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Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
Canio – Franco Corelli (tenor)
Nedda – Mafalda Micheluzzi (soprano)
Tonio – Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Silvio – Lino Puglisi (baritone)
Beppe – Mario Carlin (tenor)
Orchestra and Coro di Milano della RAI/Alfredo Simonetto
Rec. live Milan, 26 September 1954 ADD
ARCHIPEL ARPCD 0208 [71:58]


"Pag and Cav" often come separately on CD, each fitting neatly onto one disc, and there is plenty of choice. Pagliacci is a story of jealousy and revenge set in the context of strolling players and featuring, in the final scene, a "play within a play" during which the murderous intentions of the leading player, Canio (who is meant to be playing a clown) become all too real. This recording is said to have been made "live" in Milan in 1954 and my guess would be that it was a live radio broadcast. Certainly it does not seem to have been recorded in the opera house since the only evidence of an audience is the one within the play. Because this version does not lack for spontaneity we benefit from being without the unwanted audience distractions which afflict some live opera recordings. Unfortunately, though, the sound is quite poor and nowhere near the best standards of the mid-1950s, although the voices generally fare better than the orchestra. The prologue is particularly disappointing with distorted brass but there is some improvement later, although perhaps it is just a case of the ear becoming adjusted. Comparisons with Karajan’s recording, made in the studio in the same city just 11 years later, reveal a huge difference in sound quality.

The performance is certainly worth a hearing, having plenty of dramatic vitality and being generally well-sung. Tito Gobbi as Tonio is particularly fine but all the principals give decent showings and Simonetti’s direction is sprightly. Gobbi’s Tonio and Corena’s Canio are available in alternative studio performances (the former twice, initially opposite Callas’s Nedda; in the latter they sing together under von Matačić). Returning to the Karajan, there are also major differences in performance. It would be hard to choose between the casts (Carlo Bergonzi is wonderful as Canio for Karajan) but Karajan’s performance, lasting some six minutes longer, is much grander (partly an effect of speeds but also, I suspect, a much larger orchestra), perhaps losing something in dramatic immediacy along the way. They are both valid views of the work but, if Simonetto is probably more authentic, Karajan is more powerful and much easier to listen to, courtesy of the superb recording.

Since this recording is a budget issue, it may be acceptable that it lacks both synopsis and libretto – presumably it is not meant to be your only version of Pagliacci. To buy both this and the Karajan (which is handsomely packaged) would cost about the same as one full price CD, indicating how spoilt we have become in the last few years. If you are prepared to tolerate the sound, this would be an interesting historical supplement.

Patrick C Waller


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