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Two Muti Recordings Tell Different Tales

ROSSINI: “Guglielmo Tell.” Giorgio Zancanaro, Cheryl Studer, Chris Merritt, Luigi Roni, others; forces of La Scala; Riccardo Muti, conducting; Philips 422 391-2(four compact discs).

VERDI: “Attila.” Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Studer, Neil Shicoff, Giorgio Zancanaro, others; forces of La Scala; Riccardo Muti, conducting; EMI 7 49952 2 (two compact discs).

Since his appointment in 1986 as music director, Muti has transformed the Scala chorus and orchestra into almost physical extensions of his own superior musical personality, which stresses both passion and precision. Based on their contributions alone, so readily do they bend to his will that Muti’s operatic recordings have rare dramatic impact. His sometime odd vocal preferences, however, like Toscanini’s, can yield uneven results, as these two new releases demonstrate.

The “Tell” comes from live performances at Scala in December, 1988. The version used is a new edition by M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet of the original French, tailored for an Italian adaptation. Inclusion of applause after the big numbers, always of the same length and without any notable fervor, is an annoyance. At almost four hours long, the opera, Rossini’s last, fluctuates laboriously between the French and Italian styles, and is heavy going indeed.

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The title role calls for a big vocal personality and Zancanaro, despite some mellifluous singing, does not dominate as he should. Studer seems uninvolved and tired (the Italian enunciation is particularly muddy); her “Selva opaca” is bothered by a steady tremolo, but she does manage the rapid scale passages, especially the ascending ones, in her Act III aria with brilliance. Merritt is certainly fluent enough in the Rossini style and he has the needed C’s and C-sharps, but the sound remains unattractive and he provides an occasional yelp that is almost comical. Roni is an underpowered villain. As in his recent “Rigoletto,” Muti alone cannot carry the opera.

An altogether different story is Verdi’s almost brazenly youthful, vigorous and melodic “Attila,” a studio recording from last summer. Ramey, in splendid voice, is a potent Hun and manages the bravura writing impressively. Studer tackles the wide-ranging vocal and dramatic demands for Odabella (a cousin to Abigaille of “Nabucco”) fearlessly and has that precious quality always looked for in a Verdi soprano, the ability to open up on top. In the subtly expressive music of Ezio, Zancanaro colors his tones expertly. Shicoff, while not an ideally smooth Verdi tenor, sings with fervor. As usual with Muti, all unwritten high notes are banished, a small price to pay for one of the best early Verdi recordings now in the catalogue.

* THREE BY HAMPSON

Baritone Thomas Hampson’s rich lyric voice in three new releases. Page 53

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