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VERDI: Rigoletto

CD Button Sierra, Volkova; Demuro, Hvorostovsky, Mastroni; Kaunas State Choir, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, Orbelian. Text and translation. Delos DE3522 (2)

Good Night, Sweet Jester

The late Dmitri Hvorostovsky is magnificent as Verdi’s fool.

Recordings Rigoletto hdl 318
Pianist/vocal coach Svetlana Efimova, Orbelian, Sierra, Hvorostovsky
Courtesy Delos
Recordings Rigoletto lg 318
Critics Choice Button 1015 

DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY was not by nature cut out for Verdi’s dramatic baritone roles. The soft nap that made his lyric instrument so distinctively beautiful gave it a markedly different contour from the forwardly placed, even nasal character of a classic Verdi baritone. Still, in the later part of his career, he took on increasingly heavy Verdi roles, making them work through exemplary technique and sheer musical intelligence. In this, his last recording, made scarcely a year before his recent and untimely death, he tackles one of Verdi’s greatest challenges and, on his own terms, magnificently succeeds.

When Rigoletto makes his entrance, jeering at Count Ceprano, Hvorostovsky’s sound is shockingly guttural, with flecks of grit I wouldn’t have imagined as part of his arsenal: he had come a long way from the liquid lyricism of his Prince Yeletsky or Don Giovanni. In the desultory Act II “La rà” passage, the timbre is almost gnarled: the prince of singers here turns into a nutcracker. In the jester’s private moments, though, we hear the Hvorostovsky sound unfiltered, as it were; away from the courtiers, Rigoletto can reveal his true tenderness. We hear in his singing how the hunchback could have managed to attract his angelic wife. When he tells Gilda about her mother, or when he entreats Giovanna to protect his daughter, he does it in long, unbroken phrases, as if the sentiments were too urgent to be interrupted by breath. 

Hvorostovsky doesn’t quite have the brawn to charge through “Cortigiani, vil razza.” But even here, he pulls us in: he has drawn the character so completely that the passage’s place in the opera’s emotional arc is manifestly clear. The final scene in his reading is almost unbearably sad, partly because the singer himself seems to be saying farewell, but also because he has rendered Rigoletto’s tragedy with specificity and power, bringing Verdi’s monumental conception to full, breathing life.

This is a compelling Rigoletto all around. The work of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra evidences meticulous preparation. Constantine Orbelian’s reading doesn’t quite conjure the smell of greasepaint, but that’s partly because it feels so free of routine. Some traditional rallentandos fall by the wayside, but the result doesn’t feel rushed; it feels fresh and convincing. And despite his tight rein on the work’s rhythmic structure, he provides his singers with a framework to phrase freely and expressively. 

Nadine Sierra sings sweetly and nimbly; the sparkle in her voice conveys Gilda’s naïveté. But she is no simpering soubrette: the tone is round and full. You hear in her singing the resoluteness that will lead the girl to her dreadful fate. (There is one truly unfortunate moment at which, rather than singing Verdi’s music when Gilda decides to enter the thieves’ den, Sierra shouts out the text. She elsewhere shows herself too fine an artist to resort to such a vulgar tactic.)

Francesco Demuro’s Duke is a man so enthralled by his own powers of seduction that he can’t help exercising them. He is a thoroughly amoral creature: it isn’t that he seeks to do evil; it’s just that the moral implications of his actions never figure in the equation. Demuro conveys his conception through the open-throated directness of his singing. From the evidence here, he is not an elegant singer; you’ll listen in vain for a dynamic level below mezzo-forte. Moreover, at top volume, his voice reveals an incipient shudder. But he makes the Duke so devilishly appealing a figure that one can immediately understand why Gilda succumbs to his wiles. 

Andrea Mastroni is an unusually youthful-sounding Sparafucile, quite credibly near in age to his beauteous sister. Oksana Volkova’s ripe mezzo makes her Maddalena aurally embody carnality. Baritone Kostas Smoriginas, an unusually fine Monterone, sounds like he could be a plausible Rigoletto himself. 

The CD booklet includes session photographs of a beaming Hvorostovsky, which are heartbreaking. —Fred Cohn 

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