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Giuseppe VERDI
Opera Arias

Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Richard Armstrong
EMI Classics CDC 5 57113 2 [64.51]
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For many the urbane and commanding figure of Thomas Hampson spells two areas of repertoire; French music and his native Americana. A glance at EMI's catalogue, whilst confirming that this is in part true, also demonstrates a surprising breadth of other Hampson interests including Beethoven, Lehár, Mahler, Orff, Puccini, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Szymanowski, Wagner, Walton and Weill. He has, therefore, already laid down quite a number of markers to give ample warning that he intends to continue to break into and dominate the largely European dominated operatic scene, where his career started. Although far from being the first American to do this, his progress, now exemplified by this new release of Verdi Arias, makes the biggest statement yet that his matinée idol looks and Transatlantic charm must not be confused with any lack of serious artistic intent.

Nor is this his first foray into Verdi on CD. The live Don Carlos (with Alagna and van Dam - CDS 5 56152 2) benefits greatly from his presence. But a whole disc of early and middle period Verdi takes Thomas Hampson into new realms. Wisely concentrating on the early and middle periods (1844-1855) Hampson's voice finds new depths and strengths before (one assumes) moving on to a further disc of the later Verdi. This also justifies the brave decision to employ the superb Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing, presumably, on instruments of the period. Certainly the soft toned trombones and the gut strings never put Hampson's voice in any danger of being swamped whereas today's inflated timbres tend to do this - in concert if not on record - to all but the beefiest of singers.

With strong accompaniments from Richard Armstrong, this CD is a triumph from start to finish. Very occasionally Hampson attacks a note slightly outside the exact pitch, but this is always instantly rectified and given the passionate and thoughtful performances in each aria, it still sounds entirely natural. So much better than sterile predictability.

The two arias from Macbeth (1847) are a challenge for any singer, but bravely Hampson chooses to start and end the album with them. Pietà, rispetto, amore (track 1) is intensely moving whilst Vada in fiamme (track 11) is suitably resigned. The aria from Stiffelio lies very high for any baritone yet Hampson is more than a match for both the need to picture the anger and fear of the father whilst maintaining a natural flow. Wonderful!

Other highlights include a fine Armata la prima from I masnadieri and O vecchio cor from Act 1 of I due Foscari.

Only Germont's aria from La traviata will be known to most general music lovers so this fine CD is highly recommended to all those who might fear that early Verdi may be distinctly inferior to the work of his later years. Hampson proves, without any doubt, that this simply is not true.

All lovers of fine singing need not hesitate.

Simon Foster

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