Rare Verdi is a serious disc from a serious artist. Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter has just completed a triumphant run at Covent Garden as Theseus in The Minotaur and he'll return there in future seasons as Orest in Elektra and Jokanaan in Salome. But as this new disc proves, his voice is no less suited to the classical lines of Verdi's baritone roles than he is to more contemporary music. Indeed his strong technical ability is married to a natural dramatic instinct of which the composer would have undoubtedly approved, and the most excellent of the tracks on offer here demonstrate the best possible synthesis of these two concerns.
The CD takes us through the majority of the Italian composer's operas from Oberto, conte di san Bonifacio in 1839 to La battaglia di Legnano in 1849 (omitting the familiar I Lombardi, Attila, Macbeth, Luisa Miller and Nabucco, as well as the failed comedy Un giorno di regno), plus Egberto's aria from Aroldo (the 1857 revision of Stiffelio). The choice of excerpts is admirably thought out, the variety of styles and expression proving that even in the early stages of his career Verdi responded to texts individually rather than bending to convention.
For me, the finest of Reuter's performances on this disc is that of the Aroldo aria, 'Mina, pensai che un angelo'. The extensive dramatic scena which precedes it is ideal for the singer's talents, and he manages to maintain the legato of the andante section while injecting it with the emotion of a grieving father. Francesco's scene from I masnadieri is equally fine, Reuter conjuring up in our minds' eye the image of a bloodthirsty man bringing about his brother's destruction, and the singer brings weight to Giacomo's aria from Giovanna d'Arco, a number which indicates that Verdi's psychologically complex portrayal of Giorgio Germont is just around the corner.
Reuter brings a nobility of tone to Oberto's aria 'L'orror del tradimento' that suits the dignity of the character, though the final note of the cabaletta is slightly clipped; here and in perhaps one or two other places, Reuter chooses excitement of expression over technical perfection (another example is the somewhat too angry rendition of the end of Carlo's 'Vieni meco, sol di rose' from Ernani). However, the remaining performances are all outstanding: a vocally polished 'Questa dunque' from I due Fosari, an urgent 'S'avvicina il tuo momento' from Il corsaro and a particularly fine 'Se al nuovo dì pugnando' from La battaglia di Legnano in which lyric-voiced tenor Wookyung Kim sings Arrigo's brief asides.
This is the most impressive CD yet to come from the new Michael Storrs Music label, and it's considerably enhanced by the presence of the Kammerensemble Classic der Deutschen Oper Berlin, whose sense of style and liveliness belies their relatively small numbers. Chamber accompaniments are used throughout, saluting the popular salon soirees of the nineteenth century, when the latest Italian arias were often sung to the backing of a small group of musicians. The Kammerensemble's excellence doesn't make one miss a full orchestra at all during the vocal numbers, but I'm less convinced by the reduced versions of the Overture to Alzira and the Prelude to Il corsaro: the woodwind parts in particular make the music sound a little banal where it should be graceful.
Nevertheless, this is a highly impressive bargain-priced CD that's well worth exploring.
Read an interview with Johan Reuter about The Minotaur and his Rare Verdi CD here.
Read our review of The Minotaur here.
Previous releases on the Michael Storrs Music label: