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Nicholas E. Limansky, Reviewing #5000, Trovatore, #OF5, Trovatore, and #5011, Ernani, in Opera News

Il trovatore (Björling, Cigna, Wettergren; Gui)

Il trovatore (Corelli, Parutto, Barbieri, Bastianini, Ferrin; De Fabritiis)

Ernani (Cerquetti, Del Monaco, Bastianini, Christoff; Mitropoulos).

“If you want these performances in the best sound available at this time, get the BCS. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

“Collectors of live opera recordings tend to obsess about sound quality. Record companies need only hint at ‘newly discovered masters‘ or ‘superlative sound,’ and fans will rush out to buy yet another version of a beloved performance—most of the time only to be disappointed and out another $25-30. The underlying psychology for this is similar to why one collects more than five recordings of Verdi’s Aïda. It is a quest for the ever-elusive perfect performance in superlative sound.

“The three above are good examples. Long regarded as treasures of the opera underground, each has appeared in multiple editions during the past decade. And now Bel Canto Society offers it own versions, claiming the best sound available.

“First of all, the issue of sound quality is subjective. Some listeners prefer more treble, others more bass. Some have no problem listening through a bit of residual hiss from an original, while others find it obtrusive and ‘aurally tiring.’ Also, when it comes to the transfer of historical audio documents, one is on dangerous ground. Any tampering with an original involves compromises. It must be done with an acute ear and judicious temperament.

“In this case, both the Jussi Bjoerling Trovatore  and the Mario Del Monaco Ernani  were converted from analog tapes by Direct Stream Digital, the Franco Corelli Trovatore with a process called Prism, at 24 bits, 96khz. Although this is mumbo-jumbo to most of us, the differences in the various processes used in such conversions are becoming an important (and controversial) topic in the field of audio restoration.

“Let me say right off that Bel Canto Society (BCS) has indeed done some remarkable cleaning up—especially with the 1939 Trovatore . They claim to have removed more than 900 clicks, crackles and scratches—many of them one at a time. Because of this and the conversion used, BCS’s resulting sound has a smoothness and warmth I have not encountered in other transfers of this Trovatore performance. At times, however, I miss the brightness of a less tampered-with original, where one gets a better feel for the relation between a singer’s voice, the size of the theater and its acoustics. But that is my own, idiosyncratic preference. I found that once I adjusted to the BCS sound, I was perfectly content. At times it almost deceived me into believing it was a commercial recording.

“The Ernani and the Corelli Trovatore  masters show advances in audio technology not available when the Bjoerling performance was recorded. They are in excellent sound, and the Ernani belongs in every operatic library—as does the Bjoerling Trovatore. Both are justly famous and offer invaluable artistic insights into the singers involved. The Corelli Trovatore is fatally sabotaged by an unfortunate, over-the-hill Azucena and an inadequate Leonora. Even Bel Canto could not erase the master tape’s overload during some of Mirella Parutto’s excruciating high notes in ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee.’ But the reason for the documentation is Corelli’s work, not hers.

“Since BCS took such obvious care in these restorations, it is disappointing that they offered them in such paltry presentations. (No text for either Trovatore and only a brief synopsis for Ernani, no artist biographies or librettos, etc.)

“So, should you get the BCS versions? Again, the answer depends entirely on what you are looking for. Since most historical opera re-releases such as these are working from the same source, if you are merely curious, shop around for a cheaper edition. But if you want these performances in the best sound available at this time, get the BCS. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

I agree with Mr. Limansky about the importance of acoustic ambience (depth and space). We did not eliminate these by our signal processing. They were simply not on our source materials for the Bjorling Trovatore. Our other CDs have them in abundance.

For the benefit of a Russian mezzo-soprano, I recently compared and discussed “Stride la vampa” and “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” as sung by Minghini Cattaneo, Zinetti, Pederzini, Stignani, Barbieri, Simionato, Cossotto, Wettergren and others. The Barbieri version I chose was from the #5102 Trovatore. Of all the versions, we both found it the most vivid and fervid. In addition, she observes more of the dynamic markings and accentuations than the others do.” (Barbieri told me Azucena was her best role.)

BCS has chosen to put its money in better mastering rather than biographies and librettos. We spend about six times more on mastering than others do, and we are trying to keep the retail price affordable. Since Ernani is on the fringe of the repertory, we did include a two-page synopsis.—Stefan Zucker