VERDI: Trovatore (Il) (Bjorling, Milanov, Cellini) (1952) (Naxos Historical: 8.110240-41)
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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il trovatore was the middle opera of the three masterpieces that consolidated Giuseppe Verdis fame. Composed mainly in 1852, it came two years after Rigoletto and was finished only months before the much more quickly written La traviata. Its brilliant music gave Verdi perhaps the greatest success of his career, as Trovatore ignited public enthusiasm even more wholeheartedly than Rigoletto had done. By comparison La traviata, which had a rather downbeat première and had to be revised, was a slow starter in the popularity stakes.
As he would later do with La forza del destino, Verdi went to an elaborate Spanish tragedy for his inspiration in this case El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez. In the spring of 1851, soon after the première of Rigoletto, he began work on shaping a libretto in collaboration with the Neapolitan poet Salvatore Cammarano. Everything went reasonably well until Cammaranos death in July 1852, which was a personal as well as a professional setback for Verdi. The final work on the libretto was done by the young poet Leone Emanuele Bardare, who provided some crucial verses. Il trovatore had its triumphant première at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 19th January 1853 and swept through the major Italian opera houses over the next two years. In May 1855 it was heard in both New York and London and since then it has been a fixture in the repertoire.
Much ink has been spilt on the convoluted nature of the story, the subject of many parodies, and for todays sensibilities it is difficult to see any meaning in the deaths at the end of the opera. Perhaps it is best to view the tragedy as Verdi probably saw it, as a vehicle for strong, stirring stage situations. In the theatre (or even listening to a good recording such as this one) it is impossible not to be swept away by the passion of the trio in Part I, Scene 2, the duet of Azucena and Manrico in Part II, Scene 1, the confrontation between the gypsy and Luna in Part III, Scene 1, the Miserere and the duet of Leonora and the Count di Luna in Part IV, Scene 1, or the moving ensembles in the final scene. Then there are the arias, all of which are among the strongest written by Verdi. One of his main gifts to Italian opera was his creation of the balanced cast, in which soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and bass all took an equal share in the action. This magnificent variety came to its first full fruition in Il trovatore, which requires five singers of the highest calibre the bass rôle is not as extensive as the others but Ferrando opens the opera with a superb scene (shared with the chorus, another vital ingredient in Verdis brew) which establishes the atmosphere for what follows. The most exceptional creation is the mezzo-soprano rôle of the crazed gypsy Azucena, whose agitated narration Condotta ellera in ceppi foreshadows Verdis later style. From the beginning she dominated the composers feelings about the opera and he originally envisaged hers as the major female rôle; only at a fairly late stage did he decide that Leonora should have equal prominence. The other outstanding innovation is the tenor rôle of Manrico, the most brilliant that Verdi ever wrote and it became even more brilliant some years after the première when, with the composers reluctant approval, the tenor Enrico Tamberlick began throwing high Cs into the stretta Di quella pira which ends Part III.
Despite the perennial problem of casting, Il trovatore has been lucky on record. Two excellent versions circulated on 78rpm discs the Manrico of Aureliano Pertile being particularly memorable and the early LP era brought the present recording, the most consistently cast of all. It introduced a whole generation to the opera and in many collectors affections it still reigns supreme. Much of its success must be put down to the conductor Renato Cellini, who curiously enough is the one participant whose contribution has often come in for criticism. True, his is not the most dramatic account of the score, although with his string-playing background he draws beautiful playing from the orchestra, but Cellini was renowned in the profession as a coach and it is surely due to his careful preparation that a cast consisting of a Croatian, an Italian, a Swede, an American and a Greek sounds so convincing. In particular it is worth noting that of the various complete opera sets in which the tenor Jussi Björling took part, those with Cellini in charge are rivalled only by the famous La bohème with Beecham.
Renato Cellini (1912-67) came from a theatrical family and as a boy in Turin became a prodigy on the cello, giving his first recital when he was ten. He also learnt the piano and later the organ. After attending the Conservatory in his native city, where he studied composition with Alfano and Ghedini, he worked as a coach and conductor in various Italian opera houses. After the war he was at Glyndebourne and from 1948 to 1954 he was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he conducted six operas and prepared many others. He also worked in Mexico, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Caracas and was a valued house conductor for RCA Victor.
Zinka Milanov (1906-89) was from Zagreb, where she studied with Milka Ternina and Mila Kostrencic (also a teacher of Sena Jurinac). Her other mentors were Fernando Carpi in Milan, Jacques Stückgold in Berlin and in particular her brother, the composer Borislaw Kunc, who often acted as her accompanist. Having made her début at Ljubljana in 1927 in the rôle she sings on this recording, she spent eight years in Zagreb, making guest forays to Dresden, Hamburg and Prague. For the first decade of her career she sang under her original name Zinka Kunc. For the 1936-37 season she was in Prague; then Toscanini engaged her for the Verdi Requiem at the 1937 Salzburg Festival and she had a guest engagement in Vienna. She finished the year 1937 with her Metropolitan début (again as Leonora in Il trovatore) and from then on she was mainly associated with the New York house, also singing in other North and South American centres and visiting Covent Garden in 1956-57. Until her retirement in 1966 she was regarded as the Mets leading exponent of the dramatic Verdi parts and such other rôles as Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Norma, Gioconda, Tosca, Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana) and Maddalena (Andrea Chénier). She left many magnificent recordings, including a famous final act of Rigoletto under Toscanini and several complete operas.
Fedora Barbieri (b.1920) studied in her native Trieste, where she first appeared in concert, and in Milan. She made her operatic début in Florence in 1940 as Fidalma in Il matrimonio segreto and soon was regarded as one of the leading mezzo-sopranos in Italy, especially popular in Florence, Rome, where she first sang in 1941-42, and Milan, where she made her La Scala début in 1942. After the war her career burgeoned, taking her to South America and all the major European houses. She sang eleven rôles at the Metropolitan in nine seasons from 1950 to 1977 and in the early 1990s was still appearing in Florence in character parts. She still gives master classes. She made a large number of recordings, beginning in 1943 with her Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera with Gigli and Caniglia.
Johan Jonatan Jussi Björling (1911-60) was the best-known member of a family of singers. Born in Stora Tuna in the Swedish province of Dalarna, as a boy he toured and recorded with the family quartet, visiting the United States. As an adult he was taught by hi