10 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – IL TROVATORE (F. Labò, A. de Cavalieri, M. Morquio, J. Botto, J. Carbonnell; Bongiovanni HOC 085/86

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - IL TROVATORE (Bongiovanni HOC 085/86)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Il trovatore—Flaviano Labò (Manrico), Anna de Cavalieri (Leonora), María Mercedes Morquio (Azucena), Jorge Botto (Il Conte di Luna), Juan Carbonnell (Ferrando), Marita Perdomo (Ines), César Vicciconte (Un vecchio zingaro), José Luis Parma (Ruiz); Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Solís; Nino Stinco, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Teatro Solís, Montevideo, Uruguay, on 13 September 1964; Bongiovanni HOC 085/86; 2 CDs, 126:10; Available from Bongiovanni, ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Once upon a time, composers composed, conductors conducted, singers sang, and musicians made music. These personages did these things in inevitable pursuits of livelihoods, but Verdi composed Falstaff, Mascheroni conducted it, Victor Maurel sang it, and the La Scala orchestra played it for reasons more noble than the necessity of earning paychecks. Also once upon a time, when the gorgeous Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires was an inevitable port of call on virtually every great singer’s grand tour, artistic merit frequently drifted across the Río de la Plata from Argentina to the less-pretentious Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, where many of the great performers that made the Teatro Colón an operatic Mecca also shared their gifts with Montevideo audiences. This 1964 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore assembled in Montevideo’s Teatro Solís an international cast that in the 1960s might have seemed unexceptional to Londoners or New Yorkers but today epitomizes the clichéd suggestion that a performance with such a cast would now be the gold standard. Listening to this performance, it is obvious that this cast’s goal was providing the Montevideo audience with a memorable encounter with Verdi’s swashbuckling score. Can these dedicated performers have suspected that their goal would be achieved anew fifty-one years later?

Some sources indicate that this performance was conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, whereas other sources state that Maestro Giulini was likely already in London for rehearsals of the watershed Covent Garden production of Il trovatore with Bruno Prevedi, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Gulietta Simionato at the time of this performance in Montevideo. This release names Nino Stinco as the conductor of this Trovatore, and, contemporary documentation being elusive [the sole authoritative tome on musical life in the Uruguayan capital does not offer details about the 1964 Trovatore production], this is a credible attribution. In any event, the performance preserved on these discs sounds little like extant Giulini-led performances. Fortunately, the sound quality, while not high-fidelity, is good enough to permit appreciation of the vigor with which the performance is conducted. Neither the orchestral playing nor the choral singing is world-class, but Il trovatore does not need absolute perfection to make its points. The orchestra musicians play energetically, and the choristers sing the familiar Anvil Chorus, 'Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie ​de' cieli sveste l'immensa vôlta,’ with gusto. No one attends a performance of Il trovatore solely to hear the orchestra or chorus, but the Montevideo forces do their national musical tradition proud.

In supporting rôles, Marita Perdomo, César Vicciconte, and José Luis Parma are reliably musical presences as Ines, the Old Gypsy, and Ruiz. [Mr. Parma is credited by Bongiovanni with having sung the part of the Messenger, while no singer is listed for Ruiz. Mr. Parma’s usual part in Il trovatore across the river in Buenos Aires was Ruiz, so it is more plausible that sources that allot him that rôle in the Montevideo performance are correct.] Bass Juan Carbonnell is an occasionally unsteady ​Ferrando who sometimes sounds like a refugee from a performance of a Rossini opera buffa. His singing of 'Di due figli vivea, padre beato, il buon conte di Luna' and 'Abbietta zingara, fosca vegliarda!'​ in Act One is spirited, and his and the choristers’ reaction to the tolling of midnight during his spooky storytelling is hilarious. A few imperfections notwithstanding, Mr. Carbonnell’s Ferrando is amusing and menacing in turn—just as Verdi surely intended him to be.

As the Conte di Luna, Uruguayan baritone Jorge Botto has nothing to fear from comparisons with the finest recorded interpreters of the rôle. As recorded here, the voice seems slightly small for the core Verdi baritone repertory, but Mr. Botto was an acclaimed Boccanegra in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo in an era in which audiences knew how an authentic Verdi baritone voice should sound. From his first entrance in Act One, he never emits an unattractive sound: in that regard, he is the rare Conte di Luna who is a suitor not unworthy of Leonora’s attention. He is also among the few recorded Conti who manage to successfully balance bluster and nobility in the Act One finale. Mr. Botto voices the impactful 'Di geloso amor sprezzato arde in me tremendo il fuoco!' with ideal stamina and style, making easy going of the high tessitura. Few—if any—audiences who hear performances of Il trovatore in 2015 will hear 'Il balen del suo sorriso d'una stella vince il raggio,' the Conte’s celebrated aria in Act Two, sung as well as Mr. Botto sings it here. The top Fs and Gs are produced with ease, and the bel canto melodic line is sculpted with unaffected artistry. Likewise, few baritones succeed as Mr. Botto does in making the de facto cabaletta 'Per me ora fatale, i tuoi momenti affretta, affretta' as effective in performance as ‘Il balen del suo sorriso.’ Act Three makes no demands of this fine singer that he fails to meet with charisma to spare, but, despite his superb rendition of his aria, Mr. Botto is at his best in Act Four. In the duets with Leonora, his handsome voice moves through the music with complete confidence, and in the opera’s final scene the suggestions of desperation and regret that his singing reveals indicate that this Conte truly loves Leonora rather than merely loving the notion of possessing her. Mr. Botto proves not only one of the most sympathetic Conti di Luna on disc but also one of the most musical.

Listeners who are acquainted with the much-discussed Azucena of Sylvia Sawyer, the elusive benefactress of complete recordings of Il trovatore, Aida, and Un ballo in maschera in which she sang the lead mezzo-soprano rôles, will know what to expect, at least to some extent, of the Azucena of María Mercedes Morquio. In this performance, Ms. Morquio’s vocalism is rarely poised or polished, but as the unhinged Azucena—as Pedro Almodóvar might put it, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown—she is undeniably effective. There are no trills in her singing of ‘Stride la vampa,’ but she unleashes some exciting sounds above the stave; sounds, it must be admitted, that do not always reach Verdi’s indicated pitches. Still, the unforced power that she brings to ‘Condotta ell' era in ceppi al suo destin tremendo'​ is undeniably exhilarating. She ducks the written top C in 'Perigliarti ancor languente per cammin selvaggio ed ermo!' but veritably erupts with love and fear for her adopted son. In Act Three, the mounting agitation that Ms. Morquio evinces in her singing of 'Giorni poveri vivea, pur contenta del mio stato' and 'Deh! rallentate, o barbari, le acerbe mie ritorte' foreshadows the opera’s tragic conclusion. Her duet with Manrico in Act Four is crowned with an understated but evocative account of 'Ai nostri monti ritorneremo.' Few performances of Il trovatore seem to build to Azucena’s piercing cry of 'Sei vendicata, o madre!' in the opera’s final moments as inexorably as this one, and Ms. Morquio’s ferocious top B♭ ends the performance heartstoppingly.

​​Anna de Cavalieri (1924 – 2012)​, née Anne McKnight in Aurora, Illinois, is a steely, persuasive, and surprisingly moving Leonora. Introduced to the public by her brassy Musetta in the famed 1946 NBC performance of La bohème in which Arturo Toscanini paced Licia Albanese’s Mimì and Jan Peerce’s Rodolfo, she was a bonafide prima donna in Italian parts at New York City Opera before making her career in Italy, where her large repertory included rôles as dissimilar as Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata and Puccini’s Turandot. Despite her near-native diction, she makes little of Leonora’s introductory recitative in Act One of this performance of Il trovatore, but when she sings ‘ascolta’ to Ines before launching her aria there is no question that she is to be obeyed. That aria, ‘Tacea la notte placida e bella in ciel sereno​,’ is sung ardently, the singer’s comfort with Verdi’s style growing with every successive phrase. ​She rushes the cadenza to avoid lingering at the top of the range, but the Allegro giusto cabaletta 'Di tale amor, che dirsi mal può dalla parola'​ finds her on confident, risk-taking form. When she reaches the Act One finale, Ms. de Cavalieri is soaring through Leonora’s music, and she and her colleagues bring the curtain down on Act One with singing that thrillingly combines virility with elegance. In the last minutes of Act Two, her voicing of 'E deggio e posso crederlo?' and the fine-spun 'Sei tu dal ciel disceso, o in ciel son io con te!' radiates femininity and the contrasting sensuality and religiosity that land Leonora in such a quandary. The performing edition used for this performance reduces Leonora to a stander-by in Act Three, but she opens Act Four with the aria 'D'amor sull'ali rosee vanne, sospir dolente,' one of the most demanding pieces in the Verdi canon. Ms. de Cavalieri gives a powerful account of the aria, making credible efforts at the trills and rising to a gritty but solid top C. Like many Leonoras, she opts out of the top D♭, cruelly approached from an interval of a tenth, but she delivers the cadenza ably. Her singing is filled with trepidation and fervor in the inventive ‘Miserere,’ making the excision of the cabaletta 'Tu vedrai che amore in terra mai del mio non fu più​ forte' particularly regrettable. Duetting with Mr. Botto’s lustful Conte in 'Mira, di acerbe lagrime spargo al tuo piede un rio!' and 'Vivrà​​! Contende il giubilo,'​ Ms. de Cavalieri wields spot-on staccati and white-out emotions. She is a Leonora for whom, like Ponchielli’s Gioconda (another part in which Ms. de Cavalieri excelled, incidentally), death is an act of defiance rather than defeat. In the haunting andante 'Prima che d'altri vivere io volli tua morir!' in the finale, nothing more than a fascinatingly-manipulated ascending scale, Ms. de Cavalieri completes Leonora’s transformation from haughty Spanish noblewoman to tragic heroine. Like Mr. Botto, she fosters a portrayal of her rôle that succeeds musically and dramatically more memorably than many more famous singers have managed to create.

A few months before traveling to Montevideo for this performance, Italian tenor Flaviano Labò (1927 – 1991) alternated with Richard Tucker, James McCracken, and Franco Corelli as Manrico at the Metropolitan Opera. Possessing a lean, sinewy voice with compelling squillo and technical prowess that allowed him to sing both lyric and spinto rôles without abusing the natural instrument, Mr. Labò was equally capable of sweetly wooing Mimì in La bohème, rejoicing at revolutionary victories in Tosca, and melting the title heroine’s icy heart in Turandot. As Montevideo’s Manrico, he combines the ringing masculinity of Pertile and Lauri-Volpi with the chivalry of Björling and Bergonzi. His clear, Italianate tone glistens even from afar in the romanza in Act One, 'Deserto sulla terra, sul rio destino in guerra,' which he caps with a sterling interpolated top B♭. He complements Ms. de Cavalieri’s and Mr. Botto’s mercurial singing in the the trio that ends the act. His marmoreal performance of 'Mal reggendo all'aspro assalto' in Act Two is searing, the top A hurled out with the brilliance of a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere, and his lines in the Act Two finale are voiced with velvet-clad iron. The Mozartean aria in Act Three, 'Ah sì, ben mio, coll'essere io tuo, tu mia consorte,' is handled with manly finesse by Mr. Labò, who even bothers to approximate the trills for which Verdi asked. He also sings the ubiquitous cabaletta 'Di quella pira l'orrendo foco' at Verdi’s pitch, interpolating secure, pulse-quickening top Cs. Though the quality of his singing is very high throughout the performance, the tenor is on especially impressive form in Act Four. His despondent lines heard from offstage during the ‘Miserere’ are beguiling, and his interactions with Ms. Morquio’s Azucena are tender and resigned. It is apparent that this Manrico’s burst of anger when he believes that Leonora has betrayed him is born of love rather than pride and petulance. Mr. Labò ends the performance in the same fashion in which he started it: his Manrico faces execution as courageously as he first came to Leonora’s defense and sings spectacularly all the while.

It seems unfathomable that this thoroughly satisfying Trovatore would likely have been deemed provincial a half-century ago: as Mary Hopkin sang in 1968, those were the days, my friends. Perhaps along the banks of the Río de la Plata in 1964 it was thought that they would never end. Now, hearing a performance as quenching as this Montevideo Il trovatore, how distant they seem!