About this Recording
8.110148-49 - VERDI: Rigoletto (Warren, Berger) (1950)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)


The opera Rigoletto, described as a Melodramma, was first staged at La Fenice in Venice on 11th March 1851. A year earlier Verdi had expressed his delight with Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, finding in Triboulet, the court jester at the centre of the drama, a creation worthy of Shakespeare. He urged his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, poet and stage manager of La Fenice, to secure the approval of the censors as soon as possible. Piave did as Verdi suggested, but whatever verbal approval he had from the censors was denied when it came to the point. The operatic version of Hugo’s play, under the title La maledizione ('The Curse'), was stigmatized as 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 first suggested changes did not please Verdi. The King, Francis I, was to be a mere nobleman, the Duke of Ventignano, and there was to be no plot to kill him, while 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. Negotiation with the censors followed, and something of Victor Hugo was restored. The villain was to be Vincenzo Gonzaga, referred to only as the Duke of Mantua, the deformity of the jester was permitted and there was no longer any objection to the sack. Censorship had caused delay and frustration, but by the end of December 1850 the matter was near enough to a settlement to allow Verdi to proceed with the composition in time for the carnival season.

Verdi’s problems were not only with the censors and, to some extent, with Piave. He also had serious reservations about the proposed prima donna, Signora Sanchioli, known, Verdi suggested, for her Michelangelo poses. The final cast had Teresa Brambilla as the first Gilda, a 38-year-old, one of seven sisters well known on the operatic stage. 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. Varesi’s daughter later recalled her father’s doubts about the possible reaction of the audience to his appearance as a hunchbacked buffoon and how Verdi pushed him onto the stage at the first performance, causing him to stumble, but at the same time impressing the audience, enraptured by such a dramatically appropriate entrance.

Rigoletto, as the opera was now known, was an immediate success with the public, and was received equally well in Paris, where even Victor Hugo approved, and in 1853 in London. In Rome the censors had their revenge and Rigoletto now became Viscardello, a title and opera that Verdi disowned.

The 1950 recording at the ballroom of Manhattan Center in New York City cast the experienced Verdian singer Leonard Warren as Rigoletto. Warren had been born in New York in 1911 and made his stage début at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939 in Simon Boccanegra as Paolo. His career, largely centred on New York, ended only with his death on stage in 1960 during a performance of La forza del destino.

The present release also includes Verdi arias, with an excerpt from Simon Boccanegra, the last complete opera in which Warren sang at the Met, and from La forza del destino, both recorded in 1950. The part of Gilda is sung by a soprano particularly well known in the rôle, the fifty-year-old Erna Berger. Born in Dresden in 1900, her early career had been in Europe and she made her début at the Metropolitan Opera only in 1949, when she sang the part of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. She retired in 1955 and died in 1990. The American tenor Jan Peerce, born in New York in 1904 and engaged at the Metropolitan Opera from 1941, had sung his first complete Rigoletto as the Duke at his operatic début in Philadelphia in 1938, and had been engaged by Toscanini in 1944 for a recording of the last act of the opera, together with Leonard Warren and Nan Merriman. He continued at the Met until 1968, appeared on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof in 1971, and died in New York in 1984. The American mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman, Maddalena in the present recording, represents a younger generation of American singers. Born in Pittsburgh in 1920, she had studied in Los Angeles and made her début as La Cieca in La Gioconda in Cincinatti in 1942. She enjoyed an international career that brought, among other successes, her appearance in Edinburgh in 1953 in the rôle of Baba the Turk in the first British performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. She retired in 1965. The chorus used in the recording is the Robert Shaw Chorale, a group of some forty professional singers trained by the American conductor Robert Shaw, a musician particularly distinguished for his remarkable work with choirs. The RCA Victor Orchestra is directed, as on many other occasions, by Renato Cellini.


Act I, Scene I

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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

Scene II

6 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.

7 As he goes, Rigoletto reflects on the meeting, since they are alike: Sparafucile’s weapon is a dagger and Rigoletto’s his tongue.

8 In his garden, Rigoletto talks to his daughter Gilda, recently returned from her convent school, and remembers her dead mother.

9 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.

10 Alone with Giovanna, Gilda talks of the handsome young man she has met, who followed her on the way to church. The Duke appears, indicating to Giovanna to leave them alone.

11 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.

12 As the Duke goes, Gilda muses on his dear name.

13 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.

14 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.

Act II

15 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.

16 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.

17 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

18 and curses this vile race of courtiers.

19 Suddenly Gilda emerges in agitation from the Duke’s inner room, falling into her father’s arms.

20 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.

21 He is escorted out by the guards but Rigoletto, aside, allows that Monterone’s curse shall have its effect and swears bitter vengeance.

CD 2


1 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.

2 As he drinks, he is heard singing his most famous song on the fickleness of women.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 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.

9 As she dies, she promises to pray for her father, leaving him to realise that Monterone’s curse has now fallen on Rigoletto.

Keith Anderson

Producer’s Note:

RCA Victor had been using magnetic tape technology for less than a year when the label began its first complete opera recording, Rigoletto, in March 1950. The work was initially released that fall in all three formats then on the market - on six LP sides and twenty-eight 45 rpm and 78 rpm sides. The album on Verdi scenes with Warren, recorded the prior month, was only intially released on 45s and 78s. The new technology presented a problem in the form of an intermittent low-frequency hum which may be heard during portions of Scene II of Act I of Rigoletto, as well as during the start of the second half of the Simon Boccanegra duet. I found that removing the hum completely would have gutted the bass, and so attempted to reduce it dynamically during the transfer process.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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