Centenary Issues: Wayne Gooding Reviews Some of the Recordings Released to Mark the Verdi Anniversary. (Wayne Gooding)

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Verdi lived long enough to see in the age of the gramophone, though not quite long enough to hear the blossoming of opera recordings in the early years of the 20th century But he's been a mainstay of the catalogue almost from the beginning, in part because of the enduring popularity of his music and in part because the works lend themselves to extract and recital. This anniversary year saw some interesting celebratory activity on the part of the record companies, with exciting new entries and estimable re-releases.

Philips has a splendid back catalogue of early Verdi, and this year released two additions in Alzira (464 6282) and Aroldo (462 512-2). First performed in 1845, Alzira is Verdi's seventh opera, and, despite its exotic setting in South America, is thin stuff. Even Verdi himself took a pretty dim view of it in retrospect, though his emerging musical imprint is clearly present Herein lies the major interest for the listener. This recording, with Marina Mescheriakova, Ramon Vargas and Paolo Gavanelli under the direction of Fabio Luisi, gets as much out of the work as is likely possible. Aroldo is much more arresting musically, and here is strongly sung by Neil Shicoff, Carol Vaness, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Roberto Scandiuzzi, again under the direction of Luisi. Dating from 1857, this is unknown rather than early Verdi, being a dramatic reworking of Stiffelio--though a less successful one. The work came after Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra, and just precedes Un Ballo in Maschera. But what the opera lacks in dramatic coherence is more than compensated for by the splendid music.

The centenary year brought two new recordings of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, one conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips 462 503-2), the other by Claudio Abbado (DGG 471 194-2). The Gardiner is of interest for its use of period instruments, which makes for somewhat warmer and darker-hued orchestral coloring than we are accustomed to. Nonetheless, I prefer the Abbado. Bryn Terfel is simply more Falstaffian than the low-keyed Jean-Phillipe Lafont. Falstaff, as a Shakespeare scholar famously put it, represents "our Saturday selves." As Lafont sings--and, I think, as Gardiner conducts--it's more the embodiment of our Sunday best In ensemble, to be sure, both casts are strong (the DGG also features Canadian Adrienne Pieczonka as Alice Ford), but the work surely needs Abbado's street brio more than Gardiner's classical good manners. …