Rigoletto CD Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky Delivers Immersive Performance In Otherwise Disappointing Package

By David Salazar

For years Dmitri Hvorostovsky was one of the leading interpreters of “Rigoletto” around the world. And while there are many baritones in the modern era that have successfully realized one of the most complex characters of the Verdi canon, few navigated the emotional turmoil quite the way the great Russian baritone did.

He brought crudeness and ugliness to his vocal interpretation but also managed to exude warmth and tenderness in his scenes with Gilda. He could sound like the consummate Verdi baritone with shades of Bastianini and Milnes in the role, but also bring something completely unique to his style. His way with the text itself has always been precise and his interpretation shows the man as a power-hungry outsider with murderous tendencies that still has a heart of gold.

He didn’t perform the role all that much, which makes his latest recording for Delos so crucial to his legacy. Recorded in 2016 as the baritone dealt with cancer that he continues to do battle with to this day, his interpretation is a remarkable document and gains an added dimension from the circumstances.

A Remarkably Complex Reading

The baritone’s voice is no longer at its peak, but his commitment to the role is at its utmost and he manages to steal every musical moment he inhabits. “Parisiamo” is one of the most riveting moments in the entire recording, drawing the listener into a man doing inner battle for his identity. We get the tortured mindset of Rigoletto, his voice growing more and more aggressive and fractured as he curses the Duke and his courtiers. Then suddenly his singing is but a thread of sound as he reflects on his change at home, “Ma in altr’uom qui mi cangio!”

Duets with Gilda show us gentle and tender, even in the scolding moments; a far cry from the opening scene in which he mocks Monterone with restrained but pointed staccato phrasing. But as Rigoletto feels the weight of the tragedy grow on him, Hvorostovsky’s sweeter tendencies dissolve, the voice growing coarser and quite even more unhinged in the phrasing. He practically growls in the quartet, that choice contrasting heavily with the lyrical landscape from the other singers around him. The final duet with Gilda is an unrestrained lament, emotional power taking center stage over legato precision. That isn’t to say that Hvorostovsky isn’t in control (there isn’t a moment where he isn’t in vocal control in this entire recording), but he lets the character’s broken spirit reflect in his vocal expression.

It’s a remarkable achievement and the world will undoubtedly be thankful that Delos took the time to make this happen, especially with the baritone’s operatic future ever in question.

Other Major Positives

And while the recording was clearly made with the intention of showcasing the company’s leading star, you don’t turn to an opera recording to hear just one singer; solo albums would suffice in that case. You go to listen to an entire production with singers working off one another to create a cohesive experience.

That’s not, unfortunately, what you get with this “Rigoletto.”

Andrea Mastroni, one of the leading Sparafucile interpreters today, certainly provides his venomous interpretation quite well, his way with his native tongue quite potent. The way he courts Rigoletto in the opening scene certainly makes the listener feel that the two are engaged in a tense dialogue, Mastroni’s rotund sound pressing on a Hvorostovsky whose pointed replies reveal his discomfort. Moreover, Mastroni’s power is felt in his interactions with Maddalena in the trio, making us truly believe his moral callousness.

As Maddalena, Oksana Volkova brings vocal allure, making her both a match and contrast for Mastroni’s suave but brusque Sparafucile.

Mixed Bags and Disappointments

As for the Duke of Mantua and Gilda, the recording presents a mixed bag for the two young interpreters. Nadine Sierra has made Gilda one of her signature roles, singing it prominently at the Metropolitan Opera and other companies. And she sings like an angel in many sections, her “Caro Nome” quite possibly the greatest example. Her polished legato throughout the recording represents a feeling of constancy in the character, but one doesn’t necessarily feel the overall arc of change from the sheltered young lady to one willing to sacrifice her life for love. This is most notable in her two duets with Rigoletto. We never really feel the shame of Gilda after her sexual encounter with the Duke; in fact, that pain resembles the same emotions she feels after hearing of her mother in the first duet. While that might be an understandable choice to link those two traumas together, it doesn’t further the character’s development and certainly wouldn’t motivate her to die for the Duke. Ultimately, those looking to listen to the beautiful quality of Sierra’s soprano won’t be disappointed.

The same can’t be said for the Duke in this recording, Francesco Demuro. A tenor with a gorgeous voice, he lacks the finesse for the Duke, his voice often sounds pushed as it enters the high notes and the connections between his middle voice and higher range jolted. The phrasing throughout is rather choppy and the color changes inconsistent. The legato lines in “La Donna e mobile” are rather uneven, the voice never quite building to the climaxes but jumping to them at the last second. The same can be said for the duet “E il sol dell’anima” where the tenor arrives at the climactic note of the opening stanza in strange fashion, his voice seeming to peak a note before, thus forcing to push out the high note. Piannisimo singing is largely absent throughout the recording, the tenor seemingly more interested in pumping more sound into each phrase. He has a thrilling high D at the end of the Act two cabaletta, but the performance as a whole is lacking in any other vocal gems from the tenor. Elegance is not a part of this Duke’s qualities. It is quite surprising, considering the vibrant and warm qualities of Demuro’s sound.

I must point out the duet between Sierra and Demuro. The two have sung together around the world, but yet their duet doesn’t seem to be all that in sync, the pitches throughout the cadenza often questionable and the phrasing rather choppy in the “Addio, Addio” and not always accurate in rhythm.

It might be easy to blame the artists, but in this case, my eyes must turn to conductor Constantine Orbelian, who despite being Hvorostovsky’s constant partner-in-crime (they have a plethora of recordings and performances together), is simply not on the same artistic level on this recording. In fact, his reading of Verdi’s score is the weakest aspect of the recording and no doubt influenced the lack of satisfaction one can find in some of the performances. The balance throughout the orchestra is not satisfactory in the least. Violins are brought to the forefront of nearly everything in the entire opera. The coda of the opening scene features excessive string ostinato with the bass progression completely lost. The final notes of the opera, with Verdi providing the conductor ample use of all the orchestral forces, sounded muddled with the darker instruments almost completely absent; it makes the crashing final notes that damn Rigoletto to misery lose their foreboding impact.

In quieter sections, the orchestra sounds muddled as well and there are sections where you barely even notice it as an active participant of the drama; such is the case with “Parisiamo.” Tempi are slow throughout, giving Verdi’s propulsive score an overall lack of urgency. And some ensembles are simply sloppy – the Gilda-Duka duet has already been noted but the same can be said for the concertante in the first scene, its syncopated lines making it one of the hardest passages to conduct in any opera. Oberlian doesn’t give the listener a vocal or orchestral point of reference to hone in on, all the voices and instruments clashing with one another. Listening to this passage, you might not be wrong in wondering if it is about to fall apart at any moment. It eventually comes to an end, but the transition is anything but firm.

Who knows the circumstances of the recording, but it does come off at times as hastily put together. Some of this might also be attributed to poor sound engineering as well, the mixing potentially at the root of the violin-heavy orchestral sound.

Most people probably will come to this set for Hvorostovsky’s interpretation of the title character and they indeed will not be disappointed as it alone is worth the price. But those looking for a great rendition of the opera worthy of its lead interpreter will come away quite disappointed.


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