on 14 July 2013
You won't leave the opera house (or your CD player) whistling the greatest hits from "La Battaglia di Legnano," Verdi's fourteenth opera, written in 1848. The piece is more sober and less strikingly melodic than even some of his earlier pieces ("Nabucco," for example), but it has its own character and its own integrity, even if psychological credibility isn't part of the picture, and what remains in the mind are striking scenes rather than individual moments of singing. The Act 3 scene in the tombs where Arrigo swears an oath as a Knight of Death is creepily effective. The whole short Fourth Act, in which the dying Arrigo brings about the reconciliation of his friend Rolando and his wife (and Arrigo's former beloved) Lida is powerful, set as it is in the context of an Italian victory over the Austrian Barbarossa. (Barbarossa plays the enemy of all that's good and true here, an equivalent of Nabucco or Attila). The Act 2 scene in which Barbarossa bursts in on the scene in Como and declares himself the future of Italy is powerful too. What makes it all work, though, is a superb cast and great leadership from Lamberto Gardelli in this installment of the early Verdi series that Philips recorded in the 1970's. Once again, no praise is too high for Jose Carreras, who gives himself to another little-known role here with total commitment and lovely singing. As we look back on Carreras's career, I think we'll appreciate even more than we now do what he did to bring these early operas to the public when his voice was at its most beautiful. It's also a pleasure here to report that I've never heard Katia Ricciarelli sound better: the role of Lida lies well for her, and she too sings with beauty and dramatic force. The Rolando is Matteo Manuguerra, singing effectively in a less compelling role, and the very short role of Barbarossa is taken by Nicola Ghiuselev, in fine voice, but perhaps disadvantaged somewhat by by the recording balance (my only minor quibble with the engineering on this set). There are situations here that will remind you of similar ones that Verdi set later to more memorable music (Riccardo's death in "Ballo," and Alvaro's escape in "Forza"), but for the Verdi aficionado, this will be a necessary set. Excellent booklet notes too by Julian Budden, putting the composition in its Italian political context as well as its musical one. All in all, a very distinguished release.
To my knowledge there are only two studio recordings of this opera: one which is one of the many excellent mono recordings made by the RAI forces from 1951, conducted by Previtali with the usual sturdy cast of that era and this 1977 Gardelli set starring Carreras, Ricciarelli and Manuguerra as part of the wonderful Philips "Early Verdi" series. It's rarely performed; Italians tend to regard it a rather passé "pièce d'occasion" and the rather clumsy attempt by Cammarano to meld a personal tragedy with another patriotic rallying-call, in combination with his penchant for dramatic confrontation regardless of psychological verisimilitude, can leave the audience less than involved. In addition, the hero acts like a total oaf: his vicious condemnation of the hapless Lina for marrying his best friend when she believed he had been killed in battle is unattractive and incomprehensible.
Musically, there doesn't seem to be quite the spark and invention which make the neglect of other operas of that era such as "Stiffelio" so puzzling; nonetheless, even second-rank Verdi always affords many pleasures and there is still some lovely music here. Try, for example, the duet at the beginning of Act 3 between husband and wife or Lina's scena and cavatina in Act 1.
Furthermore, both recordings feature singers of the first rank. In the Previtali set, baritone Rolando Panerai will be familiar to many. His distinctive, flexible, flickering voice featured in so many recording over forty years, but some might also be surprised by the quality of the relatively unknown tenor Amedeo (sometimes "Amadeo") Bertini and soprano Caterina Mancini: big-voiced, stalwarts who would be much more celebrated were they singing today. The sound is clear, undistorted mono and Previtali knows what to do with the music. However, I would suggest that the enthusiast acquire the Warner Fonit (Cetra) as a supplement to the Philips recording, which is superior by dint of flawless stereo sound and its provision of the finest thing Katia Ricciarelli ever did on disc, in her Lina. Listening to her here, it's possible to understand what all the fuss was about, even if she did fade rather early: pure tone, steady top notes, secure coloratura, ravishing pianissimi, every note invested with such pathos and tenderness; this is great singing. In Carreras, she is partnered by a singer also in his absolute, youthful prime - but you could stick a pin in any of those early Verdi operas he recorded and hit tenor singing of the highest calibre - his voice being peculiarly plangent and moving in the 70's, with just enough tension in the throat to sound engaged but not effortful or strained. In addition, that under-rated singer Matteo Manuguerra turns in another beautifully vocalised performance: his smooth, slightly nasal sound always falls gratefully on the ear and he makes the most of one of the less demanding Verdi baritone roles. By their side, the cast of the earlier Previtali recording sound generalised - but still exciting.
So buy the Previtali if you are a bit of a historical-voice-curiosity buff but for the best advocacy of one of Verdi's slight miss-hits, go for the Philips.