> Verdi - An Introduction to Rigoletto [JN]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
An Introduction to Rigoletto
Written by Thomson Smillie
Narrated by David Timson
NAXOS 8.5580-48 [79.05]


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Now how many ways are there to recycle an operatic recording? You can produce a highlights CD or use arias or duets in compilation derivatives. Naxos uses still another method. They commission a writer and a narrator, tape the script and then edit it with a lot of samples from their complete recordings. Honestly I’ve got my doubts about the efficiency of the results as there are some severe handicaps. The script writer can tell the story nice and clean but his musical analysis has, by the nature of the enterprise, to limit itself to some vague generalities. Take this Rigoletto. In ‘The Operas of Verdi - Volume 1’ Julian Budden draws the attention to the parallels between the courtiers chorus ‘Scorrendo uniti’ and the witches chorus in Macbeth. Any Verdi-conductor or scholar will immediately illustrate such an example with a few measures on the piano but as this means an extra cost for the recording firm and as they have not yet produced their own Macbeth no such comparison is possible. Nobody can illustrate the many key changes which reflect the changing mood of the jester in Rigoletto’s ‘Cortiginani vil razza’ by just taking 30 seconds out of the recording without a word of comment. Handicapped by the formula Thomson Smillie does a good job in giving us the fine points of the story, though his Italian is a little bit hazy. ‘Un ladrone’ is not a murderer but a robber and ‘anima’ means soul and not spirit. With all the hullabaloo of modern producers on the theatrical values about Rigoletto, Mr. Smillie is surely right to remind us time and again that Giuseppe Verdi was a genial tunesmith, that lots of forgotten operas could be great theatre shows but they are not redeemed by the embarrassment of melodic richness.

It’s in the historical introduction however that Mr. Smillie is a little bit too much of our time. There he goes looking for (and finds) clues in Verdi’s past that would probably surprise the composer himself. The writer starts out on a very false note. "When Verdi was born…" and then he tells us that Italy didn’t exist, that part belonged to Austria, and other parts to the Pope and to the Bourbons in Naples. Now every Verdi-lover knows that Giuseppe is not the composer’s official first name. It is Joseph Fortuné as he was born in the kingdom of Italy, a client state of Imperial France while Bonaparte’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat ruled Naples and not the Bourbons. The fragmentation came later after France’s defeat. Smillie makes Verdi too much of a late 20th century artist saying that he corresponds to the idea of the artist as provocateur because of his permanent troubles with the censor. The writer forgets that every opera-composer, even the most submissive ones, had difficulties with that gentleman. Verdi knew very well how to make compromises and none of his operas was ever outright forbidden as happened with Donizetti’s Poliuto and Gaetano Donizetti is not exactly anyone’s idea of a provocateur. "He chose Nabucco" is, according to Mr. Smillie, proof of Verdi’s courageous attitude while it is well known that the impresario Merelli who had been turned down by Otto Nicolai, thrust the libretto in Verdi’s pocket and then threw him out of his office. So the libretto chose Verdi. Mr. Smillie admires the cunning of Verdi and his libretto-writer Francesco Piave who succeeded in practically restoring all the action after the censor had flatly rejected the whole opera. He forgets that censoring in those days (and even still now) is a cattle market. The censor very well knows what he doesn’t want (in this case a regicide on the scene) and therefore adds four or five other offending facts so that in the end he can seemingly relent and give the artists some kind of a break while reaching his aim all the while. Mr. Smillie has not noted that one line of the original offending situation stayed in the opera (nor does Budden) and that is Sparafucile’s "Son Bourguignon" (I’m from Burgundy). A contract-killer from Burgundy could easily live in the suburbs of Paris but wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in Mantua whence the action of Rigoletto was redirected.

Narrator David Timson is a real pro with the right (not-so-young) voice for this kind of enterprise. I’ve been a TV-producer for twenty years and I wouldn’t hesitate a second in engaging Mr. Timson for a voice-over.

Jan Neckers

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