Aureole etc.

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)
Rigoletto (1851)

Gilda - Maria Callas (Soprano)
Rigoletto - Pietro Campolonghi (Baritone)
Duca di Mantova - Giuseppi di Stefano (Tenor)
Orchestra e Coro del Palacio de Bellas Artes di Citta del Messico/Umberto Mugnai
Recorded live 17 June 1952, Mexico City


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In June 1952, Maria Callas gave a legendary series of performances at the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, Mexico City. That series included not only this "Rigoletto", but three performances of "Lucia di Lamermoor" at the first of which she reprised the entire Mad scene. Callas went on to record "Rigoletto" in 1995 at La Scala in a studio recording with Tito Gobbi in the title role. Inevitably this recording can never replace that one and Pietro Campolonghi is no match for Tito Gobbi, but it is a fascinating and rewarding document.

Callas's 'Gilda' is no naïve simpleton and she opens with a very strongly sung performance, youthful but never completely girlish. Only after her seduction, does she allow her interpretation to broaden, suggestive of all that has happened and her development into a young woman. At this stage of her stage career, Callas had developed artistically but her voice needs few of the apologies that are needed later on in her career. So here, through the not inconsiderable haze of the recording, we can glimpse Callas the mature artist. As for her leading man, for all his faults, Giuseppi di Stefano's open throated, seductive 'Duca di Mantova' is in a class rarely achieved today and his performance is always a pleasure to listen to.

Pietro Campolonghi is not a great 'Rigoletto', but he was part of a still vital performing tradition. A tradition which has all but vanished today. And as such, his performance has much of interest, though it tends to be rather generalised and not a little hammy - good enough on its own but rather put into the shade when Callas is on the stage. His opening lacks the bite of his rival Tito Gobbi or a later singer like Piero Cappuccilli.

The singers playing Sparafucile and Maddalena are no more than adequate, some times not even that. Their inadequacies considerably weaken the Terzetto and Tempest in Act 3, with Gilda overhearing their plotting. This scene, also, has problems with the recorded balance, Callas is obviously considerably further from the microphone than the other two, and the general ensemble between stage and pit is poor.

This is a very traditional performance which, in our current climate of 'come scritto' performances, is welcome. But the principals give very committed performances, though traditional, very little is just routine. There is plenty of audience applause interrupting the action and the men, in particular, are fond of over-extended high notes. Di Stefano repeats the second verse of 'La donna e mobile'.

A recording of this performance has appeared before, notably on Melodram but this CD claims that this recording is from a new source and it has been treated with the USD24 sound restoration system. People's response to these sound restoration systems is notoriously variable. Generally I prefer as little interference as possible, I find my ear becomes accustomed to the sound and filters out what is unnecessary. Additionally, most sound cleaning system cause you to lose something though it is not to everyone's taste to try discern the details of a fine performance of "Rigoletto" from amidst a hailstorm of noise. That said, the sound quality on this set is just about adequate and one's ear quickly becomes used to it, though the louder ensembles can sound congested. The recording is apt to make Callas's upper-most register sound a little steely, but research would be needed to check whether this was caused by the sound restoration, the original recording process or was just naturally Callas in 1952.

The set has other, greater disadvantages. The ensemble is frequently poor (and sometime quite atrocious), the conductor (Umberto Mugnai) is unable to keep his orchestra, chorus and singers together. The opening scene, with its off-stage band, at times becomes positively confused. And the singers are prompted in such a repeated and audible manner, that it starts to become part of the performance - turning Callas and di Stefano's Act 1 duet into a trio. And did Callas really require so much prompting in 'Caro Nome'?

On the plus side, balance between pit and stage is just about acceptable, though soloists are apt to wander in and out of focus. And Callas is in coruscating form. Apart from the 1955 studio recording, recordings of these Mexico performances of "Rigoletto" seem to be the only other record of Callas as 'Gilda'. This will never be a first choice recording for "Rigoletto". Nor can it be first choice for "Rigoletto" with Callas as 'Gilda', that goes to the 1955 EMI recording. What this is, though, is a valuable record of Callas performing the role live. With such a volatile artist as Callas, every live performance was an event and we are to be grateful that we have this opportunity to eavesdrop, even if only dimly.

Robert Hugill

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