The Gramophone Choice: Verdi's Il trovatore

We recommend the best recordings of Verdi's famous opera

Verdi Il trovatore
Verdi Il trovatore

The Gramophone Choice

Maria Callas (sop) Leonora Giuseppe di Stefano (ten) Manrico Rolando Panerai (bar) Count di Luna Fedora Barbieri (mez) Azucena Nicola Zaccaria (bass) Ferrando Luisa Villa (mez) Ines Renato Ercolani (ten) Ruiz, Messenger Giulio Mauri (bass) Old Gypsy Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Herbert von Karajan 

EMI Great Recordings of the Century 562898-2 (129' · ADD · S/T/t). Recorded 1956. Buy from Amazon

Callas and Karajan took the world by the ears in the 1950s with this Il trovatore. Leonora was one of Callas’s finest stage roles, and this recording is wonderfully intense, with a dark concentrated loveliness of sound in the principal arias that puts one in mind of Muzio or Ponselle at their best. Walter Legge always managed to team Callas with the right conductor for the work in question. Often it was Serafin, but Karajan in Il trovatore is utterly compelling.

This opera, like Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is one of music’s great essays in sustained rhythmic intensity; dramatically it deals powerfully in human archetypes. All this is realised by the young Karajan with that almost insolent mastery of score and orchestra which made him such a phenomenon at this period of his career. There are some cuts, but, equally, some welcome inclusions (such as the second verse of ‘Di quella pira’, sung by di Stefano with his own unique kind of slancio). 

Although the EMI sound is very good, one or two climaxes suggest that in the heat of the moment, the engineer, Robert Beckett, let the needle run into the red and you might care to play the set in mono to restore that peculiar clarity and homogeneity of sound which are the mark of Legge’s finest productions of the mono era. But, whatever you do, don’t miss this set. 


Additional Recommendations

Plácido Domingo (ten) Manrico Leontyne Price (sop) Leonora Sherrill Milnes (bar) Count di Luna Fiorenza Cossotto (mez) Azucena Bonaldo Giaiotti (bass) Ferrando Elizabeth Bainbridge (mez) Ines Ryland Davies (ten) Ruiz Stanley Riley (bass) Old Gypsy Neilson Taylor (bar) Messenger Ambrosian Opera Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra / Zubin Mehta 

RCA Red Seal 74321 39504-2 (137‘ · ADD · T/t) Recorded 1969.Buy from Amazon

The Leonora of Leontyne Price is the high-point of the Mehta recording: her velvety, sensuous articulation of what’s certainly an ‘immenso, eterno amor’ is entirely distinctive and dramatically astute. The New Philharmonia is a no less ardent exponent. Mehta’s pacing may be uneven, his accompanying breathless, but he draws robust playing in bold primary colours to which the recording gives vivid presence. 

The acoustic serves Manrico less well: he seems to be singing in the bath when we first overhear him. This, though, is a younger, simpler Domingo than the one we encounter elsewhere, and there are passages of wonderfully sustained intensity. Cossotto’s Azucena is disappointing. All the vocal tricks and techniques are there, but it’s very much a concert performance, and we’re never entirely engaged. 


Peter Glossop (bar) Count di Luna Gwyneth Jones (sop) Leonora Giuletta Simionato (mez) Azucena Bruno Prevedi (ten) Manrico Joseph Rouleau (bass) Ferrando Elizabeth Bainbridge (mez) Ines John Dobson (ten) Ruiz William Clothier (bar) Old Gypsy Handel Owen (ten) Messenger Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Carlo Maria Giulini

Royal Opera House Heritage Series mono ROHS011 (127’ · ADD · T/t)

Recorded live 1964. Buy from Amazon

Leontyne Price being expected, prices were raised. When Price did not come and Gwyneth Jones was substituted, the cast began to assume a more homely complexion than seemed right for a gala occasion, and absentees from the gallery began to feel complacent. As a result, many never heard Bruno Prevedi’s Manrico. His ‘Di quella pira’ is not one for the book of legends, but the ‘Ah si, ben mio’ that precedes it deserved its applause, and the final scene is sung as by one inspired.

Gwyneth Jones is in best voice, before the loosening process had made itself evident and when her ample soprano was in its fullest bloom. She is technically in firm control and includes the Act 4 cabaletta, sung with assurance and scrupulous precision. Peter Glossop’s performance is particularly moving. If lacking the brazen edge to battle it out with the brass in ‘Per me ora fatale’, he had all the warmth and generosity of tone to make a human being and not a paste-board villain of di Luna, and he sings his aria with the ease, range, power and beauty of the true Verdi baritone.

By 1964 Simionato’s voice was too fragmented to capture with pleasure, but she still gives a performance on the grand lines. Otherwise the vocal heroes are the male chorus. For Giulini, his personal touch is felt more distinctively in the studio recording of 1983, but this performance is truer to the distinctive tensions and excitement of the opera itself.


DVD Recommendation

Plácido Domingo (ten) Manrico Raina Kabaivanska (sop) Leonora Piero Cappuccilli (bar) Count di Luna Fiorenza Cossotto (mez) Azucena José van Dam (bass) Ferrando Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan 

Stage director Herbert von Karajan 

Video director Günther Schneider-Siemssen

ArtHaus Musik DVD 107 117 (151’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo & 5.1 · 0 · s). Recorded live 1978. Buy from Amazon

This marvellous performance marked Karajan’s long-awaited return to the Vienna State Opera in 1978. It was also the notorious occasion when Franco Bonisolli threw a tantrum and walked out of the dress rehearsal. He was replaced at the eleventh hour by Domingo, who thereby completed a cast that has hardly been bettered. Inspired no doubt by the reception he receives on first entering the pit, Karajan is at his most proactive, and the singers react with real conviction to complement their exemplary singing. 

The staging, Karajan’s own, and the sets are pretty conventional, but who cares when the score is projected with such confidence and the voices are of such rare quality? The youngish Domingo is the feisty troubadour of the title to the life, and he sings Manrico’s taxing music as if that were the easiest thing in the world. As his adversary, Count di Luna, Piero Cappuccilli is in firm, supple voice, giving a faultless account of ‘Il balen’ and fierily dramatic in the ensembles. Fiorenza Cossotto offers her appreciable all to Azucena, a role she made very much her own and one in which she’s yet to be surpassed. As Ferrando, José van Dam launches the opera with tremendous authority. Raina Kabaivanska, the Leonora, may not have had a typically Verdian voice but what she does with her resources is remarkable, combining a classic style – some beautifully etched phrasing – with a poise as a vocal and dramatic actress that’s second to none, except perhaps Callas.

So it’s one vocal treat after another, culminating in a superlative Act 4. Sound, picture and direction are exemplary. 

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