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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto (1851) [113:05]
Robert Merrill (baritone) – Rigoletto; Anna Moffo (soprano) – Gilda; Alfredo Kraus (tenor) – Duke of Mantua; Rosalind Elias (mezzo) – Maddalena; Ezio Flagello (bass) – Sparafucile; David Ward (bass) – Count Monterone; Anna Di Stasio (mezzo) – Giovanna; Piero Di Palma (tenor) – Borsa; Robert Kerns (baritone) – Marullo; Mario Rinaudo (baritone) – Count Ceprano; Corinna Vozza (soprano) – Countess Ceprano; Tina Toscano (soprano) – A Page; Enzo Titta (baritone) – A Herald
RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Georg Solti
Recorded June 1963 at RCA Italiana Studios, Rome, Italy. ADD
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876 70785 2 [53:33 + 59:32]

 

 

In the beginning of the stereophonic era there were several good complete sets of Rigoletto being issued within just a few years. The mono LP era produced at least one classic: The Serafin set with Callas, Di Stefano and an unsurpassed Tito Gobbi in the title part. I have four early stereo recordings, which have been my main comparisons for this review: a Maggio Musicale Fiorentino set, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, starring the young Renata Scotto, Alfredo Kraus and with Ettore Bastianini as Rigoletto; the Decca set under Sanzogno with Sutherland, Renato Cioni and Cornell MacNeil; this RCA set from Rome and finally the DG recording from La Scala, conducted by Rafael Kubelik in a rare foray into Italian repertoire with Scotto again, Carlo Bergonzi and, the most controversial role assumption of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Rigoletto. Back in the early ’sixties this latter was the version I bought. The singing and playing there has forever been etched into my musical memory, which means that this evaluation might be somewhat biased.

Soundwise, especially in the Direct Stream Digital transfer, the RCA set is in the forefront, even compared with the most recent efforts. It’s a big, bold sound with almost ear-shattering fortissimos, wide dynamics and the first impression is that the orchestra is so highlighted that the imaginary stage is more or less swamped. The Duke of Mantua’s first phrases sound very distant, but turning up the volume a few notches places him more in focus and although the orchestra becomes even more formidable it’s still a sound that can be tolerated, which means that it isn’t unsociable, unless you live in an apartment with “hear-through” walls. The Gavazzeni is more restricted, at least in my transfer. My Decca version is on MC. I haven’t heard the CD transfer, but Deccas of this vintage were always good. The DG, finally, has a warmer sound than any of the others and a more natural balance between pit and stage.

These sonic differences also mirror the respective conductor’s view. Gavazzeni and Sanzogno, well versed operatic maestri and knowing this work better than their own pocket, adopt a middle-of-the-road approach: well chosen tempi and well aware of the drama, nothing extreme and always so very dependable. Kubelik’s is a warmly lyrical approach, a slim-line interpretation with perfectly judged tempi, while Solti is the hyper-dramatic maestro, taking every opportunity to let the magnificent Rome orchestra ring out. He punches home every round like a latter-day Rocky Marciano. The thunderstorm in the last act rages with extra intensity in Solti’s hands. But while Marciano only had one volume – fortissimo – Solti plays with the extremes and he carries Alfredo Kraus, who never had a large voice, through his big number by underlining but never drenching. But when he pulls out all stops it is an upsetting experience and the sinister brass in the prelude at once make the listener understand that the cheerful atmosphere at the Duke’s party is only on the surface; beneath is only evil and tragedy. And this runs all through the drama. This is indeed a very flexible account of Rigoletto. Solti as a Verdi conductor has sometimes been questioned; here I feel he is on the right track, just as he was with Aida, recorded at about the same time.

The comprimario parts are generally well taken, some singers appearing on more than one set; e.g. real-life couple Fiorenza Cossotto and Ivo Vinco who are Maddalena and Sparafucile on both Gavazzeni’s and Kubelik’s sets. On the Solti set under scrutiny Rosalind Elias is a strong Maddalena while Ezio Flagello is a rather anonymous Sparafucile, who can’t compete with Vinco on the Kubelik set or Cesare Siepi in the Sanzogno. On the other hand David Ward on the Solti set is the most impressive Monterone of all with a warm sonorous voice and great dignity. Robert Kerns with a fine Rigoletto voice is a characterful Marullo and the ever-reliable Piero Di Palma sings Borsa with his customary pregnancy.

But every performance and recording of this opera stands and falls with the three main characters and here Solti has much to offer. First of all he has possibly the best Duke of Mantua on any recording. It may be a bit surprising that Solti with his blood and thunder approach chose the most lyrical of them all, but it works well and, as I have already intimated, he is very considerate and adjusts the dynamics to put Kraus in the best possible light. He is merry and insouciant in Questa o quella, audibly infatuated in the duet with Gilda, sung with such elegance. The prelude to his second act aria is very fast, nervously Solti-ish, if you see what I mean, but the maestro relaxes when the Duke enters and Kraus’s singing is lovely. He projects his reedy voice so superbly that it sounds bigger than it actually is and he phrases with the utmost sensitivity. This is aristocratic singing in long, unbroken phrases and a wonderful pianissimo end. The recording being absolutely complete means that the cabaletta Possente amor is also included and he delivers it with verve, although the final note is pinched. In the last act La donna è mobile is sung with a certain swagger and the elegance of Tito Schipa. There is no higher praise. He is of course also the Duke on the Gavazzeni set, made some four years earlier, and almost just as good, but a few extra years of experience have given him even more insight. Carlo Bergonzi on the Kubelik set is wonderful too and an even greater Verdian and with a more truly Italianate voice he may be a safer proposition for traditionalists. I have always liked his interpretation here but for once I prefer Kraus with a hair’s breadth.

Anna Moffo started as a purely lyrical soprano, singing among other things a lot of Mozart in the beginning. She was Susanna on Giulini’s Le nozze di Figaro and for EMI she also recorded a whole Mozart recital. Her debut recital for RCA, recently reviewed on these pages, also finds her in lyrical and florid repertoire so she should be a good Gilda – and she is. Few sopranos in this role have sung it so beautifully with that creamy well-equalized voice and sure-fire intonation. In Caro nome she has no difficulties negotiating the pin-point high notes at the end; she phrases so musically. The duet with Kraus and then the three scenes with Rigoletto: Figlia! – Mio padre in act 1 (CD 1 track 9), Tutti le feste in act 2 (CD 2 track 7) and Lassù in cielo in act 3 (CD 2 track 21) are also sung with great beauty. But? Didn’t I hear a “but”? Yes, I’m afraid so. It is after all a monochrome voice. She lacks the ability to be expressive by colouring the voice. Scotto with both Gavazzeni and Kubelik is more involved although not so vocally secure. Hers was not really a Gilda voice, even though she sang Lucia on a very good recording with Di Stefano and Bastianini in the late ’fifties; especially in the Kubelik recording she can be unattractively shrill. Sutherland is of course superior in every vocal respect but she doesn’t characterize much either. Anyway, for pure beauty of tone and vocalization Moffo is hard to beat.

Rigoletto, the jester, is one of the greatest of all baritone parts and most great singers have wanted to have a stab at him. Three of the baritones involved on the four recordings I am discussing have true Italianate voices, warm, rounded, dark-hued and with lots of power. Only one is Italian, Ettore Bastianini on the Gavazzeni set. Although he was one of the greatest with his nut brown, steady and mightily beautiful voice he very often left an impersonal impression. Some months ago I reviewed a live recording of Don Carlo, unearthed from the Met’s archives, where he was a brilliant Posa, involved and noble, but his Rigoletto feels distanced, anonymous. As pure singing it is a lesson to any aspiring baritone but interpretatively he only skims the surface. Cornell MacNeil, a singer I have much admired, also feels distanced. He is certainly involved but sounds generalized – this could be any baritone character within the Verdi canon. Robert Merrill on the Solti recording is another matter. Having one of the most glorious baritone voices during the post-WW2 era his reputation as an actor was never high: he recorded Rigoletto in the mid-1950s with Björling and Roberta Peters and was – glorious but bland. But under Solti’s baton he is ennobled. His voice is still a glorious instrument but here he also has “face”; he is involved, he lives the part. His voice is filled with fear when he walks home in the dark after Monterone’s damnation; full of fatherly concern when he meets Gilda; anguished in his plea to the courtiers in the second act aria. His wrath at the end of the act, Si, vendetta, is tremendous. In the last act, when the Duke is heard singing his La donna è mobile for the third and last time and it dawns on Rigoletto that his enemy is alive, the despair in his voice is tangible as also is the resignation when he finds that the corpse in the sack is Gilda. Apart from Gobbi on the old mono recording and Cappuccilli on Giulini’s DG version there are few better Rigolettos. Yes, one – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Kubelik set, but this is very much a question of one’s view of Rigoletto. Fischer-Dieskau has no Italian voice and he can’t challenge the other baritones mentioned here when it comes to volume, but he digs deeper into the heart and soul of Rigoletto than any of them. Too deep, some detractors say. He tackles the role with the Lieder singer’s array of word-pointing and detailed voice colouring, sometimes crooning with his lightest tenor baritone, sometimes roaring, barking, shouting, growling. To me this is the most moving portrayal of Rigoletto ever committed to disc and this is the voice I always imagine when talking or just thinking of Rigoletto. On his account only - and in addition one gets Bergonzi’s sovereign Duke, Scotto’s involved but vocally flawed Gilda and Kubelik’s warm conducting - this is a set that every lover of this opera should own. It has recently been reissued at bargain price. The Solti, set, also retailing at budget price, is definitely a serious contender with Kraus’s aristocratic Duke, Moffo’s  beautifully sung Gilda, Merrill as one of the most idiomatic Rigolettos and Solti wringing every ounce of drama out the orchestra and a magnificent sound reproduction.

The discs come in a slim-line package with a reproduction of the original LP sleeve on the front. There is no printed libretto but inserting disc 1 in the computer one gets access to libretto with translations. Good for those who have a computer.

Göran Forsling

 

 

 



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