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Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
An Introduction to ... Pagliacci (1892)
written by Thomson Smillie
narrated by David Timson
Musical examples taken from I Pagliacci — Naxos 8.660021
Canio, Nicola Martinucci, tenor
Nedda, Miriam Gauci, soprano
Tonio, Eduard Tumagian, baritone
Beppe, Miroslav Dvorsky, tenor
Silvio, Boje Skovhus, baritone
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)/Alexander Rahbari
produced 2004
Opera Explained series
NAXOS 8.558143 [61:34]

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 experiences.

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 tradition.

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 wife, Nedda.

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.

John Leeman

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