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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The combination of Karajan and Callas is formidably impressive. There is toughness and dramatic determination in Callas’s singing, whether in the coloratura or in the dramatic passages, and this gives the heroine an unsuspected depth of character which culminates in Callas’s fine singing of an aria that used of ten to be cut entirely—Tu vedrai che amore in terra, here with its first stanza alone including. Barbieri is a magnificent Azucena, Panerai is a strong, incisive Count, and Di Stefano is at his finest as Manrico. On CD the 1956 mono sound, now greatly improved, is one of the more vivid from La Scala at that period. The set is now available fully documentation at mid price as one of EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’.

The Naxos transfer is well up Mark Obert-Thorn’s usual high standard, and one is struck by the wide dynamic range of the recording.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, August 2008

Each of these classic Callas sets from the mid 1950s has been issued by EMI many times. Now that, in Europe at least, EMI's licensing rights have expired and they have fallen into public domain, Naxos has issued them for sale in Europe (but, obviously, available on the Internet for anyone in the United States, thus pointing out the futility of current copyright laws). There are two important aspects of these issues. One is Naxos's low price. The second is the transfer work of Mark Obert-Thorn.

I have compared these extensively with a variety of EMI CD releases—and with original LP releases as well. ...What all of this demonstrates is that the single most important technical component in reissuing old recordings is a good ear! There is a fullness, richness, to the sound here that EMI has missed in virtually all of its attempts. These transfers seem a bit brighter. ...There is no question in my mind, there is a presence and immediacy to the sound on these Naxos issues that simply is lacking in the EMI CDs. (The one sacrifice you'll make is the omission of a libretto.)

Naxos also had to leave out the scene that opens the fourth act of Forza. ...But in its place, Naxos has given us the complete 53-minute RCA highlight album of Forza issued in the mid 1950s by RCA, but compiled from a number of sources between 1950 and 1955. Featuring Milanov, Peerce, Warren, and Moscona, it is yet another reminder of the glory days of Verdi singing that were the 1950s. . .Listening to these three recordings over the past month has been an unalloyed pleasure.

Callas is of course the central reason for these reissues, the one common thread to all three. In 1954-56 she was still in her vocal prime. . .The other singers also represented, for the most part, operatic greatness. I had forgotten just how beautiful Di Stefano's Riccardo was—I've been bathing in his glorious sound. I'm not going to go into details here, because these recordings have stayed in the marketplace for a half century and are very well known to collectors. If you don't know them, now is the time. If you do, the Naxos reissues are worth investing in. If you have an EMI release, you can replace it and keep the libretto. It is recordings like these for which the record industry exists. . .Each of these three recordings stands alongside the best ever made of these operas, and each belongs in any serious opera collection.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, April 2008

The acoustics of the Teatro alla Scala are not exactly flattering to the orchestra and chorus. They are dry and lack atmosphere and Il Trovatore of all operas needs a sense of outdoor sensation to make its mark. It says a great deal about Karajan’s incisive conducting that all the raw elemental force of this opera is conveyed so convincingly. Bright and direct it is but never crude, thanks to a certain aristocratic nobility also inherent in his reading. All through the performance there is a spring in the step that is sorely missing in most of Karajan’s remakes of this and several other operas. As an operatic conductor he was at his most convincing during the late 1950s with a string of pearls of great recordings: Cosi fan tutte, Madama Butterfly, Rosenkavalier, Falstaff, Tosca, Aida and Otello. They are all unsurpassable classics and the remakes were all more or less idiosyncratic. To be blunt: they put Karajan in the forefront instead of the opera in question. Somebody – was it Caruso? – said that a satisfying performance of Il Trovatore needed just one thing: the five best singers in the world. Karajan as well as the aristocratic Serafin and Giulini (both on DG) clearly demonstrate that there is something beyond the blatant rum-ti-dum jauntiness one associates with this score. If there is a hero in this recording it is the conductor, who secures high-octane playing and singing from La Scala. One need only refer to the tremendous ‘go’ in the springy and vital opening of the third act. Interestingly the soldiers’ chorus, which follows, is more sedate than one would expect, but there is no lack of power. Most of all though, Karajan sees to it that the soloists get their due without vulgarizing or sentimentalizing the music.

For the conducting alone this is one of the most vitalizing readings of Il Trovatore ever recorded, but any performance or recording of this maltreated masterpiece falls flat without singing of the highest order and by and large that is what it gets here.

Nicola Zaccaria opens the proceedings with his expressive reading of Ferrandos’s great narrative that provides the background to this cruel tale, and the four main soloists more than live up to expectations. Fedora Barbieri was, in good company with Giulietta Simionato, the Italian mezzo-soprano of this period, in the wake between Ebe Stignani and Fiorenza Cossotto, and she is a superb Azucena, crude as well as emotional. She sang the role also on Cellini’s recording on RCA Victor a few years earlier, possibly the strongest contender among mono recordings.

Rolando Panerai is an uncommonly lyrical Count di Luna, which makes him a believable suitor of Leonora but a less than formidable rival to Manrico. His sonorous nut-brown is anyway a pleasure to hear. Giuseppe Di Stefano as Manrico is a more dubious asset but truth to tell he is surprisingly successful in a role that ideally needs a much more heavyweight singer. Di Stefano is, however, an ardent lover and his Ah! si ben mio is superb: lyrical and inward, pouring out beautiful, golden tone without forcing. Di quella pira is sung without too much strain but the high C is only nudged at. Elsewhere he sometimes resorts to that pinched tone that was so typical for him in dramatic situations. His act 4 scene with Azucena is invariably warm and caring.

But it is Maria Callas who is the cover girl and she is in uncommonly good shape. Having listened extensively to her recorded output I have been able to detect certain break-points, when the voice markedly deteriorated. The most obvious one was somewhere between September 1953 and March 1954, but here in August 1956 she was certainly at the heights of her powers. Rarely has Tacea la notte been sung with such concentrated tone and such superbly-shaped long Verdian phrases. The cabaletta Di tale amor is light and springy, as though a soubrette had suddenly popped into the studio.

She is just as great in the fourth act where D’amor sull’ali rosee has rarely been sung with such hushed intensity, exemplary phrasing and that peculiar beauty of tone; the latter possibly an acquired taste. Even those who are more or less allergic to the Callas sound have to admit that she for once manages almost all the high notes without the tone spreading unduly. In the last act she is also regal at Tu vedrai che amore in terra and the dialogue with Luna that leads up to Mira, d’acerbe lagrime has tremendous drive. The duet is gloriously sung on both hands. It is so good to have the baritone part sung without disfiguring histrionics.

We are today spoilt for choice – at least if we are satisfied with recordings approaching and exceeding half a century. Cellini (RCA, now Naxos, 1952), the present one and Serafin (DG, 1962) have no weak points but a lot that is superb. It is interesting that all three have Manrico sung by primarily lyrical tenors – Björling, Di Stefano and Bergonzi – who show that a slimmer voice and musical phrasing pays dividends also in this can belto role. Of these three versions Serafin is the only one in stereo and generally the most sophisticated sound, while Karajan’s is the most positive conducting.

There is no libretto enclosed but we get a track-related synopsis that is fully acceptable.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2008

While the recording of Il Trovatore was placed on the market to showcase Maria Callas in one of her greatest roles, it was the young conductor, Herbert von Karajan, who brought the performance together, and showed that the La Scala orchestra could be a top class outfit when they had a conductor of his quality on the rostrum. Put these two together and the mix is potent, the dramatic aspects of Leonora’s role quite breathtaking, and the many technical demands dispatched with such security that they cease to exist. Callas was the first Leonora on disc to realise that this was a lyric role, and together with Karajan’s help she could mould long flowing lines that often melted into the most beautiful floated pianissimo passages. Her tight trills are a joy to hear; her intonation never blighted as is so often the case in the exacting moments of the score. That she did tend to ‘sing everyone off the stage’ matters little, the rest of the cast were simply supporting her brilliance. Giuseppe Di Stefano was not born to sing Manrico, his voice not having the steely strength to capture the character, but he does take a second verse of Di quella pira ending with a ringing note of defiance. We get the general drift of his role, and he is most persuasive in the heated exchange with Callas as the opera goes to its sad conclusion. If Rolando Panerai is not the Tito Gobbi who would have been the ideal Count di Luna, he is a reliable singer who can make the most of dark moments, and manages to stoke up a powerful conclusion to the first act. Fedora Barbieri is a well seasoned Azucena, though the trills in Stride la vampa defeated her, and for Ferrando we have the powerful Nicola Zaccaria who makes an imposing presence. The chorus are a world-class ensemble for Karajan, the famous Anvil Chorus emerging less hackneyed than normal. Technically this was probably the best of the La Scala recordings given to Callas, the sound transparent and well balanced, the transfer engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, extracting the best sound we have had in many previous reincarnations. A Callas disc to treasure and at a ridiculous price.

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