New Verdi Discs for his 200th birthday
By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Giuseppe Verdi turns 200 on Thursday Oct. 10 – and CD land is full of tributes this fall as the major labels (or what’s left of them) trot out their rosters of vocal stars in a common cause. No huge surprises … well, maybe one – Plácido Domingo trying on baritone roles for size – but that has been in the works for the last few years anyhow.
First and most imposing is a new Verdi Requiem from La Scala (Decca, two CDs), led by its distinctly un-Italianate general music director, Daniel Barenboim. Now Barenboim’s Requiem is an interesting case, for this performance seems to have deep roots in his lifelong immersion into the Central European Germanic classics. The tempos tend to be on the slowish side, the textures heavy, even a bit smudged at times – especially in the Sanctus. But the architecture of the lengthy Dies Irae gradually becomes clear as Barenboim patiently bides his time, lets the rhythm carry the Day of Judgment outbursts forward, and builds to an overwhelming climax in the Lacrimosa. Also, Barenboim is able to get the La Scala chorus to produce effects well out of the ordinary, like the chilling near-hissing after the start of the Dies Irae. Both male voices are magnificent, although there isn’t much contrast between Jonas Kaufmann’s almost baritonal tenor and René Pape’s sonorous bass-baritone. Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca sounds luminous, soprano Anja Harteros fervently suggests fear in the Libera Me. I wouldn’t say that this live performance has quite as potent a charge as some of the on-the-spot reviews claim, but it is a formidable one.
The Requiem is probably one of Kaufmann’s last appearances under the Decca flag, for the star tenor just jumped ship to arch-rival Sony, which in turn has put out “The Verdi Album” as his label debut. As in the Requiem, Kaufmann’s timbre is dark, rich, smooth as glass in phrasing, with a vibrato that rings. He achieves an exquisite fade to pianissimo on “Celeste Aida,” beautifully controlled; the scene from Il Trovatore has electricity, the high C wrought with warlike desperation. The backing by the Orchestra dell’Opera di Parma under Pier Giorgio Morandi is excellent, well played and simpatico with the style in a sweep of arias from I Masnadieri through Otello – and the “deluxe” version has an excerpt from Macbeth as a bonus track.
Kaufmann’s Verdi album comes right on top of Plácido Domingo’s Verdi tribute (also Sony), but of course, this is not quite a case of dueling tenors. I dare say that even in this collection of baritone arias, Domingo as a “baritone” still sounds more like a tenor than Kaufmann does. As Domingo exploits the darker colors of his distinctive timbre, he produces a strange hybrid; the lighter weight of a tenor pushed down the staff. Be that as it may, Domingo continues to be a vocal miracle. He was a few months past 72 when the most recent tracks were recorded, yet his voice is still in unbelievably good shape – betraying only a small audible wobble at times (essentially no problem) – and he always uses it to searching, intelligent effect as he explores Verdi’s father or authority roles. This is the fourth time Domingo’s Boccanegra has been heard on recordings; his scenes from eight other baritone roles appear for the first time here. Pablo Heras-Casado leads the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana competently, and five guest singers complement the great Domingo in other roles as needed.
Another international vocal star, Anna Netrebko, goes all-Verdi for the bicentennial with her first studio album in five years (Deutsche Grammophon), steering mostly clear of the best-known soprano roles. The soprano offers some extended scenes from Macbeth, and Act V of Don Carlo, the voice characteristically a little wild in some of the upper reaches. This is Maria Callas territory – and yes, there are passages here and there where Netrebko’s timbre reminds me a bit of La Callas, a creamier, thicker, slightly more veiled variant. Elsewhere, in a delicately-scored rarity from Giovanna d`Arco, and two selections from I vespri siciliani, Netrebko displays considerably more subtle control, while exuding luscious glamour at all times. The CD concludes with a scene from Trovatore, with a sturdy cameo appearance by Netrebko’s once-frequent co-star, tenor Rolando Villazón. Gianandrea Noseda and the Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino provide the backing.