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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1889)
Santuzza – Elena Obraztsova (sop)
Turridu – Plácido Domingo (bar)
Lucia – Fedora Barbieri (mezzo)
Alfio – Renato Bruson (bar)
Lola – Axelle Gall (mezzo)
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)

I Pagliacci (1891-2)
Canio – Plácido Domingo (bar)
Nedda – Teresa Stratas (sop)
Tonio – Juan Pons (bar)
Silvio – Alberto Rinaldi (bar)
Peppe – Florindo Andreolli (bar)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Georges Prêtre
Filmed c.1982
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON UNITEL 00440 073 4033 [140:00]

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I have to confess I’ve never been terribly fond of ‘filmed’ opera - that is an opera that that goes on location like any feature film, then has a separate soundtrack that is dubbed and lip-synchronised. I prefer operas to be in the opera house, but if anyone can bring a realistic film version off then it’s Zeffirelli. As a ‘proper’ film director, he’s always been good at this, having notable successes with Otello and La Traviata, both of which featured the star here, Plácido Domingo.

Of course it always helps when the actors are also providing the vocal soundtrack, rather than actors who have to mime to someone else’s voice (as in Petr Weigl’s Eugene Onegin). It also helps if they are all of the stature and experience of those in this good-value Unitel DVD, where it seems obvious they have performed the works many times. Everyone appears to relish the director’s approach, especially as he is working with operas that respond to this realism better than most.

The blood-and-thunder melodrama inherent in both operas is treated slightly differently by Zeffirelli for each one. He uses a true Sicilian village for Cav, weaving a picture of simple rural life where Catholic ritual and superstitions rule everything. There are stage sets as well, but essentially this is ‘on location’. Pag is largely in a studio lot, and the action placed at a later time (it looks like the inter-war years). It does have a suitably claustrophobic feel, though some of the backdrops look a little cheap and clumsy. I suppose the director could justify his thinking here as the ‘play within a play’ taken a stage further.

The casts are strong but Pag gets my vote overall. This is largely because of the central heroine in each. Stratas looks and sounds perfect as Nedda, beautiful but vulnerable, just like the ‘little birds’ she sings of. Obraztsova tends to overact in the worst operatic tradition, and the voice has a hard, steely edge that grates after a while, especially when the vibrato widens on high notes. The men are excellent throughout, particularly Domingo. He’s always good value, but is in exceptional voice in both operas. If he’s more convincing as Canio it’s because he truly inhabits the part of the pathetic, jealous clown, whereas he looks a bit too old and seems a shade self-conscious as Turridu. Pons is superb as Tonio, his ‘Prologue’ as good as you’ll hear - perhaps Leonard Warren aside - and Bruson, such a seasoned singing actor, smoulders menacingly as Alfio.

The direction of Prêtre is workmanlike rather than inspired - he rushes too much in places for my taste - and the orchestra, who must have played these scores more than most, are ragged and sound on overdrive at times. They are certainly no match for their earlier selves under a white-hot Karajan, whose DG set remains my own personal favourite.

The camerawork is a touch shaky in places and the film now looks a bit dated and grainy, but there is much to enjoy in Zeffirelli’s direction. I like the way he films the interludes, especially Pag, where the camera wanders through the tents, following the actors as they apply their makeup and ponder the future. The big ‘Easter Hymn’ set piece doesn’t disappoint either, though here the sound isn’t as full as a modern recording might be.

These films have been available before on a Philips DVD, and both operas on one disc make it worth thinking about. They almost certainly won’t displace your favourite CD versions, and have to be taken for what they are. If you like Zeffirelli’s ‘grand manner’, together with a realism where every grimace and jealous look is under the camera’s scrutiny, you can’t do better.

Tony Haywood

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