I am surprised to find myself recommending this whole-heartedly, even in comparison with the now legendary Gobbi-Callas-Di Stefano set or more recent favourites such as the Milnes-Sutherland-Pavarotti Decca version (not to all tastes, I know), but there are many strong reasons for my advocacy of this rather ancient Cetra recording.
First, the 1954 mono sound has now been immeasurably improved from earlier issues, when it was harsh and strident. It is now clean, with the voices well forward and offers little distortion in climaxes. Then we have the quality of both the singing and the conducting. Angelo Questa presided over many admirable Cetra recordings, including a very recommendable 1956 "Aida" with a young Corelli; here he directs a subtle, unfussy, wholly idiomatic performance with an orchestra and chorus who have the music and language in their blood.
Many collectors and opera buffs will want this recording for both Taddei at his best and Ferruccio Tagliavini, a tenore di grazia, famous for his honeyed mezza voce and head tones who nonetheless had steel in his tone when he needed it. The frequency with which he resorts to those quieter effects might take a modern listener, more used to the Pavarotti approach to this role - all brilliance and verve - a little by surprise - but it is musically and dramatically very effective and perhaps preferable to Di Stefano's more effortful delivery.
Taddei's characterisation is less biting than Gobbi's but richer of voice and just as subtle. He is very moving in his appeal to the courtiers and capable of powerful scorn, too; I love both his and Gobbi's assumptions. Pagliughi was then approaching the end of her career and is at times a mite breathless and tweety, and some runs are smudged, some top notes unsteady - but she is a skilled, experienced and affecting singer who effectively voices the naive Gilda, whereas Callas, wonderfully dramatic as she is, doesn't quite capture the quality of girlishness.
The all-Italian supporting cast, headed by the aptly-named, black-voiced Giulio Neri, is wholly idiomatic.
The test of any recording of "Rigoletto" is often in that wondrous last Act, and while this one doesn't quite match the thrill of the Serafin, it still sweeps the listener along with its relentless tension and the terrible pathos of its conclusion. If you had only one "Rigoletto", there is no reason why it should not be this one.
There are a few, brief cuts as was the standard practice at the time. No libretto.
on 3 January 2015
What can I say? This, in fine sound, is the best Rigoletto recorded. The warmth and pathos of the baritone Taddei is unequalled. The tenor Tagliavini is irresistible in his impetus and honeyed tones. The soprano Pagliughi a mistress of her role. Certainly the Di Stefano-Gobbi version is very drammatic and difficult to resist but somehow comes out less musically suave than this