VERDI: Il trovatore
Francesco Merli, tenor (Manrico); Bianca Scacciati, soprano (Leonora); Giuseppina Zinetti, mezzo-soprano (Azucena); Enrico Molinari, baritone (Il Conte di Luna); Corrado Zambelli, bass (Fernando). Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala Opera House, Milan/ Lorenzo Molajoli, cond.  Plus, Bianca Scacciati in excerpts from I Lombardi, Ruy Blas, Il Guarany, and Loreley (with Francesco Merli and Nazzareno de Angelis)
Naxos 8.110162-63 (2 Discs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:30:09

Naxos continues its admirable series of reissues of historic opera recording with this 1930 Italian Columbia Il trovatore. For many reasons it is a set that will probably appeal more to specialist collectors than to the general public. Still it offers many pleasures, and at budget price is well worth acquiring.

As is clear from the names of the participants, this Il trovatore is very much an Italian affair, and mostly to good advantage. What a great pleasure it is to hear Salvatore Cammarano's text delivered with the relish it is accorded here. And what a pleasure it is to listen to singers who understand how to phrase Verdi's music in such a way as to give it a dynamism and pulse missing in so many contemporary performances. Finally, it's also a pleasure to encounter a conductor who knows how to give singers room to make their individual points without disrupting the overall flow of the music and drama.

Also highly Italianate is the vibrancy found in the timbres of the various singers. This kind of pronounced and quick vibrato, so prominent in the early part of the 20th century, has today largely disappeared. Consequently I suspect many listeners will find it will take some adjustment to enjoy these voices on their own terms. Likewise, those who value the bel canto elements in Il trovatore might be put off by the emphatic verismo approach that was more in vogue when this recording was made.

For me the most impressive performance on this recording is the Manrico of Francesco Merli, one of the finest tenors of his generation. Here Merli is in sterling form, with ringing top notes ("Di quella pira" is taken down a half step to B) and a superb sense of dramatic involvement. Throughout Merli takes great care to portray Manrico's three-dimensional character—loving son, tender lover, and warrior.

Bianca Scacciati is likewise a fascinating presence. Her Leonora is uncommonly passionate, a real dramatic force. The soprano also knows how to phrase with elegance and restraint. Far more problematic is the basic vocal quality, which can become rather squally under pressure. Still Scacciati's Leonora is one of the most dramatically compelling on discs, and therefore worth hearing.

By contrast, Enrico Molinari sings beautifully as the Count di Luna, but with very little character definition. His restrained approach certainly is appropriate for di Luna's noble side, but the vengeful aspect of this character is virtually absent.

Giuseppina Zinetti's Azucena has come in for some harsh criticism. Roland Graeme, in The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera, deems her "rather matronly-sounding." Ward Marston, producer of this Naxos issue, views her casting as a "perhaps unfortunate choice"  I find Zinetti - one or two opaque top notes apart - perfectly acceptable. She uses her warm, attractive voice with style and dramatic understanding, and is quite effective in her scenes with Merli.  Corrado Zambelli sings attractively as Ferrando, although I would have welcomed more of a sense of horror in his opening narrative. The contributions of conductor Lorenzo Molajoli and the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra are first-rate. Indeed a wonderful sense of collaboration between all of the artists is evident throughout.

Ward Marston's remastering is predictably fine. The voices, in particular, emerge with considerable definition and warmth. As a bonus, Naxos has included several excerpts from other operas performed by Scacciati and colleagues, including an electrifying rendition of the great Trio from Verdi's I Lombardi, with Merli and Nazzareno de Angelis.

All in all, a most fascinating release. Given the presence of numerous stage cuts in vogue at the time, the vintage recorded sound and the idiosyncratic nature of the performance, this can hardly be recommended as a first choice for Il trovatore. But as a document of several important singers and their bygone tradition, it is of considerable value. At budget price, I doubt that many will feel cheated.

K.M. (April 2002)