One had been hearing for years about this production, a live performance of 'Trovatore' prepared by Karajan for Austrian television but never released on video until now. I gather there have been bootleg tapes circulating for years, but I'd never seen one. Karajan, on his triumphant return to the Vienna State Opera the year before, had been treated to opulent conditions. He picked the cast, produced the opera with his own chosen collaborators--Georges Wahkevitch designed the sets and costumes, Robert Stangl did the lighting--and the 1977 series was an unblemished triumph. His cast that time was similar to this one, except that Leontyne Price sang Leonora and Luciano Pavarotti sang Manrico. But that production was not videotaped. The next year he returned to make a television broadcast, in this case with the right to choose the television director, Günther Schneider-Siemssen. This time, however, one of his favorite sopranos, Raina Kabaivanska, replaced Price, and tenor Franco Bonisolli was to sing Manrico. But at the last moment--during the dress rehearsal, in fact--Bonisolli pulled out; accounts vary as to why this was, but legend has it that he was angry that the invited audience did not respond kindly to his third act cabaletta 'Di quella pira.' Be that as it may, Karajan was able to get Plácido Domingo to substitute for the live performance to be broadcast. It had originally been scheduled to be beamed all over Europe, but because the last minute cast change pushed the date of broadcast back by a few days, only Austrian TV carried it. The previous year's 'Trovatore' had been issued as recording, and there is no doubt that it is wonderful. But this one is, in my opinion, even better. Kabaivanska's soprano may not have the richness of Price's (and she doesn't have a trill) but her vocal acting is superior and I would put her up against any soprano singing today; there's no doubt she would meet the competition. As to the rest of the cast, it is impossible to come anywhere close to it these days. Piero Cappucilli is a magnificent, lizard-eyed Count di Luna and has that burnished Verdi baritone that one simply doesn't hear often these days. His 'Il balen' is sensational. Ferrando, in some houses a relatively minor part or at least one relegated to a secondary baritone, is sung by none other than José van Dam! Ferrando's Narrative in Act I is not ever for one moment a bore, as it can sometimes be. Azucena is taken by Fiorenza Cossotto and her voice rings out throughout its range. Further, she is a scarily effective gypsy woman motivated by revenge for her mother's death at the hands of di Luna. Her triumph in the final scene is something to behold. Before that her 'Stride le vampa' gives one goosebumps. Even the minor role of Ruiz is taken by a tenor, Heinz Zednik, who went on to sing leading roles primarily in the German repertoire.
Kabaivanska is a beautiful, slim woman who certainly looks the part; indeed the whole cast is physically attractive. Her singing is nuanced, subtle and yet dramatically pointed when needed. Her pianissimi are breath-taking. The lack of a trill is about the only criticism I can come up with, to be honest. 'Tacea la notte placida' and 'D'amor sull'ali rosee' are marvelous. In the 'Miserere' the voice rides above the chorus with ease; there is an occasional slight under-pitch problem here, but it is of little importance in the drama of the moment.
Domingo, who may be slightly strained in the more dramatic parts of 'Di quella pira' (but not by much, let me assure you), is simply magnificent as the Troubador. 'Ah sì, ben mio' is meltingly sung and his scenes with Azucena and with Leonora are heroically conveyed. Further, his voice has a ring that I had forgotten he had back then. It wasn't long after this that he began essaying some Wagner roles and now I can see why.
Karajan conducts a slightly slower 'Trovatore' than we are used to, although it's nowhere near as slow as Giulini's recording made not long after this. The slow tempo is particularly noticeable, and surprisingly effective, in the Act II finale ('E deggio, e posso crederlo?'). It allows the individual voices to emerge more clearly, and I must say that Kabaivanska's voice rings out as the upper line of this ensemble with thrilling immediacy, partly because Karajan seems to breathe with her. The Vienna State Opera orchestra and chorus are superb, as one would expect, but Karajan seems to get the very best out of them: alert attacks and clarity throughout, dramatically apt acting from the chorus.
The video aspects of this production are not as crisp as we are used to these days. This was 1978, after all, and it is clear that the tape from which this DVD was made had to have some doctoring. There is what I believe to be an electronically-produced scrim effect in Leonora's scene in Act I, but perhaps this was an attempt to cover a somewhat defective tape at that point. None of this is of any detriment whatever, at least to me. The sets and costumes are not only rich and lovely, the whole production is cast in traditional terms: these people and scenes actually look as if they are set in 15th-century Spain--none of this senseless time-shifting so commonly seen these days. The audio is life-like and and modern-sounding in spite of being almost thirty years old. This is a 2DVD set. There are no extras. Subtitles in English, German, French, Italian. 151 mins.
I must say that this set has exceeded my own fairly high expectations. This is a production for the ages.