When Verdi’s Rigoletto finally premiered at Venice’s La Fenice in 1851, Verdi’s go-to baritone, Felice Varesi had to be shaken out of his stage fright by the composer himself, who literally gave him a kick in the pants and a shove onto the stage so that Varesi could make his first entrance and utter his first line: “In testa che avete, Signor di Ceprano?”
Since then, baritones have been putting stage fright aside, avoiding being shoved on stage, and actually lining up to test their mettle with Verdi’s great creation.
The first recording of this opera made and issued in the era of the long playing discs would be, to the best of my knowledge, Leonard Warren’s 1950 RCA album, which this writer sort of grew up with, listening to and showering while singing La donna e mobile along with Jan Peerce. Since then, there have been historical re-issues with Cesare Formichi, Giuseppe Danise, Riccardo Stracciari, and Lawrence Tibbett in the title role, and beyond those vintage “oldies” several mid-to-late 20th century recordings sung mostly by Italians, of which some were great Verdians, notably Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Ettore Bastianini, Rolando Panerai, Piero Cappuccilli, Renato Bruson, Giorgio Zancanaro, Leo Nucci, and Paolo Gavanelli.
Before and after Warren, other Americans: Lawrence Tibbett, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes and Cornell McNeill attempted the climb up this Mount Everest of Baritone Roles with various degrees of success. Singers of other nationalities stepped up to the plate, ranging from the Italianate sounding Rumanian baritone Nicolae Herlea, who sang it very well, to the light-voiced German Lieder specialist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had a go at it and should not have.
What’s all the fuss with all the nationalities, anyway? Well, from my POV, the title role of Rigoletto, perhaps more than any other Verdi baritone part we can think of, presents to its singer a set of demands that seem to be more easily met by native speakers of the Italian language, comfortable with that elusive term of Verdi’s: la parola scenica – the sung word or better, the scenic word.
A great deal of the role of Rigoletto is written in parlando utterances – half-spoken, half sung phrases that lie smack in that middle-range of C to B of the bass clef often neglected by baritones who just want to focus on the E-F-F#-G “money notes” that earn bravos from the clique in the upper reaches of the theatre. If you are a baritone and you want to sing Rigoletto, start by studying the second scene of the first act, when the jester meets Sparafucile and never goes above an Eb, and assimilate what Verdi is up to.
Verdi further raises the bar by giving the singer of this role long stretches of cantilena in the golden area of the baritone voice, for which the requirements are a good pair of lungs, clarity of vocal emission on any of the seven Italian vowels: A, E (open and closed), I, O (open and closed) and U, and seamless legato. Simple, isn’t it?
Ah, but there’s more. The part is not all that high, as Verdi baritone parts go. There’s a written F# or Gb here and there, an optional G and Ab (neither written by Verdi), but the tessitura ranges from medium high in the duets with Gilda to mostly middle-of-the-range writing elsewhere.
However, the baritone who signs on for this role better have a full palette of vocal colors and a a talent for inflecting into his sound a full gamut of emotions: biting sarcasm in the opening scene, heart-rending tenderness in the duets with Gilda, thundering anger in the Cortigiani aria in Act II. Oh, and by the way, some good acting would be greatly appreciated, which brings us round to Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s recording of Rigoletto.
Strategically issued ten days ago (November 10, 2017) by Delos, the handsomely packaged, beautifully annotated double CD shows the Siberian baritone in remarkably fine form. This is his first recording of Rigoletto, having earned his stripes with Renato (Ballo in Maschera), with Simon Boccanegra, and with Di Luna (Il Trovatore).
Hvorostovsky uses his trademark Verdi baritone “snarl” to great effect in his brief confrontation with Monterone, sung trills and all, as specified by Verdi. He then puts the cupo lid on to tamper down his trademark brilliant resonance in the encounter with Sparafucile, where at times he sounds as much like a bass as the impressive basso profundo Andrea Mastroni.
Pari siamo is delivered in a chilling, no-holds barred way, with the final high G on Ah no e follia as rock-solid as any we’ve heard. The two big duets with Gilda have Hvorostovsky sounding as fresh-voiced as if this recording had been made twenty years ago. It wasn’t. The dates of the recording sessions of this album are July 1-9, 2016. So, for those wondering about the state of the vocal health of this singer after a career-stopping bout with a brain tumor, here’s the news: he sounds as good as ever. No, better. The gravitas, the style, the masterful way with iconic phrases like “culto, famiglia, la patria…” or “Veglia, o donna, questo fiore…” are unimpeachable.
The Lithuanian team of engineers, led by producers Vilius Keras and Vytautas Kederys renders a top notch recording: the sound immediate, clear, unencumbered. The City of Kaunas Orchestra and the men of the Kaunas State Choir, under the unflaggingly energetic baton of Constantine Orbelian bring out all the Italian flair and all the subtleness of Verdi in an arresting recording.
In the principal roles, Nadine Sierra is a bright-voiced, stylish Gilda, neither in the big-girl mold of Sutherland and company nor in the songbird tradition of so many a Susanna who would be a Gilda. She sings a lovely Caro nome and holds her own in the duets with both Hvorostovsky and tenor Francesco Demuro, who sounds a bit light for the role, especially when heft and drama are called for, as in the second act’s Parmi veder le lagrime.
The supporting roles are well cast: Andrea Mastroni sounds marvelous and is both insinuating and enticing as Sparafucile. Oksana Volkova is a fine Maddalena, Kostas Smoriginas an impressive Monterone.
But this is, let’ be honest, the baritone’s show and Hvorostovsky walks away with it.
Rafael de Acha