ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Verdi Anniversary Box
PERFORMER: Riccardo Muti
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 67450 2
EMI have now been recording Plácido Domingo for 30 years and have taken this opportunity to cover some of his best-selling opera sets with a cardboard box and sell them at a special price. Not everything here is in the gold-plated class and so it is best to pick and choose. If you are lucky enough to find a dealer who has split up the collection you should be able to snaffle up some real bargains.
The Domingo sound is not particularly Italianate but the Mediterranean warmth and slight baritonal colouring have made him the ideal Verdi tenor in many of the heavier roles. As someone once said of John Gielgud’s spoken voice, it has the sound of silver trumpets muffled in silk. If the upper register can sometimes sound a little tight and restricted and if the diction is occasionally occluded, all is forgiven when you hear that voice at its spectacular best. And that best is to be found among the Verdi sets in this box. Don Carlo (CDS 7 47701 8) not only finds him in top form but also has a stunning cast headed by Montserrat Caballé who avoids her default mode of resigned melancholy and spits fire and exudes icy disdain as required while Giulini sculpts the score into a thing of beauty. Caballé also partners him in Levine’s barn-storming account of Giovanna d’Arco (CMS 7 63226 2) and Muti’s wide-screen version of Aida (CDS 5 56246 2). Here again they are part of a high-octane cast that includes the man-eating Amneris of Fiorenza Cossotto. These three Verdi recordings are arguably the best available versions.
The Ballo in maschera (CMS 5 66510 2), with Riccardo Muti and Martina Arroyo, is a safe bet if you are allergic to Solti’s high-voltage account which is normally the one recommended. Otello is the famous Domingo role and all three of his studio recordings are good in their own way. This one (CDS 7 47450 8) with Maazel was the soundtrack to the Zeffirelli film (though the audio version does not repeat the disgraceful cuts that Zeffirelli made in the film). The live Ernani (CDS 7 47083 8) from La Scala will not appeal to audiophiles and the Forza del destino (CDS 7 47485 8) faces stiff competition elsewhere in the catalogue. The remaining non-Verdi sets contain many wonderful things but are compromised in varying degrees by either the other cast members or weak conducting.
EMI’s Verdi Anniversary Box is also being split up by some shops. The conductor on all these recordings is Riccardo Muti who has made it his mission to purge Italian opera of many of the slovenly traditions, interpolated high notes and other excrescences that have built up over the years. This approach has given the catalogue some truly great Verdi performances, especially the earlier studio recordings he made with the Philharmonia such as La traviata (CDS 7 47538 8) with Renata Scotto.
She might not be everyone’s ideal Violetta, a little ragged around the edges perhaps, but Alfredo Kraus and Renato Bruson are superb stylists and Muti drives the whole thing along with a terrifying energy. For instance, the card game at Flora’s party in Act II is a high point of tension in the score. As Alfredo plays for high stakes with his new rival, Violetta has a series of lyrical lines sung to herself which are almost always taken at an unmarked slower speed. Muti’s refusal to slacken the tempo at this point portrays very precisely Violetta’s anxiety.
This and many other small details add up to an electrifying account of this score. The other gem of this collection is the Macbeth (CMS 5 67128 2) which has Sherrill Milnes at his best and a real she-devil in Fiorenza Cossotto.