Opera De Luxe and De Rigueurs

By Shirley, Hugo | Gramophone, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Opera De Luxe and De Rigueurs


Shirley, Hugo, Gramophone


The major labels still seem to be a little unsure of exactly how to treat their extensive back catalogues. This is shown by the fact that Warner Classics has released, almost simultaneously, both a new batch of lavishly packaged remastered issues of individual operas and a budget box of Riccardo Muti's complete EMI Verdi recordings. For what you'd pay for a couple of the former (about 24[pounds sterling] for the two discs sets and 34[pounds sterling] for the three), you'd be able to buy all 28 CDs (plus bonus DVD) of the latter (about 50[pounds sterling]). Since one of the remastered classic sets is a Muti Verdi recording, though, one assumes no one anticipates much overlap in the prospective audiences.

That the Muti recording in question is La traviata with Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus (recorded in 1980) might raise eyebrows. It seems as though the series might be designed as much to cement the position of acknowledged classics as to encourage reassessment of some that have been rather overlooked (although it's worth noting that this Traviata has already appeared as one of EMI's Great Recordings of the Century).

Certainly the set has its virtues, but the leading couple had been singing their roles since as far back as the 1950s--Scotto made her debut as Violetta while still a teenager, while Kraus was Alfredo to Cabas's famous Lisbon Violetta in 1958. With a youthful Renato Bruson called upon to play Germont pere, it doesn't feel quite right. There's an enormous amount to admire in the well-drilled playing of the Philharmonia, however, as well as the experience Kraus and Scotto bring to their roles. The tenor is still impeccably elegant, although the dryness in the tone is a problem. Five years after she recorded Abigaille in Muti's Nabucco, Scotto's voice is mature-sounding and short on limpidity. The authority and sincerity are undeniable, but I can't imagine anyone preferring her performance here to that on the 1962 DG set with La Scala forces under Antonino Votto, Muti's teacher.

Another surprising choice, perhaps, is the Tosca. It's Cabas, but not the Cabas. Instead of the famous 1953 set under de Sabata, we have the 1965 recording from Paris under Georges Pretre. This was the great diva's last studio hurrah, and of course both she and, to a certain extent, Tito Gobbi are heard in a better light in that earlier recording--their Act 2 confrontation here does at one point descend into a rather unedifying shouting match. But Callas's dramatic conviction shines through despite the occluded mid-range and the dodgy top, while Carlo Bergonzi is in his prime as Cavaradossi. I find Pretre's conducting a little stodgy, the engineering rather flat and the sound effects--this recording was going to be the soundtrack for a film that was never made--occasionally distracting. Nevermind, though: there's still enough great artistry captured here to make it worth getting to know.

We're on safer 'classic recording' ground with the remaining three reissues: in reverse chronological order, Otto Klemperer's 1964 Magic Flute, Giulini's 1959 Don Giovanni and Beecham's Carmen. Returning to the Carmen (recorded in 1958 and 1959), I was a little shocked at the sound in the Prelude, where the percussion makes an almighty clatter while the rest of the orchestra sounds very distant. The engineering settles down, though, and is generally excellent in its cleaned-up guise. And the pleasure of hearing an entirely francophone cast surrounding the leading couple is immense. Victoria de los Angeles's Carmen is gently but irresistibly seductive--more civilised than we're used to hearing from many a chesty mezzo these days. Nicolai Gedda's lyrical, plaintive Don Jose is a good match. Janine Micheau and Ernst Blanc are wonderful as Micaela and Escantillo, and Beecham's conducting is as fresh as a daisy.

If Beecham's Bizet hasn't aged at all, Mozart-conducting has gone through a lot of changes since the Giulini Don Giovanni and the Klemperer Zauberflote. …

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