Verdi: Il trovatore
Jussi Bjoerling, tenor (Manrico); Gina Cigna, soprano (Leonora); Gertrud Wettergren, mezzo-soprano (Azucena); Mario Basiola, baritone (Il Conte di Luna); Corrado Zambelli, bass (Fernando); Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vittorio Gui, cond.
Bel Canto Society BCS-5000 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 2:07:19

Verdi:  Il trovatore
Franco Corelli, tenor (Manrico); Mirella Parutto, soprano (Leonora); Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano (Azucena); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Il Conte di Luna); Agostino Ferrin, bass (Fernando); Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera, Oliviero de Fabritiis, Conductor. 
Bel Canto Society BCS-5012 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 2:18:58

Recent issues by Bel Canto Society of in-performance recordings document two of the past century's greatest tenors interpreting one of their finest roles. Both Jussi Bjoerling and Franco Corelli made commercial recordings of Verdi's Il trovatore —the former for RCA, the latter for EMI. The studio recordings are quite fine, indeed. In fact the RCA starring not only Bjoerling, but Zinka Milanov, Leonard Warren, and Fedora Barbieri in their respective primes, is often mentioned by critics as a "desert island" recording. But when I want to hear the best of these unique and superb artists, I almost invariably seek their in-performance recordings.  Both Bjoerling and Corelli were at their best when performing not in a studio, but rather, before appreciative audiences. In the heat of the moment, these artists seemed less inhibited, and inclined to give more of themselves. In Franco Corelli's case, perhaps this generosity was sometimes taken to excess but, as you'll see in my review of a 1967 Parma Tosca, you won't hear any complaint from this writer. As for Bjoerling, his live recordings sweep away all criticism that the Swedish tenor was a cold, uninvolved performer.

The Bel Canto Society Bjoerling Il trovatore documents a Covent Garden performance May 12, 1939. Recently this same performance was reissued on the Urania label (URN 22.115) where it appears reverberation was added to the original source material. The Bel Canto Society issue seems to be a fairly straightforward remastering. I suspect that many, particularly those not used to historic recordings, will find the Urania issue more "listener-friendly."  Those who prefer a more purist approach will probably opt for the Bel Canto Society issue. Both I should emphasizeare quite listenable, although they certainly featuring a dynamic range and presence more limited than contemporary commercial recordings.

Despite any sonic shortcomings, this Trovatore is essential listening, as it ranks among Bjoerling's greatest recorded performances. The Swedish tenor is in his youthful prime, with a gloriously sweet and supple tone that also offers plenty of slancio. The high notes ring out with tremendous focus and power. Bjoerling joins Gina Cigna for a resounding D-flat at the conclusion of the Act I Trio. The cabaletta, "Di quella pira" features two stunning high Cs, the second driving the Covent Garden audience into a frenzy.  There is also a sensitivity in Bjoerling's performance that places it on an exalted level. The exchanges with Azucena and Leonora are delivered with a loving tenderness that serves to make Bjoerling's heroic outpourings all the more potent. In short, Bjoerling ideally captures all three aspects of Manrico's character—son, lover, and warrior.

Bjoerling also possesses the technical gifts to do justice to Verdi's challenging music. "Ah sì, ben mio," taken at a true adagio, demonstrates the tenor's impressive breath control. The aria also features beautiful dynamic shading, and a masterful employment of rubato. And, rarity of rarities, Bjoerling treats his audience to a pair of brief, but perfectly executed trills, just as Verdi demands. This is certainly my favorite Bjoerling rendition of this beautiful aria, and one of the greatest versions of all time.  I could go on and on about the magnificence of Bjoerling's Covent Garden Manrico. Suffice it to say that even if you own his excellent RCA studio Trovatore, you should make an effort to hear this far more inspired interpretation.

The rest of the cast is quite strong. Soprano Gina Cigna, who died recently at the age of 101, brings a heroic voice and plenty of temperament to the role of Leonora. In this performance I frequently had the sense that Cigna was working hard to scale back her massive voice to handle Leonara's more lyrical passages. Nevertheless, Cigna handles the coloratura reasonably well and there is much poised, beautiful singing. And as you might expect, the climaxes ring out with impressive force. This is certainly not a shy and retiring Leonora, but a passionate woman who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the man she loves.  Mezzo-soprano Gertrud Wettergren begins rather slowly, encountering difficulties sustaining the line in her opening monologue. By the last two Acts she hits her stride. The confrontation with di Luna is quite impressive, as is the touching final scene with Manrico.

Mario Basiola is a lyric-voiced Count di Luna who is nevertheless quite capable of portraying the character's vengeful nature. He manages conductor Vittorio Gui's slow tempo for "Il balen" quite well. One curiosity—in the recitative preceding the Act III confrontation with Azucena, Basiola takes the phrase "O Leonora!" down an octave, in a hoarse whisper. Perhaps this is a brief episode of vocal distress, from which, in any event, Basiola quickly recovers. Bass Corrado Zambelli is a strong Ferrando.

Vittorio Gui leads a performance that often features broad tempi. Nevertheless, the momentum never sags, due to the conductor's masterful application of rubato, insistence upon incisive attacks, and keen sense of rhythmic and dynamic contrast. I doubt you would hear too many of today's conductors take such an individual approach to Verdi's score, thus making this performance all the more valuable despite the limitations of the recorded sound.

No such reservations need be applied to the sonics of the October 1, 1961 Berlin performance by the forces of the Rome Opera, under the direction of Oliviero de Fabritiis. The sound is well-balanced, with ample warmth and clarity—certainly clear enough to hear the audible prompter! Only the occasional, slight overload on the highest, loudest notes (usually female) keeps the recording from approaching the ideal. Bel Canto Society also retains a considerable amount of the audience's enthusiastic response, further adding to the atmosphere of the occasion.

The performance begins well, with an excellent account of Ferrando's narrative by Agostino Ferrin—dramatically involved and attentive to the composer's dictates. Not as impressive is Mirella Parutto'’s rendition of Leonora's opening scene. The recitative and start of the aria begin promisingly, with a convincing sense of Leonora's desperation aligned to a lovely vocal quality. But as the aria progresses, the high notes become more precarious, and Parutto's struggles continue in the ensuing cabaletta. Indeed throughout this Trovatore, Parutto's inconsistency mars her performance. A valiant effort, but one that certainly pales beside other Leonoras in Corelli performances, such as Leontyne Price and Gabriella Tucci.

Corelli begins in magnificent voice, holding a B-flat in Manrico's entrance for what seems an eternity. As with Bjoerling, Corelli joins his Leonora for a high D-flat at the conclusion of the Act I Trio (his far more secure than Parutto's). The audience loves both of these thrilling liberties with Verdi's score, as well as the interpolated high notes in "Di quella pira"-- here taken down a half-step to B. But in the end it is the discipline and sensitivity aligned with these magnificent vocal gifts that makes this Corelli Manrico so outstanding. Certainly there is the occasional sloppiness of rhythm, an aspirate instead of a true legato here and there. And of course as with most Manricos there are no trills in the great aria. But for the greater part of the Berlin/Rome Trovatore, Corelli seeks and attains the synthesis of Bel Canto elegance and romantic passion that is at the heart of this great opera. I find this performance the best of the Corelli Manricos I've heard, including a 1961 Met broadcast led by Fausto Cleva, a 1962 Salzburg performance under von Karajan (both with Leontyne Price) and the 1965 EMI studio recording with Gabriella Tucci, Thomas Schippers conducting.

Most impressive are Corelli's scenes with Azucena, performed by the great Fedora Barbieri. At this stage of Barbieri's career, the high notes did not come easily. In fact she completely ducks the B-flat toward the conclusion of her Act II narrative "Condotta ell’era in ceppi." But there is so much that is right about Barbieri's Azucena—the wonderful diction, the rich tone, the dramatic intensity that chillingly portray the character's precarious mental state—that any shortcomings pale within the greater context.

And Barbieri's great performance seems to inspire Corelli to one of his most probing and sensitive interpretations.  I recommend this Trovatore to those who believe that Franco Corelli was incapable of insight and subtlety. I'll cite but one example of the superb interplay between these two wonderful artists. After Azucena has described the burning of her own child, Manrico cries, "I am not your son! And who am I?" Azucena insists that Manrico is her son, and reminds him, "Haven't I always been a tender mother to you?" Verdi directs that Azucena sing this phrase "con passione," which Barbieri does, with a pleading in her voice that tugs at the heart. It certainly tugs at the heart of Corelli's Manrico, who replies, "Can I deny it?" in a breathtaking hushed and tender voice. Time and again, Barbieri and Corelli give us such unforgettable moments.

Ettore Bastianini's well-documented Count di Luna has always inspired ambivalence on my part. I find the baritone's vibrant, dark, and handsome vocal quality virtually ideal for the role. On the other hand, the lack of a true legato and the obvious effort in coping with di Luna's high tessitura compromise Bastianini's undeniable strengths. There is certainly much to enjoy in this virile and intense performance, but it lacks the refinement that is very much part of the Count's music, if not his character.

Oliviero de Fabritiis leads a propulsive and well-shaped account of the score. Both the Covent Garden and Berlin/Rome Opera performances feature traditional stage cuts. In addition the Covent Garden Trovatore excises the interlude between Manrico's aria and cabaletta (no organ or organist available?).

I've gone at great length about these two performances, but their unique qualities justify the space. Both are urgently recommended as documents of the finest work of two quite different, yet equally great tenors. The considerable strengths of many of their colleagues only add to the value of these most welcome releases.

K.M. (Aug. 2001)