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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1889)
Turridu (tenor) – Jussi Bjoerling
Santuzza (soprano) – Zinka Milanov
Alfio (baritone) – Robert Merrill
Lola (contralto) – Carol Smith
Mamma Lucia (mezzo) – Margaret Roggero
Robert Shaw Chorale
RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini
Recorded in mono 1953 (Manhattan Center?)
REGIS RRC 1162 [71’12]

This much-loved recording of a much-loved opera emerges in yet another guise, this time from super-budget Regis, who seem to be working their way through all the great opera recordings that are now out of 50 year copyright. This means, of course, a no-frills, no libretto packaging, though the back cover promises us an ‘8 page expert booklet/synopsis’ as well as a recording ‘carefully re-mastered’. Mmmm. I counted under four pages of ‘proper’ information, including the rather cobbled-together synopsis, which is admittedly cued, though confusingly with titles rather than track numbers.

As for the ‘careful’ re-mastering, here I have serious misgivings. There is a bright, in-your-face quality to the overall sound that makes for slightly tiresome listening. It does bring out the solo voices with amazing clarity, but such a high-level transfer makes some of the orchestral tuttis and chorus work sound aggressive and rather harsh. More seriously, I experienced distinct pitch wow throughout the recording. It is noticeable from the start, but is worse at long pedal points or wind chords, or (in this opera) those church organ passages, which come over as hopelessly distorted. I don’t know if this is down to Regis’s equipment, but I certainly don’t remember it from my old records. I thought I might be being over-fussy, so imagine my surprise when none other than Radio 3’s CD Review complained of exactly the same fault (and others) on Regis’s re-issues of the Callas Tosca and Fürtwängler Tristan.

The performance itself is another matter. The famous central trio of Bjoerling, Milanov and Merrill worked and recorded together many times and were at their peak at this time. Not every critic was convinced by Bjoerling’s slightly civilised assumption of Turridu, but the voice is in tremendous form. The silky-smooth (though not quite off-stage) opening serenade is superbly phrased, and when the tension cranks up towards the end, his voice effortlessly moves up a gear.

Likewise, Merrill’s strong, manly baritone rings out those top fs with ease, and though the part hardly stretches him, it is a fine contribution. As for Milanov, she too disappointed some observers in this part, but both her voice and characterisation struck me as genuine and heartfelt. She may not have the scorching intensity of Callas (for Serafin on EMI) or the sheer tonal beauty of Caballé (for Muti, again EMI) but Milanov brings a dark and brooding intensity to the wretched Santuzza that is very compelling. Her scenes with Bjoerling clearly bring out the best in both her voice and acting, and the two spark off each other with easily as much passion as their Tosca or Trovatore.

Cellini conducts at a pretty breakneck pace. This is fine for the orchestral and ensemble passages, where the momentum needs to be maintained. Some letting up would have helped in more tender scenes – he clips a good few minutes off Karajan’s gloriously over-indulgent reading for DG. All told, I do prefer the pace of the drama to keep moving, and given the slightly primitive sound quality, it’s probably for the best here.

So in the end, it’s down to voices versus recording. If you want this team of soloists at low price, you could give it a try – you may be bothered less than me about technical matters. Or perhaps another company will give it a go with more success; it seems Naxos are also working their way through similar territory. Either way, I would try before you buy.

Tony Haywood

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