Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Jussi Bjoerling, tenor, (Duke of Mantua), Leonard Warren, baritone, (Rigoletto), Bid˙ Sayao, soprano, (Gilda), Norman Cordon, bass, (Sparafucile), Martha Lipton, mezzo-soprano (Maddalena), Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, Cesare Sodero, Conductor.

Naxos 8.110051-52 (2 CDs) (M) (AAD) TT: 1:55:53


This stunning Rigoletto comes to us courtesy of Naxos, who, over the past few years, has begun the distribution of selected Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. For obvious reasons, the Met has long frowned upon independent distribution of such material and has not hesitated to take legal action in the United States when it deems appropriate. Naxos has decided not to incur the wrath of the Met's legal team. As a result, the Naxos-Met issues are generally not available in the United States (although I have seen them at certain Tower locations on the East and West coasts). In any event, the Naxos-Met series is readily available from various concerns located outside the US. The following is an explanation of why you should contact them immediately to obtain this release.

My previous CD copy of this broadcast was issued on the Melodram label. It was possible to discern that a great performance was hiding somewhere beneath the dim sonics of that release. Now  no such flight of imagination is necessary. The Naxos issue far outclasses the Melodram in every way. While the sound is still below that of studio recordings of the period, it is vastly improved. The voices now emerge from their former sonic haze with ample presence, definition, and color.

And what voices!  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. This is not to suggest that Warren delivers a superficial account of the role. While his interpretation would deepen and become more subtle over the years, in this broadcast, Warren is already the embodiment of the tortured Rigoletto—a man torn between hatred for his enemies and love for Gilda, his daughter.

Gilda is the Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao, who died in March 1999, just a few months shy of her 97th birthday. She did not possess a voice of exceptional range or power. However, it ws an extraordinary beautiful instrument, and she was ever the intelligent artist in selecting roles tht matched her considerable gifts. She was also a master of characterization, always applying the small touches that made for unforgettable portrayals. Sayao's depiction of the transformation of an innocent, sheltered girl to a young woman who is wiling to sacrifice herself for the man she loves is one of those portrayals. Throughout, she is in fabulous voice, skillfully negotiating the coloratura of "Caro nome" and apply ing her impeccable legato to Verdi's cantabile writing. A wonderful souvenir of an artist for whom the term "beloved" was, for once, entirely appropriate.

In the fascinating recent biography of Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling (Jussi, Anna-Lisa Bjoerling and Andrew Farkas, Amadeus Press) the authors comment that "Bidu and Jussi were ideally matched vocally and visually and seemed to possess a special chemistry." Sayao adds, "Sometimes they say he wasn't a good actor, but with me he was, because I was really in love with him on the stage."

Surviving Met broadcasts, including the incandescent 1947 Rom╚o et Juliette, a 1948 La Boh╦me and this  Rigoletto confirm Bidu Sayao's assessment. In this 1945 broadcast, Bjoerling is in much freer and more youthful vocal estate than in his 1956 RCA studio recording. And while the 1956 recording offers a rather aloof, unsmiling Duke, here there is involvement, passion, and spontaneity aplenty. Bjoerling was never the greatest stage actor, and perhaps the visual component of his Duke lacked charisma. However, it's hard to imagine any Gilda being able to resist the vocal intensity and charm evident in this broadcast. Supporting roles are well-taken and conductor Cesare Sodero provides ample flexibility and propulsion to Verdi's remarkable score.

 Not to be missed!