Joan Sutherland was at the height of her career when she took on the role of Leonora – arguably the most dramatic of all Verdi heroines – in 1983. Elijah Moshinsky’s production, in which he was ably supported by the Australian artist Sidney Nolans (set design), Luciana Arrighi (costumes) and Nick Chelton (lighting), was tailor-made for Sutherland, allowing Leonora to develop into a truly tragic heroine occupying the opera’s central ground. This performance at the Australian Opera, Sydney – and featuring a high quality cast under the baton of Richard Bonynge – was recorded by Australian Television on 2nd July 1983. Verdi’s powerful and passionate opera tells a tale of civil war and treachery.
I believe this is the only note-complete performance of this opera, and furthermore, the only one that is sung in all of the original keys (in almost every other recording "Casta diva" and the duets are transposed down). It is a spectacular example of bel canto. Recorded in 1964, Joan Sutherland was at her peak, exhibiting fearless, beautiful singing, thoroughly accurate in fiorature and breath control.
Montserrat Caballé as Leonora is precisely what one would hope for. The voice is in near-pristine shape–the occasional attack on a loud high note early on can be vicious, but she sings with unusual commitment (not that the role has many nuances), glorious tone, and her entire arsenal of tricks: long-breathed phrases, diminuendos, high, floated pianissimo, grand chest voice. She even sings most of the words, rarely relying on “ah” sounds for high notes. The sound is huge and major-league and her comportment–acting is the wrong word–is regal. She sings the “Vergine degli angeli” with her back to the audience and the sound is as ethereal as you ever wanted it to be.
For me, this recording represents the absolute epitome of bel canto singing, with Pavarotti spinning endless golden tone as Fernand and Fiorenza Cossotto showcasing that indomitable chest-voice as Leonora.–Katherine Cooper
Verdi, child of the people, king of popular opera, began life as the son of an innkeeper. He was brought up in modest circumstances. He first received lessons from the village priest, who was amazed by the young musician’s talents. Verdi’s musical education was rounded and complete: at the age of sixteen, the composer wrote fugues, masses and symphonies, which he would later destroy. As he met with reticence in Milan, he settled in Busseto where he fell victim to the pettiness of the town. However, his strong willpower enabled him to pursue his musical path without paying heed to what people said.
Of the large crop of tenors reaching their prime years in the late 2010s, Malta's Joseph Calleja has shown strong signs of breaking out from the pack, and this Verdi recital can only help him. Calleja combines a rich, smooth middle range with a bright, edgy top in which he can convincingly explode in emotion. Album buyers have been primed for a new recital release from Calleja and would probably have been perfectly satisfied with an album covering Verdi's greatest hits.