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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - Operatic melodramma in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua - Giuseppe Di Stefano (ten); Rigoletto, his jester - Tito Gobbi (bar); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter - Maria Callas (sop); Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin - Nicola Zaccaria (bass); Maddalena, his sister - Adriana Lazzarini (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna - Giuse Gerbino (alto); Count Monterone - Plinio Clabassi (bass); Marullo, a courtier - William Dickie (bar); Matteo Borsa, a courtier - Renata Ercolani (ten); Count Ceprano - Carlo Forti (bar); Contess Ceprano Elvira Galassi (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tulio Serafin
rec. September 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan. ADD
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn.
NAXOS HISTORICAL GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS SERIES 8.111242-3 [56.18 + 61.54]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Rigoletto - Operatic melodramma in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua - Giuseppe Di Stefano (ten); Rigoletto, his jester - Tito Gobbi (bar); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter - Maria Callas (sop); Sparafucile, a villain available for hire as an assassin - Nicola Zaccaria (bass); Maddalena, his sister - Adriana Lazzarini (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s Duenna - Giuse Gerbino (alto); Count Monterone - Plinio Clabassi (bass); Marullo, a courtier - William Dickie (bar); Matteo Borsa, a courtier - Renata Ercolani (ten); Count Ceprano - Carlo Forti (bar); Contess Ceprano Elvira Galassi (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tulio Serafin
rec. September 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan. ADD
Note. Regis timings including bonus tracks of Callas singing Son guinta [6.59] and Pace, pace mio Dio [6.07] from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino – rec. 1954. ADD
REGIS LEGENDARY PERFORMANCES SERIES RRC 2076 [53.29+71.45]




In 1850, when the libretto of Stiffelio was being finalised with his librettist Piave, Verdi was also gripped, perhaps in a way he had not experienced since the composition of Macbeth three years before, by the thought of setting an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse. He itched to start its composition and may have made significant sketches during his work on Stiffelio. He considered Victor Hugo’s play ‘perhaps the greatest drama of modern times’ and the jester Tribolet, later to become Rigoletto in his opera, ‘a creation ‘worthy of Shakespeare’. In Verdi’s mind there could be no greater compliment.

Verdi, already having had many brushes with censors of both church and state worried about their response to aspects of the plot. With the opera to be premiered in Venice he relied on the assurances of Piave, a native of the city, that the Austrian censors would not object to the subject. On arrival in Venice Verdi found that the censors did not merely object to the subject’s immorality, but also to such detail as a King being involved, that Rigoletto was a hunchback and that the body of his stabbed daughter was on the stage, in a sack, in the finale. Verdi, in high dudgeon, packed his bags and returned to Busseto. After much diplomacy by both the Secretary of La Fenice and Piave, the General Director of Public Order made a number of concessions. Verdi in his turn offered to compromise on a Duke instead of a King, but otherwise maintaining the original characters of Victor Hugo’s drama and particularly a setting where the threat of a curse was meaningful. He also maintained the principle of Rigoletto’s deformity and the presence of the stabbed Gilda in the final scene. The censor accepted the points and Rigoletto opened at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice on 11 March 1851 with Felice Varesi, creator of Macbeth, in the title role.

Despite having to live with a physical deformity that sets him apart, and which in this plot doubtless would have contributed to his sense of grievance and bitter tongue, the jester Rigoletto is one of the most profoundly human of Verdi’s creations. His character is defined in the music, particularly in the three great duets with his daughter Gilda. The first, in act one, is of fatherly love and concern, the second of fury as he discovers her defilement by the Duke and the third of despair as he opens the sack and she tells him of her sacrificing of her life to save the man who raped her yet whom she loves. The vocal and histrionic demands of the title role have drawn every great high baritone since its creation. A privileged few have set down their interpretations on record for posterity. To convey the cloistered and virginal Gilda, Verdi wrote the role for a light flexible soprano, a voice type that is rare in his works. To the rapacious Duke he not only gave the memorable aria La donna è mobile, destined to become the most famous tenor aria of all time, Nessun Dorma notwithstanding, but also the opening phrases of the most famous quartet in opera that follows - both in the final act. The Duke is one of the most gracefully lyrical of all Verdi’s tenor roles, which might be seen in some way as compensating for the vileness of his character.

With the advent of the LP, each of the major recording companies issued a mono recording with their contracted artists. As far as the UK’s Columbia label was concerned they had the redoubtable Maria Callas under contract and were building their recorded repertoire round her. Although she had only ever sung the role of Gilda on stage twice, in 1952, and had sung roles of an entirely different fach such as Aida and La Gioconda among others, she was cast as the virginal Gilda. Tito Gobbi, one of two outstanding Italian Verdi baritones of the day was cast as Rigoletto with the admired Giuseppe Di Stefano as the rapacious Duke. With that cast the issue was a sure fire success. But in some households, including mine, there was more focus on the portrayal of Rigoletto himself and the Duke as much as on the casting of Gilda. In our view there was a worthy rival in the form of a recording from Italian Cetra. This featured the impressive Giuseppe Taddei as Rigoletto and Ferruccio Tagliavini as the Duke. Tagliavini’s presence tipped our choice Cetra’s way, he being in our view far preferable to the less vocally elegant Di Stefano.

Faced with two concurrently issued recordings from the same source I chose to start with that from Naxos, being particularly impressed in the past by what Mark Obert-Thorn achieves in his remasterings from LP sources. These are the only sources allowed under the current 50-year copyright law in the UK and Europe. The Naxos sound came over as well-balanced and warm although perhaps a little more recessed than others from this source. In view of my opinions of fifty years ago I was particularly listening out for Di Stefano’s opening aria Questa o quella (CD 1 tr. 3). My first impression was that his tone had more dryness and baritonal hue than I had remembered. I promptly changed discs to the Regis issue and played the same aria (also CD 1 tr. 3). The sound was distinctly brighter, even edgy, but was I really hearing another tenor? Of course not, but I embarked on two weeks of listening conundrums. These culminated in my gathering a listening panel. This comprised another reviewer, a professional lyric coloratura soprano, myself and my wife who, like me, attends many performances as well as vocal competitions and also acts as constant co-critic if I want confirmation as to what we are hearing. But while waiting to set this listening session up, I had investigated further to reveal a fundamental difference in the two issues; six minutes in total length of the work. This is significant in an opera lasting less than 120 minutes. At the listening session, using two comparable players through my high quality amplifier into my reference speakers, and with a 10 second gap between we switched from source to source. Just in case of difference between the CD players we switched over. The conclusions were interesting. The brighter, edgy, Regis sound came over as giving more punch to the performance but was not as easy on the ear. There was also a difference in vocal pitching between the Regis and Naxos of more than a quarter tone, easily accountable by the faster speed. Which is correct? I was only able to compare with selected arias by Gobbi on The Very Best of Tito Gobbi (EMI Classics 5 85096 2) where the timings were very similar to those on the Naxos.

As to the performance, it is that of Tito Gobbi as Rigoletto that defines it as one of recorded operas must haves. The role of Rigoletto is one of the most profoundly human of Verdi’s creations. His character is defined in the music of the great duets with his daughter Gilda in each of the three acts. Whilst the vocal and histrionic demands of the role have drawn every great high baritone since its creation that of Tito Gobbi is among the very best of those set down on record. He does not have the more juicy tone of Taddei on the Cetra issue, but his vocal nuance, variation of tonal colour and respect for clarity of diction makes his portrayal one of the recorded repertoire’s most outstanding portrayals.

As I have noted, to convey the cloistered and virginal Gilda, Verdi wrote the role for a light flexible soprano, a voice type that is rare in his works. Callas fails to represent the virginal naivety of Gilda. Her Caro nome is lacking in spontaneity giving an impression of artifice. There is dramatic compensation in her duets with Gobbi, particularly tutte le feste in act two. Of course, typically, she does manage to overcome some vocal limitations to give a meaningful portrayal even if some moments of vocal strain intrude. I continue to be less than impressed by Giuseppe Di Stefano’s Duke. His Ella mi fu rapita …Parmi veder le lagrime at the start of act two (CD 2 tr.1 on Naxos and trs. 1–2 on Regis) lacks elegance whilst his La donna è mobile calls for more vocal élan (CD 2 tr. 8 on Naxos and tr. 15 on Regis). Serafin’s conducting is well paced if lacking some of the dramatic thrust found with other conductors in later recordings. None of the supporting singers is less than adequate with Plinio Clabassi’s Monterone being better than many whilst Nicola Zaccaria’s well sung Sparafucile lacks the ultimate low note for his departure from the alleyway near Rigoletto’s home.

Over the last few years I have come to have great respect and admiration for the quality and integrity of Mark Obert-Thorn's remasterings from LP originals. To a degree those qualities influence my personal preference for the Naxos version of the two under review. Not all my listening panel share that view, with one preferring the impact of the Regis despite its edginess. But my mind also goes back to my family's choice of the Cetra LPs with Taddei as Rigoletto over the original Columbia with Gobbi fifty years ago. That choice was much influenced by preference for the vocal elegance of Tagliavini compared to Di Stefano who benefits from Regis's faster speeds and higher pitch in the comparison. Also, with those tracks I have been able to compare with EMI originals, the Naxos timings are more accurate.

Robert J Farr


Comments received

Thanks for giving me a chance to comment on Mr. Farr's review. My transfer was pitched at A = 440 Hz. Apparently, so was EMI's (at least in their first CD edition of 1986, which I have in a German pressing). The timings between these two editions as shown on my CD player's display and the timings given in the review of the Regis set are as follows:

EMI Naxos Regis
CD 1 56:10 56:18 53:29
CD 2 61:53 61:54 58:39 (= 71:45 - 6:59 - 6:07)

Some of the differences between the EMI and the Naxos are due to varying lengths in the pauses between acts and at the ends of the CDs. You might want to ask Regis why they chose to pitch their edition so much sharper than either of these.

Mark Obert-Thorn

Regis Producer's comment:
The test CD I used to pitch the turntable was the EMI CD transfer of 'Tabarro' which matches exactly the pitch of my transfer and as it matched I used the same setting for the other (recent Regis) releases. It may be that the EMI CD was slightly sharp.
It is surprising how much variation there is in various transfers and I know that some EMI Callas re-issues (from master tapes) have been criticised for being slightly flat. It may even be the orchestra's tuning can be slightly sharp on a given occasion.
On some very early LPs, before cutting techniques were refined, the pitch on some LP sides could vary by as much as a semitone from start to finish.
It may be worth pointing out that the reviewer says that his memories of playing his old LPs of the set indicated that he thought our set was very much as he remembered it sounding, whereas the Naxos made Di Stefano's voice sound rather baritonal.
Tony Watts

 


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