WORKS: Operatic excerpts
PERFORMER: Plácido Domingo (tenor); various orchestras and conductors
CATALOGUE NO: 471 335-2 ADD/DDD Reissue (1968-2000)
The idea of compiling a synoptic survey of Verdi’s complete operas, albeit from the skewed perspective of the tenor voice, is not a bad one: Carlo Bergonzi carried it off splendidly in a famous 1975 Philips set. But whereas that comprised 31 specially made studio recordings charting Verdi’s career aria by aria from Oberto to Falstaff, the 53 chunks offered on DG’s four CDs are mostly culled from Domingo’s back-catalogue and, while they include sizeable scenes and ensembles, not just solo arias, their random ordering seems designed more to reflect the 60-year-old tenor’s largely unchanging virtues over the past 30-odd years than the composer’s developing art.
As it is, Domingo has only ever sung half of Verdi’s operas on stage, plus a few more in the studio, so 21 items have been newly recorded. The set’s main selling-point, these novelties are also its weakest link. For, of course, the operas Domingo has never sung before mostly date from Verdi’s youthful ‘galley years’, where the rule is: the earlier the opera, the higher the tenor part. Never anyone’s idea of a tenore di grazia, the now-heavyweight Domingo has frankly left it too late to tackle such lyrical high-flyers as Riccardo (Oberto) or Edoardo (Un giorno di regno): pain and strain are audible, and not just on the highest notes. Maybe that’s why DG decided to bury the new items within a Domingo retrospective rather than releasing them as a self-contained set of Verdi debut recordings. Either way, if it’s the composer you want, you’re better off with the stylish Bergonzi set, supplemented (if you can find it) by Pavarotti Premieres, the disc of alternative arias that Domingo’s great rival recorded for Sony back in 1980, when he was 45.
By coincidence, two of those Verdi rarities have been co-opted into the hefty ten-CD Pavarotti Edition issued by DG’s labelmate Decca to mark its star tenor’s 40 years on stage. Don’t be seduced by the box-top’s promise of ‘material never before released’. In over 12 hours of music there are just three new items: two slightly ungainly Mozartian arias, recorded in Vienna in 1983 and deservedly shelved, and an air from Massenet’s Manon, also recorded in 1983 (in New York and in Italian) but replete with poetry and passion, and rightly resurrected. But if you don’t already own all Pavarotti’s complete recordings, recital discs and existing compilations, this is definitely the most comprehensive (and lavishly presented) survey you can get of a singer who remains probably the finest Italian tenor of our age – certainly the finest lyric tenor, judging by the early bel canto recordings made before the move into heavier rep began to harden his tone in the mid-Eighties. The bonus disc – a first CD release of the beardless young tenor’s 1964 debut EP is almost worth the price of the set alone.