VERDI Il Trovatore (von Karajan)
Il trovatore, a brief note accompanying this reissue from the Vienna Staatsoper in 1978 reminds us, was one of Karajan’s favourite operas, and one he conducted repeatedly throughout his long career. On disc his interpretation is preserved on two studio recordings (the first, from 1956, with Callas as Leonore – Warner, 11/57), as well as multiple live sets, including an ‘official’ one taped at the unveiling of his own 1962 Salzburg production with Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini and Giulietta Simionato (Opera d’Oro).
That production forms the basis for what we see here from Vienna. A grandly Impressionistic but undeniably fusty affair, it was filmed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen a year after it had been used for Karajan’s triumphant return to the theatre he’d resigned from 13 years previously. It’s more than a standard TV broadcast, though, featuring lots of bold close-ups and a few (dated) special effects – Karajan was at the time switching to filming live performances of operas rather than producing exorbitantly expensive studio films.
The direction of the principals is minimal, with them manoeuvred into tableaux and left there – having already drawn his sword at the start of ‘Di quella pira’ (given down a semitone), for example, Plácido Domingo’s Manrico can do nothing but wave it around inconsequentially for the rest of the aria. The under-directed chorus don’t always bear the scrutiny of the camera, either.
Arguably, though, the direction reflects Karajan’s view of the piece as a distillation of human emotions, a kind of Verdian equivalent to Così fan tutte’s emotional laboratory. It brings the focus fully on to the principals, whose acting I find compelling in its unity, unapologetic melodrama and fiery, earnest conviction. The singing, too, is magnificent. José van Dam is a superbly suave and powerful Ferrando. Piero Cappuccilli’s Luna is near ideal, elegant and forthright. Raina Kabaivanska presents a noble and impeccably stylish Leonore. It’s a finely focused voice that tightens a little at the top, but hers is a classy, moving performance.
Top honours perhaps go to Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto. Cossoto’s Azucena warms up after ‘Stride la vampa’ into a thrillingly vivid portrayal, majestic vocally and gloriously, irresistibly over-the-top dramatically. Domingo famously had to step in after the original tenor, Franco Bonisolli, lost his temper at a dress rehearsal and threw his sword at Karajan. His Manrico is superb, though, sung in long phrases with shining golden tone and ringing top notes, and played with youthful panache and impetuosity.
Karajan’s conducting is full of fire, too, and the score is terrifically well played by the orchestra. The endless curtain calls might pall on repeated viewings, and ArtHaus hasn’t put much effort into the reissue. No matter: this is an old-fashioned, no-holds-barred Verdian treat.