on 23 August 2007
There aren't many studio recordings of Verdi's eleventh opera - just two in fact. On Decca you can hear Dame Joan Sutherland and Franco Bonisolli as Amalia and Carlo, with Matteo Manguerra as Francesco and Samuel Ramey as Massimiliano. Philips, however, have to my mind the more effective cast. Montserrat Caballe and Carlo Bergonzi are very effective as Amalia and Carlo, and Piero Cappuccilli and Ruggero Raimondi can't be bettered.
Amalia was written for the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, and as such the role has an awful lot of trills and other fioriture that Verdi didn't normally write. Caballe has a very light and agile voice, which seems to be in keeping with Lind - the role keeps to the middle and higher registers of the soprano voice. She is particularly astounding in the opening aria, "Lo sguardo avea degli angeli", which has seemingly effortless decorations.
Carlo Bergonzi is the classic Verdi tenor, and while in parts he seems to be losing his voice (particularly in the act three finale, when a lot of punch is needed in the manner of Domingo) his opening aria, with its martial cabaletta "Nell'agila maledetta", is superb. He is also very beautiful in the act four duet with Raimondi, "Come d'un bacio d'un padre amoroso".
Piero Cappuccilli is likewise the classic Verdi baritone, bringing a lot of Italianate warmth to the role. Sounds odd, bringing warmth to a villain, but Francesco Moor has a lot of really great tunes, and Cappuccilli's voice surrounds them in his burnished tones. He is particularly magnificent in the duet with Caballe in act two, "Io t'amo, Amalia", which is itself a piece with a lot of dramatic shortcomings, but the two make it one of the high points. His opening aria, "La sua lampada vitale" has a lot of menace but also cannot escape the suavite of Cappuccilli's delivery, making Francesco more than just the blustering baritone villain. It's a shame Gardelli directs this aria with a little too much speed, making little difference between the slow and fast movements of the double-aria. The 'racconto' in Act Four and subsequent duet with Moser is also worth mentioning as truly fine singing.
Ruggero Raimondi is a magnificent basso cantante, with more than enough depth when needed. His Massimiliano has a lot of gravitas but also that necessary Italianate quality, making what must be a great approximation of the role's creator, the renowned Luigi Lablache. It's a shame there isn't more for him to do, really. There are two beautiful duets, in act one with Caballe and in act four with Bergonzi, and a short romanza in act three, "Un'ignoto, tre lune", which doesn't have a lot of scope to show Raimondi to his greatest.
Of the minor roles Maurizio Mazzieri's Moser should be mentioned. Despite the brevity of the role - one four-minute duetto with Cappuccilli is it - he has a voice of the profundo style similar to Nicolai Ghiaurov, making the duet an obvious forerunner to the Inquisitor-Filippo scene in Don Carlos of 20 years later. The chorus has some entertaining moments, including a complex scene in act two, but the Ambrosian Singers are as impeccable as ever.
The only flaw I can think of is the sound - sometimes the orchestra is too much in the foreground and so drowns the voices to a degree. But thankfully this doesn't always happen. The good points far outweight the bad, and at the re-issue price there is only really one thing left to say: Buy this opera now!
I can't go all the way with Ralph Moore on this one, but I blame the recording, which (through my pretty good Bose headphones) seems a bit airless and robs the voices of some of their bloom. It's a tribute to all the singers here that they sound so good in these circumstances. Perhaps Caballe stands out; in a part written for Jenny Lind, she sounds as flexible as I imagine Lind to have been but much more robust in tone. It's just great singing, that makes me regret all the more the hardening in the upper reaches that one just doesn't get in other Caballe recordings of the period. Bergonzi, just turned 50 when this was recorded, sounds wonderful too -- the writing for the tenor isn't as straightforwardly and plangently lyrical as it is in some other operas, and Bergonzi makes it expressive. The part of Carlo Moor is a thankless one -- could it be done convincingly on stage? -- and we're lucky to have a singer of Bergonzi's quality take it on. There's an interesting psychological study in embryo there -- the cultivated man turned merciless bandit -- but this early in his career, Verdi couldn't quite bring it to life. The lower voices are beautiful too -- the young Raimondi and the veteran Cappuccilli are both in great form, and the duets of both with Caballe are among the high points of the recording. The Chorus sounds a tad light, but they sing with great spirit, amazingly cheerful, I thought, to see Prague go up in flames.
The whole thing, though, isn't all that dramatic -- it moves more like a concert performance than a fully realized one. But then, this isn't a great opera in the way that, say, "I Due Foscari," "Nabucco," 'Macbeth," and "Luisa Miller" very nearly are. I'm grateful to have it presented by voices of the quality, and serious Verdi collectors need to have it. (NOTE: I haven't heard the Decca one with Sutherland and Ramey, but Ralph Moore thinks highly of it too.)
I am always intrigued by the way some of Verdi's earlier operas have remained comparatively neglected both on stage and in the recording studio, although a little close listening and thought will sometimes provide an - if not the - answer.
"I Masnadieri" - Verdi's eleventh, "London" opera - has a lot going for it. Both the two studio recordings so far made are top quality and the opera has many armchair adherents, but the culminating absurdity of our hero stabbing his beloved to spare her the agony of losing him to the bandits (to whom he has sworn eternal fealty) is just too much to swallow. The soprano has much beautiful music written expressly for the vocal talents of Jenny Lind; consequently there is a lot of delicate coloratura and scope for the top end of the voice, but none of those gutsy plunges into the lower register that stiffen the sinews and give a little starch to a rather pale and passive heroine.
As I have said, both recordings are wonderful, if different. One might expect to hear frailties in both Sutherland's and Bergonzi's singing, she being in her mid and he in his early fifties at the times of recording (1982 and 1975 respectively), but both are superb; in fact she is more animated and has a better trill than Caballé and he is more stylish and nuanced than the stentorian Bonisolli. Both sound great, even if he is occasionally a little dry and a hint of a beat obtrudes in Sutherland's top - but these recordings represent the best of their late work. Bonisolli is certainly more exciting than Bergonzi, too; a curiosity is that he and Sutherland are allowed by Bonynge to take ringing top C's (and even a C sharp, in his case) whereas Gardelli has his singers take the rather tame lower, written options all the time. Both baritones are top class, although I prefer Manuguerra's more biting tone to Cappuccilli's woollier production; both basses are splendid: Raimondi sounds much more the starved, weakened old man but Ramey's voice is intrinsically more rotund. (Apparently credibility was strained in the first London performance, as the part of Massimiliano was taken by the celebrated and notoriously rotund bass Lablache.) Both choruses and orchestra are unimpeachable - although in the overture the Welsh National Opera's concertante cellist plays more affectingly and with more tender phrasing than his New Philharmonia counterpart. Conversely, Caballé and Bergonzi make a more moving job of their lovely duet "Ma un'iri di pace".
So I cannot separate these two recordings: the Decca is more exciting, the Philips more beautiful in its restraint. I am glad to own both.