Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cornucopia, Part Two: Some highlights of this year's massive Verdi release on Decca/Deutsche Grammophon/EMI

One enduring aspect of Verdi's music particularly feeds into what opera-lovers have long enjoyed: fruitful comparison of performances in major roles. What drives that interest in the case of Verdi is the high quality of the tunes themselves and their rhythmic profiles, which help singers establish emotion and character and leave a lot of interpretive latitude.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Take one of the most famous tenor entrances — the Duke of Mantua's "Quest o quella" in "Rigoletto." Of the many fine Placido Domingo performances in the new "Verdi: The Complete Works" set of 75 CDs, the durable Spaniard's portrayal of the Duke is among the best. But from the start, no one performance can cover everything germane to the role. If I compare Luciano Pavarotti's characterization in this "ballata" (Verdi's term) with Domingo's, two views of the Duke are apparent, both of them indicated by the music, in my view.

Pavarotti's has an insouciance and even bumptiousness that the lively bounce of the piece encourages; this foreshadows the character's rakish side, which of course sets in motion the opera's tragedy. Domingo projects a smoother line, riding the tune's bounce in a way that makes the Duke seem more calculating, less a party animal subject to his own irrepressible high spirits. Fans of this masterpiece can well ask: Should the Duke seem so calculating from the first, or is it more dramatically interesting to have him expressing nothing more complicated than "I dig chicks!" before letting that inclination lead him to ruin Gilda?  Chacun a son gout.

Another comparison from the same opera in which the capaciousness of Verdi at his best is all-important: Rigoletto's first appearance, not in an aria showcase but commenting in response to the Courtiers' observation: "The Duke is enjoying himself here." Sherrill Milnes, in the same London set in which Pavarotti is the Duke, sings in a cynical, laughing manner, ever the Court Jester. Piero Cappucilli's Rigoletto (in the set under review) expresses real indignation at the Duke's behavior: The jester is by no means amused.  Both sides of the character play out as the tragedy unfolds; the music endorses either emphasis as appropriate to an audience's first impression of Rigoletto. At its best, the Verdian world is wide indeed.

My first post mentioned the trials to which Verdi subjects sopranos (sometimes mezzos, too). Here are some divas represented in "Verdi: The Complete Works" who come through with flying colors in a variety of roles: Elena Suliotis as Abigaille ("Nabucco"), June Anderson as Giselda ("I Lombardi"),  Montserrat Caballe in the title role of "Giovanna d'Arco," Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth, Ileana Cotrubas as Violetta ("La Traviata") and Katia Ricciarelli in "La Battaglia di Legnano."

Some impressions of the conductors, whose command on a recording can make the difference between a catalogue evergreen and a discographical footnote: Riccardo Muti is typically hard-charging; with Verdi, this is often the most dramatically effective way to go ("I Vespri
Siciliani"), but it's not everything.

Herbert von Karajan is a master of detail; singers often loved the way he made them sound even better: Radames' "Celeste Aida" is superbly handled by Carlo Bergonzi, but that impression is substantially enhanced by the delicacy and vibrancy of the accompaniment. Carlos Kleiber helps a cast headed by Ileana Cotrubas bring out all the wonder and pathos of "La Traviata."

James Levine is attentive to detail while pursuing a unified concept,  but sometimes over-muscular. Georg Solti, whose titanic energy sometimes bordered on coarseness, showed himself one of few conductors capable of persuasive interpretations of both Wagner and Verdi. In the Complete Works, I particularly enjoyed his rousing, full-bore account of the Requiem, with an impassioned set of top-drawer soloists. (The most notable Indianapolis observance of the Verdi bicentennial will be performances of the Requiem by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and soloists, conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, Oct. 11 and 12)

Carlo Maria Giulini always takes a humane approach, avoiding bandmaster obviousness better than his countryman Muti. He is responsible for one of the set's wholesale triumphs, "Falstaff," with a host of a great characterizations led by Renato Bruson in the title role. The tricky vocal ensembles are tossed off with a precision that always enhances their high spirits.

Speaking of the Italians, Lamberto Gardelli is my particular favorite directing several of the operas.  He invariably draws warmth from orchestra and chorus alike, and he lets the music breathe where some conductors tighten up. He has superb control and a natural lyrical bent in "Stiffelio, "Il Corsaro," and "Nabucco."

Conductors outside the Verdian mainstream can make a strong impression, given a cast they seem to work with especially well: It won't be to everyone's taste, but I was intrigued by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera recording of the first version of "La Forza del Destino" with an all-Russian cast. Listening to it is a way of channeling what the premiere must have been like in St. Petersburg in 1862, far from Verdi's home turf.

Anyone who has read this far doesn't have to be convinced of Verdi's merits, his indispensability to the permanent vitality of opera. True, his music can wear on the nerves at times, but in many ways, that's inseparable from his signature strengths. Charles Osborne's guide to the operas opens with a quotation from Benjamin Britten, who shares a major birth anniversary (his 100th) with Verdi and Wagner this year. The sentiment can be proved on the pulses of legions of music-lovers: "I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of those composers."