Il TROVATORE on Disc:
the Strongest Entries

 


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The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK

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IL TROVATORE ON DISC: THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

--Geoffrey Riggs

1. THE TOP SETS

I've found that two sets of Il Trovatore tend to be singled out more frequently than any others, and I find myself in agreement that these two are head and shoulders over any others, fine as some of the others are.

The two are (in chronological order) a monaural set made for RCA in 1952 with Jussi Bjoerling (Manrico, the "troubadour" of the title), Fedora Barbieri (Azucena), Zinka Milanov (Leonora) and Leonard Warren (Di Luna), and a "live" performance at Salzburg from 1962, now available on DG (I have an earlier pressing on GALA), with Franco Corelli (Manrico), Giulietta Simionato (Azucena), Leontyne Price (Leonora) and Ettore Bastianini (Di Luna). Renato Cellini conducts the RCA set and Herbert Von Karajan the Salzburg DG (to be distinguished, BTW, from other studio DG sets with Bergonzi, Domingo et al).

The two sets could not draw a more striking contrast, and it's a sign of the greatness of this opera that it can accommodate two such widely different approaches. It is also a tribute to the superb conviction in both these recordings that each of them, distinct as they are, can make one forget every other interpretation while one is under either's spell. Everyone is in fine voice on both.

Where the RCA is all poetry and elegant song, the DG is all fire and passion. Where the RCA boasts utterly natural, unobtrusive conducting from Cellini that facilitates the singers projecting their lines with the ease of cultivated speech, the DG has in Karajan a veritable ringleader who charges up his flamboyant principals into feats of sheer daring and brio that take the breath away. Mystery rules on the RCA, but spontaneity wins out for DG. The RCA can make one cry. The DG can make one cheer. One is poetry, the other theater. They are perfect opposites. Typical of this is the contrast between Jussi Bjoerling's Manrico and Franco Corelli's. Bjoerling's is a considerably more lyrical sound than Corelli's, but he has a true grasp of the bel canto style and is ever the alert musician. He does not bring as personal a sense of himself in portraying the role, though. Corelli's greater vocal power may be closer to the kind of vocal persona that Verdi had in mind, and his engagement with the character is far more intense, while his musicianship and grasp of bel canto phrasing is not impeccable.

In Fedora Barbieri on the Bjoerling/Cellini and Giulietta Simionato on the Corelli/Karajan, we have the two finest Azucenas of their day, Barbieri superb at evoking the terror surrounding this character, Simionato superb at revealing its humanity. But that doesn't mean that humanity is somehow shortchanged in Barbieri or terror shortchanged in Simionato. It is simply a matter of where the chief emphasis lies in each artist. They each have the same gift of making the listener forget any other reading of the role in the way they make each moment in the music wholly theirs.

In Zinka Milanov on the Bjoerling/Cellini, we have arguably the most completely satisfying Leonora on disc. With her intrinsically caressing tones, the ease and flexibility of her singing, the radiance and amplitude throughout, the soaring top notes, the loveliness of her pianissimo and the strength of her low, this is a Leonora whom I have yet to hear equalled, let alone surpassed. But Leontyne Price's Leonora with Corelli/Karajan does come awfully close. If we except a less than telling low in Price, many of Milanov's virtues are also Price's, the lovely and puissant sounds in Price's instrument providing both a depth of human feeling and a shimmering beauty that, as with Milanov, reveal both the drama and the full beauty in Verdi's music.

Very few Verdi baritones have the richness of sound heard in both Leonard Warren on the Bjoerling/Cellini and Ettore Bastianini on the Corelli/Karajan. Di Luna's music does not strike me as being so infinitely expressive as Verdi's writing for the other principals. But what Di Luna's music does require -- rich easy legato and a ringing top, plus an ability to evoke raw power -- Warren and Bastianini each supply in abundance.

I've never been able to make a choice between these two sets, and I wouldn't want to. I'm glad I can hear both any time.

2. COMPLETER SETS

All that said, one should be aware that both these sets have certain traditional cuts that were long standard.

So if you want to have almost as compelling a set that will include much more of the music -- although not quite literally complete -- two others are worth checking out: Karajan's early mono set (EMI, 1956) with Giuseppe Di Stefano (Manrico), Fedora Barbieri (Azucena), Maria Callas (Leonora) and Rolando Panerai (Di Luna); and the best-conducted studio set of all, featuring Maestro Tullio Serafin at the podium, with Carlo Bergonzi (Manrico), Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena), Antonietta Stella (Leonora) and Ettore Bastianini (Di Luna) (a stereo release on DG, 1962).

Vocally, neither of these are as consistently satisfying as the two "winners", but they are viable sets that are worthwhile for their clear, honest presentation of the original structure of Verdi's score.

The '56 Karajan is a dramatically engrossing heartfelt reading from everyone all the way through, and Barbieri's Azucena shows somewhat more technical authority, including the requisite trills, than on the '52 RCA, even though her general vocalism, per se, is not as fresh and sweeping.

Don't look for the vocal authority of a Bjoerling or a Corelli in Di Stefano. In fact, there are places where one can hear him straining his voice quite a bit. But he does bring extraordinary sincerity and unfailing tenderness to his music. Callas too is under some vocal strain, although she's actually in somewhat better control all the same than Di Stefano here, IMO. And interpretively, I've always found her Leonora quite the most compelling of them all. Ultimately, it is the contributions of the two divas here that put the cap on the unfailing drama of this set.

The '62 Serafin set is distinguished most by conducting that is unsurpassed by anyone but Serafin himself elsewhere (see below) and by the sheer authority of its two brothers: Bergonzi's Manrico and Bastianini's Di Luna are much more assured than their counterparts on the '56 Karajan. OTOH, the drama is not as vivid here as on the '56 Karajan, primarily because Cossotto's Azucena and Stella's Leonora do not bring the same individuality to these roles that we hear in Barbieri and Callas.

Bergonzi's vocal power is roughly equidistant between Bjoerling's and Corelli's. His scrupulous adherence to the bel canto music is striking, and his reading of the music otherwise is unusually sensitive and imaginative, IMO. For a combination of bel canto sufficiency, variety of shading, genuine Italianate warmth, and ever-alert musicianship, Bergonzi may bring together just about the most complete package heard anywhere in this role. He may not establish any benchmarks in any one area, but many would claim that his is the Manrico with the fewest flaws. Tullio Serafin leads the most imaginative, as well as the most natural and cohesive, account of the score yet heard in any high-fidelity recording. A shame that Stella's rich-voiced Leonora not only fails to match the vividness of Callas with Karajan but cannot really compete with many other better-disciplined accounts on disc. But, though Cossotto's Azucena also lacks some personality, it's intriguing hearing this sumptuously sung Azucena at a point when it was still developing into the grand imposing finished interpretation heard in the next recording.

Not quite as compelling as the '56 Karajan or the '62 Serafin but the least problematic of those few sets that are literally complete would be a certain stereo RCA set from ca. 1970: Placido Domingo (Manrico), Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena), Leontyne Price (Leonora) and Sherrill Milnes (Di Luna). Zubin Mehta conducts.

Some fans whom I know find certain things wrong with this recording. It does not seem to have the full vividness of feeling and inner compulsion heard in the greatest Trovatores. Moreover, although its title role is sung by a very young Domingo with both the requisite darker melancholy colors needed for the part and the basic mechanical facility needed for the bel canto pyrotechnics higher up, Domingo, nevertheless, does not have, IMO, even when young, quite the kind of ringing sense of abandon that is ideal for Manrico, and which we hear somewhat more of in Bjoerling and in abundance in Corelli, nor the full variety of shading and dynamics heard in the greatest Manricos.

But this set can still be regarded as a "reference" recording musically, and I admit I will sometimes check up a certain passage in this work by cueing up this recording before others when I don't have the energy to find my score and open it up the way I should;-) That's how reliable this set is. I just know I can depend on it as a reading of Verdi's music, neat.

And in Cossotto's fully matured Azucena, we have one of the most commanding accounts of Azucena's music, all her music and nothing but her music, on disc, encompassing a ringing high C in Act II.

Then there is another set that is "completer than complete". It's on DECCA/ London, and it features Luciano Pavarotti, Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland and Ingvar Wixell. Richard Bonynge conducts. The chief virtues in this set lie in its respect for the bel canto aspects of the score and in the reclamation (at least in the LP edition, not certain re the CD) of the Act III ballet that Verdi wrote for the Paris revision. Not even the Mehta has this section, and even though this ballet is hardly top-drawer Verdi and is not part of the original opera, it's valuable having a well-recorded, uncut reading of this sequence.

Pavarotti's Manrico has virtues somewhat similar to Bjoerling's. At the same time, although Pavarotti brings greater warmth than Bjoerling to much of the music, that is offset by Pavarotti's tendency to less vocal resilience and energy. Also, although Pavarotti's instrument does have a somewhat warmer timbre, his musicianship isn't quite so secure. On the plus side, unlike Bjoerling (at least on the Cellini set), Pavarotti does deliver a pair of neat trills, as well as meshing well with his distinguished bel canto Leonora throughout. In fact, Sutherland's Leonora delivers the coloratura as brilliantly as anyone on disc. The same is true of Horne as Azucena.

This set does not have the kind of electricity heard in the Salzburg, nor the warmth and tenderness of the Cellini, but it occupies a niche as one of the best-mannered, vocally, of all the recordings available. One only wishes Wixell's Di Luna had a richer tone. Also, more critically, the conducting does not even have the brio or the individuality of Mehta's, let alone Cellini's or von Karajan's. (Of course, no one's compares to Serafin's.)

3. SINGER SETS

Now we come to a richly populated crop of recordings, which, for some listeners, are just as special in their way as the fine ensemble ones already cited, but which I might suggest are better for those listeners who already have a nodding acquaintance with the work from other more generally consistent performances across the board (like the above).

To understand the point of such sets, one must also understand that Trovatore is, above all, a singer's opera, and for many listeners, they will select whatever set may provide -- for them -- the single most satisfying reading of a single role. Clearly, the title role, Manrico, is a key factor. But Verdi himself regarded Azucena as the prima donna of the piece, and at the same time, many view a Trovatore as pointless unless the Leonora is utterly superb. (Even though I do view the pecking order of importance of the top three roles as being Manrico/Azucena/Leonora, most do not heed the composer and instead regard the pecking order as Manrico/Leonora/Azucena; I do concede the point that, for sheer complexity of vocalism, Leonora may well be the most bewildering to master properly.) One also needs a commanding presence at the podium, but one which will also give the singers their head at the most emotional moments. Surprisingly, this is not that easy to find, so the existence of sets distinguished most by an alert conductor are valuable and worth some scrutiny.

This "niche" class can arguably be divided into four groups: great Manrico sets, great Azucena sets, great Leonora sets (I don't know of any who stake their choice on the Di Luna, but you never know.....) and great conductor sets.

4. MANRICO SETS

Manrico requires -- ideally -- a spinto (full-bodied, ample-toned, trumpeting) kind of tenor with long breath, pealing top notes, a responsive low register and adept bel canto facility, including a good trill. The only genuinely spinto tenor of the past century who also started out with bel canto roles like Arturo in Puritani, etc., is Giacomo Lauri-Volpi of the '20s and '30s and '40s. Other than Lauri-Volpi, one either has relative lyric tenors with some bel canto finesse or true spintos who must sacrifice some of the bel canto requirements.

Unfortunately -- IMHO -- Lauri-Volpi recorded the role too late in his career to do full justice to what had evidently been an exceptional assumption during his prime. But we do have early excerpts from his prime that show convincingly just how special a Manrico this phenomenon was.

As to the two complete recordings, rather than being smack dab in the '20s or '30s, Lauri-Volpi can only be heard in the early '50s, when, among other things, his bel canto attainments seem compromised -- again, IMHO. One recording is a "live" performance opposite Callas (1951) and the other is a radio studio performance from around the same time. From the standpoint of Lauri-Volpi, the radio studio recording (it was made for Cetra, and Miriam Pirazzini and Caterina Mancini are the Azucena and Leonora, with Fernando Previtali conducting) may be somewhat preferable.

What remains special about L.-V.'s Manrico, even here, is the sheer authenticity of his sound, up to still ringing top notes even at this late stage in his career. The voice as a "face" and as an aural persona is Manrico. It's as simple as that. And when we consider that L.-V.'s training stretches back to mentors who walked the earth when Verdi still lived and influenced things, the special historic value of Lauri-Volpi's recording is readily apparent. There is nothing puny about Lauri-Volpi's recorded Manrico. It is Grandissimo (however occasionally tattered).

Other Manricos of L.-V.'s generation managed to record Trovatore while still in their prime: Aureliano Pertile and Francesco Merli. Both their recordings come from 1930. Pertile's reading is full of nuance and ferment, at times delicate and tender, at times violent and somewhat unmusical for some. He does not have the ease of vocal abundance of a Lauri-Volpi (who does?). But there are a hundred and one colors in his voice, and he uses them all. His is one of the most individual interpretations you'll ever hear. Just don't expect clean vocalism. His set is enhanced by the stunning Azucena of Irene Minghini-Cataneo and the fine Di Luna of Apollo Granforte but encumbered by a sub-par Leonora.

Merli is one of my personal favorites. Though not as richly nuanced as Pertile, he is still fully engaged in the part and somewhat more musical. And his voice is (almost) as authentic an instrument for the role as Pertile's. There is nothing, either dramatically or vocally, that is slipshod in this Manrico. He may not have the solid bel canto facility of Domingo, but he does not bend phrases out of shape the way some others do. And he projects an affecting personality throughout. This is as solid and musical a reading as we can expect from a genuinely spinto tenor who is not the young Lauri-Volpi. His colleagues, though, do not match Pertile's.

5. MANRICOS OF A LATER GENERATION

Once one understands that the choices for Manrico in later generations veer between the fuller lyrics with true bel canto facility and the spintos with (usually) deeper empathy for such a heroic role but less bel canto facility, it's easier to range some of the conflicting choices along clearer lines. Going back to the two classic sets first recommended at the top, Bjoerling is a very full lyric with impeccable musicianship, elegant and truly bel canto phrasing, while Corelli is the swashbuckling hero incarnate with a tingling sense of doom throughout and boundless heroic energy in the voice. Neither give us everything that the younger Lauri-Volpi evidently gave, but they each throw themselves into what they can do with unstinting dedication. At his best, Bjoerling sang the bel canto intricacies of the part more adeptly than anyone, IMO, while Corelli gave more of a sense of pure romance than any other spinto, IMO. They balance each other in their equal supremacy in what they, uniquely, could offer.

Yet, though both do a fine job in the two top sets cited above, their very finest Manricos are to be heard elsewhere.

For Bjoerling at his most adept, trills (absent in the classic RCA/Cellini), pianissimi and all, his one unique Manrico, featuring a more scrupulous reading of Manrico's music than I have heard anywhere else, is a "live" 1939 performance from Covent Garden, conducted by Vittorio Gui. (This is available only on certain specialty labels, Legato, Bel Canto, Urania, and so on.) Nothing in Manrico's music is shirked, and this is not only a triumph of purely musical conscience, Bjoerling brings a heartfelt commitment and breathtaking imagination to his singing here that was not always associated with him. It may not be merely the finest Manrico of his career but the finest extant example of his singing, period. Unforgettable. The sound quality of this broadcast is strictly so-so.

Corelli's finest Manrico, IMO, comes a few months after the landmark DG broadcast with Von Karajan. Instead of the summer of '62, we go to December of '62, Opening Night at La Scala, with Gianandrea Gavazzeni in the pit. (For a while, this performance was available on a Melodram CD.) Here, Corelli gives us his most simpatico and his most imaginative reading.

Frankly, I also feel that, in many ways, this performance may be the closest to what Lauri-Volpi might have given us in his prime. Clearly, the one ingredient missing may be the fully authentic response to the bel canto graces heard in Lauri-Volpi's earliest Bellini (et al) records. Corelli cannot give us quite that kind of suppleness. But he is hardly sparing of some ravishing pianissimos, ambitiously molded -- and long! -- phrases, imaginative nuances and intimate tendernesses that bring the humanness of the role alive as no one else has, I feel.

Corelli gives one the sense that he will never settle. Everything comes from "inside", so to speak, in the same alive way that Pertile makes one feel that Manrico is always "in the moment" -- with the advantage that Corelli is capable of greater vocal suavity, not least because his instrument is simply so sumptuous. This Dec. '62 Manrico occupies as unique a position in its way as the '39 Bjoerling.

One other Manrico of the LP era splits the difference between Bjoerling and Corelli, and for that reason, some listeners view him as a better compromise than Bjoerling or Corelli, even though he may not be as charismatic an artist (though some would dispute that): Richard Tucker.

Personally, I view Tucker's recording (1959, under Basile) as having come somewhat late for him -- not in terms of vocal "chops", as his voice seems in good control, but in terms of musical approach. There is something stern and clipped about it, IMHO: his Italian can be percussive, and the stance is definitely more that of the warrior than the lover or the "troubadour". That said, the voice is undeniably spinto, although not quite as powerful-sounding in this recording as Corelli's, despite its being closer in size to Corelli's than to Bjoerling's. And wonder of wonders, his basic bel canto assurance throughout the role, including two sturdy trills, places him in a musical league with Bjoerling and Domingo, neither of whom have quite such ringing and powerful tones as Tucker has. Tucker's is the most powerful-voiced reading available to follow all the bel canto intricacies.

6. AZUCENA SETS

For me, Irene Minghini-Cataneo, Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato and, as heard with Mehta, Fiorenza Cossotto are, chronologically, the first four of the top five Azucenas on disc. There is one very special Simionato set yet to go before we get to that fifth great Azucena: Simionato's stereo DECCA/LONDON set from the '50s. This is actually quite well-recorded, and it captures the sound of all three of its principals vividly and naturally. Mario Del Monaco is Manrico, Giulietta Simionato is Azucena and the Leonora is Renata Tebaldi. Unfortunately, the Di Luna is distinctly sub-par.......

Though Barbieri's Azucena is sui generis for its evocation of the terror that surrounds this character and the deep rich tones that she can draw on, Simionato's is notable for an even wider range of vocal shading. She may not have quite so imposing a sound, but it is certainly very strong, and it encompasses a bigger range, facilitating an exciting high C (it's in the score!) at the conclusion of Act II, Scene 1. Simionato eschews the high C in her later performances, and Barbieri skirts around it in all her recordings. Equally striking, IMO, despite the impressive size of her voice, Simionato's control over the bel canto reqs. in her role shows considerable fluency. At least, it is certainly more fluent than Barbieri's in '52 if not Barbieri's more technically disciplined, less vocally easy, self later on. Yet even at her best, Simionato, musically and technically, is not quite so impeccable as Cossotto. On the other hand, I personally find Simionato much more expressive than Cossotto, heartfelt as the latter is. Simionato's combination of some bel canto sufficiency, an abundance of dramatic insight, proper strength for the climaxes, and an easy top, as heard in the Del Monaco set, arguably make her unique among recorded Azucenas. She is "assisted";-) by a Manrico (Del Monaco) who has to be the most powerful-voiced Manrico anywhere on disc(!), albeit one with nowhere near as much imagination or tenderness as Corelli, Pertile, Merli, or Lauri-Volpi.

A latter-day representation of Azucena's music come scritto is heard in the fifth great Azucena on disc: Dolora Zajick on a state-of-the-art SONY CD made in the early 1990s. While not as individual a reading as Simionato's, Zajick's Azucena reflects a sheer technical mastery that is superior. In fact, it is fully on a Cossotto level, complete with crisp trills, assured flexibility throughout and an easy high C. This set as a whole is not as satisfactory, though, as any of the Cossotto sets, entirely because of Zajick's generally less preferable colleagues. James Levine does an effective job at the podium, but Domingo's Manrico is heard past its best, and Millo's Leonora, while occasionally affecting, does not have the full flexibility of other great ones. Vladimir Chernov sings Di Luna. Ultimately, this set is chiefly valuable for being the best-engineered recording to provide a fully satisfactory rendition of Azucena's music.

7. LEONORA SETS

There is a studio recording of Il Trovatore released by EMI with Franco Corelli, Giulietta Simionato, Gabriella Tucci and Robert Merrill (Thomas Schippers conducting) - with the choir and orchestra of the Teatro dell'opera di Roma. The set was made in 1964.

To dispose of my two pet peeves here first: although Corelli is hardly monochromatic here(!), I find that he lacks the full range of dynamic nuance and shading heard from him in one or two "live" performances. Most important, IMO, he lacks the full tenderness he brought to the role elsewhere. It just seems more intermittent to me. And I'm bothered by that.

My other peeve is Giulietta Simionato, whose Azucena at its best (on the Del Monaco recording on DECCA/LONDON) vies with Fedora Barbieri's as one of the most probing interpretations to be heard anywhere. But on this Corelli/Schippers set made in 1964, she strikes me as sadly worn. The silver lining, though, is that -- unlike the flaws in Corelli here -- Simionato's failings here are somewhat more in line with the character. One can sort of tie it into an admittedly stirring dramatic reading. But there's so much more than that plus the same drama in her earlier renditions. Ideally, Corelli and Simionato could be a deeply stirring son/"mother" partnership. But what looks good on paper doesn't fully come off. To hear these two together in representative form, stick with the Salzburg.

And what's good here? The deeply affecting and musical Leonora of Gabriella Tucci and the rich enveloping tones of Robert Merrill as Di Luna. In fact, Act IV, Scene 1 pairs the two of them unforgettably. Tucci, though without quite the vocal amplitude of some other great Leonoras, is in masterly control, IMO, and brings both musical genius and heartfelt warmth to the role. Every phrase that she sings here she clearly believes. Quite an artist. This is why I count this as primarily a "Leonora set".

And when she's matched up with Merrill in IV, 1, we can savor the yin of Merrill's sumptuous vocalism to the yang of Tucci's soulful phrasing. Merrill was quite simply the most sumptuous baritone voice I've ever heard in person. One was not always aware of his trying to be loud, yet at the same time, when he sang, the tone seemed to be everywhere. It was thrilling: easy, utterly natural, rolling. And I have to say this Trovatore is one of the best documents of the sheer sound of that voice ever made.

Even more deeply stirring is the Leonora of Leyla Gencer in 1957. She is heard in a "live" RAI broadcast opposite Mario Del Monaco's Manrico (heard here in finer form than on the Simionato/Tebaldi set) and Fedora Barbieri's Azucena (sounding roughly the same as on the Di Stefano recording). Ettore Bastianini sings Di Luna. This entire performance is a solid, energetic reading, led by Fernando Previtali, where nothing much goes amiss, and everyone is in authoritative form. I may not find it as uniformly incandescent as the top two, but, at the same time, I would gladly find it the equal of the Di Stefano, the DG Bergonzi and the Domingo/Mehta sets if only the traditional cuts were opened up here.

What remains indelible is Gencer's youthful Leonora, and it's nice to hear a Leonora of this stature surrounded by a generally more assured cast all around than Tucci has on the more uneven Schippers. Incandescent is precisely what Gencer's Leonora becomes during this performance, although she takes her time getting there. There are distinct pitch problems early on, and a fair amount of aspirating as well. Her first scene has its flaws, no question. But she is already deeply in the character, and her vocalism improves markedly in Acts II and III. Then, in the crucial fourth-act aria, her vivid longing in the vocal "face", the genuinely expressive trills and the gossamer pianissimi combine for an impact that places her level with the finest interpreters of this scene on disc. She continues strong throughout the final act and sets her stamp on this performance. This is that rare thing: a "Leonora" set that has no egregious flaws otherwise, even though Gencer outshines everyone else, IMO.

There remains Maria Callas. Although there are tentative moments in her commercially recorded set under Karajan opposite Di Stefano, no such problems are heard in her earliest and most spontaneous Trovatore ("live"). Some prefer one or two later ones, but I feel her earliest Trovatore really shows her at her most fluent (she never equalled her earliest breakneck reading of the conclusion of Act IV, Scene 1). Here, we have spontaneity, intelligence, vocal amplitude, a huge range, impeccable technical control, astounding musicianship, crackling verbal projection, and the easiest agility rolled into one. It's a shame that artistry of this magnitude had to crumble away so fast and so precipitously.

This first Callas Trovatore is from Mexico City in 1950. And her Di Luna is none other than Leonard Warren. If there is any rendition of IV, 1 that rivals the Tucci/Merrill performance, or the readings heard on the Bjoerling/Cellini and the Corelli/Karajan sets, it's the Callas/Warren one heard here. The overused word "electrifying" fully applies. And Simionato is once more heard as a fresh and vibrant Azucena!

The catch? Three, and they're biggies.

The sound is only so-so.

The conducting is pretty uninspired, IMO.

And some readers may have read one or two disparaging remarks from others concerning the Manrico heard here: Kurt Baum. Very frankly, IMHO, those barbs are sometimes deserved. Honestly, long before I read any such remarks myself, I always looked on Baum as essentially a high C and not much more. Of course, his high C is quite good, and that's nothing to sneeze at. But so much of this role, outside of Manrico's big scena, has an almost baritonal tessitura, and this writing cruelly exposes the relative unevenness of Baum's vocalism elsewhere. This set is useful primarily for its accomplished and compelling Leonora and a happy partnership with a fine Di Luna.

8. A CONDUCTOR'S SET

Finally, another Trovatore brings together three of the most positive contributors to the discography in one set: a 1951 Naples performance, available in fairly drab sound, under Tullio Serafin, featuring Lauri-Volpi, Elmo, Callas and Silveri. With the potent trio of Serafin, Lauri-Volpi and a young, secure Callas, this would seem, on paper, to be in a class with the Cellini and the Salzburg. But Lauri-Volpi sounds even less comfortable than in his studio set with Mancini, IMO, Elmo's Azucena lacks some of the individuality of the greatest Azucenas, without the full bel canto assurance of either Cossotto or Zajick to compensate, and Callas, though still young and secure, can not quite match the energy and agility in her crucial confrontation with Di Luna that we hear in Mexico. Only Serafin comes through with a reading that is even more incandescent than his studio outing on DG. That is, the orchestra may sometimes be a bit scrappy, but the general sweep, lyricism, phrasing and tempi reach a level of inspiration and assurance and unity here unmatched on any other recording. Hardly a negligible set, then, but not entirely the "contenda" it could have been. And the sound remains a stumbling block to those used to the well-engineered Serafin reading on DG. Some listeners, though, can still acclimate themselves fairly rapidly to these drab sonics, thanks to the compelling magic from the podium.

-- © 2005 Geoffrey Riggs

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