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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - opera in three acts (1851)
Rigoletto, Duke’s jester – Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Duke of Mantua – Francesco Demuro (tenor)
Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter – Nadine Sierra (soprano)
Sparafucile, an assassin – Andrea Mastroni (bass)
Maddalena, his sister – Oksana Volkova (contralto)
Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse/Countess Ceprano/Page –
Eglė Šidlauskaitė (mezzo-soprano)
Count Monterone – Kostas Smoriginas (bass-baritone)
Marullo, a courtier – Andrius Apšega (baritone)
Matteo Borsa, a courtier – Tomas Pavilionis (tenor)
Count Ceprano – Tadas Girininkas (bass)
Court Usher – Liudas Mikalauskas (bass)
Men of the Kaunas State Choir
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. 2016, Kaunas State Philharmonic, Lithuania
Full Italian libretto with English translation
DELOS DE3522 [2 CDs: 127:04]

Rigoletto is one of the greatest baritone roles in opera and requires an outstanding voice together with an innate ability to communicate a wide range of human emotions. For the title role Delos has chosen the great and distinctive Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Although Hvorostovsky had sung the role in opera performance notably at Royal Opera House, London and New York Metropolitan surprisingly this was his first complete recording of the opera. Just a few days after the album’s November 2017 release the opera world was shocked by the announcement that Hvorostovsky, known as ‘Dima’, had died in London aged 55 from brain cancer, a condition that had been announced in the summer of 2015 around a year prior to making this recording.

One of Verdi’s most popular operas Rigoletto is a key work which demonstrated the composer’s maturity. Set in 17th-century Mantua it is the heartbreaking tragedy of the cursed hunchbacked Rigoletto, the lubricious Duke of Mantua’s jester and his daughter Gilda who has been seduced by the Duke. Verdi inspired by Victor Hugo’s astonishing play Le Roi s’amuse, wrote in 1851 that this “is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times”. With a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi completed the score in 1851 but before it could be staged Rigoletto had to overcome state censorship owing to its depiction of immoral conduct amongst royalty. Following its triumphant 1851 premiere at Teatro la Fenice, Venice the opera was performed some 250 times in the next 10 years and the opera soon established itself as a standard in the operatic repertoire maintaining an enduring popularity in the opera house. Even after the successes of Il Trovatore and La Traviata Verdi continued to describe Rigoletto as his “best opera.”

It is hard to ignore the impressive performance of tenor Francesco Demuro, seductive as the lecherous and duplicitous Duke. His bright voice is splendidly in tune conveying that special Italianate sound together with the ability to reveal a tear in the voice. My only quibble is that Demuro determinedly sings full volume at every opportunity which becomes a touch unsteady. In ultra-confident mood, the Duke’s opening aria ‘Questo o quella’, expressing the belief that any woman is fair game, is buoyantly sung while in the act 2 aria ‘Ella mi fu rapita… Parmi veder le lagrima’, singing of his sorrow as Gilda is stolen from him, Demuro effortlessly realises his high notes with accomplishment. From act 3 it’s difficult to forget the celebrated aria ‘La donna e mobile’ as the Duke boasts of his disrespect for women, being most handsomely sung by this Italian tenor.

American soprano Nadine Sierra establishes herself as a suitably innocent yet enchanting Gilda. Displaying a bright, if small voice, soprano Sierra is suitably girlish and most comfortable in her high register easily achieving her top notes. Especially memorable from act 1, scene 2 is Gilda’s aria ‘Gualtier Maldè… Caro nome che il mio cor’ as she sings affectionately of her new-found love and Gilda’s duet with her father Rigoletto, ‘Figlia! Mio padre!’, is also most affecting. As Rigoletto, Hvorostovsky is in his element, soon establishing the complex and deeply troubled character, notably able to traverse the high baritone demands. Best of all from act 2 in the punishing ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ Hvorostovsky excels as the angry and distressed Rigoletto, venting his fury on the courtiers to return his daughter. Although his voice is not at his peak, what remains evident is the baritone’s rich and velvety tone, which draws the listener in, and his excellent breath control together with his innate ability to generate real drama.

Displaying total commitment in the part of Maddalena, Belarusian Oksana Volkova is in impressive voice, firm, ripely potent and expressive too. I will make a point of hearing the mezzo-soprano as Carmen, one of her leading roles. On record there have been several convincingly menacing Sparafuciles for example Cesare Siepi, Niccolo Zaccaria, Martti Talvela, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Robert Lloyd and any bass in the role has a lot to live up to. Nevertheless, Italian bass Andrea Mastroni sings the role of the professional assassin creditably, with an appropriate dark and sinister edge, holding the exposed and sustained low note F to pleasing effect. In the justly famous act 3 Quartet ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ I greatly admire the 1971 Decca recording by Luciano Pavarotti, Huguette Tourangeau, Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes. Despite the excellent competition, the quartet of Demuro, Volkova, Sierra and Hvorostovsky don’t disappoint and sing with an appealing sense of drama.

In lusty voice, the Men of the Kaunas State Choir have been clearly well drilled. There are no problems whatsoever with the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra who play with plenty of expressive thrust and Constantine Orbelian’s tempi are well chosen, allowing plenty of room for the singers. Recorded at the State Philharmonic concert hall at Kaunas the engineering team has provided cool, clear sound, although I would have liked a slightly warmer sound and a balance less in favour of the strings. In the exemplary presentation by Delos I am delighted to report that the full Italian libretto with English translation is provided, together with an informative essay by Lindsay Koob and a synopsis. Pleasing additions are the cast and production photographs including several of Hvorostovsky.

Of the numerous recordings of Rigoletto my primary recommendation is the above mentioned 1971 Decca account conducted by Richard Bonynge with Pavarotti in his first attempt as the Duke. Worthy of praise too is this well-cast Rigoletto on Delos a fine achievement and most suitable tribute to the art of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who will be much missed.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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