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American Record Guide, December 2008

Merrill is in splendid voice. If only he were around today to show off that gorgeous instrument!...Peters is charming, but somewhat mechanical. A pity—at her best, she was quite a touching Gilda....Tozzi is appropriately sinister, and Rota is sultry in a generalized sort of way. The supporting singers run the gamut from unremarkable to very good…The four Merrill arias offered as a bonus come from an RCA LP recital that was recorded a few days after the Rigoletto sessions. Merrill is a tower of strength vocally. The ‘Credo’ is rather tame (his first Iagos were in 1963), but he is more involved in the other selections, the ‘Largo’ especially—a sparkling performance.

Naxos’s Rigoletto remastering is from LPs that don’t entirely mask distortion, ticks, and rumbling—which, according to a note from Naxos, are in the original RCA masters. The LP source for the arias is less quirky. I should point out that sitting at a normal distance from my equipment I heard no noise from these discs save for occasional mild distortion. And it wouldn’t hurt if you fiddled with your treble and bass controls.

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, July 2008

…It had become the habit of RCA to take the best of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s cast to Rome for their opera recordings in this period. What they did not have in that venue, or others for that matter, was the quality of recording engineers sported by the likes of Decca. This was a state of affairs that lasted until RCA’s commercial association with Decca came along and allowed exchange of artists as well as engineers. The quality of the recording in the rather boxy acoustic of the Rome Opera House is allied to overload distortion as early as the prelude. It is the first drawback. Strangely the Robert Merrill appendix (CD 2 trs. 17-21) is far better balanced and does not suffer those drawbacks. Merrill was often seen as the junior partner to fellow American Leonard Warren at the Met in this period. It continued until the latter’s untimely death on the Met stage in 1960 during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Warren’s Rigoletto is caught live at the Met earlier in the year of this recording. Robert Merrill (1917-2004) is somewhat lighter in tone than Warren and whilst less expressive his range, legato and rock-solid vocal quality would be even more admired in this repertoire today than it was in this period. His rendition of Rigoletto’s taunting of Ceprano (CD 1 tr.3) in the first scene lacks the vitriolic bite of Gobbi in the EMI version with Callas. His interpretation also suffers from the odd raw vocal patches of his illustrious Italian colleague. Merrill’s Pari siamo as Rigoletto compares himself with the assassin Sparafucile and is full of character (CD 1 tr.7) as is his sympathetic response to Gilda’s plight as she emerges from the Duke’s room after her experiences there of his true rapacious nature (CD 2. trs.5-7). Merrill is not as expressive as Warren, Gobbi or Taddei in Cortgiani vil razza dannata (CD 2 tr.4). He compensates as Rigoletto realises with horror that the Duke is alive and it is his daughter is in the sack. This illustrates the best of the singer and his interpretation (CD 2 trs 15-16).

… Jussi Björling…sings with vocal elegance and a wide range of tonal variety and expression. Particularly impressive is his Ella ma fu rapita…Parmi vedir (CD 2 tr.1) and if he holds the final note of La donna e mobile (CD 2 tr.9) a second or two too long it is a minor quibble. Björling’s plangent tone and capacity to inflect a phrase is ideally suited to this role. I was somewhat equivocal about the Gilda of Roberta Peters (b.1930) in the Met live recording. In this performance I find her much more convincing compared to Callas on EMI, despite the latter’s efforts to convey a young girl…and also compared to Lina Pagliughi on Cetra. Peters’ trill in Caro nome (CD 1 tr.12) is nothing to write home about but her steady fulsome tone has its own virtues elsewhere. She is convincingly fraught in Tutte le feste (CD 2 tr.6) as Gilda confesses her shame to her father and seeks his solace. The American bass Giorgio Tozzi (b.1923) is adequate if a little penny-plain as Sparafucile. His final note in Quel? Vecchio maledivami as he leaves Rigoletto after their meeting is a little manufactured and fails to chill my spine (CD 1 tr.6). The Italian Anna Maria Rota (b.1932) as Maddalena is suitably seductive and effective in her later pleading with her brother not to kill him (CD 2 trs 10-13). Jonel Perlea (1900-1970), an often-underrated conductor, supports his singers without doing so to the detriment of Verdi’s drama. The performance has the minor cuts traditional at that time.

The Merrill arias appendix illustrates his vocal strengths and minor weaknesses. His legato in Il balen (CD 2 tr.18) is a delight and is also present in Germont’s aria (tr.19) although in the latter he cannot express the pain of the father as he tries to persuade his son of the virtues of their home in Provence. Merrill is also excellent in the brio of Figaro’s Largo al Factotum (tr.20) whilst not being suitably saturnine in Iago’s Credo (tr.17). Those things being said, I can live with the tonal smoothness and excellent diction of his singing any day of the week, particularly when compared with those with pretensions as Verdi baritones before the public today!

The Naxos booklet has a brief introductory essay and excellent artist profiles as well as a good track-related synopsis. Working with German LPs, restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has done what he can with something of a sow’s ear in terms of recording quality.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2008

The temptation to make this reissue centres on Jussi Bjorling’s ardent portrayal of the Duke, though those who have forgotten Robert Merrill’s big and generous voice will be equally pleased to discover a Rigoletto that avoids the excesses often used to characterise the misfortunes of the tormented hunchback. At times he is in danger of overloading microphones, as we hear in his outbursts in the second act confrontation with the Courtiers. By comparison Bjorling’s virile voice makes Giuseppe di Stefano - on the Callas recording - sound a rather limp character, Bjorling’s Duke would readily sweep any female off of her feet. Yet in those moments when a liquid lyric quality is required, his voice is all chocolate and cream. Roberta Peters as Gilda goes through her big scenes with the artistry we would expect, but it is a very one dimensional personality the fast running passages missing the spine-tingling quality of the Callas recording on Naxos. Her Caro nome is a little self-indulgent, hanging onto high notes past Verdi’s requirements, but she hits them right in the centre. The smaller parts are sung by that Italian ‘rent a crowd’ who made so many discs at the time, and are well versed in Verdi. Throughoutthe recording the producer has encouraged the cast to act as well as sing and it was to very good effect. The big surprise will come with the playing of the Rome Opera Orchestra under Jonel Perlea. It has an impact never quite achieved by the La Scala outfit for the Callas recording, and I also very much enjoyed the chorus singing, the conspititor’s music at the end of the first act nicely handled. Perlea keeps the work thrusting forward at brisk tempos, his urging at times coming in very audible grunts that become obtrusive. The RCA sound engineering team gave the orchestra much presence, the resulting sound more than acceptable in modern terms, though Naxos’s transfer team could do nothing with the moments of overloading. By going past the 80 minute limit, the second disc has included four arias recorded by Merrill immediately following the opera recording but with Vincenzo Bellezza conducting. Again we can enjoy his unforced voice in Iago’s aria, Credo in un dio crudel, from the second act of Otello, though in each of four very differing Verdi characters, Merrill sounds to be exactly the same person.

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