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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - Melodramma in three acts
Libretto by Francesca Maria Piave based on Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Le Roi s’amuse’.
First performed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on March 11th 1851
Duke of Mantua ... Ferruccio Tagliavini (ten); Rigoletto, his jester ... Giuseppe Taddei (bar); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter ... Lina Pagliughi (sop); Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin ... Giulio Neri (bass); Maddalena, his sister ... Irma Colasanti (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna ... Tilde Fiorio (mezzo); Count Monterone ... Antonio Zerbini (bass); Marullo, a courtier Alberto Albertini (bar); Matteo Borsa, a courtier ... Tommaso Soley (ten); Count Ceprano ... Mario Zorgniotti (bar); Contess Ceprano ... Ines Marietti (sop)
Cetra Chorus. Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Angelo Questa
Recorded in mono in Turin 22-24 February 1954
WARNER FONIT 50467-7907-2-8 [52.47 + 59.40]

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The advent of the LP in the early 1950s generated great excitement in both the recording industry and private homes. To depart forever were the five minutes maximum recorded takes for 78rpm records that often forced conductors and singers to squeeze their tempi or phrasing to meet that requirement. The longer playing time was seen as a major opportunity for the recording of opera and the major labels vied with each other to sign up star singers. Meanwhile, Cetra Records had an extensive catalogue of operatic recordings to hand. This availability had its genesis with Cetra’s connection with Italian Radio. In 1951, the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death, Cetra had double figures of his operas on record including rare early Verdi operas that were not to get another studio recording until Philips’ early Verdi series and Orfeo label issues of the 1970s and 1980s. The Cetra label introduced many collectors to names such as Carlo Bergonzi, Rolando Panerai and Maria Callas as well as providing extensive opportunity to hear the three main soloists on this recording, particularly Giuseppe Taddei. A major problem in the UK, with import restrictions and the like, was getting hold of copies of the Cetra recordings. A Manchester retailer, Rare Records, franchised the Cetra catalogue and the green labels became pink with black printing. Regrettably for Rare Records the venture was not a commercial success and the company just about escaped liquidation.

Meanwhile, in my home, the pride of the 78rpm record collection was a very expensive White Label 78rpm shellac with the quartet from Rigoletto on one side and the sextet from Lucia di Lamermoor on the other and featuring Giuseppe De Luca, Ezio Pinza, Amelita Galli-Curci, Louise Homer along with Beniamino Gigli. So it was no surprise that, once I had my Garrard 301 turntable with speeds of 33, 45 and 78rpm, and an amplifier built to a Briggs design, the earliest LPs in the house would be of Rigoletto and Lucia. The early issue of the Callas Lucia (review) settled the presents one Christmas. Rigoletto proved more problematical because of competition between the Columbia label (the British label, later part of EMI, not the US that became part of Sony) issue featuring Gobbi, Callas and Di Stefano and this Cetra recording that won the day. Why? Perhaps more than any other determining factor was an admiration for the singing of Ferruccio Tagliavini with his distinctive lyric tenor and immaculate diction and elegant phrasing. The world really missed the best of his singing because of World War 2 when he was seen as the natural successor to Gigli with whom he shared the capacity for honeyed mezza voce singing and phrasing on the breath. Like Di Stefano, Tagliavini was tempted towards heavier roles than were ideal for his lyric voice. By 1960, when he partnered Callas in the second of her studio recordings of Lucia, any beauty of tone and legato for which he was renowned, had largely gone, as it had for her also. In this performance of Rigoletto his vocal strengths are caught just before their decline. His Questa o quella has brio and elegance of phrase (CD 1 tr. 2) as has his La donna è mobile (CD 2 tr. 9) and Un dì, se ben rammentomi at the launching of the quartet (CD 2 tr. 10). The lead in to the quartet, and the sequence including Rigoletto’s preceding E l’ami (CD 2 tr. 8), were a major revelation when we were so used to getting the quartet and the famous tenor aria out of context. Even when one owned (and we didn’t) a set of the opera on 16 or so 78s, the dramatic context was lost by the time one had removed the shellac from the turntable, wound the handle, and put the next disc on. The dramatic sequence and impact of the last act of Rigoletto left an impression on me that remains a personal tingle factor to this day, particularly when the participating singers are as well into their roles as are the trio in this recording. Giuseppe Taddei’s portrayal of the cursed jester gripped me then and does so again on this re-hearing. Italians joked that they gave Gobbi to the world but kept Taddei to themselves. Not wholly true, but near enough. He graces many Cetra recordings always singing with well covered even tone and appropriate characterisation. Whilst Gobbi with his raw-edged and often biting tone conveys Rigoletto’s anger and bitterness, Taddei brings more pathos as he surveys his lot in Pari siamo (CD 1 tr. 7) or pleads with the courtiers to reveal the whereabouts of his daughter in Cortigiana vil razza dannata (CD 2 tr. 5). Every phrase is heart wrenching as he realises Gilda’s lost chastity as she emerges from the Duke’s apartment (CD 2 tr. 6) and, in the finale, opens the sack to reveal her death throes.

Lina Pagliughi sings Rigoletto’s chaste and sheltered young daughter Gilda who deceives her father out of infatuation with the promiscuous and lascivious Duke. At the time of this recording she was 47. In earlier years her very light flexible coloratura soprano made her an admired Gilda. As it is she tries to fine down her tone in act 1 to convey Gilda’s girlishness and innocence but ends up sounding thin toned and tweety as in her Caro nome (CD 1 tr. 13). Later, in acts 2 and 3,when the vocal demand is heavier she is far better and her experience in the role more telling. Callas, who never sang the role on stage, also resorts to vocal artifice to convey Gilda’s girlish innocence in act 1 whilst bringing a shade too much drama and weight of voice to her dilemma in the final act. Lina Pagliughi is best in the final act when she decides to sacrifice her own life to save that of the Duke and knocks at the door to sacrifice herself (CD 2 tr. 13).

In the last re-issue of this performance in autumn 2000, I found the recording rather boxy. I do not know if there has been a new remastering but I find the acoustic here much clearer with the solo voices brought well forward. The orchestra in particular loses some presence and impact with the ‘banda’ in the périgourdine of the first scene barely audible. Otherwise Angelo Questa’s interpretation is speedy and idiomatic. There are brief theatre cuts as was the standard practice at the time.

I wait with interest to hear what Naxos’ restorers will make of the Gobbi-Callas version when it comes out of copyright in 2006. In the meantime I am happy to make to make my re-acquaintance with this performance. Hearing it again thrilled me as much as it did fifty years ago. This despite the many fine well recorded performances of the Rigoletto that have joined the catalogue in the intervening years and which find space on my shelves.

Robert J Farr

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