Recordings and DVDs

by Paul Dorgan

It's no surprise to discover that a catalog of complete recordings of Rigoletto runs to 69 cds, dvds, Blu-ray discs, with performances in English, German, even Swedish, as well as in Italian (one of those with a Japanese chorus!), telecasts from Opera Houses, radio relays of "live" performances (with varying sound quality and the usual production and audience noises), studio movies and studio recordings. What follows are my selections from that catalog with reasons why a particular performance is worth investigating.

DISCLAIMER: I will not recommend one recording over another: I've spent enough time around singers and opera buffs to know that one person's Heavenly Voice is another's tortured screech-owl! So to avoid even the appearance of an Order of Preference the recordings are in chronological order. The casts are listed Rigoletto/Duke/Gilda; chorus/orchestra; conductor. And then my comments.

1916. Danise/Broccardi/Borghi-Zerni; La Scala, Milan; Carlo Sabajno. The first complete opera recorded with the forces of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan was Leoncavallo's Pagliacci in 1907, conducted by Sabajno; on a fairly regular schedule until 1932, 25 operas were recorded. Most of the singers were members of the La Scala company and pretty much unknown outside of Italy. What these recordings preserve for us, apart from the sound of bacon frying (which hasn't changed in over a century!), is a style of performing these operas that often might have originated with the composer. Leoncavallo was very much alive in 1907, so was Mascagni when his Cavalleria Rusticana was recorded (in 1916, 1929, 1930; Mascagni himself conducted a recording in 1938) and also Puccini. And it's not beyond the realm of possibility that one or two of the coaches at La Scala responsible for preparing singers in Verdi roles in the early years of the twentieth century had actually worked with Verdi himself on his last operas (1887 for Otello 1893 for Falstaff), or had worked with conductors who had themselves been young coaches when the revised Simon Boccanegra was given there in 1881, or the revised Don Carlo, in 1884. Traditions of singers of nineteenth-century Italian opera (decorations to the vocal line, especially at the "show-off" moments; changes to the composer's phrasing; cutting out measures, or even pages) have, in many instances, survived to today. This recording, despite the surface noise, is the earliest recorded example of those then-very-much-alive traditions - a sort of sonic documentary of how to perform Rigoletto, which, let's not forget, was a mere 55 years old in 1916.

1927/28. Piazza/Folgar/Pagliughi; La Scala, Milan; Carlo Sabajno. In this later recording from La Scala the only name that might ring a bell is that of the soprano Lina Pagliughi who, in 1949, had to cancel performances of Bellini's I Puritani in Venice, which resulted in Maria Callas learning the role in a week in between performances of Wagner's La Valkiria and causing a sensation.

1935. Tibbett/Jagel/Pons; Metropolitan Opera; Ettore Panizza. This recording is not available in the US for copyright reasons: it's a Saturday matinee radio broadcast from the Met. transferred to cd. Lawrence Tibbett's baritone was equal to, if not superior than most of his contemporaries; but the fact that he was an American singer (therefore, to the Italians, could not be stylistically "right") in the years that led up to and included the Second World War, meant that his career was pretty much confined to America, which was not then recording complete operas.

1944. Schlusnus/Rosvaenge/Klose; Berlin Opera; Heger. Schlusnus had one of the most beautiful baritone voices ever (think Fischer-Dieskau with testosterone!), though it might be too beautiful for the savagely angry outbursts of Rigoletto. The career of the Danish tenor Helge Rosvaenge took place in Germany from the 1920s to the 1950s; at ease in Mozart's operas, he also sang Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio (today that would be considered vocally impossible), but was especially admired in Verdi and Puccini which was sung then in German. One has to be amazed that at Germany's nadir (the Third Reich would be bombed into disintegration within a year) a performance of any opera could occur and would be preserved for posterity.

1946. Gobbi. Total confusion surrounds the rest of the cast of this studio film. Even the year is in doubt! Apart from Gobbi the one vocal constant is Lina Pagliughi singing, but not acting, the role of Gilda. This is a studio film, but from the clips I've seen on Youtube, it might as well be a performance in a theatre: the camera seems to be placed mid-auditorium, with occasional close-ups; the sets seem the canvas drops that were then the norm; and the chorus is as static as if they were glued to a conductor. Tito Gobbi was the foremost Italian dramatic baritone of his day. With a voice that was never conventionally "beautiful", it was his attention to the text and the consequent vocal coloring that gave his performances a gripping theatrical authenticity. To hear him in his early 30s is exciting. Lina Pagliughi had all the purity of sound and flexibility of voice for Gilda. Physically she was very much an exemplar of "it-ain't-over-till-the-fat-lady-sings", and no-one ever accused her of "acting"; on film not even her mother would have accepted her as a love-smitten teenager, so a younger-looking actress lip-synched the role, no better than Sophia Loren did when she acted Aida to Tebaldi's voice in the 1953 movie!

1950. Warren/Peerce/Berger; RCA Victor Orchestra; Cellini. In the 50's RCA Victor recorded a number of operas in New York using, for the most part, singers who could be heard on a regular basis at the Metropolitan Opera House. Leonard Warren was the successor to Tibbet: another American baritone who could stand up to anything Italy was producing at the time. I don't think Jan Peerce ever sang opera in Europe, but he was a very stylish singer in a wide repertoire. Erna Berger, a German soprano, is a little out of place in this very Italian-sounding company. The great Robert Shaw, in his early days, founded a chorus which Toscanini used in his NBC broadcasts and which was later hired by RCA for their New York opera recordings.

1955. Gobbi/di Stefano/Callas; La Scala; Serafin. The decade of mid-50s to mid-60s was probably the most glorious time for opera recordings. The great rivals, EMI/Angel and Decca/London, spent springs and early summers in the recording studio, so that by the time Opera Houses re-opened in the fall the records were in the stores: Callas on EMI and Tebaldi on Decca/London. Callas had sung Gilda on-stage in Mexico City in 1952. Gobbi and di Stefano brought out the best of her as a singer, while Serafin, the much older conductor, brought out the best of her as a musician. As a footnote: these recordings from EMI reflected current performance practices, so there are the "traditional" cuts. (See my comments on the La Scala 1916 recording.)

1960. Bastianini/Kraus/Scotto; Maggio Musicale, Florence; Gavazzeni. If there was an Italian baritone whose voice could rival those of his great American contemporaries, it was Ettore Bastianini, who died too young from throat cancer, aged 45. And here are a young Alfredo Kraus and a young Renata Scotto, with an orchestra and chorus who were born with this music embedded in their genes, and a conductor who may well have emerged from the womb knowing the score!

1961. MacNeil/Cioni/Sutherland; Santa Cecilia; Sanzogno. This is Sutherland's first recording of the role and we must be very grateful that the best of Bastianini's American rivals sings the title role. Cornell MacNeil died this past July, but in his glory years he was the greatest Verdi baritone bar none. In the mid-70s, when age was taking its toll and his voice was not responding as well as it used to, I heard him in a concert-performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, where he sang like a man possessed and it was glorious! Renato Cioni was a serviceable Italian tenor (he was Cavaradossi when Callas returned to Covent Garden in her triumphant Zefferelli-directed Tosca). The policy of London/Decca in these years was to record every note of the score, thus distinguishing themselves from their principal rival EMI/Angel.

1963. Merrill/Kraus/Moffo; RCA Italiana; Solti. By now RCA had shifted its recording activities from New York to Italy where orchestras and choruses were cheaper. Robert Merrill was older than MacNeil, but for a time they shared the same Verdi roles at the Met. Krauss was always a stylish singer, while Anna Moffo's voice in its prime was a thing of great beauty - as was she herself; having met her once towards the end of her career I know whereof I speak! This recording is a good example of the quality of performances at the Met in the early 60s.

1966. Paskalis/Pavarotti/Scotto; Florence Opera; Giulini. The Opera d'oro label consists of cd versions of live radio broadcasts from opera houses all over the world; hence the sound quality can vary, but I've never heard one that was impossible to listen to. Because they are radio broadcasts, either from an opera house or from a concert-performance presented by a radio station, casts are not confined to the singers contracted to one or other of the major studios, but are the best available at that particular time. Here, for instance, is the great Carlo Maria Giulini, a superb opera conductor, under contract to EMI, with a very young Pavarotti, at least a decade before his explosion onto the American scene, who would belong exclusively to London Records! Kostas Paskalis was a Greek baritone who never had the "big" career he should have had; and a young Scotto singing a role ideally suited to her voice, which cannot be said of most of the roles she would later sing at the Met.

1971. Milnes/Pavarotti/Sutherland; LSO; Bonynge. A decade after her first recording, Sutherland tries again, this time with the usual suspects!!! (See above for comments about studio contracts.) By this time La Stupenda had enough clout to assemble a "company" of singers who, conducted by her husband, recorded an opera which, after it had been released, was performed, though not always with the recorded cast, in various cities throughout the world: Vancouver; New York; San Francisco; Sydney; London.

1977. MacNeil/Domingo/Cotrubas; Metropolitan Opera; Levine. This is a DVD of a "Great Performances" live telecast from the Met. The production, by John Dexter, was new that season and very exciting because Dexter didn't subscribe to the "traditional" way of doing things. Though one wonders how anyone can persuade a veteran of some hundreds of performances of a role (who was never considered a good actor) to do anything new!! (But see my comments on MacNeill in 1961.)

1979. Cappuccilli/Domingo/Cotrubas; Vienna; Giulini. Giulini in the studio is able to achieve orchestral wonders that would, probably, be impossible in the theatre. Piero Cappuccilli reigned in Milan and Vienna at exactly the time that Sherrill Milnes reigned at the Met. Frankly, that was the Met's loss, though NYC critics and audiences might not have totally accepted a short-statured baritone, imported from Italy, singing the great Verdi roles, while their home-grown, corn-fed version, standing at least 6'2, was living down the road!

1982. Wixell/Pavarotti/Gruberova; Vienna; Chailly. This is a movie version of the opera filmed at the original locations, or as near-original as the director, the great Jean-Pierre Ponelle, could find. What this means musically is that the score was recorded in a studio and the singers lip-synched when they acted the piece before the cameras. Good and bad. There is no doubt that a live performance caught on film can be very exciting; on the other hand, a director not confined by a theatrical setting (which requires that the performers sing into the auditorium) can do more interesting things with the performers, who, not concerned with projecting into a 3,000-seat house, or even singing, can concentrate on acting their roles. Assuming, of course, that they can act!

1982. Rawnsley/Davies/McLaughlin; ENO; Elder. The English National Opera, which began life as Sadlers' Wells Opera, for many years was looked down upon as a sort of poor relation to The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Their mission required, and still does, that every production be sung in English; it also required, but no longer does, that the singers be English or, at least, from the Commonwealth. It was the ENO, in its original life as Sadlers Wells Opera, who gave the first performance of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. And the company, a few years later, introduced the operas of Janáček to opera lovers outside Czechoslovakia, and the few smaller German houses who performed them. Many of its company of singers went on to international fame, and many of the conductors who learned their craft in that house moved on to bigger and better appointments, among them the late Sir Charles Mackerras, and Sir Colin Davis. Jonathan Miller leapt to fame as one of the original quartet in the revue "Beyond the Fringe" which, after its Edinburgh Festival run, moved to London's West End and eventually to Broadway; Miller was in good company: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett (author of "The History Boys" and other plays). Miller gave up performing to pursue a medical career, but the stage called him back, and he directed a number of plays and operas, all of them updated from their usual time-periods. Rigoletto was transported from sixteenth-century Mantua to 1950s New York: at least that was a good reason why everyone should sing in English. The Duke becomes a Mafioso Don, which does give him a life-or-death power over his inferiors (which is better than Verdi's compromise), while Rigoletto is the bar-tender at the gang's club. All well and good until we see the gang-members (courtiers) with newspapers under their arms as if they were very proper London gentlemen riding to work on the Underground. Rigoletto's home is an apartment in a tenement building, complete, as it should be, with fire-escapes, but when the disguised Duke and Gilda sing their duet in the first act I fully expected them to break into "Tonight, tonight, won't be just any night", because that's what tenement lovers in New York City sang in the 50s: the proof is in "West Side Story"! Be warned: the Duke's last act aria, "La donna è mobile", is sung to a juke-box in Sparafucile's diner.

1984. Bruson/Shicoff/Gruberova; Santa Cecilia, Rome; Sinopoli. Giuseppe Sinopli was a most interesting conductor. Renato Bruson was one of the great Verdi singers at the time. Neil Shicoff, when he wasn't beset by assorted problems that affected his singing, could be glorious. Edita Gruberova developed from a high coloratura (i.e. what I would call a "canary" = just interested in high notes and all sorts of virtuosic vocal displays) into a more interesting performer, which would make the role of Gilda perfect for her.

1987. Nucci/Kraus/Serra; Parma; Campori. The Parmasan audiences have been notorious for expressing their displeasure with a singer. There is a story of a tenor who received such applause after his aria that he sang it again; and again; and again. Finally he pleaded with the audience to allow the performance to continue - after all, he had the rest of the opera to sing. A member of the audience shouted back that he would have to continue to sing the aria until he got it right!!!! The great Cornell MacNeill was involved in an incident there: the audience was unhappy with the soprano to such an extent that he yelled "Basta, cretini!" (Shut up, you idiots) and walked off; apparently he needed police protection to get back to his hotel that night and to the airport next day. And you thought Parma produced only ham and cheese!!! This dvd is very problematic, mostly because no allowances were made for the extra lighting that allows a theatrical production to be filmed, with the result that many scenes are peopled by mere shadows. And there are musical problems too. The only reason I include it is that Leo Nucci was a distinguished interpreter of the great Verdi baritone roles (though his facial distortions when he sang bothered me!) and I wanted to tell those cheesy/hammy stories!!!!

2001. Gavanelli/Alvarez/Schäfer; Covent Garden; Downes. Edward Downes was one of the most under-rated opera conductors of his generation. Covent Garden knew they had a treasure on their staff who could, and would, and did, conduct everything. So when they needed a new Musical Director they went for the more glamorous names; and that was their mistake! What was unmistakable was his connection with Verdi - he just knew how the scores should be played. I still remember an exciting performance of Aida there that was obviously meant to be just a regular repertory night. This dvd is taken from a performance of a new production directed by David McVicar.

2008. Lucic/Florez/Damrau; Dresden Opera; Luisi. Before Fabio Luisi became the heir-presumptive to James Levine at the Met., he was in charge of the Dresden Opera. This dvd derives from a performance there. For most of us the interest will be in the roles of Gilda and the Duke. Diana Damrau has triumphed in many roles at the Met, as has Juan Diego Florez. It's good to know that Florez has decided to drop the role of the Duke which is too heavy for his very lyric voice. It's nice to think, however erroneously, that we live in a classless society. Singers do not. Certain roles are suitable for certain voices, and woe betide the singer who sings above their station! The history of singing is littered with the vocal corpses of people who were dissatisfied with their own class and forced their voices into more dramatic territory. Let us hope that Florez sticks to the light lyric roles that suit his voice, and in which he has no equal.

2010. Domingo/Grigolo/Novikova; RAI; Mehta. Yes, you read correctly: the title role is sung in this film by Placido Domingo. Some years ago he sang the baritone title role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the Met and other places; besides, his tenor voice always had a rich baritonal quality in its lower range. This is a film, using what I presume to be as many of the original locations as possible - the Duke's palace is gorgeous. And that's the problem. Every setting is gorgeous. After he's been cursed, Rigoletto walks home along clean streets (even the beggars look clean!); his garden is well-tended and the house looks impressive; Sparafucile's tavern in the final scene could be a 16th-century equivalent of a Marriott Courtyard where Gilda gets to see the Duke and Maddalena through a pane-glass window, instead of through the crack in the wall the score asks for! Gorgeous too are the singers. Gorgeous is Julia Novikova as Gilda. Gorgeous is Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke. Gorgeous are the ladies and gentlemen of the court. Even Domingo isn't half-bad! Musically it is a clean, honest traversal of the score with, it seemed to me, not an ounce of passion. Judge for yourselves. The Musical Examples will connect you to the appropriate YouTube clips from this film. [See MUSIC GUIDE.]

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