Riccardo Frizza’s Excellent New “Rigoletto”

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2021VERDI: Rigoletto / Antonio Garés, tenor (Borsa); Javier Camarena, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Luca Salsi, baritone (Rigoletto); Roman Kyulkin, bass (Monterone); Davide Piva, baritone (Count Ceprano); Rosalia Cid, soprano (Countess Ceprano); Alessio Cacciamani, bass (Sparafucile); Enkelena Kamani, soprano (Gilda); Valentina Corò, mezzo (Giovanna); Francesco Samuele Venuti, baritone (Marullo); Caterina Piva, mezzo (Maddalena); Florence May Festival Chorus & Orch.; Riccardo Frizza, conductor / Dynamic CDS 7921.02 (live: Florence, February 23, 2021)

There are two schools of thought on the constant mounting of operas a century or more old over and over and over again. One, of course, is that audiences love these pieces because they’re like old friends; they can mentally hum the tunes as they come along, listen to hear if the singers can hit all the high notes, clap for the good high notes and either ignore or boo the bad ones. For these people, opera is not sung drama. It is a form of entertainment on the same level with My Fair Lady, Brigadoon or Cats.

The other school of thought is that, if you are going to perform one of these older works, you might as well do it right. Sing and conduct the music the way it’s written, not the way “tradition” dictates with lots of added high notes, and try to bring some real dramatic feeling to the proceedings. That is what conductor Riccardo Frizza and his mostly excellent cast have done here.

The two “star” names in this cast are tenor Javier Camarena as the Duke of Mantua and baritone Luca Salsi, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, in the title role. Albanian soprano Enkelena Kamani is an entirely new name to me. She has a bit of a flutter in the voice but not a real wobble; her voice is similar to that of Ileana Cotrubas but somewhat brighter on top. Alessio Cacciamani, who sings Sparafucile, has a wonderfully dark bass voice, perfect for the role. Only Valentina Corò, as Maddalena, is problematic, but she has the least to sing of all five principals. The smaller roles are, to my ears, very well filled.

By and large, Frizza’s conducting is a bit on the slow side, but not too much to be worrisome in the long run. He does build up the orchestral prelude—one of the finest things in the score—to a monumental forte, as he should, and there is an undercurrent of tragedy and menace in the playing of the orchestra in addition to superb inner instrumental detail. He also gets just the right sound and feel from the offstage band in the opening scene, which of course is jolly because the Duke is just a bundle of chuckles, hitting up on women in the court and not caring who they’re married to. Camerena is in excellent voice, as he usually is, and the Borsa (Antonio Garés) also has an excellent voice, almost lead-tenor quality. Camerena also sings “Questo e quella” exactly as written, with one small section near the end quite different from the way we usually hear it. Our Countess Ceprano, however, has a pretty punk voice, nothing to write home about. Salsi has a surprisingly malleable voice, combining mellowness and metal, sort of a cross between Thomas Hampson and Leonard Warren (yes, I know, an odd combination, but that’s what he sounds like). “Traditional” Italian opera lovers will probably complain that his interpretation is too nuanced and subtle, not sung “out” enough, but that is exactly what fascinated me about him. Basso Roman Kyulkin has a slow vibrato but also an appropriately dark and powerful voice as Monterone. Between the subtle dramatic nuances of Salsi and Frizza’s superbly detailed and often powerful conducting, the dramatic portion of this first scene goes much, much better than usual, imparting a truly menacing feeling through Verdi’s music. I think the composer would have been quite pleased by this reading.

Salsi continues his dramatic subtlety into the duet with Sparafucile, in which the darkness of the wind playing feeds into the mood. An interesting detail in Salsi’s singing of “Pari siamo”: at the very end, when he sings “Ah, no! É follia!,” he hits the high note in “follia” softly instead of belting it out. This sent me to the score to check whether or not this is written. Much to my surprise, although there is a fermata over the penultimate note (indicating that it be held longer than the written double-dotted half note), there is NO indication of dynamics and, more surprisingly, the note is just an E and not the high G that every baritone on Planet Earth interjects at this point (see below). Interesting.

Pari siamo ending

There are moments when Salsi’s voice spreads a little under pressure, which from a strictly vocal standpoint I found disconcerting, but his vocal malleability and keen dramatic insight kept me listening to hear how he was going to sing every part of his role. And, from a strictly dramatic standpoint, he never once disappointed me. On the contrary, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat wondering how he was going to sing the next section, and the next, and the one after that. Not a perfect vocalist, then, but an intelligent one.

Being a live performance, Kamani is at her most fluttery in her entrance music, and the voice is not a very pretty one, but she is a very musical singer if not as characterful as her father, and by the time she reaches the second half of this duet her voice has warmed up. I also liked the fact that Kamani’s voice leans more towards lyric and is less of a light “coloratura.” (Toscanini was on the right track when he wanted more of a lyric soprano as Gilda, but way off the beam when he chose a dramatic spinto like Zinka Milanov.) Personally, I’ve always felt that this duet was not only too frivolous in its musical mood but too long for its own good. A tauter structure and less tunefulness would have worked wonders, but Verdi was trying to please audiences at this point in his career and there is no question that this duet is a crowd-pleaser in terms of tunes. The same, of course, goes for “É il sol dell’anima,” but what the heck. That’s what he wrote and we’re stuck with it. I was, however, curious about the slow tempo and broad rubato effects at the beginning of the latter. Checking the score, I saw where Verdi marked this passage cantabile, but did not indicate any particular slow-downs, thus I assume that this was an artistic choice of the conductor in order to defuse the metronomic pace of the duet.

Indeed, you’re going to find all kinds of surprises in this performance in terms of the pacing and shaping of the music as well as “missing” high notes. Some you may like very much, some you may not, but nearly all the differences you hear are actually IN THE SCORE. So if you don’t like  it, complain to Verdi. The ending of the first act is also much more chipper music than I think this scene deserved, another demerit for Verdi.

Act II opens with “Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi, veder le lagrime,” not only a superfluous aria but a completely insincere one. The Duke of Mantua never has such tender feelings for anyone he rapes; if he did, he wouldn’t rape them. A nd then there’s “Possenti amor mi chiamo,” just a peppy little show-off aria, sound and fury signifying nothing. “Cortigianni, vil razza dannata” os, of course, another matter entirely, and this Salsi sings with both great drama and great sensitivity, and there are also less high notes in this aria than you normally hear. “Tutta la feste” also goes well, with Kamani sounding vulnerable and Salso sounding fatherly and tender. And look, boys and girls! There are NO high notes for either soprano or baritone at the end of “Si, vendetta,” and the duet is all the more dramatically effective because there are no high notes.

In Toscanini’s two performances of Act II of this opera, he did not allow tenor Jan Peerce to sing the high B at the end of “La donna è mobile,” but he did allow him to sing the florid cadenza. It turns out that neither is in the score, so Camarena sings neither here, and the aria is, again, more dramatically effective because of this. The quartet opens just a shade slow for my taste, but the tempo gradually picks up. All but Piva sound wonderful in it, and again, there are no high notes for anyone at the end. One small disappointment: Frizza does not really build up the storm scene as well as other conductors have (among them Bonynge, Gavazzeni and Toscanini). Rigoletto does not take the unwritten high note in the scene where he wonders who is in the sack; the Duke sings his written high B in the reprise of “La donna è mobile” and also sings the written diminuendo at the end of it.

I should also mention that I was very happy that they managed to keep the audience from breaking out into applause in the middle of the acts. Yes, if you’re in the opera house and you feel compelled to reward a singer for giving a great interpretation of a particular scene, it’s human nature to applaud, but for repeated home listening I prefer not having it. But here was another surprise: at the end of the opera, we do hear the expected applause, but it’s only a couple of dozen people and you hear the string players tapping their bows against their instruments. Thus I must assume that, although the performance was definitely recorded “live” (you can hear the choristers stomping around the stage here and there), it was probably the dress rehearsal and not the actual stage performance.

In short, this is not a perfectly sung Rigoletto—even Salsi has some moments of vocal infirmity—but it is a great performance because it is so dramatic that it overcomes even some (but not all) of those rat-a-tat rhythms in the score. In terms of Rigoletto as sung drama, this one has it all over every other performance and recording I’ve ever heard.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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