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PRIMER | A Guide To Getting Ready For Verdi’s Rigoletto

By Matthew Timmermans on January 20, 2018

Whether it’s your first time seeing an opera or your 100th, it never hurts to listen to the opera you are going to see in advance. For those planning to see the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, you may be wondering, “among the many recordings available which ones should I listen to?”

To help you out, we have organized into five sections some of the recordings of Rigoletto that we like and dislike. The first section called “Beginners” is for those who have never heard an opera, or seen Rigoletto before. The “Intermediate” section is tailored toward listeners who have seen or heard Rigoletto before. Then the “Advanced” section is for those listeners that want to go above and beyond to compare different singers. The “Video Recordings” section is self-explanatory, and the last section includes what I consider “Controversial Recordings.”

If there are any recordings that you love and I didn’t have the chance to write about, you’re more than welcome to comment below and I will add them to the list!

To refresh your memory about what this opera is about, watch this short video. The recording used in this video is the 1989 recording in the “Beginners” section below.


Those who have never listened to opera before or have never seen Rigoletto always ask me what recording they should listen to first. Of course, my first reaction is to suggest one of my favourite recordings; however as you will see later, my favourites are not necessarily the most accessible. A good first recording requires a well-rounded cast and an exciting vision to captivate a new listener. In doing so, the listener then has a strong foundation with which they can compare other casts. That is not to say these recordings are inferior, in fact, the ones listed here are also some of my favourites.

  • Year: 1963
  • Label: RCA Red Seal
  • Rigoletto: Robert Merrill
  • Duke di Mantua: Alfredo Kraus
  • Gilda: Anna Moffo,
  • Conductor: Georg Solti
  • Orchestra and Chorus: RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus

This recording was one of my first Rigolettos and each time I come back to it I find new aspects that I marvel at.

In the title role, Robert Merrill brandishes his beautiful baritone voice with intelligence to give an assured rendition of Rigoletto. Although intriguing as a first listen, in comparison to other Rigolettos that I will discuss, he does not offer the same depth and nuance to portray the tonal variety of the aged, rageful, yet loving father. However, he makes a thrilling entry for any listener into this work. Also on this recording is Alfredo Kraus, my favourite interpreter of the Duke. He sings the role with an ease and youthful carelessness that is deceptively seductive, as the Duke should be.

The next gem on this recording is Anna Moffo as Gilda. A prolific pianist and singer, Moffo uses her keen musical intelligence to shape each line with a simplicity and vulnerability hard to find on any other recording. She portrays Gilda as a thoughtfully sensitive girl that transforms into a woman by using the delicate beauty of her voice. Her vivid portrayal is a great first step in getting familiar with the nuances this role has to offer.

Usually controversial when it comes to his conducting of Verdi, Georg Solti gets it bang on in this recording. He leads the RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus to bring out the underlying nuances of the orchestration while also taking the dramatic contrasts of the score to an extreme any future opera lover would admire. Overall, this is recording by RCA Red Seal is an exciting and polished product that leaves the listener wanting more.

Below is a clip of Rigoletto’s Act I soliloquy where he complains about his problematic predicament as a jester and father. This quickly moves into his touching duet with Gilda where she innocently questions him about her origins, which he refuses to disclose to her. Here you will hear Merrill’s ample baritone voice matched by the sweet sensitivity of Moffo’s touching portrayal of Gilda’s innocence:

  • Year: 1989
  • Label: Decca
  • Rigoletto: Leo Nucci
  • Duke di Mantua: Luciano Pavarotti
  • Gilda: June Anderson
  • Conductor: Riccardo Chailly
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra and Chorus

I came across the next recording surprisingly late in my listening journey. It showcases the not often recorded soprano June Anderson as Gilda. I can begin by saying that she does not disappoint. She gives a thoughtfully sensitive and delicate portrayal of the role that will capture any first-time listener’s imagination.

Another attraction to this recording is Riccardo Chailly’s tasteful conducting. He gives his singers ample room to show off and uses carefully chosen temps to bring out many of the orchestral nuances in the score.

One the most famous Rigolettos moving into the 20th century (and probably retiring soon I might add), Leo Nucci gives a performance that justifies his fame. He deftly crafts the wide dimensions of this role from laughter to crying to give a memorable performance for any first-time listener. Last but certainly not the least (in his 3rd of 4 studio recordings in this role), Luciano Pavarotti gives one of his most knowledgeable performances on disc, defying his oncoming retirement in the coming decade.

To get an idea of which recording you might prefer, the first clip includes Nucci and Anderson in a 1993 filmed performance. I recommend starting 27 minutes in where they sing the Act I duet seen in the previous example. For the more curious listener, you can also listen to Anderson’s interpretation of Gilda’s stunning act I aria “Caro Nome.” Here, she sings of her love for the duke with stunning embellishments at 49 minutes in:


The recordings I suggest in this section are, in my opinion, better appreciated by listeners that have listened to a recording of Rigoletto before.

  • Year: 1955
  • Label: EMI
  • Rigoletto: Tito Gobbi
  • Duke di Mantua: Giuseppe Di Stefano
  • Gilda: Maria Callas
  • Conductor: Tullio Serafin
  • Orchestra and Chorus: La Scala Orchestra and Chorus

The Gramophone Choice yet hated by many opera fans (including myself when I first listened to it), this recording is now, in my opinion, one of the best. This recording is controversial because of the singer performing Gilda, La Divina, Maria Callas.

Known for possessing a voice that some might call screechy and ugly, Callas carefully reigns in her large instrument to portray the innocence and girlishness of Gilda, which one might only notice if they know the score well. Callas uses her infinite sense of drama, musical intelligence, and the wide colour palette of her voice to give one of the fullest portrayals of Gilda as a sheltered girl that is tormented by her lover and then forgives him. However, Callas is not the only reason to listen to this recording.

She is paired with her regular studio partner Tito Gobbi as Rigoletto, who gives the most visceral and moving portrayal of the cursed father to date. This well-known power duo is reigned by the tutelage and expertise of conductor Tullio Serafin. Although he makes his well-known cuts to the score, Serafin’s rendition uses carefully delineated tempos to bring out orchestral nuances while at the same time supporting his singers. We are left with an impassioned interpretation from beginning to end. It is interesting to note that before playing the score as written without many ornaments became fashionable in the 1980s, Serafin limits his singers’ urges to show off. In doing so, he provides a perfect balance between showmanship and musical truth (However, Callas’ high E-flat is left at the end of Act II because it is simply thrilling).

Giuseppe di Stefano sings the Duke with an abandon that serves this character well. However, he does make a few musical mistakes. This recording has recently been remastered by Warner Classics, but I would recommend the original remaster by EMI. In an attempt to remove the “unappealing” aspects of Callas’ voice, Warner removed the urgency and drama of her sound, especially in her high register. These aspects, carefully recorded by Callas as she listened to each track after it was taken, should be listened to as originally intended for the best impact.

In Act II after Gilda is raped by the Duke, the act ends as Rigoletto swears to take his revenge and Gilda begs for the Duke’s forgiveness. Here is a clip with Gobbi and Callas portraying this dramatic finale with molten intensity:

  • Year: 1988
  • Label: EMI
  • Rigoletto: Giorgio Zancanaro
  • Duke di Mantua: Vincenzo La Scola
  • Gilda: Daniela Dessì
  • Conductor: Riccardo Muti
  • Orchestra and Chorus: La Scala Orchestra and Chorus

This beautifully captured live performance reflects the scholarly attempt to perform Verdi’s score as he might’ve envisioned it. Although this project is not without its flaws, conductor Riccardo Muti championed this cause more than any other conductor in the 1980s. Claiming to perform Verdi’s operas as he intended, this Rigoletto is performed without cuts or added ornamentation. Although that might sound rather plain in comparison to the other recordings I have described, it is a refreshing combination of scholarly discourse, sensitive conducting, and a fine cast of singers.

Who seems to me as one of the most underrated Verdi baritones of the late 20th century, Giorgio Zancanaro gives a fine performance as Rigoletto. Although he lacks the depth and psychological exploration of a Gobbi, he more than makes up for this lack with a sturdy rendition of Verdi’s music. As Gilda, Daniela Dessì gives a beautifully understated performance. Arguably, her large lyric voice is closer to the dramatic colour Verdi originally wrote Gilda for.

Finally, like the other singers on this recording, Vincenzo La Scola gives a less showy and imposing interpretation of the Duke than the ones we have discussed so far. What makes this recording so remarkable is the fact that these individual aspects don’t overtake one other. Instead, at the command of Muti, they work together to give a very balanced performance of the score.

This clip is of Act II after Gilda was kidnapped. Here, Rigoletto begs the Duke’s courtiers to tell him where he can find her in one of Verdi’s most touching aria’s displaying both rage and despair. Here is Zancanaro’s powerful interpretation of this aria on this disc:


As you may have noticed, many performers record the same role more than once (e.g. Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti who have already been discussed). Like myself, you may find it interesting to hear how their portrayal changes with time. You can see how between these two recordings:

  • Year: 1960
  • Label: BMG Classics-Ricordi
  • Rigoletto: Ettore Bastianini
  • Duke di Mantua: Alfredo Kraus
  • Gilda: Renata Scotto
  • Conductor: Gianandrea Gavazzeni
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra and Chorus

In this 1960 recording, we see two singers recording the lead roles for the first time, Alfredo Kraus and Renata Scotto. Although Kraus gives a more youthful interpretation of the Duke on this disc, I personally find his later interpretation on the 1963 RCA record more suave and engaging.

Renata Scotto portrays Gilda’s youth and innocence with a light tone and carefully executed phrasing. Already you can hear that her voice has the capacity for the dramatic aspects so controversial in the Callas recording, but she is still too young to exploit them to the fullest.

Ettore Bastianini gives one of my favourite interpretations as Rigoletto capturing this character’s rough exterior within the raw aged sound of his voice. Then, Bastianini contrasts this roughness with beautifully tender phrasing when singing to Gilda.

Famous at this time for conducting almost all of Verdi’s scores, Gianandrea Gavazzeni gives what some might criticize as an obvious rendition of Verdi’s music. However, I think it is refreshing that he sometimes emphasizes the trivial Oom-pah-pah of the accompaniment to enhance the music and singers, rather than masking it.

This clip is from Act II when Gilda confesses to her father that the Duke has raped her. Here you can hear Scotto’s lighter interpretation in comparison to the later recording at 4 minutes and 40 seconds

  • Year: 1964
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Rigoletto: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
  • Duke di Mantua: Carlo Bergonzi
  • Gilda: Renata Scotto
  • Conductor: Rafael Kubelík
  • Orchestra and Chorus: La Scala Orchestra and Chorus

To compare with the previous recording, this 1964 disc boasts an all-star cast including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Rigoletto, Carlo Bergonzi as the Duke, and Renata Scotto reprising the role of Gilda. Like most casts that look this good on paper, the result usually ends up being less than anticipated. To my surprise, Dieskau (I don’t know of him having performed this role on stage) manages to deliver a full Verdi baritone sound, but his extravagant and intense word painting tends to undermine the directness of Verdi’s music.

Unfortunately, Dieskau sounds too young at this point his career to be the deranged father of Gilda, who is played by Scotto. On the other hand, Scotto was transitioning to bigger repertoire than Gilda at this time, thereby making her sound too old in comparison to his Rigoletto. Although she gives a stirring performance as Gilda in the dramatic vein of Callas, one can’t help but wish for the more consistent and innocent portrayal she gave on the earlier recording. However, the difference between the two is worth a listen.

A great Verdi tenor and interpreter, Bergonzi’s dramatic voice does not quite suit the vocal ease needed to perform this role. Rafael Kubelík conducts the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus in a raw and dramatic interpretation. However, at many moments Kubelík’s measured tempos blur the exciting contrasts between sections. My biggest reservation toward this recording is Kubelík’s decision to make the orchestra to use rubato underneath the singer when he or she is holding a high note. In my opinion, this direction undermines the show-stopping moment, as if the orchestra were impatiently waiting for the singer to stop.

Despite its unexpected faults and some inconsistencies between the conductor’s and the singers’ tempos, the recording offers a magnificent cast in roles they deserve to be heard in.

This is the same excerpt as seen on the other disc, except later in Scotto’s career. You can hear how her voice has grown and sounds more mature and dramatic at 4 minutes and 45 seconds:

Although I do not discuss it here, another interesting comparison between Gilda’s on disc would be Joan Sutherland between her 1961 and 1971 recordings.

Video Recordings

In addition to audio recordings, you can also watch performances of Rigoletto on video. Although there are many, my personal favourite was performed more recently than most of the recordings discussed so far:

  • Year: 2008
  • Label: Virgin Classics
  • Rigoletto: Zeljko Lucic
  • Gilda: Diana Damrau
  • Duke di Mantua: Juan Diego Flórez
  • Conductor: Fabio Luisi
  • Orchestra and Chorus: The Staatskapelle Dresden and Staatsopernchores

My main attraction to this performance is Diana Damrau’s portrayal of Gilda. Not only is she gorgeous to look at, but she sings the role with a musical intelligence that is hard to find on many studio recordings.

The Rigoletto to Damrau’s Gilda is Zeljko Lucic. Although his vocal nuance leaves something to be desired, he impressively acts Rigoletto’s split personality between jester and father. Not often heard singing Verdi, Juan Diego Flórez’s gives a vocally light interpretation of the Duke that convincingly portrays the Duke’s seductiveness.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Staatsopernchores and Staatskapelle Dresden in an interpretation that evokes the darkness and turmoil of the score.

Here is a clip of the final duet between Rigoletto and Gilda before she dies. She asks him to forgive her and the Duke while singing some of the most gorgeous music in the opera, which Damrau acts and sings beautifully:

Controversial Recordings

  • Year: 1993
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Rigoletto: Vladimir Chernov
  • Duke di Mantua: Luciano Pavarotti
  • Gilda: Cheryl Studer
  • Conductor: James Levine
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Since this highly anticipated 1993 Rigoletto is considered an overall failure, you might be wondering why I chose to add this recording to this list. What makes this recording so controversial is the singer performing Gilda, Cheryl Studer. This repertoire should have suited her well, as can be seen in the video below of her Gilda in the 1991 Metropolitan Opera Gala, so even as an avid fan of her work, it leaves me baffled that she performed so poorly on this recording.

Having said this, we can hear brief glimpses of her artistry even though they lack consistency throughout the recording. For this very reason, I believe this recording is worth listening to. In my opinion, the way in which Studer sings the final duet with Rigoletto before she dies can be compared to no one else. She scales down her sizable voice to spin out delicate pianos that give Gilda a sense of vulnerability and maturity that make it seem as if she’s rising to heaven.

In addition to Studer, this recording includes a slightly worn Luciano Pavarotti at then end of his career. However, he still shows the glory of his previous three studio recordings. Vladimir Chernov portrays Rigoletto with a beautiful and intriguing sound, but the interpretation is a rather unrefined and lacking the depth needed to perform this complex role.

As is to be expected, James Levine conducts his performers intelligently to bring Verdi’s score to life. At the same time, he gives his singers the support they to freely interpret the music. Despite this intelligence, Levine’s interpretation at times sounds somewhat lifeless.

I often wonder whether an earlier recording of this cast would have made it one of the best.

This video is the famous quartet in Act III where the Duke seduces and is seduced by another woman, while Rigoletto and Gilda look on. Gilda is performed by Cheryl Studer hiding off to the side in a cloak, while Pavarotti plays the Duke in the house:

  • Year: 1984
  • Label: Decca
  • Rigoletto: Renato Bruson
  • Duke di Mantua: Neil Shicoff
  • Gilda: Edita Gruberova
  • Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra and Chorus

In 1984, Decca released the much-anticipated Rigoletto conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. For Gramophone, Richard Osborne applauded this recording, but I found it a disappointment.

Sinopoli slowly conducts the Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra pulling the score apart as if it had the sustained textures of Richard Wagner’s operas. We are left listening to measured silences that lack the intensity and contrast found in many other performances.

Although Sinopoli’s slow tempos bring our attention to some of the often-overlooked beauties in Verdi’s orchestral writing, he does so to the detriment of his singers. Great Verdi baritone, Renato Bruson gives a very metric and sedated performance as Rigoletto, and lacks the rawness and nuance necessary to portray Rigoletto’s monstrosity. A great fan of Bruson, I was alarmed to hear him struggle here in his lower register.

Also a huge fan of Edita Gruberova, I found her vocal phrasing awkward and reserved as she attempted to fill in Sinopoli’s sluggish tempos. Famous for her quick coloratura and easy upper register, it is simply a shame that the moments where Gruberova could exploit these talents were either removed (such as the octaves at the end of her aria or finales), or conducted too slowly.

As noted by many reviewers, Neil Shicoff as the Duke simply sounds too effortful and mature. However, this performance was beautifully captured by the recording engineers.

Although slower tempos can at times suit the Act III quartet, I find that Sinopoli’s attempt to represent the score as accurately as possible leaves this music sounding awkward and without vitality as seen in this clip:


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