This is actually the first time I’d heard this performance complete. Previously I’d only heard excerpts in wretched sound, which hadn’t encouraged me to investigate further, especially given the excellence of Callas’s studio recording with Gobbi and Di Stefano and Serafin at the podium.
Well the first thing to say is that the sound is actually quite good, the voices well caught and much clearer than anything I’d heard before. Unfortunately the performance itself, save for Callas’s miraculous Gilda, is something of a mess, and I wonder why Warner decided to include it, especially as they omitted the superb live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera of 1957.
One should also note that the prompter is a palpable presence, shouting rather than whispering the lines to the soloists. Oddly enough he disappears completely at the beginning of Tutte le feste and Callas muffs her first lines.
So let’s get the problems, and there are plenty of them, out of the way first. Umberto Mugnai doesn’t appear to have any control over his resources whatsoever, and frequently coordination between pit and stage falls apart completely. The score is also cut to ribbons, far more than was traditional at the time. It is notable that when things go awry, it is usually Callas, who presumably couldn’t even see the conductor, who brings things back on track. Even in such chaotic surroundings, her innate musicality shines through.
The last act is the biggest mess of all, and all the singers go out of sync with the orchestra in the storm ensemble, despite Callas’s best efforts to bring everything back under control. The quartet isn’t much better, and ends with all the singers, save Callas, out of tune, not that it bothers the audience who give it a rapturous reception. Nor does it concern them that just before that Di Stefano had ended La donna e mobile seriously flat. Forced to encore the aria, his second attempt isn’t much better.
Piero Campolonghi, who plays Rigoletto, has a fine enough voice, but, oh dear, what a ham! He delights in holding onto notes longer than he has to, adding extraneous sobs whilst others are singing and shamelessly playing up to the audience, who, it has to be said, lap it all up with enthusiasm. He has absolutely no idea who or what Rigoletto is. Oh how I missed Gobbi.
Di Stefano does at least have the measure of the Duke. He has charm in abundance, and we can understand why Gilda could be taken in by such a man, but, without a strong hand at the helm, he can be careless of note values and rhythm, and he too plays shamelessly to the gallery. The rest of the cast is decidedly provincial.
That Callas’s Gilda, a role she was singing for the first time, should emerge virtually unscathed from this shambles of a performance is a miracle indeed. She makes a couple of decisions she would later regret, such as taking an upward ending in Caro nome, which allows her to finish on a secure, but unpoetic top Eb in alt, rather than Verdi’s written rapturous trill on the lower E (something she does to brilliant effect in the studio recording). She also ends the Quartet on a powerful (and unwritten) top Db (but then, with all the singers belting out their lines, the written quiet ending would have been out of the question).
Aside from these miscalculations, made to appease the Mexican audience’s love for high notes, her Gilda is one of her most exacting characterisations, and it is a great pity that she was never tempted to sing the role on stage again. Had she done so, we might well have completely rethought the role, much as we did that of Lucia.
Her voice is in superb condition, infinitely responsive and wonderfully limpid, the tone wondrously lightened to dispel any associations with Abigaille, Kundry, Elena, Aida and Armida, the roles we have heard her sing so far in this live set. Furthermore her Gilda is a character of real flesh and blood, with a fullness of heart in her duets with her father that prepares us for the sacrifice she makes later; a closeted romantic dreamer suddenly propelled into a world far beyond anything in her experience. Not only is her characterisation of the role a revelation, but her singing qua singing is exquisitely realised, her musical instincts unfailingly right, and ultimately her Gilda rises like a phoenix from the ashes of its crude surroundings.