Today's hard quest for the true Verdi sound
There was a time in the none-too-distant past when recordings of opera boasted glamorous casts and routine conductors. Today's trend reverses the order.Skip to next paragraph
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Orchestrally, Verdi operas usually benefit from the scrutiny of a symphonic conductor sensitive to the demands of opera. Nowadays, the sort of voices Verdi wrote for are as common as hens' teeth, so accommodation is the key word. Of the performances in question, several represent the stage standard for Verdi today. It is not even the standard of a mere ten years ago, but often it will have to do.
In the case of Carlo Maria Giulini's performance of ''Rigoletto,'' the vocal standard is remarkably solid, while the orchestral performance (with the Vienna Philharmonic) proves revelatory. Maestro Giulini has often been accused of taking things too slowly, giving music so much detailed scrutiny that the dramatic impetus falls by the wayside. It is, for my tastes, an unjust accusation.
For ''Rigoletto,'' which has been obstinately given to the hacks for far too long a time, Giulini shows the listener that there is far more in the music than even the best conductors to date have revealed.
Curiously, ''Rigoletto'' is the sort of work most opera houses and record companies feel can get by with lackluster conducting, as long as the soprano and tenor have secure D's and the baritone a good A. Only Sir Georg Solti and Rafael Kubelik have set their views on disk: Kubelik's being the finest conducting of this work until Giulini's.
In the program book that accompanies the Deutsche Grammophon set (DG 2740 225 ), Giulini maintains that Verdi never wrote a ''King Lear'' opera because he had treated the Learean themes thoroughly in ''Rigoletto.'' The maestro then proceeds to justify this claim with a performance of such richness of drama, such variety of moods and passions, of such attention to the very specific emotions Verdi depicts in his orchestra that from beginning to end, one is forced to rethink the entire opera. Maestro Giulini ensures that the listener will never listen to ''Rigoletto'' with complacency again.
The singing is on a generally high level. Piero Cappuccilli turns in a sturdy performance in the title role. Ileana Cotrubas brings a lyric soprano's vocal weight to a role customarily consigned to squeaky coloraturas. Placido Domingo cuts a handsome vocal figure as the Duke, and Nicolai Ghiaurov makes a suitably dark, if rather wooly, Sparafucile.
Giulini's presence can command regal casting: Here we have Kurt Moll's thrillingly sepulchral Monterone, Elena Obraztsova's somewhat too-vibrant Maddalena, and Hanna Schwarz as Giovanna. It is a set that restores one's faith in the imagination of the recording industry, and restores an important opera to its full dramatic glory.
Then there's ''Luisa Miller.'' The Deutsche Grammophon production of this Verdi opera (DG 2531 229) is based on an actual performance during a run at Covent Garden in London, with the performing forces of that institution under the direction of Lorin Maazel. It has become very close to the standard ''Luisa'' cast at any international house today. Mr. Maazel rarely gives any sense of being really at home in this opera. His views are anti-theatrical, arbitrary, and not especially considerate of his singers.
The title role has had several memorable impersonators in the past decade - Montserrat Caballe, Renata Scotto, Katia Ricciarelli, Adriana Maliponte. Of these, only Miss Maliponte still gives thrilling performances of the part.