Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fascinating and always entertaining … any lover of Pavarotti’s remarkable voice should have it.
The recent death of Luciano Pavarotti, much lamented in circles that go far beyond the opera house, is sure to bring a spate of re-releases to commemorate his remarkable contribution to music in the last fifty years. This box from EMI sets a good standard against which the others can be compared. This "complete" survey is so slim because Pavarotti was a Decca man throughout his life, and only made recordings with other companies when given special dispensation from them. Such recordings were nearly always linked to live performances, and that’s true of the two Verdi works here - conducted by Muti who was an EMI
artist. L’Amico Fritz, on the other hand, was made towards the very start of Pavarotti’s recording career (1968) before he had signed an exclusive contract with Decca. EMI must still be kicking themselves today that they let such a prize get away!
Both dramatically and musically, L’Amico Fritz is the least satisfying work in this set, and yet it probably shows Pavarotti’s art in its greatest light. The voice is in startlingly fresh form here, and it makes it easy to see just why this young tenor caused such as stir when he made his debut in the early 1960s. Pavarotti’s greatest assets were always his virile tone and flawless sense of vocal line. While the tone may have darkened and deteriorated in later years, here we find it at its most compelling and fresh. He enervates the role of Fritz: the arias are compelling, and he blends perfectly with his friend - and fellow Modena native - Mirella Freni in the duets. She sounds just as youthful and she plays the young innocent convincingly. The opera itself may not have a great deal to recommend it: the famous Cherry Duet in Act 2 whets the appetite for more, but none of the other numbers, however charming, are sufficiently developed and not nearly as dramatically rich as those in Cavalleria Rusticana. Still, the performances show it in its best possible light, and it’s easy to see why Decca snapped Pavarotti up so quickly after this set was made.
The two Verdi numbers come from much later in Pavarotti’s career. The Verdi Requiem (1987) brings both benefits and gains. It is a definite improvement on Muti’s earlier recording of the Requiem (1978) for EMI with the Philharmonia. He moulds the score so as to bring out the religious fervour of the work and this is effective in its way: the very opening is hushed, almost fearful, while the Agnus Dei brings a subtle suggestion of hope and redemption. The bigger moments aren’t as successful, however, and this isn’t helped by the fact that the recording is so recessed. The chorus seem to be singing in the next room and the big climaxes like the Dies Irae can sound like a bit of a yell: the tenors and basses are noticeably too keen to get going at the start of the Rex Tremendae! Furthermore the acoustic is rather dry and the brass in particular tend to bray in a harsh, intrusive manner. The solo singing is a different matter, however, as each member of the quartet "acts" their role wonderfully. Pavarotti himself provides a more mature reading than he did for Solti in Vienna, and his voice feels very well suited to this repertoire. When required to he lets rip with the full flow of emotion - the first breath of the Kyrie, for example - and the Ingemisco is a real highlight. However he also blends with the others beautifully, heard in the Offertorio and Lux Aeterna. Dolora Zajick’s refulgent mezzo fits Muti’s vision of the piece well and, while Cheryl Studer is in danger of sliding between her notes, her Libera Me is anguished, imploring and desperate in turn: the reprise of the Requiem aeternam theme is really moving. The most successful soloist, however, is Samuel Ramey whose bass rings with authority: his Mors stupebit depicts a desolate world laid waste and he manages the contrast in the dynamics of his voice to give an exciting yet tender Confutatis. So while the choral contributions may well mean that this isn’t anyone’s first choice for the Requiem, the solo singing is well worth hearing.
And so to the biggest work in this set: Don Carlo, and it’s the Four-Act Italian version. This production achieved notoriety at its premiere (December 1992) and made front pages around the world for all the wrong reasons. At the height of his international fame Pavarotti took on the title role, whose dramatic demands lie well outside his normal bel canto territory: however he cracked some exposed high notes on the first night and was booed by the La Scala loggianisti. (The loggianisti are the die-hard opera lovers who sit in the cheapest seats in the house, attend as many performances as they can and demand very high standards from their performers: it was in response to their boos that Roberto Alagna walked off stage during the second performance of Aida in December 2006.) Rodney Milnes, the critic for Opera Magazine who was present at that first night, suggested that it had little to do with his singing and much more to do with the fact that Pavarotti had dared to spurn La Scala earlier in his career and had recently cancelled a run of L’Elisir d’Amore with very little notice: he needed to be taught a lesson and the cracked notes gave them a chance. Neither cracked notes nor boos can be heard on this recording, though, and in spite of the bad publicity it’s an exciting and surprising performance, not least because of Pavarotti himself. For so late in his career (57) his assumption of the young prince is quite thrilling. Throughout his career he had remarkable breath control and a really exhilarating tone, and these both serve him well for this arduous role. He is at his best in the "big" moments, such as the Auto-da-Fé scene and the duets with Posa in Act 1. However he can still manage genuine pianissimos in his two duets with Elizabeth. The voice betrays very few signs of age (save at the very end) and he provides the excitement that the role needs. He is well supported in the Posa of Paolo Coni whose beautiful voice rises superbly to the challenge of the death scene, and Luciana d’Intino’s Eboli brings a really rich, fruity tone to this key role. Her Veil Song is well controlled, she plays the spurned lover with venom in the Act 2 Scene 1, and she sings a genuinely thrilling O Don Fatale, with ringing top notes to end probably the greatest scene in Verdi. Again, however, the Philip II of Samuel Ramey is probably the strongest link: throughout he sings with unimpeachable authority and real beauty, giving a complete, rounded portrait of the tormented monarch. This helps to make Act 3 Scene 1 the real highlight of the set as he spars with the thunderous Grand Inquisitor of Alexander Anisimov before responding to the damaged dignity of his wife. The Elizabeth of Daniela Dessì is perfectly adequate but not much more: she tires by the time she gets to Tu che la vanita but all the notes are there. Muti conducts energetically and the orchestra are as good as you would expect at La Scala. The live recording doesn’t help the chorus, though, who sometimes sound too distant.
One of the great selling points of this set is that it provides both the CDs and DVDs of the stage production. One is the soundtrack of the other so there is no difference in terms of performance: the DVD has marginally better sound and it comes with a surround option, though that doesn’t make an enormous difference. The production, by Franco Zeffirelli, is predictably large in scale. The sets are all monumental affairs, and several flights of stairs run through each scene creating, for example, a shrine to Charles V during the monastery scenes or a raised platform for the religious leaders during the Auto-da-Fé scene. That scene in particular is bursting with extras and, limited to the size of a TV screen, it looks rather too crowded. In fact I found the whole production rather lacking in the insights that Zeffirelli normally brings to his operatic work. He creates vast backdrops that can be oppressively dark (the monastery and prison scenes) or bright and gaudy (Act 1, Scene 2), but he does very little to elicit insights into the emotional lives of the characters who sometimes seem like statues void of real feeling. It is telling that the most effective scene is the most intimate: the scene in Philip’s study. Here Zeffirelli’s use of lush fabrics and period furniture evokes the luxury and desolation at the centre of the King’s world, a contradiction which that scene so marvellously explores. When the curtain goes up Philip is seen lost in thought, eyes closed, head in hands, a pose he hold for the first five minutes of the scene. This is also the scene where Zeffirelli comes closes to revealing the emotional web that binds the royal household together, in particular during the great quartet when Elizabeth kneels imploringly before the King, but is still spurned as he sweeps out. Rodney Milnes described the production as "dead from the neck up" and the acting is fairly non-existent, though the trio in Act 2 Scene 1 does show vivid interaction. Be warned, though: the picture quality is pretty poor throughout. RAI’s production is consistently poorly focused and blurred, and this can be a genuine strain on the eyes if you watch it for too lon
g, particularly when characters are spot-lit against a dark background. So how does this set serve as a testament to Pavarotti’s career? In a sense it give us examples from the two extremes: a light role from the start of his career and a dramatic role from the end. With only three (unusual, for him) roles it simply doesn’t work as a full survey, but it is to EMI’s credit that they have not tried to make it such: instead they present the set simply as a sample of Pavarotti’s work, and the examples of his artistry that they were lucky enough to bring to us. It remains a fascinating and always entertaining document, especially for the two operas, and any lover of his remarkable voice should have it. What’s more the price is very attractive and it’s bound to be available for a limited time only, so snap it up while you can. Other labels, take note when you’re preparing your tributes!
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
L'Amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni
Vincente Sardinero (Baritone),
Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor),
Mirella Freni (Soprano),
Malvina Major (Soprano),
Luigi Pontiggia (Tenor),
Laura Didier-Gambardella (Mezzo Soprano),
Benito Di Bella (Baritone)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra
Written: 1891; Italy
Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi
Marilena Laurenza (Soprano),
Nuccia Focile (Soprano),
Daniela Dessi (Soprano),
Paolo Coni (Baritone),
Alexander Anisimov (Bass),
Orfeo Zanetti (Tenor),
Mario Bolognesi (Baritone),
Luciana D'Intino (Soprano),
Andrea Silvestrelli (Bass),
Samuel Ramey (Bass),
Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra
Notes: Ver: 1884 (four acts)
Arranger: Giuseppe Verdi.
Requiem Mass by Giuseppe Verdi
Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor),
Samuel Ramey (Bass),
Cheryl Studer (Soprano),
Dolora Zajic (Mezzo Soprano)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra
Written: 1874; Italy
Be the first to review this title