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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto - Riccardo Stracciari (baritone)
Gilda - Mercedes Capsir (soprano)
Duke of Mantua - Dino Borgioli (tenor)
Sparafucile - Ernesto Dominici (bass)
Maddalena - Anna Masetti Bassi (contralto)
Monterone - Duilio Baronti (baritone)
Countess Ceprano, Giovanna - Ida Mannarini (mezzo-soprano)
Marullo - Aristide Baracchi (baritone)
Borsa - Guido Uxa (tenor)
Count Ceprano - Eugenio Dall’Argine (bass)
Page - Anna Novi (mezzo-soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Lorenzo Molajoli
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
rec. 22 August 1927 (Pari siamo) & 17-27 May 1930, Milan
First issued on Italian Columbia GQX 10028/42
PRISTINE CLASSICAL PACO169 [52:12 + 57:05]

I am particularly pleased to be reviewing this Pristine set as recently I reviewed the Barbiere with the same singers and conductor and had to be distinctly less than ecstatic about it. I wrote then that I hoped we would soon see the issue of the Rigoletto set, as that opera played to the cast’s strengths in ways that Barbiere didn’t, and six months down the line, here it is.

When this set was issued in 1930, it was, astonishingly, the sixth “complete” Rigoletto to be issued (all suffered from a greater or lesser number of cuts - the present set is almost complete, the only missing parts of any importance being the first solo verse of “Ah veglia, o donna” and a section of “Lassù in cielo”, though “Possente amor” is also cut, as it always was at this time). The first recording was in French on Pathé with Noté, Robert Lassalle and Vallendri in 1912. By a strange coincidence, Stracciari’s two complete sets were of the same operas as De Lucia’s two complete ones, though the De Lucia (with Anticorona and Angela De Angelis) from 1917/8 is much less complete. There was an acoustic Columbia set with Formichi, Taccani and Ferraris, also from 1917, which despite remaining in the catalogue until 1928 is rarely seen complete. Italian HMV also recorded the opera acoustically with Danise, Broccardi and Borghi-Zerni in 1916/7. When electrical recording was introduced in 1925, it only took until 1927 for a Rigoletto set to be recorded by HMV with Piazza, Folgar and Pagliughi. After the present set, it was 20 years before the next recording on Victor with Warren, Peerce and Erna Berger, followed by a multitude of recordings as every company of any size felt the need to issue a recording in the new LP format.

Of the recordings which originated on 78, I don’t think that, for overall quality, there is any doubt that the present performance is the finest. It is said that Stracciari appeared in Barbiere a thousand times (which I think is probably an exaggeration), but I would think that Rigoletto was his second most performed role. His dark, virile timbre which was both rich at the bottom and resplendently resonant at the top was ideal for the role. However, he was not simply a producer of wonderful sounds; he had superb clarity of enunciation and an innate musicality and dramatic intelligence that made his portrayal deeply satisfying dramatically. A modern listener may find his performance a little lacking in overt characterisation (for example, his first appearance mocking Monterone does not relish the sarcasm in the way a modern baritone might), but in the aspects which really matter, the truth of his portrayal is clear and unexaggerated. His “Pari siamo” is alive to its character as a ruminating soliloquy, as he considers how much he has in common with Sparafucile. As is often the case on recordings that emanate from 78s, I think the time constraints of the 4½ minute side prevent the space and tempi which his stage performances would have had (I feel sure that he would have made more of “Deh non parlare al misero” live), but the more dramatic side is less hampered, and the drama of the end of Act 1 when he realises that Gilda has been abducted is spine-chilling. The Act 2 confrontation with the courtiers is also superb - we can almost see his eyes raking every corner as he searches vainly for any sign of Gilda during the “La la la la” section. The following “Cortigiani” is as fine a combination of drama and perfect vocalisation (despite a career already of 31 years duration) as one could hope for. He never resorts to shouting in his imprecations at the courtiers, but the fury is still palpable, and his appeal to Marullo in the “Miei signori” section has just the right whipped-dog desperation. After Gilda is returned to him and recounts her fate in “Tutte le feste”, Stracciari build his response most effectively into a deeply tender “Piangi fanciulla”. “Sì vendetta” is a little slower than I would ideally have liked to achieve fully the blazing vengefulness of the duet, but is still effective. In Act 3, he is impatiently dismissive of Gilda’s pleas for the Duke to be spared. After he discovers that the body in the sack is Gilda’s, his pain and desperation are palpable at “Dio tremendo ella stessa fu colta”. He ends the opera with a tremendous (if unwritten) A flat in “Ah, la maledizione!”.

As an interpretation, if not vocally, Stracciari is matched by Dino Borgioli. His voice is comparatively light without real richness to the timbre, very much of the same sort as Schipa’s. As a result of this, again like Schipa, he compensates for lack of vocal glamour by intelligent musicality. He may not possess quite the genius of Schipa, but he is still mightily impressive and in a different class to most singers of the role. As with his Almaviva in Barbieri, he has a gentleness, almost a vulnerability, which will probably not suits today’s climate (the Duke is, after all, a rapist), but makes for a more complex character - weak rather than evil, whose wish to find Gilda and declaration of love for her in “Ella mi fù rapita” and “Parmi veder” seem genuine, at least at the time they are made. He also has an aristocratic refinement which few modern singers bring to the role. From “Questa o quella” onwards, everything that he sings has elegance and is full of wonderful dynamic light and shade. His first conversation with Countess Ceprano displays a playfulness that is very seductive. In the duet with Gilda “È il sol dell’anima” his singing is full of exquisite detail and real musicality. “Ella mi fù” and “Parmi veder” give a sense of him actually living through the succession of emotions. The peak for me, however, is the famous Quartet. Five or six years ago, a young teacher at my school who was setting up a school radio station asked a number of members of staff to make hour-long programmes introducing a favourite type of music, and I was asked if I would do one on opera. I agreed, and one of the items I wanted to play was the Rigoletto quartet as an example of how opera could actually be more realistic than straight drama as it displayed four utterly different emotions being experienced, and expressed, simultaneously, as they would be in reality. I must have listened to 15 versions, trying to find one where the tenor really did what the music and dramatic situation demanded. I tried everyone I could find from Caruso to Pavarotti, and none were really satisfactory. Even Bergonzi was subtle but entirely without eroticism. Unfortunately I didn’t think of Borgioli, so missed one of the small number who sings it properly. At this point in the opera, the Duke is trying to get his way with Maddalena; he is cajoling and flattering her, calling her “Beautiful daughter of love” and begging her to assuage his pain with “un detto sol” (“a single word” - that word being, of course “yes”). The Duke is using all his whiles to sweet-talk her into submission. However, the seductive strategy of most tenors you will find consists entirely in knocking Gilda senseless by sheer force of decibels - they try to bellow her into bed. But not Borgioli; he sees that the great majority of the opening solo is marked pianissimo, and he lavishes every ravishing vocal effect he can muster to effect his wishes. Borgioli caresses the phrases in the same way that the Duke wants to caress Maddalena. The set would be worth buying for these few seconds alone.

Mercedes Capsir is certainly no Callas, but her Gilda is much more than a cipher. She stands between the very light, tweety sopranos who were in vogue in the first half of the century (such as Melba, Pareto, Pagliughi and dal Monte) and the darker, more substantial voices from Callas and Sutherland onwards. Her “Caro nome” is very effective, with a thoughtful and sensitive approach to words and a respectful view of the notes (she is, for example, scrupulous in her attention to the rests between each note of the first phrases in a way that never even occurred to Melba). It is not an “interior” performance, and a little more quiet singing would have improved it greatly, but the coloratura is excellent, and the character is no milksop, but strong and determined from the start. She is probably at her very best in “Tutte le feste” where she tells her father what had happened to her after her abduction. Capsir shows real sensitivity to Gilda’s situation. It is more full-throated and overt than most modern Gildas, but is highly effective nevertheless. At the end of the Quartet, she sings the traditional top D flat, but it is sung piano so is kept in character - it is not a “look at me!” note. She does need greater fragility in “Lassù in cielo” to make the full effect, but it is in keeping with her more robust characterisation of the role.

All the comprimario parts are very well taken by Italian singers who are completely at home in their roles, though (as with Don Basilio in the Barbieri set) I do wish they had employed Tancredi Pasero for Sparafucile. His 1944 recording with Becchi of the Act 1 scene where Rigoletto meets Sparafucile shows that he was finest on record, and I would have loved to hear him in the last act. The conducting of Molajoli is unexpectedly fine. He nails the atmosphere right from the baleful opening brass fanfares and the anguished string response. At times the speeds are a little too fast, but this may well be the exigencies of the 78 sides rather than a lack of sensitivity on his part. Indeed, the woodwind phrasing in the introduction to “Tutte le feste” is most beautifully moulded and his accompaniment to Rigoletto’s great scene in Act 2 is a model. All of the more dramatic parts are first rate; there is real tension and panic at the end of Act 1 and the Storm in the last act is a tremendous performance. The orchestra and chorus are also excellent - I can actually believe they are from La Scala, which is very difficult to credit on many acoustic recordings which claim it.

The recording is remarkably vivid and for the most part the voices come over with tremendous presence. There is some distortion in places towards the ends of some 78 sides which was inherent in the recording, but never to an extent which disturbs. I can’t help but mention one unfortunate detail: when Gilda and later Rigoletto knock on Sparafucile’s door, the noise is produced by someone rapping on a cocoanut shell, giving an unbelievably bathetic effect like something from a 1930s cartoon. In other circumstances it would be hilarious, but here it really jars. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer is absolutely first-rate. The side joins are undetectable and he has reduced surface noise to virtual non-existence most of the time, while keeping the high frequencies which make the sound so immediate. This is one of the finest of all the pre-war complete sets of Italian opera, and I recommend it most highly in this exemplary transfer.

Paul Steinson
Previous review: Ralph Moore

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