The good old, bad old days of La Scala, Milan, were never like this. A Rigoletto without spurious top notes? What kind of omen is that? Verdi's great score is, of course, heavy with omens: the solo trumpet darkly anticipating Monterone's curse in the opening bars; the mournful cellos of the second scene; the eddying bass lines active throughout like early warnings of the impending storm. Muti heeds them well.
The intensity is in the proximity of tragedy. Tempi are urgent, the excitement primarily generated through bold and incisive articulation of the rhythm (Muti can make a drama out of a crisis from a simple timpani roll - witness the close of Act 1). The final act certainly goes with a swing, though having built the momentum so effectively through the storm trio, why the reluctance to give the orchestra its head as the full fury of it is unleashed? Less thunder, more brass, I say.
For me, there's always a sense in which Muti's stylistic integrity inhibits excitement. I think we need those top notes; I think Verdi (and all the evidence suggests this is so) would have expected them. The higher options in the title role, the ringing top C to clinch the love duet, the Duke's flamboyant D in the Act 2 cabaletta, Gilda's thrilling E flat at the climax of the "Vendetta" duet - damn it, I miss them. Particularly when, as here, you have the singers to pull them off.
Roberto Alagna makes "Questa o quella" sound easy. That's the trick, of course - keeping it light and casual despite the testing tessitura. No doubt about it, he's the vocal embodiment of the Duke - suave, lithe, virile. But why this refusal to use portamento? The sigh of enchantment is virtually written into these vocal lines. "E il sol dell'anima, la vita e amore" ("Love is the sunshine of the soul"), he sings, but does it not take the sunshine out of the soul to come so cleanly (indeed so unnaturally) off the climactic cadence of that solo? In the very next phrase, his Gilda is showing us exactly how it's done.
Andrea Rost is splendid, a world away from the cosmetic warblers who have too often laid claim to the role. Nothing about her singing is in the least cosmetic: each dovetailed phrase, each melting diminuendo, is an expression of the emotion implicit in the line. The coloratura means something. "Caro nome" transports her and us, palpitations in every trill. A warm and sensitive singer.
Finally, there is Renato Bruson, a little later than I should like to have heard him in the role (failing support occasionally sours intonation), but still singing with a full, troubled heart. Again, Muti might have allowed him, indeed everybody, more room to beg indulgence. But then, that wouldn't be stylish, would it? And heaven forbid the heart should rule the head.
What a nasty, sensationalist, tear-jerking story Rigoletto is; I still find it hard to believe that it can be so stirring in the opera house. But that's the power of Verdi's music. Take the libretto alone and, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Dickens's Little Nell, "one needs a heart of stone to read it without laughing". Add Verdi's dramatic pacing, raw expression and insidious melodic charm, and, in a good performance, it can be almost unbearably moving.
Muti's performance - recorded live at La Scala, Milan, last year - gets full marks for drama and pace. He keeps the orchestra on a tight rein, but he doesn't drive it, or the singers, too hard. You know he has the climax of each act in his sights as soon as the music starts.
The result is gripping - a powerful, almost brutal display of fate in action. The Duke, Gilda and especially Rigoletto are merely its playthings. This is not to say the singing is anonymous. Roberto Alagna is a striking Duke - a strong and appealing voice, and certainly not a "can belto" tenor. The expression is wide-ranging and sometimes quite subtle; "La donna e mobile" is no mere set-piece. Andrea Rost's Gilda can be very touching. There's an eloquent simplicity in her "Gualtier Malde" that puts some admired versions to shame.
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And Bruson's Rigoletto? I suspect it was more affecting on the stage than it is on record. Vocally, it's a dignified performance, but not deeply engaging, and intonation falters in one or two key places - critically in the Act 1 duet "Ah! Veglia, o donna".
In the end, despite Alagna and Rost's fine efforts, and a more than decent contribution from Mariana Pentcheva as Maddalena, this is a slightly hollow Rigoletto - exciting, yes, but the tears remain firmly un-jerked.
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