Italy in 1954 was steadily emerging from the disasters of the war. Fellini filmed La Strada and in a recording studio in Rome one of the most exciting tenors of the time, Mario del Monaco, was singing a role that we don’t normally associate with him. Rigoletto’s notorious Duke of Mantua is seemingly a perfect fit for the Italian tenor’s virile and thrilling delivery, and yet this post-war studio recording under the steady baton of Alberto Erede – here reissued on Decca Eloquence – is something of a rarity.
Del Monaco’s lower larynx technique and testosterone-driven energy are ideal for Verdi’s set pieces Questo o quella and the wonderful quartet. But equal billing must go to Italian baritone Aldo Protti, who was a specialist in the title role having played the nasty court jester well into his 60s, and Austrian soprano Hilde Gueden. The latter with her sweet and light tessitura was a noted Mozartian, but she does equally well here and her scenes with Protti are a highlight.
In those pre-stereo days the Decca engineers were yet to perfect their hallmark sound but, despite some balance problems with the woodwind and the inevitable soupy quality of the strings, turn your ears back 60 years and this is a top-quality listening treat. And who can resist La donna è mobile, the show tune that Verdi stipulated must not be hummed or whistled outside of La Fenice before the fabled 1851 premiere?