Bastianini’s “Rigoletto” – One More Time

 

VERDI: Rigoletto / Alfredo Kraus, ten (Duke of Mantua); Ettore Bastianini, bar (Rigoletto); Enzi Guagni, ten (Borsa); Silvio Maionica, bs (Monterone); Renata Scotto, sop (Gilda); Ivo Vinco, bs (Sparafucile); Clara Foti, mezzo (Giovanna); Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Maddalena); Virgilio Carbonari, bar (Marullo); Giuseppe Moreni, bar (Count Ceprano); Florence May Festival Chorus & Orch.; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond / Urania WS121.394

This famous 1960 studio recording of Rigoletto was the second I owned on LP, and I loved Bastianini’s performance so much that I reluctantly gave up my Leonard Warren recording, a badly cut performance that was my introduction to the complete opera. (Not to worry; I’ve since acquired an even better 1945 live performance with Warren, singing with Bidú Sayão and Jussi Björling.) Although it was first issued in the U.S. on the Mercury label (see cover, right) it apparently didn’t last too long in their catalog, as neither did the Callas Medea. I bought it when it was on Everest. I eventually gave it up because, despite the excellent singing, the sound was shrill and the pressing quickly acquired hiss and crackle. Needless to say, Everest was a budget label and didn’t use the highest quality vinyl for their pressings.

As I’ve since discovered, this recording was also issued on LP by HMV, using the same cover photo as the original Mercury, and also by Deutsche Grammophon, who apparently acquired the rights to it c. 1962 when Renata Scotto recorded her La Traviata for them. I never saw or heard either of those pressings, either.

This is at least the fifth go-round on CD for this recording. The first was issued in 1993 by Ricordi (RROC 9339 1993), the second on BMG Classics 74321 68779 2 in 2006, the third by Urania in 2010 (again using the same cover photo as on the original Mercury LP) on 22.406, and the fourth on Andromeda ANDRCD9095 in 2014. The BMG (now Sony) pressing received the most complaints. In an effort to cut back on the shrillness of the original recording, BMG rolled back the top end so much that the orchestra sounded like a muddy mess behind the singers. Both Urania pressings, old and new, and the Andromeda performed miracles in reproducing a full-bodied sound.

But on to the performance itself. Gavazzeni, himself a composer, was often considered one of the best Italian opera conductors of the post-Toscanini era, and although there are some surprisingly lackluster moments, he does impart a certain amount of theatricality to the performance. Alfredo Kraus often came under attack for his naggingly bright tone, and sometimes deservedly so, but on this recording he sounds less offensive and is in much better voice than on the 1965 RCA recording with Moffo and Robert Merrill. His Duke sounds less affectedly friendly and charming than those of di Stefano or Pavarotti, which the Duke really should sound like (after all he, like Don Juan, is a seducer), but he does sound suave in a coldly calculating way, as did Björling. Bastianini is absolutely splendid as Rigoletto. In the dramatic moments he could sound properly menacing, in the early scenes the affectedly jolly jester. His was a miraculous voice, full and rich from top to bottom, at full voice or in sotto voce. If he doesn’t quite erase memories of Warren or Sherrill Milnes for chameleon-like shifts of mood and intensity, this difference is only evident if you make a side-by-side comparison. Compared to the losers we hear singing this role nowadays, he is a God. And for a man who didn’t know how to read music he, like Warren, was almost always scrupulous in his musicality and note-values.

One of the things I liked about Scotto’s Gilda was the way she conveyed innocence and vulnerability with a voice that was then just on the cusp of opening up in size. By the time she made her 1962 DG Traviata, the voice was growing and, to my ears, at a perfect balance between her earlier soprano leggiero self and her later voice, which did indeed expand in size but to the detriment of vocal quality, becoming overly shrill and grating. Her performance here ranks with those of Gertrude Ribla (in the Act II she recorded with Toscanini), Maria Callas and Margherita Rinaldi (in her now rare 1976 recording of the opera for Acanta) as among the very few in which lyric soprano power is wedded with soubrette-like brightness and sheen. Curiously, the year before (1959) Scotto recorded a complete Lucia di Lammermoor with Bastianini and Giuseppe di Stefano, and on that recording her singing, though very pretty, is rather cold and unfeeling compared to this Gilda.

Indeed, as the performance rolls along one is continually caught up in little details as well as the big picture. Although there are indeed moments when the orchestra sounds curiously unengaged dramatically (which was not usual with Gavazzeni…perhaps there were too many retakes for him to achieve a more organic musical flow), overall this is a surprisingly satisfying Rigoletto. Were this recorded in today’s digital sound with the same singers, I guarantee you that it would be considered an instant classic. Even the smallest roles here, e.g. Borsa, Monterone, Count and Countess Ceprano and Marullo, are sung by experienced Italian singers with excellent voices. There’s nary a wobble in sight, and every singer has crisp, understandable diction.

This recording is also notable for finally opening up two cuts made in the opera for generations: the full “Addio, addio” scene in Act II and “Possente amor mi chiamo” in Act III. Also, wonder of wonders, Scotto, with all her big ego, sings the correct lower note at the end of the famous quartet, ending it softly as Verdi instructed instead of belting it out an octave higher.

All in all, then, a satisfying performance in which all the singers work together to produce a unified view of the score and within which you have excellent performances by all the soloists but particularly by Bastianini. Which label you buy it on is up to you, however, as I could find no difference in quality between Urania and Andromeda.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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