When I was first getting into opera, Ruggero Raimondi was my guide, at first without my really realizing it. In the beginning I wasn’t paying much attention to the names on the CD covers, but once I started paying attention I realized he was on all my favourite recordings. I started off with Puccini, and Raimondi was there on the 1979 Carreras/Ricciarelli Tosca, as the smoothest evilest Scarpia out there. Then I moved on to Mozart, and Raimondi was there as a chocolate-tongued Don Giovanni and a Count Almaviva with gravitas. Then I started getting into the Russian rep and Raimondi was there in the Russianest opera of them all, Boris Godunov. Then I was interested in Rossini and Raimondi was there again in a variety of comic roles.
I probably first saw him in the Losey Don Giovanni, without really knowing who he was. Even though it’s “traditional” and straightforward in many ways, it’s still one of the stranger Don Giovannis I’ve encountered. Kiri te Kanawa’s clownish maternity costumes and caterpillar hats are fairly awful, there’s a device with a silent young overseeing man that never quite makes sense, and the finale is curiously understaged, with an inanimate statue placed in the centre of the room for Giovanni and Leporello to gesture at. The white subtitles become unreadable when superimposed on the (many) completely white costumes. The acting is confused and unnatural. And yes, I own it on DVD. The sound quality of this clip is poor, but you can still hear the tonal beauty.
I was obsessed with this 1992 live TV broadcast version of Tosca, a somewhat gimmicky production that involved setting each act in the building in Rome in which the story is set, at the time of day when the events are supposed to occur – the Sant’Andrea chapel in the afternoon, the Palazzo Farnese in the evening, and then the Castel Sant’Angelo the following morning. Many of the Scarpias I’ve seen play the role as aloof, calculating sociopaths; Raimondi allows a strange sort of vulnerability to creep into the character. His eyes are so full of raw hunger for Tosca that he looks like he might explode; he seems aware that his carefully-laid plans might spin out of control at any moment if he lets the force of his desire get the better of him. When he sings “Tosca, you make me forget God” he looks like he really means it.
And here he is in Carmen, as Escamillo:
And as a crazed and off-kilter Boris Godunov:
There’s a Yahoo fan group, where members keep track of his performances and, in some cases, make special trips just for the purpose of seeing him. I’ve never actually seen him on stage, which my aborted trip to Berlin would have allowed me to do. I’m terrified he’ll retire before I get the chance.