This collection, whose French title might be translated "Verdi Vocal Rarities," is a unique contribution to the Verdi
centennial year. Its 136 selections on eight compact discs offer an in-depth survey of singers who recorded notable Verdi performances during the era of 78-rpm recording. Coincidentally, this period covers, within a few years, the half- century after the composer's death, in 1901. Some of the singers in the earliest cuts--tenor Francesco Tamagno and bass Victor Maurel, for example--had known Verdi and sung for him. Many of the singers will be familiar to connoisseurs of Verdi discography--Enrico Caruso, Boris Christoff, Fedora Barbieri, Ezio Pinza, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Tito Gobbi, Beniamino Gigli, and Jussi Bjoerling, to name a few. Others, such as Frieda Hempel, Emmy Destinn, Martha Modl, Joseph Schwarz, Gino Cigna, and Mattia Battistini, are names you come across in books about opera, but you have heard their voices only if you spend a lot of time with historic recordings. And a lot of performances, including some of the best, are likely to be the work of singers encountered for the first time.
Most of the big moments from Verdi's operas are included--grouped by opera, not by chronological order of recording. There are a few strange omissions; for example, the "Miserere" scene from Il trovatore. But other selections, such as "Ah fors' e lui" and "La donna e mobile," are given in two or three performances--sometimes in French, German, or Russian as well as Italian. Some of the performances are classics; many are mind-boggling.
Some favorite Verdi singers--Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti, among them--are absent because they began recording after the collection's cutoff date. Other problems are mostly related to the dates of the original recordings. The sound is all pre-high-fidelity and sometimes quite primitive, though some remarkable work has been done to optimize the earliest items. The annotations are minimal--mostly the date, venue, and performers in each cut, with pictures of the biggest stars. This decision was probably made to keep the price low, and those who already know most of the arias and ensembles will likely find the tradeoff acceptable. --Joe McLellan