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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Rigoletto, the Duke’s jester – Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Gilda, his daughter – Nadine Sierra (soprano)
The Duke of Mantua – Francesco Demuro (tenor)
Sparafucile, an assassin – Andrea Mastroni (bass)
Maddalena, his sister – Oksdana Volkova (contralto)
Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse – EglÚ ŠidlauskaitÚ (mezzo-soprano)
Count Ceprano – Tadas Girinikas (bass)
Countess Ceprano, his wife - EglÚ ŠidlauskaitÚ (mezzo-soprano)
Matteo Borsa, a courtier – Tomas Pavilionis (tenor)
Count Monterone – Kostas Smoriginas (baritone)
Marullo – Andrius Apšega (baritone)
A Court Usher – Liudas Mikalauskas (bass)
A Page - EglÚ ŠidlauskaitÚ (mezzo-soprano)
Men of the Kaunas State Choir
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Orbelian
rec. 2016, Kaunas Philharmonic
Complete libretto with English translation enclosed
DELOS DE3522 [59:28 + 67:36]

In a way it was a pity that I listened to this brand new set immediately after hearing the new transfer of the Metropolitan broadcast of Rigoletto from 1945 with Warren, Bj÷rling and SayŃo. With this preliminary I am not saying that the new offer is bad, but in relief to some of the singing on that old recording, one has to approach some of the efforts from today’s singers with indulgence. I’ll come back to this more exhaustively later, but first some general facts about the recording.

Kaunas, with about 350,000 inhabitants, is the second-largest city in Lithuania and fourth largest city in the Baltic region. It has long been an important cultural centre and in Delos’s recording of Simon Boccanegra a couple of years ago with the same choral and orchestral forces under the same conductor as here and with Hvorostovsky in the title role, they gave a very good impression. In a few places I found the string section slightly undernourished then, but here it is utterly satisfying and the overall impression is very good indeed. The recording is also well-balanced and has an agreeable sound picture. Add to this the experienced Constantin Orbelian, who by all means hasn’t made his mark as an opera conductor, but he has a firm grip of the proceedings, choses sensible tempos and gives the soloists a certain freedom of phrasing. This is most notable in Gilda’s Caro nome, which is sung with a lot of rubato. All in all this is a reading of the score that can stand beside the already established recordings: Serafin, Solti, Kubelik, Giulini to name four to which I return with pleasure. In all four the singing is also basically outstanding, and it is here that some kind of indulgence is recommended.

The minor parts – which in no way are unimportant – are excellently taken by leading Lithuanian singers. Having seen and heard a number of productions at the Dalhalla outdoor arena in central Sweden I have become conscious of the quality of opera singers from the Baltic states, and this recording confirms my experience in no uncertain terms. Let me just point out the strong reading of Monterone by Kostas Smoriginas. He represented Lithuania at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2005, and since then he has entered on an important international career. Though a small but central role it gives a hint that he has capacity for greater things. Milan born bass Andrea Mastroni also impresses as the professional murderer Sparafucile – in spite of his far from socially accepted occupation he is a man of honour who never swindles his customers, but in this opera he is talked into killing Gilda by his dissolute sister Maddalena. She is sung by Minsk born Oksana Volkova, who does what she can with this testing but in the end rather unglamorous role. It’s when we come to the three star roles that reservations begin to creep in.

The Duke, who makes his mark very early in the first act with the aria Questa o quella, is sung by Italian Francesco Demuro. He has a light lirico-spinto voice, is charming and elegant – and a little strained, which diminishes his appeal as a skirt-chaser. In the scene with Gilda he delivers a nuanced ╔ il sol dell’anima but not wholly unforced. His big aria in act II goes well. Again he sings with fine nuances, he is careful and not without strain, but this is a civilized and likeable Duke. Since this recording is uncut he is also allowed the cabaletta, which is sung with a certain swagger. La donna Ŕ mobile is rather prosaic but he has glow in the quartet though again he forces too much. In spite of these reservations I’m sure I would have appreciated his reading in the theatre, but here under the close scrutiny of the revealing microphones he falls short of the best of his competitors.

Young American soprano Nadine Sierra has a beautiful, well-schooled voice, occasionally slightly uneven, and the tone isn’t the purest imaginable, but her singing is lovely and she catches the vulnerability of Gilda. She amply demonstrates her credentials in the long duet with Rigoletto – one of the greatest scenes in any Verdi opera. A magic moment is her response to Rigoletto’s Ah, veglia, o donna (CD 1 tr. 12) when she sings Quanto affetto! with such warmth and such care. Another magic moment is in the second act when she, alone with her father, sings Tutte le feste (CD 2 tr. 8). There she is really touching, and the following duet is also deeply moving. She is also good in her death scene, singing Lass¨ in cielo very sensitively (CD 2 tr. 22). A memorable reading even though it doesn’t erase memories of Sutherland, Moffo or Cotrubas.

In the title role we hear the arguably greatest Verdi baritone of the last 25 years, Siberian Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He died tragically at the age of 55 on 22 November 2017 after a long battle with brain cancer and it is uncertain whether he heard the finished recording, which was issued about that time. What we hear is however the voice we have got accustomed to during a recording career that goes back to 1990. It darkened somewhat towards the end, the tone is a little harder in places and in Pari siamo! he has to force the final follia! but otherwise this is Verdi singing of the highest order. One can pick any phrase of importance in this large and arduous role and he makes something memorable of it. Listen for instance to Deh, non parlate al misero, a minute or so into the duet with Gilda (CD 1 tr. 10) or further on in the scene Ah, veglia, o donna (CD 1 tr. 12). His appearance before the courtiers in the second act, tortured and anxious (CD 2 tr. 5) is even more telling and Cortigiani (CD 2 tr. 6), the most heartrending of all arias, is difficult to defend oneself against in his reading. In fact the rest of the act and large portions of the last act are desert island music.

This recording is a worthy memorial to the art of Dmitri Hvorostovsky – but it is more than that. It is also a studio recording of one of the great operas, made at a time when most of us thought that studio recordings was a phenomenon of the past – and it is a recording that, in spite of my reservations above, should give great pleasure to all Verdi lovers, yes, all opera lovers! It doesn’t oust the best recordings of the past, some of which I mentioned above, but it is worth an honoured place by their side.

G÷ran Forsling

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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