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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

Pagliacci - Opera in Two Acts
Canio, Jussi Björling (ten); Nedda, Victoria de los Angeles, (sop); Tonio, Leonard Warren (bar); Silvio, Robert Merrill (bar); Beppe, Paul Franke (ten)
The Columbus Boychoir. The Robert Shaw Chorale. RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini
Recorded January 1953, Manhattan Center, New York
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110258 [68.54] Bargain Price
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 85650 2 3 [69.30] Bargain Price

Getting your retaliation in first, once an adage of the rugby field, has, in a manner of speaking, transferred to the recording industry. It has taken the emergence, from the 50-year copyright rule, (longer in the USA), of recordings from the early LP era to shake up the likes of EMI, in particular, from a slothful and poor marketing philosophy. The maintenance of the Callas ‘La Scala’ recordings at full price, on LP and then CD, when over 40 years old was greatly resented by the buying public, who often switched their affections to rivals with a more realistic and consumer oriented marketing philosophy. So, aware that Naxos, with its superb team of restorers, and other labels, would be issuing re-masterings from LP copies when the recordings emerged from copyright, EMI has got in at the same time and at roughly the same price level. All things being equal, those with access to the master tapes, EMI in this case, should produce a better CD product than a restoration from an LP, no matter how silent the grooves. However, it is not always that simple. Certainly in the CD era collectors will know of operas that have emerged in the newer format with every indication of gross sloppiness in re-mastering. So what of this Pagliacci, where I have been able to compare Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration for Naxos with an EMI re-mastering based on access to master tapes?

I would like to preface my comments about playback quality with background to the recording and my impressions of the performance. The performance originates from an RCA Victor mono recording of 1953, built round a cast of regular Metropolitan Opera singers under a conductor nearing the end of his stay on the staff there. At this period RCA and HMV were close collaborators, with cross-marketing agreements and a willingness, not usual at the time, to exchange contracted artists. Victoria de los Angeles (b.1923) was an HMV artist who had appeared in the major opera houses of the world since 1949. Her lightish voice was one of great lyrical beauty with the capacity for tonal contrasts. However, as I pointed out in my review of the double disc devoted to her in the first tranche of EMI’s ‘The Very Best of’ series, reviewed elsewhere on this site, her use by the company in various ‘verismo’ opera recordings did not allow full appreciation of her skills as can be better heard on the recordings of Faust and La Bohème, for example. So it is here when her portrayal of Nedda often lacks commitment, but not artistry, in a part she did not attempt on stage until 1961 shortly before she restricted her appearances to the concert platform. Likewise the heavy role of Canio was one that the tenor Jussi Björling largely avoided on stage, but on this recording his beautiful voice, smooth legato and elegant phrasing are heard to good effect and as far as recording goes he has more than enough heft for the dramatic outbursts. Two great Americans baritones sing the roles of Tonio and Silvio. Leonard Warren (1911-1960) takes the part of the crippled Tonio. His lean tone hits the A flats of the ‘Prologue’ spot-on and without strain and he characterises well throughout. The tone of Robert Merrill (b.1917) tone, as Silvio, is slightly more nasal but rich and fully focused; the two baritones could easily have reversed roles. Cellini conducts with élan rather than passion. He lets Leoncavallo’s music convey the passion of the piece and does not try to impose himself on the music as several conductors of more recent issues have done. Those wanting a more modern stereo recording should investigate the RCA with Domingo, Caballé, the best Nedda on record, and Milnes, or Karajan with the superb Bergonzi as Canio (DG); each at mid price and complete with libretto and translation. There is also a very creditable modern recording from Naxos under Rahbari at bargain price. But those wanting this enjoyable performance can choose between these two versions; the question is which?

In the Naxos issue the voices are clear of the orchestra, which has plenty of bass. The downside is that the chorus and soloists do drown out the orchestra (tr. 8), which has plenty to say in this work. When it comes to the ‘Intermezzo’ (tr. 18) the orchestral sound comes over as slightly veiled and the bass somewhat woolly. The high frequencies are well caught, but sound thinner than on the EMI (tr. 16) which also has more presence in the bass where the cellos are richer (at 0.40min). Listening straight through each version, there was an edge to the EMI sound that could become a little tiring, but the general overall presence was welcome. So the issue is clear? Not quite. The Naxos booklet essay and artist profiles, rather than EMI’s brief mentions, are far superior. Likewise the ‘track-related synopsis’ where the EMI author attributes the concluding ‘La commedia è finita! (The play is over) to Canio. Didn’t he or she listen to the performance? The words, like the ‘Prologue’, and as the composer intended, are sung by Tonio, the correct fact being given in the superior Naxos track synopsis.

Whichever version you choose you will enjoy a worthwhile and well sung performance well realised at a price unthinkable even a few years ago.

Robert J Farr



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