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One of the finest versions


Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
Rigoletto [1:58:51]
Rigoletto - Leonard Warren (baritone)
Gilda - Bidù Sayão (soprano)
Duca di Mantova - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Sparafucile - Norman Cordon (bass)
Maddalena - Martha Lipton (mezzo-soprano)
Giovanna - Thelma Votipka (mezzo-soprano)
Monterone - William Hargrave (bass)
Marullo - George Cehanovsky (baritone)
Borsa - Richard Manning (tenor)
Conte di Ceprano - John Baker (bass)
Contessa di Ceprano - Maxine Stellman (soprano)
Un paggio - Thelma Altman (soprano)
Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Cesare Sodero
rec. live matinée broadcast 29 December 1945, Metropolitan Opera, New York
No libretto
XR Remastering Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO143 [56:24 + 62:20]

The last time I counted I had some fifteen recordings of Rigoletto on my shelves, and I have kept those only which I consider to have merit. It is perfectly legitimate to maintain that the perfect account has never been made, but it is still a strong field and even if I exclude those in in more modern sound and restrict myself to vintage, mono, post-war releases, several remain, jostling for supremacy. In addition to being mono, a further aural disadvantage to this set is that it is taken from a live radio broadcast from over seventy years ago rather than being a studio recording – but we must also allow for the fact that it has benefited from being the product of engineer Andrew Rose’s selection from the best of four different source tapes. Wow and pitch issues have been corrected and gaps patched from other sources, then the final product has been subjected to the Pristine XR Ambient stereo remastering effect, just as was done for the classic Callas-Gobbi-Di Stefano version made ten years later (review) and the survey of four mono recordings from the 50’s by my MWI colleague Göran Forsling (review)

The careers of Bjőrling and Leonard Warren ran in parallel: both were born in 1911, sang frequently at the Metropolitan Opera and died before they were fifty. Warren may also be heard in the 1950 studio recording under Cellini and of course Bjőrling recorded the Duke to Robert Merrill’s jester in 1956, but this is the only opportunity to hear both singers together in one Rigoletto, liberated from the sometimes restrictive effect of recording in a studio. I once owned it in the Naxos issue but discarded it as I found the sound to be pretty dim and quite frequently distorted, despite the valiant re-engineering. This new release is decidedly an improvement over that Naxos, but, as the notes confess, “it will never resemble a true high fidelity recording.” It remains very acceptable as a souvenir of three great artists singing in their prime and at full throttle. Just the way Bjőrling hangs on to and belts the climactic B flat in “Questa o quella” tells you that the audience were in for a great night of full-throated opera. I have never heard him sing with such abandon as he does here; any doubts about the size or penetration of his voice will be quelled by listening to this performance. Sodero’s conducting is spirited yet flexible.

Warren’s tone is always slightly throaty to some ears, including mine but the intensity of his vocal acting and the ringing firmness, security and variety of his singing are captivating. This is a large-scale, extrovert assumption of the eponymous lead role. You can hear how he was Sherrill Milnes’ inspiration in this role, Milnes’ performance being similarly unbuttoned and belonging to what is still perhaps the most recommendable of stereo recordings. Warren is by no means without subtlety or tenderness; for example, his floated “Il pianto” in “Pari siamo” - or, later the diminuendo on the sustained F of “taci” in his plea to Marullo in “Cortigiani” - is simply lovely, then he concludes that aria with a top G on “È follia” to match Bjőrling’s big notes.

Norman Cordon’s Sparafucile is serviceable without being especially chilling and comprimario roles in general are similarly no more than adequate but that is of no importance in a performance starring three such singers as we have here. Bidu Sayão’s Gilda is girlish, vulnerable and exquisitely vocalised without quite the stamp of individuality some sopranos such as Callas and Moffo bring to the role. Her faintly tremulous timbre is very attractive and contrasts neatly with the virile forthrightness of Björling’s glamorous Duke; it isn’t hard to understand how he overcomes any resistance on her part. It’s a pity about the cuts in their duets, but that was standard practice.

There’s nary a hope in hell of hearing a performance of Rigoletto sung this well today; it is truly a souvenir of a bygone age.

Ralph Moore



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