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.
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.
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.
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.
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.