This reissue of Sir Georg Solti's 1989 recording of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is part of a series on Decca Classics entitled 'Classic Opera'. I'm not quite sure why it's called this, however. Certain of the operas, though great, are outside the standard repertoire. And some of the recordings date from the 1980s and 1990s, so they're hardly classic on the level of Schwarzkopf's Rosenkavalier.
In effect, the recordings are being repackaged at midprice. The complete libretti are included, but there are no explanatory notes and no synopses. No explanations of the stories or the music will surely make this an unhelpful series for the operatic novice. Meanwhile, if you don't need to know the story or be told about the music, the chances are that you may already have the libretto. In the latter case, a scholarly note from an expert would be more welcome.
This qualm aside, the affordability of these recordings allows us to reassess some of the more neglected items at the distance of a decade or so. Do they deserve greater recognition?
Solti's Boccanegra has always been sidelined in favour of Abbado's marvellous La Scala set on Deutsche Grammophon from the late 1970s. Abbado's approach is special, benefitting from a cast with experience of the opera in the theatre. Yet Solti's discipline and vitality offer something different. And several members of his cast have contrasting but still valid takes on the roles compared to their forbears.
Crowning the set is the Amelia of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Indeed, you need little other reason to splash out on the recording. Was Amelia's Act I aria ever sung with more purity? Or her contribution to the slow movement of the first act finale phrased with such ease? The biggest surprise is how much power and passion Dame Kiri gives the music in the studio, as opposed to her sometimes contained singing in the theatre. Without doubt, this is one of her best recordings.
As the eponymous doge, Simon Boccanegra, Leo Nucci has a smaller voice than Cappuccilli on two earlier recordings but is more inteligent. The moment when he realises that Amelia is his long-lost daughter is heart-rending, and the death scene is brilliantly emoted.
Giacomo Aragall was also in his finest hour when recording the opera. Both his aria O inferno! and his opening to the Act II finale, Perdon Amelia, are ardently taken.
Also in unusually good form is Paata Burchulaze as Fiesco - Amelia's grandfather. Though lacking Boris Christoff's luxuriant tone in O lacerato spiritu, for instance, he is in far more control of his sometimes wayward voice than in many a recording I could mention.
A typically Soltian idea was to use Italian forces, the orchestra and chorus of La Scala, for the recording of a great Italian opera. It's rather like his use of the Vienna Phil for the Ring Cycle, and pays similar dividends. In fact, I find the focus of the off- and on-stage chorus in the Council Chamber scene far crisper than in the Abbado recording.
Excitement, precise tempi and truly Verdian attack are the characterisics of the performance. If it's missing from your collection, why not give it a chance?