A whiff of greasepaint: Verdi crackling with theatricality from Chailly at La Scala

Viva Verdi! Filarmonica della Scala/ Riccardo Chailly (Decca 478 3559)

Riccardo Chailly conducts Verdi at La Scala all too infrequently. In the past decade, there has been a 2006 Rigoletto, followed by the Franco Zeffirelli production of Aida, where Roberto Alagna famously stormed off the stage after “Celeste Aida” on the second night, never to return. Chailly has a long history with the La Scala. At the age of 20, he was Claudio Abbado’s assistant, another distinguished Verdi maestro from whom he learnt much. In the absence of a full opera to celebrate the composer’s bicentenary, Decca has issued this collection of overtures and preludes which sees Chailly reunited with the Filarmonica della Scala under the banner ‘Viva Verdi’, with curtain-raisers spanning his operatic output from Nabucco to Aida with some ballet music thrown in for good measure, albeit in a fairly arbitrary sequence.

Most of Chailly’s operatic recordings stem from Bologna, but this disc acts as a neat complement to his 2003 collection of ‘Verdi Discoveries’ with another Milanese orchestra, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. Where he then explored the first version of La forza del destino (a short prelude) and an 1872 Sinfonia for Aida, here he offers the more familiar full Forza overture and the original 1871 Aida prelude.

These are rousing performances which crackle with theatricality. The Filarmonica della Scala has this music coursing through its veins. Five of Verdi’s first seven operas were premiered at La Scala, as were his final Shakespearean pairing of Otello and Falstaff, and it plays these scores with infectious passion and adoration. My benchmark in this repertoire has long been Edward Downes’ impressive collection of the complete preludes, overtures and ballet music with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos, but as fine as that collection undoubtedly is, this new recording offers a genuine whiff of greasepaint.

The disc opens with Verdi’s most Rossinian overture, that for I vespri siciliani, or – more properly – Les vêpres siciliennes, for the opera was Verdi’s first attempt to conquer the Paris Opéra, to be seen in its original French incarnation at Covent Garden next season. Chailly injects drama into the short rhythmic motif (what Julian Budden called “the sullen tramp of death”) which starts the Largo opening section, with the La Scala side drum offering a more martial response than the dull bass drum thud on Downes’ more measured account. When the sudden crescendo explodes into the music of the massacre from the opera’s Act V, the orchestra responds enthusiastically before the overture’s second subject, based on the tenor—baritone duet from Act III, is lovingly played by the Scala strings. Chailly never lets the tension sag, whipping up a vigorous finale.

A similar sense of theatre benefits the accounts of the overtures to Nabucco and La forza del destino, Luisa Prandina’s crisp harp figurations in the latter, which accompany Mauro Ferrando’s playing of the clarinet theme associated with Leonora in her scene with Padre Guardiano, are delectably played. Imposing brass and shrieking piccolo characterize the short prelude to Macbeth.

Among the lesser known sinfonias, that to Giovanna d’Arco bristles with anticipation before a stormy eruption, while the charming flute, clarinet and oboe pastorale section is reminiscent of the similar episode in Rossini’s overture to William Tell. The concluding Allegro is one of Verdi’s most vigorous, ebullient themes. Also stormy in character is the brief prelude to Il corsaro, while Alzira, Verdi’s opera set in darkest Peru, is less memorable, despite a clarinet solo of great liquidity in its central section.

It’s not all blood and thunder though. Chailly coaxes a luminous string sound for the preludes to La traviata and Aida, and there is buoyancy aplenty in the ballet music from Jérusalem, Verdi’s Parisian rewrite of I Lombardi alla prima crociata; not great music, but it makes for good contrast amidst all the overtures and Chailly is certainly as light and persuasive as José Serebrier on his fine Naxos collection of Verdi’s ballet music.

Decca affords a close, bright sound entirely in keeping with the repertoire, recorded in the Auditorium di Milano. There is an informative booklet note by Fabrizio Della Seta and it’s good to note that the woodwind and harp soloists are listed. Such a vibrantly performed collection is a double-edged sword, hugely enjoyable in its own right on the one hand, but it piques that Decca hasn’t chosen a new opera recording with which to reunite Chailly, Verdi and La Scala.


Viva Verdi: Overtures & Preludes from I vespri siciliani, Alzira, La traviata, Il corsaro, Nabucco, Jérusalem, Giovanna d’Arco, Aida, Macbeth, La forza del destino Decca (478 3559, 74 minutes) Filarmonica della Scala/ Riccardo Chailly

This review originally appeared in International Record Review.

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