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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Il Tabarro (1915-16)
Opera in one act, libretto by Giuseppe Adami
Michele (baritone) - Juan Pons
Giorgetta (soprano) - Teresa Stratas
Luigi (tenor) - Placido Domingo
Il Tinca (tenor) - Charles Anthony
Il Talpa (bass) - Federico Davia
La Frugola (mezzo) - Florence Quivar
Stage production by Fabrizio Melano
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Pagliacci (1891-92)
Opera in one act, libretto by the composer
Canio (tenor) - Luciano Pavarotti
Nedda (soprano) - Teresa Stratas
Tonio (baritone) - Juan Pons
Silvio (baritone) - Dwayne Croft
Peppe (tenor) - Kenn Chester
Stage production by Franco Zeffirelli
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/James Levine
Directed for video by Brian Large
Recorded as a gala double bill September 1994
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DG DVD 00440 073 4024 [140:00]

Most seasoned opera lovers will know what to expect from a Met production - extreme naturalism that's usually in period, solid playing and singing from - generally - an all-star cast; an all-round safe bet for your DVD opera library. It's all present and correct here, including the most annoying traits, like clapping and cheering every 'big' moment, whether the opportunity presents itself or not.

At least we have to give them credit here for not picking the ubiquitous Cav and Pag double act to open their 1994 season, opting instead to precede Pag, the more popular crowd pleaser, with Puccini's much darker one-acter Il Tabarro, a broodingly effective and contrasting little piece that is done all too rarely.

Of course, they would have sold out the evenings whatever, but the presence of the world's two most popular tenors in the star parts will have helped. Both tenors had already sung or recorded the respective roles, but it's interesting to note that Domingo was saying farewell to Luigi, a part he'd done regularly since the sixties, and Pavarotti was making his stage debut as Canio, which seems almost unbelievable.

Both productions originated in the 1970s, being dusted down and re-vamped here as solid, non-controversial fare for the audience. Fabrizio Melano's Tabarro is certainly atmospheric, its gloomy waterfront setting replete with detail, and it actually opens as the composer intended, with the action preceding the music. Domingo's Luigi is a typically subtle creation and he must certainly have known the part backwards. It's a pity he's too old for the role: Puccini specifies Luigi and Giorgetta to be in their 20s. However he's such a convincing actor and still in good voice, so it's easy to forgive. We have to take his strangulation with a large pinch of salt - he towers over Pons physically - but then we take most operatic verismo moments like this with large doses of the stuff. What's less easy to forgive is casting Stratas as Giorgetta - she's older than Domingo - or at least allowing the camera so many cruel close-ups. I'm a fan of Stratas (her Lulu from the 70s is the definitive one) and she is in firm voice still, but the whole point here is that Giorgetta is a very young wife with a much older husband, something that's mentioned in the text a number of times. It probably would have looked fine from a distance - even the awful wig - but veteran Brian Large lets the camera up close too many times for my liking. Good as they are, it's a pity that both these artists weren't captured in their real prime in these parts.

Juan Pons is perfectly cast as jealous husband Michele, and his mesmerising portrayal binds the production together. The orchestra is on fine form and Levine sees to it that Puccini's musical landscape-painting and almost impressionistic colourings are observed to the full. Sound quality is good but picture is, at best, adequate.

Zeffirelli's Pagliacci is a 'bells-and-whistles' production brimming with life and spectacle and anybody familiar with his 1984 film, now released as a double-bill with his similarly location-shot Cav, will know what to expect. Pons and Stratas, who double up here as Tonio and Nedda, were also in that previous production, along with an in-form Domingo. They were all ten years younger and it showed, but Pavarotti, it has to be said, is on good form as Canio, even if he acts more with his voice than his body. Zeffirelli is determined to fill the vast stage with movement and give us thrills and spills, even to the extent of using the same acrobats and fire-eaters as his earlier film. There, Stratas looked perfect and even ten years on her Nedda is more convincing than her Giorgetta, probably because she can more easily find the darker, venomous side to the character. Pons has also matured as Tonio, giving a more rounded character portrayal, even if his Prologue doesn't have quite the same thrilling ring to it. Other parts are well cast and the Met audience is quick to show its approval, though ultimately one is left with the feeling that this is very much Zeffirelli's Pagliacci than any of the singers. Picture quality is better, but probably because there is more light and colour to capture than the sepia shadows of Tabarro.

All told, pretty good value on one disc, though neither production can match the vocal or audio quality of the best CD rivals (Pappano, Maazel for Tabarro, Karajan, Patané or Muti for Pagliacci). If you do like watching rather than just listening and fancy the pairing, even with my cavils, you'll probably enjoy this.

Tony Haywood



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