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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Rigoletto (1851)
Robert Merrill (baritone) – Rigoletto; Roberta Peters (soprano) – Gilda; Jussi Björling (tenor) – Duke of Mantua; Anna Maria Rota (contralto) – Maddalena; Giorgio Tozzi (bass) – Sparafucile; Vittorio Tatozzi (bass) – Count Monterone; Arturo La Porta (baritone) – Cavaliere Marullo; Tommaso Frascati (tenor) – Matteo Borsa; Leonardo Monreale (bass) – Count Ceprano; Lidia Grandi (soprano) – Countess Ceprano; Silvana Celli (mezzo) – Giovanna; Santa Chissari (soprano) – Page of the Duchess; Andrea Mineo (baritone) – A Herald; Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Jonel Perlea
rec. 14, 16, 18, 20-22, 25-26, 28 June 1956, Opera House, Rome. mono
Appendix: Robert Merrill sings Verdi and Rossini arias
Giuseppe VERDI
Otello: Credo in un dio crudel [5:09]
Il Trovatore: Tutto è deserto … Il balen del suo sorriso* [5:26]
La Traviata: Di Provenza il mar [4:09]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792–1868)
Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Largo al factotum [5:02]
Robert Merrill (baritone), Franco Calabrese (bass)*
Rome Opera Orchestra/Vincenzo Bellezza
rec. 30 June, 2, 4 July 1956, Opera House, Rome. mono
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111276 [54:07 + 80:38]


Experience Classicsonline

In the mid-1950s when the LP was still in its relative infancy and before the advent of stereo, there were at least four complete recordings of Rigoletto on the international market. On Decca there was a set with the reliable but rather dull Aldo Protti, supported by the lovely Hilde Güden and a bawling Mario Del Monaco. Italian Cetra - and available in some other countries on sundry labels – offered the great singing-actor Giuseppe Taddei partnered by Lina Pagliughi, who was nearing fifty and had sung Gilda also on the first ever Rigoletto recording almost thirty years earlier. In addition there was Beniamino Gigli’s natural heir Ferruccio Tagliavini, still in creamy voice. On Columbia Tullio Serafin had gathered his dream trio Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano.

On RCA Victor the set under consideration here appeared almost simultaneously with these other three versions. In spite of some reservations the general opinion was that the Serafin set was the out-and-out winner. The Cetra, conducted by Angelo Questa had its advocates and the RCA Victor also met with some respect. Philip Hope-Wallace in Gramophone, who wasn’t an easy conquest, is quoted in the booklet. There he is predominantly positive, even though he found Roberta Peters ‘a capable rather than appealing Gilda’. His most serious objection concerned the many cuts. I don’t a score so there may be a number of other minor omissions. I did however note that in the Rigoletto-Gilda duet in the second scene in act I most of Ah! veglia, o donna, is excised. This is a particularly serious loss since this is one of the finest scenes in the whole opera. The Duke’s cabaletta in act II, Possente amor is also missing, but that was more or less the norm in those days. Still it would have been great to have had Björling in that vital number.

Another drawback is the recorded sound. Audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn refers to the many instances of overload distortion in the master tapes as well as a lot of studio noise. To this may be added restricted dynamics and a rather one-dimensional sound. The stage orchestra in the first scene seems little different from the orchestra in the pit. Interestingly enough there is much better sound on the four arias in the appendix, recorded immediately after the complete opera. Here the rasping brass in the Otello aria is reproduced with stunning brilliance and power and the strings have a lustre that is totally absent from the Rigoletto recording. Dynamics are also wider and the bass is impressive. There seems to be a decade separating the two recordings instead of a weekend. It surprises me that so experienced a producer as Richard Mohr should have let so many deficiencies pass unnoticed. Maybe it was the daytime heat and the lack of air conditioning in the Rome Opera House.

These are real obstacles to enjoyment. The question is: is the quality of the performance good enough? Jonel Perlea was an able conductor, who had already a couple of complete opera recordings behind him: Manon Lescaut a couple of years earlier with both Björling and Merrill among the soloists and Aida the year before, also with Björling in the cast. Both sets still rank among the best. By and large this Rigoletto is also well paced without many eccentricities, apart from some idiosyncratic slowing down a couple of times. The rhythms are well sprung, so on this account it is more than acceptable.

It is when we get to the soloists that doubts arise. In the supporting roles some of the regular Italian singers from the RCA Victor stable deliver the goods and in particular Vittorio Tatozzi’s impressive Monterone stands out. Anna Maria Rota’s fruity contralto lends dramatic power to the quartet and the agitated scene with her brother in the last act. Her brother Sparafucile is sung by the eminent Giorgio Tozzi, whose dark bass has adorned so many recordings. He may seem too noble for this professional murderer but in the first encounter with Rigoletto in act I he is truly ominous. As for Roberta Peters she seems a bit anonymous to begin with, technically impeccable, no doubt, and with some brilliant top notes, but I miss a soul behind the façade. She is warmer and sings with more face in the second act and in the final duet Lassù in cielo she is actually very good.

I am afraid there have to be reservations when we come to Jussi Björling’s Duke of Mantua. This was one of his best roles but here he is not in best voice in some of his solos. His Questa o quella has vigour but he is strained; same goes for the duet with Gilda. In his big recitative Ella mi fu rapita he has the necessary glow. Few tenors have managed the aria Parmi veder le lagrime with such lyrical intensity, but here too he is strained. La donna è mobile is light and elegant. In the quartet he is frankly glorious, but it is in the reprise of La donna, sung sotto voce, that he shows his mastery. According to Stephen M. Stroff’s Björling biography there were quarrels between the tenor and the conductor during the recording sessions. This came to a head during the first take of the quartet. Björling was in brilliant form, as can be heard on the recording, but Perlea wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more sotto voce. Björling bristled. ‘This is my solo’, he said, ‘I sing the way I feel’. ‘Softer’, Perlea said. ‘Read the score!’ On the second take Björling whispered his part. Perlea was furious, but the producer Richard Mohr decided in Björling’s favour. It was the first take that was used on the finished recording. Björling was however so furious that as soon as the ensemble scenes were finished he left Rome and returned to Stockholm. There he recorded his solos to the pre-recorded tape. Whether this somewhat antiseptic situation affected his singing is difficult to know but fact is that he sings below his normal standard.

Robert Merrill was the possessor of one of the most glorious baritone voices of the last century. Large, manly and even throughout the register he was able to sing a soft pianissimo without loss of quality. On the other hand he was not always a very expressive singer and compared to Gobbi or Taddei he may seem straight-faced. Still his reading of the jester’s part has a lot to offer. His Cortigiani is deeply moving and in the duet with Gilda at the end of act II he is so warm and caring. His Piangi fanciulla, e scorrere is so achingly beautiful and charged with emotion that one is moved to tears. And his forceful Si, vendetta tells us that this is not a person to tamper with. He recorded the role again some years later with Solti, partnered by Anna Moffo and Alfredo Kraus (review). When I reviewed the reissue of that recording a couple of years ago I referred to his singing on the older set as ‘glorious but bland’. It seems that my memory deceived me on that occasion. Rehearing his older recording I think I was being unfair to him. He is even better with Solti but his first recording was no mere blueprint.

The four arias with Merrill that appear as an appendix to CD2 which make it a very long disc indeed, again displays the beauty and power of his voice. I see in my notes that I jotted down ‘glorious’ for the three Verdi arias but there are also some less flattering comments. ‘Others have expressed the evil of Iago more explicitly’ and for the other two ‘without special insight’. On the other hand about the Barbiere aria my notes read ‘lively and fun’ and ‘singing with face’. For all four: ‘a pleasure to wallow in the glory of so accomplished singing’.

Summing up pros and cons: is this set worth having? Hi-fi addicts shouldn’t bother. For them there are several other sets that are safer investments: Serafin (also on Naxos and in mono), Solti, Kubelik (on DG with Fischer-Dieskau, Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi) and Molinari-Pradelli (on Classics for Pleasure with Cornell MacNeil, Reri Grist and Nicolai Gedda) to mention some vintage recordings in the lowest price bracket. For Merrill’s first recorded assumption of this fascinating role and for Björling partly below his best but still better than many tenors on top of their form, this could still be a tempting offer.

Göran Forsling 

see also Review by Robert Farr



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