VERDI I Lombardi
At this stage of his career it is good to hear Pavarotti in a new role on disc, even if Oronte is not one of Verdi’s biggest challenges for a tenor. Having failed to appear in the First Act, the Turkish tyrant’s son soon gets killed off and goes to heaven – a noble demise, although the average operatic tenor would far rather be on stage hogging the limelight to the end. The sum total of Oronte’s role is his lovely entrance aria, a duet with the soprano, and the opportunity to lead off the big trio, as Verdi was to have his tenor do in the Rigoletto quartet.
Pavarotti appeared in the Metropolitan Opera production of I Lombardi in 1993 and this recording is the delayed result, following after a gap of three years. Little, if anything, seems to have been lost in the interim. He is in good voice and sings Oronte’s aria with a fine sense of legato, binding the decorative turns of the cabaletta beautifully into the vocal line and throwing in a respectable top C to show us he still can. In the opening to the trio, “Qual volutta trascorrere”, Pavarotti imparts a vivid sense of the situation: this Oronte really sounds as if he has been wounded, turning Verdi’s broken vocal line into the mortal gasps for breath the composer clearly envisaged, while still delivering singing of the highest quality. There are few operatic voices around that are ageing so gracefully.
I Lombardi is a viscerally exciting opera and contains far more of interest than just that trio, made famous on disc by Caruso, Alda and Journet, and later Gigli, Rethberg and Pinza. The first complete recording, conducted by Lamberto Gardelli, set a good benchmark in 1972, but that need not deter us from welcoming this lively newcomer. Levine’s home company is in excellent shape. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra plays with splendid precision, every string tremolo seething with intensity, and Raymond Gniewek makes a nice job of the miniature violin concerto that opens the Third Act finale. As Turks and Crusaders, women of the harem and virgins, the Met Chorus has a high old time on both sides of I Lombardi’s war-zone. Levine himself has improved beyond recognition as a Verdian since his youthful, and exceedingly vulgar, set of
The best role goes to the soprano Giselda, specially tailored for the delicate skills of Erminia Frezzolini. Among the current crop of Verdi sopranos, June Anderson is probably as plausible a modern Frezzolini as any. Although her opening prayer is less than heavenly, because of a sinful lapse in approaching notes from below, she soon makes due atonement. There is some lovely, pure-toned singing in Giselda’s big scene at the end of the Second Act and her coloratura is shining bright, both in this cabaletta and later in “In fondo all’alma”. Cristina Deutekom on the Philips set has more guts and spontaneity, but Anderson is the one with the quality voice (Deutekom’s fast vibrato and tendency to yodel at speed have always been an acquired taste). Samuel Ramey makes a relatively lightweight Pagano, who alone decorates his second verses. His counterpart on Philips, Ruggero Raimondi, who is stronger and tougher, offers a no less valid view of Pagano’s character. In the second tenor role Richard Leech holds his own, though his voice does not take well to the microphone. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo proudly represents the younger generation of Italian singers in the small role of Pirro and Patricia Racette sings brightly as Viclinda. Jane Shaulis’s tired mezzo makes Sofia sound more like Oronte’s granny than his mother. On balance, with Pavarotti having the edge over Domingo’s warmly-sung, but less interesting Oronte, Decca have probably assembled the better cast.
It is difficult to declare a straight victor between these two competing sets. Gardelli’s crusading first recording has a rough Italianate vigour that lovers of early Verdi will enjoy, but Levine and his forces fight back with pace and brilliance, and a bright, modern recording with the voices well forward. This young Turk of a set is more than able to hold its ground.'