Sunday, 31 March 2013

Reflections on Verdi's Rigoletto

Leonard Warren
Robert Merrill
Tito Gobbi

Ettore Bastianini

Reflections on Rigoletto

Well, I guess my recent interest in Otello has become a bit of obsession. Finally, my craving for the good, old Verdian melody led me to investigate my humble collection of recordings for one of his most melodic and most beautiful operas: Rigoletto. I have found all in all three recordings, I have listened to all of them – to some with pleasure, to some with exasperation, to some with rapture – and I have bought a wonderful book for the complete libretto which turned out to be much more than that. Here are some random thoughts of mine about this opera, these three recordings, and this lovely little book. And don’t be offended if you find some scathing remarks about a favorite singer of yours. It is just my personal opinion, it has nothing to do with you and it is not important, or at least should not be, for you.

I have always loved Rigoletto very much. It was one of the first operas I saw on the stage and it has always been one of the operas I most often listen to. Now, a number of years after the first time I heard it, I have found that my interest in it has grown to another level discovering that Rigoletto is more, much more, than just a feast of wonderful tunes. Now I get exasperated when people dismiss this masterpiece as an inferior work, something for newcomers to opera, something that contains too much melody and is far too popular to be considered as a serious work of art, let alone a masterpiece. And what a nonsense all that is! Not that I am not a newcomer to opera, certainly I am, but I do think Rigoletto will retain the special place in my heart it occupies now even when one day (if ever) I am no longer an opera neophyte. Anyway, should I be forced to choose only one opera by Verdi, only one opera at all, for my desert island exile, yes, I think I will go with Rigoletto. It has everything and is as close to perfection as possible. And please note, to settle that matter right away: it is an opera; it is no music drama at all, although it does contain a good deal of drama.

I may start my reflections with the book which I purchased because of the full libretto with an English translation, but which turned out to be so much more than that. This is, of course, Rigoletto: A guide to the opera, by the renowned Verdian expert Charles Osborne and with a foreword by no one else but Tito Gobby himself. The 1979 edition by Barrie & Jenkins looks like that:

On the dust jacket: Tito Gobbi and Renata Scotto (as Rigoletto and Gilda, of course).

My first meeting with Charles Osborne's writing – the liner notes to Karajan's EMI recording of Otello – was not a very pleasant occasion. But this book is really delightful. It's written in a charmingly witty and amusing style, it's lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photos of singers and sets, and it contains lots of extremely interesting information as well as a complete English translation of the libretto done by Charles Osborne himself.

Mr Osborne explores the history of composition, quoting extensively from Verdi's letters, the fighting with the authorities about this or that scene, the multitude of similarities between the libretto and its literary original by Victor Hugo (there is a wonderful comparison between the two versions of the famous soliloquy “Pari siamo”), and he surveys the performance history on both stage and record. The last section is the only disappointment; it is perfunctory in the extreme. Moreover, two of the recordings I will refer to later are not even mentioned and I really think they should have been. But this is a minor drawback completely redeemed by the book’s numerous merits. For knowledgeable and experienced opera buffs such a book, I guess, would be a somewhat boring read, but for an opera neophyte like myself it is really fascinating and that’s why I shall quote a lot from it.

(Extensive quotations may also be consulted in the postscript to my review on LT.)

Apart from the wonderfully clear and lucid translation of the libretto, the most wonderful part of the book was the one I did not in the least expect to like: the musical analysis. Charles Osborne goes through the whole opera and makes compelling observations in almost every paragraph. For my own part, the most astonishing thing was that many of the famous high notes in the opera, so much loved by singers and audiences alike, are actually missing in Verdi’s score. Is this really true? Well, I guess Mr Osborne, as a renowned Verdian expert, must know best. He says flatly that most of these show-off (and show-stopping usually) notes are mere interpolations and result of singers’ vanity. He gives a number of examples, and it was striking to read that some notes are a whole octave above what Verdi actually wrote. That seems a lot even for a person like me who has no idea of music theory. But the point remains: Verdi sought fine characterization, not show-off for singers. What a marvellous job he did in this department!

Rigoletto is, of course, not perfect. No opera is. Some scenes are ludicrously improbable, for example Rigoletto's leaving himself to be deceived by the court morons that they are going to steal, not his daughter, but countess Ceprano. And some characters are absurdly unreal and sometimes very exasperating. Gilda, for example, would hardly have any competition for the title "The stupidest girl in the world", and her all too conscious sacrifice for the man who has raped and left her for the next flirt looks pretty silly to me, to say the least. But one has to remember that Gilda is just a girl (16 years old or so) and a virgin (at least for Act 1 and part of Act 2) who has been brought up by his father in something very much like total seclusion. So she hardly has any idea of the world and how it works. So we, and by “we” I mean of course “I”, should not be surprised if she acts quite differently than any person with a little common sense would. Gilda’s famous “Gualtier Malde... Caro nome”, when sung flawlessly and with restraint, is an outstanding representation of virginal beauty. Pity that many sopranos sing it like “Sempre libera”...

How about the Duke? Is there a tenor who doesn’t adore this part? How many arias has he got? Let’s see… four, I think, although in some old recordings “Possente amor mi chiama” is cut. Why? No idea, but I guess some tender ears are offended by its lightness and... uh... obscenity? The same people are inclined to put “La donna è mobile” in the category of inferior stuff that has little if anything to do with great music. I still remember, and am vexed with, an eminent Bulgarian contemporary composer who flatly said that such music as “La donna è mobile” has no place at his music festival. What about “Questa o quella”, Mr. Know-All? Let’s throw it away too. Let’s throw the whole Rigoletto in the waste, it doesn't deserve the attention of the serious music lovers. What an arrant nonsense!

Charles Osborne finely says that “La donna è mobile” is perfectly in accordance with the character of the Duke and the situation on the stage and to dismiss the aria, or to complain of it as absolute music, is to misunderstand completely the art of opera. The Duke, after all, is a classic Don Juan: lecherous, fickle, certainly without superfluous amount of intelligence, determined to turn his life into a constant string of pleasures. All of his arias, the famous duet “È il sol dell’anima”, the more famous, the most famous actually, quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, all of his music in short, is a very fine example of masterful characterization which only a genius like Verdi could achieve.

But there is one odd moment in the Duke’s part, immediately recognised by Mr Osborne, in which it seems, at least at first glance, that Verdi lost the grasp of the character. This is the famous recitative and aria that open Act 2: “Ella mi fu rapita!... Parmi veder le lagrime”. Enchanting music (and text by Francesco Maria Piave) that sounds very much like somebody who is very much in love and isn’t that quite out of character for a woman-eating monster like the Duke whose only goal as far as women are concerned is to go to bed with them? The most reasonable explanation for giving such a rake such a heartfelt music is that he honestly mistakes his lust for love. (By the way, is there any difference between them? I'm not sure there is.) Well, you are at perfect liberty to dismiss me as an odious cynic, but I believe you would agree with me that the only chance for the Duke to achieve what he wants is to be perfectly sincere. So he is. Whether one calls it love or lust is of no consequence at all. The Duke honesty believes his feelings are genuine; he has no idea that after having gone to bed with a certain young lady once or twice all these feelings shall vanish into thin air. The women he seduces may not be very smart, but they have keen instincts and would immediately sense any insincerity. He may succeed with one or two, but with number three he wouldn’t reach the bed if he is not entirely sincere. His charm is so devastating and his conquests so successful because he is always 100 percent sincere about his feelings – at least until after the coitus.

By giving his character so enchanting an aria of a man in love, Verdi not only didn’t lose the grasp of the character, but he improved it a great deal. He made it much more coherent and believable. He made it as finished as any character of the proverbial rake can be.

But the real gem in Rigoletto, the real masterpiece inside the masterpiece, is Rigoletto himself. The opera couldn’t have been named more appropriately. Here is a character of real complexity. Rigoletto must surely be among the most finely drawn of all opera characters, “burnt in music” as Bernard Shaw memorably described it. He is a bundle of incongruous feelings, passions and obsessions. Unfortunately, in the brilliance of his characterization lies also his curse; quite a different one than Monterone’s but no less damning. Because Rigoletto is an almost impossible role. Mere talent won’t do here. The part needs not only an exceptional voice, but great acting skills too; it needs a singer-actor possessed of that rare quality of the soul: genius. I can't even imagine how anybody on the opera stage can do justice to both the vocal and the acting side of the character. And on recordings he must act with his voice, which leads to one important caveat. The acting Rigoletto requires is so difficult to reconcile with the singing that those who attempt the Jester, on stage as well as on record, quite often simply leave out the music almost completely. This leads to abominable histrionics and kills one of Verdi’s greatest melodic achievements.

I think Rigoletto must first be sung and then acted. After all, if Verdi wanted lots of sobbing and crying in the famous plead in Act 2, he would not have written such a wonderful music, would he? As I said in the beginning, Rigoletto is by no means a music drama. It is an opera and one with melodic richness and beauty that are hardly matched by any other. Can you imagine that the Milan and London critics in the middle of the nineteenth century complained about lack of melody?! What on earth did they mean? If there ever was an opera with lots of memorable, beautiful and extremely well integrated into the characters and the action melodies, that surely is Rigoletto. So keeping the melodic line will be the first and the strongest criterion in judging the three recordings I have listened to. But I must point out again: beautiful singing with fantastic high notes does not at all exclude acting with the voice and the perfect result, or at least the closest one to perfection, must be sought in the perfect symbiosis of both. Most critics would surely disagree with me. As if I cared!

Let’s listen to some music now. While reflecting on these recordings, I will pay most attention to the part of Rigoletto but will try not to neglect the other principals. In any case, I will not discuss Sparafuciles and Maddalenas. The opera has several wonderful orchestral episodes although its main strength no doubt lies in the vocal parts. So here are three alternatives. Not surprisingly, the newest of them is from the early 1960s.

Rigoletto – Tito Gobbi
Gilda – Maria Callas
The Duke – Giuseppe di Stefano
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro della Scalla Milano / Tullio Serafin.

Brilliant re-issue of a 1986 remastering of the 1955 EMI recording produced by Walter Legge; sound engineer Robert Beckett. Mono sound.

Well, there is no point in beating about the bush. I simply cannot stand this recording. I don’t care it is a classic, I don’t care how highly praised it is by the Gramophone critics, I don’t care about the millions and millions fans of Callas or Gobbi. For my own part, the only acceptable things in this recording are Giuseppe di Stefano and Tullio Serafin. And they are not at their best, either. No one loves Pippo’s voice more than I do. But he sounds tired here, uninspired and bland. Which is regrettable because I think the part of the Duke is perfect for him. Perhaps he just had a few bad days; it happens to everybody from time to time. Tullio Serafin suffers mostly from bad sound. The mono is OK, although in 1955 DECCA were already making very nice stereo efforts, but the sound is distinctly poorer than the mono of the famous Tosca with Victor de Sabata two years earlier. Very strange, because this justly legendary recording of Puccini's masterpiece in superb sound was also produced and recorded by Legge and Beckett, respectively.

All these are minor drawbacks and were it not for Callas and Gobbi they would have fallen into oblivion. It is not the problem that I don't like Callas' timbre. In the aforementioned Tosca she is so fine dramatically that I not only endure her ugly voice but even like it. And speaking of timbre, like it or not, hers is far from suitable for the virginal quality essential for Gilda. Callas’ interpretation does not help the matter, either. She ruins the music, rather than creates a character. I couldn’t agree more with Charles Osborne that she is simply a miscast.

But I couldn’t disagree more with Mr Osborne about Tito Gobbi. He may have been the greatest Rigoletto of his time all right, but what he did in this 1955 studio recording remains – for my own part, I repeat! – total perversity. The problem is not that his voice is not in its best shape and his high notes are shaky. The problem is the histrionics. Matchless inflection of the text, the critics say. My eye! Matchless assassination of great music, if not Rigoletto’s character, that’s it! Tito Gobbi must have been great to watch on the stage, but on record he kills the music completely. And for me no dramatic inflection of the text can save this. Because Rigoletto is not Otello, after all.

In short, a recording which I find very hard to endure and simply impossible to enjoy.

Rigoletto – Robert Merrill
Gilda – Anna Moffo
The Duke – Alfredo Kraus
RCA Italiana choir and orchestra / Georg Solti.
1963 RCA recording remastered for this re-issue. Enhanced CD that contains full libretto with translations in English, French and German and can be viewed on every PC.

This one is much better to endure and even possible to enjoy, to some extent at least.

I have always loved the deep and dark voice of Robert Merrill and he is in fine form here, although not as fresh as in his 1956 recording with Bjoerling and Peters. And he is so much more musical than Gobbi’s hysterical outbursts. Unfortunately, his voice is not powerful and versatile enough for such a monstrous part as Rigoletto. Robert Merrill is a very intelligent singer, he knows his limitations and is very convincing within them. But his pronunciation is good rather than excellent, and his vocal acting is superb but shallow in scope. Overall, he is fine but not moving. His Rigoletto is essentially a broken man, victim of his vendetta, not just by accident as it is, but by his own weakness and fear of it. Robert Merrill remains a simply unsurpassed Figaro for me, but a mediocre, rather frightened and devoid of passion, Rigoletto. Much better than Gobbi, yes, but not at all good enough.

Alfredo Kraus is precisely the type of tenor I really don’t like: oily voice, sugary singing, far too much elegance and far too less passion. But the role of the Duke seems to fit such voice to perfection. And Kraus has all the notes all right, even if his voice is somewhat weak. In this particular role, his elegance and polish sound extremely persuasive, including the illusion of sincerity in “Parmi veder le lagrime”. Much as I dislike his voice and manner in general, I think he can hardly be bettered in this part and he is as close to the perfect interpretation as anyone could possibly be. His laughter in “Questa o quella” is the most natural I have ever heard in opera; it should be noted that it is exactly in the right place. I wonder if Verdi specified this in the score?

Anna Moffo is the greatest disappointment here. And that’s very strange indeed. She has a lovely voice, the right one for Gilda, and she seems to know how to use it. And yet, she is dull all the way – from “Mio padre” until “Lassu in ciel”. Her duets with Rigoletto, no doubt some of the high points in the opera (has it got any other points but high ones?) are astonishingly lifeless. So is her “Caro nome”; technically nearly flawless, but cold and detached. I don’t know exactly what is wrong with her, but it is something really serious.

As for Solti’s conducting, I have my usual experience with it: I like it immediately and immensely, I am quite impressed by it, but I cannot love it. The sound is excellent and the dynamic range is dangerous for the speakers. Sir Georg does have some sense of drama and can, occasionally, be very effective, like the orchestral explosion when Rigoletto confesses his real relationship with Gilda to the courtiers: “Io vo’ mia figlia!” But just a few minutes later, when Monterone passes on his way to the prison, he blasts the brass and obscures the strings, and so manages very well to be loud at the expense of the drama.

Rigoletto – Ettore Bastianini
Gilda – Renata Scotto
The Duke – Alfredo Kraus
Coro e orchestra di Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / Gianandrea Gavazzeni.

1960 recording for Ricordi and Mercury Living, re-issued here on CD with abominable sound: stereo, obviously with fine dynamic range and spectacular bass, but the orchestra sounds as if it were in the basement; fortunately, the voices are much better. (Greatly superior remastering is now available.)

Well, this is it. This is definitely my favourite recording of Rigoletto and the closest approximation to definitive interpretation of this lovely opera I can imagine. Not only is there no weak point in the principals, but all of them are perfect for their roles and captured in their absolute prime. Too bad for the orchestral sound because Gianandrea Gavazzeni is a fine conductor I like very much. He doesn’t have Solti’s bombastic sound, but he is much better balanced and consistent throughout the whole opera. He certainly has a keen eye for dramatic detail, too. Kraus is as excellent as he is in the aforementioned recording. Scotto is in lovely voice, I think she was not yet thirty at the time. She sounds exactly as Gilda should sound: fresh but innocent, tender but passionate. Her diction is exemplary and only seldom a slight shrillness in the highest register detracts a bit from the perfection of her rendition.

But Scotto, as well as Kraus and Gavazzeni, pale in comparison with Ettore Bastianini. He is in glorious voice here, two years before the terrible cancer diagnosis and seven years before his untimely death at 44. What a voice that is! Ettore seems to have everything: ringing top notes, steady and dark low ones, astonishing legato and fabulous diction. Not just every word and phrase, every vowel and every consonant are clearly pronounced. His is the most musical Rigoletto and this is the reason why it is by far my favourite. I don’t care that the Gramophone critic doesn’t like it, I don’t care that Charles Osborne doesn’t even mention it in his book (although there is a photo!), I don’t care that the so-called “connoisseurs of opera” despise him.

But it is not just a beautiful voice. The most extraordinary thing about Ettore Bastianini is that he can act with his voice without breaking the melodic line for a single second. He achieves everything only with his voice and Verdi’s music. No sobs, no cries, no ridiculous inflections of the text, no histrionics at all. Just voice. And melody. And every word with its meaning.

Take for example the famous scene with the courtiers in Act 2, surely some of the greatest twenty minutes in all opera: from “Povero Rigoletto!” until the tremendous “Sì, vendetta, tremenda vendetta”. It starts with an exemplary “La rà, la rà, la rà” which doesn’t need to be distorted until one can hardly recognise it to be effective and grief-stricken behind its apparent lightness. The exchange of ironic remarks with Marullo and company is restrained but finely articulated and in the right mood. The famous “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” is staggering! I have never heard it so powerful in its anger, yet so beautifully shaped as music. Absolutely the same is true for Rigoletto's plead “Ah! Ebben, piango”. Restrained, without any false, unmusical sounds, yet deeply moving at the same time.

The following scene with Gilda is also something to marvel at. Listen to Bastianini's singing line in “Ah! Solo per me l’infamia” and in “Vendetta” when his voice trembles with anger and indignation, with furious rage actually, and yet the melody reigns supreme and every word falls in its place. Listen to the change in his voice when he addresses his daughter: “Piangi, fanciulla, piangi”. It becomes tender and caressing, clearly expressing the fatherly love, and the following duet is a perfect example of beautiful singing without the cacophony-like mess that usually happens on other recordings. The same is true for the other duets between Gilda and Rigoletto, in Act 1 and Act 3, immediately before her death. I never cease to be astonished how amazingly well both the music and the text in Rigoletto work together without any unmusical additions. Listen to Bastianini’s perfect phrasing and how he sustains the long melodic line in, for example, “Ah, veglia, o donna, questo fiore”. Just listen to it. Unbelievable singing! I listen and simply can’t believe my ears that such musical perfection and profound characterization are possible at all, let alone at the same time.

The favourite remark of the critics is that Bastianini is not a subtle singer. I would like to ask those for whom English is mother tongue to explain to me what on earth these people mean when they use the adjective “subtle” referring to singers and singing? Please, explain to me. If one has brilliant top notes, he can’t have fine interpretation of a complex character? If one refuses to distort the music with hideous histrionics, he is not a subtle singer?

There is not a single note misplaced in Ettore's performance, including the terrific high ones in the “Pari siamo” that so outraged the august Gramophone critic. Both his sneering in Act 1, “Voi congiuraste...” for example, and his grief in the finale – “Non morire, mio tesoro, pietade!” – as well as his most passionate plead with the courtiers to return his daughter to him – “Ridonarla a voi nulla ora costa, tutto al mondo tal figlia è per me” – are so devoid of any hammy nonsense, so very different from everything else I have ever heard in this role, that it really is unbelievable to hear them. It’s like hearing and discovering Rigoletto for the very first time. It’s like suddenly discovering a masterpiece equal to the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling into your own office where you’ve been working every day for years and yet never noticed such a thing. And this is the only way to discover how beautiful and great and powerful Verdi’s music really is.

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