Verdi's Rigoletto

Gramophone Fri 13th February 2015

The Gramophone Choice

Tito Gobbi (bar) Rigoletto Maria Callas (sop) Gilda Giuseppe di Stefano (ten) Duke Nicola Zaccaria (bass) Sparafucile Adriana Lazzarini (mez) Maddalena Plinio Clabassi (bass) Monterone Giuse Gerbino (mez) Giovanna Renato Ercolani (ten) Borsa William Dickie (bar) Marullo Elvira Galassi (sop) Countess Ceprano Carlo Forti (bass) Count Ceprano Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Tullio Serafin

EMI mono 556327-2 or Regis RRC2076 (118' · ADD · N/T/t). Recorded 1955. Buy from Amazon

That one recording should continue to hold sway over many other attractive comers after so long is simply a tribute to Callas, Gobbi, Serafin and Walter Legge. Whatever the merits of its successors, and they are many, no Rigoletto has surpassed Gobbi in tonal variety, line, projection of character and understanding of what Rigoletto is about; no Gilda has come anywhere near Callas in meaningful phrasing – listen to ‘Caro nome’ or ‘Tutte le feste’ on any other set if you’re disbelieving – nor achieved such a careful differentiation of timbre before and after her seduction; no conductor matches Serafin in judging tempo and instrumental detail on a nicety; nor benefited from a chorus and orchestra bred in the tradition of La Scala; no producer has equalled Legge in recording voices rather than the space round them. And di Stefano? Well, he may not be so stylish a Duke as some others, but the ‘face’ he gives his singing, and the sheer physical presence he conveys, not to mention his forward diction, are also unique in this opera.

Nothing in this world is perfect, so there are some small drawbacks here. Serafin sadly makes small cuts in the first Gilda-Rigoletto duet and omits entirely the Duke’s cabaletta as used to be the practice in the theatre. Gobbi could be said not to have quite the weight of voice ideally called for by a Verdi baritone role. Finally, the recording, although immeasurably improved from previous issues of the set, still has one or two places of distortion obviously present on the original tape. In every other way, this remains the classic performance on record. 

Additional Recommendation

Leonard Warren (bar) Rigoletto Bidú Sayão (sop) Gilda Jussi Björling (ten) Duke Norman Cordon (bass) Sparafucile Martha Lipton (contr) Maddalena William Hargrave (bass) Monterone Thelma Altman (sop) Giovanna Richard Manning (ten) Borsa George Cehanovsky (bar) Marullo Maxine Stellman (mez) Countess Ceprano John Baker (bass) Count Ceprano Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, New York / Cesare Sodero

Naxos Historical 8 110051/2 (116' · ADD · S/N) Recorded live 1945. Buy from Amazon

This performance marked the return of Björling to the Met after a wartime break of four years spent mostly in his native Sweden. And what a return it was: at 34 he was at the absolute peak of his powers and sings a Duke of Mantua imbued with supreme confidence and tremendous brio – just try the start of the Quartet. He and the house clearly revel in his display of tenor strength, yet that power is always tempered by innate artistry. If not a subtle interpreter, he’s always a thoughtful one, and never indulges himself or his audience. 

Similarly, Warren was, at the time, at the zenith of his career. Vocally he’s in total command of the role and the house. His reading, although slightly extroverted in some areas, evinces a firm tone, a secure line and many shades of colour. He’s at his very best in his two duets with Gilda (sadly and heinously cut about) and no wonder, given the beautiful, plangent singing of Sayão, whose ‘Caro nome’ is so delicately phrased, touching and keenly articulated. ‘Tutte le feste’ is still better, prompting Paul Jackson (who in general is unjustifiably hard on the performance in Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met, Duckworth: 1992) to comment that Sayão’s ‘lovely, pliant, fully rounded tones are immediately affecting’. Indeed, in spite of the merits of the two male principals, it’s her truly memorable interpretation that makes this set essential listening. 

All round, there are few recordings that match this one for vocal distinction – perhaps only the Serafin-Callas-Gobbi on EMI and the Giulini-Cotrubas-Cappuccilli on DG. They are much more expensive but boast superior sound. Björling and Warren both made later studio sets but neither matches his live contribution here, off the stage. 

The final virtue of this absorbing experience is the conducting of the little-known Sodero. His moderate but never sluggish tempi allow for almost ideal articulation on all sides, and his insistence on letting us hear the score so clearly makes one regret even more all those excisions then common in the opera house and the studios.

DVD Recommendation

Paolo Gavanelli (bar) Rigoletto Christine Schäfer (sop) Gilda Marcelo Álvarez (ten) Duke Eric Halfvarson (bass) Sparafucile Graciela Araya (contr) Maddalena Giovanni Battista Parodi (bass) Monterone Elizabeth Sikora (sop) Giovanna Peter Auty (ten) Borsa Quentin Hayes (bar) Marullo Dervla Ramsay (mez) Countess Ceprano Graeme Broadbent (bass) Count Ceprano Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Covent Garden / Edward Downes 

Stage director David McVicar 

Film director Sue Judd

Opus Arte DVD OA0829D (169' · 16:9 · 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 2001. Buy from Amazon

David McVicar’s engrossing 2001 production of Rigoletto at Covent Garden caused something of a stir because of the frank licentiousness of the opening scene, including sex of all varieties. It’s a bold and sensational beginning to the staging, depicting the Duke of Mantua as a libidinous and strident ruler of his ill-disciplined domain. Given that picture of the court, the contrast of Rigoletto’s almost obsessive love for his daughter is all the more poignant. 

That’s the background to a performance of thrilling commitment on all sides, at whose centre is the arresting portrayal of Rigoletto from Paolo Gavanelli, probably the best acted and most sensitively sung, in terms of variety and colouring of tone, since Tito Gobbi essayed the role in the same house 35 years ago (even if he has an occasional tendency to lose pitch). 

By comparison, Christine Schäfer’s Gilda is a trifle cool at the start, but once ravished she comes to emotional life and is particularly moving in the final act. Her singing, though not Italianate in colour, is musically shaped and technically flawless. Marcelo Álvarez is the epi­tome of a selfish, macho ruler, and Eric Halfvarson a suitably sinister Sparafucile. Downes conducts a well-nigh faultless account. The only reservation concerns the sound. Too frequently the voices are too backwardly placed in relation to the orchestra, but that shouldn’t deter you from being part of a very special occasion.

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