on 27 April 2012
This is a wonderful recording. You can tell from his first entrance that Tito Gobbi loved to sing Verdi's Rigoletto. Di Stefano is dead right for the Duke - though, to be picky, I always find his very top notes too thin and white. Callas is gorgeous and even tones herself down for the innocent daughter of the jester.
However, beware that there are some annoying cuts: part of the Rigoletto/ Gilda duet "Veglia o donna" and the Duke's cabaletta "Possente amor", but to hear Gobbi's close mic mezzavoce during "Piangi fanciulla" is worth the cost alone. Sure, he hams it up a bit at times, but who cares? He revelled in his art and he was a one-off interpreter of the great baritone roles.
NB: while this recording is a winner in any form, the following review is for the superior Pristine Audio issue in remastered Ambient Stereo, unavailable on Amazon. I note that some reviewers do not like what EMI have done in their more recent remastered issues, whereas Pristine have done their usual impeccable job.
My MusicWeb colleague Göran Forsling has provided a fine comparative survey of the four mono recordings from the 50’s and concluded that this EMI issue always had the best recorded sound, the quality of performance notwithstanding. However, this Pristine remastering into Ambient Stereo gives it even more of an sonic edge and the opportunity to appreciate afresh just how good the singers here are; its warmth and depth confer renewed presence and immediacy on proceedings, while minor irritations and blemishes have been minimalised by Andrew Rose.
Fortunately they are accompanied by a conductor, chorus and orchestra entirely immersed in the Verdian idiom, providing ideal support. Serafin does nothing eccentric or flashy but simply knows how this music should go and does it, giving his singers plenty of time to make their points without undue self-consciousness.
Little more can be said about the principals which has not already been observed in the sixty or so years since its issue after the miraculously busy recording year of 1955. For some Di Stefano for all his élan, is a touch crude and shouty and the too open vowels presage troubles to come, but his is a highly energised, winning assumption with many splendid moments. Gobbi’s voice might have been a little lean in tone for the ideal Verdi baritone but his range of colour and expression is miraculous; no singer since has so completely embodied this most complex of characters. Even Taddei, Warren or Milnes, all of whom are evidently deeply immersed in their portrayals and had more conventionally apt voices with stronger upper extensions, could not rival Gobbi for involvement. It might be true that Callas was not naturally suited to the role of Gilda but she was such a consummate vocal actress and technician that she entirely convinces as the waif whose obsessive love imbues her with a will of iron – enough to defy her father and sacrifice her life for a rake. Her downward portamento remains a thing of ineffable beauty. All three singers live their parts, providing a thoroughly satisfying synthesis of music and drama.
The supporting cast is splendid, especially Zaccaria’s saturnine Sparafucile. Lazzarini is not the most compelling or individual of mezzo-sopranos to record Maddalena but she is much more than adequate.
This restoration and revitalisation from Pristine ensures that the current generation can hear what remains, despite the cuts standard for the time, artistically the most complete “Rigoletto” on record. The only drawback is that a libretto must be accessed elsewhere.
For a more modern recording, and if you prefer their voices, I recommend the Bonynge on Decca, with Sutherland, Pavarotti and Milnes in finest form; see my review.