Despite the deletion of the Serafin recording with Gobbi, Callas and di Stefano (Columbia mono 33CXS1324/6, 2/56), Rigoletto remains well served by the gramophone. The Bonynge set on Decca, with Milnes, Sutherland and Pavarotti, is an excellent all-round achievement, whilst the Giulini set on DG, with Cappuccilli, Cotrubas and Dominog is exceptional: searching, humane, powerfully registered. And now there is the Philips set, carefully cast, impeccably recorded and produced, and conducted with a care and expertise which may surprise some of Sinopoli's more extreme detractors.
Sinopoli's conducting of Rigoletto is not so searching as Giulini's or so finely tempered as Serafin's. Once or twice it is wilful and brittle (the opening conversazione is a case in point) and cabalettas occasionally tell us more about Sinopoli's ego than Verdi's id. It can also be said that neither Bonynge nor Sinopoli search out the score's prevailingly dark sonorities as surely as Giulini (in his insistence on the score's dark colours and his interest in its portrayal of primary human affections, Giulini draws Rigoletto in the Rembrandt style) and he, like Serafin, is better able to project Verdi's more primitive accompaniments with the kind of robust good sense which is the mark of the born Verdian. Faced with a Verdian oom-pah, Sinopoli is a trifle knowing. The merit of his reading is its clarity, power and poise. The orchestral playing is generally of a high order (Giulini used the same orchestra for his recent Il trovatore—DG 413 355-1GH3, 11/84; CD 413 355-2GH3, 2/85) and the Philips producer nor the recording engineer appear to put a foot wrong. Where both Decca and DG bungle the balance in the opening scene (the banda too distant), the new Philips is exactly right; and if the orchestra seems too prominent in something like the abduction scene, the effect, on reflection, is not without its dramatic and musical point.
There is little to choose between the three Rigolettos. Gobbi's 1950 recording of ''Pari siamo'' (HMV mono HLM7018, 2/73) has never been bettered, not even by Gobbi himself in the complete set, but Bruson has more variety and humanity in his singing of the great soliloquy than either Milnes (Bonynge) or Cappuccilli (Giulini). He also makes much of the long and complex postlude to ''Cortgiani''. The ''Piangi, fanciulla'' in the reconciliation with Gilda is sung (and conducted) with remarkable breadth and grandeur of utterance, and the vengeance cabaletta is strong without being hectic: an interesting piece of self-discipline on Sinopoli's part.
With Giulini in rapt attendance, Cotrubas has a head start over her rivals as Gilda, but Gruberova, cool but not chilly, sympathetic, technically flawless, is very fine. There is nothing pert or soubrettish about her reading: the girl's inner resolve—an inner strength which puts her in a line of young heroines which can be traced back to Shakespeare's Juliet and Desdemona—is never in doubt. Unfortunately, Philips's Neil Shicoff is no match for either Pavarotti on Decca nor Domingo on DG. Domingo's is one of the greatest accounts of the role ever recorded, from ''Questa o quella'' through to a classic account of the famous Quartet. Shicoff does his best but he lacks a true, firm pianissimo and his ungainly approach to the top A sharps in ''La donna e mobile'' is unacceptable even away from Pavarotti or Domingo at their sovereign best. The comprimario roles are strongly cast in all three sets.
The Giulini set, for all its occasional lack of what Rodney Milnes terms ''zing'', is necessary listening for anyone interested in Verdi, Rigoletto (Verdi's surrogate King Lear), or the tenor's art. But this new set offers an intelligent appraisal of the great work. It is a joy to listen to from the technical point of view and has in Bruson a singer who in the mature flowering of his art more than once allows us to glimpse Rigoletto's majesty and his awful capacity for compassion.'