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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - opera in three acts (1851)
Rigoletto, The Duke’s jester – Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Duke of Mantua, a licentious aristocrat – Francesco Demuro (tenor)
Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter – Nadine Sierra (soprano)
Sparafucile, an assassin – Andrea Mastroni (bass)
Maddalena, his sister – Oksana Volkova (contralto)
Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse and Countess Ceprano, a Page - Eglė Šidlauskaitė (mezzo-soprano)
Count Monterone – Kostas Smoriginas (baritone)
Marullo, a courtier – Andrius Apšega (baritone)
Matteo Borsa, a courtier – Tomas Pavilionis (tenor)
Count Ceprano – Tadas Girininkas (bass)
Court Usher – Liudas Mikalauskas (bass)
Men of the Kaunas State Choir
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. 2016, Kaunas State Philharmonic, Lithuania
Full Italian libretto with English translation
DELOS DE3522 [59.28 + 67.36]

Verdi’s Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse. In a letter to his librettist, Piave, he describes it as “the greatest drama of modern times”. He saw the character of Tribolet, to become Rigoletto, as a character worthy of Shakespeare, and in his own mind there was no greater compliment that Verdi could pen. Premiered at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on March 11th 1851 it was the composer’s 17th opera. It did not reach the stage without hassle; the censor objected to a king being involved, the general immorality of the story as well as such minutiae as Rigoletto’s being a hunchback and the body of Gilda being on stage in a sack. Verdi compromised whilst maintaining the principles of Victor Hugo’s play. The compromise involved a change from the French court to that of an independent Duke.

The issue of a new CD version of an opera featuring a singer renowned on the international stage was something of a rarity in late 2017 when this performance first reached the shops. It turned out, unintentionally, that the said famed-baritone singing the eponymous title role, died of a brain tumour as the issue was marketed. Further, it seems that the recording was made in a gap between the diagnosis of the original medical problem and its unfortunate recurrence and which led to his premature death at age only of 55. Dmitri Hvorostovsky made an impact very early in his career when, as a Russian singer, he won the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition just as the Iron Curtain was falling away in Europe. Subsequently the singer has largely been based in the west, domestically and professionally, whilst not deserting his homeland.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s impact on the opera scene in Cardiff that year was not merely about his wonderful singing of Rodrigo’s aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo, it extended to the mature elan with which he dominated the stage thanks to his personality – and hair style. For native Welsh opera lovers it was a competition of regrets, just when they thought that they had a native born winner who sang a wonderfully mature Wagner aria, a composer rarely seen at this major international competition. Hvorostovsky was quickly signed up by a major record label, yet his repertoire of complete opera recordings is sparse. That can partly be attributed to the rapid decline of audio studio recordings in the 1990s and subsequently, but for a singer who appeared widely internationally in the major opera houses following his Cardiff success, his list of opera recordings is disappointing. He seemed a dream for the roles of Rodrigo in Don Carlo, Renato in Ballo in Maschera as well as other of Verdi’s lyric-slanted baritone roles. Yet, when the Philips label completed CD recordings of the Verdi canon with Alzira, Aroldo and Jerusalem under Fabio Luisi at the end of the 1990s, he did not appear. To my knowledge Hvorostovsky’s only other Verdi role on CD is that of the title role in Simon Boccanegra also on the Delos label under Orbelian’s baton. However, with Hvorostovsky’s wide appearances in productions at major houses round the world, doubtless other performances on video will emerge, as with the recent re-issue of the 2002 Covent garden Il Trovatore on DVD. Regrettably, such performances were not always cast (as were recordings in the LP and early CD era) with first class singers in all roles and with a leading conductor on the rostrum. In the Covent Garden production only the baritone and the mezzo-soprano Verónica Vilarroel are really out of the top drawer and give wholly satisfactory performances.

At my first sampling of this recording my senses were hit by some of Orbelian’s fast tempi and I quickly compared timings to the other six versions in my collection. I was amazed that the list is so varied with the likes of Giulini (D.G.) and Bonynge (Decca) nearly eight minutes shorter and other older recordings into double figures when it was not unusual to make cuts to accommodate early LP sides, or even common practice to omit cabalettas. Contact with colleague Ralph Moore alerted me to the conductor’s flaccidly slow tempi in some of the more lyrical arias such as Gilda’s act one scene two Gualtier Maldč (Cd 1.Tr.16) and her act two Tutte la Feste (Cd 2 Tr. 8) where the aria and scene are taken much slower than the tempi of either Bonynge or Giulini. You pays your money and takes your choice, but I find Orbelian’s tempi sometimes difficult to recognize as the Verdi I know.

As to the singing – like the tempi it is variable; I do not find Hvorostovsky’s voice as mellifluous and expressive as I had hoped. In fact all too often he tends to nearly shout to get the bite into the phrase as when he berates the courtiers in Cortigiana vil razza dannata (Cd. 2 Tr. 6) and elsewhere his tone becomes hollow. At the end of the day he seems not to have the role under his skin anymore, if indeed he ever rivaled Gobbi for snarl or Taddei for smooth evil sounding hatred. As the Duke Francesco Demura has the requisite Italianate squilla, but far too often sings loudly, failing to caress a phrase as Tagliavini (Fonit Cetra) or Pavarotti (Decca) so memorably do. Did I sense a different acoustic on a couple of occasions when he was singing? Otherwise the recording quality is good. As the ingénue Gilda, Nadine Sierra sings with a fuller soprano tone than many in the role and is none the worse for that. Given plenty of time by the conductor she phrases well and has adequate tonal support in her voice to carry the often slow tempi whilst also expressing the emotion of the words. The Maddalena of Belarusian Oksana Volkova is full toned and characterful as the seducing temptress of her brother’s victims, whilst that role is sung, with suitable tonal menace, by Andrea Mastroni’s bass voice and interpretation. As the assassin Sparafucile Andrea Mastroni sends minor shivers down the spine as he plies his trade to Rigoletto (Cd 1.Tr. 8). In the minor role of Count Monterone, Kostas Smoriginas, a baritone rather than a bass, leaves little impact, in coarsening and forcing his voice into unsteadiness.

The booklet, with translation in English alongside the Italian words, is exemplary in respect of the notes and singers, providing biographies all accompanied by colour photographs.

Robert J Farr

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Göran Forsling



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