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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - operatic melodramma in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua - Jussi Björling (tenor); Rigoletto, his jester - Robert Merrill (baritone); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter - Roberta Peters (soprano); Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin - Giorgio Tozzi (bass); Maddalena, his sister - Anna Maria Rota (contralto); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna - Silvana Celli (mezzo); Count Monterone - Vittorio Tatozzi (bass); Marullo, a courtier - Artura La Porta (baritone); Matteo Borsa, a courtier - Tommaso Frascati (tenor); Count Ceprano - Leonardo Monreale (bass); Contess Ceprano - Lidia Grandi (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera House/Jonel Perlea
Appendix - Robert Merrill singing arias by Verdi and Rossini
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Credo in dio crudel (act 2)
Il Trovatore - Tutto e deserto Il balen del suo sorriso (act 2) (with Franco Albanese (tenor))
La traviata - Di Provenza il mar (act 2)
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - Largo al Factotum
Orchestra of the Rome Opera House/Vincenzo Bellezza
rec. Opera House, Rome, June-July 1956.
[54.07 + 80.39]


Experience Classicsonline

In my review of the 1954 Cetra recording of Rigoletto I recount how the advent of the LP in the early 1950s caused a rush by the majors to set down their own recordings of the basic operatic repertoire with their contracted artists. The UK’s Columbia label (Angel in America) had the redoubtable Maria Callas under contract and were building their recorded repertoire round her. Although she had only ever sung the role of Gilda on stage twice, in 1952, and had already sung heavier roles of an entirely different fach she was cast as the virginal Gilda. Tito Gobbi, one of two outstanding Italian Verdi baritones of the day was cast as Rigoletto with the generally admired Giuseppe Di Stefano as the rapacious Duke. With that cast the issue was a sure fire success (see review). But in some households, including mine, there was more focus on the portrayal of Rigoletto himself and the Duke as much as on the casting of Gilda. In our view there was a worthy rival in the form a recording from Italian Cetra. This featured the impressive Giuseppe Taddei as Rigoletto and Ferruccio Tagliavini as the Duke whose presence tipped our choice Cetra’s way. We viewed the vocally elegant Tagliavini as being far preferable to the coarsening di Stefano. The only problem was the availability in Britain with post-Second World War imports impeded by currency restrictions. When Cetra made a franchise agreement with Manchester’s Rara Records those problems were over and Taddei et al had pride of place in our small LP collection. This RCA recording hardly entered the debate when it was issued in Britain in 1958. With the advent of stereo all the record majors carried new casts into the studio. RCA went to Rome again and recorded Rigoletto under Solti’s baton and with Robert Merrill, as here in the eponymous role. This later recording and performance is admired by many, including my colleague Göran Forsling (see review).

It had become the habit of RCA to take the best of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s cast to Rome for their opera recordings in this period. What they did not have in that venue, or others for that matter, was the quality of recording engineers sported by the likes of Decca. This was a state of affairs that lasted until RCA’s commercial association with Decca came along and allowed exchange of artists as well as engineers. The quality of the recording in the rather boxy acoustic of the Rome Opera House is allied to overload distortion as early as the prelude. It is the first drawback. Strangely the Robert Merrill appendix (CD 2 trs. 17-21) is far better balanced and does not suffer those drawbacks. Merrill was often seen as the junior partner to fellow American Leonard Warren at the Met in this period. It continued until the latter’s untimely death on the Met stage in 1960 during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Warren’s Rigoletto is caught live at the Met earlier in the year of this recording (see review). Robert Merrill (1917-2004) is somewhat lighter in tone than Warren and whilst less expressive his range, legato and rock-solid vocal quality would be even more admired in this repertoire today than it was in this period. His rendition of Rigoletto’s taunting of Ceprano (CD 1 tr.3) in the first scene lacks the vitriolic bite of Gobbi in the EMI version with Callas. Has his interpretation alos suffers from the odd raw vocal patches of his illustrious Italian colleague. Merrill’s Pari siamo as Rigoletto compares himself with the assassin Sparafucile and is full of character (CD 1 tr.7) as is his sympathetic response to Gilda’s plight as she emerges from the Duke’s room after her experiences there of his true rapacious nature (CD 2. trs.5-7). Merrill is not as expressive as Warren, Gobbi or Taddei in Cortgiani vil razza dannata (CD 2 tr.4). He compensates as Rigoletto realises with horror that the Duke is alive and it is his daughter is in the sack. This illustrates the best of the singer and his interpretation (CD 2 trs 15-16).

As I have indicated my family and I chose Tagliavini as the Duke. Would we have done the same if Jussi Björling’s (1911-1960) interpretation had been available? He certainly sings with vocal elegance and a wide range of tonal variety and expression. Particularly impressive is his Ella ma fu rapita … Parmi vedir (CD 2 tr.1) and if he holds the final note of La donna e mobile (CD 2 tr.9) a second or two too long it is a minor quibble. Björling’s plangent tone and capacity to inflect a phrase is ideally suited to this role. I was somewhat equivocal about the Gilda of Roberta Peters (b.1930) in the Met live recording. In this performance I find her much more convincing compared to Callas on EMI, despite the latter’s efforts to convey a young girl … and also compared to Lina Pagliughi on Cetra. Peters’ trill in Caro nome (CD 1 tr.12) is nothing to write home about but her steady fulsome tone has its own virtues elsewhere. She is convincingly fraught in Tutte le feste (CD 2 tr.6) as Gilda confesses her shame to her father and seeks his solace. The American bass Giorgio Tozzi (b.1923) is adequate if a little penny-plain as Sparafucile. His final note in Quel? Vecchio maledivami as he leaves Rigoletto after their meeting is a little manufactured and fails to chill my spine (CD 1 tr.6). The Italian Anna Maria Rota (b.1932) as Maddalena is suitably seductive and effective in her later pleading with her brother not to kill him (CD 2 trs 10-13). Jonel Perlea (1900-1970), an often-underrated conductor, supports his singers without doing so to the detriment of Verdi’s drama. The performance has the minor cuts traditional at that time.

The Merrill arias appendix illustrates his vocal strengths and minor weaknesses. His legato in Il balen (CD 2 tr.18) is a delight and is also present in Germont’s aria (tr.19) although in the latter he cannot express the pain of the father as he tries to persuade his son of the virtues of their home in Provence. Merrill is also excellent in the brio of Figaro’s Largo al Factotum (tr.20) whilst not being suitably saturnine in Iago’s Credo (tr.17). Those things being said, I can live with the tonal smoothness and excellent diction of his singing any day of the week, particularly when compared with those with pretensions as Verdi baritones before the public today! 

The Naxos booklet has a brief introductory essay and excellent artist profiles as well as a good track-related synopsis. Working with German LPs, restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has done what he can with something of a sow’s ear in terms of recording quality.

Robert J Farr


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