, July 2010
Herbert von Karajan returned to the Vienna Opera in 1977 with a Trovatore very similar to this one, but it wasn’t videotaped at that time. The following year the production was mounted again with minor changes, save the replacement of Leontyne Price with Raina Kabaivanska. Late in production—during a dress rehearsal, in fact—Franco Bonisolli walked out, and Plàcido Domingo, who had sung the role for many years, took his place. This pushed the broadcast date back a bit, and as a result, it wasn’t seen through a good part of western and central Europe, but only on Austrian television. That is the production we have here, and it’s a very fine traditional one.
The leads range from good to excellent. Kabaivanska is at her best in a superb “Tacea la notte placida,” floating the high notes you’d expect from a top-flight lyric soprano, along with the kind of dramatic inflection that can’t be easily assumed. Fiorenza Cossotto’s top is short in “Stride la vampa,” but the voice evens out later, and her act IV duet is first-rate. Domingo’s “Di quella pira” is strained, but “Ah sì, ben mio” is one of the finest live versions I’ve heard: urgent yet lyrically persuasive, graced with both heroic metal when briefly required and a pair of genuine trills. (At least, if they did use the pulse of his vibrato, it was a very different, much faster vibrato than he regularly employs.) Piero Cappuccilli isn’t always well focused, and “Il balen” lacks ideal smoothness, but he makes an imposing presence and a strong voice in the louder, more threatening pages of his part. Aside from one rushed breath and a couple of gulped notes, José van Dam is excellent in his single number.
I’ve left out all mention of acting so far because it’s difficult to speak of it and Il Trovatore at the same time. It’s an opera of stereotypes, not people: the mad Gypsy, the put-upon lover with two suitors, the vengeful aristocrat, the gallant hero of the people. Nor did Karajan, who stage directed as well as conducted the work, ask his cast to do more than stand in place or move when absolutely required. On the other hand, the spare but attractive sets of Teo Otto do a fine job of emphasizing all the stage’s spatial elements, while Georges Wakhewitsch’s superb costumes really bring the period to life. Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s camerawork focuses almost entirely on close-ups and medium shots, for once to good advantage, since it breaks up Karajan’s dull, fixed blocking, and creates a visual movement to match the music where none exists on stage. The film’s age isn’t apparent, with next to no artifacts, loss of detail, or over-contrast.
Karajan’s own conducting was, as often in live opera during his late years, not nearly as dull as his often soporific studio recordings. Act IV seems a bit sluggish—the Miserere sequence never catches fire—but most of the performance finds rhythms well supported, along with some small degree of flexibility where his singers are concerned. Accommodating Cappuccilli’s wish to lengthen some phrases was repeatedly ignored, but Cossotto’s need to get quickly off a few poor high notes was acceded to.
Sound formats are PCM stereo and DD 5.1, with a 4:3 picture ratio. Subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese. In short, a fine Il Trovatore, with some knockout performances. Recommended.