Giuseppe Verdi, music and Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare, libretto
Raina Kabaivanska (Leonora)
Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena)
Plácido Domingo (Manrico)
Piero Cappuccilli (Conte di Luna)
José van Dam (Ferrando)
Maria Venuti (Inez)
Heinz Zednik (Ruiz)
Karl Caslavsky (Un vecchio zingaro)
Ewanld Aichberger (Un messo)
Vienna state opera chorus and orchestra
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Enrico Caruso famously stipulated that all a satisfactory Trovatore needs is the world's four greatest singers. Of course, given the hot passions that run through opera fandom, at any given time determining just who those four greatest singers might be would probably never be an easy affair. Nevertheless, TDK's recent release on DVD of a 1978 Vienna production offers wonderful testimony to support Caruso's conjecture, which the additional provisos that one shouldn't slight the leadership of a great conductor who loves the work, and the smaller roles benefit from careful casting as well.
The booklet for this DVD set relates the history of the production, one not only conducted by Karajan but also designed and directed by him. A rather dark picture denies the viewer much chance to fully evaluate the physical production — painted backdrops of a type Verdi would have known well seem to dominate. Perhaps it is better this way. Trovatore's convoluted plot arguably works better in a setting that promotes atmosphere over specifics, and the dim, oppressive aura emanating from Karajan's very traditional production never interferes with the singers. Their rich and traditional costumes give the viewer much to admire, however.
And oh, those singers. Placido Domingo, according to the booklet, stepped in at the last minute to replace a troubled Franco Bonisolli. Looking fit and suitably dark and handsome, Domingo's darker sound fits most of Manrico well — the Di quella pira being one unfortunate exception. Only here do conductor and singer momentarily choose different tempos, and Domingo omits all the traditional Manrico interjections during the chorus, turning around at the last moment to project a not especially thrilling high note on a single "all' armi." As this follows the longest ovation of the evening, for a wonderfully smooth and masculine Ah si, ben mio, Domingo has nothing to be ashamed of.
Raina Kabaivanska's Leonora has enough feminine grace and beauty to make both Manrico's and the Count's passion fully understandable. Her exquisitely floated high notes do much to excuse an occasional clouded tone at the end of long lines. The act one Tacea la notte goes beautifully; by act four, understandably, D'amor sull'ali rosee has to be more carefully approached. A superbly acted final scene caps this fine performance.
Piero Cappuccilli manages the difficult feat of showing both the cruel, even sadistic side of the Count di Luna while earning our sympathy for a man desperate for the beauty of a love in a life marked by war and tragedy. His performance grows through the evening, and von Karajan knows that here he has a singer who does not need to "act" — his handsomely sculpted profile and hooded eyes tell all we need to know, while the voice throbs with masculine passion.
As Azucena, Fiorenza Cossotto may alarm some viewers with her acting, which is, to put it mildly, unrestrained, but no one could quibble over the superb control of her gorgeous voice. She makes every moment of Azucena's music into an argument in support of Verdi's original intention to name the opera after this character. And to see the singer at the final curtain, still unrestrained in her passionate acceptance of the crowd's wild enthusiasm, may be to realize that her acting was, for her, quite natural.
Before any of these great singers reach the stage, Verdi has the opening scene of exposition, which can throw a Trovatore off the tracks right at the start if not well delivered. Here von Karajan has a younger Jose van Dam, and the evening gets going with appropriately ominous, exciting singing. Even the Ruiz here is a name not to be dismissed — Heinz Zednik, the fantastic character tenor of the Boulez Bayreuth Ring.
The camerawork provides movement for the viewer where Karajan's direction does not; however, one might wish that the Count was visible at the climax, as the camera focuses only on Azucena. A strange filter over the screen in the garden scene apparently could not be removed — a minor distraction, but annoying. The titles, as so often seem to be the case, could have used another round of editing.
Although the DVD set comes on two discs, surely to accommodate the many curtain calls, it has no extra features. This is disappointing, as the booklet mentions an intermission interview with the conductor at the time of original broadcast. However, no lover of this magnificent score should deny him/herself the pleasures of this release. Perhaps not the least of those pleasures is the sight of conductor Karajan being hit on the head by an errant bouquet at final curtain, which is capped by the conductor bending down to accept from the orchestra pit a bundle of flowers almost as large as himself. Consider that the true bonus to this treasurable document of inspired, passionate Verdi performance, circa 1978.