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Second-rank Verdi - but still much to enjoy,
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This review is from: Verdi: La battaglia di Legnano (Audio CD)
To my knowledge there are only two studio recordings of this opera: this 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 the 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 a 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 in 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.