It’s good to have this – the last foray of Herbert von Karajan into opera (1989) – back in the catalogue, though it is not without problems. I haven’t listened to it in years, and hearing it again only reminded me of some of the general Karajan issues from his later years. The sound isn’t bad, though the blowsy, sonic mélange that he preferred is certainly there. DGG did not give this recording a lot of bass (as was their custom in those years), but there is amply clarity of line, and the soundstage is wide and rather explosive in climaxes. The Vienna Philharmonic sounds like they always do, that is, great, though the treble-emphasize on the recording sometimes alleviates a little of the tonal sheen on the strings. Tempos are mainstream, and Karajan was always a great opera conductor.
The biggest problem in this recording is the Amelia of Josephine Barstow. Her tonal quality is a little fat, and her vibrato generally wobbly and sometimes so uncontrolled that she loses tonal focus. There is too much emotive thrust in every note which leads to a sound that is overly-matronly – miles away from the character. Domingo is fairly consistent, though even he has a tendency to sound forced at times, while Florence Quivar’s Ulrica is wonderful, as is Sumi Jo’s Oscar, though a bit underplayed.
But is it recommendable anymore? The competition in all Verdi operas is fierce. This one finds Maria Callas on the old EMI recording tough to beat, while the Price girls (Leontyne and Margaret) give absolutely sterling performances with Leinsdorf (RCA) and Solti (London) respectively, the latter my personal favorite. In fact, I doubt that Margaret Price ever gave a better performance, and Pavarotti is sensational as Gustavo. The sound of the National Philharmonic is almost as good as the VPO here (and the strings more silken) while Solti leads a reading of great clarity and finesse, matched to a tee by the great London sonics – one of the best-sounding recordings of the opera ever made.
So while this is certainly a creditable performance with some very intriguing highlights, the absence of a really top grade soprano and the general ups and downs of the reading render it supplementary, albeit a decent supplement. All of the three superlative recordings mentioned above are readily available, so if you are a newcomer, by all means go for one of those first. Texts are gone—only a plot summary is included here.
— Steven Ritter