This performance is my idea of a triumph, although there have to be some reservations about the way Leontyne Price handles the heroine’s role. The recording, from 1977 originally, can be praised without any reservation, and I find the booklet perfectly adequate. It does not contain the libretto in full, but it lists the heads of the successive numbers and tells us who is taking part in each. There is also a very good summary of the plot, which is a simple one, and these two features together give me as much detail as I need or want. What I really, really want is the glorious music, and that is given to me as I like it.
Those critics may be right who find Price not on her best form, but I incline to a more sympathetic view that it is more a matter of the interpretation (whether hers or Levine’s or a bit of both)applied to the character of Leonora. This Leonora is a gentle creature, unlike certain other Leonoras e.g. in Fidelio. It could well be that Price did not wish, or was not advised, to be unduly assertive. That would certainly be understandable, but it might have been a little unwise all the same. The character of Leonora is central to the plot, but in fact she gets surprisingly little to sing. On the second disc, which is the longest of the three, she takes part in a short number just after the start which she has to share with three monks, and then she is not heard again until the very end of the opera. An interpretation of the part that inclines to the demure side risks letting Domingo and Milnes as Alvaro and Carlo out-sing her and out-act her, which is dangerously near to what happens. A good rule in Verdi is probably – whenever you are in doubt how to go about such-and-such a part always opt for hyperbole. That is just the nature of Verdi’s style.
There is one other female role of any significance, and that is the fortune-teller Preziosilla. Cossotto deals with this very well, but it is manifestly a part that is only there to allow for another female voice in an opera that is exceptionally dominated by male singers. The men have to sing well in that case, and in the event they sing superbly. Of the ‘minor’ parts I might single out Giaiotti as the abbot, but they are all good. However everything revolves round the tenor/baritone lead parts of Alvaro and Carlo, and we have two great singers in superlative voice here. The challenge is a familiar one in Verdi, and one that Verdi’s great admirer Bernard Shaw pointed up in Verdi’s own long lifetime. Simply, Verdi has a strong preference for the upper fifth of the voice. This is what makes such a predominance of male timbre tolerable, but it takes its toll on the human vocal chords when the style is as strenuous as Verdi’s is. I suppose in that case we should include congratulations to modern voice trainers and coaches for helping their mighty students in the way they manifestly must have done. Leontyne Price has come off next best through her seeming restraint, but the sound of Domingo and Milnes, separately and together, is something to live for. Glancing down the numbers in Act III I see about half an hour’s uninterrupted singing for them, mostly at full volume. They sound as if they loved it, but I bet even they were relieved at not having to fight a duel while they were about it, as they would have had to do on stage.
There is no way that I could award this set less than the full five stars. If I have given any impression that even Price is less than good, let me take this opportunity to say that I meant nothing of the kind. A great Verdi rendering is like taking a bath in melody, and as someone once said Verdi’s music has power with a capital ‘POW!’ This is a musical experience I would not have wanted to miss.