Classics reconsidered: does Claudio Abbado's recording of Simon Boccanegra deserve its 'classic' status?

Gramophone Mon 6th August 2018

Hugo Shirley and Richard Fairman revisit Abbado’s 1977 La Scala recording of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, only to confirm its classic status

The original Gramophone review from November 1977 ...

Verdi Simon Boccanegra

Piero Cappuccilli (Simon Boccanegra); Mirella Freni (Maria Boccanegra/Amelia); Nicolai Ghiaurov (Jacopo Fiesco); José Van Dam (Paolo Albiani); José Carreras (Gabriele Adorno) Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Claudio Abbado

DG

Abbado wholly vindicates Verdi’s intentions through his feeling for the shape of a whole scene, for the inherent subtleties of Verdi’s scoring and for certain rhythmic effects. He seconds, emphasises Verdi’s genius, supported by the orchestra’s playing. Cappuccilli’s Boccanegra is a reading to equal his conductor’s – to set beside Gobbi’s (Santini version) and in some respects excel it. His breath control is extraordinary. Not since Martinelli in his prime on disc have I heard so many Verdian phrases taken in a single span. To this almost faultless technique, he adds a richly authoritative, deeply committed reading of this role, as acute in execution of parlando passages as it is tender and moving in the scenes with Amelia. DG also score in their casting of Gabriele. Carreras, although he doesn’t seem to have sung the part in the Scala performances, is well integrated into the cast, and his fiery, impassioned singing, like Cappuccilli’s, long-phrased and keenly pointed, is wholly in character. He also sings piano; witness the close of the first-act duet with Amelia and that calm passage, marked sostenuto religioso, of benediction in Act I. Here Ghiaurov as Fiesco is at his most convincing – he’s never less than imposing in his strength of utterance. Freni, a mettlesome Amelia/Maria, is right inside the part and provides much lovely singing but, while she is more secure at the top of her register than Los Angeles, she cannot float her tone so easily. The recording is immediate and full of presence. I shall keep the Santini version, but when I want to hear this opera in a memorable all-round interpretation, I’ll turn to this set. Alan Blyth


The recording, reconsidered ...

Richard Fairman For anybody with a long memory, this 1977 Simon Boccanegra is more than just a classic recording. It had its origins in the 1971 La Scala production directed by Giorgio Strehler and that was a classic in its own right. La Scala took it on tour so many times, to New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and beyond. I wish we were talking about a DVD of it, but amazingly there doesn’t seem to be any commercial version on sale.

Hugo Shirley Yes, those of us with shorter memories shouldn’t forget that broader context, and I wish I’d been able to see the staging properly. But in some ways it’s maybe best that the production, for those lucky (and, dare I say, old) enough to have seen it, can live on in the mind’s eye rather than on a video that by now, nearly five decades later, would probably seem very grainy and low-tech. The audio-only set, which still sounds so fresh, certainly couldn’t be accused of such an issue.

RF Needless to say, you can find an Italian TV relay from La Scala in 1978 on YouTube. It is grainy, yes, but the grand, Italian post-war style, of which that was one of the best and last examples, is there for all to see – the classically clean lines, the panoramic sets, the beautiful symbolism of the ships. Sorry, too many memories!

HS Yes, save them for your autobiography! It’s maybe interesting, though, that for me, coming from a vintage that post-dates the staging, this recording has always primarily existed as just that. I think it even took me quite a long time to twig that the cover image – such a painterly tableau – came from a staged production. One can obviously hear that the recording itself is deeply informed by the theatre, but for me it’s also one of those rare opera recordings that manages to marry drama with something close to flawlessness – ‘perfection’ is rarely desirable, I’d say, least of all in Verdi.

RF Hearing it afresh after many years, I found that what struck me most of all was how everything is so stylish and musically correct, the epitome of luxuriously high-quality Verdi singing and playing. I can almost hear Abbado giving the singers notes as I listen.

HS Yes. I was playing some of Abbado’s later studio Verdi recently, where the seriousness and meticulousness occasionally seem to dampen the fire. Here, though, there’s all the fire one wants, and that seriousness really comes into its own. I often find myself listening just to the Prologue, where it’s so difficult to imagine the colouring and the pacing ever being surpassed.

RF I couldn’t agree more. The richness of sound Abbado finds in those opening pages, where Verdi sinks into a deep E major wholly new in his vocabulary, is mesmerising. And it comes again and again – the yearning reach of the violins as Boccanegra goes to find the body of Maria in the Prologue, and the wave of deep emotion later that Verdi found in his 1881 revision for the moment when Boccanegra recognises Amelia as his long-lost daughter.

HS There’s the basic fact, too, that, for an opera that’s really not about starriness (or that shouldn’t be, in my view), you’ve got a cast of stars in their absolute prime. But there’s no prima donna behaviour, no one who doesn’t feel totally committed to Abbado’s – and Verdi’s – vision.

RF The consistency of style is at the highest level, perhaps because this production ran, albeit with changes of cast, for so many performances. Once the singers knew the Verdi style that Abbado wanted, it must have seeped into them until they all had it in their bones.

HS And has the La Scala orchestra ever sounded better?

RF I can hardly believe it is them. Oh, sorry – I didn’t mean that to sound like a put-down! But the tonal richness of their playing is almost worthy of a Karajan recording of the same vintage.

HS And it’s maybe worth going back to the cast, and the Prologue in particular, where you’ve got this triumvirate of Piero Cappuccilli, Nicolai Ghiaurov and José Van Dam. Cappuccilli is a paragon of long-breathed Verdian style. Ghiaurov rolls out big, melancholic phrases in ‘Il lacerato spirito’ – an almost unbearably noble and moving account of that wonderful aria. And the young Van Dam is impeccable as Paolo.

RF Grand, legato singing was always Cappuccilli’s strength, together with the size of his voice, but the care he takes to shape every line here is surely him at his best. By contrast, Tito Gobbi – in the unvarnished immediacy of the Gabriele Santini recording (made in 1957) – sounds cavalier, though the character is vividly three-dimensional. Both he and, more recently, Paolo Gavanelli, play Boccanegra patently as a lower-class man of the people. Cappuccilli makes him sound like the aristocrat in this story.

HS And do you like Ghiaurov as much as I do?

RF I am surprised his voice doesn’t sound bigger, given the majesty of it in the theatre, but the depth of timbre and his highly expressive way of shaping a vocal line paint Fiesco as a very human character. He’s an alternative to the unique and implacable Boris Christoff.

HS And we haven’t even mentioned the two additional cherries we get on the cake when we arrive at the opera proper: Mirella Freni floating in beautifully in her opening aria, joined by a thrillingly fresh-voiced José Carreras. I fear we’re getting a bit boring here, though; all this positivity risks getting us thrown out of the Critics’ Circle!

RF I do have a reservation about Freni. My memory of her Amelia in this production in London is that it was the best I’d heard from her in a live performance, but here I find the voice has a sharp edge. Of course, the instinctive Italian style she brings to the role is an important makeweight. As to Carreras, I can’t think of a finer recording of him, what with all the inimitable passion and spontaneity, matched by a voice in peak condition. There is no hint of the strain to come later.

HS Yes, returning to the set, I found Freni not quite as mellifluous as I remembered her being, but she’s still pretty wonderful – and certainly a very long way from letting the side down. I wonder, though: do you think the arrival of this recording (and the Strehler production) changed the way that people saw the opera more generally at all?

RF I think that is pitching claims for it a bit high. The Metropolitan Opera and Royal Opera archives show that prior to 1977 Simon Boccanegra was, if not a repertoire standard, at least a fairly regular visitor every few years. And, of course, all of Verdi’s operas were carried on a rising tide of popularity in the post-war era. I think it would be more true to say that this recording emphasised the opera’s standing as a music drama of great consistency and richness, rather than a showcase for a star baritone and bass.

HS It’s certainly a work that’s taken seriously as a dark masterpiece, even if in recent times it has become a showcase for one particular star who’s not quite baritone!

RF Unlike some people, I recall quite enjoying that not-quite-baritone in the role! As for this recording, it has been a huge pleasure to be reacquainted with it – both for its own consummate musicality, and as a memento of what was, despite some different singers, one of my great nights at the opera.

HS More than 40 years on, it’s still irresistibly fresh and compelling. Other versions of the opera are available, of course, and you’ve already mentioned the Santini, with Gobbi and Christoff. But we seem here only to have underlined how the classic status of the Abbado feels as secure as it’s ever been.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Gramophone magazine. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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