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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto – Leonard Warren (baritone)
Gilda – Bidú Sayão (soprano)
Duke of Mantua – Jussi Björling (tenor)
Maddalena – Martha Lipton (mezzo-soprano)
Sparafucile – Norman Cordon (bass)
Monterone – William Hargrave (baritone)
Borsa – Richard Manning (tenor)
Marullo – George Cehanovsky (baritone)
Count Ceprano – John Barker (bass)
Countess Ceprano – Maxine Stellman (mezzo-soprano)
Giovanna & Page – Thelma Altman (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera / Cesare Sodero
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 29 December 1945
PRISTINE PACO143 [56:30 + 62:21]

Both Leonard Warren and Jussi Björling went on to record their roles under studio conditions some years later, Warren in 1950 – one of the earliest LP operas – and Björling in 1956 – both for RCA and both are classics in many ways. But hearing them live in favourite roles is always something special, and here they are both in splendid form. They appeared together on the Metropolitan stage on 27 occasions, from an isolated Faust on Christmas Day 1940 to a Tosca on 16 December 1959. After the first Faust there was a gap of five years to three performances of Rigoletto, which marked Björling’s return to the Met, having spent the war years in his native Sweden. The matinée performance recorded here was the third of them. Their paths crossed in more ways than one: They were both born in 1911 and they both died in 1960, Warren on the Metropolitan stage in the midst of a performance of La forza del destino, and Björling in his summer house in the Stockholm archipelago, when he was contemplating taking on more heavyweight roles like Otello.

Here fifteen years earlier Otello seems far away, his voice is youthful, brilliant but light and swaggering and he tosses off Questa o quella with youthful exuberance. He is the true seducer in the scene with Gilda and expresses his disappointment and sorrow in Ella mi fu rapita! in the opening of the second act. Superbly sung of course but this is not only a show-off of his brilliance, he also scales down and sings some beautiful pianissimos. The aria proper, Parmi veder le lagrime, is gloriously sung and it is followed by a bouncy and lively Courtiers’ chorus but then it is so sad that we are bereft of the duke’s cabaletta, which of course was common practice in those days. In the third act Sodero choses a moderate tempo for La donna è mobile, which no doubt is as glorious as could be – but there are few nuances. Glorious is also the only word for the opening of the quartet – thrilling indeed – and in the reprise of La donna, sung off stage, he ends it with a magical diminuendo. Other tenors have been able to find more nuances in this role – Alfredo Kraus for instance – but very few have ever challenged his youthful brilliance and beauty of tone.

The lovely Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão sang opposite Björling on eleven occasions, of which three were broadcast and eventually issued on discs: besides this Rigoletto a marvellous Roméo et Juliette and a Boheme. She is truly enchanting here, innocent and a little naïve in the duets with Rigoletto and the Duke in the first act and singing a superb Caro nome without making heavy weather of the pyrotechnics – in fact she always sings naturally an unaffectedly throughout the performance. Very touching is the scene with Rigoletto that concludes the second act and Lassù in cielo in the finale.

Bidú Sayão and Leonard Warren only met in seven performances: the three Rigoletto in late 1945 and four La Traviata. Warren sang Rigoletto more than eighty times between 1943 and 1959, the last time on tour in Toronto on 29 May 1959, less than a year before his demise. The present recording finds him early in his Rigoletto career, his eighth performance of the role, but no one can doubt his insight and understanding of the character. Others may have had a richer pallet of colours, but his verbal acuity and his dramatic expressivity is very tangible. His first encounter with Sparafucile, his solo when they have separated, filled with remorse and fear, his care for his daughter when he arrives home, his horror when he realises that he has been blindfolded and Gilda abducted, his despair when he appeals to the courtiers, his vindictiveness when he realises that the Duke has raped his daughter and finally his resignation when he knows that he has lost everything – all this is rendered so believably, with such involvement. Rigoletto was probably his greatest role and even though he had matured further in his studio recording five years later, this is still a valuable document of a great Verdian.

Of the supporting singers Norman Cordon is a strong and sepulchral Sparafucile, William Hargrave a good Monterone and Martha Lipton, who made her Met debut a year earlier, an attractive Maddalena. Cesare Sodero’s conducting is professional without revealing anything new and special. Maybe the most crucial factor here is the recorded sound. You can’t have too high expectations about a 70+-year-old recording of a live broadcast, but honestly this is quite palatable, considering the circumstances. It has been available before in a Naxos transfer, which I haven’t heard, but my colleague Ralph Moore is explicit in his review: “This new release is decidedly an improvement over that Naxos”, but while it can never be a library version it is a truly worthy representation of a performance with three of the great Metropolitan stars in brilliant form. Andrew Rose deserves a big bunch of roses, if you excuse the pun, for his restoration work. The most serious drawback is in fact the audience participation. At least in those “good old days” the Met’s voice fanciers had the bad habit of starting clapping as soon as the singer(s) shut their mouths and literary drenching the orchestra’s concluding bars after the aria or whatever it was. It is easy to understand the enthusiasm in this particular case, and it enhances the experience of attending a magical afternoon in the theatre, but it is still annoying, especially on repeated hearing. Parts of Milton Cross’s commentaries are also retained – always a pleasure to hear – and from them we learn that Norman Cordon was a late replacement for an ailing Nicola Moscona as Sparafucile, and that the reverse situation had occurred some weeks earlier.

You won’t hear the three central roles much better sung in more recent recordings, and with the revitalised sound you needn’t be an historical freak to appreciate them.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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