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Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
Opera in Two Acts, originally in one act.
Libretto by the composer.
First performed at the Teatro de Valle, Rome, 21 May 1892
Canio, leader of a troupe of players, Giuseppe Di Stefano (ten); Nedda, Canio’s unfaithful wife, Maria Callas (sop); Tonio, a deformed member of the troupe and infatuated with Nedda, Tito Gobbi (bar); Silvio, Nedda’s lover, Rolando Panerai (bar); Beppe, a member of the troupe, Nicola Monti (ten)
Chorus and orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tulio Serafin
rec. La Scala, Milan. June 1954, MONO
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
from English Columbia label LPs and one German LP set

With this issue Naxos go head to head with themselves in the Pagliacci stakes. It is three years since I reviewed their issue of Pagliacci featuring Victoria de los Angeles as Nedda and Jussi Björling as Canio supported by Leonard Warren as Tonio and his compatriot Robert Merrill as Silvio (see review). That issue was also restored by Mark Obert-Thorn. At that time I was able to compare his work from LPs with the contemporaneous EMI re-issue, presumably derived using masters. It was a close run thing. As to this recording, I owned copies of the original LP issue. The discs weighed something like a Wedgwood dinner plate; you didn’t get many to the kilo. They were absolutely flat and nothing like the vinyls of the 1970s and 1980s. The Callas reissues of that era had warps that threatened to put my lightweight SME3 arm through the top of the Linn Sondek. Having overcome the warps, the stylus could do nothing about the snap, crackle and pop that was pressed into the grooves along with the music. In frustration there were times I didn’t get to the end of an LP side.

The result is that I glory in the work of restoration engineers such as Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston, both now playing a major role for Naxos in remastering opera recordings. The quality of their restorations, allied to the convenience and silent surfaces, if I might put it that way, let me concentrate to the full on the performance in question. In a producer’s note, Obert-Thorn pays tribute to the wide-frequency range and excellent balance of the original master tapes whilst recognising the odd problem most of which he has managed to overcome. Except for a couple of brief moments when the sound lacks body and presence the original engineers made a better job of catching the awkward acoustic of La Scala than in some other recordings in the series. Obert-Thorn has done them justice in his work and we reap rewards in the enjoyment of this performance - this despite minor reservations about some of the singing.
In my review of the earlier issue, I noted that Victoria de los Angeles did not sing the role of Nedda on stage until 1961, shortly before she restricted her appearances to the concert platform. It is a strange role in that it requires a lyric soprano with soubrette lightness. At other times it demands the dramatic vehemence of a near spinto voice. I felt that de los Angeles lacked real commitment. Callas never sang the role on stage and she never lacked commitment in anything she undertook. This recording was the seventh under her Columbia/Angel contract. It was recorded ten months after its fellow heavenly twin, Cavalleria Rusticana, where the role of Santuzza, with its lower tessitura and dramatic demands, really brought out the best in Callas. In the intervening period the singer had, in modern parlance, a make-over. She lost over twenty-five kilos of weight and became, for a period, a blond. Her voice thinned along with her weight, became less steady and gained an edge to the tone.

At least in those respects Callas’s vocal state was appropriate for the role of Nedda for one of her summer 1954 recordings. Despite lack of stage experience, the soprano gets to the guts of the character. She is able to convey the cruelty of Nedda’s treatment of Tonio when she takes a whip to his deformed body, derides his declaration of love (tr. 10) and immediately responds with affection to her lover Silvio as he arrives to persuade her to run away with him (trs. 11-14). Similarly, in the play, she switches from her role as Columbina to become the termagant wife, denying Canio who is demanding to know her lover in real life and not the play (tr. 25). In the role of the cuckolded husband, Giuseppe Di Stefano is stretched by the dramatic demands. In the earlier issue I noted Canio was a role that the tenor Jussi Björling largely avoided on stage because of its heavy demands on the voice. Björling, at least on record, had the heft to take the role without jeopardising the smooth legato, elegant phrasing and beauty of tone with which his name is associated. Giuseppe Di Stefano one of the loveliest lyric tenors to come out of Italy in the post Gigli era, cannot maintain his hallmark vocal qualities as Björling could and did. The strain on his voice in the dramatic situations, not least in Vesti la giubba (tr.17) and No, Pagliaccio non son (tr. 25) are very obvious.
What Giuseppe Di Stefano lacks in heft and characterisation Tito as Tonio has in bucketfuls. His characterful singing, distinctive biting tone and enunciation are a credit to the performance from the opening Prologue (tr.1) to his declaration La commedia è finita (tr. 26). Gobbi’s tone is distinct from the more gentle and mellifluous lyric baritone voice of Rolando Panerai as Nedda’s lover Silvio. His innate musicality allows him to portray sympathy for a part that can so easily be seen as that of a crude seducer. In the minor role of Beppe the light tenor of Nicola Monti betters his counterpart on the earlier issue, as does the sympathetic conducting of Tulio Serafin and the contribution of the chorus of La Scala.
Which of the two versions of Pagliacci now available from Naxos Historical do I prefer? Well, I certainly would not want to be without Björling’s interpretation of Canio, but then again Gobbi and Panerai, singing in their own language, are a match for Warren and Merrill. It really all comes down to preference for Callas’s commitment and odd vocal flaw versus a rather bland de los Angeles who doesn’t hit a wrong note. Normally it’s a case of you pays your money and takes your chance. Except that in this instance the amount of money is small, especially when one reflects that when this performance was first re-issued on CD in 1987 it was at full price. It certainly does not break the bank to buy both issues. This will also encourage Naxos in their commendable policy of keeping Mark Obert-Thorn employed in making these great performances available to this generation in such fine sound.
Robert J Farr




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