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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Riccardo Stracciari (Rigoletto)
Mercedes Capsir (Gilda)
Dino Borgioli (Duke of Mantua)
Ernesto Dominici (Sparafucile)
Anna Masetti Bassi (Maddalena)
Duilio Baronti (Monterone)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Lorenzo Molajoli
rec. August, 1927 and May, 1930 in Milan, Italy
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO169 [52:13 + 57:05]

There are many recordings that over the years have gained “legendary” status in the minds of opera lovers. Although the majority of these are probably live recordings (“pirates”), some studio recordings also earn that blue ribbon descriptor. Think the gripping Callas/DiStefano/Gobbi/De Sabata Tosca, for example, or the magisterial Cappuccilli/Freni/Carreras/Abbado Simon Boccanegra. Opera fans also like to assign that “legendary” tag entirely due to the presence of a favorite star singer. Plaudits are bestowed on the basis of that one singer’s performance while ignoring the variable nature of the other singers represented on the disc.

For better or for worse, this particular recording of Rigoletto falls into the latter camp. After tapping the great Italian baritone Riccardo Stracciari (1875-1955) to head the cast, Columbia assorted a motley band of second and third-raters to fill out the remaining roles. The opera was also (thankfully) assigned a first-rate conductor, Lorenzo Molajoli. This recording continually surfaces in comparative discussions of Rigoletto recordings almost one hundred years after its first appearance. Although it is never a primary choice, the appearance of the Columbia set in the mix is doubtless due to Stracciari’s reputation as one of the greatest-ever Rigolettos.

This is the minority report, but I do not believe that this performance is worthy of its legendary status. For more positive reviews of this recording, please see my two colleagues’ views. The opera was recorded in 1930, when Stracciari was ca. 55 years old. Stracciari was famous for his huge, plush voice; his instrument rivaled Tita Ruffo’s in volume, but Stracciari surpassed Ruffo in both warmth and musicianship. The burnished quality of the voice heard on earlier recordings is still present on the Rigoletto set, but the timbre has darkened significantly from what was already a fairly dark sound, taking on a choked, almost swallowed quality at times. A quick comparison of major Rigoletto solos and duets from the Columbia set with acoustic records made ca. 1904-1917 reveal that in addition to timbral darkening, Stracciari’s intonation was no longer secure. He is often flat, a situation highlighted in duets with his soprano, Mercedes Capsir, who tends to sing on the high side of the pitch. Although he was credited by critics of his time with intelligent and often visceral acting, I do not hear the vivid vocal characterization or distinct musical touches audible on records by contemporary Italians like Giuseppe De Luca (the reigning Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera in the late ‘10s and 1920s) or Pasquale Amato. To give a few examples: Stracciari’s Rigoletto does not register much panic at the discovery of Gilda’s abduction at the end of Act I. His intonation of “Gilda…Gilda!” is stagey without sounding genuinely concerned. “Ah, Ah! La maledizione!” is essayed in a musicianly fashion that completely ignores the dramatic situation. Compare this to any one of Leonard Warren’s Rigolettos in this moment, full of horror and heartbreak. Going back to the Columbia recording: the famous Act II scene with the courtiers is pedestrian. Stracciari inserts all sorts of extra “ha-has” to little effect, and the constant throaty quality of the voice obscures the drama; the interaction with the courtiers sounds very similar to his Act I interaction with Monterone. There are flashes of greatness here and there (the “Pari Siamo,” recorded in 1927, is beautifully done), but overall, the Stracciari found on the complete Rigoletto cannot match his earlier recordings, which capture a healthier voice, more secure intonation, and a deeper dive into the complex title character.

What of the other singers? Mercedes Capsir’s voice is intriguing in its mixture of lightness and heft; it is also frustrating in its technical unevenness. “Caro Nome” features some lovely singing in softer dynamics, but also random intrusive aspirates (at the beginning of the aria, almost every note features the dreaded “h” sound at its onset) throughout the opening. Her coloratura is clean, but her upper register occasionally seems like it can only be produced with significant pressure. In the final bars of the aria, she unveils an exquisite decrescendo that makes one wonder why she did not find similar colors elsewhere in the role. In terms of dramatic commitment, Capsir is not in the league of other contemporary Gildas such as Lina Pagliughi or even Lily Pons (the latter not exactly famous for her acting or musicianship!). Capsir’s death scene in particular portrays a shockingly healthy Gilda, whose full-bodied interjections bely a fatal state of exsanguination. Dino Borgioli is a half-hearted contender for the throne of Mantua. Although he offers moments of great charm, there is also some sagging pitch and unsupported or pushed phrase-ends. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly not in the “legendary” camp.

The bright spot in all of this is the conducting of Lorenzo Molajoli. The tempi are perfectly judged, and the orchestra plays with more precision and shape than one might expect from a 1930s-era Italian band. The men’s chorus is at times a mess, lagging behind the conductor’s beat in the more energetic passages, but the orchestra is tight, right there with Molajoli.

This recording of Rigoletto seems to be the replication of a routine night at La Scala in 1930. You witness an aging star as Rigoletto, an acceptable if uninspired Gilda, and a middling Duke. All are shepherded along by a good conductor who would have chanted the serenity prayer to himself several times over the course of the evening (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”).

This is the fullest and warmest-sounding available version of the set. As usual, Mark Obert-Thorne’s transfers are exemplary. Listeners who want to hear an “authentic” Italian Rigoletto from the era would possibly be better-served by Carlo Sabajno’s rival HMV version. Sabajno’s cast lacks true star power, but is much more even overall, with committed performances from all of the principals. Be aware that the Gilda, Lina Pagliughi, comes from the “little girl” school of Gildas, following in the footsteps of Tetrazzini, Galli-Curci, etc. Better than finding the HMV set, listeners could seek out the 1935 Met broadcast featuring Lawrence Tibbett, who does some scenery-chewing, yet manages to create a towering portrayal of the unhappy jester.

Richard Masters

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Paul Steinson

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