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Pavarotti: The EMI Recordings
15 Mar 2009

Luciano Pavarotti: The EMI Recordings

A Decca recording artist for most of his career, Luciano Pavarotti did do a very few items with EMI, probably as part of those “artist-swapping” arrangements recording labels sometime arrange.

Pavarotti: The EMI Recordings

Luciano Pavarotti, Tenor; et al.

EMI Classics 5099951393724 [7CDs, 2DVDs]

$46.98  Click to buy

This 9-disc set (seven audio CDs and two DVDs), sad to say, comes across less as a tribute to the late tenor and more as a way for EMI to move some product. The contents of the 9 discs can be conveyed quickly. Pavarotti’s recording of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, with Mirella Freni, last appeared for EMI in the company’s Great Recordings of the Century series. The 1992 LA Scala Don Carlo appears both on two DVD discs and as an audio-only version, spread over three discs. Muti conducts, as he does the 1987 Requiem, where Pavarotti is joined by Cheryl Studer, Dolora Zajick and Samuel Ramey. All told, if EMI had limited the package to the audio tracks where only Pavarotti sings, the set might barely require two discs.

Each disc comes in its own sleeve, with artwork identical to the set’s cover, making identification of any particular item difficult. The relatively skimpy booklet has an honest but otherwise routine essay by Michael Scott Rohan, and then track by track synopsis of the operas’ storylines in place of librettos. The only color photograph mislabels the Don Carlo’s Paolo Coni as Samuel Ramey’s Filippo II.

As a portrait of Pavarotti’s artistry, the set does offer the advantage of capturing him at different points in his career. The Mascagni comes from 1968, relatively early in his international stardom. Both he and Freni are in thrilling form, and along with the idiomatic conducting of Gianandrea Gavazzeni, they make L’amico Fritz entertaining enough. However, the music never blooms; as is so often the case with the opera world’s rarities, there is a reason this Mascagni opera inhabits the far outer reaches of the standard repertory. Don Carlo comes from 1992, and it is much more satisfying in its DVD incarnation. At the time, the almost requisite La Scala scandal originated in some reported booing of Pavarotti cracking. Needless to say, such an occurrence does not appear in the performance as presented here, and in fact, Pavarotti gives by far the set’s most satisfying performance. The juicy warmth of his youthful voice mellowed into a more substantial richness. His peerless enunciation allows him to be a musical actor, although his oversized physique limits his movement. Pavarotti’s face always told the story of the music, and even in 1992 he makes for a creditable, handsome prince. A young Andrea Silvestrelli sings a sonorous, imposing Monk, somewhat overshadowing the professionalism of Samuel Ramey’s unimaginative king. The middle of Daniella Dessi’s voice sounds fine, with just a hint of a vibrato that grows larger as the line rises. Her big fourth act scene starts unpromisingly, and even when she has steadied her voice it lacks beauty. Luciano d’Intino as Eboli and Paolo Coni’s Rodrigo, while adequate, give the kind of generic performances that unbalance the opera in favor of the more illustrious lead.

Franco Zeffirelli’s dark production does honor to the seriousness of the story, with only a final misstep at the very end, where an incomprehensible religious tableaux takes the place of the Monk’s ostensible rescue of the title character. Ricardo Muti glowers as expected, and also as expected leads a tightly-wound performance, exciting at times, relentless at others.

Thankfully, he relaxes - relatively speaking - for the Requiem. The music of repose comes across beautifully, with fine contributions from the La Scala chorus. Oddly, the “Dies irae,” taken at a fairly fast pace, comes across as more irritated that wrathful. This may not be the most famous of recorded Requiem’s, but all of the singers excel. Studer perhaps never sounded better, entirely feminine and secure. Zajick and Ramey can unleash their formidable instruments when needed, and also sing with subtlety. And Pavarotti sounds fine for 1987, his instantly recognizable timbre blending well with the other soloists’ voices.

EMI’s “special limited edition” might just be a marketing gambit, but any fans of the tenor who do not have these recordings should be glad to find them conveniently boxed, if they can hunt down the texts elsewhere.

Chris Mullins

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