When I buy a programme at the theatre
I nearly always feel cheated. Theatre
programmes usually consist of not much
more than a cast list accompanied by
pages of adverts. Opera programmes,
on the other hand, usually contain a
wealth of information about the composer,
the genesis and first performance of
the opera, essays on related topics,
and often a detailed synopsis as well
as a brief summary of the story (although,
to be fair, I would not expect a synopsis
of a play – especially a thriller).
Opera programmes are also, admittedly,
glossy and expensive.
What Naxos does in each of its Opera
Explained discs is to provide a
kind of audio opera programme with the
additional advantage of being able to
offer musical illustrations. The format
is of a talk on composition and background
followed by a musically illustrated
synopsis that not only covers the story
but, in this case, points to some of
the means Leoncavallo uses to achieve
atmosphere, characterisation and so
on. The fact that the one-act Pagliacci
is a good deal shorter than most operas
means that there is the advantage of
more detail being allowed. Even for
those who have seen or heard the opera
before, there may be some insights/observations
offered that will help to enrich future
On first listening to the disc I thought
some of the introductory material was
excessive, particularly that devoted
to the commedia dell’ arte background.
On reflection though I think this was
quite right. The Italian commedia
dell’ arte tradition clearly provides
the raison d’être for the play
within the play in Pagliacci but
an understanding of it is not only useful
in appreciating a great deal of Italian
opera but even that of a fair amount
in European culture in general. The
talk goes through the commedia
character archetypes and provides some
well known musical examples showing
where they crop up in different guises
in different operas. Even for seasoned
opera lovers this section offers a welcome
brush-up on an important, influential
The extracts employed to illustrate
the opera itself come from one of Naxos’s
two Pagliacci productions.
This one is of a recording made
in 1992. It is a chance to hear, in
the tenor lead, the distinguished and
experienced Nicola Martinucci as Canio
and the excellent Miriam Gauci as his
Finally, allow me to indulge a prejudice.
The fine talk written by Thomson Smillie
is "narrated" by David Timson
who is an actor. He delivers the narration
in what I call thespian diction which
is an affliction that leads a few people,
usually actors, to pronounce some words
in a manner that is not in common usage.
This malady caused, for example, Laurence
Olivier to pronounce "parliament"
as four very distinct syllables and
the musical instrument "lute"
in such a way as to rhyme with newt.
On the disc there is a sense of artificiality
that makes it obvious that it is not
the author delivering his own material.
Personally I would rather have the writer
giving his own talk. As long as I understand
what he is saying I would prefer to
put up with mumbling sincerity than
all that contrived diction.
I dare say most people would either
not agree with me or couldn’t care less.