Some artists have an abundant recorded legacy, while others are curiously under-represented. At times I find this irritating, because I suspect it’s more a reflection of market forces than an indication of real quality.
I believe if Louis Quilico had been American, he would be recognized as one of the best if not the best baritone of the 20th century. Growing up in Toronto, I have a very odd perspective on singers. Because I tuned in regularly to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, not only did I hear great American baritones such as Robert Merrill, Cornell McNeil, Sherrill Milnes, and more recently Thomas Hampson, but the regular assertion that their singers were the best. Yet in Toronto we had the privilege of hearing Louis Quilico.
Quilico only arrived at the Met when he was a bit past his prime, yet even then he was a formidable talent. The only other voice I would consider comparing it to –that is, for such key attributes as stamina, beauty, and range—is American Robert Merrill. I think Merrill’s voice may have been a bit better, considering his longevity. But from what I’ve seen Merrill was somewhat one-dimensional as an artist, without the same grasp of the text or the theatre as Quilico. But it’s absurd to compare these superb artists, each wonderful in his own way. On the day after American Thanksgiving i am inclined to ask: isn’t it wonderful that we had both?
Still, the truly unfortunate part is that, whereas Merrill (and Warren and McNeil and Milnes and Hampson) was recorded frequently, Quilico’s talent has not been properly documented.
That’s one reason why I was thrilled to hear about a complete live performance by Quilico in his signature role, namely Rigoletto. See and hear it while you can.
Quilico manages to balance his portrayal of the jester on the edge between creepy and sympathetic, the grotesque element infused with something very vulnerable and even lovable. The voice has an angry edge to it in some scenes, and a marvellous bel canto line when called for. He is a perfect match in his over-the-top histrionics for the melodrama of the role, for instance at the moment he discovers the trickery of the courtiers kidnapping his daughter.
I saw Quilico play this role many times over the years. As far as I have read, there’s no studio recording of him in the role.
Thank goodness for this video, also starring Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke of Mantua. The rumour I heard was that this video was shelved (although I think excerpts from it were released), rather than being broadcast in its entirety, because Pavarotti flubbed a high note. Yet I am thrilled by his singing, a voice I miss every bit as much as Quilico. While Pavarotti’s voice was recorded abundantly –even in roles he never undertook onstage—it’s one of the great voices of all time. If he’s not at his best on this occasion (massacring the D-flat at the end of the “addio, addio” so badly that he hides his head in shame behind Gilda; oh but my heart goes out to him) even so I’d still take him over anyone singing the role nowadays. And so while i am willing to cut Pavarotti some slack –because he sounds so good even with that bad note- it upsets me to think that the bad note came between us and this immortal performance by Quilico. Thank Goodness that the Met have seen fit to make it available.
Christiane Eda-Pierre is the Gilda, in an attractive and solidly sung portrayal.
James Levine conducts the Met Orchestra & Chorus in a traditional production. For Torontonians it’s like a trip down memory lane, even if this recording captures Quilico when he was past his vocal prime.