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ClassicsOnline Home » VERDI: Rigoletto (Bjorling, R. Peters, Merrill) (1956)
When this 1956 recording of Rigoletto was first released in Britain, The Gramophone reviewer commented: “under Perlea, the orchestral playing is firm and dramatic, well balanced with the voice. The music is well paced. Björling’s tone is a constant pleasure. He sings elegantly. Merrill, too, is in fine voice: he sings the title rôle in correct and often impressive style… in short, this performance with Metropolitan stars offers an able, and therefore enjoyable performance of the opera”. Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill can also be heard together in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (Naxos 8.111030-31).
By David Denton
The temptation to make this reissue centres on Jussi Bjorling’s ardent portrayal of the Duke, though those who have forgotten Robert Merrill’s big and generous voice will be equally pleased to discover a Rigoletto that avoids the excesses often used to characterise the misfortunes of the tormented hunchback. At times he is in danger of overloading microphones, as we hear in his outbursts in the second act confrontation with the Courtiers. By comparison Bjorling’s virile voice makes Giuseppe di Stefano - on the Callas recording - sound a rather limp character, Bjorling’s Duke would readily sweep any female off of her feet. Yet in those moments when a liquid lyric quality is required, his voice is all chocolate and cream. Roberta Peters as Gilda goes through her big scenes with the artistry we would expect, but it is a very one dimensional personality the fast running passages missing the spine-tingling quality of the Callas recording on Naxos. Her Caro nome is a little self-indulgent, hanging onto high notes past Verdi’s requirements, but she hits them right in the centre. The smaller parts are sung by that Italian ‘rent a crowd’ who made so many discs at the time, and are well versed in Verdi. Throughoutthe recording the producer has encouraged the cast to act as well as sing and it was to very good effect. The big surprise will come with the playing of the Rome Opera Orchestra under Jonel Perlea. It has an impact never quite achieved by the La Scala outfit for the Callas recording, and I also very much enjoyed the chorus singing, the conspititor’s music at the end of the first act nicely handled. Perlea keeps the work thrusting forward at brisk tempos, his urging at times coming in very audible grunts that become obtrusive. The RCA sound engineering team gave the orchestra much presence, the resulting sound more than acceptable in modern terms, though Naxos’s transfer team could do nothing with the moments of overloading. By going past the 80 minute limit, the second disc has included four arias recorded by Merrill immediately following the opera recording but with Vincenzo Bellezza conducting. Again we can enjoy his unforced voice in Iago’s aria, Credo in un dio crudel, from the second act of Otello, though in each of four very differing Verdi characters, Merrill sounds to be exactly the same person.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901) Rigoletto
Rigoletto - Robert Merrill (baritone)
Gilda - Roberta Peters (soprano)
Duke of Mantua - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Maddalena - Anna Maria Rota (contralto)
Sparafucile - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
Count Monterone - Vittorio Tatozzi (bass)
Cavaliere Marullo - Arturo La Porta (baritone)
Matteo Borsa - Tommaso Frascati (tenor)
Count Ceprano - Leonardo Monreale (bass)
Countess Ceprano - Lidia Grandi (soprano)
Giovanna - Silvana Celli (mezzo-soprano)
Page of the Duchess - Santa Chissari (soprano)
A Herald - Andrea Mineo (baritone)
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus
(Luigi Ricci, assistant to the conductor)
(Giuseppe Conca, chorus master)
Jonel Perlea, conductor
By the mid-nineteenth century Giuseppe Verdi had written more than a dozen works for the stage and was by then an experienced composer. His interest in Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse dated back to the year 1849. He was particularly interested in the character of Triboulet, the court jester at the centre of the drama, a creation Verdi described as worthy of Shakespeare. The composer, having put aside the idea of an opera based on King Lear, wrote to Francesco Maria Piave, the poet and stage-manager of Teatro La Fenice in Venice, asking if he could compose a work for them. After various problems Verdi’s demands were agreed to in a contract dated 23 April 1850. In a letter to Piave, who eventually become Verdi’s librettist, the composer wrote: “Le Roi s’amuse is the greatest plot, perhaps the greatest drama of modern times”. The Austrian censors rejected the whole concept out of hand. The idea of an operatic version of Hugo’s play, under the title La maledizione (The Curse), was deemed immoral and obscene, the latter stricture lying chiefly in the fact that the plot deals with the unscrupulous activities of a profligate king.
Piave’s initial suggestion for changes did not satisfy Verdi. The idea that the King, Francis I, was to become a mere nobleman (the Duke of Ventignano), in addition to the removal of a plot to kill him, that the murdered Gilda’s body was not to be hidden in a sack and Triboletto, the original of Rigoletto, was not to be an ugly hunchback, was too much for the composer. Further negotiation with the authorities ensued, and more of Victor Hugo’s original was restored. The villain was to be Vincenzo Gonzaga, referred to simply as the Duke of Mantua, the deformity of the jester was permitted and there was no longer any objection to the sack. All these problems with the censors had resulted in further delay and frustration, but by the end of December 1850 the problems were near enough to a settlement to allow Verdi to proceed with the composition in time for the carnival season during the following March.
Verdi set to work in earnest and composed the opera Rigoletto over a period of forty days. The original cast had Teresa Brambilla, a 38-year-old, one of seven sisters who were well known on the operatic stage, as the first Gilda. The French-Italian baritone Felice Varesi, who had created the title rôle in Verdi’s Macbeth, was the first Rigoletto, and the part of the Duke was taken by the tenor Raffaele Mirati.
The opera was an immediate success with the public at its première in Venice on 11 March 1851, and was received equally well in Paris, where even Victor Hugo approved, and in 1853 in London. It remains one of the composer’s most popular and regularly performed works. Musically it marks a further advance in Verdi’s compositional style and the score abounds with subtle invention. All the principal characters have memorable arias with some important duets and a quartet in the final act. The Duke’s aria “La donna è mobile” could well lay claim to be one of the most popular ever written, and the overriding quality of the whole concept lies in the feel of the drama: Verdi himself described Rigoletto as a revolutionary work. Dramatically it covers evolving passion, black humour and a certain bizarre quality.
The summer of 1956 marked the third year in which RCA had recorded complete operas in Rome rather than New York. It had been brought about by escalating costs of recording in New York whereas in the Italian capital the company had a good base from which to operate (the Opera House) and the assisting singers were often those who lived and worked in the main Italian operatic centres at the time. The sessions for Rigoletto were spread over a period of fourteen days in June. Richard Mohr, the producer of the recording, was an experienced hand in the studio and had supervised an earlier version of the opera in New York in 1950. Both Robert Merrill and Robert Peters would each record a solo disc of operatic arias during their time in Rome. The only problem at that time with summer in Rome could be the excessive daytime heat and the lack of air conditioning.
When this recording of Rigoletto was first released in Britain in January 1958, The Gramophone reviewer (Philip Hope-Wallace) thought “under Perlea, the orchestral playing is firm and dramatic, well balanced with the voice. The music is well paced. Björling’s tone is a constant pleasure. He sings elegantly. Merrill, too, is in fine voice: he sings the title rôle in correct and often impressive style”. Of Roberta Peters he commented “she is a capable rather than an appealing Gilda”. Overall, Hope-Wallace summed up as “in short, this RCA performance with Metropolitan stars offers an able, and therefore enjoyable performance of the opera”. He did, however, highlight the many cuts in the score.
Brooklyn-born Robert Merrill (1917-2004) first studied with his mother, a former concert singer, then with Samuel Margolis and Angelo Canarutto. Following his stage début in 1943 as Amonasro in Aida in Trenton, New Jersey, he won the Metropolitan Opera Association Auditions of the Air, which was followed by his first appearance in that house in December 1945 as Giorgio Germont in La Traviata. It was here that the larger part of Merrill’s career was spent over a period of thirty years, appearing in nearly 750 performances of 21 rôles. He flirted briefly with Hollywood in the early 1950s before returning to the opera house. His repertoire included Enrico Ashton in Lucia di Lammermoor, Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rigoletto, both Silvio and Tonio in Pagliacci, Iago, Scarpia and Don Carlo in La forza del destino. Generally considered to have possessed one of the finest lyric baritone voices of his time, he also sang in opera in San Francisco (1957), Chicago (1960), Venice (1961) and London (1967). He recorded extensively, including many of the principal Verdi baritone rôles. His recordings on Naxos include Silvio in Pagliacci (8.110258), La Bohème (8.111249-50) and Manon Lescaut (8.111030-31).
The New York-born soprano Roberta Peters (b. 1930) began her music studies aged thirteen. Encouraged by tenor Jan Peerce, she studied with William Herman, who also insisted his pupil had French, German and Italian lessons. Her unscheduled début at the Metropolitan Opera was as a replacement for an ailing colleague on 17 November, 1950, singing Zerlina in Don Giovanni. In 1951 she sang the rôle of Arline in Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl at Covent Garden under Beecham. Her later rôles included Susanna, Despina, the Queen of Night, Rosina, Adina, Norina, Oscar, Nanetta, Olympia, Sophie, Zerbinetta, Adele, Amina, Lucia and Gilda. Peters also appeared in Chicago and San Francisco, where over the years, she expanded her repertoire to include rôles such as Lakmé, Juliette, Massenet’s Manon and Mimì. She continued to sing at the Metropolitan for 35 seaons, making more than 350 appearances. From the mid 1950s onwards, she appeared in several opera houses in Italy, the Salzurg Festival (1963-64) and the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow in 1972. Peters had an excellent presence and an attractive personality on stage. Later she moved into the recital hall, musical comedy and the popular Ed Sullivan Show on which she appeared on over fifty occasions. Her recordings include Rosina under Leinsdorf and the Queen of Night under Böhm. She also appeared in the film Tonight We Sing made in 1953.
The Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) was born in Stora Tuna in the district of Dalarna. As a boy he toured and recorded with the family quartet, in addition to visiting the United States (1916-26). His adult teachers were his father David, John Forsell (1928-30) and the Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop. He was a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm from 1930, making his début in the small rôle of the Lamplighter in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. His ‘official’ first appearance was as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni later that season. Two years later he began his international career in Germany, followed by Vienna (1936), Chicago (1937), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1938) and Covent Garden the following year. He continued to appear regularly in New York, except in the war years, until 1959. Björling was regarded as the foremost Italian-sounding tenor of his day in the spinto rôles of Puccini and Verdi, and he also excelled in French opera. His work was highly respected for its high artistic qualities, even if his acting ability was somewhat stilted and stiff. He recorded extensively from the mid-1930s until his early death in 1960. His poor health in later years was caused by heart problems. His ten complete operatic recordings include Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41), Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258), Manon Lescaut (Naxos 8.111030-31), La Bohème (Naxos 8.111249-50) and Aida (8.111042-44).
The Chicago-born bass Giorgio (originally George) Tozzi (b. 1923) began his vocal studies at the age of thirteen. As a biology student at De Paul University, he also continued instruction with Rosa Raisa, Giacomo Rimini and John Dagget Howell. He made his début in the baritone rôle of Tarquinius in the Broadway première of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in December 1948. The following year he appeared in London in the musical show Tough at the Top. He then went to Milan to study with Giulio Lorandi, moving down from baritone to bass before making his Italian début as Rodolfo in La Sonnambula at the Teatro Nuovo, Milan. He sang Stromminger in Catalani’s La Wally at La Scala in 1953 before making his first Metropolitan appearance as Alvise in La Gioconda in March 1955. He would sing at this house until 1975 by which time he had given almost four hundred performances of 37 rôles: these included Ramfis, Pimen, Boris, Philip II, Daland, Pogner, Hans Sachs and Rocco. Tozzi created the part of the Doctor in Barber’s Vanessa in 1958, his interpretation seen at the Salzburg Festival later that year. He possessed an imposing stage presence and conveyed warmth and intelligence in his characterisations. Since 1991 he has taught at the Indiana School of Music in Bloomington. His many recordings included Handel’s Messiah and La Bohème with Beecham (Naxos 8.111249-50).
The Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Rota was born in 1932. Her career has been based largely in Italy where she has sung in all the principal centres. In 1960 she sang Meg in the Glyndebourne Festival production of Falstaff in addition to the Verdi Messa da Requiem in London. Three years later she made her American début as Fenena in Nabucco at the Chicago Lyric Opera as well as Siebel in Faust. Rota has appeared in many recordings over a large number of label, some emanating from Italian Radio studio broadcast performances.
The Romanian conductor Jonel Perlea (1900- 1970) was born in Ograda of a German mother and Romanian father. After studying in Munich and Leipzig he made his début as a conductor of one of his own compositions in Bucharest in 1923. The following year Perlea served as an assistant conductor in Rostock. This was followed by a period of obligatory military service in his native country before joining the staff of the Royal Opera in Bucharest. Four years later he became music director of the opera, with appointments at the Royal Academy of Music and the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra. During his ten years in Bucharest he conducted the local premières of Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In 1944 the Nazis interned him, after he had made an abortive attempt to escape to France. The following years were spent in Italy including engagements at La Scala in Milan conducting Samson et Dalila, Così fan tutte, Orfeo ed Euridice, Boris Godunov, Salome, Werther and Fidelio between 1947 and 1950. He was then engaged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the 1950-51 season, conducting Tristan, La traviata, Rigoletto and Carmen.
In 1952 Perlea returned to Romania as a guest. He taught conducting at the Manhattan School of Music between 1955 and 1970, also serving as conductor of the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in 1955. In 1957 he suffered a heart attack and the following year a stroke which forced him to conduct with his left hand. Perlea recorded a considerable amount of purely orchestral music for the Vox label: in addition he also directed Manon Lescaut (Naxos 8.111030-31).
The complete recording of Rigoletto was transferred from German LP pressings. The original master tapes contain many instances of overload distortion, which cause the popping sounds heard during, for example, the cadenza to Caro nome. In addition, the recording contains more than the usual share of extraneous studio noises, as well as some obvious edits. The arias in the appendix (taken from an American LP) were recorded directly after the complete opera, and are in noticeably better sound.
Act I, Scene 1
 Verdi’s Rigoletto has, as its central theme, the curse of a father on the father of the title. The theme associated with the curse is heard in the opening Prelude.
 The first act opens with a ball at the court of the Duke of Mantua. A band is heard from the inner rooms of the palace. The Duke confides in Borsa, one of his courtiers, his plan to bring to a head his affair with an unknown girl, although he now has his eye on the Countess Ceprano.
 He sees all pretty women as equally desirable. He draws aside the Countess, who was about to follow her husband. As they leave together, Rigoletto, the court jester, who has joined the company, mocks Count Ceprano, with the approval of the other courtiers. Rigoletto leaves the room.
 The courtier Marullo enters with great news for his fellows: Rigoletto, the hunchback court jester that they all hate for his malicious wit, has a mistress, whom they plan to abduct. The jester abets his master in his exploits and now Ceprano too seeks revenge.
 The scene ends with the curse uttered by Monterone, whose daughter has fallen victim to the Duke. Rigoletto mocks him, but the curse strikes home with him.
 The scene changes to a blind alley in the city. On the left is a modest house, with a small walled courtyard. There is a door in the wall, leading to the street. A door in the first floor of the house gives onto a balcony above the wall, to which steps lead from below. On the right of the street is a very high garden wall and the side of Count Ceprano’s house. It is night. As he approaches his house, thinking of Monterone’s curse, Rigoletto is accosted by the ruffian Sparafucile, who offers his services as an assassin, if required.
 As he goes, Rigoletto reflects on the meeting, since they are alike: Sparafucile’s weapon is a dagger and Rigoletto’s his tongue.
 In his garden, Rigoletto talks to his daughter Gilda, recently returned from her convent school, and remembers her dead mother.
 He tells Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, to guard her charge well. He opens the courtyard door and looks into the street, while the Duke, disguised as a student, is seen to offer Giovanna a bribe for her silence, as he steals in and hides in the garden.
 Alone with Giovanna, Gilda talks of the handsome young man she has met, who followed her on the way to church. The Duke appears, signing to Giovanna to leave them alone.
 He addresses his attentions to Gilda, to whom he reveals his assumed name, Gualtier Maldè. The courtiers, meanwhile, are gathering in the street, determined to abduct the girl they believe to be Rigoletto’s mistress.
 As the Duke goes, Gilda muses on his dear name.
 The courtiers, masked and armed, now set about their plan, joined by Rigoletto, masked and unable to see or hear clearly, who thinks they are abducting the Countess Ceprano for the Duke’s pleasure.
 As Gilda is carried off by the courtiers, she drops her scarf. When they have gone, Rigoletto tears off the blindfold and realises what has happened. This is the curse of Monterone.
 The second act opens in the palace once more. The Duke is upset, thinking that Gilda has been wrested from him and imagining her distress.
 His jubilant courtiers burst in, eager to reassure him, telling him they have taken Rigoletto’s mistress. The Duke is delighted and hurries out, realising that Gilda is now his.
 When Rigoletto appears, the courtiers mock him, while he feigns indifference, trying to guess where Gilda has been taken. Eventually he understands that the girl who has been abducted and is now with the Duke is his own daughter.
 He curses this vile race of courtiers.
 Suddenly Gilda emerges in agitation from the Duke’s inner room, falling into her father’s arms.
 Left alone with her father, she explains how she met the supposed student. Rigoletto accepts the dishonour as his own and tries to comfort his daughter. Monterone is brought in, being escorted to prison, and thinks that his curse has had no effect on the Duke.
 He is escorted out by the guards but Rigoletto, aside, allows that Monterone’s curse shall have its effect and swears bitter vengeance.
 The third act opens by the banks of the River Mincio, outside a two-storey house. There is a tavern below and rough stairs leading to the grain-store above. In the wall is a door, facing the street, and there are cracks in the wall through which it is possible to see what is happening in the house. The district is deserted. It is night. In the tavern Sparafucile sits by the table, cleaning his sword-belt, while Rigoletto and Gilda wait outside. She assures him that she loves the Duke, but Rigoletto seeks revenge. The Duke appears, disguised as an ordinary officer. He enters the house, asking Sparafucile for wine and for a room.
 As he drinks, he is heard singing his most famous song on the fickleness of women.
 The Duke is joined by Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena, while Sparafucile leaves them together, going out into the street to ask Rigoletto if this is the man.
 The Duke declares his love for Maddalena, while Gilda, observing the scene from outside, is heart-broken at her lover’s faithlessness. Rigoletto plots revenge and tells his daughter to go home and disguise herself in man’s clothes, ready to leave the city.
 Sparafucile comes out and is paid half his fee for the planned murder of the man in the house, whose identity is not known to him. Rigoletto is to return at midnight for his victim. A storm draws near.
 Maddalena, seeing the Duke sleeping, begs her brother not to harm him and he agrees to kill any other man who may come there before midnight. Gilda has now returned, dressed as a man, and overhears the plan. She enters the house, resolved to sacrifice herself for her lover.
 Rigoletto returns, ready to receive the body of his victim, and as the storm passes, takes the murdered body in a sack, prepared to throw it into the nearby river.
 At this moment he hears the voice of the Duke from within the house, and realises he has been tricked. He opens the sack and in a flash of lightning sees the face of his daughter Gilda. She tells him of the sacrifice that she has made and seeks his forgiveness.
 As she dies, she promises to pray for her father, leaving him to realise that Monterone’s curse has now fallen on Rigoletto.
Della mia bella incognita borghese
Questa o quella
(Duke, Countess Ceprano, Rigoletto, Borsa,
Gran nuova! gran nuova!
(Marullo, Borsa, Courtiers, Duke, Rigoletto,
Ch’io gli parli
(Monterone, Duke, Rigoletto, Borsa, Marullo,
Quel vecchio maledivami!
Figlia! … Mio padre!
(Rigoletto, Gilda, Giovanna, Duke)
Ah! veglia, o donna
Giovanna, ho dei rimorsi
(Gilda, Giovanna, Duke)
È il sol dell’anima
(Duke, Gilda, Ceprano, Borsa)
Gualtier Maldè … Caro nome
(Gilda, Borsa, Ceprano, Marullo, Courtiers)
(Rigoletto, Borsa, Countess Ceprano, Marullo)
(Borsa, Marullo, Ceprano, Courtiers, Gilda, Rigoletto
Ella mi fu rapita! … Parmi veder
(Borsa, Marullo, Ceprano, Courtiers, Duke)
(Marullo, Rigoletto, Borsa, Ceprano, Courtiers, Page)
Cortigiani, vil razza dannata
(Gilda, Rigoletto, Borsa, Marullo, Ceprano, Courtiers)
Tutte le feste
(Gilda, Rigoletto, Usher, Monterone)
No, vecchio t’inganni … Sì, vendetta
Act III 32:42
(Rigoletto, Gilda, Duke, Sparafucile)
La donna è mobile
Un dì, se ben rammentomi
(Duke, Gilda, Maddalena, Rigoletto)
Bella figlia dell’amore
(Duke, Maddalena, Gilda, Rigoletto)
(Rigoletto, Sparafucile, Gilda)
È amabile in vero
(Maddalena, Sparafucile, Gilda)
(Rigoletto, Sparafucile, Duke)
Chi è mai?
Lassù in cielo
Robert Merrill sings Verdi and Rossini arias &VERDI: Otello (Act II)
Credo in un dio crudel (Act 2)
VERDI: Il Trovatore (Act II)
Tutto è deserto … Il balen del suo sorriso
(with Franco Calabrese, bass)
VERDI: La Traviata (Act II)
Di Provenza il mar
ROSSINI: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Act I)
Largo al factotum
Rome Opera Orchestra · Vincenzo Bellezza
Recorded 30 June and 2 and 4 July, 1956
in the Opera House, Rome
First issued on RCA Victor LM-2086
Recorded 14, 16, 18, 20-22, 25-26 and 28 June 1956 in the Opera House, Rome
First issued on RCA Victor LM-6051
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Special thanks to Maynard F. Bertolet for providing source material
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