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Giuseppe Verdi


MACBETH (1847): A complicated situation surrounds Macbeth. Verdi extensively revised the opera for a production in Paris, so that most of the time we hear a composite version. Dynamic has given us a recording of the first version, featuring Iano Tamar as a sensational Lady, Evgenij Demerdjiev out of sorts in the title role, all under the taut baton of Marco Guidarini. Of the more customary versions, the best is undoubtedly DGG's featuring Shirley Verrett, Piero Cappucilli, Placido Domingo and Nicolai Ghiaurov and the La Scala forces, with Claudio Abbado galvanizing everyone into exemplary performances. I confess a slight weakness for the Leonie Rysanek, Leonard Warren, Carlo Bergonzi, Jerome Hines performance under Erich Leinsdorf while admitting that the soprano occasionally makes heavy going of some of Lady Macbeth's music.

Verdi: Macbeth

I MASNADIERI (1847): Again two commercial recordings, one by the indefatigable Lamberto Gardelli for Philips, featuring Montserrat Caballé, Carlo Bergonzi, Piero Cappucilli and Ruggiero Raimondi, the other by Richard Bonynge with a tired Joan Sutherland, a raucous Franco Bonisolli, Matteo Manuguerra and Samuel Ramey. Choose the former.

JERUSALEM (1847): Philips returns to the fray, now with conductor Fabio Luisi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. One might question the notion of recording a French opera (for this is Verdi's rewrite of I Lombardi for the Opéra de Paris) with nary a French singer in a major role, however note-complete the performance, and the performance is far from ideal. Only Philippe Rouillon in the secondary role of the Comte de Toulouse is sufficiently incisive in his way with words, though Roberto Scandiuzzi (Roger) and Marcello Giordani (Gaston) try hard. Marina Meschkeriova (Hélène) finds some of the music hard going, while Luisi's unsteady baton is even more worrisome.

IL CORSARO (1848): Verdi's Byronic opera ranks with Alzira as one of the least performed, with only one commercial recording (the inevitable Lamberto Gardelli in his Philips series) starring Montserrat Caballé, Jessye Norman and José Carreras.

Verdi: Il Corsaro

LA BATTAGLIA DI LEGNANO (1849): One of the most striking of Verdi's patriotic operas, the sole version available is that by Lamberto Gardelli (Philips) featuring the lymphatic Katia Ricciarelli, José Carreras and Matteo Manuguerra.

LUISA MILLER (1849): Verdi experiments with intimacy, on his way to Rigoletto and La Traviata, with one of his most attaching heroines. The three available versions all have their selling points, but my favorite remains that on RCA, conducted by Fausto Cleva with Anna Moffo, Carlo Bergonzi, Cornell McNeill, Giorgio Tozzi, Ezio Flagello. Moffo may not be as vocally substantial as one might wish, but her infallible dramatic instinct offers sufficient compensation. Katia Ricciarelli, Placido Domingo, Renato Bruson under the baton of Lorin Maazel (DGG) offer a convincing reading, while Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes under the baton of Peter Maag are substantial competition and one could not go wrong with any of these performances, based on personal preference.

STIFFELIO (1850): Long forgotten, Verdi's attack on religious hypocrisy (via a Protestant minister) was totally misunderstood in the mid-19th century, but today offers interest beyond the merely sensational. Once again, Philips and Lamberto Gardelli offer the only commercial recording, with Sylvia Sass, José Carreras and Matteo Manuguerra.

Verdi: Stiffelio

RIGOLETTO (1851): We now enter familiar territory, and Rigoletto has certainly not lacked for recordings. My personal favorite is that conducted by Rafael Kubelik for DGG with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto: the atmosphere is perfect, the singing is perfect, and F-D shows us that a more subtle approach than is customary can also pay off. A more than acceptable alternate is another DGG recording conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini with Ileana Cotrubas, Placido Domingo and Piero Cappucilli.

Verdi: Rigoletto

IL TROVATORE (1853): It is difficult to choose here, for not only does one require the four greatest singers of the moment, but also a conductor functioning at the same level. In that case, we must forget the RCA recording with Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, Jussi Bjoerling and Leonard Warren, as Renato Cellini certainly does not weld this into a cohesive entity, however much the individual singers can hardly be bettered. EMI paired Maria Callas and Herbert von Karajan, with Barbieri once again, but Giuseppe di Stefano and Rolando Panerai are in way over their heads in waters too deep. A DGG issue of a live performance from the Salzburg Festival, once again conducted by von Karajan, is cast in depth with Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini, and despite the occasional lapse it remains one of the most visceral of performances. Price's second studio recording is a viable alternative, with Zubin Mehta, Fiorenza Cossotto, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.

Verdi: Il Trovatore

LA TRAVIATA (1853): The field is extremely wide here, with choices among several Callas versions alongside a great many other sopranos. For Callas, either the Lisbon or La Scala recordings are worth hearing, both on EMI and with Alfredo Kraus and Mario Sereni in the former and Giuseppe di Stefano and Ettore Bastianini in the latter, choice depending ultimately on the conductor, and it is here that Giulini wins with the Scala recording. Also worth investigation is Carlos Kleiber on DGG with Ileana Cotrubas, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.

Verdi: La Traviata

LES VEPRES SICILIENNES (1855): Neither of the rival versions presents Verdi's original concept, as both are sung in Italian translation. The confrontation Muti-Levine may determine your choice: both have their merits, so that it becomes a question of the two casts. Muti on EMI offers Cheryl Studer, Chris Merritt, Giorgio Zancanaro and Ferruccio Furlanetto, while Levine on RCA gives us Martina Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and Ruggiero Raimondi.

Verdi: I Vespri Siciliani

SIMON BOCCANEGRA (1857): A magnificent opera, that the composer revised significantly. A single recording of the first version is available on Dynamic, from a live performance at Martina Franca, but one truly wants the final version, and Claudio Abbado's DGG recording remains definitive with Mirella Freni, José Carerras, Piero Cappucilli and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Another performance worth investigating is on EMI with Victoria de los Angeles, Giuseppe Campora, Tito Gobbi and Boris Christoff, alas conducted by Gabriele Santini.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

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