Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Verdi: Rigoletto

Written in Missouri, of all places. Under my own extreme duress.

Published in the October 21st issue of the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Verdi: Rigoletto
Artist(s): Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Alfredo Kraus, Rosalind Elias, Ezio Flagella, David Ward, Georg Solti, RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Rigoletto has had many excellent recordings over the years. In the beginning of the LP era, it was one of the first complete operas produced, with the incomparable Leonard Warren in the title role. When stereo emerged, each label dutifully churned out its own star-studded Rigoletto, featuring such luminaries as Ettore Bastianini, Carl Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, and the like. And this trend has continued to the present. Rigoletto is one of the strongest warhorses of the recorded repertoire and will likely continue to be. Yet, surprisingly, in almost every recording of the opera, there is some obvious weak link.

Not so here. In Robert Merrill, we have the most glorious baritone voice of the postwar period—a dark and resonant instrument with ringing top notes and an unfailing sense of legato. Often criticized for ‘just singing’ and not adequately portraying his characters, Merrill’s performance here sweeps all such criticisms aside. His scenes with Gilda are tender, warm, and affectionate—entirely contrary to his nasty antics at the court of Mantua. Then witness his Cortigiani and Si, Vendetta, in which he unleashes his voice in righteous, paternal fury. And the moment when his daughter dies is crushing, not in the voice of a pathetic and deformed clown, but as a man overcome by grief in failing his greatest duty. To him, the hunchbacked jester is an almost noble character, twisted into viciousness by his infirmity. More than any other singer who has portrayed Rigoletto, he is utterly believable as a loving and vengeful father. It is truly his finest role.

Gilda is admirably cast as well. From a purely musical standpoint, Anna Moffo’s Gilda about as good as anyone could expect, with lovely, even tone from top to bottom, a seemingly perfect sense of phrasing, and not the slightest hint of vocal strain. Luckily, Gilda requires more musical skills than interpretive ones, though Ms. Moffo is not without some insight. Her Caro Nome is full of girlish longing. Similarly, her Tutte le Feste al tiempo tugs at one’s heart strings in just the right way—she is just so perfectly naïve and angelic, it seems nearly inevitable that someone will murder her.

Merrill’s Rigoletto and Moffo’s Gilda have few if any challengers, but the role of the Duke is another matter. Most every great tenor has taken a shot at the role, whether he was suited to it or not. Kraus succeeds admirably, though not without reservations. Frankly, his main weakness is that his reedy voice is not the equal of Pavarotti or Björling. But such comparisons are unfair—on his own terms, Kraus is a perfectly rakish Duke, full style, and may be summarized as an insightful study in shallowness. He is perhaps the most flippant Duke on record—in Ella mi fu Rapita, his ‘ardent’ longing for Gilda is expressed in almost irritated terms, like he’s lost a toy. La donna è Mobile is full of verve and swagger, clearly conveying the Duke’s irreverent attitude.

The chorus is handled very well, and the smaller parts are consistently well cast. Ezio Flagello’s Sparafucile is less illustrious than some (most notably Cesare Siepi), but serves very well, particularly in the final scene. David Ward is perhaps the best and most convincing Monterone on disc, in sonorous, commanding voice. And Rosalind Elias is very good indeed, injecting a great deal of character into the otherwise small role of Maddalena.

Solti’s conducting is very typical of the maestro. From beginning end, it’s loud, blaring hell on wheels, indulging in dynamic extremes and delivered with an orchestral sledgehammer. In Solti’s hands, Verdi’s claims of serving drama through music are well borne out. A lighter, more lyrical hand might be preferred in the opening party scene, but otherwise, it serves the taut drama of the opera perfectly.

RCA’s sonics are brain splitting. The balance between voices and orchestra is pleasingly theatre-like, so much that the performance sometimes sounds like an unusually good live recording.

In all, this is perhaps the most consistent and dramatic reading of Rigoletto ever committed to disc.

Highly recommended.

Rating: A

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