Giordano Andrea Chenier
Whatever else, this is undoubtedly the best-recorded and probably the best-conducted Chenier we've yet had (and I don't forget the Levine/RCA set, unavailable at the moment). Ray Minshull, the Decca producer, has achieved a theatre balance between voices and orchestra. There is presence but nothing is exaggerated. As for Chaily, sometimes he over-conducts the score, drawing attention to himself rather than to Giordano, but by and large he is sympathetic to both the score and his singers. Chenier isn't easy to interpret; it bustles along busily all the time, but not always with much distinction or to any very strong purpose as we learnt again at the recent Covent Garden revival. Chailly almost convinces us that the story and the music, especially where Gerard is concerned, is about something more than merely contrivance and cardboard, and he and the National Philharmonic bring out the work's colour and melodrama, both vividly presented.
For the many and important small roles, Decca have assembled half a dozen old faithfuls in various states of vocal health, all enjoying their moments of character performing. Varnay goes rather over the top as the old Countess in Act 1. The three comprimari tenors, whose combined ages must be more than 200, all make the mark with Piero De Palma the most potent as the spy Incredible, an object-lesson in acting with the voice. Giorgi Tadeo, a buffo bass of distinction, here turns himself into the nasty Mathieu. Krause is an honourable Roucher. But Christa Ludwig is better than any, making old Madelon's brief appearance into a moving vignette. Of the younger singers, Kathleen Kuhlman is a rather anonymous Bersi, Neil Howlett a snarling Fouquier-Tinville.
But Chenier stands or falls by its three principals. All three here perform eloquently. Pavarotti tends to rasp his way through th e Improvviso, but improves no end in his first love duet with Maddalena, and defies the court in Act 3 with real heroism. But it is in the final act that his tone recaptures its old refulgence in his poetic musings and his death-going duet. Pavarotti may nevever quite suggest, as Corelli does on the Santini/HMV set, that he is the revolutionary poet of youthful ardour, but he is much the more musical singer.
Similar comparisons might be made between Caballe and Stella (HMV). The Italian soprano shows none of the strain under pressure of the Spanish, but time and again a phrase will set Caballe apart as the more subtle artist, as at the forlorn passage sung to Gerard after ''La mamma morta''— ''Corpo di moribunda e il corpo mio!''. There are occasionally those self-regarding mannerisms that Caballe indulges in, also a want of sheer tonal weight (that is to be found ideally in Tebaldi's singing in the earlier Gavazzeni/Decca set), but I warmed to her portrayal.
Nucci's Gerard is excellent, delivered with a nice balance between line and punch. His voice never seems individual to me, but his schooling is sound, and he is faithful to the score. Neither so forceful as Bastianini (Decca) nor as biting as Sereni (HMV), Nucci is as convincing as either in suggesting Gerard equivocal, finally heroic character.
Before making a decision on buying a Chenier, you may ask yourself why Decca hasn't managed to get a short opera on to two records, particularly as most sides here are sparsely filled. With the rival HMV at mid-price on four sides, the new version would have to be even better than it is to receive an outright recommendation. Pavarotti and Caballe enthusiasts will want it; others should perhaps endeavour to hear the pros and cons of the two sets, and not forget the Gavazzeni (rudely powerful with Tebaldi at her best).'