Verdi’s great opera currently on display at New York’s Metropolitan Opera rarely gets a good performance anywhere because of the extraordinary demands placed on its four protagonists. In 1952 RCA got the best cast ever assembled to record the opera. It’s as close to perfection as we’re ever likely to get. You can quibble about the conductor, Renato Cellini, who’s been criticized as pedestrian ever since the discs were released. Cellini is not so much bad as in the background. The singers are closely miked while the orchestra tends to sound like it’s in another room. But the singing is so glorious that you won’t be able to concentrate on anything else.
The title role demands a tenor who can do just about anything – lyrical, dramatic, beautiful tone, trill, legato. Jussi Björling in 1952 fit that description as well as anybody; all he lacked were the trills. Richard Tucker who was also great in the role had the trills. Zinka Milanov’s Leonora has yet to be matched, though a few great sopranos have come close. Fedora Barbieri was perfect as the demented gypsy Azucena. Leonard Warren was the great Verdi baritone of his time.
As an aside, everybody knows that this is the opera in which the wrong baby was thrown into the fire. I suspect that Verdi believed this as well. But how do we really know? We only have Azucena’s word for it and she’s crazier than polka dots. Anyone capable of throwing the wrong baby into a pyre is hardly a reliable historian. So short of DNA analysis we’ll never know for sure which baby was tossed and which retained. The Count instantly accepts Azucena’s story. Il Trovatore wraps up its plot lines faster than a sneeze.
She betrayed me. Off with his head. You just killed your brother. And I still live. Mother you are avenged. Curtain! It took Wagner longer to belch than it did Verdi to end this opera.
Leonard Warren sings the Count di Luna better than anyone I’ve ever heard. Warren didn’t have the dark sound that characterizes many Verdi baritones. His sound was “mahogany”. What made him unique was the ease with which he moved through the high tessitura that Verdi required of his baritones and the control and beauty of his vocal line. Furthermore, his sound was huge. He filled the old Met as no other baritone ever did. The size of his voice is difficult to discern on a recording.
We’ll get to him shortly. First here’s Barbieri’s Stride la vampa! She’s got the chest tones and the abandon needed for this role – the first of Verdi’s great mezzo creations. Barbieri and Björling give the long duet (Soli or siamo) that concludes the first scene of the second act the passion and urgency that Verdi put into it. This is the scene where Azucena tells Manrico that he isn’t her son and then that he is. No wonder he loses his head.
Il balen is one of the great examples of Verdi’s penchant for making his villains sing like angels. Warren spins it out with beauty and without effort. The high note at the end is placed into its phrase without requiring an extra breath as is the high note interpolated earlier.
Jussi Björling is so good in his third act scena that all one can do is let him speak (or sing) for himself. Ah, si ben mio and Di quella pira preserve his unique golden sound and his laser high notes. Nobody could do it better.
Zinka Milanov owned both Verdi Leonoras. This recording caught her at the peak of her powers. She makes the Miserere sound easy. Her voice is rich and silken. Björling sings Manrico’s off stage lament as if Verdi had just written it for him.
I know it’s out of sequence, but I decided to put it at the end. D’amor sull’ali rosee (Milanov) is as beautiful a melody as can be found in all opera. Its technical problems are immense. When it’s sung right it should seem effortless – like Joe DiMaggio playing center field. Milanov’s interpretation is the gold standard. All sopranos who followed her have to deal with it.
Il Trovatore marks the end of Italian opera as it was known in the first half of the 19th century. Verdi took what he had inherited from Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini to the height of perfection. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trovatore is to opera what Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling is to art. There was nothing more that could be done with romantic Italian opera. Henceforth Verdi had to chart a new course. Of course he did, reaching theatrical heights matched only by Shakespeare. But he never wrote anything more inspired than this opera. Anyone who loves opera and great singing should own this recording which has not been out of print since it first appeared 57 years ago.