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
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
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
most of which he has managed to overcome. Except for
a couple of brief moments when the sound lacks body and
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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