Giuseppe Verdi – A conspectus of his life and a survey of the recordings of his works
by Bob Farr
Note – this survey was published in 2006. Sadly, Bob Farr’s health is such that he is now no longer able to contribute to MWI. The remaining three parts of the conspectus will be published over the next three weeks.
Later in his life, Giuseppe Verdi came to be called ‘the glory of Italy’. After his death, the now unified nation of Italy mourned as one. Twenty thousand people lined the streets to pay their respects as the composer’s remains were carried in a solemn procession through Milan to their final resting place. The crowd, aided by the chorus of La Scala under Toscanini, sang a moving rendition of Va pensiero, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from the opera Nabucco It was this opera, composed sixty years before, which set Verdi on the path to unparalleled national and international acclaim. He composed operas for all the major cities of Italy and for London, Paris, Cairo and St Petersburg. He played a significant part in the creation of the nation we now know as Italy and served in that country’s first national Parliament.
During his later life, and since his death, Verdi’s operas have formed the backbone of the repertoire of the world’s opera houses, both great and small. All his 28 operas are available in well-recorded studio versions featuring the great singers of their generation. Many are also available in video format, increasingly in varied production styles. Over the coming months I intend to survey Verdi’s life and the available recordings of his works. Although some of the lesser known of Verdi’s operas, particularly those from his earlier earliest compositional periods, have few recordings his most popular operas have many. In dealing with the latter I shall have to make personal choices as to which I refer and recommend. Where a recording has a full review on Musicweb-International.com a link reference will be provided. Many of these reviews will be by colleagues and their opinions may differ from mine. I will not include references to pirated live recordings, many in poor sound, but I will refer to legitimate recordings of live performances.
Verdi’s background, getting established and first five operas from Oberto (1839) to Ernani (1844)
Giuseppe Verdi was born in October 1813 in La Roncole, a hamlet of one hundred souls in the plain of the river Po. Situated in the Duchy of Parma the area was under the rule of Napoleonic France. A year after Verdi’s birth Russian Cossacks, allied to Austria, drove out the French and Parma, like much of what we now call Italy, came under Austrian control. The fight for an independent and unified Italy was later to play an important part in Verdi’s personal and compositional life.
Verdi drew many short straws in his long life and these did much to mould his determined and implacable character. He carried grudges, was often irascible and later in life he was prone to exaggerate earlier personal circumstances and happenings to give them added colour. He was certainly not, for example, born into an illiterate peasant family. His father, Carlo, was a small landowner and trader and was literate. Carlo sought education for his son and by the age of four the young Giuseppe had begun instruction from the local priests. By the age of eight his aptitude for music was obvious and his father bought him a battered spinet. This was rebuilt free of charge by a local craftsman impressed by the boy’s musical skill that enabled him to substitute as organist in the local church. The spinet is now in the museum of La Scala, Milan.
In 1823, at age eleven, Verdi entered the ‘giannasio’ in nearby Busseto, a town of around two thousand. He lodged with the local cobbler there for seven years. During this time he earned money towards his fees by playing the organ at Roncole each Sunday and on Feast days. He claimed to have frequently walked barefoot the three miles from Busseto to save his shoe leather. The young boy was not wholly alone in Busseto. He came under the eye of Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy local merchant known to his father and who was patron of the local orchestra that met in his house. As well as formal education at school, the young Giuseppe began lessons with Ferdinando Provesi, maestro di cappella at the local church, and also director of the local music school and Philharmonic society. Provesi was also a free thinking Republican and radical. By the age fifteen Verdi was conducting the local orchestra and composing marches as well as arias, duets, concertos and variations on themes by famous composers. In all but name he was Provesi’s number two.
Having taught music to Barezzi’s children Verdi moved in to lodge with the family and fell in love with Margherita the elder daughter, seven months his junior. Such was his talent that it was hoped that a scholarship would be granted for him to study in Milan. This was eventually forthcoming in 1833. To avoid the waste of a year Barezzi guaranteed financial support for the first year and Verdi applied for admission to the conservatory for 1832. He was refused on the grounds that aged eighteen he was four years beyond the normal age and not a native of Lombardy-Venetia. It was a rebuff that Verdi felt very deeply and never forgot nor forgave. Barezzi funded private study in Milan with Lavigna who had been on the staff at La Scala. Verdi later recalled that Lavigna concentrated his tuition on strict counterpoint with nothing but canons and fugues. Verdi also attended many performances at La Scala with a ticket bought by Barezzi.
Verdi completed his studies in 1835. That year Bellini died and Donizetti’s forty-seventh opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, was premiered in Naples. Verdi returned to Busseto. Provesi had died two years before and Verdi was appointed maestro di musica but not to succeed his mentor in the church position. The secular post involved conducting the concerts of the Philharmonic society as well as giving lessons at the music school in vocal and keyboard music. The contract was for nine years with a get-out clause for either party after three. His position secured, Verdi and Margherita were married on 4 May 1836. They had two children, a daughter Virginia Maria born in March 1837 and a son Icilio in July 1838. Verdi’s joy was short-lived as his daughter died shortly after the birth of his son.
Whilst Verdi performed his conducting and teaching duties he composed marches, overtures and a mass as well as a complete set of vespers. Regrettably, in later life Verdi ordered all his early compositions to be destroyed. Meanwhile he was chaffing at more ambitious plans including the composition of an opera. He was in contact with Milan and a series of letters indicates the writing of Rocester to a libretto by a Milanese journalist Antonia Piazza. He tried to get this staged in Parma without success. Encouraged by friends in Milan, and with the help of the librettist Temistocle Solera, Verdi revised the work under the title of Oberto conte di Boniface. Determined to get the work staged he resigned his Busseto post in October 1838 and left for Milan with his wife and surviving child in February 1839.
In 1839, Milan was a city of one hundred and fifty thousand people. It had been ceded to Austria under the terms of The Congress of Vienna in 1815 and was the capital of the province of Lombardy-Venitia. The Austrians kept a tight rein on the local population. There were Austrian soldiery everywhere and police vigilance was unceasing as was the detailed activities of the censor who determined the political and religious suitability of any play or opera proposed for presentation in the city’s theatres. Few of the population chafed at the situation. Any awareness of the concept of a united Italy was restricted to some exiles and literati. The local aristocracy mingled with artistes in their salons.
The La Scala theatre was run jointly with a theatre in Vienna under the direction of the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, who had written libretti for Donizetti. Its operatic activities could be seen as a tool of social control; an opiate administered by a superb roster of singers and dancers. It was in this milieu that Verdi sought to establish himself as an opera composer. He was twenty-six years of age. By the same age Rossini had had twenty-four of his operas staged and was internationally acclaimed.
Merelli agreed to present Verdi’s opera in the spring of 1839 bearing all the costs of the production himself, a high risk with a composer untried before the public. Due to illness among singers, Oberto conte di Boniface, No. 1in the Verdi oeuvre was not premiered until 17 November 1839. During the rehearsals Verdi’s second child, his son Icilio, died. The opera was a big enough success for Merelli to extend the number of scheduled performances to fourteen that season and twelve the next. He also sold the score to Ricordi for the not inconsiderable sum of two thousand Austrian Lire thus recouping some of his investment. More importantly for Verdi, Merelli contracted the composer for three more operas to be presented over the next two years for a fee of four thousand Lire each and half the money raised if the score were sold. Oberto is also significant insofar as it shows the composer drawn from the start of his career to the often-troubled father-daughter relationship that was to occur overtly in so many of his works.
Oberto missed out in the seminal initial series of eight early Verdi operas recorded by Philips between 1971 and 1979 under the stylish baton of Lamberto Gardelli. Fortunately, Orfeo took up the challenge with the same conductor. Their recording of Oberto features the incomparable Verdi tenor Carlo Bergonzi and the veteran Rolando Panerai in a well-sung performance (C 105842 H). This recording held the fort until Philips returned to early Verdi in 1998 and recorded the work with Neville Marriner on the rostrum (454 472-2). The recording features Samuel Ramey as a sonorous, if not always ideally steady Oberto, Maria Guleghina as a generous-toned dramatic Leonora and the then unknown Lithuanian Violetta Urmana as a rich voiced Cuniza. Although the tenor, Stuart Neil, is no match for Bergonzi he sings with clean tone. With the added advantages of an ideally recorded sound and the inclusion as appendices of music Verdi composed for the La Scala revival in 1840, this performance is clearly in first place. The La Scala additions show something of a significant step in compositional maturity on Verdi’s part compared with the original score. What inner creative force within Verdi, who had undergone an overwhelmingly difficult personal and professional period since the first staging, enabled this step up in quality of composition can only be conjectured? (Note: An Italian correspondent has kindly brought to my notice a live performance of Oberto available on both DVD and CD involving Michele Pertusi, Fabio Sartori and Dimitra Theodossiu conducted by Daniele Callegari available on the Fonè label and which is his preferred version)
The first of the three contracted operas to follow Oberto for La Scala was initially to have been Il proscritto, a libretto written by Gaetano Rossi who had provided Rossini with the librettos for Tancredi and Semiramide. Before Verdi could commence work Merelli’s plans changed, he needed an opera buffa and he passed several texts by the house poet, Romani, over to Verdi. None appealed, but with time short he settled on ‘Il finto Stanislau’ written twenty years earlier, performed at La Scala in 1818 and never revived. The title of the work was changed to Un giorno di Regno (A King for a day), No. 2 in the Verdi oeuvre. During the work’s composition life for Verdi was difficult. Money was short and his wife pawned jewels to pay for their lodgings. Always prone to psychosomatic symptoms, Verdi suffered from a bad throat and angina during the composition. Then, in June 1840 on the feast of Corpus Christi his beloved wife died of encephalitis. To crown Verdi’s misfortunes Un giorno di Regno premiered on 5 September 1840 was whistled off the stage at its first performance. The other five scheduled performances were cancelled. Whilst the composer recognised limitations in his score he was pleased four years later to note that what had been hissed at La Scala was a great success in Venice. In Naples in 1852 it played to full houses under its earlier title. Although Verdi was not to write another comic opera until Falstaff in 1893, recent revivals of Un giorno di Regno, one of which I caught at the Buxton Festival. It was thoroughly enjoyable and showed the quality of the music being quite worthy of a young composer and equal to all but the best of Donizetti’s comic operas. The Italian company Cetra thought the piece sufficiently strong to issue a recording at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death in 1951. Although re-issued by Warner-Fonit it is not a serious competitor against the 1973 recording in Philips’ early Verdi series under Gardelli’s sympathetic baton and featuring José Carreras, Jessye Norman and Fiorenza Cossotto (422 429 2), which is thoroughly recommendable.
With his personal and professional life in tatters, Verdi returned to Busseto determined never to compose again. He later said he spent his time reading bad novels, surely self-flagellation for a man who loved Shakespeare and knew the works of Byron, Schiller and Victor Hugo intimately. In reality Verdi’s life in this period was not that simple or desperate. Merelli replaced the scheduled performances of Un giorno di Regno with further stagings of Oberto a mere six weeks after the failed opening night of the buffo work. As I have noted, for these performances Verdi composed entirely new music including an entrance aria for Cuniza and two duets. He made more extensive revisions for performances given in January 1841 during the carnival season in Genoa and which he had been commissioned to mount personally. Regrettably none of the music of these revisions survives.
After returning to Milan from Genoa, Verdi met Merelli and returned the libretto of Il proscritto and which the impresario passed on to Otto Nicolai. In return Merelli pressed on Verdi the libretto of Nabucodonosor by Temistocle Solera and which Nicolai, then at the height of his Italian career, had refused. Perhaps to satisfy Merelli, Verdi read the libretto and was greatly stimulated by it. Between the spring and early autumn of 1841 the opera that came to be called Nabucco, No. 3 in the Verdicanonwas written. To Verdi’s chagrin its completion was too late for inclusion in the La Scala season whose sequence (Cartellone) had already been completed and published. It took some vehement correspondence from the composer before the opera was premiered on 9 March 1842 in secondhand sets but with a first-rate baritone and bass. Giuseppina Strepponi, who was to be a great influence in Verdi’s life sang Abigaille, but was in poor voice. The work was a resounding success and although the season had only ten days to run Nabucco was given eight more times. The delighted Merelli promptly scheduled a revival for the following autumn when there were another sixty-seven performances, breaking all La Scala records. The chorus Va pensiero was regularly encored with the Milanese public, under Austrian occupation, clearly identifying themselves with the oppressed Hebrews of the story. It was a tenuous start to the identification of Verdi and his operas with the movement later in the 1840s for the liberation and unification of Italy called the Risorgimento.
For an opera of such pulsating rhythms, glorious choruses and well-written parts for principal soprano, baritone and bass, Nabucco has curiously few studio recordings. This may be due to the impact of the outstanding first stereo recording by Decca in 1965. It was recorded in the company’s favourite venue in Vienna with the orchestra and chorus of the State Opera under the baton of Lamberto Gardelli, an incomparable Verdian who had learned his craft at the feet of the great Italian opera conductor, Tulio Serafin. Gardelli’s name will feature regularly in this conspectus. His conducting of Decca’s Nabucco, allied to the atmospheric recording, the singing of the chorus and the outstanding characterful portrayal of Tito Gobbi in the name part and Elena Suliotis as his supposed daughter, made the recording one of the best of the period. Suliotis aged 22 was unknown, but her portrayal of Abigaille brought big headlines. The role is dramatic and strenuous. Her entrance recitative cum aria Pride guerrier ranges from B below middle C to B in alt and combines declamatory and coloratura styles. Suliotis attacks the aria and the rest of the role with youthful vocal abandon bordering on the reckless. It is an approach which presages visceral and dramatic excitement rather than vocal beauty, but one which conveys Abigaille’s ruthless character and ultimate softer plea for forgiveness to great satisfaction. Gobbi, the odd raw patch at the top of his voice apart, is as characterful and vocally expressive as one would hope. Carlo Cava as the High Priest could be steadier whilst the chorus is a match for any of Italy’s best.
EMI ventured into the studio in 1977 with Muti on the rostrum and a strong trio of principals and a British session chorus. Renata Scotto, although curdling the odd high note, sings with typical character as Abigaille. In the eponymous role, Tunisian-born Matteo Manuguerra sings strongly whist Nicolai Ghiaurov is the best High Priest on record. The recording lacks the presence and frisson of the Decca issue. Against the competition DG’s Berlin recording of 1982 with Sinopoli’s unidiomatic dissection of the score is a non-starter against the competition. Many will think that the role of Abigaille would suit the Callas temperament. In fact she only ever sang three performances at age 25 in December 1949 at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples under Vittorio Gui and with a raw-toned Gino Bechi as Nabucco. Recordings in rather poor sound have appeared from time to time, the latest (2006) from Membran Music (222387-311).
On DVD Nabucco has fared well with performances, including reviewed releases listed below.
|Verona||1981||Renato Bruson (as Nabucco)|
Maurizio Arena (conductor)
|La Scala||1986||Renato Bruson|
|the Met||2001||Juan Pons|
An updated version with Leo Nucci in the title role appeared in 2006.
In one bound Nabucco put Verdi to the forefront of Italian opera composers. The salons of the aristocracy were opened to the country boy. From this period his long friendships with the Countesses Appiani, and particularly Maffei, date. In their salons he mixed with the cognoscenti of Milanese literature and music, many of whom were politically radical thinkers. After Nabucco Verdi never lacked for commissions. Indeed there were times that the pressures from impresarios and publishers became too great and his health suffered. In the next nine years he composed thirteen operas for all the great theatres of Italy as well as for London and Paris. Verdi was to call these years his ‘anni de galera’ (years in the galleys).
With the raging success of Nabucco on his hands, La Scala impresario Merelli wanted to get Verdi started on his next opera. This would be the last of the three the composer had contracted for the theatre after the modest success of Oberto and including the failure of Un giorno di Regno. Merelli, recognising Verdi’s newfound status asked him to name his own fee. Uncertain, the composer sought the advice of Giuseppina Strepponi who was singing Abigaille during the run of Nabucco. She advised him to ask for the same fee as Bellini was paid for Norma, eight thousand Austrian Lire. Verdi asked for, and got, nine thousand!
Verdi’s 4th opera, I Lombardi alla prima crociata (the Lombards of the first Crusade) was premiered at La Scala on 11 February 1843. The libretto was again by Solera and he and the composer seem intent on a mark two Nabucco. The theme has a religious basis and there are plenty of choral frescoes and more than a hint of patriotic nationalistic fervour for the audience to identify with. At the first performance the act 4 chorus O Signore, dal tetto natio’ (O Lord, give us a native heath) aroused a storm of approval just as Va pensiero had done in Nabucco. The opera also marked an early brush with the Church and censor. Verdi refused point-blank to alter what was written and it required some diplomacy on Solera’s part with a sympathetic Chief of Police to settle on the simple change of Ave Maria to Salve Maria, which Verdi accepted. Critical opinion regards the libretto as poorly constructed and full of improbabilities in a sequence of scenes that includes a last act aria from heaven by the slaughtered tenor hero. Stagings of an opera with eleven scenes do not come round often.
Significantly a different roster of singers were available at La Scala for I Lombardi than those for Nabucco, notably the soprano Erminia Frezzolini who had debuted as Bellini’s Beatrice in 1838 and included Donizetti’s Lucia in her repertoire. Verdi always wanted to know the singers available before composing and kept their vocal characteristics in mind while doing so. The soprano role in I Lombardi is utterly different from Abigaille and reflects Frezzolini’s strengths being lighter, more flexible and pure-toned. Without doubt these characteristics also influenced Verdi’s conception of his heroine’s personality and is an important consideration in the casting of the role in recordings. There is no baritone role in the opera but as well as a principal tenor there is a tenor comprimario role of greater substance than that definition usually implies. The casting of this secondary role on recordings, along with the principal tenor, bass and soprano is significant to enjoyment.
Philips launched their series of eight recordings of early Verdi operas under Lamberto Gardelli with I Lombardi. Recorded in London in 1971 it features the young Placido Domingo in pristine and virile vocal condition as Oronte. His stylish singing is well matched by the sonority and evenness of Ruggero Raimondi as the later contrite villain Pagano. In the Frezzolini role of Viclinda, Christina Deutekom is more variable, often lacking body to her tone. Jerome Lo Monaco is an excellent second tenor. This recording held the field until in 1996 Decca got round to recording Pavarotti in a role he had first sung long before in the theatre. It was recorded in New York under James Levine with the Met orchestra and chorus. Although Pavarotti has lost some of the sap from his tone and lacks the vocal youthfulness of Domingo, his is a well-sung interpretation. Samuel Ramey as Pagano whilst showing some vocal looseness of tone since his best days is always musical and characterful. June Anderson scores over Christina Deutekom for vocal body but lacks some flexibility. By the time of the recording James Levine was a much more sympathetic Verdian than earlier metronomic self. Where this version scores highly is in the immediacy of the recording and the singing of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus who are full-bodied and vibrant (Decca 455 287-2). The secondary tenor role is well taken by Richard Leech and the importance of the role is highlighted by the poor performance of Carlo Bini on the only currently available DVD version, that of the 1982 La Scala production. The vocal strengths in this performance are provided by José Carreras as Oronte and Silvano Carroli as Pagano. As the heroine Ghena Dimitrova is vocally variable and acts poorly. The production is traditional with lavishly costumed Crusaders and Muslims. Brief extracts are contained on a DVD of scenes from La Scala stagings from the early 1980s (see review) and there is also a recording of the complete production: La Scala, Milan/Gianandrea Gavazzeni (see review). There also exists a live performance at ‘Teatro Ponchielli,’ Cremona, Italy. November 2001 conducted by Tiziano Severini (see review)
The success of Nabucco and I Lombardi placed Verdi at the forefront of Italian opera composers of his generation. Offers of contracts from around Italy poured in. Whilst recognising his indebtedness to impresario Merelli’s support, the composer resisted his blandishments for another opera for La Scala. Maybe Verdi was reluctant to push his luck with another premiere at Italy’s leading House, or perhaps he wished to dip his toes into other waters. There was also the matter of his relationship with the experienced but rather slapdash librettist Solera. Verdi had a very acute sense of theatre and felt restricted by his librettist’s rather casual off the peg approach. Given Solera’s experience, Verdi did not constantly press for more apt dramatic situations as he did subsequently with other librettists.
Meanwhile the Society that owned the Gran Teatro la Fenice in Venice assembled to decide on the names of opera composers for the coming season with Verdi high on the list. La Fenice was La Scala’s biggest rival in Northern Italy. Rossini had won international fame with Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, both premiered at the Fenice and concluded his Italian career in triumph with Semiramide premiered on 3 February 1823. After that performance Rossini was escorted to his lodgings by a flotilla of gondolas, a water-borne band playing a selection from his score. A success in Venice had its own particular flavour and the prospect was an attraction for Verdi. Count Alvise di Mocenigo, president of La Fenice, entered into correspondence with Verdi, much of which survives. The composer, aware of his increasing value drove a hard bargain asking for twelve thousand Lire for the new opera, the fee to be paid after the first performance, not as was usual after the third. After all if the opera was not well received there might not be a third. Verdi also demanded that La Fenice stage I Lombardi as well as presenting a new opera to a libretto of the composer’s choice. To write the verses he chose Francesco Maria Piave who was to be his collaborator in many subsequent works.
Piave’s name was suggested to Verdi by the management of La Fenice as a good versifier. He was almost the same age as the composer but had never previously written for the theatre. He and Verdi were ripe for each other. Although Piave’s verses were well crafted Verdi constantly demanded changes, making suggestions that would give greater dramatic effect. The librettist was happy with this modus operandi throughout their long association that extends through Macbeth and Rigoletto to the original 1862 version of La forza del destino, and its 1869 revision, ten operas in all.
As well as wanting to work with a more malleable librettist than Solera, Verdi also wanted to break away from the latter’s grand frescoes and move towards the setting of more intimate and personal dramas. After turning down one libretto from Piave he settled on the subject of Ernani as his 5th opera. Based on Victor Hugo, it featured Verdi’s first bandit or outlaw character. This feeling for the outsider might reflect something of his introspective view of himself and his origins. It is noticeable in later life how he tended to shelter his own beginnings and the bruises he sustained along his way to success.
Although the subject of Ernani had already been featured in operas by others, and even considered by Bellini, Verdi’s music brought out the story as no other had done before. Verdi’s Ernani is written in traditional form with arias, cabalettas and group scenes with virile chorus contributions an additional attraction for composer and audience. Verdi brings out the character of the conflicting roles, and their various relationships, so that each has clear identification in the music. This manner had, perhaps, been missing in his earlier successful duo, which had succeeded on the basis of the popular appeal their thrusting melodies and identification with the frustrations and aspirations of the audience. Ernani has a density of musical invention and melody that is perhaps only matched by Macbeth before being equalled in Rigoletto, all with libretti by Piave, and the great mature period operas that followed. As with the earlier performances of I Lombardi in Venice, Ernani had only a moderate success at its premiere, the vocal limitations of some of the soloists being to blame. It had to wait until felicitous productions at Vienna in May 1844, and La Scala in September of that year, for full recognition of its qualities. For the La Scala performances additions were made to the role of Silva with an added cabaletta in act one to accommodate the distinguished bass of the time and promote the role from comprimario to primo basso. Ernani was the first of Verdi’s operas to be translated into English and was admired by George Bernard Shaw. It remained in the Italian repertoire in Verdi’s lifetime, eventually falling from favour in the early part of the twentieth century.
In view of the musical invention and vibrancy of Ernani, including the melodic arias for all the principals and some magnificent choruses, the paucity of recorded versions is surprising. It perhaps reflects the intellectual elitism towards early Verdi that was prevalent among opera house intendants and some artist and repertoire departments of recording companies in the heyday of recorded opera. A 1967 studio recording made in Rome with Bergonzi as Ernani and Leontyne Price as Elvira displaced an early 1950s Cetra issue. It remains the best-sung version although the recording has its rough edges (RCA). An atmospheric 1982 Hungaroton recording features a vibrant Sylvia Sass and a tightly focused Ernani from Giorgio Lamberti. This is now available at mid price (Philips) but has little to commend it apart from Gardelli’s conducting. A 1982 live La Scala performance is vibrantly and dramatically played under Muti and has a starry cast of Bruson, Ghiaurov, Domingo and Mirella Freni in the principal roles (EMI on CD and Warner DVD). Bruson and Domingo are in superb voice whilst Ghiaurov sounds suitably authorative as the inflexible Silva. In the large La Scala theatre, Freni’s voice is a size too small and she sounds strained at times. Add the difficult acoustic of La Scala and the fact that the audio recording is spread over three CDs and a firm recommendation in this medium falls on the RCA issue. The most recent original language audio recording features the final collaboration on record of Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti with support from Nucci and Burchuladze under Bonynge now at mid price (see review). Made in 1987 it sat in Decca’s vaults for eleven years before seeing the light of day. The reason is not difficult to determine as one listens to the tenor’s tentative start, the diva’s poor diction and lack of steadiness in Ernani involami, Nucci’s nasal sound and the glottal Italian of Burchuladze. In fairness, Pavarotti improves to give a worthy and at times thrilling performance. The latest studio recording is that on Chandos’ Opera In English series with Alan Opie commendable as the King (reviewed in live performance) On DVD the La Scala performance under Muti is available from Warner in a resplendent production by Luca Ronconi. Excerpts from this issue featuring all the principals can be seen on a Warner La Scala highlights DVD (see review).
On his return to Milan after the Venice production of Ernani, Verdi found himself offered contracts to write for several Italian theatres. He was seen, aged thirty, as the coming composer and natural successor to Donizetti. He was to write ten operas in the remainder of the decade and to call these years his ‘anni de galera’ (galley years). These operas, which were premiered in Paris and London as well as throughout Italy, are the subject of Part 2 of this conspectus.