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Not the most dramatic performance but very beautiful
on 18 October 2016
It has taken me many years to get around to sampling this recording, mainly because I have, like so many, been wedded for so long to the unrivalled Callas-Di Stefano-Gobbi classic and more obvious choices featuring artists such as Price and Tebaldi. There have not in fact been so many studio recordings of this opera compared with other equally popular works and I find myself enjoying slightly off-beat versions such as that Rostropovich with Vishnevskaya and Muti conducting Vaness. I also recently discovered how good the supposedly very inferior later recording by Callas with Bergonzi actually is.
This is certainly not the most visceral and thrilling of recordings; beauty is the watchword and I don't think I have ever heard the orchestral passages played with greater sonority and clarity than the ROH orchestra achieves here. It is true that under pressure Caballé's tone can turn a bit harsh and squally but I hear no lack of involvement in her characterisation and her soft singing is of course a dream. Some have criticised Wixell's Scarpia as insufficiently Italianate but I find him very convincing as a sadistic psychopath, even if his slightly gritty tone precludes the kind of elegance and suavity that Gobbi or Manuguerra bring to the role. Other great advantages to this set reside in the excellent cameo by Sam Ramey as Angelotti - one of the few who bothers to pant and sound exhausted in his entry, despite the rotundity of his bass-baritone.
But the glory here is Carreras in his all-too-brief prime, rivalling any Cavarodossi for passion and power; his sustained top notes are thrilling and his commitment really intense. On my first encounter with his "Recondita armonia" I simply had to play it again immediately, and I haven't experienced that sensation since the first time I heard Björling sing that brief but wondrous aria.
The supporting cast is first rate and the analogue sound is superlative, even if it permits you all too clearly to hear the conductor already indulging in his annoying habit of singing along, a tendency of his which markedly worsened as the years went by.