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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Rigoletto (1851)
Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – The Duke of Mantua; Cornell MacNeil (baritone) – Rigoletto; Reri Grist (soprano) – Gilda; Agostino Ferrin (bass) – Sparafucile; Anna di Stasio (mezzo) – Maddalena; Limbania Leoni (mezzo) – Giovanna; A Page; Ruggero Raimondi (bass) – Count Monterone; Benito di Bella (baritone) – Marullo; Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – Borsa; Alfredo Giacomotti (bass) – Count Ceprano; Mirella Fiorentini (mezzo) – Countess Ceprano; Carlo Castrucci (baritone) – An Usher
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
rec. Opera House, Rome, July 1967
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 3932822 [54:38 + 61:20]

When stereo recording was firmly established towards the latter half of the 1950s the leading companies were eager to replace their mono records. This resulted in a spate of new Rigolettos. During less than a decade there appeared five sets – six if we include one conducted by Nello Santi, circulated through the Concert Hall Record Club. In roughly chronological order they were:

Gavazzeni (Ricordi) – Scotto, Kraus, Bastianini
Sanzogno (Decca) – Sutherland, Cioni, MacNeil
Solti (RCA) – Moffo, Kraus, Merrill
Kubelik (DG) – Scotto, Bergonzi, Fischer-Dieskau
and finally, in 1967, the present set.

I have owned the Kubelik set since it was new and learnt the opera through it. I added the others as well as time went on. This gave me a fairly good overview and I intend to assess all five against a number of criteria with special focus on the set primarily under scrutiny.

Technically they are all good with Kubelik - recorded using La Scala forces - the warmest and Solti the most dynamic, reflecting the respective conductors’ readings. Molinari-Pradelli, recorded in the Opera House in Rome has a believable theatrical atmosphere. The balance is what one would expect from a seat in the rear half of the stalls with a powerful but not glaring orchestra and the soloists just behind. Reri Grist, the Gilda, has a rather small voice and I sometimes had a feeling that she was too far away. However her bright tones carry well out over the orchestra and also in the ensembles.

Employing leading Italian opera house orchestras or, as in Solti’s case, the highly accomplished RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra, there is no lack of authentic Verdi sound. Kubelik’s La Scala players may be marginally more refined but Molinari-Pradelli’s Rome musicians are not far behind and they do have a slightly meatier sound at climaxes.

When we go to the conductors there are more obvious differences. Gavazzeni, Sanzogno and Molinari-Pradelli were all experienced opera conductors and they deliver well-paced, rather traditional – or mainstream – readings of a score they presumably knew by heart. Of the three, Molinari-Pradelli is the one who seems most content to let the music unfold without much intervention, which is very often all to the good. There are places, however, where one feels that he could have done more. Just one isolated example: in La donna è mobile Nicolai Gedda seems to be in exceptionally vigorous shape and he clearly wants to bring more life to the hackneyed aria. But the conductor has no such intention and in the first stanza Gedda is sometimes slightly before the beat. When he reaches the second stanza he knows that the tempo is fixed once and for all and gives a lively and elegant reading at Molinari-Pradelli’s speed. Flexibility indeed! The overall impression is of a competent but not particularly inspired reading from the conductor. For a more personal touch one has to turn to the two “star” conductors, each of them equally at home in opera house and concert hall. Kubelik has a number of successful opera recordings to his credit but this is his only foray into the Italian repertoire and it may be that this humanist wants to soften the cruel proceedings of this opera by playing it with considerable warmth. He shapes the music with obvious affection, not least Gilda’s scenes. The Duke stands out as much more human than he certainly is. Solti’s approach is, as expected, just the opposite. He strives for maximum dramatic effect and even though he once or twice can be too hard-driven it works. This is probably the most thrilling Rigoletto ever recorded.

The conductor is important in any opera performance but without good singers and actors in the leading parts most performances fall flat, however good the conductor. Comparing these five casts we find at once that there is a good deal of overlapping between the sets. Most crucial for any version of Rigoletto is the protagonist himself. Here there are important differences. Ettore Bastianini, the only native Italian among them, sings his part with superb assurance and firm, dark tone. But he rarely gets under the skin of his character. He seems distanced and in the end one feels largely untouched by his reading. Cornell MacNeil in his first recording is also in good voice and he understands the predicament of the jester. He can even be a bit over-emphatic while at other times he too seems to skim the surface. On the Molinari-Pradelli recording his insight has clearly deepened but instead his singing has coarsened, he is strained and effortful. In the second act when he meets Gilda, after she has been seduced by the Duke, he is really good however and sings in soft and fatherly tones Ah! Piangi, fanciulla, piangi! His reading at large is deeply involved and one believes in him. Few baritones in the central Italian repertoire have possessed more beautiful, manly and powerful voices than Robert Merrill. However, as an interpreter he could be bland, going through the motions professionally but often leaving this reviewer untouched. Even so, the sheer greatness of his singing was never in question. During the sessions with Solti in Rome it seems that the maestro managed to draw the best out of him. Reviewing the Solti set about two years ago I wrote: “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.”

There remains one Rigoletto to consider and that is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Kubelik set. He is the odd man out. His voice has very little of Italianate roundness and fullness and his reading is detailed and analytical as if he were singing German Lieder, but he goes deeper into the character than any other interpreter. Whether this is good or bad is up to one’s personal taste. For me this is the ultimate reading but it is definitely unidiomatic.

His daughter Gilda is also accorded different readings. Both Gavazzeni and Kubelik have Renata Scotto. Her involvement is never in question but her singing leaves something to be desired. One expects Gilda to be innocent sounding and pure, but Scotto’s tone is frayed and especially on the Kubelik set, shrill and squally. Joan Sutherland is of course security personified but as an interpretation it is fairly uninteresting. Anna Moffo for Solti isn’t particularly deep either but her creamy tones still makes her the most beautifully sung Gilda of them all. Reri Grist for Molinari-Pradelli has a smallish voice and the whole reading is small-scale. She is however the one who comes closest to the angelic quality and her Lassù in cielo at the end of the opera is truly touching.

Of the various Dukes of Mantua Renato Cioni on the Sanzogno set is good but rather run-of-the-mill. Both Gavazzeni and Solti have Alfredo Kraus, the most lyrical and elegant Duke imaginable; with a few more years of experience he is even better for Solti, but I know that not everyone takes positively to his rather reedy voice. He has keen competition from Carlo Bergonzi for Kubelik, by many, including myself, regarded as the greatest Verdi tenor of the post-war era, and he has the very Italianate tinge that Kraus lacks. Gedda’s voice isn’t Italianate either but he has a vitality that matches Bergonzi’s and an elegance that is not far behind Kraus. He is also an excellent actor with the voice in a very nuanced reading. Gedda is over-emphatic at times, notably so at the beginning of Ella mi fu rapita, but in the main this is a reading worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as those by Bergonzi and Kraus.

The minor parts are variable but mostly very good. Ivo Vinco and his real-life spouse Fiorenza Cossotto are Sparafucile and Maddalena both for Gavazzeni and Kubelik. Sanzogno has a winner in Cesare Siepi while Ezio Flagello for Solti is rather anonymous. Agostino Ferrin for Molinari-Pradelli is a good but not exceptional Sparafucile and Anna di Stasio’s Maddalena grows through the third act after a rather squally beginning. There are several well-known Italian singers in minor roles on this set and it is interesting to hear the characteristically sonorous voice of Ruggero Raimondi as Count Monterone. This may be his first recording. Interestingly he auditioned for Francesco Molinari-Pradelli when he was 15 and the conductor advised him to study singing. Here he was still only 25; forty years later he is still in excellent shape. Just weeks ago I reviewed a Tosca DVD from last year’s Arena di Verona Festival that is remarkable (review).

What conclusions can be drawn from the above? Readers who want to add a recording of 1960s vintage to their collection should first of all consider the Solti and Kubelik versions. Since Fischer-Dieskau’s reading of the title role is controversial and Renata Scotto’s singing is less than ingratiating on the Kubelik set, Solti’s version may be a safer recommendation and then one gets the most dramatic reading in the bargain. The Molinari-Pradelli set is not without merits with Gedda’s ardent Duke of Mantua its finest asset but MacNeil’s Rigoletto is also deeply involved, albeit too coarse.

Those who don’t mind a mono recording should be aware of the Serafin recording with Callas, Di Srefano and Tito Gobbi, available on both EMI and Naxos. For Gedda aficionados there is on BIS a live recording from the Stockholm Opera in 1959 in very good sound for the period, Besides Gedda’s partly over-enthusiastic Duke one can revel in Sixten Ehrling’s Solti-like white heat, Hugo Hasslo’s masterly Rigoletto and, most of all, Margareta Hallin’s unsurpassable Gilda.

Göran Forsling




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