Verdi: Rigoletto
Jan Peerce, tenor (Duke of Mantua), Leonard Warren, baritone (Rigoletto), Erna Berger, soprano (Gilda), Italo Tajo, bass (Sparafucile), Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano (Maddalena), The Robert Shaw Chorale, RCA Victor Orchestra, Renato Cellini, cond. Arias and duets from La forza del destino, La traviata, Simon Boccanegra and Otello. Leonard Warren, baritone, Astrid Varnay, soprano. RCA Victor Orchestra, Renato Cellini, cond.

Preiser 90452 (2 Discs). F (ADD) TT: 2:09:52

Naxos 8.110148-49 (2 Discs). B (ADD) TT: 2:09:22


When CD technology was introduced more than 20 years ago, it appeared to be a mixed blessing. Certainly, the prospects of a recording medium free of tape hiss and distortion, coupled with a method of reproduction that would not deteriorate upon repeated play, were enticing indeed. But at the same time, many collectors of historic recordings harbored grave misgivings. With all of the focus upon digital technology, many feared that the great recordings of the past would fall by the wayside.

As it turned out, these fears were unfounded. In fact the CD era has provided unprecedented access to historic recordings. And in many cases, thanks to the efforts of such artists as Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn, collectors are enjoying a proliferation of vintage recordings, remastered in their best sound ever.

Still there have been some notable omissions. One of them was this classic 1950 RCA Rigoletto.  For years operaphiles have been clamoring for it to appear on CD. Nevertheless, while RCA has reissued a considerable number of its operatic recordings, this Rigoletto continued to languish in its vaults.

To a certain degree, it languishes still, because the first CD issue of this Rigoletto comes not from RCA. Rather, Preiser, MYTO, and Naxos have answered many an opera lover's prayer. This is not to suggest that the recording under consideration is an ideal representation of one of the great works from Verdi's so-called "middle period." The performance employs the numerous (and to my mind, disfiguring) stage cuts popular at the time. The recorded sound—with somewhat compressed dynamics and a balance heavily favoring the singers—is merely adequate. The efforts of most of the principal singers, as well as the conductor, have been equaled or bettered on various other recordings.

Nevertheless, this Rigoletto is indispensable, for it represents the only complete commercial documentation of Leonard Warren in the title role. As I wrote in my review of the Naxos issue of a 1945 Met broadcast: "Rigoletto was probably the greatest role of American baritone Leonard Warren's storied career. I don't think there has ever been a recorded baritone voice more suited to negotiate the jester's exacting tessitura. Indeed, Warren's powerful, high baritone sails through the role with almost frightening ease."

Listen, for example, to how Warren majestically sculpts the phrase "Deh non parlare al misero" in his first duet with Gilda. Many a baritone has come to grief in this high-lying passage. Leonard Warren, with his expert command of breath control, legato, and dynamic shading, creates an unforgettable moment of extraordinary beauty and grandeur.

There have certainly been other Rigolettos who provide a more nuanced declamation of the text—Giuseppe Taddei (Cetra) and Tito Gobbi (EMI) are two who immediately come to mind. But neither of these baritones equals Warren's extraordinary command of Rigoletto's considerable vocal challenges. And it must be emphasized that his interpretation never lacks intensity or commitment. He admirably portrays the contrast between Rigoletto, the acerbic jester, and Rigoletto, the loving father. All in all, Warren's Rigoletto is among the handful of the finest on disc.

The other principals, while not on Warren's exalted level, have their strengths as well. German soprano Erna Berger, despite being in her 50th year when this recording was made, is one of the more youthful-sounding Gildas. Her performance is long on technical security and attractive tone, but rather short on dramatic insight. Likewise, Jan Peerce, in superb voice, is a hearty and virile Duke of Mantua who offers little in the way of charm or humor.

On the other hand, Italo Tajo is a superb Sparafucile, relishing each and every moment of Piave's text and Verdi's music. Nan Merriman is a vocally secure and fetching Maddalena. Renato Cellini's conducting, while energetic and considerate of the vocalists, is undermined by the recording balance.

I have had the opportunity to hear both the Preiser and Naxos transfers (the latter by Mark Obert-Thorn), but not the MYTO. I would assume (perhaps incorrectly) that none of these companies had access to RCA's original master. Nevertheless both Preiser and Naxos have used a fine source for their CD issues, with good presence and relatively minimal distortion. Also included as an appendix in both the Preiser and Naxos releases are four excerpts from Verdi operas, recorded in 1950 and featuring Warren at the height of his powers.

Both the Preiser and Naxos issues are fine representations of this recording. Nevertheless, I would give Naxos the upper hand. The Naxos release offers somewhat better sound than the Preiser, with greater dynamic range, warmth, and presence. While I would hesitate to characterize the sonic differences between the two issues as dramatic, they are certainly sufficient to prefer the Naxos, even if all other considerations were equal. However, given the fact that the Naxos costs less than half of the Preiser, the choice seems clear. But whatever label you choose, I urge you to investigate the long-awaited reissue of one of Leonard Warren's greatest recorded accomplishments.

K.M. (Jan. 2001)