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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Rigoletto (1851)
Maria Callas (soprano) – Gilda; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Rigoletto; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Il Duca di Mantua; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Sparafucile; Adriana Lazzarini (mezzo) – Maddalena; Giuse Gerbino (mezzo) – Giovanna; Plinio Clabassi (bass) – Il Conte di Monterone; William Dickie (baritone) – Marullo; Renato Ercolani (tenor) – Borsa; Carlo Forti (bass) – Il Conte di Ceprano; Elvira Galassi (mezzo) – La Contessa di Ceprano; Vittorio Tatozzi (bass) – Un Usciere; Luisa Mandelli (soprano) – Un Paggio
Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano; Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Tullio Serafin
rec. 3-16 September 1955, Milan
Libretto available at the Brilliant Opera Collection website.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93932 [56:08 + 61:51]
Experience Classicsonline

I have made an inventory of vintage Rigoletto recordings a couple of times on this site. The last time was when I reviewed a reissue of the Molinari-Pradelli set with Nicolai Gedda as the Duke of Mantua (see review). There I concentrated on the early stereo recordings. But, before that, there was an earlier generation of complete sets, in mono. The present one has by many been regarded as the true classic. It has been reissued on numerous occasions and is available on EMI as well as on Naxos (since the copyright has expired). Now comes this Brilliant Classics issue, licensed from EMI and consequently using the same re-mastering as EMI’s own issue. At super-budget price it could be invested in without delay by anyone who still hasn’t got it, but let’s make a fresh assessment.
The competition in the old days consisted of three sets. There was the very early RCA Victor (1950) conducted by Renato Cellini with Leonard Warren, Erna Berger, Jan Peerce and Nan Merriman. The Cetra from 1954 was conducted by Angelo Questa and with Giuseppe Taddei, Lina Pagliughi and Ferruccio Tagliavini. The RCA remake dated from 1956 but was still in mono. It was conducted by Jonel Perlea and had a cast that included Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters and Jussi Björling. These are fine casts, all of them, though variably successful. The Cellini and Perlea are both on Naxos and the Questa is on Fonit-Cetra.
Cellini’s trump-card is Warren’s Rigoletto. He was one of the finest Verdi baritones from around 1940 until his untimely death in 1960. His daughter Gilda was the German soprano Erna Berger, a splendid Mozart singer and in later years a good Lieder singer too. By 1950 she was fifty and while the agility was still intact the tone had aged. Jan Peerce was a mainstay at the Met for many years and a reliable singer. He was appreciated not least by Toscanini but couldn’t quite stand up against the competition. This is a Metropolitan Rigoletto as it might have been heard after WW2.
Cetra was an Italian company and they recorded most of the standard operas plus quite a few Italian rarities. They employed Italian radio orchestras and almost entirely home-bred singers. This cast boasted the baritone who was the only serious challenger to Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei. He had an impressive voice – better than Gobbi’s – and was almost his equal as an actor. The Duke was sung by the natural heir to Beniamino Gigli, with the same honeyed pianissimos: Ferruccio Tagliavini. Gigli never recorded the role complete but to get a notion of what it would have been like one should listen to Tagliavini. Cetra’s Gilda was also a veteran. Lina Pagliughi had participated in a complete Rigoletto in the late 1920s when she was still just around 20. Halfway into the 1950s she wasn’t as youthful as she once had been but she still made a more than decent job (see my colleague Robert Farr’s review).
The RCA remake, recorded in Rome, had Robert Merrill in the title role; few singers have sported a more beautiful voice. He has also been accused of being rather bland or, at least, generalized in his readings. That said, Rigoletto was obviously a role close to his heart and this reading isn’t without merits, even though the stereo version under Solti a handful of years later, is even better. Gilda was sung by his then ex-wife Roberta Peters. As opposed to Berger and Pagliughi she was young and fresh. Though maybe lacking in individuality hers is a reading to savour, not least for the final duet Lassù in cielo. Björling wasn’t really on top form until the last act, where La donna e mobile and the quartet are fabulous but a Björling in less than top form is still highly competitive (see review).
So where does the Serafin set stand in comparison? First of all it is the best recorded of the four. The Perlea set suffers from overload and distortion. Cetra was never known to be a high-tech company and the Cellini was made in the very infancy of the LP era. The Serafin isn’t free from blemishes but the orchestra is recorded with fine full string sound and biting brass. The choral passages are lifelike and thrilling. As for the conducting, Serafin wins hands down. Though never an interventionist conductor favouring ‘clever’ interpretative details, he has a way of always being right. He chooses sensible speeds, is lenient with the singers yet secures a rhythmic incisiveness that very often is truly infectious.
The La Scala orchestra was on their best behaviour those September weeks and the chorus impresses even more. One doesn’t normally think of Rigoletto as a choral opera but the first scene relies on a powerful chorus to make the right impact. The courtiers at the beginning of act II, mocking Rigoletto, also have to be punchy.
Of the solo singers Plinio Clabassi is a booming Monterone, even though his lowest notes are sketchy. Nicola Zaccaria is as usual reliable but his Sparafucile sounds too genial in the first encounter with Rigoletto. In the final act he is more sinister. Adriana Lazzarini can’t compete with some illustrious Maddalenas on later sets but she is big-voiced and dramatic; neither better nor worse than her rivals on the mono sets.
Giuseppe Di Stefano should have been a near-ideal Duke of Mantua. He is ardent, vivacious and incisive with the words but he can also be crude and lacking in elegance. The Duke is an aristocrat and from such a person one expects style and refinement. He has many good moments, though. E il sol del anima is sung with fine tone and care for nuances. The end of the duet is magical, Gigli-like. In between he indulges in some provincial shouting. His big aria in act II is no doubt thrilling but his open, uncovered vowels are disturbing, especially when with hindsight we know that this did irreparable damage to his voice. In La donna è mobile he makes a fine diminuendo before the final can belto. The quartet is sung with verve but he still is pushed into the background by Björling and, especially by Tagliavini.
Maria Callas only sang Gilda twice on stage and Gilda wasn't really her type. But she was a masterly actress and could transform her voice to suit many different characters. Her Gilda is frail and youthful – and she has the technique to negotiate the difficulties in Caro nome. There is some disfiguring vibrato and the tone isn’t completely steady in some places but her identification with the role is so strong that some defects can be overlooked. Maybe she is at her most convincing in the Rigoletto-Gilda duet in act I scene 2, which is desert island stuff.
And this is not only due to Callas but also to Tito Gobbi. He is magnificent throughout the performance. He made many memorable recordings: Don Carlo, Falstaff, Tosca, Gianni Schicchi and Il tabarro. This Rigoletto is in the same league. It is the most human and vulnerable Rigoletto on record. The most formidable in his wrath and the most tragic when he realises the truth. He is terrified when he walks home after Monterone’s curse. He is fatherly caring when he meets Gilda. He is in despair when he meets the courtiers in act II. He whispers, whines, roars, caresses – his supply of vocal colours seems inexhaustible. This is a reading in a million – but it isn’t spotless vocally. Under pressure the tone tends to become pinched. But just as with Callas’s deficiencies this also becomes part of the reading, part of the personality.
Of the four sets I have analysed above none is superior in every respect, all have their merits. For so diversified an opera as Rigoletto a single version cannot be sufficient. The Serafin is theatrically superior and the singing, though not free from blemishes, is on a high level. I wouldn’t be without the Cetra for the sake of Tagliavini and Taddei, and Björling, Merrill and Peters are well worth the modest outlay for a lot of splendid singing. There also exists another mono Rigoletto– a live recording from the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. Sixten Ehrling conducts at white heat, Toscanini-like, with Hugo Hasslo as an uncommonly well-sung and expressive Rigoletto. The guest Nicolai Gedda is on ebullient form as the Duke and Margareta Hallin is the most ravishing Gilda on any set (BIS 296 – 2 discs for the price of one). Among stereo recordings Solti with Moffo, Kraus and Merrill (BMG Sony), Kubelik with Scotto, Bergonzi and Fischer-Dieskau (DG) and Giulini with Cotrubas, Domingo and Cappuccilli (also DG) are highly attractive.
The final verdict: If you haven’t got the Serafin set: grab the opportunity at once. You will never regret it!
Göran Forsling


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