OP3248. I VESPRI SICILIANI, Live Performance, 20 March, 1982, w.Levine Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Renata Scotto, Pablo Elvira, Wieslaw Ochman, Ruggero Raimondi, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-677. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
"The importance of this release of I VESPRI SICILIANI centers on Renata Scotto, who turns in a glorious performance as Elena. This is apparent from her entrance scene, 'In alto mare e battulo'. If you compare Scotto with Martina Arroyo in the 1973 RCA studio recording, also led by James Levine and based on Met casting, you hear the difference between a major voice (Arroyo) and a major artist (Scotto). Scotto throws herself into the scene with reckless abandon, hurling out her imprecations to the enemies of Sicily. By 1982 three decades of singing major roles since she debuted as Violetta at 18, encompassing a wide range of repertoire from the bel canto heroines of Donizetti and Bellini to the heavier roles of Verdi and Puccini, had taken a noticeable toll on Scotto's voice. This is more true than it might have been with other singers for the very reason that she threw herself into everything she sang, never holding back. Scotto was a totally theatrical creature who brought every character she sang vividly to life in a way not found in very many sopranos this side of Maria Callas. If the result is occasional hardness on a high note or an unsteady pianissimo, that is a small price to pay for the total immersion she offers.
In that first scene, Scotto gives us the full range of her imagination. Just experience the passage 'E Dio respondi in suo voler sovrano; a chi fida in stresso il cielo arride. Mortali! Il vostro fato e in vostra mana'. ('And God replies in His supreme will; on him who trusts himself heaven smiles. Mortals! Your destiny is in your hand'.) Scotto's hushed beginning, creating mystery and drama for the crowd awaiting to hear what God said, and then her explosion on the repeat of the words 'in vostra mana' would do credit to any political demagogue trying to inflame the Sicilian populous to overthrow their French occupiers. Nowhere in the performance is Scotto merely singing Verdi's music. She is Elena, which raises her above the level of everyone else who has recorded this role save for Callas (heard in a mediocre-sounding broadcast from Florence in 1951).
In Elena's fourth-act aria, 'Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core', Scotto employs an extraordinary range of dynamic shadings and vocal colors, effectively communicating the heroine's conflicting feelings towards Arrigo - the pain of a love that cannot be realized because, as she says, 'your birth set a barrier of blood between us'. Verdi's brilliant descending chromatic scales are perfectly tuned and integrated into the whole of the aria by Scotto. Her final pianissimo brings down the house, as it deserved to (this recording gives us the full ovation, which some, like me, will enjoy but which others will find a negative. They can easily skip to the next track.).
The famous Bolero (Mercè, dilette amiche') is not only sung well, with more than adequate coloratura technique, but is once again given a level of attention to dynamic shading that few sopranos bother with. Scotto truly conveys the happiness of Elena at her impending marriage to Arrigo, and she brings sparkling color to the trills and runs. In the ensuing trio with Arrigo and Procida, Elena's emotional tension is palpable as she becomes aware that the wedding will signal the revolt. Scotto's performance is, in a word, towering. Beyond great singing, the central character must be conveyed with specificity of coloring if the opera is not to lose the listener because of its length and, to be honest, the inconsistency of Verdi's inspiration. In my experience, only Callas and Scotto have given us the level of commitment and intensity the score needs.
The other vocal performance of note here is Ruggero Raimondi's Procida. Raimondi was in his vocal prime in 1982, and his portrayal is richly sung and dramatically authoritative. One has to believe that this Sicilian doctor and patriot really had the ability to rally the downtrodden populace, and when Raimondi sings 'O tu Palermo', we have no doubt that the masses would follow him wherever he led them.
The other two important roles, the hero Arrigo and Montforte, the French-imposed governor of Sicily, are no better than adequately taken. This production was a revival at the Met after an eight-year absence. Sherrill Milnes was scheduled to sing Montforte but was indisposed for both the first performance on March 17 and this broadcast three days later. His replacement, Pablo Elvira, is serviceable but lacks the vocal presence the role requires. In a season that listed Bergonzi, Domingo, and Pavarotti on its roster, one wonders why the Met gave Arrigo to Polish tenor Wieslaw Ochman, whose voice lacks the weight the role needs. He is clearly forcing his voice at the big moments, and his phrasing is lumpish, lacking in flow. The rest of the Met cast is more than adequate to the tasks assigned them.
There is one other major asset here, and it is a name much in the news recently: James Levine. It is difficult for many of us to separate his artistic achievements from the many accusations made against him recently. But this is a record review publication, not a journal of social commentary, and from that perspective, acknowledging the personal outrage felt by many readers and myself, I view Levine's enormous contribution to this performance. That he was one of the truly great opera conductors for nearly a half century, that he upgraded the standards of the Met Orchestra, that he had the musical and dramatic insight which enabled him to bring shape and structure to even a sprawling score like I VESPRI, are facts beyond dispute. Levine conducts with similar skill on the RCA recording, but here he delivers the frisson that attends live performances but which rarely graces studio efforts. The performance uses the Italian translation of LES VESPRES SICILIENNES and omits (thankfully) the half-hour ballet required for Paris. There are a few seconds of recitative missing (a technical dropout noted by St. Laurent) just prior to the big final scene. It is not a serious problem, and one adjusts very quickly.
For those who really love this opera, the present recording and the Callas (in its newly remastered Warner version) are, I should think, essential. Both the Muti and Levine studio recordings are fine, but there is a vitality and musico-dramatic stature here that make it unmissable. Given the excellent stereo broadcast sound of St. Laurent Studio's remastering, there are no sonic reasons to stay away unless you insist on the perfection of studio production. This is certainly one of Renata Scotto's most monumental achievements. St. Laurent Studio recordings are found at Norbeck, Peters & Ford (www.norpete.com)."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE