The singing of all three principal characters on this recording is incomparable. Sherrill Milnes as Germont is splendid in vocal tone and colour, if sounding a little too young in his paternal rôle, while Carlo Bergonzi as Alfredo is an absolute model of musical style and elegance, yet he still retains characterisation. His change of mood in the two scenes of Act Two between first the loss of Violetta and then his proud confrontation with her at the gaming tables is admirably done. Bergonzi actually brings a sense of almost righteous indignation to his singing as he throws his winnings at Violetta, as though from a plausible deep hurt and sense of jealousy at seeing her on the arm of another man. Easy enough to exhibit in an emotionally-charged theatre or on film; much harder to achieve using only the voice (and without sounding simply an angry cad or sorry for himself with too much anguish).
But, of course, this is Violetta's opera, and, in the tile-rôle, Montserrat Caballé rises superbly to the occasion. Her beauty of tone and consistently fine singing is, at times, simply astounding, and, as so often with her, one is left wondering when or how she has time to breathe. Her famous (almost trade-mark) floated high pianissimi are in evidence, but certainly not over-done or for vocal effect alone; when performed, they are always bound appropriately into the accompanying musical phrase to exhibit the necessary emotion at that point. Caballé's voice sounds suitably young, amazingly fresh and full of wonder itself, in the first act. In the second act she injects the necessary anguish and then heroism into her singing, while her frailty, resigned weariness and pathos, as expected toward the end of the opera, is finely drawn. There have indeed been more dazzling Violettas (such as the outstanding singing of Dame Joan Sutherland) and certainly more dramatic and characterful ones (Maria Callas, of course), but, in this recording, Caballé can certainly claim to be vocally the most beautiful of them all, without any loss of adequate characterisation in her portrayal. This was one of the earlier recordings of her career.
Caballé and Bergonzi are superb in their duets, and the long scene in Act Two between Violetta and Germont is a masterpiece.
The Orchestra is fine (especially in the Preludes), as is the Conductor, although perhaps he is a little too indulgent with his singers at times, especially when one feels the pace and the urgency of the piece should move on a fraction faster. The drama of certain scenes, I feel, is partly lost as a result, particularly in Act Two. The chorus perform their duties with good vocal clarity and technique. Despite the comparative age of the recording (1967), the sound quality is excellent, especially with more recent re-mastering.
One particularly interesting point about this set to note is that it is one of the most complete versions of the opera available. Both verses of Violetta's "Ah, fors è lui" are included, for example (seldom done), and all repeats are included, as in the published vocal scores. Although some subsequent sets copied this format, most did not, or did so only partially and not to the same full extent.
Although the available recordings of this ever-popular opera are now almost too many to count, any serious opera-lover, and certainly any fan of Verdi (as well as Caballé) should definitely not be without this one in their collection.