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Monday, August 31, 2015

Recordings Review: Thinking Outside the Sack

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Rigoletto
by Paul J. Pelkonen
One had the feeling that the marketing department at DG weren't trying too hard to sell CDs with this cover,
which appeared on the initial 1980s pressing of this set. Image © Universal Classics. 
This 1964 La Scala recording of Rigoletto features the unusual choice of acclaimed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik leading the proceedings. That sounded pretty strange when I first saw this set sitting on a shelf in a used CD store in Boston, but surprisingly it works.

Known for his skilled interpretation of songs by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, Fischer-Dieskau is not the first name that comes to mind when it comes to Italian opera. This was made in the middle of a slew of DFD recordings in the 1960s, most of which are unfortunately forgotten and neglected.
The vinyl cover art at least tells you more about the opera inside.
Image © Universal Classics.
Fischer-Dieskau is a thinking man's jester. He approaches the dramatic arc of Rigoletto more like a play than like an opera, delivering the character's dialogue and monologues with fire and attention to each note.  ("Aria" is not the right word for a scene like Para siamo as it lacks that traditional structure.)  In the wrong hands this could be unbearably fussy, but here it becomes a series of compelling miniatures that form a harrowing whole. While he is more restrained than some hunchbacks, he excels at portraying the suffering, pain and doubt that motivate the character and he is superb in the white-knuckle final scene.

A young and perfectly caught Renata Scotto gives one of the finest performances of her recorded career as Gilda, the hunchback's daughter. Her "Caro nome" is a virtual clinic on how this aria is to be sung, refreshingly free of annoying mannerisms. The spectacular coloratura work sounds giddy and refreshingly unforced--exactly what Verdi intended, the sound of an ecstatic young girl singing to herself.

Carlo Bergonzi applies his classic tenor to the Duke, making the most famous sexist pig in opera a thoroughly repugnant fellow who is a joy to listen to. Underrated La Scala bass Ivo Vinco is an able, dark-toned Sparafucile--his Act I duet with Rigoletto is a highlight of the set, paired with Fischer-Dieskau's acting instincts and led by Rafael Kubelik's instinctive musicianship.

Like many of the fine recordings that Rafael Kubelik made in his time at Deutsche Grammophon, this Rigoletto was deleted for a number of years. It was superseded in the catalogue by an (also excellent) Viennese recording made by Carlo Maria Giulini, starring Piero Cappuccilli and Placido Domingo. Currently available as a bargain two-disc set, is being reissued (along with all the other DG Scala recordings) as part of a box set Great Operas from La Scala, coming later this month.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.