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Healing Old Wounds: EMI Puts a Patch on Pavarotti's Boo-Boo

By Joseph McLellan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page N02

Luciano Pavarotti first sang the title role of Verdi's "Don Carlo" fairly late in his career, in 1992 at La Scala. This production has a special place in operatic folklore because one evening the tenor hit a bad note and the La Scala audience booed him off the stage. Naturally, microphones were present, and bootleg tapes of this moment were soon circulating briskly wherever opera is cherished.

That production has now made its way to DVD (EMI, two discs), but don't look for that legendary moment in this edition; live performances can be edited as easily as studio work. In fact, Pavarotti is a standout vocally, although -- as happened so often in his career -- he is not quite visually appropriate.

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No matter; the lavish staging by Franco Zeffirelli provides all the visual stimulation one could ask, particularly in the slightly sadomasochistic auto-da-fe scene. The other vocal standout is Samuel Ramey, singing the role of King Philip. His stage presence is a bit stiff, but that works well in this role. The rest of the cast is expert if not particularly distinguished, and the La Scala chorus and orchestra, under Riccardo Muti, are brilliant as usual.

The major competing edition on DVD is from the Metropolitan Opera, with James Levine conducting and Placido Domingo in the title role leading an all-star cast on the Pioneer label. The most important difference is that the Met production opens with Verdi's original Act 1, beautifully staged. This is the thematically potent if not quite essential Fontainebleau scene, in which Carlo meets and falls in love with the woman who will become his stepmother. Domingo hits a bad high note, but the Met audience is more polite than La Scala's, and the small lapse is preserved for posterity.

With the Fontainebleau scene, the opera is very long (and expensive to produce). Verdi left it out of a revised edition used by most conductors, including Muti. But it is exquisite, and on a recording it can be skipped by people in a hurry.

Mozart in Excelsis

Nicolaus Harnoncourt made his outstanding reputation conducting old music on the period instruments of his ensemble, Concentus Musicus. The experience seems to have given him a special access to the thoughts and feelings of bygone generations; at least that is the impression given by his new recording of Mozart's Requiem (RCA) with Concentus Musicus, four outstanding soloists and the dazzling Arnold Schoenberg Choir. The performance not only generates the sounds of the 18th century; it inspires the kind of shock and awe that must have been felt by the music's first audiences. This performance tells you that the music was written by a man who believed (correctly) that he was writing funeral music for himself. Mozart did not live to finish the Requiem, and Harnoncourt uses the completion worked out by his pupil Sussmayr.

The score is included on this disc in a CD-ROM track. The soloists are all excellent, but the hero of this recording is the chorus, which sings with power and precision I have seldom heard.


The recording industry has compiled a vast treasure-trove of material in its century-plus of existence. The downside of this fact is the formidable competition new performers face from those who have gone before; how many different "Moonlight" Sonatas or "Unfinished" Symphonies can a record dealer afford to keep in stock, and how can a neophyte listener decide which is best? But for ordinary music lovers who have no special interest in a particular young artist, the positive side is enormous. The greatest performances of the past keep coming back, digitally remastered and sounding better than ever, on sale at lower prices because they have long ago earned back their production costs.

One of the busiest companies in this area is EMI, which is recycling material at a hectic pace under a variety of sub-labels. In its "Legend" series, a reissue of Leopold Stokowski conducting his lush and very popular Bach transcriptions has a new wrinkle. The Bach is familiar, Romantic and un-Bachian in flavor, but gorgeous in its own right if you can keep your mind off baroque style. But this is a two-disc set with a special interest.

Packaged with the CD is a DVD with one piece of music: Stokowski, 90 years old and looking very fragile but still maintaining his familiar style, conducting (sans baton) Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" in a 1972 BBC television performance.

The remainder of the bonus disc's capacity is devoted to a survey of EMI's DVD archive of 20th-century performances, with little snippets of the music. As far as one can tell from the samples, the performances and video recording (mostly from the BBC) are remarkably good. The collection (but not the sampler) has some duplication of repertoire -- for example, the Beethoven Violin Concerto played by Leonid Kogan, Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh.

The names are less historic (that is, the performances are more recent) in BMG's reduced-price Classic Library series, but the performances and sound in these reissues are generally excellent.

The most recent release has more than a dozen titles, including Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Gershwin, Sviatoslav Richter playing Brahms, James Levine conducting the "German Requiem," Alicia de Larrocha playing Granados, Richard Stoltzman playing Mozart, Yuri Temirkanov conducting Prokofiev, the Tokyo String Quartet playing Schubert and Marianne Faithfull singing Kurt Weill. None of the programming is particularly adventurous, but the music, performance and price are attractive.

Cutting Edge

For adventurous programming, the label of choice these days, while others retreat into neo-romanticism and pop crossovers, is ECM New Series. The latest cutting-edge issues from this intrepid company are a recording of Heinz Holliger's Violin Concerto with Thomas Zehetmair as soloist and a recording of Helmut Lachenmann's surreal opera "The Little Match Girl" (two CDs), based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. Both works are performed with extraordinary skill and superbly recorded; both have structures based on a narrative subtext as well as musical forms, and both explore new sounds and sound-combinations with inventiveness, curiosity and a penchant for anecdotal materials outside the music. I would like to see a video recording of Lachenmann's work (he calls it "music with images," not opera), but the sound recording is intriguing.

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