdiRequiem16LiberaMe

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Herva Nelli, soprano; Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor; Cesare Siepi, bass; Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck9TVzw3bDk (mono) or on Pristine Classical PACO048 (stereo – https://www.pristineclassical.com/paco048.html)

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Leontyne Price, soprano; Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo-soprano; Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass; Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Herbert von Karajan, conductor / available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xl59Gn602hg

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Montserrat Caballé, soprano; Bianca Berini, mezzo-soprano; Placido Domingo, tenor; Paul Plishka, bass; Musica Sacra Chorus; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Zubin Mehta, conductor / stream at https://www.mixcloud.com/Jungfer_Marianne_Leizmetzerin/verdi-requiem-caball%C3%A9-berini-domingo-plishka-new-york-philharminic-mehta-1980-live/ or on Sony Classical 88765456722

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In my humble opinion, and I realize it is just mine, the Messa da Requiem is Giuseppe Verdi’s greatest work. Nothing else even comes close, not Otello, not Falstaff, not Simon Boccanegra, and I love all three of those. We have almost an embarrassment of riches here, four great performances, and this list doesn’t even include the very fine 1948 performance that Toscanini gave with Herva Nelli, Nan Merriman, William McGrath (then just 20 years old!) and Norman Scott. One thing they all have in common, at the time of writing, is that they are all available for free for streaming online, at least the mono version of the 1951 Toscanini. I much prefer the sonics of the stereo version sold by Pristine Classical, but there is one big drawback: in the live performance, Herva Nelli suddenly went flat during the soft section of the “Libera me” and then stopped singing entirely for a bar or two before resuming on key. This mishap was covered in the commercial issue by splicing in that section from the dress rehearsal, but the dress rehearsal wasn’t recorded in stereo, so if you really want to hear it done well you’ll have to buy the stereo recording and then splice in the offending mishap from the mono version.

Many critics and collectors dislike the 1951 Toscanini performance because it is taken somewhat too fast in places (particularly in the “Ingemisco,” which di Stefano complained about to his dying day), but I honestly find it a terrifically exciting performance. Toscanini must have liked it, too, because it was the only Requiem of his he would allow to be issued commercially, but I’m not sure if he ever heard a cleaned-up tape of the 1938 BBC Symphony performance which is simply the most magnificent Requiem ever recorded. Period. And the sound is actually superb for its time; you almost feel as if “you are there.”

The 1967 Karajan performance is a little underpowered in the “Dies irae,” but not too much, and this is undoubtedly the most golden-voiced quartet of singers on any Requiem. Young Pavarotti, then not at all known outside of Italy and not yet sporting his trademark beard and moustache, sings so beautifully that it makes you wonder what dried out his voice, and the others are so good they’ll make you want to cry. They sound as if they’ve been singing together as a quartet for months rather than perhaps a week of rehearsals. The performance does, however, lack a bit of true Verdian grit and energy, typical for Karajan in this work.

The 1980 New York Philharmonic concert captured here was a Requiem I passed over when it was first released because I really don’t much care for Domingo (his voice too often sounds tight and dry to me) and, in my mind, Caballé was about as dramatic as a bowl of stewed prunes. Imagine my surprise, then, to find all four soloists deeply involved dramatically, Caballé included. Before hearing this, I would have bet a week’s salary that she couldn’t sing the “Libera me” dramatically if she tried. Glad I didn’t make the bet. Bianca Berini was one of my favorite Italian mezzos, vastly underrated and under-recorded. I’m not even sure if she’s on any other commercial recording, but she’s great here. Paul Plishka is a little gruff in the opening “Kyrie eleison,” but he warms up by the time he has to sing “Mors stupebit” and is excellent from there on. And for once, Mehta seemed to be channeling Toscanini and not Furtwängler, because his tempos and energy are spot-on.

You might notice, however, that this is where my recommendations stop. I haven’t heard any other digitally-recorded Requiem that comes within a mile of the Mehta performance, and that was a looooonnnggg time ago. But who cares when you have these four to go by? Obviously, if modern sonics are what you’re after, the Mehta is the one you’ll want, but I still say that 1938 Toscanini performance can’t be beat. Milanov, in particular, just soars in the upper range, her high notes gleaming like a silver sword. It was a sound she had already lost by the time she did it again with Toscanini in 1940 in New York. And the sheer energy and continuity of this performance will have you hanging on every note. Even the Toscanini-bashers among British critics at the time couldn’t get over this performance. That’s how good it is. Note that only Toscanini and Mehta achieve that incredible “mushroom cloud” effect, with the tympani and brasses thundering away under the soloists and chorus, at the end of the “Rex tremendae.” Everyone else sounds weak and ineffective by comparison.

VERDI: Rigoletto / Marcelo Álvarez, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Peter Autry, tenor (Borsa); Paolo Gavanelli, baritone (Rigoletto); Dervia Ramsay, soprano (Countess Ceprano); Graeme Broadbent, baritone (Count Ceprano); Giovan Batista Parodi, bass (Monterone); Eric Halvarson, bass (Sparafucile); Christine Schäfer, soprano (Gilda); Elizabeth Sikora, mezzo (Giovanna); Quentin Hayes, baritone (Marullo); Graciela Araya, mezzo (Maddalena); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus; Sir Edward Downes, conductor / Opus Arte 6005 (DVD)

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Except for Eric Halvarson’s slightly infirm Sparafucile, you cannot find a more perfectly sung, conducted and acted Rigoletto anywhere else on earth. The visual production, though not really “Regietheater,” tends to overdo the debauchery in the Duke’s court, particularly in Scene 1, but for the most part I like the fact that the director pretty much stuck to period and brought out the dark gloom of the piece. Too many people tend to think of Rigoletto as a rollicking tune-fest, and to an extent it is, but there’s a really, really black-hearted story under all that surface glitter and this production and cast bring it out.

Happily, the stars of this show really are the stars of the show. Gavanelli doesn’t have anywhere near the vocal resources of a Leonard Warren, Piero Cappuccilli or Giuseppe Taddei, but he manages his voice with great sensitivity and intelligence. Álvarez has never sung with a more suave line or ingratiating tone: his performance is, except for the interpolated high B in “La donna me mobile,” sheer perfection. Yet it is Christine Schäfer who so completely molds her voice to the many demands of the role of Gilda that one is left speechless at her achievement. Here, at long last, is a Gilda who sounds young but not insipid (pace young Lina Pagliughi in 1927), touching but not blubbering sobs, and for once showing the audience that the reason she sacrificed herself was not for altruistic purposes but becaue she didn’t believe in killing someone for her own gullibility. Gilda is willing to sacrifice herself not to save the “handsome Duke” but because she now feels that her own life means nothing. You can hear it all in her “Lassu in cielo,” singing her farewell to her father as she hastens to join her mother in heaven. The dark, grimy life she and her father have had to lead are anathema to her, and she simply wanted to end it all.

And then there is the late Edward Downes, surely one of the most underrated Verdi conductors who ever lived. His pacing and shaping of this “simple” yet difficult score is perfect, and that’s saying something. The only other conductor who came close to this achievement was Richard Bonynge, and he failed because he had to keep slowing down to allow his klunker of a wife muddle her way through the role of Gilda. If you love this performance as much as I do, you may want to do what I did, which was to also rip the audio and burn audio CDs to play when you don’t feel the need to watch it too. The performance is that good. The reason I only gave it 4 ½ fish was because of Halvarson, nothing else.

By the way, honorable mention goes to a splendid and little-known 1977 film performance with Margarita Rinaldi as Gilda, Franco Bonisolli as the Duke and Rolando Panerai as Rigoletto with Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducting. The pacing and shaping of the opera isn’t quite on the same level of intensity as Downes, but it’s still very good, and to watch Panerai crawl around the stage like a huge human spider is at once stunning and a bit chilling. Bonisolli is a real SOB of a Duke—the best acting job I’ve ever seen in this role—and Rinaldi is almost as touching as Schäfer. You can see it for free here.

VERDI: Rigoletto / Bidú Sayão, soprano (Gilda); Leonard Warren, baritone (Rigoletto); Jussi Björling, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Thelma Lipton, mezzo-soprano (Maddalena); Norman Cordon, bass (Sparafucile); Richard Manning, tenor (Borsa); George Cehanovsky, baritone (Marullo); Thelma Altman, mezzo (Giovanna); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Cesare Sodero, conductor / Naxos 8.110051-52 (2 CDs, mono, live performance, December 29, 1945)

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This is not normally the kind of performance I find musically valid or interesting. For one thing, it’s heavily cut, missing not only “Posente amor mi chamo” but several little cuts in the duets and scenes. For another, the tempos are occasionally pulled back to allow the singer to be “expressive,” particularly tenor Jussi Björling who apparently loved to indulge in decelerandi and tempo rubato when the mood hit him to stretch out a high note and show off his breath control. Moreover, Björling was no actor and thus doesn’t present a character; all he does is sing, mostly loudly and enthusiastically. But what a gorgeous voice he had back then! And how gratefully his tone strikes the ear after decades of listening to Placido Domingo strain and struggle his way through most of the tenor (and baritone) repertoire!

More to the point, as odd as it sounds, everything that is done in this performance works. The only other point when I said to myself, “That tempo is just plain wrong” was the beginning of “Si, vendetta,” which Warren takes very, very slowly, but then gradually increases until it reaches the proper speed. By the end of the duet I realized that what he did was dramatically effective: he gave the impression that the idea of revenge slowly came to Rigoletto, that Gilda realized this and, in shock, tried to dissuade him, but as the duet goes on and the tempo increases so too does his resolve. It’s a bit stagey, I admit, but Leonard Warren was such a great artist that I gave him a pass on this (by the way, he sang the duet exactly the same way about a decade later in a performance with soprano Mado Robin). Just listen to the way Warren shape and molds Rigoletto’s emerging personality, from the bluff, cynical jester of Act 1, Scene 1 to a man frightened of being cursed, then listen to the way he colors both “Pari siamo” and especially “Cortigianni, vil razza dannata” with the sensitivity of a lieder singer and a dramatic interpretation worthy of Chaliapin. I am an inveterate Warren fan, and I’ve heard him come close to this kind of brinkmanship on some of his commercial recordings, but really nothing quite as dynamic and “alive” as he sounds here.

The other surprise to me was Bidú Sayão, whose singing I generally find overly coy and precious. In her performances as Mimi, Zerlina, Juliette et al, I find her capricious tempo-stretching and little “ah-hoo” sobs that break up the vocal line not merely calculated but annoying. Not so here. Surprisingly, her very alive and realistic-sounding response to the changing dramatic situation perfectly mirrors the mind and psyche of a 16-year-old yong woman who has been sheltered all her life but has now been defiled and, for the first time in her life, deceived and betrayed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the orchestral passage immediately following the “Cortigianni” when she runs out to join her father onstage. Sayão’s crying at this exact moment sounds theatrically valid and natural, and she does us the favor of not overdoing it or continuing to do it throughout her duet or in “Tutte la feste.” I give credit for a lot of this to Warren, who (as reputation has it) simply would not abide overly-precious or stretched-out performances.

Sodero’s conducting, though allowing Björling (and, very occasionally, Sayão) to stretch the tempo, is surprisingly taut. Moreover, he captures perfectly the dark, menacing mood of the opera, which so many conductors miss. (Others who captured it well were Tullio Serafin, Richard Bonynge and Edward Downes). I discovered that Sodero had been a pupil of the famed Italian composer-conductor Giuseppe Martucci, that when he came to America he became Thomas Edison’s “house conductor” for his operatic records between 1913 and 1925, and then spent several years working in radio. He came to the Met when Ettore Panizza retired in the early 1940s, but didn’t live to enjoy his success too long, as he died in 1947, aged only 62.

I listed the Naxos Historical issue here because it seems to be the one most easly available, but it is also available on a Sony Classical release…but, I think, only in the boxed set “Verdi at the Met,” since I have not been able to locate any independent issue of Rigoletto. This is a shame, as the official Met-Sony release has the clearer sound.

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra / Leonard Warren, baritone (Paolo); Louis d’Angelo, bass (Pietro); Lawrence Tibbett, baritone (Simon); Ezio Pinza, bass (Jacopo Fiesco); Elisabeth Rethberg, soprano (Amelia/Maria); Giovanni Martinelli, tenor (Gabriele Adorno); Angelo Bada, tenor (Captain); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Ettore Panizza, conductor / Immortal Performances IPCD 1031-2 (live, 1/21/1939)

5-fish

Here’s a very rare case where an ancient mono broadcast is by far the best performance of this opera. Ettore Panizza, one of Toscanini’s assistants at La Scala in the 1920s, was head of the Italian wing of the Metropolitan from the mid-1930s until 1941, and although he sometimes had a penchant for roller-coaster tempos (now too slow, now too fast, now just right), his conducting here is spot-on and dramatic from first note to last. And this cast simply cannot be beat, not in any of the roles…just imagine, Leonard Warren as Paolo! It’s not even that the voices themselves are excellent. Everyone interprets his or her part superbly, possibly the biggest surprises being Ezio Pinza’s highly dramatic Jacopo Fiesco and Rethberg’s on-the-edge Amelia. You almost never hear Amelia sung with this kind of penetrating dramatic thrust and flawless technique. I know there are many out there who despise Martinelli’s voice, which bloomed in the house but almost always sounded tight and pinched when captured by a microphone, but to me he is splendid. And in my view, this was Tibbett’s greatest role, bar none. Richard Caniell of Immortal Performances has done a good job of cleaning this up as much as is possible to provide a relatively (but not entirely) noise-free listening experience, so it gets 5 fish despite being mono and sub-par mono at that.

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra / Vassily Gerello, baritone (Paolo); Richard Bernstein, bass (Pietro); Thomas Hampson, baritone (Simon); Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass (Jacopo Fiesco); Angela Gheorghiu, soprano (Amelia/Maria); Marcello Giordani, tenor (Gabriele Adorno); Rosemary Nencheck, mezzo (Maid); Roy Cornelius Smith, tenor (Captain); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Fabio Luisi, conductor / try to find it yourself (live, 3/3/2007)

5-fish

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra / Felice Schiavi, baritone (Paolo); Giovanni Fioani, bass (Pietro); Piero Cappuccilli, baritone (Simon); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Jacopo Fiesco); Mirella Freni, soprano (Amelia/Maria); Veriano Luchetti, tenor (Gabriele Adorno); Milena Pauli, mezzo (Maid); Gianfranco Manganotti, tenor (Captain); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Claudio Abbado, conductor / available free at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s89cFWVDGeE (part 1) & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zctoMumwRrg (part 2) (live, 1978)

4-fish

The stereo and digital recordings of Boccanegra are more of a problem. Considered critical opinion says that the DG studio recording with Piero Cappuccilli, Mirella Freni, José Carreras and conductor Claudio Abbado is the berries, but to me it’s just unrelentingly loud, and as I once argued for many moons with an ex-friend of mine, shouting and yelling is not an interpretation. Unfortunately, many Verdi-lovers want big, brassy voices in these roles to the expense of subtlety of acting and interpretation, so if that is your thing go for it. Personally, I prefer the live 1978 performance with almost the same cast except for the major replacement of the great Veriano Luchetti as Gabriele in place of Carreras. I still, however, only give it four fish because to my ears it’s still mostly loud, monotonous singing, although Abbado’s conducting is splendid.

So why is it listed second here? Because I taped the live Met broadcast of March 3, 2007 with singers that everyone else hated, Thomas Hampson as Simon and Angela Gheorghiu as Amelia/Maria. The reason they were hated was that their voices were relatively small for their roles—and, in addition, Hampson’s soft-grained baritone lacks ring or “squillo.” Yet these two great artists give, for me, the finest interpretations of their roles since Tibbett and Rethberg (although Gheorghiu lacks a real trill, as do most Amelias). Moreover, Marcello Giordani and Ferruccio Furlanetto sing their hearts out as Jacopo and Gabriele, and Fabio Luisi’s conducting—criticized by some listeners as being too fast—sounds just right to me. But since you might not be able to find a copy of it anywhere (even such famous pirate companies as Premiere Opera didn’t bother to issue it because so many Verdi fans carped about Hampson and Gheorghiu) it remains, for many, a “phantom” recording. You can hear the Amelia-Boccanegra duet here, however.

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